The Living Garden – Ireland’s Own, August 2016

Jim gazed at the shrivelled tomato vines that lay limply across the ground amongst an ocean of weeds. Beyond lay row upon row of wilted spinach, whose leafy stems had been all but devoured by an army of slugs. The crimson rosebush was being strangled by angry briars, attempting to salvage it of all beauty.
Jim heaved a weary sigh.
This wasn’t the way things used to be, he thought.
He stood for a moment and reminisced about the past.
In the centre of the garden stood a quaint cottage where Jim and his wife, Máire, had happily resided for the last forty years. They were a popular pair in their home village of Oulart. Máire was a tender-hearted lady whose eyes radiated warmth. Jim was a hardy ex-farmer who was as stubborn as a mule, and equally as rugged. They were like chalk and cheese, and yet, they were inseparable.
As Jim and Máire never had children, they found an alternative hobby – gardening. What began as a modest row of green beans soon grew into an oasis of abundance. It took hours of hard work and Jim often joked to his neighbours that tending a garden was more challenging than raising a child. Yet, this did not dissuade the couple for they took great pride in what they had created.
In the summertime, when the sun blazed above in a sea of endless blue, Jim and Máire would sit together in the garden, admiring their masterpiece while sipping on ice-cold glasses of tangy lemonade.
Máire was a talented cook and Jim, her food critic. They made a great team. Máire delighted in using their homegrown produce to prepare wholesome dishes and Jim took great pleasure in devouring it all.
From Irish stews packed with softened carrots and juicy tomatoes to buttery apple tarts drizzled in homemade custard, he was spoiled for choice.
“I need to hire another taster,” Máire would chuckle heartily while rubbing Jim’s growing belly. “If I keep feeding you, I’ll be rolling you out to the garden!”
Máire cooked daily, and yet, the pair were always left with more fruit and vegetables than they knew what to do with.
“I’ve carrots coming out of my ears!” Máire would say, as she attempted to pack yet another sack of vegetables into the overflowing pantry.
Irritated by the mountain of fluffy tomatoes and mouldy potatoes that was accumulating, Jim and Máire were determined to find a solution. But what? The answer came to Jim one Sunday afternoon.

It was a cloudy, non-descript day when he saw Tom Edwards pottering across the road, laden down with heavy shopping bags. Tom, who was once an outgoing man, had lost his wife five years previously. He now lived a life of solitude in their stone cottage at the edge of the village. Until that moment, Jim had never thought about how lonely such a life could be. He pictured Tom in his kitchen, peeling speckled spuds and basting meat before setting a small table for one. He imagined Tom devouring gravy-soaked potatoes in silence, the chatter of the radio his only form of company. Jim realised that there was more than one person like Tom in the village.
That evening, Jim followed the herby aroma of roast chicken to find his wife in the kitchen. He loosened her hands from the pot in which she was stirring vigorously and took them into his own. He announced his news: he had found their solution.
Máire stared impatiently into her husband’s grey eyes, eager to learn more about his idea.
“I am blessed to have a kind and beautiful wife like you,” he began. “But not everyone is so lucky. Tonight, while I gorge on plump roast chicken and crispy spuds in your splendid company, there are people nearby dining alone.

“Why don’t we set up a community kitchen where they can come for good food and company?”
Máire’s crinkled face lit up. Jim wouldn’t expect anything else. Máire had always been a charitable woman who would put anyone before herself.
It was this considerate nature that made him fall in love with her all those years ago. Well that, and her delectable cooking!

The duo nattered on about the idea until long after the sun sank behind the rolling hills. They discussed everything, from what meals they would serve to where their kitchen would be located. Although they bickered into the early hours about minor details – such as the necessity of tea cosies – overall, their plan seemed feasible.
Unfortunately, their dream was never brought to fruition as Máire soon fell ill. She was feeling drained, with neither the energy to garden nor the appetite to eat. She remained in bed, her tiny body engulfed in a mountain of heavy duvets and soft cotton throws.
Jim delivered her breakfast on a tray, which he carried with shaking hands to their sun-drenched bedroom. He was anxious for his wife. Her illness was leaching colour from her rosy cheeks by the day. Yet, she had always been strong. He remained hopeful that this time would be no different.
As Máire’s health continued to deteriorate, Jim insisted that she pay a visit to their doctor. After several days of tests, coupled with endless poking, prodding and questions, they finally discovered what the problem was.
The moment the doctor uttered the word, Jim felt his whole world crash around him. Cancer. He always shuddered when he heard that word. Now it had become part of their reality. The doctor told the couple that there was nothing that could be done to save Máire. They allowed her to go home to spend her remaining weeks in comfort.

