Who Am I?

Worn old man picture

I awake.

Who am I?

What room is this?  Whose bed?

Light shines through the soft-curtained window.  Clouds hang lazily in a blue sky.

I hear birds singing.

I get up, groaning.

I am an old man.

A mirror.  I approach.

A man in the glass looks back at me: unshaven, heavy lines, wispy tousled grey hair, age spots, sallow eyes.

This is me?

I want to say hello, to hear the sound of my voice, but I don't.  I turn to the door.

A hallway.  Stairs.  Photos of children on the wall.  I stare a moment at their happy faces.

The front door.  A kitchen.

I am hungry.

A grey fridge stands in the corner, a note stuck to it.  Large letters.

"John," it begins.

Am I John?

"You have lost your memory.  It happens every night.  Don't worry.  I'll be home soon.  There is food in the fridge.

Love, Jenny."

Jenny.

Who is Jenny? Is she my wife?

I open the fridge.  A small tupperware bowl contains a salad.  I find a fork in the drying rack.  I eat the salad standing up.

The kitchen is tidy.  I like that.

I wash the bowl and fork and leave them to dry.

Should I wait?

I walk through the house, a stranger's house. I feel like an intruder.

I hear a car drive by.  I look through the window to see a pretty, treelined avenue.

I need to leave the house.

I do.

Walking.

Wind in the trees, whispering, but not to me.

Houses neatly line the road.  Flowers. Lawn.  White fences.

In the distance, a child shouts.

Walking.

An old woman approaches, pulling a trolley behind her.  She looks at me, curiously.

I look at her.  She has a kind, smiling face. Tired eyes.

"John," she says, and takes my hand.

I think she is my wife.

Rome

rome piazza

We decided to go to Rome, the missus and I.  Well actually, she decided, as usual.  I tried my standard objections: the cost, the stress of travel, the bloody foreigners, but she wasn’t having any of it; she was bent on saving our marriage.  I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.  In fact it was nice and quiet since the last of the kids moved out, and even better when the bloody Jack Russell was run over by the old biddy next door. Flat as a pancake I tell you – that did make me chuckle.  No, apparently we needed saving, time to talk about things.

God help me.

For Better or Worse



Seamus did not consider himself a brave man at the best of times, and this was not the best of times.  He wove a nervous, unsteady path through the dark hallway of his little cottage, and carefully climbed the stairs.  The house was silent apart from the heavy ticking of his grandmother's mantelpiece clock. Seamus reached the top of the stairs and turned into his bedroom, where he undressed quietly and slid into bed. The warm haze of the evening's ale enveloped him, and he let out a deep satisfied sigh.

"And what time do you call this?" growled a familiar voice next to him.  Seamus started.

"Aw, Mae, don't be getting all riled up again." he pleaded. “Padraig wanted to celebrate, is all, and bought us all a few rounds.”

“What’s he got to celebrate then?”

“His missus left him.”

"Very funny, Seamus O’Donnell,” said his wife. “Useless, feckin’ drunks, all of yous. I don't know why I didn't listen to me mam.  I could have had me a fancy computer programmer like she wanted, but no, I chose the bloody butcher."  She turned angrily to face the other side of the bed and was soon sleeping again.

Seamus listened unhappily to her breathing getting deeper, until finally a steady drone filled the room.  He searched for the glow of the evening that had descended on him just moments before, but it was gone. He gradually drifted off to a troubled sleep.

They were arguing again.  This time in the kitchen.  But the Seamus of his dreams was not having any of it.  He faced off to his feisty young wife and gave as good as he got, deftly parrying the lunges of her rolling pin with a cast iron skillet. But then she let her guard down and he lunged forward, hitting her head with a solid and very satisfying thwack, and watched as she crumpled to the ground, dead.

The dreams varied at this point, ranging from dismay to outright jubilation, but tonight he simply dragged her silently into his workshop where he proceeded to butcher with expert skill.  A nice stew, he thought, perhaps with a little thyme, but it would need slow cooking - she was a tough bird after all.  He chuckled in his sleep.

