The troublesome nature of conscience

When the best negotiator in the country was accused of a crime, he took hostage the two detectives assigned to bring him in, and barricaded himself in his home. That he was the most qualified and successful hostage crisis negotiator was beyond question. The Chief of Police, faced with this predicament, did what he would normally do and called the negotiator for his professional opinion.

The negotiator took the call and, despite the incongruity of his position, agreed to investigate the threat and offer his personal assessment.

After three hours of talking to himself, the negotiator made a breakthrough. The two detectives were released in return for food and more time. The negotiator was still holding himself against his will and the situation remained tense.

For nine more hours the negotiator talked, listened, cajoled, and pandered to himself. Time was running out, and the Chief of Police knew that, sooner rather than later, he would have to bring the standoff to a head. The negotiator pleaded for more time. He was allowed one hour. He gave it everything he had. As the hour drew to an end, and the armed response team readied their incursion, the negotiator, to the great relief of all involved, agreed to release himself. He walked from the house with his hands behind his head and was immediately taken away for questioning. When they entered the house, the police found it empty.

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Untitled Too (or, The Shame of Being A Poet)

I really did not want to go out as my face felt folded in on itself and my hair was a mess thanks to all the split ends but the dog needed his walk. He sat silent in the hall, snout pointed at the door. I took down his lead and he stood, unsteady.

It was almost midnight and the air was sharp with frost. We didn’t have to go far before he squatted in the middle of the pavement and prepared to void his bowels. I tried to wriggle deeper into the fur-lined hood of my coat as little knives of cold jabbed at my ears and neck. The dog was taking his time, his old guts could hardly cope with the biscuits I bought him. I knew I should change brand, but I liked the big, bargain bags, and the way they sealed shut for extra freshness. His back legs and tail trembled with the strain and I wondered how long he had left to live.

Just then, to my dismay, I heard someone walking towards me. I decided to keep my head down, to avoid eye contact, yet at the last moment I glanced up, just in time to catch the look of revulsion and scorn from the woman as she passed by.

The dog managed to produce a dollop of tawny matter, staggered forward a few steps, and dropped some more. Satisfied he was finished, I tugged on the lead and went home. I don’t bother with plastic bags and disposal. The very idea of picking up the stuff, warm and soft, disgusts me to the core.

Next morning, on my way to the shop, I noticed that someone had already trodden in the mess. Slipped in it, by the look of things, a skidded heel had streaked it across the pavement. Good, I thought, why should I be the only one to suffer?


The Weight of Need

In need of help, he bought his first self-help book at the age of twenty-nine. The book was good, and he certainly felt he had been helped. Carefully, he underlined certain sentences and noted their page number at the front. But it wasn’t enough. The second self-help book was not as satisfying as the first, so he bought another, and soon after, another. This continued for some time. One day, he realised he had developed a dependency on self-help books, and, seeking help, turned to a self-help book about defeating addiction. The book was good, and he certainly felt he had been helped. Carefully, he underlined certain sentences and noted their page number at the front. But it wasn’t enough.

After some years, and due to the number of self-help books he owned, he decided to build a bookshelf to hold them all. He bought a carpentry self-help book and set about constructing the unit. When finished, it reached from floor to ceiling. He loaded the shelves and, just as he was adding the final book, the whole thing came away from the wall and crushed him to death.

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The Magnet and the Needle

She resented his apology for the display of power it was. The silence had been building for some miles, compressed by the confined space of the car, and it was clear the thin statement of contrition was on its way. He had the tilt to his head that signaled an imminent announcement on a difficult subject. Changing lanes to come off the main road, he began.

‘I have to say,’ he said in a tone that suggested the very opposite of obligation, and carried on to throw out a checklist of reasons for his behaviour, forming a trellis of self-supporting justifications to which his excellent opinion of himself would be able to cling. The apology came in the midst of this soliloquy. It slipped out sotto voce, as the slip road arced them away from the motorway, under the flyover, and onto the B-road that would lead them to the foothills and their destination.

Night came on quickly, as if it had been held up back east and was making time. The car’s headlights honourably dipped to oncoming traffic but the deeper into the hills they went, switchbacking the gradients, the more the full beam shone. Dashboard glow gave the interior a somber, submerged aspect. The radio, tuned to classical music and turned down low, did not have to compete with the engine, which handled the hairpin gear changes without complaint.