The following weeks were a blur. Night and day, Jim sat by his fading wife’s bedside, laughing, chatting, recalling the past and in the end, saying nothing at all.
The funeral was the largest the village had ever known. Friends and family squeezed tightly into pews and trickled out onto church steps. People shook Jim’s hand with sympathetic faces, mumbling their sincere regrets. When her coffin was lowered and covered with earth, Jim placed a bunch of their crimson roses on her grave and bid a final farewell to his beloved wife.
Following Máire’s death, Jim was a different man. He felt numb, hopeless, sorrowful. He ceased to take care of himself or his garden. In fact, he couldn’t even bring himself to venture outside. Until that day…
Jim had vivid memories of the old garden. Succulent raspberries dangling tauntingly from delicate stalks. Neat rows of bright orange carrots poking leafy heads out from the earth. The intoxicating smell of roses that hung lazily in the air.
Yet these were merely memories. His garden would never be the flourishing paradise that it once was, for plants need sunshine to grow. Jim had lost all sunshine from his life. He couldn’t go ahead with their kitchen plan alone. He wouldn’t do it alone.
Why should I help other lonely people, he thought bitterly as he gazed at the amber rust that sprawled across Máire’s old shovel. I’m lonely. People should help me!
Even the birds refused to visit the garden. Their fruity chortling had disappeared from Jim’s life just as Máire had. The garden had fallen into ruin but Jim couldn’t care less.
He turned his back on the tangled mess and strolled back towards the cottage, shoulders hunched. Just as he was nearing the door, he lost his footing on a crumbling step and fell hard on the ground. Jim winced as he felt a sharp jolt of pain shoot up his leg and right up to his hip bone.

He lay on the ground for several moments, helpless. How was he going to get out of this mess? He tried to lift himself to his feet but once he rested weight on his left foot, his knee buckled and he returned to the ground with a thud. As stubborn and proud as Jim was, he knew it was time for Plan B.
“Help!” he cried in distress. “Someone please help.”
Luckily, Jim’s neighbour Anna was out walking her dog when she heard the old man’s pitiful cry. She peered through the side gate of the garden and caught sight of Jim amid the towering grass.
She ran over and crouched down beside him while she called an ambulance. She clutched his hand to comfort him as they waited for the medics to arrive. Jim lay in quiet sadness. Anna’s soft touch and gentle voice reminded him of Máire. He wished that she was there to mind him. Jim’s leg was badly broken and so, the doctors persuaded him to spend several weeks in the hospital while he recuperated. Jim agreed, albeit very reluctantly.
He didn’t like the hospital. He loathed the cold hands, clinical bedrooms and tasteless meals. He hated it because it reminded him of death. He hated it because it reminded him of her. At least I have company here, thought Jim.

Following several weeks of solitude, he appreciated the friendly chatter of the nurses and the low hum of the frail old woman across the room.
In fact, he grew to appreciate the company so much that he felt a tinge of disappointment when he was given permission to leave. He didn’t want to face his empty house without Máire.

To help him to settle back into normal life, a nurse named Siobhán was sent to look after him for several days. Jim had grown fond of the young nurse. Her petite frame and dimpled smile gave her an angelic appearance but he knew there was no messing with her. She was well able to tolerate his stubborn temperament and that was what he needed.
The summer sun was beaming in the sky on the afternoon of Jim’s return. Still quite weak, he had been advised to use a wheelchair for several days.
“Let’s go to the garden,” insisted Siobhan.
Jim had no interest in spending time in his garden but he knew that there was no arguing with her. He sighed deeply but kept quiet.
As Siobhan pushed his chair along the pathway, Jim thought again of Máire. “…I will be rolling you out to the garden…,” she had said.
Jim managed a weak smile. He doubted that this was what she had in mind!
On reaching the garden, Jim was met with a pleasant shock. There in his garden stood all of his friends and neighbours. A colourful banner that read ‘Welcome Home Jim’ was tied to the trunks of the two apple trees. In the corner, a garden table was piled high with dainty sandwiches, decadent cream cakes and endless pots of freshly brewed tea. Colourful balloons tied to the edge of his shed danced in the gentle breeze.
Yet Jim noticed none of this for he was too busy taking in something else: his garden. Gone were the pesky weeds and knotted brambles. Lush green cabbages stood neatly in line in the vegetable patch. The branches of the apple tree bore small dappled fruit. Máire’s rose bush had been released from the briar’s snare and now flourished under the dazzling sunlight. The garden had been restored to its former glory.