The 4am alarm shrilled, sending his dreams scattering.  Seamus rolled, groaning, out of bed, careful not to wake his wife, and dressed silently in the dark before staggering downstairs to put the kettle on.  He stood quietly in the gloom watching dawn slowly warm the grey, house-lined horizon of their little sea-side village of Kinvarra.

Another day.

~
The door chimed cheerfully as it opened.

"Ah, good morning Mrs O'Hara," said Seamus more brightly than he felt.

"Good morning, Seamus.  Tis a lovely one, to be sure."

"That it is. That it is.  Will it be your usual today?"

The tweedy, middle-aged woman beamed. "No.  We will be having a dinner party this weekend. Twenty people."

"Twenty people!" exclaimed Seamus. "That is a big do.  What is the occasion, if I might ask?"

"Oh, just a gathering of friends.  Nothing much.  One has to do these things, you know."

"Ay, that one does, that ones does."

He took her order and arranged to deliver it that afternoon.

"Who was that, Seamus?" shouted Mae from the kitchen as door chimes faded behind the departing customer.

"Mrs O'Hara."

"I thought it was. You were ever so friendly again." The sentence hung for a moment like a poisoned dagger in the air.  Seamus opted not to reply."Seamus?"

"Yes, Mae?"

"I am not an idiot."

"Yes dear, I know you are not."

"That woman is trouble, and I won't have you cosying up to her."

"Mae, I was just being polite."

"There's polite and there’s polite.  That woman stole her last husband from poor old Mrs Connelly. She'll not have you."

Seamus felt an unexpected glow of pleasure.

"No," continued his wife.  "This is my butcher shop."

~
The Saturday morning passed without further ado and Seamus locked the shop door, gratefully flipping the sign from Open to Closed.  He returned the meat from the counters to the fridge and cleaned the little shop before heading to the kitchen where Mae stood busy at the cooker.

“Smells great, Mae. What is it?”

“Stew.”

“Oh.”

She turned sharply.  “What’s wrong with stew?  You like stew.”

“Nothing, Mae,” replied Seamus hastily. “I love stew. Don’t mind me. I’m just a little tired.”

“I’m not surprised, getting home at God alone knows what hour of the night.”

Seamus sliced a thick wedge of bread and cheese and sat down gloomily at the table.  “I think I’ll do my deliveries earlier today.” he said.  “There’s not too many.”

“I’m coming with you,” replied his wife.

“What?”

“You heard me.  I’ll not have you going to that woman’s house on your own.  And anyhow, I want another driving lesson.”

Searing panic filled Seamus’ brain.  “You’re not still wanting to learn to drive, are you, Mae?”

“Surely I am,” she replied tartly.  “You’ll not be around forever, you know.”

“That’s charming.”

“It’s a fact Seamus.  I read it in the Women’s Weekly today: men die younger than women.”

“I’m not surprised,” muttered Seamus under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, dear.  Nothing.”
~

Seamus loaded his little white van with the afternoon’s deliveries, and then stood outside, patiently smoking a cigarette while Mae got dressed.  The sun hung cheerfully in a rare cloudless Irish sky, accompanied by a cacophony of bird chatter from the Doyles’ overhanging birch tree.  A large glutinous bird dropping landed next to him on the bonnet of his van.

“Feckin’ birds!” grumbled Seamus, wiping the mess with his handkerchief.

“Ready!” exclaimed Mae, beaming excitedly as she closed the front door behind her and scampered along the gravel path.  She had discarded her house clothes and was wearing a faded pair of jeans, black plimsolls and a bright pink pullover.  Her lips sparked in the sunlight.

Sean looked at her in wonder.  “Is that makeup you’re wearing?”

Mae scowled.  “A girl always has to look her best. Is there a problem?”

“Not at all,” he replied. “Just unexpected.  Anyway, I suggest we do the deliveries, and then let you drive a bit?”

