Thursday, 23 January 2014

Righteous Fever



The day Austin stood before Julie and took his wedding vow was the happiest day of his life. He promised, "To take her, forsaking all others, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death they do part." It was a vow he was never going to break, not even in the face of The Fever.

It all began in the sweltering slums of San Paulo, Brazil. The first victim was a hunter recently back from a trip through the heart of the rain forest. Within days of returning he broke out in a high fever. A few days after that he went to see a doctor and described a raging thirst which never seemed to abate, a burning fever and pains in every bone in his body. The doctor could do little more than take blood and send the man home.

The hunter arrived back to the doctor’s office far quicker than his test results. The man was carried into the surgery on a makeshift stretcher, convulsing. His temperature was sky high and his face was an explosion of oozing blisters. The puss was incredibly sticky and continued to weep without clotting. The doctor transferred him to hospital on the spot. Unfortunately the team treating him didn't realise what they were dealing with and failed to place him in quarantine.

The hunter's condition worsened, blisters spread into the mouth - covering the gums and the tongue. The doctors were excited and frightened simultaneously because they were dealing with the unknown. They tried to control the hunter’s temperature and swab away the puss that was ever-coming. Try as they might they could not keep up with the worsening condition, it was incredibly aggressive. When the blisters appeared in the man's trachea his lungs began to fill with puss until his breaths became gurgles. Before dawn the hunter drowned in his own body.

A week went by before the hunter's wife presented herself with the beginning of a fever. The rest of the family were rounded up and they too showed signs of the strange new illness. Over the next few days every person who had come into contact with the hunter was either dying or dead. The virus, now unofficially known as "BFV" or "Brazilian Fever Virus," seemed to jump from person to person on contact.

All quarantine measures recommended by the World Health Organisation were now being followed, but the virus found a way around them. The disease mutated and began surviving off the host. Nobody knew that at the time, not until the number of cases of Brazilian Fever began to sore. An epidemic was turning into a disaster. As the doctors discovered more about the virus they found it was infectious for seven days before any symptoms appeared and ended up killing over eighty percent of all infected patients. Everyone agreed, BFV posed a real threat to the future of the human race.

***
The United Nations enacted Pandora Protocol. Every nation across the globe declared martial law. Containment rings were thrown around San Paulo. Nobody was allowed enter or leave. Across the globe international travel was banned, planes had to return to their place of origin without touching down. Many ran out of fuel and crashed. Ships returned to their last port of call or made themselves islands without a home.

The focus of the world turned on a tiny hospital in the poorest part of the world, and all held their breath.

Inside the infected zone - riots, looting and civil unrest went unchecked. Air drops of food, water and medication were the only assistance from the outside world. When the hundreds of thousands of healthy people within the containment ring realised they'd been given a death sentence, the trouble really started. Huge crowds gathered at the barriers and the pleading masses were shot down by the battalions manning the barricades. Bodies piled up and remained where they were till a plague of flies feasted on the rotting flesh. Nobody came to help.

The ripples of infection became waves as the death toll rapidly spiked. Despite the precautions in the hospital the fever began to spread among staff and patients. Bodies were being incinerated until the numbers grew too large. Pits were dug and the mass burnings began. Bodies transported by dumper truck, not hearse. Three weeks passed before the first case appeared on the far side of the containment wall. One case was all it took to bring the leaders of the world together in unity. One case might spell the end for humanity.

By week eight of infection, the death toll stood at 9,756 with a further 25,000 believed to be sick or dying. World leaders commanded the entire of humanity to remain indoors. Containment had failed, all they could do now was try and kill the infected before they had a chance to spread the Fever any further. The world paused, commerce faltered as the days ticked by. Week nine brought what everyone feared most. The fever jumped an ocean and two cases were confirmed in mainland Europe. The following day the first appeared in Florida. The beginning of the end was in sight.

Governments publicly cried for calm, but the sick began to vanish from the face of the earth. Rumours of eradication spiralled out of control as whole families, whole communities, disappeared. In the face of all man's efforts, BFV advanced undaunted.

Week thirty two of infection found every country on the face of the planet battling The Fever. The fabric of modern society lay in tatters as 6 billion people took matters into their own hands.

It was on week thirty three, that a group of twelve men, women, and children, walked from the wasteland of San Paulo. They were immune and word began to spread. They had survived in a church during the worst of the violence and insisted that God had saved them. Evangelists across the world declared a miracle, claiming, "A righteous man will walk through this plague without fear as long as his soul was pure and repentant." An American preacher offered absolution's over the phone, a mere $12.99 per minute. Even in its darkest hour you can depend on humanity to sink even lower.

Around this time, in Dublin, Ireland, Austin and Julie were holed up in their apartment watching the disaster unfold live on the internet. Their spare room looked like a supermarket, stacked with all the tinned food and water they had managed to lay their hands on. Austin, originally from Kerry, wanted to move back there when the outbreak had started but Julie said it would blow over. Now he wished he'd acted earlier. He'd not really believed the Fever would ever get to his little island, but it had. He had waited for the government to save them, a pipe dream if there ever was one. Austin knew if he and Julie were going to survive, it was down to him.

The only broadcast now running on TV demanded that everyone stay indoors. Lock yourself in and wait for help to arrive. Sod that for a game of solders he thought as he packed all he could into his Jeep. In the dead of night, with a shotgun laid across his lap, they put a burning Dublin city in their rear view mirror.


***


The city was a howling nightmare of sirens, screams, gunshots and explosions. A gang of rioters dived out of the way as Austin drove directly at them. Beside him, Julie screamed as one bounced off the side of the jeep.


"I want to go home, Austin," she sobbed as he raced up through the gears.


"We can't go home now, it’s too late," he said and reached across to stroke her hair. The shotgun bounced on his lap, the safety catch off, as the car ploughed through the debris strewn streets.


"I don't care, I just want to go home. I want to go home NOW!" she said, starting to shout. She pulled away from him and began to open her door.


"Julie, this is for the best," Austin said taking hold of her arm to stop her doing anything stupid while he kept the other on the steering wheel.


"I want my family," she sobbed, her hand still resting on the door handle.


"We can't go north, you know that. The Fever is in the north already, we got to get as far away as we can. You trust me, don't you?"


She sniffed, "I trust you," and she took her hand off the door handle.