Jim was still struggling to find words when he was approached by Tom Edwards.
“Welcome home Jim. We thought we’d help you to tidy up your garden,” he chirped merrily. “We can’t have you giving up on your plan! We’re all here to help. You aren’t alone you know.”
Jim beamed as he gazed at the gleeful faces around him before fixing his eyes on the crimson rosebush. Perched gracefully on a stem was a singing robin. As he filled the summer air with his rich warbles, Jim felt a rush of joy within him, as if Máire was there with him.
He smiled to himself and realised that Tom was right. He wasn’t alone. She would always be there beside him.

(First published in Ireland’s Own magazine: print edition. Also available online at: https://www.irelandsown.ie/original-short-story-the-living-garden/)

A Long Journey Home – Children’s Story Competition

Part One

Matthew released a heavy sigh as he stared blankly across the field that stretched before him. So this is it, he thought. My new home.

Since the moment his parents mentioned moving house two months ago, Matthew had detested the idea. The thoughts of swapping his comfortable suburban life for one on an isolated farm filled him with dread. Though, despite many hours of tears, shouting and door slamming, his parents didn’t budge. And so, Matthew had to. He was forced to surrender; to trade his friends, his soccer team and his favourite milkshake shop for a lonely life in the countryside.

He brushed his floppy brown hair off his face and listened as birds jostled over some grain in the farmyard behind him. He longed to return inside to play his video game but he knew that his mum would soon boot him back outdoors.

“Some fresh air will do you good,”she would say, for the fifth time that week.

Matthew wasn’t so convinced. In fact, he felt that it would do the opposite. The stench of farmyard, silage and horses was so powerful that he feared it would poison him to death.

At least then I wouldn’t have to live here anymore, he thought bitterly as he kicked a stone around the yard.

His parents just didn’t understand. They didn’t know what it was like to be a friendless ten-year old in the countryside. They had ruined his life. The only slice of home that he had been able to bring with him was his games console and they had even turned that off on him. Just as he had finally reached level 8. The cheek of them!

They just didn’t get it. So Matthew devised a plan, one to make them realise how cruel they were being. He would run away for a few days! His parents would be filled with worry, unable to sleep as they feared the worst. Then when he finally returned, they would wrap their arms around him and press their worried faces against his, vowing never to let him go.

“We can’t stand to see you unhappy,” Matthew’s Mum would say, his father nodding in agreement beside her. “Let’s go home.”

Matthew knew his plan would work. So the next morning, long before the rooster had even crowed, he escaped across the soggy field and began his journey to nowhere. He didn’t care where his path led him as long as it eventually brought him home.

Part Two

Matthew trudged through the long grass, his eyes fixed firmly on the rusting metal gate that sat ahead of him. Beyond lay a dirt path, shaded by a canopy of trees. After what seemed like days of dragging his feet through thick grass, all the while trying to avoid puddles and imaginary bulls, Matthew was relieved to spot the track.

Using every ounce of his strength, the skinny ten-year old pulled open the stiff bolt. He allowed it to swing open slightly, giving himself just enough room to slip through before he creaked it shut again.

Matthew was stunned at the sight that met him on the other side. Usually he showed no interest in nature, unless it involved something exciting like a great white shark or a ravenous tiger. But this place was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

Huge trees towered on either side of him, enclosing him inside this secret haven. Their branches threw dancing shadows across the path as they swayed in the light breeze. The air was filled with the whoops and cries of birds, who dived around the branches as they fled from the view of their unwanted guest.

And then he saw it. At the end of the path, nestled in the thick arms of a mighty oak tree, sat a wooden tree house. Layers of thick ivy scrambled up its outer walls and crept into the darkened window slots. A rope ladder dangled below, just begging any passer-by to venture inside.