GPS confidently filled the gaps in his talking. It was a woman’s voice, polite but firm with her directions. About thirty miles from the motorway, the first glitch was noticed.

‘Is this still the same road?’ he asked, and she wondered if he was talking to her, or the machine.

They were put right in the next village, where, after a crawl of speed bumps, they saw for the first time their objective written on a sign. Sandra experienced a minor jolt of localisation. Some nights ago, she had found the place online, read all about it, looked at the gallery, and it was odd now to see its name in the real world. She was pleased by the thought that the signpost was still there, even though she could no longer see it.

‘Right,’ he said, and took one. The hills rose around them, great hulking shadow patches against the gleaming stars. There were few dwellings up here, the handful they passed were shut up and dark. He was talking again, something about work, and she looked for the pole star, but with every twist in the road the scene wheeled above her.

They arrived an hour late after two detours and sharp words. He parked in front of the inn and proceeded to jab the buttons of the GPS, accusing it of being deranged.

‘We’re here now,’ she said, looking at the building in front of them. It was early eighteenth century, squat and high roofed. Lantern-shaped lights adorned the entrance, a bright red door with a low beam and an actual bell on a cord.

In total contradiction to the climate of the car, the night air was crisp with a keen wind. Three other cars were in front of the inn, high-end sleek things. It was an expensive gesture, this night away from it all.

He gave up with the onboard computer and the boot was opened and bags recovered. As they walked towards the inn, she felt for her mobile, noticed it was missing and was about to stop when she remembered, no mobiles. It was one of the rules of the night.

The room was fine. The dinner was very nice, and the wine flowed but the air was still soured. She knew he could sense it in the way she used her fork, the way her eyes skimmed him.

‘Right,’ he said, and made a show of throwing his napkin on the table. ‘Are you still angry with me?’

She thought hard for a response but settled with, ‘I suppose so.’

It was enough for him. He picked up the napkin and returned it to his knee. He liked things to be said, problems aired – didn’t matter if they never got resolved, as long as an emotional standoff was acknowledged as such. He enjoyed his pork belly and applesauce and said so. Even his basic pleasures were said.

She wanted to say something but she didn’t know what to say. She wanted to step out of her mood, having decided she might as well enjoy the night for what it was. She cast around.

‘I like the windows in this place.’

‘Yes,’ he said, and looked at them for the first time.

They consisted of little diamonds of glass between diagonal lines of lead. She considered telling him the name of the style. She decided not to, it felt like showing off.

Back in their room she locked herself in the bathroom and took her time getting ready for bed. She rarely wore a watch these days and in a moment of foresight she had decided, in the absence of a phone, to wear one. It was a present from him. The white face and graceful hands were reminiscent of him. It told her the time in his voice. Another thing said.

She knew he was waiting in the bed. She wondered what he was imagining, with what mental images he was underclothing her: the mesh camisole in cream with lace at the bust, or white charmeuse slip with black suspenders. Perhaps the ever-popular corset, pearl blush pink with a scatter of tiny black hearts, breasts to the ceiling. Lips as red as they could be. Tonight she was in a shift. Her lips were naked.

She crept out of the bathroom and into the bed and into his arms. He was ready and didn’t notice what she wore. They had sex and she enjoyed some of it. A mental image had lodged itself soon after they started and wouldn’t be shaken. He was jabbing at her as he did the errant GPS. I’m deranged, she said to herself and wondered if she should begin issuing instructions to him in the machine’s voice.

Soon enough, he arrived at his destination. She lay awake for some time after, thinking about her own, knowing only she was many miles from home, yet feeling left behind.


(published in Litro Magazine – Feb 2013, Sex)


The List of Words Not to be Used

Photo - Don Ng

Photo – Don Ng

The list of words not to be used was put up on the door of the library. They had been written in alphabetical order. At first in groups, then one by one, the people approached them, read them, considered them. The following weeks saw a rash of haste as texts were consulted, words obliterated, and certain books burnt.

