So I finally went and done it.
I published a collection of short stories.
Something I’d had on the long finger for a decade thereabouts.
And the cover is a photo I took a few years ago now, on the Eastern Cape, where springboks bounded past just moments before the sun began to set. It’s one of my favourite photos, and it’s the background for my blog homepage (behind the cover of Unleashing the Pack ) and my youtube channel, as well as my personal facebook page.
And it’s part of the inspiration for the title story of the collection – 23 of them, all from various points in the places I’ve visited and lived in over the past thirty years, from home in Ireland, to Scotland, Madrid and other parts of Spain, to the USA. Of course, many could have been written anywhere you find humans.
Sometimes short stories are perhaps more prone to being analysed for signs of the writers own life and ideas. When writing a novel there’s always a little incident from life you can put in – usually only a few people pick up on them, and they’re like Easter eggs, in a way. With short stories the incident is most of the plot, and so some of these might seem like they’re just me putting down pieces of my life I considered worth recording. But they’re not. There might be a germ of an idea engendered by something that I saw or heard, but the rest is pure speculation on my part, putting my ideas into the being I created on the page, or more often, imagining what ideas such a person might have.
So I hope you enjoy them for what they are, a sketch of a growing body of prose sculpted by an amateur who aspired for self-teaching to reach pinnacles he hasn’t quite attained yet.
Calloused as an Old Oak Burr
Walking in the forests of a wide valley
Rimmed by cliffs above us, rolling mist
Over the slopes out across the blue vastness
The vultures glided across the blue sky from
One side to the other, while kites and kestrels
Worked the fields where the woods were
Cut when first men walked within the walls.
We stood under the canopy of branches
In the shade of old oaks, ages growing
Slowly seeking their sunlight, ever taller,
Thicker boles, holding aloft leaves and,
Even when those died, in winter, green
Epiphytes; a host of other lives, for centuries,
Saying to all in the forest: “Behold, I am here.”
Feeding feast for insects and birds that eat them;
Showering grazed ground with acorns for boar;
Robins following rootings, under those, creating
Holes where night-time animals hide yet.
One had recently fallen, after perhaps half a
Millennium spreading seeds and supporting
Epiphytic ferns: now hanging upside down
From the bough that held them high so easy
Over which we climbed on the clean bark.
And I thought of those who carried an axe
Into these woods to gather firewood,
To create charcoal from the oaks:
Brought perhaps as soon as they could walk
And pick up a twig to help their father,
And kept at it until they could walk no more:
Years of seasons spent sweating and freezing alternatively
Snacking on dark bread and forest berries,
Bring back home a snared rabbit if one was had.
How many injuries did they accumulate,
Inflicted by such occupations? A series of
Splinters, cuts, bruises and bones broken;
But shrugged off and shouldered on
Until calloused, like the knots and burrs
Of the trunks we touch: the pollarded boughs
Wounded, but budding forth once more for fifty years,
Until the axe of those weathered workers eventually fell again.
For even great oaks are eventually tumbled,
Even if only by time. And those ferns and lichens
That thought they clung to a solid structure are thrown
Over, to cling and seek the sun as best they can.
We sat upon the curved bough and ate our own victuals,
Thinking of those workers who listened to the same scene
Of songbirds and wind, and wondered of what life was
Like outside these woods, these walls of valley wide
Yet long and uneasily walked out of, and wished
For more, for escape, easiness, for freedom from their destiny,
But accepted, their lives would be lived, alongside these trees.
Then the telephone took my attention for a time:
A thread landing in my lap with a crack-like impact of
A snapping branch upon me,
And I sat upon a stump and sipped water to keep down the lump
In my throat at this long twitter list of lads and lassies
Of a too young age who’d taken their own lives, the last option:
Locked in the loss that seems so extensive in these times
Of lockdown, long as a valley apparently without exit;
The looking out at a world that looks so perfect, looking back;
The pressure like storm clouds gathered above the cliffs,
Building until smooth wood cracks and saplings snap.
If only they could have come to this forest, felt the breathing branches,
The soft sunspots, the birdsong rest upon them.
If only they could have stuck around long enough, to resist
Instead of rejecting the pain, the splintered spirit, the bruised soul.
If only they’d stayed a little longer, told another their wishes:
Shouted, screamed, even to a pillow, “I am here and I exist!
