Short Story: ‘Old Fatback’

Martin had to finish siphoning fuel from the last 42 gallon barrel of oil with a screwdriver, mallet, funnel, cork and tin bucket—something taught to him by Mags on his first day—before pouring its contents into the boiler at the far end of the foil-lined bunker. Alaska turned out to be much colder than he ever would have anticipated, and it was a mistake to have left the fuel so close to the door where air could get in and freeze anything that wasn’t well-covered over. A mistake he wouldn’t make again.
Once he was finished, he made sure that the tassels on his gloves were well pulled, the thermal-scarf stretched tight above the tip of his nose and snow goggles securely fastened on his head, before venturing out into the freezing white and trudging back along the twine that led the way to his bunk.
Winter on North Shore normally meant visibility of no more than a few feet. Mags told him that several of her predecessors had been lax about taking such precautions and had either lost body parts to frostbite or worse, had wandered off into the white never to be seen again. It was this that scared Martin more than anything during his first few months at the outpost, and now he didn’t take any chances. He didn’t consider himself completely safe until he saw the caribou antlers mounted above the door of his living quarters—even when the weather was clear—and further still, until he was sat in front of the stove drinking coffee from Mags’s So Fucking What? Metallica mug. The first sip always tasted like Heaven.
When he was safely installed, Martin hung his wet clothes up and changed into his sweats. Blizzard conditions were meant to last for another couple of days, and in the meantime there was nothing more could be done, but he had enough fuel to see him through the rest of the month and enough food in the cabin that he didn’t have to step outside again for most of that time. He just wished that the weather would let up a little so he could check his Facebook account and maybe put in a radio call to Mags. It was his niece’s 5th birthday back home and he wanted to leave her a message, or at least look at some of the photos his sister, Allie, had put up on her page. Life at the outpost was tranquil much of the time and was an opportunity he was grateful to Mags for having given him, but it was also cripplingly lonely and unforgiving if one was unprepared to truly let go.

Days like these were particularly long and tedious. Even in good weather the landscape on North Shore was nothing but ice and rock for miles around, with the occasional sprig of hard grass or willow bark—which Mags said could be made into a tea that promoted sleep.
Fairbanks had been much more to his liking; anonymous but just civilized enough that he could forget himself in a warm wood-panelled bar with a TV and jukebox, and maybe a good-time girl who wanted to know what things were like elsewhere. It was much easier to forget in that sort of environment.
On North Shore however, even the frontier idea of Alaska was betrayed by the constant snow. There was no game-hunting or log-chopping or trading ice-fish for whale blubber; not even domesticated husky dogs were suited to this kind of weather. One could not do anymore than sit inside the cabin drinking coffee, playing with the comms radio, reading, watching movies or masturbating. Mags had told him it was mainly reading that kept her sane during her time there, and that there was an almost full library of paperbacks stacked on a cinderblock shelf constructed near the window.
But Mags’s taste was not Martin’s taste. Everything left behind seemed a direct aggravation of his loneliness—Dostoevsky, McCarthy, Baudelaire, The Shining by Stephen King. Martin wanted something that affirmed the natural goodness of life; finding nothing but horror and nihilism in the things he’d already run away from. So films passed most of the time, among which Frozen and Home Alone 2—both of which reminded him of his niece—were unlikely favourites.
Today though, he could not concentrate on film-watching. Before the storm he noticed a small, indistinct black shape circling the compound about a mile from the delivery runway, and knew immediately that he was being tracked by either a wolf or a grizzly bear. This was the first such encounter he’d ever experienced, with Mags doing little to allay his fears when she finally arrived in her battered old bush-plane to deliver Martin’s heating oil for the Winter.
‘Yeah,’ she said pointing out to the middle-distance, squinting hard from the noontime glare of the snow. ‘That’d likely be Old Fatback. Son-of-a-bitch came through the wall of my cabin last time I was here, snapped my leg in half and took a big old bite outta my neck. There was blood all over the fuckin’ place before I managed to get two rounds off in his back and he scampered back into the night with his tail between his legs. Probably got wise to my comin’ back to visit you.’
‘Is that why you left?’ Martin asked.
‘Among other things, yeah.’ She patted the side of the plane when she said this. ‘I suppose it just finally made me realise that I’m too fuckin’ old to be fightin’ Mother Nature in the Middle-of-Goddamn-Nowhere… I mean shit, Marty, I’ve got grandkids, and I wanna be alive to see at least one of ‘em graduate college, y’know?’
‘I guess,’ Martin said.
That had been three days ago, and every night since he’d spent sleeping with a cocked .44 Magnum—hung from the bedpost nearest his head—in a leather holster given to him as a gift by his sister. Above the bed was a 45-70 bolt action Springfield rifle mounted just below the roof, with a box of ammunition kept in the top drawer of his bedside table. Indeed, Mags had warned him that the storm should not make him complacent about any potential predators. Bears and wolves were smart, she said, and would seek to draw their prey out into open combat to be picked off; even if it took days. They were patient, she said, because there was nothing else to eat on North Shore.

Still, as hard as life could be in Alaska, it didn’t compare to the hardship Martin had already endured; nor were the sparse luxuries of the compound any different from the time he’d spent as an inhabitant of the Tent City back home.
There he’d lived for six months—after running away from his father’s trailer at 17—and building a wooden shanty using pallets stolen from a nearby railway yard, which he covered over at night with a blue tarpaulin. Electricity was rigged into the camp by an out-of-work electrician, using a series of stripped cables taken from some local boarded up houses and connecting them to a pylon through a network of cut-up garden hoses. He learned the art of survival quickly, scavenging for empty beer cans and tins of beans which he’d then cut in half, wash and use to boil stew or percolate coffee.
Life during the first summer months had even been good, with one of the campers managing to procure a baby-grand to lead sing-alongs as the sun went down, and another who built a makeshift aviary for carrier pigeons. It was the first and only time he felt part of a community. Sometimes even being allowed to drink beer with the older campers, who viewed him through the prism of vulnerability and protected him from the outside world by accepting him as part of their own. Problems only arose later, when Allie—who was still just 16—arrived with a 2 year old child in tow and nowhere else to stay.
Then winter kicked in, and suddenly Martin found himself in conflict with other campers, who—like him—were competing for the portable gas burners and electric stoves used for heat in the evenings. Fist fights and stabbings became commonplace, and he learned quickly to be brutal and sometimes cold in order to keep his sister and new niece safe from harm. Several good friends died from exposure, and it was not uncommon to step outside in the mornings to the crunch of snow and pipe-glass strewn on the ground from the night before. Things were desperate enough then that people did anything to stay warm.
Indeed, it had been this ingenuity and strength of character which Mags had recognised when she first passed the North Shore job over to Martin. Already he’d converted the shell of an old schoolbus on the compound site—which had been half buried in snow and no-one was quite sure how to use—into a loading dock for the efficient and dry storage of wood for the stove. And that was after a further two years of wandering around Washington State and Vancouver in Canada, before finally coming north to Fairbanks and replying to Mags’s ad in the local paper.
He also used the bus as a kind of watchtower; occasionally climbing onto its roof and looking out over the vast snowy plains in search of any incoming storm clouds or predators who might be on their way. And it was here he stood now, taking advantage of the passing calm afforded by the eye of the storm, to look out into the distance and see if he could spot Old Fatback before nightfall came and the conditions were too dark or too unsettled to take a fair view.
‘Nothing,’ he said to himself, as he stepped down off the roof onto the snow-covered barrel he used as a step. ‘The fucker’s probably in hiding.’ Then, almost out loud, ‘Just like the old man.’
Night had already started to fall over North Shore by the time he reached his cabin, and in the dying flat light, he noticed that the camp had suddenly taken on the ethereal royal blue richness of an underwater aquarium; likely attributable to the night-sky reflecting off the ground. Stars were nestled in a hole straight overhead—as North Shore passed through the eye of the storm—and Martin knew that he had to get inside quick, before the blizzards started again and he froze to death on the front step of his shack.
He hoped that where his niece and sister were was warm and that they were well-rested and safe and happier in their memories than he was now. Soon he’d be turning in, and unless he drank some willow bark to help him drop off to sleep, he knew he’d lie awake all night worrying about Old Fatback coming through the door of the cabin.

