Wednesday 31 December 2014

A Promise for the New Year

A New Year’s Resolution

2015 is about to start and, as I do almost every year, I’ve been thinking about resolutions and whether or not I should make a few. As has been the case in the past, I’ve had my doubts about the value of New Year’s resolutions. If I study the past and reflect on what I consider to be the best decisions I’ve made in my life I come to the conclusion not one of them was actually made on or even near January 1st.

My decision to try and write a book was made one day in October 2013 when I, in all my innocence, questioned on Twitter whether or not it is true that everybody has at least one story in them. Friends jumped on the Tweet and ensured me not only would I find at least one story hiding somewhere deep inside, I should also try to write it. And what better opportunity to test my writing skills, than NaNoWriMo, which was about to start a couple of weeks later. Thirteen months and two publishing deals later I have to admit accepting their challenge has been one of the better decisions I’ve ever made.

Another good decision I made recently was to stop buying cigarettes. That one was made on June 1st last and I have more or less been able to stick to it, much to my surprise if I’m honest. I could go on and present more examples of wonderful decisions I made on dates other than January 1st, but I think you get the idea.

I don’t really view the start of a New Year as anything other than a reason for me to make mistakes whenever I have to write the date down. It usually takes me about a month before I remember to use the right year. Having said all of that, this year I do have a project I will start on January 1st.

In May 2015 Ireland will hold a referendum on marriage equality. This is a cause I have strong feelings about. In fact, I wouldn’t even call them feelings. I never have and never will understand why two people who are both of age and love each other shouldn’t be allowed to marry, should they wish to do so. How does it affect anybody else, and why should other people have a say in the matter? I just don’t get it. I don’t care nor interfere with where people choose to live, what sort of car they want to drive or any other personal decision. Why should whether or not they wish to get married be any different?

Because I feel so strongly about it and because the discussions I’ve been hearing and reading in the media recently have infuriated me, I have decided to crawl out of my shell and for once in my life take a stand. This is a rather big decision for me. I don’t like drawing attention to myself, I abhor conflict and tend to bite my tongue rather than speak up about issues, no matter how important or personal. Because I expect the discussion to get more intense and potentially more divisive as soon as the media and politicians return from their Christmas break, this is one decision which will take effect on January 1st.

I have written all my arguments to counter the naysayers down in a post I will share, probably tomorrow. These are the same arguments I intend to inundate the media with whenever I encounter what I consider to be ill thought-out, bigoted or mean-spirited comments on those media platforms. It scares me that I will be sticking my head above the parapet but it is something I feel I have to do. Either way, and whatever the outcome, it will be over no later than coming June. Six months of potential discomfort are not too big a price to pay for something I feel as strongly about as I do about marriage equality.

I have no vested interest in this argument. My marriage is as traditional as it is happy. I think that may make me more, rather than less qualified to speak; or, if not qualified, then at least an impartial participant. It will make no difference to my life and happiness whether or not this referendum is passed. I do believe the world will be a better place if we manage to get rid of yet another form of inequality. People are people and love is love. The sooner the world understands that principle and starts living and legislating accordingly, the sooner all of us will be living in a better and happier environment.

I guess this is just a heads up. It is quite possible I’ll bore you to tears with my thoughts on this matter between now and next June. I do it in the belief it is not only the right, but also the only thing to do, and I refuse to apologize for it.

Monday 29 December 2014

Flash Fiction

I’m very grateful to Meredith King for picking today’s photo.

This is the last time Flash Fiction Monday will be a solo project. In the New Year Brigham Vaughn will join me. I can’t wait to see the results of both of us using the same picture for inspiration.

Look at them. Don’t they look all cute and perfect together?

If only people knew what it has taken to get them here. It took me a bloody month to get them to concede they didn’t actually hate each other, and I never did get either of them to admit to liking the other.

Once they’d no longer frowned whenever they met, I’d embarked on part two of my mission; get them together at a time and place where they might be tempted to give into to the attraction I sensed between them.

The party tonight had been the perfect opportunity. It hadn’t been easy to convince them they wanted to come and getting them into those suits had required the patience of a saint. I couldn’t deny the blue version looked rather garish, but hey, it was all for a good cause wasn’t it?