“I have a life that is well lived, and will be lived if given
The chance; a hand, a hug, a kiss.”
For even those who never had to lift a stick or chop a log, can
Build up burrs, callouses, train themselves to toughness,
Over the course of a century or half, from the finer grain
Of slow winter growth gaining perspective to appreciate this:
‘Tis only at the end we can reminisce.
Looking back, we can count up mistakes, regrets,
See the setbacks we withstood, taking bad with good,
Standing tall till Nature takes us, rather than the blade,
If only because we owe it to the saplings stretching in our shade.
Though only the beasts and bugs it gave life to
Knew of its presence, tall as it was, and only those, who
Were touched by its life will note its fall,
And all the rest of us are ignorant of what it meant to them,
For a tree, that is perhaps enough;
And if we could but be as wise, it would
Too, be sufficient for us.
For those who have fallen too soon….
It comes for all of us.
But some of us are waiting. And we’re not going to be made to leave so easily.
And sometimes we can see the beauty in it all.
Winter Takes Grip of Us
Clouds fall, darker as they drop down upon the valley.
Night draws onwards, quick as winter wind, whistling
Along eaves, whipping at chattering apple leaves,
Stripping trees, snapping stalks in the garden.
Bamboo poles that have supported peppers and
Tomatoes all summer bend over, while the plants
Are sapped of green, and shrivel even as ripening
Sole fruits dangle in the gusts. Only life remains
It seems in hard cabbages and cauliflowers
Curled over to cover hearts from coming frosts.
Still, we sit, after gleaning the garden for all that was
Tasty and tender, those last mouthfuls of summer
Not too damaged or dried up after stalks snapped,
Refusing to leave even though no leaves are left, and
The night leaves us bereft of light: lingering outside
In twilight until winter takes the whole, sole
Sitters separated from the stalks that once sustained
Us, supported strongly, holding up only memories of
The sunshine that once suffused the blossoming apple
Grove, and unbent seedlings sprouted all around us.
So for the last couple of months I’ve been living like Hemingway. Well, without the writing, so much.
Or the bulls.
No bulls this year. No fiesta in Pamplona.
But I have been in Spain, enjoying the sunshine, and drinking.
I’ve been getting up early, with intentions of getting lots of writing done.
I have a run, or a cycle, while it’s cool, then have a swim after cleaning the pool.
And I’ve spent an hour or two on the laptop, staring at the screen, as I scroll through my social media and read about the horrible things happening, the shitshow that is the former lone superpower, the rising death rates in various countries, and watching videos of the violent racism so many have to deal with and the violent reaction to any request for such racism to stop.
Then I get breakfast for my kids when they surface from their darkened bedroom around ten, and pretty much any chance to get writing done is gone until perhaps mid afternoon when I wake from a siesta and have another swim to get my brain restarted.
Of course, it’s a strange time to live. But we’re alive. And in the end, well, what more can we ask for?
People are worried, though. And I was thinking about this – about panic and procrastination in these times of pandemic.
Sometimes we think that when people panic they start doing things: racing around, becoming very busy.
But they don’t.
Instead it seems that they are paralysed and they do nothing.
However, perhaps their reality is that they see that given the futility of the situation, and their imminent demise, there’s basically no point in doing anything. Instead it’s best to just relax and do nothing.
Because doing nothing is in fact the best thing to do.
Perhaps it’s only when we’re faced with death that we realise that we should’ve been doing nothing all along.
The object of our existence is to do nothing.
Doing is not the important thing, it’s just being.
We should just be.
We should just watch, and chill out.
So while it seems that I have done very little in these days, and there are several books that are waiting to get finished and some to get started, I’ve decided to not worry about that because if I do get sick, I’ll probably just stop writing rather than race to get them finished.
I’ll do what I have been doing – looking after the kids, being with the family, enjoying the scenery and the flowers in the garden and the birds around the house.
At the end of the day, does it matter if the book is one third finished one half finished or three quarters finished if the book is unfinished? Perhaps it’s best to nearly finish at least, but I’m loath to spend my last days worrying about it.
Of course, I am not sick, and I hope I’m not in my last days – keeping the head down here!
So I have written some. And I will have some to show people soon.
And I never stop writing poetry.
So here’s some of that:
Where Would You Go To?
Racing downhill, skidding over gravel path between pine peaks.