“Actually, I think I’d like to drive now.”

“Now?  In the village?”

“Why not?  I have driven before.”

“I remember.  And so does the rest of the village.”

“Seamus!  I thought I did very well for my first lesson.  I’m sure that old wall was going to fall down anyway.”

“All I’m saying, Mae, is that it might be safer to drive on the country roads. You know, until you get warmed up a bit.”

She agreed reluctantly and the couple headed off: Seamus staring grimly ahead, dreaming of stew, while Mae sang Whitney Houston to the radio at the top of her out of tune voice, the warm sea-breeze splaying her fiery red hair behind her.  The deliveries were thankfully soon done and Seamus pulled the van into a small parking lot overlooking the bay.  The ocean below twinkled in the sunlight.

“Right,” he said as Mae settled into the driver’s seat.  “Do you remember what I told you about the clutch?”

“Yes, I know, Seamus. Press the clutch when you change the gear.  Press the clutch … press the clutch. You said it often enough last time.  Such a silly system.  Why can’t they build cars to know that I’m changing gears?”

“They do, Mae, it’s called an Automatic, and is for idiots.  This is a manual gearbox.”

She harrumphed and started the car with a roar.

“Easy does it!” shouted Seamus.  “Just a little petrol.”

Mae crunched the gear lever into first.  The van lurched forward and stalled.

 “You forgot the clutch, Mae.”

“I know!” she shouted angrily. “Stop getting at me!”

She started the car a second time, and eased the van into first gear.

“Good.  Now let the clutch out slowly, while applying the accelerator.  Easy does it.”

The van juddered and roared, and was soon racing in first gear towards a nearby picnic table.  Mae twisted the steering wheel to the right, narrowly missing it, and somehow managed to exit the parking lot onto the little country lane heading back towards Kinvarra.

“Bejesus, Mae!” shouted Seamus, gripping the dashboard.  “Slow down a little, will you?”  His wife eased off the accelerator, reducing the engine noise to a complaining whine.  “Right, now we’ll try second gear,” said Seamus.

“Clutch!”  But he was too late.  Mae had ground the gear lever into second.  The van hurtled along the lane, hedge-rows flying by with unaccustomed haste.

“Wheee!!!” shouted Mae over the roar of the engine.  “I’m driving!”

Seamus continued to hold on for dear life to the dashboard, repeating “Take it easy now” over and over again, but was ignored.  The little van screeched around the corners of the little lane, causing dopey-eyed sheep to scarper. Mae gave her husband a triumphant glare.

They didn’t see the tractor until it was right upon them.  May screamed, but Seamus grabbed the steering wheel, yanking it to the left.  The van ploughed through the hedge and into a rutted field, jolting angrily over the bumps towards the nearby sea-cliff edge.

“Stop the car!” shouted Seamus desperately, but his wife had floored the accelerator was holding the steering wheel with white-knuckled panic.  “Mae!  Stop! For God’s sake!” He then lunged for the hand-break, and pulled it up hard.  The van skidded to a protesting halt, finally ending up perched perilously over the cliff edge, two wheels spinning angrily in the wind.

Mae sobbed loudly, still clutching the steering wheel.

“Mae,” said Seamus quietly, touching her arm and pulling her back into her seat.  “Be still now. Don’t lean forward and no sudden moves, OK?  We need to get out.  Turn the engine off, then try to open your door, but slowly does it.”

He leaned back into his seat while she switched off the ignition, wiped her tears on her pullover, and opened the door.  The van yawed forward threateningly. May screamed.

“Close it!” shouted Seamus.  She did, and the van tilted back reluctantly.

“We’ll have to try mine.”  He managed to carefully open the passenger door without affecting the balance of the van.

“Now Mae,” he said. “I need you to climb over me. Very slowly, OK?”