Austin watched from the corner of his eye as a group of people danced wildly around a blazing supermarket. The world was going mad. He pushed the accelerator a little harder, wanting, needing, to be out of this city. By the time dawn came they were rolling across back roads bordered by high green hedgerows. On the radio, presenters continued to hold out the accepted line of 'stay home, talk to no one'.


Julie tried to phone her parents but couldn't get through. In the end she tried Skyping them and by some miracle a fuzzy image of her mother appeared on screen. At the sight of her, Julie burst into tears.


"Mom, Mom can you hear me?" she balled.

           
"I can sweetheart, are you all right?"


"We're fine, Mom. We're coming to get you, tomorrow or the day after." Julie said


"Don't Julie, the TV said we should stay home." On screen, Julies Mom worried at the corner of her cardigan before she said, "I think your father is sick. I haven't been able to wake him all day."


"Oh God!" said Julie, burying her head in her hands. Austin turned the laptop toward him and asked, "Mrs Ryan, how are you coping?"


"I'll be fine, Austin. I phoned the emergency number a while ago and they said help is on the way. You must promise to keep Julie away from here. Keep her safe."


"I will Mrs Ryan, I'll take..." just then the doorbell in Julie’s parents’ house rung.


"It must be the doctor," said Mrs Ryan jumping to her feet leaving the Skype connection running.



Austin could hear voices in the corridor, Mrs Ryan telling someone where her husband was and about his symptoms, the other voice was muffled like they were behind glass. The voices faded, as if they had gone up stairs. A couple of minutes later, there were three short blasts of automatic gunfire, then silence. Austin heard footsteps coming down the stairs. In of the corner of the screen he could just see a figure in black chemical suit sloshing liquid from a drum he was carrying. Slung across his back was an evil looking gun, stubby but deadly. The back of another person appeared close to the computer. He was also throwing liquid on the furniture and the curtains. He pulled an oven lighter from a pouch in his suit. It was strange seeing a harmless kitchen implement being used for such a grizzly purpose. The man ignited the curtains before turning to leave. He noticed the computer screen and calmly walked over until his mask filled the picture. With dead eyes the man closed the cover and the picture went black. The car was filled with screaming as Julie rocked forward and back in her seat.



Austin crushed three sleeping tablets into a bottle of water and made Julie drink it. She was hysterical and he couldn't think of anything else to do for her. What good were words when you just heard your parents being murdered? It didn't take long for her cries of grief to subside as she slipped into heavily drugged sleep. What else could he do but push south for safety?



***


"It's time to wake up baby," he said as he shook her. The Jeep was running but it had been pulled into the side of the road. Austin was already dressed in a green coat. It once had a fur trim but Austin had cut it off to make it more military looking. He helped dress Julie in a matching outfit before pulling a double layer of plastic gloves on her hands.


"What's going on?" she asked groggily.


"There are people on the road ahead, I don't know who they are but it’s better if they think we are solders. They will be less likely to try and mess with us." Julie was very groggy from the sleeping tablet and put up no resistance as Austin slipped a gas mask over her face and pulled her hood over her head. He settled back behind the wheel of the Jeep and checked the safety was still off on the gun before he moved.


On the road ahead a car was turned on its side, its nose facing down into the ditch. There were two people on the ground beside it. Austin pulled the Jeep to a stop fifty yards from them and got out, placing the shotgun to his shoulder.


"Clear the road!" he yelled, his words sounded extra loud as they bounced back at him from the inside of his gas mask.



"Thank God you're here, we need help," said the man as he struggled to lift the woman into his arms.


"Stay back," said Austin levelling the gun in at the man.


"She needs to get to hospital," said the man taking more steps forward. The woman in his arms was drenched in sweat and the first signs of weeping sores were visible around her eyes.


"We can’t help you, JUST STAY BACK" said Austin slipping his finger inside the trigger guard.


"I don't care, you’re going to help us," said the man and rushed forward with the dying woman in his arms. Austin didn't know he'd pulled the trigger until the man was thrown backward, landing hard on the ground. The woman landed on top of him and Austin could see blood staining the man’s shoulder where the blast had caught him. Austin looked down at the smoking gun in his shaking hands and couldn't believe he had just shot someone.


"I'm sorry," he called to the man and raced back to the Jeep. There was just enough room for them to scrape by the crashed car now that the couple were out of the road. Austin shot by the bleeding man and felt sick to his stomach. He'd as good as killed that man, he was a murder now. Nothing would ever be the same again.



***




"Did you kill him?" Julie asked, her voice still half-drunk with sleep.



“No, but if I let him stop us we were going to die. She had the Fever.”


"You're like the men that killed my Mother," she said, her voice flat and distant.


"I'm not like them and I didn't kill him, I just nicked him," he lied, not believing the words himself.


“Promise me that you won’t hurt anyone else otherwise we're no better than them,” she said.


“Ok I promise, I won’t hurt anyone else,” Austin said, it was an easy promise to make. He did not want to hurt anyone either. Austin slowed the jeep, keeping a steady pace. They avoided checkpoints by sticking to country lanes. They passed a few but they had long ago been abandoned. The miles continued to pass under the wheels, always south, toward safety.


Night came in on them fast and the petrol needle was resting on empty. If they didn't find fuel soon they'd never reach Kerry.

               

“We need to get some petrol,” he said as the warning light appeared on the dashboard.

“There hasn't been a petrol station for miles,” she said, and even the ones that they had passed looked deserted.


“I know, but we have to try,” Austin said, turning the Jeep into gate. The lane lead to a farm house sitting on top of a gentle hill. He began blowing the horn as he neared the house. Julie looked shocked, after all the effort they had made to stay hidden he was now making sure everyone heard them coming.

"What are you doing?" she asked, bewildered and dismayed.


“It’s like this, in that house could be a farmer. Farmers have guns. If he thinks we are trying to sneak up on him he's more likely to shoot first then ask questions later.” Austin said as he parked the Jeep away from the house.


“Wait here, keep the door locked while I'm gone,” Austin said sliding the shotgun under the sleeping bag which covered their supplies.


“Hello? Hello?” he called as he walked towards the house with his hands held high. There was movement behind kitchen window. Austin decided he was going to have to take a chance. He took off his mask. He waved and smiled toward the window.