Slide to a stop beside scarlet-poppy-strewn field of barley, golden
Eagles calling overhead, staring at gliding silhouettes, shielding eyes
Against glare of sun, hot upon shoulders. A lone figure, surrounded
By a chorus of chirps, whistles and warbles, sheet of susurration
Wind through poplar leaves under a blanket of blessed silence,
Among a bouquet of orchids and other wild flowers, wondering
Where would one go from here?
Eventually remounting, rolling onwards over eroded pudding-stone
Thinking this is the destination of a multitude, but home to me.
Many would trek to get here: the very idea posited as post-retirement
Plan, proposed to stretch the Mediterranean holiday eternally past
A year in Provence; sold to dozens of millions dreaming of this,
Present position I’ve stumbled upon for life. So,
Why would I want to do any more than simply be, here?
Everything I can add upon this blessing only gravy, icing.
What matter if my works are acclaimed or even hailed?
When their very creation brings my own elation, and this station
Provides all the time, and space to do so at my pondering pace.
It’s only left to me to accept this grace, riding though this pretty place.
Thus, Shall we Dance
We shall dance, as the waters rise to sweep us under,
Clinging to one another as the cold creeps up.
As the fires near, burning all before them, we shall dance, locked in our final embrace, and thus they shall find us, as in the ashes of Pompey.
We shall dance, when the soldiers bang upon our doors, to take us away to the place nothing leaves except than screams and dead bodies.
We shall dance, to remember the disappeared, to hold their souls in our hearts, to follow their footsteps forward.
We shall dance the rains down upon the parched soil, the grass up into the sun. We shall dance the acorn out of its shell, the herds through their great circles,
We shall dance the great dance of the Earth, to the thunder and the birdsong, the cascade and the pulse of blood.
We shall dance our dirge to the tiger, the rhino, the great and diminutive wild brothers we have lost.
We shall dance to the Great Spirit, who sees all these deeds, all this destruction in the name of what you can not eat, what does not sustain, to sustain ourselves.
We shall dance, as we have done, for that is what we do. Thus have we always. Thus has it always been.
And if we live long enough, we shall dance upon your graves, and those of your ancestors, drumming them into dust for all this.
I wrote this poem during quarantine, when my family had a writing challenge to keep us entertained – we had to write something beginning with the phrase “we will dance” but in Spanish. I of course, wrote it in English and translated it for the zoom call! But it wasn’t quite the happy story everyone else wrote to cheer us up and pass the time.
But time passes, and little changes. Some things we want to change and some we don’t. And the things that stay the same seem to be the ones we want to change and those that do are sliding away from the wonder we have before us.
But we will go on.
I started writing this last week, but incredible as it might seem from quarantine, I’ve been crazily busy in my little box!
so here’s what I wrote,
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone
It’s a strange one. Hopefully just a blip on our normality, one we’ll remember for being the odd one out rather than the first year of a few way of doing things, a new way of life.
It’s a day to think about all the Irish around the world – which in turn makes us think of all the other migrants, emigrants and immigrants of every other country and culture that venture out into new lands and mix and mingle to make a more united world.
Some of those would like to be home now. Because they don’t know if they’ll get home soon, or when, or if ever.
And there might be loved ones they’ll never see again. Some who won’t be there when this is over, and whose last goodbyes we won’t be able to attend, either in the hospital or over a grave.
That’s a hard thing to say, though everyone is thinking of it – and if not, well, they’re really not aware of what we’re facing here.
And that reality of death should drive home to us – and definitely drive us home, where we all need to be right now, staying a good distance from those outside our immediate family/friends circle with home we’re sharing air and surfaces – the important things in life.
These are those same friends and family, both whom we can touch and not right now.
The simple things we never think of, like simply going for a walk.
Fresh air, exercise.
The sight of a tree, of a sparrow, a butterfly.
A smile from a stranger, a neighbour we’ve never talked to, the cashier at the supermarket.
And the unimportant things. Like hedge funds. We need hedgerows, not hedge funds, someone said.
We could simply stop trading for a few weeks, and we’d all be better off.
If they’ve closed the bars, and the shops, why not the stock exchange? How vital is it, really? What’s needed now is work, willingness, good faith and a calm comportment. Not overabundant in Wall Street.