When he woke later he was dreaming of home, and imagining Allie and his niece under the same blanket—in front of the TV—the way they used to in his shack when they dropped off from exhaustion and knew they were protected and safely away from Him.
The blizzard had temporarily died down and the wind that howled between the barrels and storage containers was still, so that—when he heard the sound of rustling coming from outside the cabin door, by the corner of the front wall—the only explanation to Martin’s mind was that Old Fatback had finally wandered into camp to take him out and claim his meal.
Slowly, he sat up in bed and put the lamp on—being careful all the time not to make any sudden movements—before setting his laptop to one side, closing the screen and slipping into his high-top Timberland boots, which he wore over a pair of thermal long-johns and pyjama trousers. Next he grabbed his rifle and laid it on the bed, then fastened his sister’s holster around his waist before checking the revolver to see if it was fully cocked and loaded. Last, he put on his overcoat and monkey-hat, then made for the door humming ‘Let It Go’ and praying silently that the noise he’d heard was an arctic fox, or maybe a wren who’d been blown off-course by the wind.
Nothing moved, but through the window—at the foot of the mound of snow banked against the side of the outhouse, which served as the compound’s boiler room—Martin thought he could see the impressions of animal feet pressed into the ground. His heart thundered in his ears. He could see nothing but white in every other direction.
Visibility was even poorer than it had been during the day, and as he opened the door and stepped out into the void, feeling for the twine that guided his way between the outhouses of the compound, he discovered to his dismay that it had been severed. Its frayed ends already starting to harden with frost when he picked it up and turned it over in his hands.
Tentatively, he walked out into the night and approached the outhouse as best he could; making sure that what he’d really seen were the footprints of a bear and not just shadows created by a fevered, sleep-addled mind.
You won’t die if you just go a little further, he thought, coming to the expected spot and finding nothing but white enveloping him from every side. Just a little further and you’ll meet him and show him exactly who’s king of the castle. Show him that you’re not just a scared little boy anymore.


Flash Fiction: ‘Changing the Vane’

Mr. Mendelssohn was, for the most part, a nice man. Or so everyone said. He had anxiety about checking his weather vane, which often made you think he might have had an obsession, but he was old and harmless and nobody from the neighbourhood much paid his eccentricity any mind.

Late nights, when you looked up, all you could see was him clambering onto his bungalow roof in that yellow windbreaker of his—the one that made him look like a whaler from the 19th century—and set to tightening the screws so hard you could almost hear the rust crack. It didn’t matter what the weather was. Every night the same routine took place and every night you’d fall asleep imagining his yellow ghost toiling on the bungalow roof like Santa Claus.

First you’d think of the self-satisfied rubbing of hands, then the blue light from the head-torch beaming out into the dark. Next you’d think of the Virginia creeper vines tumbling over eaves and guttering like unkempt hair; the roof tiles slicked with rainwater. Then you’d imagine the blue torchlight burning out, Mr. Mendelssohn facing a kind of panic as he grappled with the sudden darkness and finally, his hands still clasped together in smug self-satisfaction as he lost his footing on the wet roof—the only sound the mere rustling of leaves and a heavy dull thud coupled with the short loud crack of his shattered neck echoing out across the neighbourhood.

This gave you a kind of joy from a young age, and for a long time thinking about it was the only way you could fall asleep comfortably. You often wondered whether this made you a bad person, though decided eventually that it must have been Mr. Mendelssohn who was bad, for thoughts such as these only ever presented themselves to people for a reason. There was a side to this man which the neighbourhood out your window hadn’t seen, and if only people stopped and paid attention—instead of grinning stupidly from their cars as they made their morning commute, or waving to him from behind avalanches of shopping bags on return trips from the supermarket—they might begin to see what you saw.

Mr. Mendelssohn wasn’t a man, you knew, for you could see through the sly way he talked out the side of his mouth when he bowed deferentially to strangers, as though he were afraid of the words, that he was a monster. Every public act was an elaborate puppet show and every wave or gesture the mimicry of a reptile in human skin. He was a creature practised in the art of the unassuming and everything known about him was a sham. For changing the vane wasn’t the only eccentric nocturnal ritual Mr. Mendelssohn engaged in—that much you knew all too intimately. He also kept a mattress on the floor of his basement. A mattress you spent two years sleeping on, dreaming of the night when he finally fell off the roof and broke his neck.


Short Story: ‘Playing Kings in the Dark’

Peadar and his housemates were in the middle of their second game of Kings when the grid controlling the Southwest quadrant of the town blew its lid. But everyone was drunk and it was inconvenient only in the way that calls from his mother sometimes were. He simply ignored them; hanging up prematurely because he knew she’d be in a bar somewhere stiffing one of the more kind-hearted or stupid suitors for taxi fare.

Jemmy had it sorted in ten minutes—staggering through the living room into the adjoining kitchen by phonelight and digging out candles from beneath the sink—and there was the feeling of being involved in some kind of ritual, with Gary suggesting that they invite some of their neighbours round for a blackout party.

‘What about that house full o’ girls at the bottom of the Pound Road?’ He said. ‘Plenty of puss flyin’ around there and I’ll bet that wee blondie one was takin’ a shower when the electric went out.’

‘How are you not in prison?’ Peadar asked.

‘Wouldn’t mind takin’ her back onto the power grid,’ he continued. ‘Like, when you hit our age girls tend to get all broody and sentimental and you have to be prepared to just… go for it, like. Know what I’m sayin’?’

‘Not really,’ Jemmy said. ‘And you still haven’t done your three fingers yet you fuckin’ tube.’

Gary winked. ‘I will if we can get those girls round.’

The three of them sat on the living room floor huddled in a circle round a smattering of wax covered playing cards. Two candles burned in the fireplace next to them with another precariously balanced atop an empty can of Carlsberg in its centre, so that from an outside perspective—or even if one came up on the rear-side of their game, nearest the kitchen—the light made them look like witches shifting tarot and the fireplace itself like some kind of crude, ritualistic voodoo shrine. Peadar had read about such things and knew that with voodoo—as indeed, with tarot readings—much of society’s association with devil worship and black magic was based in Hollywood sensationalism which had, in turn, stemmed from earlier mixed feelings about cultural difference, race, gender and sexuality. He remembered watching the films White Zombie and The Serpent and the Rainbow in one sitting and knew that logically there was nothing to be afraid of. But he couldn’t help feeling uneasy—even as the three of them sat drinking and joking in the dark. The truth was that with the storm battering against the window and filtering the amber of the streetlights into a concentrated glare of harsh tangerine, Peadar’s survival instinct was bugging the whole time. He’d also never really lost the guilt and fear of being a Catholic schoolboy, even when all notions of deferred good and evil had been examined thoroughly and conscientiously disposed of. But what else was there to do during a blackout but play drinking games?

‘We could always do a Ouija board,’ Jemmy suggested.

‘We don’t have one,’ Gary said. ‘And anyway, what about the girls? We should be havin’ a fuckin’ blackout party, not pullin’ our wires to some shite you took from that poncy fuckin’ Derren Brown thing about séances. Don’t be a faggot.’

‘Fine,’ Jemmy said. ‘You feel free to go out in that weather if you want; just don’t come cryin’ back here when they tell you to go fuck yourself. No-one’s gonna leave the house in that. No-one’s that stupid.’

Peadar interrupted. ‘You’re both right,’ he said. ‘Like, Gary, even if you somehow made it round to that house there’s no way anyone’s gonna come back here to drink and listen to you talk shite all evenin’.’

‘Told you,’ Jemmy said.

‘And I dunno what the fuck you’re on about!’ Peadar laughed. ‘To do a proper Ouija, we’d need one of those fold-out wooden things with a printed alphabet and finger-dock. The thing would be a fuckin’ mess without them and we’re probably all too bollixed to do it anyway.’

‘Sounds like Jumanji,’ Gary suggested.

‘Shows what you know,’ Jemmy said. ‘When I was at the Gaeltacht some of the older boys from West Belfast built a Ouija board from scraps of paper—just wrote each letter on its own wee slip—then spread them out in a circle around the floor with a shot glass in the middle and a few candles from the Bean-an-tí’s cupboard.’

‘That doesn’t work,’ Peadar said. ‘And anyway the whole thing’s a racket. It was patented by the same fuckers who invented Monopoly back in the day. It’s a kids’ game.’

‘Not if by “kids’ game” you mean, test-of-inter-group-psychology. It’s probably true that there’s nothin’ supernatural about it like, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t reveal some greater truth about the players.’

‘Alright,’ Peadar said. ‘But I’m not gettin’ the shot glass and someone else can find paper to make the letters.’