“Hello in there, we’re from the red-cross. We're delivering supplies to people in the area. Do you need anything, tinned food, bottled water, medicine?” Austin continued to smile but moved no closer to the house. He tried to imagine what the people inside would want to hear. A woman’s face appeared at the window. She was pale and frightened.


“Show me your identification,” she shouted. Austin flipped open his wallet which had his Bank ID in the clear pocket. He held it up but stayed back so the woman wouldn't be able to read it.


“Look, if you’re ok for everything we better get moving. It will be dark soon,” said Austin with a smile, he turned to go.


“Wait,” called the woman who vanished from the window. The back door opened and middle-aged woman appeared. She wore an apron with flour on it. In her hand she carried a nasty looking slash hook which looked uncomfortable in her dough covered hands.


Austin raised his hands with his palm facing the woman. “Wait where you are please, madam. There are some questions I'm supposed to ask before we can give you any assistance."

The woman paused and thought for a second then said, "Go on."

"Are you, or any of your family sick?”


“No.”


“Has anyone been to the farm in the last two weeks?”


“No.”


“How many are in your family?”


“Four. Myself, my husband and two boys.”


“Has everyone remained inside the building since the emergency began?”


“Yes...no,” said the woman “my husband and eldest son went to get some help four days ago and have not come back yet.” Austin noticed the woman lower the slash hook a little. She so wanted to believe that he was here to help. He had to reassure her.




“I'm sure they are fine, missus. Lots of people have been coming into towns from the country. They are being housed in shelters until we can reunite everyone. Your son and husband are more than likely waiting in one of them for you. What was his name?” Austin asked taking out his mobile phone.


“Sean Kelly,” the woman said, as Austin dialled a number.


“And your son?”


“Paul Kelly.” The connection beeped in his ear. “Hello, this is unit 61 checking in, we are in south Tipperary, outside Latan, on the Kelly Farm. We have two missing civilians, Sean Kelly, adult male and Paul Kelly, age…” Austin looked at the woman.


“He’s fourteen,” she said the hope dripping from her words.


“Fourteen.” Austin said then grew quiet. He nodded said Hum a few times and then pretended to wait. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and told the lady, “They're checking the computer.” Austin gave it a little over a minute before saying “I am still here,” followed by another pause. “That's great, we should be back at base in an hour. Ok, thanks.”




Austin closed the phone, cutting off his message service in mid-sentence. “Your husband and son are fine, they are in the red-cross camp in Tipperary town.”


The woman was delighted and she lowered the slash hook altogether.


“We'll leave you an emergency hamper, it has some medication and tinned provisions that will get you through the next few days. It is just in the back of the jeep.” Austin said as he walked towards the Jeep motioning for Julie to open up. The woman laid the slash hook on the ground and followed Austin. Austin opened the back door, pulled out the shotgun and levelled it at the woman. As the black double barrels tracked her middle the frightened look returned to her face.


“Do what I say and everything will be fine. I don’t want to hurt you but believe me, I will. Move back to the house,” he said.


The woman turned and walked away holding her hands to her face, the first few tears beginning to well in her eyes. Austin heard the door of the Jeep open and Julie came running after him.


               
“What are you doing? You promised not to hurt anyone else,” she accused. Austin could see the woman take in what Julie just said, those few words were worth all the threats he could make. The woman faltered slightly as she neared the slash hook.

“Don’t even think about it,” warned Austin.


Inside the kitchen stood a young boy near the window, he'd watched the whole episode unfold. He looked as frightened as his mother. He ran to her wrapping his arms around her waist.


Austin pointed to a chair with the gun and said “Sit.”


The old farm house was as solid as a fort, the walls must be three feet thick. The kitchen was an arsenal of sharp knives and makeshift bludgeons. There was a small door which seemed to be a press or a cellar. Austin opened it and found it windowless with nothing more dangerous than a tin of baked beans. This would have to do. He moved back from the door and pointed inside with the barrel of the gun.


“Both of you in here, Please.” Just because you were holding someone at gunpoint was no reason to be rude. The woman hurried into the pantry pushing the crying boy ahead of her.


“Hand over your phone,” Austin said, holding out his hand.


“I don’t have one,” said the woman a little too quickly. Austin had a feeling she was lying.


“Hand it over!” he yelled and shouldered the gun. The woman yanked the phone out of the pocket of her apron and threw it at him, cowering in the corner and shielding the boy.  Austin about to shut them in when he paused for a second, then asked, “Has he got a phone?” 


For an instant, the tables were turned, the woman looked furious as she barked, “No! of course not.”


“Fair enough, sorry,” apologised Austin. He closed over the door and wedged one of the kitchen chairs under the Bakelite handle. The chair jammed on the uneven kitchen floor securing the pair inside. Julie had watched the whole thing silently but now that they were alone she gave him a filthy look.


“What?” he asked. “Did you think she was just going to let us help ourselves. Wake up for God sake, Julie. The world is different now. If we are going to survive we have to change with it.”


“You promised not to hurt anyone only a few hours ago.”


“And I haven’t,” he said, storming past her to search the out houses for petrol.



***



The farm proved to be an Aladdin’s cave of useful stuff. They had found gallons of liquid that smelled like petrol and the Jeep ran just fine on it. Austin also found some tools that would come in useful and plastic sheeting, a few large milking buckets. He loaded it all in the jeep. Then he found a whole shed full of stored vegetables.


“Jackpot,” said Austin. "That is dinner sorted for a while,” he said opening sacks of potatoes, turnips, onions and carrots. He filled the Jeep until it was groaning under the weight it carried. The night was pitch black by the time they were done.


“We better stay the night or our lights might attract attention. We'll get going at dawn," he said. They stripped off their plastic gloves and washed as best they could using an outside tap before covering up again with new gloves. Before he released the woman and her boy, Austin put all the kitchen knives into a plastic bag and hid them in a shed outside. To make Julie happy, Austin had taken the shells out of the gun. When everything was ready he pulled the chair away from the pantry door. A fire was burning in the hearth and it threw a warming glow into the dark little press.


“You can come out now,” said Austin standing back. Julie was warming up spaghetti hoops in a pan over the fire.


“What do you want with us,” asked the woman, not coming out of the pantry.


“Nothing, and that is the truth,” said Austin. “We needed some petrol and didn't think you'd just give it to us. We took some potatoes as well, I hope you don’t mind.”


