The Magical Mythical Tour…

When it comes to telling stories, there’s an abundance of formats on offer, from crime and romance to horror and mystery, and everything else in between.

History is just another form of storytelling, and myths a more elaborate and creative form of history… stories of events that have been twisted and coloured over time as they pass from one mouth to the next.

Myths are important because they help shape how we view the world, through our belief in them or our dismissal of their message.

I got involved in a project a few months back, which had a little to do with myths, and which is finally coming to fruition. A group of very talented authors (and I do mean that) got together to write an anthology of short stories on the subject of trolls.

Why trolls were chosen, I don’t know, but it was a good choice, because each writer got to create their own myth, and all those myths have now been combined to form the book, For Whom The Bell Trolls (which will be published on April 1). In fact, the editors were kind enough to include my own very first short story in the anthology.

The nice thing about the  book is that the net profits from it will be donated to the charity Equality Now, an international human rights organisation dedicated to the social, civil, political and economic rights of women and girls.

trollI loved the idea of creating my own myth. The stories in this collection are scary, funny and literary tales, complete with brilliant cartoons (Lindy Moone, editor, artist, author and general-all-round genius take a bow!).

As strange as trolls may be, you’d be surprised what other odd beasties lurk in imaginations and folklore throughout the world. Below is a bare scratching of the surface of the ghouls and creatures that fill that other world from which we’re separated by a gossamer-thin layer of time, belief… call it what you will.

TROLLS: You probably know the term troll from those nasty buggers who leave horrible messages online about people. Or perhaps you know the word from those ugly/cute dolls with the mad multi-coloured hair. Well, the real trolls are far more interesting than that. Some people say they are mythological creatures, but I have my doubts – as I do about all the other weird and wonderful specimens in the list below. The troll first appeared in Norse Mythology.

They’re not the most handsome of creatures – okay, they’re not handsome at all, and, eh, nor are they smart. Basically, they’re big, stupid and ugly. I’m feeling sorry for them already.
troll doll   The myths tell of how they live high in the mountains, in castles carved of stone. They can also be found (if you look hard enough) in deep forests, and some even by the seashore.

Trolls come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the myths you read. Smaller trolls are said to live in burial mounds and in mountains in Scandinavian folk tradition. In Denmark, they’re are called troldfolk.

With the advent of Christianity in that part of Europe in the 1300s, the stories changed. Trolls could suddenly smell the blood of a Christian man, and basically they stood for anything of the old ways, which the new religion condemned.

Trolls are also said to turn to stone once they came into contact with sunlight. So  make sure to study large boulders carefully. At least now you know what to look for when you go looking for them.

A representation of a Clurichaun in T. C. Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland

A representation of a Cluricaun in T. C. Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland

THE CLURICAUN: In my troll of the internet for this article (sorry about that) I came across a strange Irish creature, of which I’d never heard. The cluricaun is said to be an elf-like being, which looks like a tiny old man, who is permanently drunk and who loves to play jokes on people (I like the sound of this guy).

W.B. Yeats wrote about them in his book, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry: “They are withered, old, and solitary, in every way unlike the sociable spirits…They dress with all unfairy homeliness, and are, indeed, most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms… Some suppose he is merely the Leprechaun on a spree.” I’m sure I saw of few of these during the recent Paddy’s Day celebrations…

KAPPA: Japanese folklore has its own share of mythical creatures. The Kappa is one of them, and not a nice one at that. It’s said to live in rivers and lakes and to have the body of a tortoise, a beak, and the limbs of a frog/ Its head is concave and water rests there as it waits quietly for its prey. Oh, the prey – did I not tell you? Well, the Kappa (which means ‘river child’) likes nothing better than to eat disobedient children.

The Kappa is also believed to venture onto land, but that concave head must retain water or it loses its powers. You might think all this fanciful nonsense, but apparently, there are signs near some lakes in Japan warning people of their presence.

Alternatively, there is the theory that the Kappa is actually a giant salamander (‘hanzaki’), which is aggressive and can haul prey away in its strong jaws. Either way, be careful around those Japanese lakes…

Statue of a griffin at St Mark's Basilica in Venice.

Statue of a griffin at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

GRIFFIN: If you ever come across one of these, don’t despair. Despite their strange appearance – the head and wings of an eagle, and the body, tail, and hind legs of a lion. In Greek mythology, it is considered a protestor from evil and witchcraft.

Griffin’s are said to have mated for life. If one died, the other never sought out another mate – hence the reason griffins are used in church architecture (the Church being opposed to remarriage).

BLACK DOG: If you see one of these, then things are grim indeed. The black dog is said to be found in the British Isles and is believed to be a guardian of the underworld, and a portent of death. It is described in various forms but is said to be large, with glowing eyes.
Black dogs like to loiter about crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.

THE OWLMAN: Not all such tales stem from the ancient world. On April 17, 1976,  two girls, June Melling (12) and her sister Vicky (9), were walking through the woods near Mawnan church, in Lancaster, England, when they claimed to have seen a large winged creature hovering above the church tower.

Fast-forward two months, to July 3, when Sally Chapman (14) was camping with a friend in woods near the church. According to Sally, as she stood outside her tent, she heard a hissing sound and saw a figure that looked like an owl as big as a man, with pointy ears and red eyes. The girls said the creature flew up into the air and had  black pincer-like claws.

In 1989, there was another sighting. This time the creature was described as being about five feet tall… The legs had high ankles and the feet were large and black with two huge ‘toes’ on the visible side. It was brown and gray, wit glowing eyes.

Mawman church towerThere were also a sighting as relatively recently as 1995, when an American tourist wrote to the Western Morning News in Truro, Cornwall, claiming she saw a “man-bird… with a ghastly face, a wide mouth, glowing eyes and pointed ears” as well as “clawed wings”.

Spooky… Some ornithologists believe the creature was, in fact, an eagle owl. Their claw configuration matches the descriptions given, and it can grow to two feet long with a wide wingspan. Still there’s a bit of difference between two feet and five feet…

Whatever the truth of it, the interesting thing is that, even in this so-called sophisticated modern world of ours, such primal beings can still spark fear. It’s nice to know that myths are being made all the time, and that we don’t have to look to the distant past to read about them.

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Green with envy… to be sure, to be sure!

In the next few days a large chunk of the world will go green – not out of a love for the environment, but because that’s what you do on March 17.

Forget about any sense of style, every shade of green you can envisage will be flown, painted, worn and waved on St Patrick’s Day. All those inner Irishmen and women will surface for 24 hours of corned beef and cabbage, stout, whiskey and a few old songs about the Emerald Isle.

Paddy’s Day is an occasion for celebration, a day to maybe overindulge with drinking and singing… sure isn’t that what those Irish are famous for?

That’s true. Us Irish have a bit of a reputation when it comes to having a hooley or losing our tempers. The hot-blooded, big-drinking Irish… the Land of Saints and Scholars from which some of the world’s greatest writing has emerged.

But it’s not just O’Casey, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Kavanagh, Heaney and all the rest of those scribblers that have brought this little country to global prominence. Let me introduce a few other Irish who have changed the world in less notable but vitally important ways…

>> Paddy’s Day wouldn’t be Paddy’s Day, nor the Irish, er Irish, without ‘a drop of the crater’ or a few pints of stout to line the gullet. We have Arthur Guinness to thank for developing the country’s most successful and recognisable global export.

The brewing phenomenon that is Guinness had its origins in Leixlip, Co Kildare, before Arthur moved the operation to St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. In 1759, Arthur signed a 9,000-year lease for the site at £45 per year. You can’t beat a bit of forward planning…

Not so well known as Arthur, but just as important in his own way is one Aeneas Coffey, who came up with the world’s first heat-exchange device in 1830. Now, that may not sound particularly Earth shattering, but his brainwave proved to be a major development in the distillery business, including whiskey. Slainte Aeneas (hic!).

Lord Kelvin

Lord Kelvin

>> So, you’re in Ireland on Paddy’s Day and you want to phone the relatives in the States or wherever to wish them well. You probably wouldn’t be doing anything of the sort were it not for the wonderfully bewhiskered Lord Kelvin Thomson, who set up the Atlantic Telegraph Cable in 1865. His work helped to lay the cable which stretched from Newfoundland to Valentia in County Kerry, leading to the practice of trans-Atlantic calls.

The bold Kelvin didn’t stop there. He also had a huge interest in measuring temperature and in thermodynamics (as you do…), and gave his name to the ‘Kelvin Scale’, which is a measuring system used in physics.

>> Alright, you’re at the parade on O’Connell Street and you want to take some photos of the grand occasion (personally, I’d go to New York, it looks much better…). Well, you have John Joly to thank for that out-of-focus, head-cropped-off image you just snapped.  In 1894, Joly found a way to produce colour photographs from a  a single plate. In the process he changed the way we view the world.

Joly, from Hollywood, (not that obscure place in America, the one in Co Offaly) was a prolific inventor. He’s also responsible for meldometer (wonderful name!) for measuring the melting points of minerals, the steam calorimeter for measuring specific heats, and the photometer for measuring light intensity, as well as coming up with the small idea of using radiation for cancer treatment. Take a bow, Mr Joly.