The list of words not to be used soon became the only existent example of those words. The people pretended to ignore it. From time to time, certain of them went by close enough to catch sight of one or two of the words. Certain of them committed the words to memory.

The list of words not to be used vanished about three months after it had appeared. Everyone noticed. There were rumours. Some said it had been removed by order, others that it had been stolen.

When enough time had passed, no one remembered how many words had been on the list. Memories faltered, secret arguments developed and opposing groups were formed. Centuries saw the list of words not to be used transformed into legend, millennia to myth. Historians speculate. Linguists propose. Writers imagine. The list of words not to be used illudes all who attempt to recreate it.

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Solid Ground

The weather was changeable. He didn’t know if they would be allowed to cross the bridge. The clouds had thickened and it looked like rain.

A sign announced their arrival, and John turned off the main road. As he parked, the sun made a brief appearance. After so long in the heated car, the bright fresh air was an instant tonic and the three of them, John, Lisa, and Liam, stood breathing in big gulps of it, gazing out to sea. Clouds raced over Antrim and out over the cliffs, causing pools of sparkling sunlight to move across the face of the water.

‘Dad? What does carry key reed mean?’

‘Carrick-a-Rede,’ corrected John, then admitted he didn’t know. He turned to Lisa. ‘Are you going to wait here, or …’

She took some offence at this. ‘I’m coming down to see.’ And so saying, she seized the boy’s hand and set off purposefully.

There were very few people around. The only others on the path were a group of pensioners coming the other way. They wore walking gear, and knapsacks, and carried extendable walking sticks. There was a seriousness about the group, they walked with a resolute pace and did not speak amongst each other. John greeted them as they passed and they answered with curt nods and brusque hellos.

The path led up the rise of the land that abutted the coastline. On their right, the surrounding countryside opened out as a swathe of hills, rounded green waves, immobile and stately. To the left, the sea was mostly grey, choppy, and mutable.

John turned his mind to the last time he had been to Carrick-a-Rede. Some time in the late seventies. He had come with his own father, a quiet and often ill-humoured man who nevertheless loved his family and took pains to prove it. His memory was coloured by the washed out photos of the period his mother kept in the big, leather-bound album that still lived on the shelf above the television. It was an endless summer of Seventies hairstyles, denim jackets, and the bright red Wellington boots that John had seemingly worn forever. He had been older than Liam, eleven, probably. With a smile, he thought of his childish self. Then he thought of his father and realised he was now the same age that his father had been back then. The knowledge adjusted something within him; it retuned his sense of the passing of time and an epochal shift took place within him.

The bridge was open. They were allowed to cross. Lisa walked them as far as she could before vertigo said stop. She transferred the boy’s hand to John with a deeply troubled look.

‘He’ll be okay,’ said John, turning toward the high rock of the little island, and the delicate construction that connected it to the mainland. The rope bridge was about twenty meters in length, and hung high above the sea. It swayed gently in the breeze. This was a worry but in their excitement they walked straight out and onto the wooden planks. Father and son laughed. The sun bobbed in the clouds and they boldly crossed to the other side. Liam beamed and John was proud of the boy, and himself.

‘Let’s see this island, then.’

They walked the length and breadth of it. The boy ran ahead and back again and talked nonstop. He had to be warned about the cliffs too many times and the father lost his patience and made him take his hand again.

On the eastern side of the island, just below the top of the one of the cliffs, the abandoned hut of former fishermen perched high above the sea line. It was squat and whitewashed, and with its dark slate roof, looked like part of the rock against which it had been built. John pointed it out to the boy. There was a crane that would swing out over the rock face. Far below, the waves slapped and sucked at the black stones of the shore.

‘Can you imagine living down there?’ he asked, the question directed more to himself than the boy. And he did imagine – what a life, all alone, king of this rock, with nothing but the temperamental sea for company. John worked in an office and spent his days in front of a computer; the closest he came to manual labour was changing the stack of paper in the printer. He pictured himself sat outside the hut, aching from a day of hard work, blistered hands happily mending nets as he sang songs to the tides. At night there would be no television, no streetlights, no traffic at the front door. At night the world would be black, and in the dark the sea would share her secrets.

Liam was pulling at his arm, yanking him back to the present. The child wanted to run again, to burn off youthful energy in movement for the sake of movement. His father reluctantly turned away from the hut and followed.