The woman didn't move. Julie came forward and said, “We are not bad people, we're just like you, doing what we have too. You must be hungry, how about some spaghetti hoops,” she said to the boy with a smile.




Over plates of food, Julie and Austin told the woman what they had seen on the streets and what had happened to Julie’s parents in cork. The woman didn't believe everything they said. She was convinced the government wouldn't do such things. The questions of what had happened to her husband and son soon bubbled up again. This time Austin could give her no answer. Silence descended on the group as the fire crackled gaily in the corner.

               
“My mother had a cure for fever. Do you want to know what it was,” the farmer’s wife asked.


“Sure,” said Julie with a smile.


“Get an old pair of socks. Soak them in equal parts apple cider vinegar and ice cold spring water. Wring them out until they are damp then put them on the person’s feet. You need to change them before they dry out. Keep doing this until they feel better.”


“That could come in handy I'll remember that,” said Julie with just the hint of a smile.


“It has to be well-water not tap-water,” said the woman, letting the familiar sharing of knowledge ease this strange situation but then she started to look embarrassed. “You never know, there might be something in it.”


Austin was not so sure that damp socks were going to help but he kept his mouth shut.



***

In the morning Austin returned the woman’s phone and apologised again for scaring her and her son.


“Where are you heading?” the woman asked.


“Kerry. Austin is from Ballinskelligs,” said Julie


“Into the west,” said the woman, it was a line from a movie.


“As far west as we can get,” agreed Austin. He made Julie change their gloves before getting into the Jeep. The final leg of their journey had begun.




***




A few hours later they caught their first glimpse of the wild Atlantic Ocean. They followed the coast south. Julie was taken by surprise when Austin turned off the road a few miles short of Ballinskelligs. He drove along a sand humped road which ended in a little car park. Off to the left was a shed perched high above the beach.


“Why are we stopping here, I thought we were going to your father’s house?”


Austin stopped the engine. It was time to come clean with the final part of his plan.


“I've been thinking hard about this, Julie. Ireland could have survived if they kept the virus out. But they didn’t. Now the fever is here it will rip through the place and nobody will stop it. Nowhere is safe anymore.”


“So what was the point in coming all the way down here?” she asked.


Austin pointed out the windscreen at the jagged islands sitting off the coast, “There, it’s our only hope.”


“You've got to be joking,” she said.


“No. I'm serious,” Austin said. “Skellig Michael has only one landing point, It is easily defended, there are old monks huts already built and it is surrounded by fish. Three months, six tops and we will be able to come back.”


“How the hell are we going to get all the way out there?”


“There is a boat in that shed.  Everything is ready to go, between the two of us we can manage it.”


“You must be mad,” she said and after a minute she added, “I must be mad too.”








They pried open the boathouse and inside they found an inshore lifeboat, fuelled up and ready to go. The boat could take six men so there was plenty of room for all their equipment. When Austin backed the boat into the water, Julie was sitting at the helm. The trailer vanished under the waves and the boat floated clear. Austin gave Julie the thumbs up and she pressed the starter button. The outboard motor roared into life before settling to a throbbing idle. Austin unclipped the boat from the trailer before pulling himself aboard. The boat bobbed, twisting in the wind. A breaking wave caught them side-on, nearly capsizing them. Austin engaged the engine and eased out the throttle. The boat leapt forward, easily cutting through the waves.

Julie glowed with nervous excitement as the boat bumped over the little waves sending spray high into the wind. The island grew in size, rising out of the depths like a huge, grey, shark tooth. In twenty minutes they were under the towering cliffs. Austin found the pebble beach in the lee of the island and drove the boat on it at a good head of speed. The boat came to a juddering halt as it hit the rocks but nothing seemed to shatter.


For the rest of the day they climbed the steep steps, hauling supplies to the little stone huts monks had used for shelter hundreds of years ago. Austin did most of the work, Julie tried but it was hard going. She got more fatigued with each trip and in the end Austin insisted she stay and set up camp while he returned for the rest of their supplies alone.

When the boat was empty, Austin removed the heavy engine and hid it in a crevice high above the wave-line. The boat, now empty, was easy to haul out of the water and to the highest point on the beach. He tied it off with some of the rope to make sure it wasn't washed away by the rise and fall of the tide. He mounted the steps and began his last climb to the top of the mountain. He wondered to himself if he would ever make the trip back to the mainland, and if he did, what would he find when he got there?

That evening, Austin got a tent up in the lee of a rocky outcrop. They didn't have the energy to start a meal so they ate a few bars of chocolate and fell into an exhausted sleep. Even though the weather was fair, the wind whipped the tent constantly, waking Austin several times during the night.

The next day, Austin made the big piece of plastic into a rain collector to provide them with a supply of fresh water. The first few days passed quickly on the island, although far from comfortable, it provided them with their first feeling of security for a long time. Julie cooked meals on a small camp stove but the gas soon ran out and as there was nothing to burn, most things were eaten raw. Austin managed to catch some fish but not as many as he would have liked. Twice, boats came close to the island but none tried to land.

The night the storm hit started like any other, but the wind started to really pick up in the afternoon. By the time the light was fading, their tent ripped then flew away toward the mainland. They spent that night huddled in one of the monk’s stone huts. The next morning Austin woke early and went to check the damage. When he got back to the hut, Julie was still sleeping.

"It's not that bad," he said but she didn't stir.

“Julie,” he said, giving her a little shake. She turned toward him and her hair was wet with sweat and her face flushed bright red. She was hot to touch.

“Water,” she croaked. Austin's hands shook as he opened the water container and held it to her lips. She emptied the bottle without stopping to take a breath. It can’t be the fever Austin assured himself, he had taken every precaution. No matter what he told himself, there was no denying what his eyes were seeing. He rested Julies head on his lap and stroked her hair. She soon fell into an abnormally deep sleep and heat radiated off her as if she were on fire. The only time he moved that whole day was to get more water for Julie, not that there was enough water on the island to quench her thirst.

First light the following day shone on the first blisters appearing on Julies perfect skin and Austin knew that all hope was gone. She woke and looked in his eyes, tears began to mingle with sweat covering her skin.

"It hurts," she said and began to cry. Austin held her close to him and cried along with her. He rocked her like a baby until she slept once more. How could he watch her go through all of this if there was no hope of surviving. How could he do it to her? He pushed himself upright and took the shotgun in his hand and squinted through the tears as he held the sight an inch from the love of his life. Nothing could make him pull the trigger. When she needed him most, he failed her.



