Very Slight Stories | Like short stories, only shorter.

'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Mr. Thompson's Station

   The trains are waiting. Passengers must go to them, seeking them out at their nameless station. In my uncle's photos, Mr. Thompson, the station master, looks as if his mind is elsewhere, possibly contemplating the whereabouts of Mr. Bird, the driver who took leave of his duties to empty his trousers of the pebbles, sunflower seeds, foreign currency, bottle tops and paperback books he had amassed in his pockets on long summer days. That was two years before the photos were taken. Surely he would have extracted every item from his pockets in two years, Mr. Thompson thought.
   Mr. Bird found that he could fulfil his duties simply by waiting for a passenger to arrive, and no passengers ever arrived, so he could work from home. But he wasn't at home. Mr. Thompson checked. He walked down the short winding path through the trees to the driver's cottage, but no one was there, or at least no one opened the front door when Mr. Thompson knocked. He didn't go around the back. Returning to the station was the only way to allay the anxiety he felt. It was easy to get lost, even on the shortest of outings. You could try finding the tracks if you got lost, and following them back to the station, but they had a way of confusing even the most astute inspectors of rail lines. Mr. Kelly, the most eminent of all inspectors, was left disconsolate by the bewildering junctions. Rail lines had always cooperated with him in the past, willingly submitting to his scrutiny. Hostility from train tracks came as a shock. He took it personally. It was much worse than the time his brother told him he had the charm of a sewer disturbed by a storm. He was used to being offended by his family. The sewer insult had come shortly after his brother had tried to frame him for an act of vandalism on their grandfather's caravan. His career went on a downward spiral after his failure to conquer the tracks around Mr. Thompson's station. He devoted an increasing amount of time to weaving the intricate plots his brother would get tangled up in, and to the unravelling of his brother's plots against him. A closer relationship with his family failed to compensate for the harm done to his bond with train tracks.
   There was a good chance that Mr. Bird had gone to Flora's cafe, which was located half a mile away at the end of a lane that was gradually being engulfed by brambles. Mr. Thompson would never travel so far away from his station because of his fear of being engulfed by the outside world. This fate may well have befallen Mr. Bird. He'd have gone to the cafe to exchange some of the items in his pockets for tea and cakes. Flora would accept foreign currency and the informal currency of corks, hair pins, bottle tops, buttons and pebbles. The lighter load on his return journey would have allowed him to let out the spring in his step, so long a captive beneath his cumbersome trousers. His light-hearted mood wouldn't have lasted long. The realisation that he was lost would have been made unbearable by his knowledge of the station's reluctance to reveal its whereabouts. Mr. Bird was a resourceful man. He would have devised outstanding ploys to track down the station, but it would have resisted his best efforts.
   My uncle was a spy. He was self-employed. He had a great facility for seeing things that others would miss. These are some of the things he witnessed during his career: elastic light bulbs; astronauts who were afraid to leave their attic; a magazine editor you could fold up and fit into a handbag; glasshouses that fell to pieces every time they sneezed; a castle overrun by feet; a superhero who got his strength from eating hair. One summer day my uncle was walking through a thick forest in search of a greyhound when he came across the train station. It was typical of him to stumble across something so elusive. He knew he had struck gold, and for the next few weeks he remained concealed in his hiding place amongst the trees. He observed the operation of the station and he took photos of the principal characters. The operation revolved around Mr. Thompson's concern about the absence of his driver, and my uncle was there to see the concern become panic when a passenger arrived. It was Mrs. Dennigan. She was dragging a bulging suitcase behind her on the platform. Mr. Thompson watched in horror for several minutes as she inched towards the ticket office. His nightmares had left the relative safety of the stage inside his head and they were going on tour.
   But just before she reached the ticket office, Mr. Bird returned. He looked different after his trousers had been emptied. A few awkward items had been very reluctant to leave, and that's why he had been away for so long. Mrs. Dennigan said she was returning from a visit to her sister's house. After a spring clean, her sister was going to throw out many things she didn't need, and Mrs. Dennigan had rescued most of them from the bin. This explained the obesity of her suitcase. When she was at the station she realised that she didn't need these things enough to be burdened by them on her return journey, so she removed them. Mr. Bird needed them enough to be burdened by them in his trousers. He managed to find room for a broken tape recorder, a feather duster, a glass jar full of old pens and a cracked tea cup, amongst other things. The feather duster's disappearance into his trousers was as entertaining for the performer as it was for the audience.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