Vincent Barry

Vincent Barry

>> As someone whose Gaelic name is O Leathlobhair (which literally means ‘half a leper’) I have a soft spot for one Vincent Barry (1908-1975), who managed to find a cure for leprosy by accident.

From a bacteriological point of view, he realised that tuberculosis and leprosy were quite similar. Leading a team of nine scientists, Barry synthesised a compound called B663 (Clofazimine).

The compound became part of the multi-drug antibiotic therapy used around the world in the treatment of leprosy, one of the world’s most debilitating diseases. Barry’s work would lead to 15 million people being cured of the disease.

>>
Today’s farmers should take a moment out of their busy schedules and spare a thought for Harry Ferguson (1884-1960). If it wasn’t for Harry they’d find their work a whole lot tougher.

Harry’s love of  engineering first came to the fore in 1908 when he  became the first Irishman to fly and the first citizen of the United Kingdom to build and fly his own aeroplane.

This creative genius from Co Down  also invented his own motor cycle and the first ever four-wheeled Formula-One racing car… not bad going  for someone who was originally a bicycle repairman.

However, his work on the Ferguson System became the basic design of the modern tractor that is used today. His name lives on in the Massey-Ferguson company.

John Philip Holland

John Philip Holland

>> On May 17, 1897, something remarkable happened in the field of maritime history – the first submarine with power to run submerged for any considerable distance was launched. It was also the first underwater vessel to combine electric motors for submerged travel and gasoline engines for use on the surface.

A former Christian Brother from Liscannor, in Co Clare, John Philip Holland was responsible for that. In doing so, he became the first person to successfully launch a submarine.

His vessel was formally commissioned by both the US Navy and the Royal Navy in 1900. Holland died in 1914 at the age of 74.  His work paved the way for a new phase in underwater warfare and oceanography.

>> Two other Irishmen also made their mark when it came to warfare. Walter Gordon Wilson, from Blackrock, in Dublin,  developed a real battlefield game-changer.

In 1911, Britain’s  then-Home Secretary Winston Churchill commissioned the design of a vehicle “capable of resisting bullets and shrapnel, crossing trenches, flattening barbed wire, and negotiating the mud of no-man’s land”

In 1915, Wilson, a naval officer, was put in charge of the task. He worked with agricultural engineer William Tritton.Their efforts resulted in the first British tank, called ‘Little Willie’. There followed more experiments and a new tank – ‘Big Willie’, ahem, and thereafter ‘Mother’, which became the prototype for the Mark I tank. What Freud would have to say about the choice of code names is anybody’s guess…

Wilson also found time to invent the self-changing gearbox which was used in a whole range of cars, buses, rail cars and boats.

Another Irishman with a talent for developing military equipment was Louis Brennan, from Castlebar, Co Mayo. Brennan just happened to invent the guided missile as far back as 1874. His steerable torpedo was patented in 1877 and sold to the British Navy for £100,000 used as a coastal defensive mechanism.

Brennan also did much work developing the helicopter, as well as a gyroscopic-based monorail system, which worked in tests but which the British government decided not to adopt due to concerns over the reliability of the gyroscopes. Brennan died in 1932 when he was hit by a car in Montreux, Switzerland. He was 79.

>> And let’s hear it for Dublin-born Francis Rynd, whose contribution to the medical world is really quite huge. It was Rynd who invented the first hypodermic syringe.

Rynd believed that if he could inject a sedative into the bloodstream of the patient, their pain would be relieved much quicker than if they had taken drugs orally.

With this in mind, he invented a hollow needle which he used to put the drugs into the patient’s bloodstream. In 1844, he first used a drip needle to inject drugs directly into the vein. Medicine was changed utterly that year…

>> Finally, let’s not forget Co Down man James Martin, who together with  Capt Valentine Baker invented the world’s first ejector seat. The first live test of the seat was held in 1946 when human guinea pig Bernard Lynch, was launched into the air landing without injury.

From then on, everyone had to have one – even James Bond used an ejector seat in his Aston Martin. Today, every fighter jet is equipped with one to safely propel the pilot out of the plane at great velocity in the event of an imminent crash.

So, ’tis a great day to be Irish. We’re a great little country… just don’t mention the economic collapse and the mountain of debt now sitting on the shoulders of every Irish citizen for decades to come, thanks to our greedy bankers and stupid politicians.

Where’s that ejector seat when you need it!Green shamrock. Vector eps-10.

Happy St Patrick’s Day.

 

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Escapes Even Houdini Would Be Proud Of…

A passenger plane clipping a taxi before crashing into the Keelung River in Taiwan

A passenger plane clipping a taxi before crashing into the Keelung River in Taiwan

I recently wrote a post about some great escapes from prison, however yesterday’s air crash in Taiwan has prompted me to revisit the topic but from a slightly different angle. If you haven’t seen the Taiwan footage, you can find it online, suffice to say that it is both tragic and spectacular all at once.

The photo above shows the passenger plane seconds from impact. That yellowish vehicle with the dust around it is a taxi, which was clipped by the plane’s wing as it headed over a motorway overpass before crashing into the Keelung River.

At the time of writing 31 bodies have been recovered, 12 are still missing and 15 passengers somehow survived. That anyone could live through such an accident is remarkable but even more so is that the driver of that yellow cab survived too.

Mr Zhou, for that is the cabbie’s name, emerged from the car with some serious head injuries but was still able to tell rescuers about his ordeal… not bad going for someone who had just been hit by a passenger plane.

Such hair-raising escapes leave us shaking our heads in bewilderment, but Mr Zhou is not the only one out there in possession of nine lives.

Klara Markus

Klara Markus

Klara Markus is one lady who certainly falls into that category. Last New Year’s Eve she celebrated her 101st birthday. For anyone to achieve that heady milestone is quite impressive but to do so after what Mrs Markus has been through is nothing short of miraculous.

Dachau… Ravensbruck… Auschwitz… the names alone make our blood run cold. Klara Markus, a Jew from northern Romania, was in all three Nazi concentration camps.

There are other Holocaust survivors, of course, but what makes Klara stand out amongst them is that she survived the gas chamber itself.

The nightmare began for her in August 1942 when she was deported to a Jewish ghetto in Budapest, Hungary where she started work in an umbrella factory.

Klara remained there until she was forced on a month-long march to Dachau on October 20, 1944. A week later she was sent to the women’s’ camp in Ravensbruck, before being transported to Auschwitz.

Shortly before the evacuation and subsequent liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, Mrs Markus, then 30 years old and weighing around 70lbs (32kg), was sent to the gas chambers.

She said: ‘I was chosen towards the end of the day with a large group of other women and we were made ready for the gas chamber.’

Once inside the gas was turned on, but nothing happened… incredibly, the Nazis had run out of gas.

‘One of the guards joked that it was our lucky day because they had already killed so many they didn’t have any gas left for us. God was watching over me that day.’

Clem ClementI’m sure paratrooper Lt. Percy ‘Clem’ Clements (left) would empathise with that story. As far as escapes go, ‘Clem’ would seem to have cornered the market. Not only did he survive a firing squad, but he also escaped a PoW camp and was shot four times in battle, but still managed to make it home.

‘Clem’ was a founding member of the airborne SAS and was involved in the first British paratroop drop over Italy in 1941. Unfortunately for ‘Clem’ he and 34 others were captured after their mission to destroy an aquaduct.

Stripped and lined up against a wall in front of 20 shotgun-toting locals, ‘Clem’ prepared to meet his fate. However, just as the order to fire was to be given, an Italian officer appeared and ordered a stop to the execution as it would have been in breach of the Geneva Convention.

Lt Clements then spent over two years in a PoW camp, before managing to escape in 1943, and walked more than 100 miles to reach the advancing Allied forces in Italy.

He rejoined his unit and was soon in the thick of things in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

The Germans launched a surprise attack and ‘Clem’ had to lead his men in a retreat. As he did so he was shot four times – in the stomach, arm and leg. Even his two stretcher bearers were killed as they carried him away. Nevertheless he continued to issue orders until he passed out from blood loss.

Lt Clements was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Military Cross and Military Medal for his bravery.

Escaping with your life is one thing, but there are other sorts of escapology. After World War Two, the threat of fascism was replaced by that of communism. Berlin once again became a battleground, but a political one in which the city was divided between the allies and Russia.

GREAT ESCAPE: The  Strelzyk and Wetzel families. Peter Strelzyk is pictured right

GREAT ESCAPE: The Strelzyk and Wetzel families. Peter Strelzyk is pictured right

There are many, many stories of those who risked their lives for a free life in the West, none better captures those times than one escape across the Berlin Wall by two families, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels, who built their own hot-air balloon (as you do), powered by an improvised flame thrower and floated over the Berlin Wall to freedom in 1979. As escapes go, that one ranks pretty high on the list of most spectacular.

Finally, I’ll end with a conundrum: When is an escape not an escape? Irish republican rebel leader Ernie O’Malley can answer that for you.

Ernie O'Malley

Ernie O’Malley

In his book, The Singing Flame, O’Malley recounted one extraordinary incident when he was a PoW in Mountjoy Prison, during the Irish Civil War. He tells of how PoW Paddy Coughlan, the wing’s OC, wrote a letter to the Governor to complain about the treatment of prisoners. The Governor returned Paddy’s letter with some sarcastic comments added in red ink.