Another storm hit the island as Julie began to struggle to breath. The wind howled as she got worse and finally trashed in convulsion. Her body arched then collapsed in on itself. The thing that made her Julie vanished from her body. Austin shook her, screamed at her to wake one last time. Insane with despair he lifted her still warm body into his arms and ran into the maelstrom. He howled at the heavens as the wind whipped her name from his lips. Lightening cracked and stabbed at the foaming waves hundreds of feet below.


He stood on the edge of the cliff and knew no tombstone could do justice to the love of his life. No pitiful grave would embrace her delicate skin. Only the endless expanse of the Atlantic could ever contain the love he felt for her. Austin kissed her lips one last time and said “Time to go, my love.”


He stepped into the void and they plunged down, down down. No matter what, they would be together - forever.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Mog & Mrs Pat


In the 1950's, life in rural Ireland was much different than today. The work was hard and neighbours looked out for each other. Horse-power on the roads could normally be measured in ones and ran on grass. The single greatest power in the land was not government but the church.

The church and the priests were figures of near absolute power, only eclipsed by the saints which watched over the faithful from their marble plinths.

During this time, two elderly sisters called Mog and Mrs Pat, lived down the road from my Grandmother. Mog was short for Margaret -we think. Mrs Pat's husband was long dead but the sisters managed to keep a farm running between them. The land was coarse and massive lumps of limestone made any sort of tilling a fearsome task. In this time of hardship migrant labourers followed the seasons and worked in exchange for a night's lodgings, a hot meal and a few coins for their pockets. Francie was one such man and he called on the sisters one spring day and just forgot to leave. Over the years that followed the three became inseparable.

Nancy, my mom, was only a child herself at this time and was often sent to the sisters farm on errands. Nancy hated going there, the place was always caked in dust and cobwebs. The kitchen floor was hard packed dirt, mixed with ash and what ever fell off Francies wellies. Nancy would often be sent with a bag of groceries from the village, or to get a pail of warm creamy milk. One afternoon my Granny sent Nancy over to Mog so she could help bring the shopping back up from the village. Nancy pushed open the door to the dingy little kitchen and found Mog scribbling on a sheet of writing paper.

"Come in girl and leave the cold outside," called Mog, not looking up from her task. Nancy took a stool by the fire and waited patiently.

"Can you spell sincerely," Mog asked, and Nancy did her best but got the word wrong. "What in Gods name is that headmaster teaching you all week," snapped the old lady as she tried to rub out the pencil marks she had made. Nancy wanted to tell her that she was only eight and not in the headmasters class, but she held her tongue. Mog folded the paper and put it in a little white envelope along with a coin from her purse. She wrote St Anthony across the front.

Mog threw on a thick black coat that swept down to her ankles and wrapped a scarf around her head. Nancy took the basket from behind the door and they struck out for the village. It was nearly all downhill to the village but you paid for it on the way back. When they got there, Mog turned for the church, which was unusual as it was the middle of a working day.

Nancy watched as Mog went inside and stood before a statue of St Anthony. She keeled before it and said some prayers. When she was finished Nancy saw Mog slip the envelope under the corner of the statue before she blessed herself and came out of the church once more.

Later, when the shopping was done and the hill home climbed, the secret envelope still was on Nancy's mind and she longed to find out what Mog had scribbled on the piece of paper inside.

On Sunday, the Begley clan filled one church bench, all wearing their best clothes. Nancy couldn't help glancing at the statue of St Anthony and wondered if the envelope was still there. Once Mass was over the church emptied quickly and Nancy made an excuse to slip back inside. She fished under the statue with her slim little girl fingers and retrieved the envelope. She looked around to make sure she was alone before opening the letter. A brand new penny and a slip of paper fell into her hand. She excitedly read Mog's shaky writing.

Dear St Anthony,

Could you see you'r  way clear to having a few days fine weather for Francie towards the end of next week. He wants to plant the barley in the top field, it would be a great help. Mrs Pat also said that one of the hens is laying out in a ditch and she need's help finding the nest. We'll say a rosary each night this week. 

Yours sincerely

Mog, Mrs Pat and Francie

Nancy pocketed the letter along with the penny, delighted with herself at having found out Mog's secret and she giggled at the silliness of the old woman. Later Nancy got a huge slab of toffee in the shop with Mog's penny. Every Sunday after that, Nancy would check under the statue for messages. Most of the time there was nothing but every now and again she found letter with the all important penny.

A few months later Nancy was about to buy her slab of toffy with a penny from Mog when Mr Power, the shopkeeper, told her the toffy had gone up to two pence.

Nancy looked at her penny in despair, "But why has it gone up, Mr Power, I only got one penny."

"That's inflation Nancy, what can we do," said Mr Power.

A few weeks after that, Mog got the fright of her life. She had gone to pray to St Anthony and when she got there she found a note with her name on it.

Dear Mog, Mrs Pat and Francie,

I hope you were happy with finding the eggs in the ditch, and all the fine weather I have been able to get. I want to say thanks for the pennies but next time can you leave two as the price of good weather is going up. It is the enflation, what can I do.

Yours sincerly 

St Anthony.


As Mog told Granny Begley the story she kept blessing herself and looking up to heaven. Nancy sat quietly in the corner saying nothing but when Granny pointed at the note and said, "Well, would you look at that! Didn't St Anthony spell sincerely wrong, and him an educated man!" Nancy slipped out as quietly as she could and vowed never to play tricks on Mog or St Anthony again.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Wrecking Ball


Times were hard and work was scarce when I was offered the chance to apprentice in a radiator factory. I was told the first three months was just a trial. I practically jumped at the chance. The morning I tuned up for work was bitterly cold, the wind driving the rain with a vengeance. As I approached the factory I knew something was wrong. It was 8am and the gates were still closed. No cars occupied the yard, the factory seemed dim and silent. Outside the main gate idled a shiny new Mercedes its engine running to keep the fat man behind the wheel warm. The power window slid down and a huge bunch of keys was dangled in the rain soaked morning air without a word. I tried a dozen keys before finding the right one to open the giant padlock.  I swung in the gates allowing the powerful car to glide into the yard before stopping at the main doors of the factory. Another padlock, another maddening search for a key. By the time the car drove into the shelter of the main building I was soaked to the skin. Inside, the factory was a silent graveyard of rusted metal. This place needed no new apprentices. The fat owner heaved himself out of the car leaving it running without a care for the wasted petrol.