The sun kept coming and going, but it was pleasant. They played chase, and ran around until out of breath, then lay on their backs on a sheltered bank of grass and watched the clouds. They were going so fast. It was fast enough to make you think it was the ground that was moving. The two of them felt dizzy and solemn at the same time.

‘I know why the clouds are going so fast,’ said Liam. ‘It’s because the world is turning so quick.’

John smiled. ‘Well,’ he said, and began explaining the facts of the earth’s spin and the reason for the movement of the clouds. As he spoke, he found the words began to ring hollow. He knew he was right, but this did not quieten the peculiar uncertainty that had suddenly struck him. On what authority do I have this knowledge? he asked himself, surprised by the question. It is common knowledge, came the answer. Just as once it was common knowledge that the earth is flat.

At that moment he had an intuition that being a father was no more than this: the sharing of beliefs, be it physics, meteorology, or morality; whatever the lesson, it was passed on to the child and stamped as true with the impressive weight of fatherhood.

The boy listened and grew restless. John ended his lecture and closed his eyes. The solemnity he had earlier experienced was giving way to unease, an anxiety that something unpleasant remained to be done. Casting around for the cause of this disquiet, he thought about their plans for the rest of the day. Next stop was the Bushmills Distillery where he intended to sample everything they offered. Lisa would take over the driving and bring them to the Giant’s Causeway to end the day with a stroll along the iconic coastline before the long drive home. He imagined these waypoints along the north of the country and an odd thing happened, he was taken by the idea that the rock on which he lay was the true mainland. The landmass of Ireland, and all of its distilleries, and peoples, and history, was the lesser island. At some point he would have to go back there, he would have to quit this blissful moment in the fleeting sun where he lay next to his child and his authority was unchallenged. He felt as though he were about to burst into tears.

Liam was up, eager to move again. He took his father’s hand and attempted to pull him upright. John tried to push aside his maudlin thoughts and played a game of tug with the boy but the mood was unwilling to leave him.

The cause of his unease became apparent as they made their way back to the bridge. Heavy clouds had permanently hidden the peek-a-boo sun. The breeze had picked up and the ropes seemed to move individually, making it appear all the more precarious.

Liam set off across the bridge before he could stop him. He was already halfway over by the time John was able to make it off the concrete step. His heart in his mouth, he walked forward, then fear turned to dread and he froze.

The boy must have sensed something was wrong. He turned and called to his father.

John could not move. He could see the tiny waves far below, but this did not bother him. What got him was the vast expanse of nothingness that existed between the sea and the wooden plank on which he stood. The air was cold. His hands, knuckle white, gripped the handrail, but the handrail swayed. He looked up and saw the cliff at the other end of the bridge, he saw the mainland in all of its enormity, its terrible scale – life was over there, responsibilities, the authority of others, and he had to get back to it all. His breath seemed to be escaping him; his legs trembled. He could see Lisa standing on the path at the top of the cliff, like a feature of the landscape, and he almost cried out to her. For a moment he thought he had cried out, then he recognized the shriek of a seagull. Two of them wheeled under the rope-bridge. Buffeted by the wind, they tilted their wings in unison and arced up and over the top of the bridge. He gasped and followed them with wide eyes. The birds tumbled and soared in the air and John, in helpless terror, felt that he was falling.


He looked down. Liam was standing in front of him. ‘It’s okay, Daddy.’

The boy reached out and coaxed his hand from the rope where it had been gripping so tight. Slowly, confidently, the boy led his father across the bridge and back to solid ground.


(published in Ireland’s Own – 26.04.13)





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Homeland Security

By the time I got back to the island only Henson was still alive. He didn’t speak; the gun said it all. He motioned me to the prison and locked me in a cage.

“Quarantine,” he muttered at last, as if now that I was contained it was safe to talk.

“The others?”

“All dead. Burnt their bodies.”

He was exhausted, eyes sunken into his skull, shrinking from the horrors he had no doubt witnessed.

“And you?”

He sneered. “I sat in the church tower with this.” The gun.