‘We can use the playin’ cards,’ Gary chimed in. ‘They’re covered in wax anyway and it might give off a weird spooky vibe to have the letters drawn on top of all those medieval lookin’ Kings and Jokers.’

‘That’s not a bad idea,’ Jemmy said, pointing. ‘And sure if I get the shot glass, Gary, you can make the letters—there’s a marker on the mantelpiece up there.’

‘Do I have to do anything?’ Peadar asked.

‘Aye. You could try growin’ a pair of fuckin’ balls.’

* * *

By the time the letters in the Ouija alphabet were laid out evenly and far enough apart that there was room to play the game, the electricity was back on. Peadar knew that in order to recreate some of the giddy spontaneity of the power-cut, the lights would be turned out again and the game would continue as planned, but he could sense that something in the group’s initial trepidation had vanished and he couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment as he realised that some of his own fear had vanished with it. Wasn’t that the point after all; to come out the other side of the Ouija as new men reborn by fear? To feel the catharsis of discovering their limitations as men? Fear was to be understood as one of the hallmarks of successful experience, for without it there was no guarantee that something was even real. In essence, it guaranteed aliveness.

Nevertheless, with a new batch of candles lit and placed at various points around the room, the game was set. Each of the players had a tumbler of unmixed vodka between their knees and a bowl of ice set to the side; partially because the bag had begun to melt and drip all over the freezer, partially because it made the paint flavoured kick of the vodka more bearable and the careful ritualism of the game more believable.

Gary nominated himself as medium. ‘In case we pick up on the ghost of Marilyn Monroe,’ he said. ‘Imagine she had to speak with one of you sad acts…’

‘Switch out the lights there, will you Peadar?’ Jemmy said. ‘If we’ve to trust this prick with the most important aspect of the game, it’s probably best if he does fuck all else.’

Peadar switched off the lights as instructed, then sat back on the floor. Gary placed the shot glass in the middle of the circle of letters and turned it upside down and for ten minutes nothing happened, though Gary tried valiantly—At first by speaking to the board, as though he were addressing a table of friends in a bar, then intoning loudly like a priest and finally, by whispering like a snake charmer. ‘Is anyone there?’ he kept saying, ‘who am I speaking to?’ But nothing happened. It was only when Peadar started to lift his finger away from the shot glass that it shifted beneath them and the housemates became aware of the fact that something was really going on. They all felt it.

‘Fuck!’ Gary said. ‘It’s movin’.’

‘Quiet,’ said Jemmy. ‘What’s it tryin’ to say?’

Peadar spelled it out. ‘K—I—N—G’

‘The fuck does that mean?’ Gary whispered, his eyes reflecting back the candlelight like two dark puddles. ‘I don’t wanna be fuckin’ with any demons or anything. King Who?’

‘Be quiet, for fuck’s sake!’ Jemmy said. ‘We won’t be able to tell which fuckin’ king it is if you keep blatherin’ on like a tit!’

Gary took a drink. ‘Well, I am the medium,’ he said quietly.

It took what seemed like a very long time for the glass to move at all between the monogrammed cards and when it finally came to a standstill, not even the sound of the housemates’ collective breathing was perceptible. The name the letters had given to their collective unconscious was King Solomon and though Peadar spent the next few moments thinking quietly to himself about what this could mean, he ended up stumped. All he could remember about Solomon was the offer in some paternity suit to cut an infant in half and he didn’t know what the fuck that was all about. Something to do with the literal manifestation of the divided self? No. Their collective unconscious wasn’t that clever. Maybe it was simply that they’d been watching The Greatest Story Ever Told on Film4 that day and had started drinking when Jemmy suggested halfway through that they take a slug every time the word Jesus was said. They’d finished four cans apiece by the end of the film and then decided to play Kings. The blackout happened after that and maybe some of that Bible stuff actually sunk in, but who knew?

Gary spoke up. ‘Are you good or bad?’ He asked.

‘G—O—O—D,’ the board said.

‘And what exactly is it that you want?’

‘T—R—U—E’

Gary was shaking. ‘I’m confused,’ he said.

‘Ask it what truth it wants,’ Peadar whispered.

‘What truth do you want?’ Gary asked.

‘Y—O—U,’ it spelled back. ‘G—A—R—Y.’

‘Wh-why? What truth do I have?’

The board paused. Peadar took a drink from the tumbler of vodka and ice between his knees, no longer able to distinguish its flavour and watched as Gary sat across from him shaking in the dark and thinking all the time that it made him look like he was laughing with despair. He could see his breath condensed—likely resulting from the fact that there hadn’t been any heat in the house—but Peadar found it disconcerting in a way which made him realise that the violence in Gary’s shaking was partially due to the fact that he himself was shaking and that his vision was spotty and blurred. Jemmy seemed more controlled, though several seconds of careful observation told Peadar that he was merely trying to conceal a facial tic and that all three of them were frightened; with no amount of rational thought or lack of superstition able to help them.

‘Y—O—U,’ the board spelled again. ‘G—A—R—Y’

‘Me what, for fuck’s sake?’ Gary said. ‘Tell me what you want.’

* * *

When the game was finished, the cards they’d been using as letters were placed carefully in the middle of the fireplace and set alight. The rest of the deck soon followed suit. Then the television and all the lights were switched on and the shot glass, which had been used as a makeshift planchette, was thrown in the recycle bin along with the empty cans and bottles.

It was generally agreed that what had just taken place was in no way supernatural, but there was an uneasiness there—one which Peadar knew would linger for days. He likened it in his mind to the feeling of nausea attributed to subjects in the Milgram experiment of 1961, or the “prison guards” used in the Stanford Prison experiment—All of which amounted to a kind of guilt, one without any real responsibility or apportionable blame. Those men had been following orders after all, and what we seek most as a species Peadar thought, must be the desire to delegate responsibility to some higher authority, or to abstract it in some way—which is really how they’d rationalised the board; as an extension of their collective unconscious. It was Gary who’d been forced into revelation, though whether it was real and not just some quirk in their drunken three-way groupthink would remain unclear.

‘You know that’s all bullshit, lads… Don’t you?’ Gary said.

Jemmy kept his eyes on the TV. ‘Of course.’

‘Aye,’ Peadar said.

‘Like yous were both sayin’, none o’ that Paranormal Activity shite really goes on. It’s just our three heads cookin’ up the first thing that comes to mind—spellin’ it out in words.’ He laughed uneasily. ‘And who’s to say it wasn’t just tryin’ to spell Gary? Like none of us have ever been in any spellin’ bees or anything… And we’ve been drinkin’ since like five today…’

‘Four,’ Jemmy said. ‘We’ve been drinkin’ since that piece of shit film started at four o’clock and I’m fuckin’ exhausted.’

‘Me too,’ Peadar laughed. ‘And I have work at half twelve tomorrow afternoon. This blackout craic’s a fuckin’ hazard.’

The wind was blowing again and the TV began rolling steadily between static white noise and pictures of George Alagiah reading the news in broken monosyllables. A rough wet draft blew concurrently under the living room door and down the chimney and Peadar noticed the vigour with which electrical cables were swinging in the street. Nobody spoke, but as the lights began to fade again and Peadar turned back from the cityscape out the window—which in a minute would go from the bristling black and yellow of a bumblebee’s fur to total darkness—he lifted a card they’d forgotten in the cleanup and turned it. It was a Joker.


Bad is the New Good? Television in the Age of Pragmatic Cynicism

There was a moment in the second series of Beau Willimon’s American remake of the classic political drama, House of Cards, when Frank Underwood—the show’s chief protagonist/antagonist—turned to the camera and intimated, “I don’t know whether to be proud or terrified.” It’s a trend that began with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, where the viewer was forced into momentary empathy with their inner Norman Bates—on the one hand, appalled by the murder of Vivien Leigh in the shower scene and on the other, swept up in the morbid fascination of the predator. Understanding that via a combination of socio-psychological conditioning, genetic predisposition and the pent up fury of the repressed American male, Bates had merely obeyed his own nature. He had manifested destiny. After all, didn’t you feel a twinge of the relief he felt when you watched the car and body disappear into the swamp for the first time?

But this pragmatic empathy with “Evil” is something which has grown over the last fifty years, not diminished. Surely with all of our technological advancement, the end of the Cold War, the eradication of polio and smallpox, and the rise of the globalized free market, fiction should be reflecting back our cause for celebration. Why is it that—especially in the 21st Century—we’re so willing to believe that human beings are capable of often unspeakable acts of Evil? And why are the characters who are presented in this way, not only sympathetic, but strangely alluring? Answer: because technological advancement has led to alienation, the end of the Cold War has allowed for a rise in religious extremism, polio and smallpox have been replaced by newer more widespread and visceral illnesses, and the globalized free market has widened the gap between the world’s wealthiest 1% and everybody else.