Paddy was a bit put out by this and wrote another letter to the Governor in which he complained about the Governor’s bad manners.

That appeared to inflame the prison chief who sent police to Paddy’s cell to have him arrested. But Paddy wasn’t there, in fact Paddy couldn’t be found anywhere.

The Governor was certain that Paddy was still in the jail. Searches were instigated, but Paddy avoided them all. He slept on different landings, changed his appearance and clothing, grew a moustache and went ‘on the run’… inside prison.

Paddy didn’t let the small matter of being a wanted man behind bars deter him from his duties. He dealt with the routine work of C wing, held his Spanish class regularly, then disappeared at night to sleep in the next wing, with which he had a means of communication.

Eventually, though, Paddy was discovered and imprisoned in the basement of another wing of Mountjoy.

But not for long…

The men in the cell above broke through the floor and hauled him up using roped blankets. Paddy was, as O’Malley puts it ‘again at liberty in jail’.

I know I’m biased, but I think only an Irishman could manage to escape and remain in prison all at the same time. As they say in these parts: ‘you couldn’t make it up’.

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My Life of Crime

HIGH CRIMES HIRES(1)This is a big day for me – my new novel, High Crimes, is now available on Amazon. It is the first time I’ve stepped out of historical fiction and into the modern world. High Crimes is a tale of stalkers and abusers and how their victims finally decide to fight back.

You can read the blurb below and the opening two chapters to give you a flavour of what lies ahead.

Writing a novel is a solitary process, but one which is never really possible without proper feedback from readers. Prior to publishing High Crimes, I got that feedback from a group of talented and very supportive authors.

Lindy Moone is a brilliant writer and an excellent illustrator. Her novel Hyperlink From Hell (http://goo.gl/ieqsvu) is a sharp and witty tale that well worth a read. She is also a fine editor (she edited an upcoming collection of short stories – For Whom The Bell Trolls – to which I contributed) and used her skills with shaping the blurb to this book.

Carol Bodensteiner’s evocative writing is clear to see in her memoir Growing Up Country and in her historical fiction novel Go Away Home (http://goo.gl/rA9YUL). I’ve enjoyed both books and you won’t be disappointed should you choose to read them.

Bob Summer is a first class writer whose critical eye and pointed comments were really useful in preparing this novel for publication. Bob’s own writing is quite powerful. Check out Alone But Not Lost and A Genie Called Vodka (http://goo.gl/EMPe9u), Bob’s fine collection of short stories.

Jana Grissom had some great suggestions and a real eagle eye when it came to spotting typos. Her debut novel One Prince Two Kingdoms is due out in the coming months, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

David Rheem Jarrett’s crime thriller Last Straw (http://goo.gl/QGu00C) is an exciting read. If you like police procedural tales with strong characters and a whiff of romance then you won’t go far wrong with this.  David’s suggestions for improving High Crimes were very helpful in the run-up to publication.

Margaret Virany is a writer in touch with her past. Her books Kathleen’s Cariole Ride and A Book of Kells (http://goo.gl/qJi5ex) capture a bygone time – and a love story that’s close to her heart. Margaret was also hugely supportive and offered some sound advice.

All these writers helped me when I needed them and for that I’m truly grateful. Here’s the blurb for the book, plus a taste of what’s inside…

 

In Dublin, Ireland, deadly consequences and a rush for vengeance — for one stalker, five victims, and an ex-priest whose sins are catching up with him fast.

Fifteen storeys in the air, crane operator Tommy Reynolds is up to more than shifting concrete and steel on a building site. He has his eagle eye on the apartments opposite. Tommy doesn’t just watch his victims; he films and he follows, and he listens, too. Soon he’s worming his way into their lives… but his victims, busy with their own troubles, don’t realise what he’s doing. 

Maggie Preston’s trouble comes with the reappearance of Cathal Mac Liam, the serial sex abuser who destroyed her childhood and blighted her life. The ex-priest’s actions soon cause heartache for Tommy’s other victims, too… but they’re not going to take it anymore.

Read High Crimes, the tale of two ruthless predators whose victims fight back — and you’ll always wonder: Who’s watching who, and what would you do?

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Dublin, 2008

SPACE, that’s what it’s all about; the gulls know it; look at them hanging on the wind, jinking like puppets and then swooping at one another, vying for flying rights. The people in the shoebox apartments know it, too – they’ve paid top dollar for that little bit of space they call home… idiots. I’m sitting here staring out at more space than any yuppie will ever own. It takes them a lifetime to get where they want on the property ladder; the steel rungs of my Wilbert 420 take me just ten minutes to reach the top. Every day that I climb to my 10x6ft Perspex bubble is like that first time, when I saw the bright morning sun break through a blanket of cloud and fall in shafts of light on the city below. It was biblical – the only thing missing was the booming voice of God, like in that Charlton Heston movie, The Ten Commandments. I wanted to float off in my little bubble but the tower shaft held me firm, an umbilical cord staking me to terra firma.

There’s a sense of splendid isolation once you’re up here; only the low hum of traffic interferes with the serenity; that and a squawk from the walkie-talkie. There are no silly work colleagues, no nagging wife, or noisy kids… it’s just me – and that’s the way I like it. Here, hanging over the city, I am the great overseer, the all-seeing eye. What was that Jimmy Cagney film, was it White Heat, I can’t remember. “I’m top a-the world, Ma!” That’s what he said; well that’s how I feel in my eyrie. Sometimes in life you can’t see the wood for the trees, well up here I see the entire forest, it’s just that these arseholes around me are pressed so close to the tree trunk, they see nothing and know less.

Someone sometime said that Nature is the great leveler. I know what they mean. When you see the slow build-up of cloud on the horizon, watching it go slate grey in tiny increments and then move relentlessly across the sky, its unyielding bulk like an aircraft carrier, brutal and blank, ready to rain down its cargo on the ants below as they scurry for shelter from the looming onslaught; when you see all that happen then you know what power is. Power is having people buffeted by winds so strong the umbrellas are wrenched from their hands. Just around the corner from them, others stroll along, dry and oblivious, until the first drops fall and the first gust comes to them, too.

You can learn a lot about life up here, alone with your thoughts. You finally appreciate the pettiness of people. I sometimes feel like an alien on a secret mission, observing them all – hanging unseen over their heads, noting their foibles, their eccentricities, their vanity; their small acts of kindness and their broad strokes of selfishness. The apartments, the roof gardens, the tennis courts, small parks and gyms; offices closing and cleaners cleaning and flirtation by the coffee machine and tears and laughter and… everything – it’s all to see. I feel privileged to know how it really is, who these people really are. I am a hidden part of their lives, a secret eye into their little worlds and their place in this larger one around them.

God, I fucking love my job.

*

He listened to the shush of the surf rolling onto the shoreline and then sucking itself back into the darkening sea, the pebbles on the sand crackling like a million pieces of bursting bubble wrap as the water receded. Back and forth, Nature’s metronome: so soothing, so hypnotic. He watched his feet move through the foam, numb to the cold water that seeped into his shoes and soaked his trousers. All he heard was the calming sound of the sea, talking to him in its conspiratorial whisper, repeating the unspoken secret of his past.

“Colonel..?”

He looked up at the priest in front of him.

“The family… they’re ready for you.”

He didn’t realise they were at that point already. He stood, adjusted his uniform jacket and walked over to them. An elegant lady in her seventies, her eyes raw with grief, stared impassively at the altar. Beside her, a man in his forties, wearing a rumpled suit – the son, presumably – sat slumped in his pew, overweight and overwrought. On the other side of the old lady was a beautiful brunette; the stylish tilt of her black beret framed her face perfectly. The dark green velvet scarf suited her sallow skin and echoed a similar trim on her black overcoat. Very coordinated; a little too much, maybe. He took it all in at a glance. Niece, he guessed.

The old lady was taking it hardest. He leaned in and said his piece: ‘I’m here on behalf of President Breen, who cannot attend, but who sends his condolences. Your husband did sterling service for this country when he was on the bench, Mrs. Power.’

She looked him up and down, not really listening; still clinging to her reverie. But as the words filtered through, the serenity of her grief crumbled and was replaced by a look of abject disgust.

‘Fuck you and your President, the lying scut.’ She spat the words at him in a hoarse whisper. The son roused himself and tried to calm her, but she was on a roll. ‘He never liked Albert, and the feeling was mutual. You can tell him that. Back-stabbing him at every turn when they were in King’s Inns together, he was.’

‘Lily, don’t…’ It was the brunette, leaning in to comfort the old woman. ‘You’ll only upset yourself.’

‘I don’t want that man’s guff, Ann, or his messenger boy’s. Run along you… you… toy soldier, with your ribbons and your medals. Go out and get a real job and leave us to grieve in peace.’

He let it wash over him and watched as she broke down in tears; watched her being comforted by her family. The words jolted him, though, like a heavy slap in the face. ‘Toy soldier’… he’d heard that before. Their echo wormed their way into him unexpectedly; a dagger revisiting an old wound.

‘I… I’m sorry… Really. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

There was something in his voice that made the old woman look up and lock her tear-filled eyes on him. She might have been looking in the mirror: despair was staring right back at her. The brunette saw it, too.

He finally found his voice. ‘Forgive me… for intruding.’

He backed away, walking quickly down the aisle, suddenly desperate to get out into the fresh air.