His wife unbuckled her seat belt and carefully eased herself over him.  She then quickly jumped out of the van onto the turf.  The van groaned and started to tilt forward again.  Seamus unbuckled his seatbelt frantically and scrambled out of his seat, just in time to watch the van tumble over the cliff, plunging to a noisy end on the rocks below.

The trembling young couple lay huddled together on the cliff edge.

“Seamus?” said May after a few minutes.

“Hmmm?”

“We almost died there.”

“Ay, it was a close one.”

She paused for a moment, then continued, “Seamus, you know what I always say about me mam?”

“Yes?”

“I’ve decided that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“I agree,” replied Seamus, grinning.

May looked up at her husband and slapped him playfully. “Why, Mr O’Donnell, I should … oh shite!”

“What is it?”

“I forgot to turn off the cooker!  The stew will be ruined.”

Seamus kissed his wife gently on the forehead. “Don’t worry about it, love.  I’m anyway not in the mood for stew anymore.”

Rose

Woman dancing in a field picture

“Rooooose!”

His voice was rough with overuse – he had been shouting for hours. Usually she just wandered off to the bottom of the garden, or sometimes climbed over the fence into the pasture beyond to chase after sheep, but this time there was no sign of her and he was frantic with worry.

Then he saw her, walking along the pavement towards their house, naked except for a little cap she had made out of newspaper. He grabbed a coat and ran towards her.

“Rose, where have you been this time?” he shouted angrily as he grabbed her and wrapped the coat around her. Her trim little body was blue with the cold and she was bleeding from a gash in her knee. “What happened?”

She looked up at her husband with confused eyes. “I was looking for you. But I couldn't find you. A nice man offered to help me look for you. But he wasn't so nice. I ran away.”

“But Rose,” he replied, “I was here. I am always here.”

He held her tightly and together they stood on the derelict porch while the sun settled for a well-deserved rest.

Pride Of My Heart

Beautiful little girl picture

This was the place: derelict building, the guy had said, at the end of the alley, last door on the left. Mind you, he had been very drunk and took a full unsteady minute to examine the photo I showed him before answering, “That’s Lola for sure, not that you’d recognise her; you her father or summat?” I nodded and gave him all my available cash before moving on. This was the end of my search, many months of wandering the streets at night, peddling the picture of my little girl, trying to avoid trouble.

I pushed the door open and climbed the stairs, covering my mouth because of the putrid stench of urine-washed vomit, finally arriving at what was her room. I hesitated before pushing the door open, dreading what I might find.

She lay there, my angel; pride of my heart; cold and immobile; gone.

The Fossilworths


It was probably a good thing that Lady Fossilworth passed away, because Lord Fossilworth had become increasingly distracted, and hardly noticed her any more. Not that their’s was any sort of relationship to speak of: they interacted increasingly via Blackberry as they passed on their way to social engagements, touching base only to confirm dates of common engagement.

Lord Fossilworth had needed to be reminded by his butler Grieves that the funeral was that day: a grey, dismal sort of damp squib day that confused decisions of attire, but he had settled on his cashmere navy blazer – it gave him a fine, if undeserved, military aplomb. The service was sombre, as these things are (nobody wants a cheerful send-off - it gives the wrong idea), and Grieves brought back the ashes to the manor house, placing the urn on top of the mantelpiece.

Lord Fossilworth did however notice Lady Fossilworth the next day, and was grateful for the extra ashtray.

funny short old couple relationship joke story

Little Secrets


The early dawn silence was shattered by the crash of distant cannon fire.  Antoine stirred in his sleep, and then awoke.

"Every morning," he groaned sitting up. "Mon Dieu! How long must this war go on for?"

He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see his wife looking up at him sleepily.  He bent down and kissed her forehead.

"Good morning, my love."

"I am still sleeping," she replied with mock indignation.

He smiled and kissed her again, and then got out of bed, shivering on the cold flagstones as he put on his gown and leather slippers.  He shuffled through to the kitchen to light a fire in the hearth and hang a pot for hot water.  He then opened the shutters and gazed for a while over the sleeping rooftops of Lombard towards the distant, hazy city walls of Réalmont.  He listened to the continuing explosions.