“Dirty morning,” the boss said nodding to the puddle that was gathering around my feet.

“Soft enough,” I said “am I in the right place?”

“You are if you want to work,” said the boss looking at me like I was some dog shit he was about to step in.

“I want to work alright but what kind of fitter do you need here?”

“It’s like this, boy. I need this place gutted, I get an apprentice wage refunded by the government. You get paid, I get this place ready for the wrecking ball and we are all happy. Do a good job and I might, might, consider keeping you on in one of my other plants.”

“This was not what I thought I was signing up for.” I said not liking the situation, I was being used.

“I don’t give a fuck what you thought,” the fat man growled with the authority of cash in his voice “If you don’t want the job, there are a hundred more would rip my hand off for it.”

 “I didn’t say that- Boss,” I mumbled into my boots. What other option had I, I needed he work. The fat man stared at me with a sneer before walking away. It seemed my answer had always been a forgone conclusion.

“Right not much to this, a trained monkey could manage it,” the boss said leading me deeper into the factory. “Everything is going,” he waved at the mountain of abandoned machinery and rubbish filling the huge space “when you’re finished, the only things left should be holding up the roof.”

In the middle of the space was a selection of skips and a small mobile generator. The boss pointed out the skips for Metal, Rubble, Timber, Recycling and Landfill. The Generator was to run the tools, housed in a locked metal shed, as all the power was killed in the building. Just as well, I did not fancy being fried while I stripped the copper wiring from the walls. I got the distinct impression that the only reason the power was off lay in the greedy nature of the boss not concern for my safety. 

“Right, I will call see how you have done on Friday,” he said walking back to the car leaving me with the bunch of keys.  I was just about to unlock the tool shed when the horn blared from the gate. It looked like I was going to get even wetter before I began this shitty job.

***

The first week passed without incident. I found out more about the boss, he was a shady guy and that was for sure. I learned he had picked up this factory for next to nothing by greasing some bent politician’s pocket, he was selling all the metal for scrap, which would just about cover the money he spent buying the place. My wage was being footed by the taxpayer and the boss would end up with a prime piece of industrial real-estate, free and clear. The lorry’s for the metal always came on time but the other containers were often overflowing before the boss would shell out for an empty.  The worst thing was working by myself because the boss was too tight to employ another person to help with the clearance. That first Friday finishing time came and went without sign of the boss or my wages. Five turned into six, it was nearly six thirty by the time the shiny car pulled into the yard. The boss looked over the progress before begrudgingly slipping his hand into his pocket.

“Three hundred,” he said

“Three fifty boss.”

“Right,” he said. Turning his back on me fishing out a wad of notes six inches thick. He peeled off seven notes from the hundreds he had, handing them over reluctantly. The feel of cash in my pocket was a strange elation. The backbreaking work of the last five days was soon forgotten. That night I went out and blew a hundred of the money, what else would a young single man do? I woke the next day with a blinding headache and regret digging its way deep into my wallet.

 

The weeks moved by, I was making progress in the main building. I soon began work on the office buildings that lay at the rear of the complex. One in particular caught my eye. It had a pipe jutting out of an air vent. On the door hung a brand new padlock, much better quality than all the others around the factory. I tried every key on my bunch but none would open it. In the end I forced a window at the back of the building and slipped inside. The first thing I noticed was how tidy this place was compared to the rest of the factory. Each room had been cleared of rubbish and left neat.

 

One door was closed over but it was not locked. Sitting in the middle of the room was a battered reclining chair with blankets folded neatly on the seat. Close by was a metal barrel mounted on concrete blocks. The barrel had been modified, making it into a stove with a solid metal plate on top to act as a cooking surface. The pipe that vanished out the air vent was clearly the smoke stack. A small door had been cut so the fire could be set and fuelled. It was a very neat job, the person that had done it had skills, that was for sure. The back of the room was covered floor to roof with shelves made from planks and breeze blocks. Every available space was filled with books, all well-thumbed and loved. I found a larder with a few tins of food and a blackened saucepan. In the next room was a small bathroom, a bucket of fresh water standing by to be use either for washing or flushing the toilet. So this was someone’s home but the question was, whos?

 

I kept an eye on the office building but never saw anyone coming or going. When Friday came around I thought about telling the boss about what I had found. That was until he tried, yet again, to stiff me out of money arguing over the hours I had worked.  It was the middle of the next week when I saw smoke coming from the pipe sticking out of the wall. When lunch time came I wandered over to the office block and found the padlock missing from the door. I opened it quietly and went inside. The air was warm as the fire in the barrel crackled. In the recliner chair slept a man who was somewhere between fifty and a hundred, it was hard to tell. He was swaddled in the blankets but his face was very pale. I got a bit closer and noticed the man was shivering and sweating, he was not just asleep he was passed out. I tried to wake him but he just moaned and buried himself deeper into the blankets. I could feel the heat pulsing from him, he was burning up. I thought about calling for some help but in the end decided to see what I could do myself.

 

I loaded up the barrel with timber and put a saucepan of water on to boil. I fetched my lunch from the main factory. Using the water I made sweet milky tea and managed to wake the man. He looked confused to begin with but at last he took some sips of tea and ate one half of a sandwich. He was still very sick. During my lunch break I gathered timber for the home made stove. I made sure it was fully loaded and burning well. I left the man some cool water close at hand as well as the other half of my sandwich before going back to work. Twice that after noon I stopped by the office building to refill the stove. The man seemed to be improving and was sleeping better now, the sweat no longer beaded his brow.

 

All that night I thought of the old man sick and sleeping alone in that place. The next morning as soon as I opened up the main factory I made my way to the office. The padlock was still missing from the door. I knocked gently and pushed it open. The old man was leaning over the sink washing his face. He jumped and stared at me with startled eyes.

“You’re feeling better I see,” I said with a smile. The man said nothing and was frozen to the spot.

“I was here yesterday,” I said nodding towards the large pile of sticks stacked near the fire.