*

She found him outside, leaning on a handrail. It had been put there to help tired, frail bodies haul themselves inside to sit by the altar. Their smooth, bony hands would clutch at rosary beads, waiting; feeling the day draw near when they, too, would take their final journey, watched over by other ancient defenders of the faith at the daily morning Mass.

‘I’m sorry about that. He was everything to her. We don’t know how she’s going to cope in that big house by herself… Are you alright?’

He turned at the sound of her voice. The tormented look she’d seen in the church was gone. The professional soldier was back, immaculate… and handsome, she decided.

‘I’m Ann,’ she said, reaching out her hand. He took it carefully, as though afraid he might somehow hurt her.

‘I’m Colonel O’Leary. Jack O’Leary. I really didn’t mean to cause offence.’

‘You didn’t; not with me anyway.’ She studied him for a moment. ‘Do you mind? I’m gasping for a smoke. Want one?’

‘No, I quit when the ban came in.’

‘Just like that? No patches, no gum?’

‘Yeah, just like that,’ he smiled.

‘Jeez, wish I had that willpower.’

She took a deep drag of her Marlboro. He shuffled a bit, watching the tightness of her shoulders ease with each puff.

‘It’s a hard time for your family.’

‘Yes, more so for Lily and Bernard, though. I hadn’t seen Albert for several years. I’ve been abroad. Foreign Affairs…’

He looked puzzled.

‘…That’s where I work. Just back from a posting in New York this past fortnight; still trying to find my feet and then this happens.’

‘I’m sorry. It’s a lot to take in for you.’

‘Yeah, it is. But stop apologising for everything.’

She tilted her head and examined him with unembarrassed red-rimmed eyes. He looked about forty, with dark hair and a rugged face that was probably more at home out in the wilds than at ceremonial occasions.

‘You seem a little young to be a Colonel. How’s that?’

‘Right now I don’t feel too young,’ he said, shaking his head ruefully. ‘I got there a bit quicker than some. Caught the right eyes, I suppose.’

The silence hung between them until the sound of the church organ suddenly struck up and filtered out the door. She stubbed out her cigarette.

‘I best get back. We’re having a little send-off at the house if you want to come. It’s not far.’

The tilt of the head… The beret… She looked a little like Audrey Hepburn, though not so waiflike.

‘No thanks. I think I’ve upset your grandmother enough. If you don’t mind, I’ll go now before she sees me again.’

They held each other’s gaze a moment longer as the first drops of rain began to fall. He put on his cap and gloves and then hesitated, just as she did, not knowing how to conclude the encounter.

‘Thanks for coming. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again. I’m to be Liaison Officer between Foreign Affairs and the President’s office.’

’Really? Well then, we will. Goodbye… Ann.’

‘Goodbye Colonel.’

He stepped around her and trotted down the steps to an olive green Ford Mondeo parked across from the hearse. He paused before getting into the driver’s seat and looked back, but she was gone, back to wipe away an old lady’s bitter tears.

He headed through the city centre, up past Stoneybatter and onto the North Circular for a clear run to the Aras. The rain was heavier now, beating a staccato on the bonnet as he drove. It was the second downpour of the morning and the gutters were mini rivers carrying debris into leaf-clogged drains. The sound of the rain blended with the swish of the tyres on the wet tarmac and the metronomic beat of the wipers and suddenly his grip went white tight on the steering wheel and his breath came in ragged gasps. The sounds filled the car, louder and louder until he had to pull over just as he passed through the white gates of the Phoenix Park. Jack leaned over the steering wheel as the sobs came and the tears started to flow once again.

*

‘Did you put the bins out?’

‘I did, love; last night.’

‘That’s good. It’s lovely here, isn’t it. I’m so glad we moved, Paddy. It’s a whole new world; should have done it years ago.’

‘I didn’t have my pension years ago, Phyllis.’

‘True…. true…’

They were sitting out on the balcony. Across the Liffey, to the left, was the heart of the Celtic tiger’s territory – the Financial Services Centre. It looked the part, Paddy Hickey decided: modern, but restrained, with a sense of purpose. Close by were the statues of the emaciated famine victims. The juxtaposition was good. It reminded him of that story he’d heard about the returning Roman generals when they made their victorious processions by chariot through the capital. Behind the soldier would stand a slave who whispered in the general’s ear: ‘All glory is fleeting’, over and over again he’d whisper it as the great man waved to the cheering crowd. The stick-like famine figures complete with scrawny dog and starving children, staggered along Custom House Quay towards the Jeanie Johnston, which bobbed gently on the water, patiently awaiting their arrival. Paddy stood and leaned over the rail for a better look.

‘What’ll we do, today, Phyllis?’

She watched him over the brim of her coffee cup.

‘Let’s visit the ship.’

He nodded and smiled. ‘Yes, lets,’ he said, gathering up the breakfast things and bringing them back inside, whistling as he went.

She called out to him. ‘Paddy…?’

‘Yes, love.’

‘Did you put the bins out, I think they’re full?’

The whistling stopped as he returned to her.

‘Last night, love. I did it last night.’

‘Oh.’ Phyllis sipped some more of her coffee and watched the first glimpse of sunshine try to break through the grey morning sky. He looked at her for a long moment. She was petite, tanned, quite glamorous looking, and – yes, at sixty-two, still beautiful.

She finally looked towards him and smiled.

‘Okay, Mr. Organised – what’ll we do today, then?’

He smiled back as his jaw tightened and, for the briefest of moments, his eyes welled up.

*

Ann strummed her fingers on the shiny aluminium table top as she sucked a strawberry and banana smoothie and allowed her gaze to wander along the opposite bank, past the Custom House, the Jeanie Johnston, the forest of cranes busy building the convention centre and whatever else was going up over there, and on down to The O2. She shook her head in bemusement at the thought of what was still to come. She’d read about the plans for the docklands – a mini Manhattan in the making. Six years out of the country and look what they’d done to the place. Even the people looked different, she thought, as she stared across at the young, good-looking surfer dude selling the smoothies. He’d spoken of organic food and air miles the way others his age talked about soccer results. Business was booming, he’d said, as he told her of his fruit and veg store-cum-restaurant-cum eco haven in Greystones. He was here at the farmers’ market selling his juices and shots of wheatgrass to yummy mummies and their families, who were lapping it up.

Ann couldn’t believe how… chilled… the atmosphere felt. It could have been Greenwich Village; it could have been her life, before Neil went and ruined everything. She clicked her tongue in frustration, pushed the drink aside and lit a cigarette. Smoothies were fine and dandy but they’d never beat a Marlboro; she resumed with the finger tapping as she felt the frustration wallow inside her. This wasn’t what she wanted… the chilled vibe, the young couples playing happy families. She’d come back ready to be embraced by the familiar, enfolded in the comfort blanket of old friends, breakfast in Bewley’s and sipping on pints of Guinness in dear old dirty Dublin. Instead, she got costly macchiatos, endless conversations about house prices, a smoking ban and identikit apartment blocks. No sooner was she getting to grips with that than old Albert died. Because he’d been a judge, they knew there’d be a representative of the State present, and because she was working with the Taoiseach’s office it somehow fell to her to make the arrangements, no matter that Albert and Alice’s son was there on hand… but then Uncle Bernard could barely dress himself never mind take on that job. It’d been a hectic three weeks, she decided as she looked up at her new apartment across the street: 101 Quay Lock; the top floor – bright, spacious and with great views of the Basin. For once, an estate agent had spoken the truth. She’d blown her divorce settlement on getting it but that was okay. Now will be a fresh start; Neil was the past and this is the future, she said to herself, reaching for another cigarette and ordering an Americano from the passing waiter.

‘Hello. It’s Ann isn’t it?’A tall man in jeans and a shirt, carrying shopping, stood in front of her. The sun was behind him making it difficult for her to see him clearly.

‘Eh… yes. Hi.’

‘It’s Jack… from the funeral?’

‘Jack…? Oh hi! God, I’m sorry, I didn’t…’

‘…recognise me without my uniform,’ he finished for her, smiling.

‘Yes, exactly. You look different, and the sun in my eyes didn’t help. Here, pull up a pew.’

‘I was getting some things and saw you from the fish stall. Just thought I’d say hello. How are you getting over your loss?’

‘It’s fine, thanks. Lily is another matter, though. She’s the one who tore strips off you in the church. They’d been together fifty-two years, and now she’s rattling around in that big old house. Bernard has moved in with her to help sort through everything. I’m actually going out there later to lend a hand.’

He nodded in sympathy. ‘Yes, it can be a very hard time.’

The silence hung for a moment until the waiter arrived with her coffee and Jack ordered one for himself.

Ann took her mug and leaned back in her chair. ‘So, what brings you around here? Couldn’t resist the farmers’ market?’

‘Well, it is good, and they sell great bread but, actually, I live here, just across there, The Moorings, top floor.’

Ann laughed. ‘No shit! Really? We’re neighbours, then. I’m in Quay Lock, top floor, too.’

‘Oh, very swanky; that was a bit out of my league. You New York high fliers are all the same,’ he teased.

‘I just moved in last week, bought the place while I was still in New York, and you?’

‘I’ve been here a year now. It’s nice. Can be a bit dusty if you’re on the balcony and the wind blows the wrong way off the building sites, but it’s very handy for town, and when everything is finished I think it’ll be great.’