These “Evil” people are exaggerated versions of ourselves—That’s why we keep watching them. We watch Dexter because he satisfies the lurid fantasy of every armchair judiciary in the world; every person who’s watched the news and thought, ‘How!? If it had been up to me he/she would’ve gotten the chair, not fifteen years.’ We watch Breaking Bad because it entertains the idea that within every frustrated small-man exists the capacity to overcome adversity. Walter White becomes Heisenberg just as we might, so long as we have the justification of protecting family and giving them “the things we never had.” His is the inverted crucifix of the American dream. The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happyness without the unwritten sub-clause that we don’t step on people along the way. Everyone makes his own lot, right?

Or how about The Walking Dead? Before the Apocalypse, Rick Grimes is the ultimate expression of the upstanding citizen; a man who has a wife and young son at home but who nevertheless, takes a bullet in the line of duty whilst apprehending an escaped criminal. After the Apocalypse, many of the decisions he makes in order to protect his own are questionable, at best. He kills his best friend, declares himself benevolent dictator of a band of survivors, tortures a teenage boy for information about a rival faction, and kills two prisoners whom he sees as potential threats to getting what he wants. Which begs the question—Why the sudden change? If things suddenly became difficult, are people really as willing as The Walking Dead suggests to throw the social contract in the fire?

Jean Jacques Rousseau didn’t think so. To him, man reduced to a state of nature would be a “noble savage” —benevolent, albeit unsophisticated and poorer in his lot. Which is probably true, but mightn’t there also be the possibility that in a state of nature there are men who would fend for themselves only, even at the expense of others? Or as Thomas Hobbes would have it, living lives “[in] continual fear of violence and death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Modern TV would seem to concur with the latter, though much of this is hypothetical. But it is becoming increasingly more difficult to ignore the questions it raises about human character. The truth is that there are people quite unlike any of the examples mentioned above; people who aren’t motivated by the warped altruism of Dexter Morgan, or the family protection of Walter White, or the survival instinct of Rick Grimes. There are people who are motivated by pure will-to-power, people without scruples—despite that they operate within the social contract—who operate on the basis of one word and one word only: Attainment.

The ultimate personification of this is the character of Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Like Walter White, his pursuit of happyness is an inversion of the American Dream, no doubt intentionally alluded to by the upside down stars and stripes in the opening credits. The difference is, of course, that Frank has no family to protect and thus no initial justification to set him on the path to wrongdoing. His is the Machiavellian prince on his ascent to power in its purest form; all human regard for intelligence, passion, virtue and aspiration turned to a live-action game of chess—His wife merely his partner in crime with as much to gain as he has.

So why are we interested? It can’t just be that we’ve succumbed to a fascination with something we don’t understand. Isn’t Underwood merely exacting a kind of slow revenge for being screwed in the initial nomination for Secretary of State? And what could be more petty or indeed, more human, than the desire to get one’s own back. It’s in the Old Testament, after all—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We all do it. The truth is that Underwood represents everything our collective unconscious has told us to ignore, written large. If no-one had a conscience maybe more people would accomplish the same. He represents the feeling that all of us have felt at one time or another, that emotions make us weak. All anger, pity, regret, empathy, happiness… love—Aren’t these the things that hold us back from getting what we want; make us doe-eyed, cloud our judgement?

The short answer is, of course not. Attainment is something we engage in in order to feel. That’s the goal. The rest is only window-dressing and I suspect that if the next season of House of Cards has anything relevant left to say about the human condition, it’s this—that power, votes, money, immediate gratification and influence mean exactly squat if you can’t feel anything for them. In the end they just become symbols of everything you wished was within your control, namely, emotion and that perhaps this contradiction is at the heart of all new-age cynical drama. Maybe we are more Walter White than Frank Underwood. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we’re more Tony Soprano, because like the crime-boss expertly portrayed by the late James Gandolfini, society’s character is twofold. At times it may be brutish, ruthless, calculating, manipulative, corrupt and downright murderous, but its occasion for compassion outweighs all of that because ultimately that’s when people feel most human. And those are the moments we have to hang onto because at any damn moment, the great Director in the sky might decide to cut the screen to black. And then what?


Short Story: ‘Becoming an American’

You, Virginia May Nicholson, are looking out over the Irish Sea from the corner of Kilkeel where the Harbour Road meets the Rooney Road and the moon hangs on a black thread over the bay; your parka pulled firmly against your chin. The kind of silence that only soldiers experience has fallen over the town. One that moves in slow motion after a shell has exploded or a large slab of concrete knocks you over the head. There’s a chill in the air and it’s good to watch the tip of your cigarette go from amber to fire-red as you pull it into your lungs and watch the white smoke climb up into the greater white of the moon. Hannah hands across a half-bottle of Buckfast and motions for the lighter.

‘Remember when Dad tried to teach us to fish out here?’

‘It was a disaster,’ you say.

Haul ‘er up, girl. This here’s a boom, this here’s a warp winch with a capstan and these here, over the sides, are called otter trawls. Pay attention, now.’

You hand back the bottle and join in. ‘It’s named after your Great Granddaddy—fought against the Germans at Paschendale. Are you listening?’

Hannah laughs. ‘The boys in the troop used to call him ‘The Silver Bullet’. Fast as lightning, sharp as a razor, clean as a whistle and tough as old nails. Just like our boat here.’

You both laugh and the thought of how a rusted, secondhand outrigger could ever be referred to as “silver” flits between you like a moth in a glass. You remember telling your Dad that renaming the boat would be bad luck. It was the day he got back from Cushendun after buying it from one of his distant cousins and you can still see the smile he wore at the kitchen table as he scrubbed down his boots with a wire brush. He hadn’t shaved for days and you liked the feel of his yellow stubble when he called you in and sat you on his knee; his fingers drumming the tabletop, his knuckles jutting out against the oil and dirt like pulled knots.

‘What’s it called, Dad?’

The Blue Lobster,’ he smiled. ‘But I’m going to change it as soon as I get it spruced up a bit. Probably, The Silver Bullet, after my Granddad—which’d be your Great-Granddad—or something to do with the town, here.’

He set you down. ‘Maybe, The Mourne View. Something like that.’

‘Mrs. Vickers says that’s bad luck.’

He laughed, then winked in a way which screwed up his whole face. It was something you only ever saw him do in your company. ‘Only if you’re not as clever as me,’ he said.

That was before the gas explosion. Before Nathan went down with The Silver Bullet and your Mum ran away with that taxi driver from Belfast. You remember standing here during the initial rescue operation and the harbour bristling with men and women in orange and bright yellow coats; of moving through the well-wishers, policemen, coastguard, navy and fishermen like a blind ghost and someone handing you a cup of tea as you watched the siren-lights play over the black surface of the water like tropical fish. It was pleasant. You remember Mrs. Greene sitting you down in one of those cheap deck-chairs from Marks & Spencer; the kind that come free with picnic deals when you spend more than fifteen pound.

You think you still feel her rubbing your back as you sit staring out at the ocean with an army surplus blanket draped around your shoulders; but it’s only Hannah tugging at your coat and you turn to see her motioning with her head in the direction of the road.

‘Time to go,’ she says. ‘People are waiting.’

‘Just a second,’ you say. ‘Let’s have just one more drink and then we’ll go.’

 

***

Later, at the Kilmorey Arms Hotel on Greencastle Street, you stare out the window onto the road and watch as a thin stream of cars passes up between you and the frosted panes of glass in its centre—almost feeling as the droplets of breath move onto its surface and the candle at your table flickers out its signal like a beacon in a lighthouse.

You joke with Ryan that being here should make him feel more comfortable. ‘It’s not every day someone can claim to have drunk in a hotel that carries their name,’ you say.

He kisses you. ‘Well, maybe when we get to New York we can find you somewhere, like a Nicholson’s Diner. Y’know, after we’ve seen the less important places like Times Square and Greenwich Village…’

You punch him on the arm. ‘Don’t joke. You’re the only reason I’m going back.’

On the table in front of you, Hannah tears a beermat into little pieces and they lie scattered between half-empty bottles of WKD, pints of Harp and Guinness and medallions of old candle wax spilled across its surface. It creates a carpet which looks like a flurry of snow and offset against the low amber of the pub, the silver Bon Voyage banners pinned against the wood panels of the wall and the chatter of local men standing at the bar, you start to feel a bit better about your move.