"Poor bastards," he muttered.

His reverie was interrupted by the clattering of hooves on the cobble-stoned street below his house.

He looked down to see two soldiers pull up on horseback, trailing a third horse. One of the soldiers, a plume-helmeted lieutenant, dismounted and banged on the house front door.

"What is it?" shouted down Antoine from the window.

The lieutenant looked up.  "Monsieur Rossignol? Antoine Rossignol?"

"Yes?"

"You are to come with us, please.  Général Duchamps has requested your presence at the camp at Réalmont. Immediately."

"What are you talking about?" objected Antoine. "I cannot just leave! I have students to teach! What does he want?"

"I'm afraid I must insist," said the lieutenant. "We will wait while you get ready."
Antoine sighed and turned from the window.  His wife looked at him anxiously as he returned to the bedroom. "Who was that?"

"Soldiers of the prince.  I've been summoned to see one his generals."

"Why you?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Who knows?  Perhaps he needs help counting his cannons."

"This is no time for jokes, Antoine.  You are not a soldier and have no business there."

"Do you think I want to go? But what choice do I have?"

"But..."

"Clarisse, enough.  I will go, and I will come back.  Please help me fetch me my things."
His wife scowled, but helped him get ready.

"Please don't fret, my love," said Antoine, kissing his wife's forehead as he was about to leave.  "I will take care and will be back soon, I promise."

He then opened the front door and was helped onto his horse by the waiting soldier and rode off along the narrow streets of Lombard until they reached the country road to Réalmont.  The morning was still young and a reluctant mist clung to the fields. The road was dry, even with the recent rains, and despite his apprehension, Antoine felt an uncustomary thrill as they galloped past miles of poplar-lined countryside.

He heard the siege camp before he saw it, but then at the crest of a hill it appeared below: a vast sprawl of white tents flying the purple hawk crest of Henri II of Bourbon. Beyond the camp lay the great fortified gate of Réalmont.

They trotted into the camp, mud splashing surly soldiers huddled around morning camp fires as they passed, until finally they came to a halt in front of a large tent, and dismounted.

"Come with me," said the lieutenant.

Antoine followed him into the tent containing a chart-covered table, some draped chairs, a large studded chest and a simple camp bed.  An older soldier wearing a nightshirt stood stooped over the charts, scratching his stubble.

He looked up. "Ah, Monsieur Rossignol," he said. "Do come in, and thank you for coming at such short notice." He took a step towards Antoine and extended his hand. "I am, despite my rustic appearances, Général Duchamps, commander of this patch of mud."

Antoine bowed and shook his hand.  "Monsieur Général, I am honoured indeed to be here, but I don't quite understand..."

"Yes, my apologies for the secrecy and summoning you like this. War unfortunately curtails the freedoms of all, does it not?"

Antoine did not reply, so the general continued, "Ah well, there it is.  We have a matter of great importance that you perhaps can help us with. You are a mathematician, I understand?"

"Yes."

"And what is your view of this war? You are, I understand, Catholic?"
Antoine shrugged.  "I am indeed, but it is a war. War is unfortunate."

"You don't believe in the cause, then? The extermination of these Huguenot protestant heretics?"

Antoine eyed the general cautiously before replying slowly.  "I believe in the truth of the Church, but I also believe in man's fallibility. Truth can be hard to perceive."

The general chuckled. "A diplomat, philosopher and mathematician.... and I am told with some enthusiasm for cryptography, I think it is called?  The deciphering of codes?"

Antoine shuffled uncomfortably.  "It is but a hobby of mine, Monsieur le Général."

"Do not be modest, Monsieur.  Your reputation in this area precedes you."  The general then handed Antoine a piece of paper containing a few lines of text.  Antoine looked at it curiously.  It was clearly a coded message: the letters were carefully arranged in a grid, but made no immediate sense.