A Play for Christmas Day

   Last Christmas Eve one of my neighbours, Mr. Driscoll, called around with a bottle of whiskey. I had a bottle for him as well. I suppose it's no great surprise that we ended up sitting by the fireplace with glasses of whiskey in our hands. I asked him how he was spending Christmas Day and he said, "I'll be going to my daughter's house. I'll walk there, as long as it's not raining. A cold and frosty Christmas morning would be the ideal gift. Snow has been mentioned, the icing on the cake. The roads are quieter than on any other day of the year. You won't hear the sound of a car or a voice. It's a nice way to prepare for a house full of children who've just been given gifts.
   "After dinner, the children will have their playthings to facilitate the flow of time. Some people are happy to watch TV. I'll need something warm and amusing to pass the afternoon, and for this I go out into the cold and walk through the fields to meet a group of people who perform a play for me each year. You'll hear them before you see them. If they're out of earshot, they'll remain invisible. Every year I go to the fields beyond the river, and I'll wait there until I hear the bells on their clothing. I'll look around and I'll see them eagerly walking towards me. They roam the fields on Christmas Day, searching for an audience. They stay well away from towns and villages. A few people like me will go to them and fill the role of an empty vessel in the performance of their play. They'll fill my head with thoughts and impressions as remarkable as their costumes. Ivy cascades over red velvet cloaks. Twigs bearing green leaves grow from buttonholes. Some of their hats are like buildings with ornate facades, recently-added mezzanine floors, balconies and attic windows through which you can see the flickering flame of a candle. Firm foundations on a steady head are needed to prevent the collapse of these structures. Not all of the performers have hats. One man has a wig that's spring-mounted and he can make it jump with his eyebrows when he wants to express surprise. I've seen workers in banks with similar hair pieces, but it takes on a magical quality in the fading light on Christmas Day. Nothing magical has ever happened to me in a bank.
   "The women have long hair with ribbons that trail on the ground behind them. Every year there are new additions to the costumes, and sometimes they wear entirely new garments. Last year I saw an elderly man with wires rising from his shoulders, and on the ends of the wires were white clouds. I noticed the hands of a clock slowly spinning behind his back. On the ends of these three hands were a sun, a moon and a red airplane. They rose above his left shoulder before setting again. Another man wears a timber box. Sometimes the lid opens and he peeps out. His lines in the play are meant to be muffled by his cumbersome costume.
   "The beginning of the action is signalled by the crash of cymbals. After an incomprehensible exchange between the man in the box and a woman dressed in black, the singers will perform their song in honour of winter. They'll be accompanied by musicians playing unusual instruments. One of these instruments resembles a cello. You'd expect the body of a cello to undergo many modifications on its journey from being a tree to its destination in an orchestra, but this cello-like instrument looks as if its journey came to an end shortly after it stopped being a tree.
   "When the song is completed, a character known as Henry appears. He speaks about the threat of freezing weather, the pursuit of happiness, the promise of fire and the death of Fitzmaurice. He takes great pleasure in describing the unfortunate demise of Fitzmaurice. It happened at the hands of escaped convicts who blamed him for their incarceration in a dungeon equipped with abundant horrors. They had successfully enacted a plan to steal a recipe and the ingredients for a cake known to make people weep when they were parted from it, even though it looked as if only pigs were meant to find it appetising. They would have taken the cook as well, but she deterred them with an intimidating demonstration of what she could do with her elbows.
   "Fitzmaurice gallantly confronted the brigands and single-handedly trapped them in a natural dungeon amongst the roots of an ancient oak tree. This was like a five-star hotel compared to the unnatural dungeon they were taken to. But they escaped from here, and they tracked down Fitzmaurice. Before killing him, they thanked him for inspiring the seething hatred that nourished their plan for escape, and expressed their regret that their gratitude would necessarily fail to offset their hatred.
   "After Henry's speech, the play varies from year to year. Many characters will appear, and Fitzmaurice is always one of them. He confronts Henry. Swords are drawn and violence looms. Other characters will intervene, such as the priest with the imaginary hiccupping horse, or the woman who plants seeds from which rainbows grow. Digressions and long conversations with me are an essential part of the play. These gentle folk speak softly of the grasslands they call their home. A distant home. A place beyond the hills. 'The' hills. Not the sort of hills you can easily see, even when you're standing on their feet. A place where rivers bend so much they begin to resemble a lake full of countless small islands. Salmon happily meander down this winding course as they make their way to the sea. Jumping from island to island would be the simplest route on the journey home. The gentle folk often talk about going home, but it sounds to me like something they've consigned to the distant future.
   "No matter how cold it gets, I'll gladly stay outside chatting to these people. After the sun has gone down they'll bring the action to a close with the appearance of a man in a hat that looks as if it could house numerous animals you'd normally find in a hedgerow. A final song is sung and we go our separate ways with warm goodbyes."
   After hearing this I was determined to join Mr. Driscoll in the fields beyond the river on Christmas Day, but I was delayed because I had to act as peace-maker between my niece and nephew when their week-long fight about the existence of cauliflower flared up again. By the time I was ready to go it was nearly dark and it was snowing heavily, so I had to postpone my journey. I'm definitely going to go this year. My niece and nephew have been arguing about space recently. If hostilities break out on Christmas Day I'm going to let them sort it out amongst themselves.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