Hannah smiles at you. ‘So you’re really leaving us?’

‘I’m afraid so,’ you say.

‘And is it true that they give you some sort of citizenship exam when you apply for permanent residency?’

‘Well, yes and no,’ you say. ‘Technically I’m a permanent resident now, but I can’t vote, hold public office or apply for a federal government job. What I’m applying for is the right to be called an American. Something they only let you do after five years of residency.’

‘—can you still carry your passport?’

‘I think so… There’s some clause saying I’ve to give priority to the US—at least as long as I’m living there—but I’m still entitled to be a citizen of both.’ You laugh. ‘I could even take triple citizenship if I applied for an Irish passport.’

Ryan stands up. ‘Do either of you want a drink?’

You shake your head; no

Hannah nods. ‘Bottle of Magners, please—lover boy.’

Ryan turns to you again. ‘You sure?’ He says.

‘I’m sure.’

He walks out onto the floorspace and shuffles his way through a wedding party which has just arrived for a dance. Your eyes follow him across the bar. One of the older women shouts something you don’t quite hear but as she turns back to one of her friends and laughs, you imagine her saying something like, ‘worth a try…’

You become afraid for Ryan. When you first met him a year ago, he was a twenty-four year old part-time sound engineer working out of a studio in the trendiest part of Brooklyn—originally from Poughkeepsie. You think that coming to a tough fishing village in South Down might prove too much for him; especially now with the wedding parties, off-duty fishmongers, factory workers from Aerospace Engineering, lifeguards and construction workers all piling into the pub like grubby children in a sandpit.

Hannah puts her hand over yours. ‘You worry too much,’ she says, as if by telepathy. ‘Here he was earlier talking about how much he loved the South Down coast and I can see it in your face you think he’s not enjoying himself.’ Then she motions to Ryan returning from the bar. ‘Relax, will ya?’

When he sits down, he falls back into his seat, pushes Hannah’s drink across the table, lets out a sigh and pitches it at a level just above the music; almost like a siren or a farmer blowing on a dog whistle. At first you think he’s being funny. There’s a strangeness to his humour that you sometimes put down to cultural difference but after you turn away from him and turn back, you notice he’s frowning.

‘What’s wrong?’ You say.

‘I was just talking to somebody at the bar—someone who must have overheard my accent or something—and he asked if I knew Victoria Nicholson…’

‘What did you say?’

‘Well, I said yes—of course—and that I was moving back to the States with her in the next couple of days.’

‘Then what?’

‘Then he offered to pay for the drinks, shook my hand, told me to be on my way and said that he hoped I took good care of you.’

Ryan takes a long drink from one of the glasses in front of him. You’re not sure if it’s his. ‘I think it might have been your Dad,’ he says.


Short Story: ‘The Match Head’

That summer, Peadar sat hunched over an old atlas given to him by his dad and traced its borders with his fingers; savouring what little joy of memory he could from when it was first handed down and the maps – already out-of-date – gave him a sense that the world was a warm, many-roomed house.

In particular he liked to study the split between the two pages separating Europe. A split which seemed to blow down from Norway and rest upon the old divide somewhere over East Germany, migrating finally until it reached the northern tip of Africa and out onto the table where it rested in his hands.

It brought him back to the summer when he first received it as a gift for losing a tooth. Back when everyone was on good terms and his dad still had that sense of humour he couldn’t quite understand, but which he nevertheless pretended to appreciate by laughing.

‘So you’re shedding bits of your head now, is it?’ He winked. ‘And your Ma keeping it in a matchbox and all for “safe keeping…” Y’know what I’d call that?’

‘What?’

‘A match head!’

Peadar smiled and shifted his weight on the couch as the dry, cool blood swelled like mercury around his tongue and the pillow beneath him slid from the armrest onto the floor. His dad wiped a soiled hankie around his mouth and motioned for him to raise his head as he placed it back underneath. He’d always found his granny’s house comfortable, but living there after six years in England, he couldn’t help but feel that they were somehow intruding.

He knew his parents felt the same and there were nights when he could hear them murmuring through the wall and the keen sense of disappointment that drifted through when they did. Their move had not quite been the return they were anticipating, though optimism usually prevailed and the disappointed looks and deflated sighs were usually soon forgotten.

‘Back when I was young’ his dad said, ‘there were lads who’d pull their own teeth when they came loose by tying the end of a string around their bedroom door and slamming it.’

‘Why?’

‘Because nobody liked the dentist.’

‘But wouldn’t doing it yourself be worse?’

‘I suppose it would,’ he considered, ‘but you have to remember how frightened people were back then. People were afraid to try new things.’

Peadar spat into his teacup. His dad smiled at him.

‘Which is precisely why you were so brave today.’

But the truth was he could still remember how afraid he’d been before going in. The drab waiting room. How the low, knee-high coffee tables with their cheap plasterboard had swelled in the damp and peeled back; exposing their web of honeycomb underneath and reminding him of the inside of his tooth. How there was nothing to look at except health advice posters and outdated Beano comic books. How all the spines were shorn from their pages and how frightened he’d been when his name was called. The airy smell of rubber. The Formica cabinets and counters. The retractable blue chair and white apron, the dentist in his mask, the white swivel light overhead and the feel of the mirror poking at his throat, reflecting back his speechlessness.

‘You wanna see it?’ Peadar asked.

‘I thought your mum had it…’

‘Nope. She gave it back when she was home for lunch earlier.’

He rolled into the back cushions of the couch and stuck his arm deep in its folds. His dad thought he might smother he looked so small, but when he came back up he was holding a crushed, slightly frayed Maguire Paterson matchbox with bits of dust and hair and streaks of his own dried blood caked into the lid.

‘What do you think?’

His dad said nothing.

‘Dad?’

‘…Hm? Oh. Yeah, son… Great… Lovely.’

‘What is it?’

‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘I’m just reminded of something that happened a long time ago.’

 

***

 

Back then, Mickey always became the life and soul of a night out after a few whips of cider. Asked about anything significant in his life he’d only nod and say ‘it was grand’, but for the most part he was looked to as somebody from the estate who could be trusted to stand his ground if a fight broke out, or a route home was needed through the army checkpoints after a bomb.

Being north of the border, Mickey was resigned to the fact that he lived in a community of outcasts. That people were either reluctant to call him by his nationality or wilfully ignorant that he was entitled to it at all was an unspoken fact of life. He was a Northern Catholic: An outcast in a community of outcasts, where the accident of partition gave rise to the peculiar circumstance of being governed by the island minority.

However, beyond what he saw as the struggle to get a fair crack of the whip, nationalism was something he found extremely boring. He wasn’t prepared to layer this status as outcast any further by putting himself at odds with his peers but at the same time, much of what he actually cared about was buried in the collection of Punk 45s he kept on his bedroom floor.

‘It probably couldn’t hurt to be a few minutes late,’ Ciaran said. ‘It’s fuckin’ teemin’ with women out here.’

‘Aye, no word of your sister though.’ Dee laughed, passing the bottle and leaning over the wall. ‘You should’ve seen her hangin’ off Danny Pentony last week like a fuckin’ tetherball. Your Ma ‘n’ Da must be crackin’ up.’

‘You wanna slap?’

‘Aye. G’is another slap of that cider there and quit your whingin’… You don’t see Mickey gettin’ all pissy.’

‘That’s because, to be fair,’ said Mickey, ‘I’d have put you on your arse fifteen minutes ago.’

They were sitting on the granite wall across from the parochial house waiting to go inside. The other boys from the estate hadn’t arrived and in order that they didn’t provoke a fight with some of the larger groups from Derrybeg, Mourneview, South Armagh, Drumalane and to a lesser extent, O’Neill Avenue, they tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible; speaking in low whispers and pulling their cigarettes away toward the river.

‘Jesus, Mick. Would you never get a haircut?’

He turned round. Karen Rafferty was standing by his shoulder with a cigarette outstretched, smiling.

‘You’re in danger of going out of fashion.’ She said.

‘You know me, love. I’m a creature of habit.’

‘You sound like my dad.’

Mickey smiled. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You can call me “daddy” if you want.’