Matthew bounded towards the tree, ignoring the flurry of irritated birds that emerged from the nearby undergrowth. He grabbed either side of the worn rope ladder and began to pull himself up. Although the movement of the ladder created difficulty, along with the burning sensation of the rope on his hands, Matthew was determined. He fought his way up to the tiny slot in the bottom of the tree house.

Slightly fearful now, he poked his head in cautiously. It was nothing spectacular. The smell of damp leaves engulfed the inside of the small wooden house which was carpeted with a layer of bird droppings. The only thing that lay inside was a tattered metal box, resting on the floor in the corner.

Matthew doubted that it contained anything worth seeing but he couldn’t leave without finding out. He clambered inside the tree house and crawled towards it. He gently lifted the lid and peered underneath it. He was gobsmacked. Inside sat an old crumpled map, unlike anything Matthew had ever seen before.

Part Three

Matthew traced the map lightly with his finger as he tried to make sense of the winding lines and symbols that were sprawled across the page.

“This point here must be the treehouse,” Matthew muttered to himself as he placed his finger on a small box-shaped symbol. He slowly traced the line that led away from it. He gasped. An X! Surely that meant buried treasure!

He couldn’t waste any time. What if the owner of the map found him here? He tucked the map into his back pocket and quickly clambered back down the ladder. Once back on solid ground, Matthew pulled it back out to examine it further. He turned on the spot several times until he figured out his intended direction. When he was certain that he knew the way, he trotted back down the dirt path and into the shadows.

Matthew forgot all about his runaway plan. Sure, if he found some treasure, he could buy his own mansion in the city, complete with a swimming pool, servants and as many computer consoles as he wanted. He wouldn’t need to live with his parents ever again!

Map in hand, Matthew traipsed through tangled briars and across muddy fields. Though the air was growing cold and his feet were aching, he didn’t grow disheartened. He was determined to find his treasure.

However, Matthew soon began to recognise things around him. That hill looks familiar, he thought. So did that gate, that tree, that yard. His heart sank. The map hadn’t led him to any buried treasure; the map had led him back home!

Before Matthew could plan out his next move, he saw his parents racing across the field towards him. That’s it, he thought. I’ve been caught. Anger bubbled from within him. His runaway plan had been ruined. His treasure map was worthless. Now he was stuck here!

Yet the moment his parents wrapped their arms around him, these feelings melted away. He gazed up at their tear-streaked faces. Matthew realised something. Home is where your family is. And as long as they were here, this was where he belonged. He hugged his parents tightly and smiled to himself.

“I’ve had my treasure all along”, he whispered.

The Tale of Old Mr Rennels – Sacred Heart Messenger (Kids Section), Summer 2015

Chapter One

Old Mr. Rennels was a curious character to say the least. Everyone in the quaint village of Glenloe knew of him but not a single person knew much about him. For many years, the mysterious man lived a private life at the edge of the village in his disheveled cottage, which was almost hidden from view by the unruly grass that had taken over his front lawn. At first glance, anyone would believe that the house had been abandoned for years. But Glenloe was a tiny community where anybody who was slightly different stood out a mile. Everyone knew that this house was occupied and although nobody spoke to Mr. Rennels, he was certainly the subject of many conversations.

People would often spot him wandering about the town, loaded with bags of groceries or gazing curiously at the stream which trickled underneath the old stone bridge. The air of mystery that surrounded Mr. Rennels made locals unsure of the man, almost fearful. Thus, they avoided him. Middle-aged mothers whispered about him in hushed tones as he passed them outside of the local school. Local farmers avoided his gaze as they brushed by one another. Children glared at him, mesmerised by his long black overcoat that skimmed the ground as he walked. Everyone wanted to know more about him but not a soul was willing to ask.

That is, until little Ellie Matthews moved to the locality. Ten-year old Ellie was a boisterous, adventurous, outspoken child whose fiery locks matched her nature. She was constantly in trouble and her parents were becoming weary of her antics. From the day that she arrived in the village, the young girl was enthralled by Mr. Rennels. She would gaze at him from the large bay window in their front room as he strolled briskly by. Ellie had a great imagination and often made up stories about him in her head. Perhaps Mr. Rennels was really an alien, who hid his green and grotesque otherworldly limbs with his heavy overcoat. Maybe he was an evil wizard, who brewed magical potions behind the cloudy windows of his rundown cottage.