The Miniature Santa

   Every Christmas, Ruth makes an enormous cake with two holes in it so she can put her hands up through it to operate the glove puppets on top. The puppets of Santa and Scrooge perform a short play in which they debate the true meaning of Christmas. Santa always prevails, and then they dance.
   Last year, after the icing had hardened, she attached the puppets and rehearsed the play in her kitchen. She only had to look at her script once, when she forgot Scrooge's line about how people shouldn't be allowed wear hats if they use their heads as musical instruments. She was satisfied with this first rehearsal. She left the cake on the kitchen table and she went to visit a friend.
   It was nearly eleven o' clock when she got home that night. She turned on the light in her kitchen and she was shocked to see that the Santa puppet had come to life. He seemed to be performing a dance for the lifeless Scrooge. When the shock started to fade she wondered if there was something in the puppet, something other than the spirit of Santa. She lifted the cake and the Santa puppet became as lifeless as Scrooge. A mouse emerged from under the cake and ran across the kitchen floor. She screamed when she saw the mouse, and she screamed even louder when she saw what he had done to her cake. The mouse had tunnelled his way into it, and the cake was ruined. She needed to start work on a new cake as soon as possible, and she had to catch the mouse as well. Fortunately, she knew just the man who could help in emergencies like these.
   Conrad ran a corner-shop near where she lived. He went to extraordinary lengths to provide the best possible service for his customers. He opened the shop at seven in the morning and closed it at midnight, seven days a week. He lived above the shop. If one of his customers needed something in the middle of the night they'd throw a pebble at his window. He'd do his best to help them, as long as they didn't want something too outlandish, like a lobster or a hedgehog. Even if they did, he'd give them the phone number of someone who was likely to have a supply of lobsters or hedgehogs.
   Ruth went to his shop to get the ingredients for a new cake, a mouse trap and some cheese. As always, he had everything she required, and he made her a cup of coffee to help her stay awake while she worked on the cake.
   When she got home she set the trap in her dining room and she put some cheese into it. She went to the kitchen and started work on her cake, but she couldn't stop thinking about the mouse, and every time she thought of him she pictured the dancing puppet. She became convinced that the mouse had the soul of Santa. He could have gone into the Scrooge puppet, but he didn't. She couldn't kill Santa.
   She removed the trap and she went back to Conrad's shop. He had gone to bed, so she threw a pebble at his window to wake him up. He went downstairs and let her into the shop. She explained her problem. She didn't want to kill this miniature Santa but she didn't want him in her house either. He might very well be trapped in her house and he surely had lots of other places to visit. It was her duty to enable his escape, she said. Conrad knew someone who could help.
   He took her to see a man called Padraig, who made doll's houses. He was still working in his workshop, trying to get some orders completed before Christmas. The houses were very detailed and very realistic. He'd even decorated them for Christmas. The tiny trees had flashing lights. Conrad asked if it would be possible to rent a doll's house for the night, but Ruth said she'd like to buy one.
   She bought a house that had a working chimney, and Conrad helped her take it home. They put it on the floor in her dining room. They attached a pipe to the chimney, and this pipe went out through the dining room window. They hung a bell over the end of the pipe outside the window, so they'd hear the mouse brush off it as he made his exit. They left some cheese on a miniature table in the doll's house.
   Conrad helped Ruth work on the cake in the kitchen. At two o' clock in the morning they heard the bell ring and they rushed to the doll's house. The cheese was gone from the miniature table.
   "Look!" Ruth said. "He left a little present for me under the Christmas tree in the house."
   "I have something in the shop that will remove the stain."
   "No, an actual present. It's a silver thimble. To him, this is probably like a mug."
   "Abandoning your attempt to kill him was enough to make his 'nice' list. If Santa used that criteria he'd still have a substantial 'naughty' list. My nephews have a surprise waiting for him when he gets to the bottom of the chimney. Santa has probably survived much worse in the past but if thieves broke into the house, I doubt they'd come back out again."
   Ruth liked the thimble, but she thought the doll's house was one of the best presents she ever got, and she thanked the miniature Santa for bringing it to her. She used the puppets to perform a new play in the doll's house. In this one, Santa discussed his theory that he travelled around the world in one night by freeing his soul from its cage and letting it inhabit the bodies of animals, the ones who were free from cages. Scrooge didn't believe Santa existed at all, but he still danced at the end while Santa played the miniature grand piano.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