It had always been understood that the girls who came to the dance wore their hair with the fringe cut to the brow and cherry chapstick or rouge shoplifted from the local chemist. Some wore flowery dresses and sandals, while others were in denim shorts and tights with shrunken leather jackets and stripy t-shirts; though most just dressed like the boys. Flared jeans, tartan v-necks, Checkered shirts with big collars, canvas jackets and Oxy brogues. But not Karen.

Her eyes were swathed in black mascara, so much so that when she blinked under the dim amber of the streetlights, they disappeared momentarily and revealed two golf-ball sized holes in her head until she opened them up again. Her hair was short, peroxide blonde and she wore a white dress under a denim jacket which slid dangerously and deliberately by the straps until it almost touched her elbows.

She took him by the arm and led him across the road to the front door of the hall; pushing past people as they went and disregarding the angry faces they left behind. Mickey was also pretty sure they’d skipped on the cover charge but he wasn’t about to argue with her method. She could just as easily have applied it to him and once they were inside, the only thing he could concentrate on anyway was how badly the place smelled.

‘I fuckin’ hate this place,’ he said. ‘They’ve been playin’ that Boomtown Rats tune for weeks now. Probably as “dangerous” as that DJ’s ever likely to get.’

Karen kissed him. ‘Quit complaining,’ she said. ‘Your eyes go all narrow when you frown and with that hair, it makes you look like Katherine Hepburn.’

‘Now you’re just insulting me…’

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘There’s the lads… I bet Ciaran doesn’t know that Danny’s kissin’ his sister and I wanna be there to see what happens when he finds out.’

They made their way across the hall as the floorboards buckled and squelched with vomit and spilled juice. The wine-coloured carpet around the dancefloor was darkened with mud and boot-black and a great fog of cigarette smoke wafted down from the roofspace like backdraft in a fire. Mickey could taste the close stench of body odour, High Karate aftershave and cheap perfume. Ciaran and Dee had finished the last of the cider and were standing with their heads bowed listening to Danny tell a story. Mickey and Karen huddled around them.

‘That’s right.’ Danny said. ‘And by the time I got there, there was this big fuckin’ cleanup operation goin’ on; Paras everywhere.’

‘Fuck off…’

‘It’s true! And I heard from one of them that it wasn’t just one bomb, it was two… Said the first one took out a couple of boys in a convoy van and the second…’ He bent his head forward and lowered his voice, ‘went off and killed the boys from the response team. Said one of them was only identified when they pulled his face out of the mudflats with a draggin’ pole.’

‘Jesus.’

Mickey cleared his throat. Danny reached into his pocket.

‘And that’s not all,’ he said. ‘When I was down there I found somethin’ by the side of the road… Somethin’ white like, shinin’ in the sun. I thought it was a quid, at first…’

‘What was it?’ Mickey asked.

Danny looked at him.

‘…I’ll show you’ he said, opening the matchbox in his hand and extracting the tooth. ‘What do you think about that?’

***

 

At seven o’clock, Peadar dog-eared the map somewhere over the Greenland Sea and closed the book on Europe for good. His desk was littered with strands of tobacco and filter tips and alongside the two-tone cover of the atlas in its centre, beer cans were lined and fallen around the edges like chess pieces.

He put on a pair of black crumpled suit trousers and his best shoes, pulled the tie to his neck, undid the top button of his shirt so that he looked smart without being unapproachable, then clipped his name-badge into the top buttonhole of his waistcoat. He could go without a shower, he thought, and though a cursory glance in the direction of the wardrobe mirror told him that he probably could do with a shave, he decided against it.

He made his way out to the hall and gravitated towards a pile of clothes under the stairs where the phone was buried. He’d fallen behind on insurance payments for the car and because it was raining, he thought it would be a good idea to call for a taxi. Arrowhead ran them all over Newry and South Armagh and because he’d given them a lot business – well after the established hours of contact on a Friday or Saturday evening – his name was on their database and they had no problem finding his address.

He put his hand on the receiver and was about to dial, when it rang and he fell back startled onto the water font over the front door. He steadied himself, almost swearing that at times like these the phone developed a high-pitched pang that wormed its way down into his ear canal, up into his brain and told him exactly what the call was going to be about before he even picked it up.

‘Hello?’

‘I-it’s yer mum…’

He sank down onto the stair. ‘What do you want? I’m on my way to work.’

‘I’m not gonna be home tonight,’ she said. ‘I’m out somewhere.’

‘So? What else is new?’

 ‘…Don’t hate me, Peadar…’ She whimpered. ‘Your Da’ hates me enough… and your brother and sister…’ He could almost feel the fingers of cigarette smoke clawing at him through the line. ‘Don’t hate me.’

‘I live with you, don’t I?’ he said, looking at his watch. ‘I’m the one who stayed with you when the others ran off with Da’. Isn’t that true?’

‘Yes…’

‘And don’t I always pick up whenever you call? What would you have done if I hadn’t been here?’

‘I don’t know…’

‘I don’t know either,’ Peadar sighed. ‘And Ma’…’

‘…Yes?’

‘Never mind.’

When the call was over Peadar walked into the living room and sat down on the couch. Imagine getting engaged at seventeen, he thought, and on the same night one of your friends hands you a tooth in a fucking matchbox; the whole thing was doomed to failure from the beginning.

Suddenly he had the image of his Dad getting down on one knee and offering it as an engagement ring; the tooth wrapped by the root round a simple gold band and his Mum telling him ‘yes’ as the whole town erupted with laughter and applause. Shrapnel and glass and car-keys and loose change raining like streamers of confetti over everything, and the soldier who it belonged to muttering silently in the mudflats where they’d later find his face.

Peadar shuddered. No wonder they’re as fucked up as they are, he thought. Then he got up, put his jacket on, went back out into the hall and tried to ring for a taxi one last time.


Flash Fiction: ‘Hey Kids, Rock & Roll!’

‘I’m so tired of the past,’ said Michel du Rochefort, sipping a noisette and looking out over the Loire. ‘Aren’t you?’

‘I suppose.’

‘I mean, I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. Nostalgia makes me sick; regret even more so. Who else can claim to have committed the perfect crime here, eh?’

‘Nobody, I guess.’

‘You’re goddamn right nobody!’

In fact, the whole landscape was alien to the very idea of rebellion. The only thing that spoke aside to the burial of kings and queens in Saumur was a rather garish wrought-iron railway that criss-crossed and dangled its iron girders and rivets across the river like bondage wear. Michel and his brother Leo had sought to change all that.

‘We did what we set out to do here, didn’t we?’

‘We did.’

Michel took another sip from his noisette and beckoned the waiter for the bill. Leo put on a pair of Ray Ban aviators and crossed his legs in concentration. Had they really buried him deep enough?

It had been Michel’s idea to scatter limbs on the edge of all the hillside vineyards and they’d been out for hours in searing heat just looking for good locations. ‘Thank God we live in hills made from limestone,’ he’d said. ‘The bastard’ll be a skeleton in a month. Mark my words.’

Leo had wanted to throw him in the river. Despite Michel’s protestations that the reeling silt would carry him ashore at some point, Leo felt reasonably sure that oaring the family boat from Montsoreau when it was dark and weighing the body down with stones when they got beyond Saint Martin was the best option.

But the past was another room now, the key snapped in the lock from too much rust on the handle. Beyond the door was everything a man could ever wish if only he were strong enough to pull the hinges or smash the lock; but Leo knew it was absurd. All the other rooms would be tarnished if the past were ever broken into. All that lay beyond were swarms of flies and it was better to leave them where they were than spend a fortune trying to remove them from the nice things he already had.


Short Story: ‘Bondholders’

Inside, the bar was furnished with a kind of teak replica and all the stools and chairs were turned down and placed atop their respective tables. Frank Gorman and Mick Hanley O’Neill sat drinking Armagnac as the night-porter fluttered back and forth between the brass gilt of the taps. Mick’s eye had swollen through the cracks in his fingers and the ice, now melted, flowed from the hand still clutching at his wound like rainwater from a gargoyle’s mouth.

He’d never seen himself as an elitist, but as with most things, he reasoned that it marked a moment of great catharsis whenever a person got punched in the face. First there was the strange, black whiff of blood caught in the nostrils – something he’d forgotten since leaving school – then the clambering thud that bone wrapped around skin makes when it meets the skin and bone of another person. It sounded rather like a ball being kicked against a window, he thought, or a large book falling to the floor in the middle of the night.