“He is just an odd old man,” Ellie’s mother would say abruptly when Ella began to explain her latest theory.

But Ella didn’t believe this. She was certain that there was something special about old Mr. Rennels. And she planned to find out for herself.

Chapter 2

Early one autumn evening, Ella decided to go out to the local newsagent for some sweets. Or so she told her mother. In truth, she planned to climb the steep and winding road to Mr. Rennels’ house at the edge of the village. Brimming with excitement, she bounded up the hill, her auburn ponytail swinging behind her as she went. She needn’t fear being spotted. The streets were deserted as tired bodies had retreated inside, sinking into their couches after a long day at work. Apart from the melodic chee of the starlings in the nearby trees, the patter of Ella’s trainers was the only noise to be heard.

By the time she finally reached the cottage, she no longer felt so daring. Her heart was pounding in her chest. The birds had ceased their evening chorus. Ella was alone. Ella was afraid.

But she had come this far. If she turned back now, she would never know the truth about Mr. Rennels. She trundled through the tangled grass to the front door whose once vibrant red paintwork had flaked away, almost entirely. Ella knocked timidly on the door. No response. However, just as she began to scurry back down the pathway and head for home, she heard the door creak open behind her.

She turned. Towering above her was old Mr. Rennels, unmistakable in his long black overcoat and crooked spectacles. He glared at her, furiously, as if she had stolen him away from some important duty or another.

“What do you want?!” he bellowed loudly, his moustache twitching in annoyance.

This was the first time that Ella had heard him speak.

“I…I just… came to say hello,” stuttered Ella nervously. “Maybe…maybe you could show me how to make a magical potion?”

Ella instantly regretted saying anything. She wished that she had kept her mouth zipped. However, her outburst had obviously touched a nerve as the man’s face softened immediately.

“Well, why didn’t you say so,” he cooed. “Come on inside.”

Trembling with fear, Ella followed him in.

Chapter 3

The interior of the house was unlike anything that Ella had ever seen. Tattered books were piled high on the hall table. Coloured handkerchiefs, wands and unidentified objects littered the floor. An overpowering smell of must filled the air.

But there wasn’t a cauldron, pointed hat or owl in sight. Not to mention a U.F.O.

“Where are the potions?” Ella wondered aloud, as she scanned the room for clues to Mr. Rennel’s identity.

Mr. Rennels let out a distinctive chuckle, which echoed down the long hallway.

“Now, why on earth would I have potions?” he asked with a grin.

“I thought you were an evil wizard,” whispered Ella timidly.

Mr. Rennels let out another chuckle, louder and heartier than the one before. Ella stared at him, uncertainly.

“Oh where did you hear such nonsense?!” he laughed. “I’m not a wizard and I certainly am not evil but you are right with one thing: I do practice magic. I’m a magician!”

Ella let out a sigh of relief. She needn’t be afraid anymore. Everyone knew that magicians aren’t truly magical. To Ella, they were nothing but frauds. She had met some magicians at her friend’s birthday parties but they had never fooled her.

“Magicians aren’t really magic,” she scoffed, her confidence fully restored.

Mr. Rennels appeared unmoved by her comment. Instead, he smiled down at the young girl, with a grin that stretched from ear to ear.

“Of course they are! But the TRUE magicians can never reveal themselves. If they do they must make themselves…disappear,” he boomed. He continued to speak, his voice growing louder. “Like the leaves in winter, like the snow in summer… be gone!”

*POOF*

All at once, the man vanished. He didn’t leave a trace of his existence, except for his bronze pocket watch, which fell to the floor with a clink. Ella stood for a moment, paralysed. What had just happened? She was confused. She was afraid. She had to get out of there. She reached down to grab the watch before flinging open the door and dashing home.

Ella never saw Mr. Rennels again. Rumours about his whereabouts circulated the village. Some said that he had passed away. Others believed he had moved to France. Ella didn’t know what to make of the village gossip. One thing I do know, she thought as she clasped the pocket watch in her hand Magic most certainly is real.