“I thought I imagined that,” said the man in a cultured voice. “Thank you,” he added. He dried off his face and pulled his jumper over his head. He said nothing for quite a while but ticked and fidgeted uneasily. At last he said “Are you going to make me leave?”

“Not me mate,” I replied “You were here first.”

He smiled and said “Tea?” waving his hand in an invitation to sit which I was glad to accept.

 

It turned out that Pat, that was his name, had been a janitor for the factory before it closed down. He was nearly sixty and no one would give him another job, they all said he was too old. Soon his money ran out and could not meet the rent. He ended up on the street. A councillor had tried to get him into a homeless shelter but they were worse than the streets, full of druggies and drunks. With nowhere else to go he returned to the place he worked for over 30 years. Pat had been living in the office block for 4 years. He kept the fences mended and the kids out. During the days he would spend his time at three library’s moving from one to the other passing a few hours at each. He loved books. Once a day he would call to the old age home for soup and a cup of tea. A local priest paid him to do odd jobs around the church and between this and his pension Pat managed to survive. When I told Pat what the boss had planned for the factory he was devastated. I tried to reassure him that it was months away yet.

 

Over the weeks that followed Pat was always gone long before I opened up the main gate but he started appearing shortly before lunch. He lit his stove and boiled up the water for tea. Each day I would join him and we would eat lunch together. I had started bringing extra sandwiches with me but Pat insisted on buying coffee sugar and milk for the two of us. “I like to pull my weight,” he said. Pat told me about his passion for reading and all his favourite books. Sometimes he would even help me out during the day, holding ladders and sweeping up after me. I once offered him some money but he looked offended when he refused. “This is my home after all,” Pat said.

 

It took longer and longer to fill the skips until at last there was nothing left but the walls holding up the roof, just like the boss had wanted that first day.  When I could put it off no more I told Pat the wreckers would be coming the following Monday. Pat looked about the room he had called home for years and his eyes got a bit misty.

“Are you alright Pat?”

“Aye lad, the smoke must have gotten in my eye. I knew it had to come one day.” He said, his voice heavy with despair.

 

That Friday Pat selected some of his favourite books and packed them with his pot, clothes and food into a battered suitcase. He waved at me from the gate as he trudged off into the evening. I waved back but felt like a traitor. That night at dinner I could not eat, which was very unlike me.

“What’s the matter son?” asked dad.

I told him the story of Pat and what was going to happen on Monday.

“Well if I was you I would do something about it,” dad said with a smile before taking his mug of tea into the sitting room. It was grand to say but what could I do? Come Monday the ball was going to swing and Pats home would be gone. If I told the boss about it I was fairly sure the only thing that fat pick would do is try and charge Pat back rent. Having said all that, dads are generally right, I had to do something. 

***

Monday did come and as I opened up the Gate a huge wrecking crane rumbled into the yard followed by the boss in his fancy car.

“I can take the keys,” he said holding out his hand.

“Wont I need them to lock up tonight?”

“No need lad, this job is done,” he said pocketing the bunch of keys.

“What about the apprenticeship?”

“Come over to the office next week, or the week after, we will see what we have going,” said the boss. He never took his eyes off the wrecking ball as it began to swing slowly away from the factory wall. I knew that there would be no job for me, next week or any week for that matter. I walked out the gate as the ball struck the factory for the first time, I could feel the impact tremble the ground under my feet.

 

I checked two library’s before I found Pat engrossed in a book about Roman History, the battered suitcase resting under the seat of his chair.

“Hi yea Pat,” I greeted him.

“What are you doing here lad, you should be at work.”

“The pig of a boss let me go, the job is finished apparently.”

“Don’t worry lad, you’re young there will be other jobs.”

“True enough. That is why I am here. I have small job, cleaning out a shed, but it is a two man thing, do you feel up to it?” I asked.

“Of course I am. Lead on McDuff,” he said with a happy smile yanking the battered suitcase from under the chair.

It was only a ten minute walk from the library but Pat would not let me help him with his case. At last we got to the house. We trudged up the side of the house which opened out to a big garden with a good size shed built against the end wall.

“Why don’t you make a start on the shed Pat, I will tell the woman of the house we are here,” I said.

I pushed open the back door and walked over to my mother who was watching the old man walk down the path to the garden shed. We saw Pat open the door and stand like a statue, looking inside. The battered suitcase slipped from his grip and fell to the ground. My mother patted my arm and said “Give him a chance to get used to it, why not bring him up a cup of tea.”

 

When I pushed open the door to the shed with two steaming mugs of tea it was cosy and warm because the barrel stove glowed happily in the corner. Close by was the battered recliner but also a single bed with freshly dressed blankets, the wall was shelved with as many of Pat’s books as we could fit. My dad had come with me on Friday night and emptied out Pats old room taking what might be of use. We had worked from dawn into the night over the weekend making the old shed dry and warm.

 

“Do you like it, Pat?” I asked. The old man said nothing but caressed the books that rested on the newly built shelves.  I knew he could reject the place, his pride might not allow him to stay.

“Thing is Pat, we need to extend it. I thought you might be able to stay here in exchange for working on the job. I wanted to add a bathroom and shower. If you don’t think you’re up to the job I won’t be offended.”

Pat turned rubbing the tears from his cheeks “Oh I am up to it lad. Don’t you worry.” His smile beamed from his stubble covered face. I handed him the mug of tea and backed out the door.

“You might need to look at the stove, it seems the smoke is getting in your eyes again,” I teased. I closed the door and left Pat make himself at home, in his home.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Inferno


Ireland is often called the land of Saints and Scholars, which is true but only represents a recent view of this island. Long before Christianity, with its thirst for scribes, lived a conglomerate of Vikings and Celtic's. Even the Vikings were comparative newbies. The Celtic people occupied most of Europe long before the tramp of Roman garrisons trembled the battle fields of the ancient world.

Who preceded the Celts? Surely there must have been someone?

Far back in the mists of time, when Ireland was a blanket of glade sprinkled woodlands, lived a great race of demigods. They ruled over humanity as 'Tuatha De Danann' which translates into the 'Tribe of the Goddess Danu.' The Tuatha De Danann were half men half Gods, each with powers that set them apart from the throng of humanity. These were wild, ruthless times where hardly a day went by without some form of bloodshed. The Tuatha De Danann would even fight among themselves. Like all powerful beings they were not all nice guys.