Then the adrenaline set in. Then the brief throb of pain before he punched back. The thrill of two men settling their differences the old fashioned way had been lost on Mick since his father made him take boxing lessons as a teenager; though he found that, after he swung back, he’d lost none of the old technique. Lean into your jab, hook with your strong arm, twist into your punch and clench your fists as tight as you can so you don’t break a finger. Keep your hands up and your eyes forward. Get in close and, for God’s sake, don’t hit the floor.

He found this thrilling and though in his career he imagined that he sat in the same quiet lineage of power and money as Cheney under Bush, or Kissinger under Nixon, he also fancied himself as a woodsman. His earlier fight with Frank had merely proved to him that he was alive to the subtler vibrations of feeling and character.

He never wore sunglasses, for fear he’d one day have the full extent of the daylight cleaved away from his eyes; nor did he wear any kind of substantial coat in the winter, for fear he’d never again feel the cold when he took it off. Sand between his toes was, to Mick, the ebb and tide of shed skin — the shift in pattern of so many reptiles.

Frank, meanwhile, was of saltier stuff. As a taxi driver he’d been exposed to women in the back of his car with no pants, straddling the headrest of his seat; or seen breasts fall away from their shirts as they laughed and gave him directions to parties and bars and sometimes even offered to carry out favours if they didn’t have the money to pay their fare.

‘You ever get tempted to buy women on the company expense account?’ Frank asked. ‘I’m sure that sort of thing happens all the time in your game and if I had free run of someone else’s money, that’d be the first thing I’d try.’

‘Not so far.’ Said Mick, bringing his hand away from his face and lifting up his glass, ‘But there’s always a first time for everything.’

Up until five years ago, the only thing required to make Frank feel safe was the din of newscasts, live updates, chart music, talk radio and breaking news that formed the backdrop to the car-bound majority of his day. The relative stability of his marriage at home kept him content enough to ignore the cheap refuge to be found in the five minute relations of now and the knowledge that, since he owned his own car, there was very little risk of losing his job at the taxi firm; even in the midst of a recession.

But not if the firm went bust. Within six months of losing his job at CitiCabs, Frank’s marriage began to break down and he was divorced by the end of the year. Suddenly the din wasn’t enough anymore and he started paying attention to the drunken offers that came his way the nights he did freelance work to pay the bills. It was a change. It used to be that, no matter how alone he was, or how quiet life in the house used to get sometimes; none of it mattered. The radio din of his car offered that there was a world beyond his door that carried on regardless and he found comfort in the fact that, apart from his own little pocket within it, the universe carried on oblivious to whatever it was he thought or did. That sound was abhorrent to him now.

‘Tell me,’ He said, leaning against the guard rail. ‘What did you make of the Anglo tapes?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well now…’ He brought his hand up to his face and sprawled across the bar-top. ‘What do you think it says about you? The financial crowd, I mean.’

Mick thought for a moment. He supposed it had something to do with the push and pull of two addictions, for him at least – Armagnac being the obvious first – but also the thrill of being in a place where he felt he’d earned a drink for making somebody very rich; though he knew he couldn’t say that.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Sure you do.’ Frank persisted, ‘Like, you must admit it looks bad for the bankers. I’ve been watching this whole thing very closely and I can’t think of a single redeemable thing to say about them. Followed every facet of the news story and all I’ve been able to think is, “Bastards! Who the fuck do these people think they are?!

‘Well, what did you learn from it? Surely none of this is news to you?’

‘Well, I…’

‘All the Anglo tapes did was confirm what everybody already knew. That Anglo was fucked — Hell, that the country was fucked! They asked for a 7 billion Euro bailout, knowing full well that it wasn’t going to be enough.’

Mick paused to take a drink and waved for the night porter to bring more ice. ‘The whole thing ended up costing north of 36 billion Euros and the rest, as they say, is history.’

Suddenly it struck Mick how old Frank looked. Indeed, for a man who claimed he was three years younger, Mick couldn’t help but notice the faded crucifix on Frank’s arm and the wet mat of receding salt and pepper grey hair; or that his navel crept over the top of his belt buckle like swollen pastry.

Mick almost felt guilty. It was something he’d felt before during the worst years of the crash and now, magnified and bulbous, it seemed to have mutated into a groundswell of antipathy focusing itself on the worst excesses of the financial sector. It lingered particularly at times like these, but tomorrow he knew he’d wake up and forget the whole thing. That the person who punched him in the face was a man who lost his job after twenty four years as a taxi driver, and that he’d go back to making money for the people who knew how to play the game. Perhaps it wasn’t even guilt. Maybe it was just the searing scar tissue of happiness making itself known as memory. Perhaps, he considered, satisfaction scarred a person as deeply as trauma; everything, after all, being correspondent with its opposite.

‘How is it you fit into this whole thing anyway?’ Frank asked.

‘I’m in the business of facilitating the sale and distribution of derivatives.’

‘What?’

‘Speculating on chance events. Forwards, futures, options, swaps. That kind of thing. I’m really just on the fringe of the commercial banking sector, but I do know a lot of people involved in the big-time stuff.’

‘Speculating on chance events…’

‘That’s right.’

‘Fat chance of you predicting someone would clock you in the eye.’ Frank laughed. ‘But then maybe that just made you more defiant.’


On Frank O’Hara’s ‘Meditations in an Emergency’

When Frank O’Hara moved to New York in 1951 he must, at first, have seemed quite the anomaly to many of his peers. Indeed, even on the eccentric Manhattan art scene, no-one with the same sense of aesthetic wonder as O’Hara; no-one with the same Harvard background in music and literature; no-one with the same credentials of having served as a sonar-man in the South Pacific during the War; and no-one with the same critical understanding of the aesthetics of both Abstract Expressionism and European symbolism, came close to approximating O’Hara’s unique sense of urban bohemianism.

Of course, the likes of John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, both of whom attended Harvard and the latter of whom served in the South Pacific during the Second World War, are probably the most comparable of his contemporaries. However, unlike O’Hara, neither Koch nor Ashbery had the same intimate experience with the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. Nor again did they place the same emphasis in their poetry as O’Hara did on the documentation of everyday experience. The idea that by contrasting the impressionism and colour of Rimbaud and Verlaine with the photographic imagery of Williams, the music of Hart Crane and the “All-American” romanticism of Walt Whitman, the complexity of human experience would reveal itself in the language of the poem.

Indeed, the Whitman comparison seems particularly apt in ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ when we take into account what seems to be the central consideration of the poem: identity. It echoes with Whitman’s credo ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself’ and aches throughout with a desired move toward some kind of resolution; a resolution which, ultimately, never presents itself. But there is also departure from Whitman. O’Hara is not writing to “celebrate” his loss of identity nor even to accept it as someone who is “large” and “contains multitudes”. For O’Hara this vagueness is something to be struggled against. The search for identity is a “meditation” and the very fact of its loss in the first place is an “emergency”. This is an identity crisis. A crisis perpetuated, it seems, by the end of an affair.

‘Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French?’

O’Hara begins, as if the “emergency” is already well underway. There is no explanation as to why these questions are being asked. ‘Blondeness’ and ‘French’ are simply presented, at a distance, as fluid oxymoronic paradigms, somehow stable in the labels that they wear, but also completely devoid of the characteristics normally associated with either one. Of course, the irony inherent in the ‘profligacy’ of someone with blonde hair or the ‘religiosity’ of the (normally) secular French is clear, but it must be remembered that the poem is beginning, right away, on a note of resignation; a resignation specific to some compromise within his own identity and his failure to be recognised and understood.

In fact, in the line that follows: “Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous”, O’Hara posits that the reason for his compromised identity – and by extension the “Emergency” referred to in the title of the poem – is the end of an unspecified love affair. “What greater emergency is there?” the poem seems to ask, since human relations always depend upon an element of personal connection to give them some meaning. What greater loss is there than the compassion of the “other” in relation to the self? Whether “self” refers to the individual experience of the situated being, or to the communitarian “self” of the city, country or continent, loss of compassion is emphasised as being of the utmost importance. After all, here it has led to the individual pain of the poem’s “broken heart”, but also – if one considers the international situation of the period – Cold War paranoia and violence overseas.

“What is identity then, but mere context?” the poem also asks us. Indeed, O’Hara is only facing into this crisis as the result of having been wrenched away from the stable confines of a relationship. Without such a situation to keep a person grounded, O’Hara becomes restless, contradictory and myriad. Therefore, in a statement like “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.” He at once implores his lover with the “boundless” scope of his desire, whilst at the same time reducing the gravity of his request with absurd qualifiers like “all I want” and “I am the least difficult of men.” Opposites exist in a state of flux and swap; humour always undercuts the seriousness of the poem’s “coming to terms”; and often, O’Hara flatly contradicts himself, as though his multiple selves are all vying for position.