‘Not very Irish, though, is it? Reminds me of New York, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Still, I’m here now.’

‘You’ll like it when you settle in. You’ve had a lot on your plate, give it a chance.’

The waiter brought Jack’s coffee and they sat quietly, drinking and chatting easily as though they’d known each other a long time.

‘So what do you do up at the Aras other than hang out at stranger’s funerals?’

Jack smiled at that. ‘Yes, that’s what everyone thinks: that I go to funerals all week. Well, I do get to go to more than my fair share, I must admit; I think I’ve been at every conceivable kind, but there are other aspects to the job.’

‘Such as…?’

‘Lot of protocol stuff, liaising with opposite numbers on where Breen will stand when he comes off the plane, does he turn left or right, where will the car be to drive him away, what door do we leave from, that sort of thing; helping to organise his speeches, liaising with security, preparing cue cards so he knows the right questions to be asking when he’s visiting or receiving visitors, and then there’s accompanying him on foreign trips.’

‘Sounds busy.’

‘Yeah, but there are a couple of junior aides to help me; it can’t be that far removed from what you’re doing. How goes things with you?’

Ann leaned forward, smiling with enthusiasm.

‘You’re right, a lot of what you said sounds familiar, and I love it. I divide my time between political and protocol – writing up analysis papers, that kind of thing. It’s a lot busier than I thought. I’ll be coordinating official ceremonies for when we take over the EU Presidency next year, plus I’ve to sort out our great leader’s visit to Downing Street, and then there’s the small matter of what to give Bradley when Costigan presents him with his bowl of shamrock on Paddy’s Day. I mean, what do you get the leader of the free world as a present?’

‘Easy,’ says Jack, leaning back in his chair confidently.

‘Oh yeah? What then?’

‘A wig.’

‘A wig…?’

‘Yep. Bradley’s ancestors were wig makers from Offaly. Get him one of those orange leprechaun wigs they sell in the gift shops. Better still, get two, they can wear them at the photocall together.’

They burst out laughing at the image, sitting there over their coffee, happy in the thought that the other was enjoying things as much as they were. It felt good, a welcome reprieve for both of them; maybe even the first glimmer of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

 

__________

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

PEOPLE are under a misapprehension about cranes, they’re really solid as a rock – the cranes not the people, we all know how unstable people can be. Sure, the crane can get a bit bumpy with some loads. For instance, a heavy weight, let’s say a giant bucket of concrete, will pull you way down, and when you release it, the whole thing springs right back up, which can actually make some people seasick. And when you swing, the tower twists a little… it’s, um… well, you get used to it. Then there are the days when I have to go out to the front of the jib, but I’m standing in the trolley basket underneath when I do that, so it’s really more exhilarating than anything else: the sway of the basket in the wind, the rain on your face… it’s a buzz when you look all the way down to the ground where some ant-like creatures in helmets are staring up at you. I usually go out once every two days to check that it’s all running smoothly. Sometimes, if the trolley motor is out, I have to walk the jib. When I do that I have to wear a harness; there’s a loop and I use an eight-foot lanyard that hooks me to a cable. Even so, it can be a little hairy, especially in a strong breeze, although we can’t operate if wind speed picks up too much. The jib on the Wilbert 420 is pretty long – almost 280ft – which is good news for my bank balance – the longer the jib the more I get paid. There’s a flat fee for anything up to 90ft, after that the hourly rate goes up. Let’s just say, the money is good and I’ve never been busier.

It was while I was out doing a maintenance check that I first saw the naked lady; I nearly fell out of the basket. She was cleaning – a can of Mr. Sheen in one hand, a duster in the other and fuck all else in between. She’s regular as clockwork, every evening she comes home, has dinner, strips off and lays into the housework; place must be spotless, there’s only her living there; woman in her forties, pretty ordinary looking, you’d never suspect she was into that type of thing. That’s how she became one of my regulars. I just got curious, you know…

Apart from the obvious, eh, pleasure of looking at a naked woman; I wondered why she did it. I’m like that, inquisitive, once I get interested in something, well there’s no stopping me – I was the same at school. Anyway, Eve – that’s what I christened her – now gets my undivided attention, which isn’t that easy when you’ve a job like mine where you’ve got to worry about split-second accuracy and the small detail of trying to avoid fatal accidents. I don’t want all that preying on my mind, so the job gets my attention when it’s required. Eve and the others get the rest.

But of course, I can’t be here all the time, which is why I came up with my own little innovation. I tried using an ordinary video camera but the movement of the crane knocked that on the head, then I found the solution, which I’m rather proud of because it made my life a whole lot easier and gives perfect picture quality. Okay, I’ve built it up enough,

It’s…

the…

GYRO STABILISER! Tadaah!!

It’s brilliant, you fit it to the base of the camera and, hey presto, bye-bye camera shake and motion blur and hello sharper images. It cost me two grand up North and is worth every penny. The battery lasts two hours, but I’ve hooked it up to the computer in the cab and now it runs all night; attached to that I’ve got a high spec digital camera, which I’ve zeroed-in on each of my regulars’ balconies. It operates on a timer – 30 minutes per apartment before moving on to the next. All the footage is saved on a disk, which I remove every day and then watch from the comfort of my couch once I get home. It couldn’t be easier really. The only downside is the half-hour coverage per apartment, I’m thinking of getting another gyroscope and camera but I still haven’t quite figured out a large enough power supply for everything. I fitted this one onto the counter jib – that’s the bit at the back of the crane. This particular Wilbert has what they call a ‘doghouse’ – a type of shed for holding tools and spare parts. The camera sits on top of it.

It’s attention to detail like that which makes my hobby worthwhile. I’ve five regulars at the moment – there’s Soldier Boy, Leonardo, Eve, The Odd Couple and Posh Spice. As you can appreciate, my hobby is very time consuming but it’s just about doable. I once had six when I was on a job in England but it was too much. Another time I had three, but I got a bit bored with that one, not sure if it was down to numbers or what. Of course, at the start, I had just the one, but I wouldn’t recommend it, that’s when you can get really obsessive. No, five is manageable for now.

I’ve been watching her for about a month and Eve doesn’t have much of a social life from what I can gather. She’s fairly ordinary surface-wise, as I’ve said; functional, office-type clothes. She has long brown hair and an attractive face when she smiles, but she looks dragged down by life. She wears what I think is expensive underwear, though I’m no expert on these things. And, yes, I suppose, initially, there were stirrings and fantasies when I watched her, but now, in spite of all the nudity, I don’t really find her sexy; I see her more in a paternal way. When I sit in my darkened living room watching footage of her with only the TV throwing a weak glow at me, I feel protective towards my tired Eve, her careworn face creased in concentration as she cleans her apartment, her breasts shaking from side to side as she dusts.

She works in the Four Courts in some capacity; I know because I followed her there once. Don’t know exactly what she does but I guess, from her clothing, it’s some sort of secretarial role, those suits weren’t the right cut for a barrister. She likes to cook, too. I’ve seen her spend several hours in the kitchen – dressed, of course – making different dishes, which she freezes. And then there’s reading; she likes that; she sits out on her balcony when it’s not raining; her interests are crime fiction and biographies from what I can tell, she was reading one on Howard Hughes last week. I took note of the name and eventually managed to find a copy in the bargain bin in Chapters yesterday. That’ll sort out the bedtime reading for the next few days. She doesn’t appear to have any friends or lovers, but then again, I’m only getting a glimpse into her life. I’ll need to dig a bit further on that one. But, first things first, I have some steel that needs shifting.

*

Paddy was about half way across Butt Bridge when he saw them, sitting on the benches by the river. Five young men and a girl, strung out, waiting for their next fix… their skin drawn tightly over their skulls and the animal-like hunger of wild eyes in sunken sockets. He’d seen that look a thousand times over the years, and he’d arrested enough of them to know the risks they’d take to raise that twenty, fifty, one hundred euro to see them through the day. He put his arm around Phyllis, and she gave him a look.

‘Getting romantic, are you? It’s only the Liffey, not the Seine, you know.’

He chuckled, despite himself: ‘Can’t help meself, love.’

She laughed, too. Paddy made sure he was between the junkies and Phyllis as they neared the group. They were almost at the bench when one of the young men, sitting on its backrest, looked up and caught his eye. His head was shaved and a tattoo of Chinese characters ran up his neck.

‘Hey, Mister, d’ye have any spare change?’ The question was asked in a nasally whine. His eyes were feral and a sheen of sweat clung to his face.

Paddy shook his head and kept walking. ‘Sorry son, don’t have it.’

It was the wrong answer as far as one of the others in the group was concerned – a man in his twenties, thin and tall, with dirty, spiky ginger hair and a piercing in his nose. His eyes bulged and his nostrils flared angrily as he approached Paddy, his arms splayed out at his sides.

‘Ah Jaysus, what the fuck d’ye mean you’ve no money. Would ye look at the bleedin’ pair a ye, swannin’ round without a fuckin’ care in the world. All he asked for was enough for a cup a coffee, ye mean bastard!’

‘Decko! Leave it!’ It was the tattooed one calling him off, but Decko wasn’t interested.