The Bird Trap

   Jeremy often stays in his shed until dawn when he's working on one of his inventions. He enjoys these exhausting nightshifts because of the sense of achievement he gets when he switches on his latest machine and it does exactly what he wants it to do. His very first invention was an apple-cutting machine, which he made when he was ten. He knew he'd discovered his calling in life when demonstrated this machine to his family and he saw the sheer terror it inspired. Even his aunt Martha started praying, and she was normally impervious to fear. She had once stood her ground when she found herself in the path of a charging bull. She must have done a very good impression of an immovable object because the bull halted his charge and apologetically backed away. If he'd seen her bungee jumping or hang gliding he'd have realised just how movable she was.
   He came up with many useful inventions in his teens. His machine for planting daffodil bulbs attracted a lot of attention in his home town, and it inspired hardly any terror. People started hiring him to build machines that would do the jobs they couldn't do with their bare hands and a hammer. When he was seventeen, Mrs. Hanratty asked him to make a bird trap. She wanted to catch the blackbird who regularly visited her garden. "I'd really like to look that bird in the eye," she said. "He seems like such an intelligent chap. And I can see that he's thinking exactly the same thing when he's looking at me."
   Jeremy designed a trap and built it in Mrs. Hanratty's back garden. The blackbird would be lured into the trap by food, which was in a shallow hole at the centre of a board on the ground. The board was hidden by a layer of leaves. Sensors were attached to the board to detect the tread of a blackbird. A cage would silently drop from above as the bird consumed the food. The cage was cunningly disguised as a hammock that hung from a tree, just in case the bird said to himself, "The food under that cage is tempting, but there's something about that cage I don't like." As it dropped to the ground, the fake hammock would turn over to become a cage. If the bird was clever enough to be suspicious of a hammock, then Jeremy would need a much better trap.
   He set up the trap on a Friday evening, and he came back on the Saturday morning to see if the blackbird had been caught. He went around to the back of Mrs. Hanratty's house. He could see something moving in the cage, but when he lifted it he found Mrs. Hanratty's cat, Petra. He suspected that his trap had actually imprisoned the blackbird. Petra looked as if she'd just had a good meal, and on the ground there were black feathers and blood, the very things Jeremy's family most associated with his inventions.
   Mrs. Hanratty would be upset if she found out that his trap had led to the death of the creature she was looking forward to having a meeting of minds with. She would have only ever seen the bird from a distance, so there was a good chance she wouldn't notice if he gave her another blackbird instead. He put some more food into the trap and he set it up again. He called up all of his friends and he told them he'd pay twenty euros to the first person to bring him a living blackbird.
   He was lucky he had so many friends who had experience of trapping birds and animals. Gareth won the race. It took him two hours to catch a blackbird. He said that all he had needed to catch it was a glove puppet and an egg cup.
   Jeremy put this bird into a cage and gave it to Mrs. Hanratty. She didn't notice that she was meeting a complete stranger. After a few minutes of nodding at the bird she turned to her cat, who was sleeping on a sofa, and said, "It's dinner time, Petra. Look what the nice young man caught for you."
   "Surely you're not going to let the cat eat the bird," Jeremy said.
   "She's been looking forward to it for weeks."
   "If I'd known I'd been hired to catch cat food I'd never have agreed to do the job."
   "I don't believe you'd really be so cruel to my cat. I think I'll leave the two of them in the bathroom. It'll be easier to clean up the mess in there."
   She put the bird back into the cage and took it to the bathroom. She was expecting to find Petra close behind her, but the cat wasn't there. "She's getting very lazy these days," Mrs. Hanratty said. "I suppose I'll have to lift her in as well."
   While she was gone, Jeremy took the cage outside and he set the bird free. Mrs. Hanratty came out and asked him what had happened to Petra's dinner. Jeremy pointed to a tree and said, "It's waiting to be eaten on that branch."
   She was angry with Jeremy, but he insisted he had done the right thing. As they were arguing, the blackbird spotted some nice food on the ground, and he wasn't suspicious of the hammock above it. Mrs. Hanratty was amazed to see him being trapped.
   "I can't believe he's stupid enough to fall for the same trick twice," she said. "I'm not sure I want Petra to be eating a bird like that. I've lost all respect for him now. There's something very refined about eating a creature you respect, like a deer or a chimpanzee. Crows are supposed to be intelligent. Will you catch a crow for Petra?"
   "I'll pay you double what I paid for the blackbird trap."
   He was tempted because he didn't like crows, but he refused.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Growing Younger