A Cat and Mouse Tale – Sacred Heart Messenger (Kids Section), Spring 2015

Part One

The air was as still as the water which shimmered beneath the evening sun. It was as if all of nature focused on him, not daring to make a sound. He stood knee-deep in the river, eyes transfixed on the murky bed. Watching. Waiting. Until…

SPLASH! He dived, limbs flailing. Birds shrieked. Bushes rustled. Nature was alive once more!

The man eventually rose, prize held proudly overhead — a majestic snakehead fish.

Mouse had always been in awe of his father, who fished by hand near their home in Northern Thailand. He was the youngest of three boys. And the smallest. And the weakest. His size had earned him the nickname “Mouse”. That and his love for cheese sandwiches!

One night, their father announced that he would hand over his fishing responsibilities.

“I’ll do it!” Mouse piped up eagerly.

“It’s a man’s job,” jeered his brother, Chu. “You’re not a man, you’re a mouse!”

His father silenced them.

“One day Mouse,” he said calmly. “But the river’s no place for a young boy.”

Mouse’s heart sank. Nevertheless, he was determined to prove everyone wrong. The following evening he packed up a torch, jacket and of course, cheese sandwiches. He crept out into the chilly mountain air and headed for the river.

A light mist hung over the water. Mouse set his backpack on the muddy bank and waded in. He shuddered as icy water rushed around his ankles. Now all that he could do was wait.

Mouse soon grew impatient. Thoughts raced through his mind. Perhaps he should leave. Perhaps he was a failure. Perhaps…it was time for a break?

He scrambled up the bank, plonking himself beside his backpack.

Why is this so difficult, he thought, as he devoured his sandwich.

Mouse thought enviously about the families on his aunt’s television. Their fish came from a shop, in crispy batter with fluffy chips. Mouse had never even tried chips!

But things are different here, he thought.

A noise from the bushes broke the otherwise tranquil evening. He was no longer alone. He turned slowly, his stomach doing somersaults. Nothing. He stood. Watching. Waiting. Until…

THUD! Mouse felt his feet disappear from beneath him. He lay frozen. Someone’s warm breath tickled his face but Mouse didn’t dare to open his eyes.

You’re a man, not a mouse, he thought, forcing himself to face his attacker.

He opened his eyes. Two huge golden eyes gazed back at him.

Part Two

Mouse lay frozen, hypnotised by the huge oval eyes that peered back at him. He traced the silhouette of his attacker. There was no mistaking it. Before him sat the strong, majestic black panther.

Terrified, he lay trembling. His brothers used to tell stories about the vicious sharp-fanged beasts that ate little boys for lunch. Today, he was the dish of the day.

As the panther moved closer, Mouse squeezed his eyes shut, awaiting his fate. But it didn’t come. He felt the beast tug delicately at his t-shirt pocket before hearing him creep away.

He opened one eye warily and was met with shock. The ferocious feline sat there, nibbling delicately on a wedge of cheese sandwich that Mouse had stuffed into his pocket for later.

He’s not a cat, he’s a mouse! Mouse thought, smiling.

Once the sandwich had been devoured, the panther eased his sleek body into the river, so gently that there was barely a ripple. He glided through the water, as graceful as a swan.

Suddenly, he halted. Mouse held his breath, convinced that the monster was going to return to finish him off. But he stood still. Watching. Waiting. Until…

CRASH! The huge creature hurled himself headfirst into the water, his long tail trailing behind. He thrashed about, splattering droplets of water onto Mouse’s trouser leg. Eventually, he emerged, his prize gripped firmly between his impressive fangs. A giant snakefish, the finest Mouse had ever seen.

The panther held the floundering fish in his jaws until he lay limp. He carefully placed his catch on Mouse’s beating chest before disappearing into the shadows. Mouse sat up, gobsmacked. It was as if he was trading. It was as if he’d been watching. It was as if… he knew.

“A cat and mouse working together. Who’d have thought,” Mouse whispered.

Mouse slung the fish over his shoulders and hurried home, buckling under its weight. Before he could creep inside, his father flung open the door. His face dropped when he saw what his youngest had brought home.

“Where did you get that,” he asked in awe.

Mouse kept silent, grinning triumphantly as he saw his brothers peering over their father’s shoulder.

“Son, you may not yet be a man, but you certainly are no mouse. You are a lion, a majestic panther even!” he said.

Mouse beamed with pride.

If only they knew, he thought to himself.