Take Balor for example. He was reputed to have a magic eye in the middle of his forehead with another at the back of his head, this was so no enemy could catch him unaware. From the magic eye issued a beam of fire which smote all it touched.  I know a few of you are thinking Lord of the Rings but Balor existed long before these books. Why not check him out.

Anyway, Balor was fairly unbeatable but legend has it a witch foresaw Balor being slain by his own grandson. To prevent this from ever happening Balor locked his daughter away in a crystal tower to stop her getting pregnant. Any of you with older kids will know that keeping teenage boys away from girls is near impossible. Take into account the countryside was running wild with Irish Demigod's and you can guess what happened. Cian a young member of Tuatha De Danann managed to magic himself into the tower. Imagine Balor's surprise when nine months later he was the proud grandfather to three bouncing baby boys.

Balor did what comes naturally to a near immortal megalomaniac, he took the boys to the highest cliff in the land and flung the new born children into the crashing waves below. 'That's that' thought Balor but the story is far from over. One grandson, Lugh, was saved from his watery grave by Birog who raised the child to adult hood. Decades later, in what is now County Sligo, Balor faced Birog in battle. At Birog's left hand stood the youthful figure of Lugh who launched a spear with a mighty heave, skewering Balor's heart.  Balor fell with the magic eye wide open burning a bottomless hole into the earth into which his body tumbled. Eventually the hole was filled with water and 'Lough Na Sul' or 'Lake of the Eye' was created forever entombing Balor.


Or so they thought.
The truth of the matter is that while Balor's body was indeed locked forever at the bottom of Lough Na Sul his spirit was free to walk the land on one special day of the year, all hallows eve. For thousands of years he would rise with the sun, on 31st October, from the depths of the lake. During the  daylight hours he was free to roam where he would on the Island of Ireland before being forced deep under the waters again with the setting of the sun. Balor enjoyed his days of freedom, even sometimes taking over the body of a human so he could, touch, feel, taste and savour the world around him.
In the year 2013 Balor's spirit soared above the city of Dublin. He spied a young man in his twenties waiting at a bus stop. Sean McCarthy was a very tired, bored, call centre worker. He was wiping the sleep from his eyes when Balor's spirit lay upon him, pervading his very soul. Balor inhaled deeply flexing the strong young body he was now wearing as he would a new suit. Balor glanced at the laptop bag the boy carried before casting it into the gutter.
The others at the bus stop were shocked into silence by the wild look in the boys eye's. Despite the cold the young man removed his coat and shoes throwing them to the ground along side his bag. Balor came from a time where men were made of hardier stuff than these soft city boys. In the morning drizzle Balor roared like a lion and turned his face to the heavens giving thanks for his hours of freedom. Among the people huddling in the bus shelter was a beautiful, flame haired, woman in the prime of her life. Balor felt the blood in his acquired body surge with the lust of youth. Slowly he strode toward her, his new body glowing with power. She was wide eyed but unmoving, their eyes locked together. Balor let his hands fill with her soft flowing locks as he inhaled her perfume, like a wolf inspecting a new kill. It was all too much for the shocked young woman who slipped into a faint and slithered to the ground. Balor laughed through the young man and strode into the morning mist. There was time enough for women, he had more to see this short short day.
So began an orgy of the senses. With Balor spirit inside of him, Sean was beyond human. What he wanted he took. He ate and drank like twenty men. He wandered the city trying to understand all that was new. Balor was sure a plague of madness gripped the city, countless people wandered about talking loudly to no one at all, some nodded and shook with strings hanging from their ears, it was all truly strange. That was when he saw the huge sign with a man smiling happily but it was the words that drove Balor into a rage, "The Eye of Google will Rule the World"
Shoeless and coatless Balor burst into Car-phone Warehouse on O'Connell St.
"Bring Google before me so we can do battle," Balor said to the man behind the counter in a commanding tone over the people in the queue. The sales assistant glanced quickly at him before continuing to explain to a blue haired granny how to make calls on her new phone.
"I command you to bring me Google of the Magic Eye!" Balor bellowed.
The sales assistant was taken aback with the fury of the strange guy and called into the back room "Simon can you deal with a customer?"
From the back room came a balding, bored looking manager. The sales assistant nodded at Balor and said "Nut job" just loud enough for the people at the front of the queue to hear. Simon looked to heaven with a bored sigh.
"Are you Google?" demanded Balor.
"No I am Simon, can I help you sir?" the manager replied snootily shoving his hands in his pockets.
"Bring me Google of the eye," Balor commanded not wishing to entertain any lackeys when battle was all that he dreamed of. It was then that Simon understood what he was talking about.
"You're on about Google Glasses mate, these are them," he said pointing to the things sitting astride his nose.
Balor was confused and pointed at the glasses "This is the magic eye?"
"You could call them that, they have the full power of the internet," Simon said.
"Internet?" repeated Balor.
"Yea buddy, Internet you know the thing that controls the whole frecking world," snapped Simon having enough of this weird young fella. Simon was getting a feeling this must be a prank by the guys  across the road in Harvey Norman so went to guide the weirdo out the door.
"LIAR, I am the one true keeper of the eye," Balor roared shrugging free from the managers grip. He felt the magic eye begin to open inside his mind. On the body he hijacked steam began to rise and heat rolled across the boys skin as Balor's rage increased.
"Listen buddy, just get out of the shop right now before I call the cops," the manager said backing towards the counter. Every vein was standing out like taunt rope beneath the skin of the weirdo's face. He was going an alarming shade of red, Simon would later swear he was glowing.
"CALL YOUR ARMY GOOGLE AND ALL SHALL DIE THIS DAY!" Balor roared.
Flames erupted through the boys skin where Balor's warrior marks had once been. In side the hijacked body Balor's magic eye opened and a fountain of flame shot forth. Customers and staff ran for their lives as Balor as it became clear this glowing lunatic was going nuclear. It took only seconds but what happened next would be burned into every witnesses mind for ever. Car-phone Warehouse exploded outward in a cloud of glass and concrete as a colossal fireball fireball formed around the half naked man and then exploded in all directions..
Left lying in the middle of the ruined shop was a young man in smoldering jeans, completely shirtless and sound asleep. His entire torso was a web of complicated tattoos, which were glowing hot. It took the ambulance team several hours to wake the lad and when they did he insisted insisted the last thing he remembered was waiting for the 46A.