   When Martin was young he always looked forward to getting a birthday present from his grandmother. These gifts were always things she'd made herself. Some were knitted and some were the result of many hours spent gluing pieces of paper together and attaching buttons to pipe cleaners. As he got older, when he had learnt to count the candles on his cake, these presents started to lose their appeal. When he grew too old for candles he was embarrassed by the sweaters, hats and homemade pen-holders sprouting pipe-cleaner necks, crepe paper heads and sad paperclip eyes. Most of the objects she made had faces and names like Floyd or Eddie. 'Barbara' was the name of the ashtray she gave him for his sixteenth birthday. It was meant to be no more than an ornament. She might have pointed this out if she'd known that he was a smoker and stupid enough to use a flammable ashtray.
   When he was in his thirties and he was old enough for birthday candles again (though never more than three or four) he looked forward to his grandmother's gifts once again. It was the thought that counted, he realised. He had also realised that it was delusional to expect anyone to give him a present he might actually like. When his expectations were negligible, these handmade items became his favourite presents again.
   For his thirty-fifth birthday she gave him a tea cosy. It came with a teapot to demonstrate how it worked. The teapot looked like an antique, and Martin wondered if it was valuable. One Saturday afternoon he took it to an antique shop to get it valued. There were no other customers in the shop when he went in. Two middle-aged men sat on chairs behind the counter. He thought they'd be delighted to have a customer, but when he took out the teapot and asked their opinion they weren't very helpful. They were straining so hard to be unhelpful that it would have been easier to be helpful.
   At times like these, Martin wished he was a religious person so he could endure such trials with a peace of mind that would allow him to smile benevolently at the people he wanted to punch. But instead of a smile he looked as if he wanted to punch them. People like the men in the antique shop always seemed to enjoy inspiring this look in others, which increased Martin's desire to punch them, but he knew he couldn't do it. If he couldn't be like a serene monk who sees the love of God everywhere, he'd settle for being someone who doesn't have any qualms about punching people.
   He went to see a friend of his called Brenda and he told her about his experience in the antique shop.
   "That was probably their way of saying it's worthless junk," she said.
   "They could have just said it. People like that really annoy me."
   "Do what I do when shopkeepers annoy me."
   "What's that?"
   "I'll do it for you."
   She got a phone book and she found the number of the antique shop. She dialled the number, and when a man answered the phone she told him that she had recently inherited a house from an aunt whose passion in life was collecting antiques. "She wouldn't let anyone touch these things," Brenda said. "I've never had an interest in touching anything in that house. It all looks like junk to me, but then I'm no expert in these things. I just want to clear the house, so I'd pay you to get rid of her collection."
   Martin could hear the man in the shop trying to hide his excitement. He said that himself and his colleague would assess the collection before deciding on the best course of action. She gave them an address. She told them that her uncle Christy would be there. They should tell him that Brenda sent them, and he'd show them the antiques.
   Martin drove to the street where Christy lived. Brenda went with him. He parked near Christy's house, and shortly afterwards they saw the two men from the shop arrive. One of the men rang the doorbell. Christy opened the door, and he seemed to know what was going on as soon as they mentioned Brenda. He smiled broadly and he invited them in.
   "What's he going to do to them?" Martin said to Brenda.
   "Show them his model trains. He can spend hours droning on about his trains. People will humour him if they think they're going to make a killing on free antiques or books. A bookshop owner once spent three hours looking at the trains because he thought there was a collection of rare books about canals waiting at the end. He deserved it because I detected a sneer when I bought a Harry Potter book in his shop."
   "Don't people get angry when they realise there's nothing for them at the end?"
   "Yes, but it doesn't affect Christy in the slightest. He's never even remotely bothered when he irritates or infuriates other people, which is a great way to be. He's never bothered by anything."
   "I'd love to be like that," Martin said. "That's what I need to aspire to."
   They waited in the car for over two hours, but the antique experts still hadn't emerged from the house. Martin wanted to be there for their exit because he wanted to see how angry they'd be. Brenda said she'd go in to see how they were getting on.
   She'd only been gone for a few minutes when she returned to the car and said, "Bad news, I'm afraid. They're inside happily playing with the trains. It turns out that they're really into model trains. I know you must be angry, but remember what you said earlier about wanting to be like Christy and never being bothered by anything. Now would be a good time to start."
   Martin got out of the car. He slammed the door and walked across the street towards Christy's house. Brenda followed him. "Don't do anything stupid," she said.
   He rang the doorbell. When Christy opened the door, Martin said, "Can I play with your trains, please?"
   "Of course you can," Christy said. "The more the merrier."
   Martin found the model trains very relaxing. He was glad he'd been able to overcome his reservations about admitting that he wanted to play with trains. This need to preserve an outward antipathy towards model trains had been an unwelcome presence in his life since he was ten. He promised to buy himself a present of a train set for his next birthday.