Three days, he told me. Three days and I’d be dead if infected. He gave me food and water and inspected me through the bars of the cage. He moved slowly. His eyes were rheumy. That night he came again.

On the second day he didn’t turn up ‘til near sunset. His walk was slower, his hands trembled the rations he carried.

“Henson,” I said, “you look sick.”

He ignored me, set the food and water by the cage, and walked away shaking his head.

“Let me out. I’m not infected. Henson! Let me out!”

The third day came and went. He never returned.



When our ancestors began the Map of the Labyrinth, they did so by setting out its perimeter. On a sheet of canvas, measuring five feet by five, they painted using plant dyes and ground minerals mixed with water. In designing a labyrinth it may seem easy to begin. The contribution of the originators was considered clumsy by successive generations; they thought the wide pathways and easily followed routes too big and too undemanding. And, they used up too much of the canvas. In response, the second period of work revelled in ornate digressions and cleverer-than-thou dead ends. With the passing of this fad, the inheritors of the map discovered they were continually forced to return to the outer perimeter in order to be able to progress their addition to the map. As the centuries fell away, the map grew ever inwards to an unknown centre.

One hundred and fifty years ago, at the fourth Council of the Map of the Labyrinth, it was decreed that, owing to the lack of free canvas left at the centre, work would be halved as historians and philosophers were consulted to establish what exactly that centre would be. There were those who wished to continue as before, to add their part and take their glory; they claimed that the centre was an issue for the generations of the future to deal with. This argument was opposed by the belief that it was a duty, so close to the end, to steer the map to its unknown heart.

These are not the only issues causing concern. Replication has become a problem. Due to the complexity of the map in these later days, the number of accurate and up to date copies is diminishing at an escalating rate. The scale of detail being produced in our time is beyond the ability of anyone not already working on the original, it has become such a precise science. There is a good copy in a southern city, where the people have been openly saying that their map is more accurate than the original. These are dangerous times. These are end times, for the blank canvas has been reduced to such a minuscule portion, that the merest application of ink may blot out the last of it, and our centre, our heart, will be forever unknowable.

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The Higgs Boson Event

The trouble started when the Higgs Boson particle was finally discovered. The God Particle, as the press so loved to call it. I guess they were right. With the Higgs Field measured and malleable, some genius thought it would be a good idea to try to puncture it. Let me quote you from the UN report. “To date, an area of forty-three cubic kilometres has fallen into the Higgs Field Event. The anomaly has been stable for twenty-three days, with no further sign of enlargement.” In other words, our world has stopped going down the plughole. We hope.

I have seen what remains of the CERN laboratory, of the forty-three cubic kilometres of Switzerland, including villages, farms, and much of Geneva, swallowed by the event. Despite the horror, it’s a beautiful thing. I got my first glimpse while flying into Annecy Airport. From thirty kilometres away it looked like an obscenely giant marble, stuck into the ground. A hemisphere of changing colours, flashes, rainbows. Up close was even better. An ever-swirling play of light and colour, insanely big, insanely spherical.

They say there’s nothing in there but random particles. No mass, no cohesion, nothing but chaos. They say lots of things, but really they don’t know what is going on. They’re afraid to do anything to it in case it starts to grow again. Standing in front of it, I was tempted to touch it. I remember a smell, but it wasn’t so much a smell, more of a tingling in the nostrils, citrus-like, without the scent.

The security perimeter was reassuring, in a pitiable way. I was there in my capacity as a representative of the UN’s Disaster Relief Committee. During my visit, a delegation from the Pentagon was being given a tour.


Suspect is on foot, heading north

The map was like no other he had seen. For three days he had been studying it, beating it with frowns and fists, and although not confident, was now of the belief that an understanding of the key had been reached.

He made his move, heading north.

The watchers, safe in their underground bunkers, furnished with all mod cons and carpets imported from China, smiled and waited.

Some weeks later, or maybe it was hours, he reached the pool and stood over it. He smiled and waited. His calculations were correct, the puzzle of the key had been unlocked and now the map made sense. It was oriented, in that east was at the top, the other cardinals, put out, occupied unfamiliar corners. He turned to his right and started moving again.

In their underground bunkers, fitted with all mod cons, carpets from China and songbirds from Istanbul, the watchers waited, frowning.

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