‘No, man, I’ve been here all fuckin’ day lookin’ for a few bob and gettin’ fuck all but dirty looks. I’ve had it. I want somethin’, for fuck sake.’

The ginger-haired man was now blocking their way. Paddy felt the man’s spittle hit his face. With his left hand he gently pushed Phyllis back further behind him and looked the junkie straight in the eye.

‘I said I don’t have it. I didn’t say I have no money – I just don’t have it for the likes of you, now get out of me way.’

‘Fuck off, ye stupid cunt. I’m movin’ nowhere.’

The man raised his hand and pushed Paddy in the chest. Phyllis pleaded with her husband to give them something but Paddy did something else instead – he quickly grabbed the man’s wrist and twisted it sideways into a pressure hold, causing the junkie to shout in pain. If he resisted any more his wrist would snap.

Paddy was breathing heavy with the stress. ‘Now, I said I’ve nothing for ye, so be on yer way or I’m getting the guards.’

As he spoke he looked around for a friendly face, but no one was stepping forward to help. By now the other addicts were off the bench and standing around them. A short, fat, track-suited girl screamed in his face.

‘Leave me fella alone! Get yer fuckin’ hands off him, he didn’t do nothin’.’

Paddy felt he was losing control. If he let the junkie go, then he’d have five of them to deal with and still have to protect Phyllis. If only he had some back-up. He scanned the distance for some help and noticed one woman looking at the scene and talking on her mobile. Hopefully, she was doing the sensible thing. Police response would be quick. Store Street station was almost round the corner. All of this ran through his mind in a second. And then he heard Phyllis behind him telling them the guards were coming and that they’d better leave unless they wanted to be arrested. The girl’s face twisted in anger as she pulled a short blade from inside her top.

‘We did nothin’ and you’re callin’ the guards on us! I’ll bleedin’ stick ye, ye skanky bitch.’ The junkie’s girlfriend moved forward and pushed the knife towards Phyllis, but before she could make contact a hand gripped her wrist and pulled it back, ripping the knife from her grasp.

‘Don’t be stupid.’

Paddy looked up at their rescuer. The man now standing in front of him was about twenty-five, unshaven and with long lank hair. Paddy hadn’t noticed him before, he was just another junkie. For that eternal moment they stared at each other, oblivious to the screams of the girl and Phyllis.

‘Let him go,’ the man said softly.

Paddy did as he was asked just as the sound of a siren was heard in the distance. The girl and her boyfriend stood shaking with anger, torn between taking things further or getting away. Their friends made the decision for them, taking them by the arms and hauling them down the quays, running now, before the police arrived. Paddy stood rooted to the spot, deaf to the wail of the approaching siren, deaf to the sounds of Phyllis’s voice beside him, only the picture of the young man who saved them imbedded in h8is mind – their son, the junkie, lost and now found, finally.

*

The police never did catch them, they’d crossed the river and scattered amongst the new office developments by the time the guards got through the traffic. Phyllis hadn’t recognised her own flesh and blood, there’d been too much going on for her to get a good look at him; nevertheless Paddy spent the evening calming her down. The next day, she’d forgotten all about it and he left her there so he could go get some messages; at least that’s what he’d told her. Instead, he made his way back to the bench, but there was no one there. He went every day for five days until he saw one of them – the ginger-haired junkie he’d put the wrist lock on. He was sitting on the next bench down from where they’d argued. Lying on the seat with him was a teenager, passed out. Paddy approached them from behind.

‘Hello’

Ginger turned and jolted when he saw who it was. ‘Ah for fuck sake, leave me alone,’ he said standing up.

‘It’s alright. I’m not looking for trouble. I just want to ask you a few questions.’

‘Ask me bollix. I’ve nothin’ to say to you.’

‘I’ll make it worth your while,’ Paddy said, showing him a twenty euro note.

It cut no ice.

‘Ye can stick that up yer arse. You’ll get fuck all for twenty.’ He spat the words out.

Paddy took out his wallet and swapped the twenty for a fifty. Ginger watched greedily.

‘Ye can double that for starters if ye want anthin’ from me.’

Paddy shook his head. ‘Fifty or nothing. You look like you need it more than I do. It’s just a couple of questions. I won’t be going to the guards.’

The man hesitated, torn between greed and pride. ‘Where’d ye learn to do dat thing with me wrist?’

‘I used to be a cop, but I’ve retired.’

Ginger sneered. ‘You bastards never retire; yer all the same.’

But he stayed put, standing over his unconscious friend, eying the money. Greed won in the end, but it had hardly been a fair contest – pride had gone out the window a long time ago. ‘What d’ye want to know?’

He said the words as though they’d been dragged stupefied from that cavernous, empty space he called a soul.

Paddy moved in closer. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Never mind dat. Ask yer questions.’

‘One of the men with you the other day… I’d like to find him. His name’s Michael.’

‘Dunno anyone called dat,’ Ginger said, shaking his head.

‘The one who took the knife from the girl…?’

‘Micker? What about him? He saved yer missus. Angie was bleedin’ boilin’; she’d a done it, too.’

‘I know. I wanted to thank him.’

‘Yeah right, ‘course ye did.’

Paddy sighed with frustration.

‘Look, I know him. He’s… he’s my son.’

Ginger sneered. ‘Well he doesn’t want to know you, does he? Micker never said anthin’ ’bout a ma and da, probably for good reason, too. Threw him out did ye?’

Paddy stepped back, putting the money in his wallet, and the man suddenly lost his cockiness.

‘Hey, what’re ye at? I didn’t say I wouldn’t help.’

‘I don’t want a lecture from you, I want answers. Start talking or you can forget about the money,’ he snapped.

‘Okay, okay… He hangs out in Stephen’s Green when the weather’s good; it’s what we all do. An’ if he’s lookin’ to score he’ll come here or go to the boardwalk.’

‘What about in bad weather?’

‘If it’s rainin’ ye might get him over at the Jervis Centre. He hangs out with a bloke called Dotsy – big huge dopey fella, about six-seven, ye can’t miss him. Micker looks out for him. Dat’s all I know. Honest.’

He stood there with his hands clasped, never taking his eyes off the wallet, waiting in quiet desperation for it to open again. Paddy took out the fifty, a sense of disgust creeping over him as he did so. Was Michael this desperate, too, he wondered as Ginger snatched the money and ran to get his fix, leaving his comatose friend to the mercy of the elements and whoever happened by. Alone now, Paddy looked down at the teenager: pale, gaunt, and filthy, and going nowhere – just like Michael, he thought.

*

Ernie Fitzpatrick threw the brush away in frustration, spattering flecks of burnt sienna across the cream porcelain tiles of his living room floor. He opened the slide door to the balcony and gripped the rail tightly, silently fuming. It wasn’t working. He just couldn’t see where this was going. It was his third version already in one week and it was crap, even his agent said so. Gordon had told him to take a short break, go to the West, clear the head and start afresh, but he knew that wouldn’t sort it. He should never have taken the commission in the first place, but clever Gordon had egged him on. The money was good and it was a big-name client – very big name – but he didn’t like working to tight deadlines, never had. And now he’d only one week to finish it… a month farting about looking for inspiration and now this – artist’s block. In his heart, he knew the deadline wasn’t the real problem. He’d had difficult paintings before, but this was different. This, when he looked into his self-pitying soul, was all to do with that damn party… and that damn boy.

Jackie Breslin’s launch party was where the problems began; too much wine and champagne and not enough food. He’d just come off another commission and it was his first night out in ages; time to let the hair down, burn off some excess energy.

He’d seen him in the gallery earlier but paid him no mind – a tall, handsome blond with startling blue eyes, an engaging smile and a love of art – a beautiful acolyte who hung on every pompous pronouncement that poured from the self-satisfied lips of the artists gathered to celebrate or snidely castigate the efforts of one of their own.

Ernie had listened to them blather on, trying to contain his frustration – especially when cornered by one particular man he’d never met before. The fellow trotted out pure bull – meaningless phrases stolen from a dictionary – in a poor attempt to be seen as sophisticated. In reality, Ernie was more interested in spotting the female talent than what was on the wall, which wasn’t exactly setting his belly on fire. Jackie saw herself as a latter day Hockney. The woman was totally deluded, but her stuff was popular and it shifted. She’d invited the students in her art class along to the show; eight of them, all goggle-eyed standing amongst the gallery owners and artists, and not a decent bit of skirt amongst them. He’d been touched by their enthusiasm, though, and their innocence of the art market. He’d advised them when they sought advice and praised their efforts, even though he hadn’t seen their work.

It was a hot summer’s day, he was off the leash and he drank glass after glass of cheap champagne. The young man’s name was Steve, in his final year of art college. They chatted and even joked a little about some of the pseuds surrounding them. As the launch party wound down, one of the students – a girl with purple-streaked hair and pins in her nose – had suggested a few pints in Grogans, and he’d joined them, buzzing from the champagne. They stayed ’til closing time and then went on to Rathmines, to a house Steve shared with two others.

And that’s where it happened… the scene of the crime.

As the night wore on even the girl with the purple streaks was beginning to look attractive, but she’d soon disappeared and the flat mates went to bed. Then it was just Steve and him in the kitchen drinking, talking of hopes and dreams, and, quite suddenly, kissing. And that’s all he remembered except for the shameful crawl from the bed the following morning.