Meanwhile we’re all inside, life is busily going on outside without us, glad for our absence. Songbirds can be heard now the traffic has gone down, the air is cleaner – for those blessed with a dog and an excuse to get out, but also for the rest of us with windows open to the spring – and I can only hope that the park maintenance has been reduced to unnecessary and the personnel redeployed to cleaning tasks (the street cleaning machine still trundles down past our house first thing in the morning though I doubt there’s much rubbish to pick up) so the grass and wildflowers can grow a little more unruly and insects can have a boon from our misfortune.
I only know that the first place my children and I will visit when we’re allowed out of our flat will be the park, to run in the grass and fall down in it and pick daisies and blow dandelion heads.
Till then, we’ll survive on our houseplants and fish tank and the tree outside the window and the birds that visit it.
And the knowledge that every day we stay inside the air quality improves, planes stay on the ground, and people realise they can survive perfectly well without buying plastic trinkets and clothes to fill their closets and that the water in the tap is good enough without having to fight over bottled water.
Stay safe, stay home, stay well.
Closing up Camp
Fish flash lethargically argent in the creek,
Creeping upstream, gleaning the last
Of the caddis flies until torpor takes them.
Sun beams golden in glowing leaves but slants
Lower now, more weakly heating us, huddled
On the morning porch hugging our mugs.
We don’t swim before breakfast, only
Paddle after our afternoon nap, picking black
And other berries to boil jam and packing
Pumpkins for the car; chopping lumber
For the evening fire still keeps off falling
Chill, but within weeks we will give in to
Winter’s grip and slip away to the city.
Closing shutters against storms and snow,
Emptying water tanks and pipes from icing,
Clearing closets of anything attracting rodents
Or racoons and slowly strolling round the
Leaf-strewn lawn, taking one last long look
Out across the fall-reflective lake, then forsaking.
Still, thinking of spring keeps back sadness,
Slipping through seasons until suddenly
It’s our last, and we must shut up for good,
Or have it opened sadly in our absence,
Our passage through camp just a forest path.
I write this back in September, thinking of the camp of my friend Tamir, who would have turned 60 a few days ago. I don’t have many photos of his summer place in autumn, but I am sure right now it’s deep in snow and the lake is starting to freeze over till springtime. Thus is life, as long as we still have springtime. And memories that shine like sunlight to keep us warm meanwhile.
Ever wonder what it would be like to have your soul ripped from your body? Adam Short knows.
Does anyone else know, though?
We might have an idea.
I still clearly remember when I got the idea for The Soul of Adam Short. It was almost exactly fifteen years ago – I typed up the first note on October second, year Two-Thousand. I was standing at a junction much like the Mosley Road of the book, having paused my bike. I stopped because I was sure a car was coming down the street, but when I looked more carefully there was nothing. It was a very strange feeling.
I cycled on, wondering what had happened, and wondering what would happen if a ghost car “knocked you down.” Could the spirit of the vehicle and its driver interact with your own sprit, your soul?
Once that situation of a character losing his or her soul occurred to me, the rest of the story took rough shape and I knew it was a tale for Young Adults, even though until then I’d written “adult.” books. The characters had to be teens. Lots of adults cycle – I still do, every day – but the symptoms of such an event would be more likely accepted as just a brain malfunction in a middle-aged person. (Yes, I consider myself middle-aged – doesn’t mean I am old, just I’m halfway through what I expect to attain, barring accidents… everyone older than me is OLD.)
And only teens would have the tenacity to go against the grain of what’s considered okay, the accepted wisdom, the proper thing to do. Some of us adults still have a little of that left, but not enough. Most of us are afraid of what “others might think” A look at the world today can show that fairly clearly. Unfortunately many teens think they’re not capable of acting on their own. They’ve been told they were toddlers that they’re too small to do things, it’s too dangerous to climb the tree, to walk home alone from school half the time.
One lesson Adam Short learns, is that life is as short as his name, that it can fly by in a heartbeat if you’re not paying attention, and the future is not something to be feared, but embraced; because it doesn’t matter, in the end, what your parents or neighbours think of your life choices. Everyone ends up before they’re quite ready, either sitting by the side of Mosley Road, or attending their own funeral, and it can happen in a heartbeat if you’re not ready. But being aware of it, it loses its scariness – and you can appreciate the little things that make a life worth living( some of which Adam loses and some he discovers), and step up to do the things that make a life great.
If we don’t at least try, well, we may as well have no soul.