The Tree and the Horse
Henry Seaward-Shannon
A Walk in the Rain
The East Cork Patents Office
Words are my favourite noises




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very slight stories

They Met a Bear
  They stopped in a small seaside town and they went for a walk. They met a bear.
  This is one version of the story. In another version, they met a sailor, and in this one they ended up being held at gunpoint on a speedboat and becoming unwilling participants in a diamond robbery while disguised as a cow, and sharing in the proceeds of that crime.
  So when they tell the story they just say, "We met a bear. He waved at us."

The Story of the Fortune Teller and the Alarm Clock
  A fortune teller threw an alarm clock at me. This story is deliberately lacking in details to mock the predictions of the fortune teller. Although she was right when she said she'd throw an alarm clock at me.

  One. Two. Three, the study. Four, a candle stick. Five. Six...
  Seven is missing, presumed dead. One has taken up the case, and two is helping him in his investigations. They both suspect six. Seven was last seen next to six in the garden.
  But seven isn't really dead. He's consumed half a bottle of whiskey and he's currently in the orchard, talking to a rabbit. "One of us is as boring as a gate post," he says, "and it's not..." He stops to count on his fingers. "No, actually it is me."
  Eight nine ten.

Debbie and his dog
  Debbie was sick of people mistaking her for a man.
  "Is your dog my parole officer?"
  She was sick of people asking her that too.

Very Slight Stories: like short stories, only shorter

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