He had willed the actual sex from his mind, consigned it to a deep recess, and locked the door. But that wasn’t enough. It was still there, the memory, the shameful memory of what he’d done and the implications it had for who he was and what he really wanted.

The thought that he might be gay loomed so large it obliterated the canvass he tried to paint – it became a thick black emulsion poured over all his creative spirit. He didn’t try to contact Steve again; he couldn’t bear the thought of that conversation. No, he wanted to be alone and away from art – art is what had got him into this mess. Now, everything Ernie touched or painted went back to that night. He walked along the riverfront eyeing passing men and women surreptitiously, asking himself whether he found them attractive, whether he wanted to drag them to bed. And the answer was always the same – no. A death had occurred inside Ernie and now there was nothing, no feelings of that nature at all, just a shocked, all-consuming stillness that devoured the passion he’d had for life and for his art.

*

I work in a crane 300ft above the ground, shifting massive loads of weight in very tight spaces with people all around who could be knocked over like nine pins, but even I’m not as high and mighty as Posh. She has a touch of the Audrey Hepburn about her but with more steel… or is that venom? Whatever it is, I wouldn’t describe her as a happy bunny. I’ve only been watching her for a month, but already I can tell she’s a workaholic. For a few days in a row, I’ve seen her sit for long stretches at her kitchen table, working her way through one file or another. Is there no one in her life to fill those periods for her? What a shame because, really, she’s quite the looker. I’ve followed her just once. I’d been watching her through the binoculars – a high magnification 15x45mm Zeiss Conquest that cost me over a thousand dollars online. They’re very light, robust and easy to operate, and they don’t cloud over because the people at Zeiss use nitrogen to prevent internal fogging; clever eh? I use them for everything, examining cloud formations, nesting birds, rooftop sunbathers… the lot. Anyway, I was watching her through the binoculars when I saw her take a red trench coat from the wardrobe and throw it on the bed. Hello, says I, she’s getting ready to go out. That’s when I had the idea. It was a quiet morning, there was a load coming in to the site early afternoon, so I quickly radioed Gerry, the foreman, and made some excuse about a family emergency. I promised to be back in time to shift the load, and then I was off. He’s a good skin is Gerry.

Quick as a flash, I was down the ladder and racing up the Quay to Tara Street. It was a guess, but it paid off. I’d watched her before, walking from her building up to the Dart station and figured she’d be heading that way. I stood at the bridge and waited, scanning the crowd for that red trench coat. I thought it would be easy to spot her, but it wasn’t. Down there amongst them all, it was much harder. I waited another ten minutes, thinking maybe I’d missed her and maybe I should be heading back to work, but then there she came and all the maybes disappeared.

God, but she’s beautiful once you get up close: long auburn hair and sallow skin. Never had a girlfriend or wife myself – I’m not that fucking stupid. I’m beholden to no-one, me. If I was to choose, I suppose I might go for one a bit like Posh. She has a poise and delicacy that’s unusual in this day and age. There’s real elegance there, and vulnerability. I remember how she paused to search her bag for her travel card and then swept herself through the gate. I was right behind her. She had earphones in and hadn’t a clue I was there. She went to Platform 5. We waited there for fifteen minutes for a Dart to show, her pacing slowly up and down, right to the very end of the platform and back, me staying put under the shelter, watching. We got on the same carriage. I was shaking a little with excitement, standing so close to her. It’s what I love about my hobby, knowing her without her knowing me – Jaysus, I’m starting to sound like yer man, Alan Partridge. I actually sat opposite her – silly really, but I couldn’t help myself. I read the paper and willed myself to only look up once or twice. She didn’t look at me, although I hoped she would. I so wanted our eyes to meet. Anyway, she got off at Monkstown.

I followed her up Monkstown Crescent, then on to Pakenham Road, and into a curving street called The Hill. Let me put it this way, if you’re looking for the moneybags pushing this property boom you’ll find a lot of them there – big old Victorian mansions that must have cost an arm and a leg back in the day. It’s serious money up there, that’s for sure. It was such a small road I thought she might see me, but the earphones obviously kept her distracted. She went in the entrance gate and up a long driveway.

I didn’t go any further. I’d seen enough, it’s not as if I’m stalking. What a horrible word that is, like she’s some kind of animal and I’m a predator. It’s not like that at all. I’m no weirdo, just someone with a heightened sense of curiosity about life. I don’t harbour any badness towards her. She’s just… fascinating – beautiful and fascinating, and vulnerable; in a miserable life that maybe she doesn’t deserve. So, I let her go, took the Dart and was back in time for the arrival of the afternoon load. All in all, a good day’s work…

 

________________

 

 

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The Great Escape – Irish-style

As a child, The Great Escape was one film that never failed to entertain me. Aside from a stellar cast that included Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Garner and a host of others, the story was compelling and also happened to be true.

It’s a tale of derring-do, an against-the odds story in which one can’t help but admire the 76 Allied POWs who, in March of 1944, tunneled their way out of Stalag Luft III.

Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in a scene from The Great Escape

Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in a scene from The Great Escape

Before the POWs could make their escape from the camp in Lower Silesia, 100 miles southeast of Berlin, they and their comrades had to forge ID cards and make civilian clothes for those making the dash for freedom through enemy territory.

The ingenuity involved, from the construction of the tunnel to the disposal of the dug-up earth, was quite breathtaking. Unfortunately, 73 escapees were later recaptured, of which 50 were executed by the Nazis. Only three men made it to freedom. It’s a story that is justly celebrated for the heroic effort and the tragic consequences.

However, over a year-and-half earlier, in August of 1942 at Oflag VI-B in Warburg, Germany, there was a far more successful escape from a POW camp, and one which is hardly known at all.

It is a little-known episode from World War II, but Operation Olympian was an even more daring escape than that at Stalag Luft III. Olympian led to the escape of 32 Allied prisoners. Six of these were soon recaptured, but the rest remained free.

The escape occurred as ten-man teams of prisoners made a dash for the wire and threw four huge improvised ladders against the fence. The ladders had cunningly been disguised as large bookshelves, using wood plundered from a dismantled prison hut.

It was an intricately planned operation, involving forged identity papers for each man as well as a survival kit of 12lbs of food, cigarettes, medical kit, socks and underwear, to last each escapee up to 21 days on the run. Fine tissue paper was used on which to draw maps, The Great Escape -4and compasses were smuggled into the camp in Red Cross parcels.

At the appointed ‘Zero Hour’, a diversion was planned and the ladders were erected against the wire. In just 40 seconds, 32 men had poured across and out to freedom.

It was an audacious plan, which author Mark Felton has written about in his book Zero Night, The Untold Story of World War Two’s Most Daring Escape.

I have to say, the Olympian escape was a surprise to me. However, I was absolutely gobsmacked to discover an even more successful jailbreak, which I learned about while conducting research for my next ‘Liam Mannion’ novel.

The book will be set during the Irish Civil War when comrades split over the terms of the peace treaty signed with the British. In 1922, Pro-Treaty Free-State forces battled Anti-Treaty republicans in the wake of that peace deal. One consequence of the Civil War was the imprisonment of captured republicans.

A prison camp in Newbridge, Co Kildare,  held 1200 such prisoners. Of these, 149 POWs would escape confinement in October, 1922.

Aside from the high number of escapees, the other impressive feature was that the escape actually occurred over two successive nights.

The departure of approximately 30 men on the first night was successfully covered up the next day, with a further batch of prisoners escaping the following night… and all this was achieved despite the fact that prison authorities had placed spies amongst the prisoners.

Great Escape - 3But how was all this achieved? In his book, The Civil War in Kildare, author James Durney recounts this fascinating episode.

The Newbridge camp was a former British artillery and cavalry barracks which had housed about 800 men and 500 horses. Prisoners were housed at the ‘Cupola’ in the centre of the barracks, which had a large recreation area.

Under the command of POW Thomas McMahon, the area was reconnoitred by the prisoners and it was discovered that a sewer pipe ran close by their quarters. It was decided to dig a tunnel to connect with this pipe, which in turn ran out to the river Liffey, some 500 yards away.

Using a sharpened poker and a fire shovel, the tunneling commenced beneath the bunks in one of the prison huts. Soil was disposed of beneath the hut and also in the top floor of another building in the camp. It was a good hiding place – the soil in this building would not be discovered until the structure was demolished in the 1960s.

After much effort, the tunnel finally connected with the sewer, but the escapees then had to find the correct route to the river through a myriad of sewer pipes. The air was foul and the pipe cramped… one of those tunneling was sick for a week after breathing in the fetid surroundings. Another got lost for the best part of a day in the labyrinthine sewer network.

Eventually, though, they found the right route and managed to exit the sewer system by digging up into the floor of a sawmill that sat on the banks of the Liffey, close to a bridge, which was patrolled by armed guards.

On the night of Sunday, October 14, approximately 30 prisoners escaped. The following night almost four times as many got free. They climbed through the sawmill floor and out the back door. Rolling down a slope and into the cold Liffey water, they swam to the other side, where there was open country through which they could flee.

The escape was discovered at midnight when sentries spotted movement on the bank and opened fire, wounding one prisoner. The mill was surrounded and those inside were returned to the camp. An impressive 149 prisoners escaped through the tunnel, with 37 being caught in the follow-up search. Nevertheless, 112 prisoners gained their freedom.