In fact, it is when O’Hara is “confined” in the poem – almost trapped within the claustrophobic familiarity of New York City – that he begins to stabilise and return to something like “himself” again. The context that New York gives him is comfortable, stable and like a relationship, gives him the courage to feel there is no need for him to wear any of his innumerable masks; the masks which allow him to come to terms with the rest of the world. He is free, as when he writes “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”

The problem, as O’Hara sees it, is in the false vision people have of themselves. That, like him, everybody is struggling to maintain a stable set of ideals and to live autonomously in a universe that is indifferent and, by extension, cruel. O’Hara posits that the only way to respond to an ever-changing universe is to be fleeting: “It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass.” Here, indeed, is where O’Hara begins to move toward resolving his identity crisis; the “emergency” brought about by the sudden wrenching away of context. His floundering despair morphs into a kind of freedom where now, instead of lamenting the former “self” who dwelt within the boundaries of a love affair, he compares himself with “the least sincere”. Like the clouds he “continues to pass” but remains forever within the confines of a wandering existence which, for him, is enough to be satisfied, as when he tells us: “My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time; they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal, so that no one trusts me.” And then explains that he continues in this way because: “…it’s my duty to be attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must be above the earth.”

To the “you” of the poem then; to the person who dragged him to this dreadful self-realisation in the first place. What of them? Well, naturally enough, it is here that he empowers himself. “Destroy yourself, if you don’t know! It is easy to be beautiful, it is difficult to appear so.” In other words, O’Hara’s living with the knowledge that one is unstable by virtue of the fact that existence is unstable, is more challenging than the great vice of the beautiful – namely, their ignorance. O’Hara accepts his mask, proud of the fact that it is “difficult” to wear whilst at the same time baffled by the irony that the very person who brought him to this point is unaware of their own mask: “I admire you, beloved, for the trap you’ve set. It’s like a final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.” Beauty, like the clouds he mentions, is fleeting – temporary – but caught in the self-perpetuating vice that it will never fade nor pass on to someone else. Hence, why it is “easy to be beautiful”. Ignorance is bliss.

Thus, for the O’Hara in the final stanza, stability is no longer stable; comfort, no longer comfortable. “Identity” has now become something to escape from and the romance of life – the “adventure” alluded to in the second stanza – has become the hunter/hunted pursuit between the “settled life” and freedom: “I’ve got to get out of here. I choose a piece of shawl and my dirtiest suntans.” And yet, the poem seems also to come full circle, as when O’Hara immediately undermines his seriousness in tone by contradicting it in the next line: “I’ll be back, I’ll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don’t want me to go where you go, so I go where you don’t want me to.” Here, of course, O’Hara is once again channelling his inner Whitman. “Do I contradict myself?” O’Hara challenges us “Very well, then I contradict myself…”


Short Story: ‘BYOB’

The town below was laid out before them in pink and granite; the sky, cloudless and filled with the scent of myriad barbeque smoke.

Peadar felt the weight of a second night beginning to take its toll. He looked out over the town from the safety of his back garden and wondered why he’d invited anybody over at all. There was no such thing as hair of the dog.

People stood in clusters of two or three chattering about the weather and by five o’clock the fridge had already been liberated of most of its beer and the fire was beginning to ebb. Somebody was telling him not to worry.

‘There’s only one thing for it’ he was saying, ‘Go out for pints with your friends, bitch about the person you’re secretly still in love with, come home and listen to Wicked Game, cry yourself to sleep.’

Someone else joined in. ‘You forgot to mention one thing.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Repeat until you’ve moved onto somebody else.’

These were his two best friends, Paddy and Jem, and he was out with them the night before doing the very thing they were stood here now suggesting. Jem had spent the evening chopping out thick lines on the back of his iPad and blowing cigarette smoke into the screen of the TV. Paddy encouraged him over a tuneless made-up song on a stringless guitar and pointing out the girls with no tits. Then they went to the pub.

‘I’m not going out again.’

‘Why not?’

‘I’m hungover, I’m broke and I couldn’t be bothered.’

Jem chimed in. ‘You’re a faggot.’

‘Oh yeah? And what does that make you?’

Jem smiled and licked the back of his hand. ‘Horny.’

It had been his friends’ idea to stage this barbeque in the first place and as a result, Peadar didn’t know who most of the people in his house were. There were three girls sitting on the grass with their backs to the fence, drinking wine. He thought he knew one of them from work but he couldn’t put a face on the other two. They might have been hairdressers or bar-girls.

‘How are you enjoying the party?’

The blonde girl looked at him. ‘Who are you?’

‘Peadar… I live here. You?’

‘Marie,’ she said incredulously. ‘Jem told me it was a party.’

‘And?’ He said, ‘How do you like it?’

‘Not much.’

It was no secret that girls weren’t his favourite people in the world just then, and talking to these three only reinforced the idea that they never really felt much of anything.

If the female intuition was to be generalised, he thought, it’d be like a predator’s. Sometimes, when they’re ravenously hungry, they savage their prey with the same passion and malice as a lioness hunting antelope. Other times they snare, cat-like; playing games with a chosen mouse and allowing him just enough leeway to make him believe he has a chance at survival. When they’re full, they simply have no interest. They live off the meat they’ve gathered for winter and preen themselves decadently until the next hunt comes along and the cycle begins again. If there’s anything left of the prey, it’s a shell with loose strands for scavengers to pick at.

One of them said, ‘You didn’t ask my name.’

‘What’s your name?’ He sighed.

‘Cara. I work in the hotel with you. Just started.’

Of course. The girl who forgot where the kitchen was.

He said, ‘You’re the waitress, right?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Who didn’t know where the kitchen was.’

She smiled. ‘Till you told me.’ The other two rolled their eyes.

‘Would you like a beer?’

‘I’m not sure. Wine before beer and all that…’

‘You’ll be fine.’

‘OK.’ She said, then stood up and followed him into the kitchen.

Peadar had been tending bar that day and she’d approached him with a nervous grin, standing with locks of her hair spiralling round her fingers. He told her it was beyond the wooden tables by the fire; to look for a carvery line in front of a big set of double doors with circular windows. He hadn’t thought about her after that, though he’d thought she was pretty.

***

By eleven o’clock, the beer & barbeque embers had dwindled to nothing and most of the folks who were there earlier had left. Peadar stood by the sink with Cara’s hand on his back, looking out the window.

The sun had started to fade and set against the electric blue of near-dark, he could see bonfires sending flashes of thick black smoke into the night sky.

It was as if darkness was the result of the day’s collective fire building. An annihilation perpetrated by summer bonfires; the dark, an accumulation of smoke.

‘Any plans for tomorrow?’ Jem said.

‘Nothing except rehearsing my stratagem for wooing.’ He answered, winking at Cara.

‘No word from your Ma then?’

‘Not yet, why?’

‘Just wondering when I’ll get to lay her out.’ Jem grinned, ‘I’d set her down like ham on rye.’

‘What do you mean?’ Paddy called from the living room. ‘You mean you’d give her the once over with that spotty, thin slice of pastrami you keep tucked in the waistline of your jeans?’

‘No.’ Jem laughed, ‘I mean she’d be salty and pink by the time I’ve spread my butter.’

Peadar laughed. ‘Alright.’

He winced at the subject of his mother. He hated that she stayed out later than him, and knew that if she had been there earlier she would’ve involved herself in conversations around the garden and stolen what little beer he’d bought in for the guests.

‘Does your mum live here?’ Cara asked.

‘Unfortunately.’

She whispered in his ear, ‘Do you think she’d mind if I stayed?’

‘She might’ Peadar replied, ‘but she isn’t the one who pays the bills, so fuck her.’

Years ago, as mothers were supposed to, she’d told him that someday he would ‘find something’ and that life would be good. He’d answered that someday wasn’t good enough.

‘Because we don’t know how long we have’ he’d replied, ‘Someday could be tomorrow or ten years down the line and I don’t want to wait for it. I want it now so I can enjoy it and look back on it smiling when the time comes.’

Standing in his kitchen with a pretty waitress’s hand on his back, he felt that now was that time. Listening to his friends make wise-cracks about his wayward mother was something he would look back on; Jem saying something about most of the pubs still being open and Peadar turning toward Cara with a look of resignation. The bonfires in the distance growing sinister. A key ringing in the lock of the front door and somebody turning it.