"It appears to be a code," he said.

The general smiled. "It certainly does, Monsieur.  We intercepted a messenger from the city.  He was carrying this, but sadly did not live long enough to reveal its contents. We have such enthusiastic soldiers, you see.  So, we are hoping you might be able to help."

~
"Fool, fool, arrogant fool, Antoine! To think you could solve this riddle. Oh, you come highly recommended, do you?  Not after this!" He swept the papers off the table in disgust.  The key to the code had eluded him so far, despite hours of struggle, and he held is face in despair. Initially the excitement at a new challenge had absorbed his attention, but as the puzzle failed repeated attempts at solving using standard decryption techniques, the young man became increasingly anxious.  His lack of conviction over the Catholic cause was not a secret, and he worried that his inability to decipher the code might be considered deliberate by the enthusiastic army which surrounded him.

"Monsieur?"

Antoine looked up.  A small man dressed in drab civilian clothes and a white cap entered the tent bearing a tray of food.

"Pardon Monsieur for interrupting your work.  Monsieur le Général asked that I bring you something to eat," said the man.

Antoine waved it away. "I am not hungry."

The man did not leave.

"Thank you, but no," insisted Antoine. "I have to finish this first. I cannot afford distractions."

The man approached and carefully put the tray on the table.

"Monsieur, I beg you to at least take a look at what I have prepared." He removed the tray cover to reveal a bowl of steaming fragrant vegetable broth, bread and cheese.  Antoine relented - he was hungry after all, and perhaps a little break would be good.  The man watched as he took a sip of the soup.

"Oh my goodness,” exclaimed Antoine. “It's exquisite!"

The man beamed.  "It is my secret recipe."

"You are a chef?"

"I am, Monsieur.  The personal chef to Monsieur le Général."

"But you are not a soldier," remarked Antoine, gesturing to the chef's clothes.

"No, Monsieur. I am too small and feeble to be of such service to my country."

"So instead you cook magical soups?"

The chef blushed slightly.  "I do my best, Monsieur."

Antoine continued to eat in silence, then said, "So, tell me. What's in the soup?  I can see the vegetables and guess some of the herbs, but there is something else I cannot place."

"I regret I cannot say, Monsieur, the recipe is a little secret of mine, but I will say that sometimes the secret of recipes is not in the basic ingredients, but in the way they are combined to form more complex ingredients..."

Antoine looked up suddenly. "Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed.  The chef frowned. Antoine quickly pushed his tray to one side and leaned down to pick up his papers off the floor. "You see," he continued excitedly, waving the encoded message, "your soup is like this secret message. And when we try to decipher it, we look for basic ingredients, the letters, and seek familiar patterns, like the fact that a letter which occurs the most often may well represent the letter 'e'."

The chef nodded, still frowning slightly.


"But!"  Antoine raised a triumphant finger.  "Fool that I am for missing it until you spoke, in this case, and that is what has frustrated me until now, I have been looking for simple ingredients, not complex ones.  Not letters..." He paused for dramatic effect. "But syllables!"

He did not wait for a response, and peered intently at the message in his hand, then at his letter charts, and then started scribbling furiously on a blank page, muttering to himself.  The chef quietly cleared away the dishes on to the tray and slipped out of the tent without a word.

~
And thus it happened that Antoine Rossignol, formerly of cobble-stoned Rue Navier, Lombard, teacher of mathematics and husband to Clarisse, solved the encoded message of Réalmont. The message was found to be a desperate plea for provisions and ammunition to allies of the city, and when presented to the city the next day in decoded form, resulted in prompt surrender.
The means of the victory came to the attention of His Grand Eminence, Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII, and Antoine was summoned to the Palace of Versailles with his wife where he became chief cryptographer to the king.  He decoded many more such messages, and developed the Grand Cipher, which for many a generation defined modern French cryptography.

History does not however mention, at least until now, the chef with a penchant for little secrets.