The Newbridge escape had little impact on the course of the war, which would end six months later, but as an act of derring-do it must rank as one of the most successful, if ill-remembered, jailbreaks ever. I’m sure the lads in Stalag Luft III and Oflag VI-B would have been proud…

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Santa – the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
(A Visit From St Nicholas)

Ah yes, we’re gearing up for that time when children all over the world await the arrival of the big man with the beard and the red suit – and that’s all that need be said to know of whom we speak. All I have to do is recall the movie Miracle on 34th Street and a warm fuzzy glow warms my tummy. However, it’s worth noting that a few steps had to be taken in Santa’s evolution before we reached that point.

In Germany, St Nicholas actually comes on the night of December 5-6 when little boots are filled with all manner of goodies and left beside children’s beds. We follow this tradition in our own house as my son was born on December 6 and his mum is German. So far, thankfully, our four young ones have not interrogated us too severely as to why other children in the neighbourhood miss out on this early visit from St Nick.

Of course the real St Nicholas would probably scratch his head in puzzlement at the whole Santa tradition. I refer, of course, to St Nicholas of Myra. Born in Petara (in modern Turkey), he had a habit of putting coins in people’s shoes as a gift and it’s from this practice that Father Christmas originated. St Nick is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers (some say bankers, too), which takes a bit of the gloss off his story, but we can’t blame him for that.

The book One Night Stands with American History claims that it was 17th century Dutch settlers who brought Father Christmas to America. Based on the Dutch winter figure of Sinterklaas, he was  “tall, slender and very dignified” and without even a bristle to be found on his chin.

Incidentally, the Dutch Sinterklaas is said to be accompanied by his servant Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) carrying a big bag of goodies for all the boys and girls. Some songs suggest that the bag is also useful or bundling naughty children into and hauling them away.

Santa as drawn by Thomas Nast

Santa as drawn by Thomas Nast

Little did he know it, but Santa was in for a major makeover. Cartoonist Thomas Nast set the ball rolling when he added the beard and the rotund figure in the pages of Harper’s Weekly towards the end of the 19th century.

The story goes that Santa got his popular colour combination due to an advertising campaign for Coca Cola. It’s certainly true that the company helped popularise Santa amongst the general public. In 1931 Coca Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — they were so successful they ran right up to 1964.

For inspiration, Sundblom read Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas in which Moore describes Father Christmas as being warm, friendly and pleasantly plump. However, Santa appeared in a red coat long before Sundblom put brush to canvas.

Washington Irving (1783-1859), author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, wrote a Christmas story about giving and generosity in which he described Santa as a large man in a red suit smoking a pipe.

Jolly old Santa is now so popular that in America 20,000 rent-a-Santa’s are trained every year to maintain that happy demeanour (no matter what the provocation). They are also given such practical tips as to avoid eating garlic and, er, beans prior to visiting their young clients – the last thing one would want would be for Santa to leave more than one present behind…

But there was a darker side to St Nick. Early illustrations depict him as a bit of a tough cookie. He’s seen as stern, commanding, and bearing a birch rod, with which he would punish naughty children. This description ties in with that of the Viking god Odin, who is somewhat of a precursor to the modern Santa. According to myth, Odin rode his eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir in winter and gave out both gifts and punishments. Children would fill boots or stockings with treats for Sleipnir to feast on.

Neither of the above are very appealing forms of Santa (although I do have a soft spot for Billy Bob Thornton as the leering, booze-fuelled armed robber Father Christmas in the movie Bad Santa, which is absolutely hilarious).

If the notion of a bad, vengeful Father Christmas dishing out punishment to unsuspecting children is a little disconcerting then you’d better brace yourself…

Krampus and St Nicholas pay a memorable Christmas visit to a Viennese home in 1896

Krampus and St Nicholas pay a memorable Christmas visit to a Viennese home in 1896

In parts of Austria, Germany, Hungary, and some neighboring countries, a hairy, evil beast called Krampus replete with horns, hooves, a long tongue, and sharp claws is said to terrify children at Christmas. Since the 17th century he has accompanied Santa on his annual gift-giving trip.

Naughty boys and girls beware – Krampus’s job is to dish out punishment to them. He carries a large wicker basket on his back and kidnaps misbehaving children and brings them to Hell.

Never have the lines: ‘You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why’ been more apt.

Give me Billy Bob’s Santa any day. Happy Christmas.

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Brothers in Arms – The Siblings Who Went to War

 

The movie Saving Private Ryan was much feted when it was first released for its realistic depiction of the sheer terror experienced by those who took part in the D-Day landings on Normandy’s ‘Omaha Beach’.

The plot – which centres around the bid to find Pvt Ryan, the sole survivor of four siblings who went to war, and to bring him to safety – mirrors actual events.

The Sullivans on board the USS Juneau (left to right)  Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George.

The Sullivans on board the USS Juneau (left to right) Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George.

At a time when men, women and children were being blown to pieces in the Second World War, there was one tragedy, which occurred in 1942, that made even the most battle-scarred soldiers and citizens pause and give thanks that they had been spared such pain.

In November, 1942, the cruiser USS Juineau was in the South Pacific when it was torpedoed. On board were five brothers – George, Frank, Joe, Matt and Al Sullivan. They all died that day. The Navy didn’t like putting serving siblings on the same ships, but the Sullivan boys had insisted on serving together… with tragic results.

To lose one child in war must be terrible, but to lose all five, as the Sullivan family had, must have been absolutely devastating.

As a result of that terrible calamity, the American Army enacted a Sole Survivors policy in 1942 to prevent an entire family being wiped out while in the service of their country.

The Niland boys Edward, Preston, Robert and Frederick ('Fritz')

The Niland boys Edward, Preston, Robert and Frederick (‘Fritz’)

The policy was first used in 1944 in the case of the Niland brothers. Edward Niland was shot down over Burma in May of that year, presumed dead. Of his three remaining brothers, Bob was killed in Normandy on June 6 and Preston was killed the following day.

That just left Fritz, who had fought with the 501st Airborne Division in the opening days of the invasion. To keep him out of harm’s way, he was brought back to America where he served as an MP until the end of the war.

There was more happy news for the Niland family to come, because it later emerged that Edward Niland had actually been captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

But these were not the only cases of brothers going to war. In fact, a British family’s tragic circumstances predated the Niland case during World War One, when British Army chiefs gave permission for Pvt James Bell to leave his post and return to his wife and two young children in Australia.

Pvt James Bell

Pvt James Bell

Bell’s four brothers had  been killed serving in the war over an 18-month period, a fact which was explained to the War Office in a letter written by Bell’s sister, Annie, who pleaded that her sole remaining brother be released from duty and allowed return to his family.

On December 1, 1915, James’s youngest brother, Laurie, died while serving with the Australian forces at Gallipoli. He was only 22.

A few weeks later, on December 27, John Bell (30), was shot in the head, fighting in Flanders. All that is known of another brother, Herbert, is that he died in a prisoner of war camp.

The eldest, Joseph (42), was killed by a bomb in the same theatre of war on June 23, 1917.

James Bell arrived in France two months after the death of Joseph. He worked as an ambulance driver. James must have felt Death’s shadow cover him as he thought of all the siblings he had  lost to war.

He did his duty for five months before Annie’s letter had the desired effect and officials granted her wish. James was relieved of his duty. In March, 1918, he set sail for Australia, where he had emigrated before the war, and to the arms of his waiting family.

He died many years later from natural causes.

However, it’s worth pointing out that not all stories of soldiering siblings ends in tragedy. There was one remarkable tale of one family of brothers who served in the First World War and survived – all nine of them.

Eight of the Hanscombe brothers (from top left, clockwise) Frank, David, Stephen, George, Frederick, James, Bert and Joseph. Richard is not pictured, but their mother Sara is seen above (centre)

Eight of the Hanscombe brothers (from top left, clockwise) Frank, David, Stephen, George, Frederick, James, Bert and Joseph. Richard is not pictured, but their mother Sara is seen above (centre)

Sara Hanscombe, from Beckenham, south-east London, was a widow when the war began in  1914. How she must have felt watching all her boys join up is hard to imagine, but fortune shined upon her that’s for sure.

Eight of them fought on the front line, while a ninth served in England. Over the course of the war, the Hanscombe brothers were shot, gassed, blown up and taken prisoner in France. Between them the brothers suffered a total of 21 wounds.

One of the brothers, Sergeant Bert Hanscombe, even managed to win the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal for his service.

George (36), who who was clearly following in his father’s footsteps by siring seven children of his own, was listed as missing in 1917. He had been shot in the hip and taken prisoner in Germany.

Another brother, Richard had the dangerous role of messenger in his battalion and was known for running through heavy shellfire with dispatches to HQ in the Nieppe Forest, on the Western Front

His sibling James, with typical Hanscombe luck, was wounded in the head in 1916 then again in 1917, but survived.

Sara Hanscombe served in her own way through those war years… fretting for her boys and dreading the day she was sure to receive notice that one or more of them had been lost to her forever.

At the end of the war, she received a letter on behalf of King George V to thank her for family’s service to the country.

It’s nice to know that not all stories of siblings in war ended in tragedy and that the odds – no matter how stacked – can sometimes, unbelievably, be defied.

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