They’d arrived separately but had soon sought each other out. Talking while drinking had led to dancing, followed by tonsil tennis, and some not too discreet groping.

And look at them now; cute doesn’t begin to describe it.

Time for me to go home. My work here is done. Just call me Cupid.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Christmas and Me

I feel rather ambivalent about Christmas. There, I’ve said it.

Reading the poem before opening the present
You see, in the Netherlands, where I grew up, the exchange of presents takes place on December 5th and has its own rituals. Presents are hidden inside homemade, jokey, contraptions which usually require some effort to dismantle and ensure that each present and its unwrapping are given individual attention. The poems the Dutch traditionally write to accompany each present serve the same purpose. The poem is read out loud before the present is opened. The good poems are those that say something clever or funny about the receiver of the present. My mother was a genius when it came to those poems. Some years she would write one poem, several pages long, covering all presents one at a time as well as all recipients individually. The first year my husband joined us on December 5th, she blew me away when she produced poems in English, just for him since he hadn’t mastered Dutch yet.  I’m so glad I saved one of her poems. It still makes me smile while I cry, even almost 30 years later.

Christmas for me, therefore, never had that excitement of getting up early to see what I might find under the tree. Christmas was a special day but not as big an occasion as it was in a lot of other countries. We had the tree (with real candles rather than electric lights) and the decorations and we would have a special dinner, although there is no such thing as a typical Dutch Christmas dinner. Of course that has since changed. Commercialism being what it is, most Dutch families now find themselves facing two present-giving feasts in December. The Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ still arrives in the Netherlands mid November on his steamship from Spain and still delivers his presents on the fifth. But these days a Christmas tree isn’t finished unless there are presents underneath it, so less than twenty days after the first feast, the Dutch do it all over again. Madness.

It wasn’t until I started dating an Irishman and he brought me home to Dublin for Christmas that I discovered what I like to call the ‘English speaking Christmas tradition’. And, if I’m honest, even that very first time I found myself in two minds about it all. Having his youngest brother and sister get us out of bed at all hours of the morning because ‘Santa had been’ was both cute and frustrating. It broke my heart to see my future mother in law spend hours cooking only for the rest of us to inhale the lavish dinner in five minutes flat. I enjoyed meeting and spending time with Dermot’s siblings and partners and wanted to hide away in the bedroom after two hours.

Nothing much has changed since then. I’m still as ambivalent, if not more so. I like buying presents for friends and loved ones but I hate the crowded shops. I cringe every time I hear an adult ask a child “what is Santa going to bring you?” The child shouldn’t know that in advance. The question should be, “what do you hope Santa will bring you?” I enjoy spending time with family but find myself upset after a while because I can’t spend time doing my own thing and the number of people and the noise they produce will get on my nerves. I detest the endless amount of repeats on TV over the holidays. Even I, who
Cook your own dinner
stopped watching movies and television a few years ago, have seen most if not all of them before. But I love the traditions of our own we’ve created. Presents before breakfast, the family walk with the dog in the morning, our very untraditional DIY Christmas dinner, and playing at least one board game in the evening in front of the open fire.

Tomorrow it will be Christmas again and for most of the day the three of us will be doing our own thing. We will visit the inlaws and spend some time being sociable, but since they live next door I’ll be able to flee to my own house and peace and quiet whenever the need strikes me. The strange thing is, there are moments when I feel mildly guilty about my attitude towards Christmas; when I feel I probably should get excited about the day, the presents, the company and the food. And then I shrug it off. The media may present us with a rather one dimensional picture of what the ideal Christmas should be according to their (often commercial) agenda. Their Christmas isn’t mine. Mine is quiet and relaxed. Not a time filled with stress but rather a day of joy, taking it easy and enjoying the company of those closest to me. Feck the traditions, I’m making my day perfect in my own, untraditional way.

Mother Knows All, a Christmas Short Story

I wrote this story for a competition. The brief was, if I remember correctly, to write a Christmas story about some sort of secret. The winner was announced yesterday, and it wasn’t me.

Because I do like my story, because it’s set at Christmas and because I wrote it with the upcoming Irish referendum on marriage equality in mind, I thought I’d share it here. Let me know what you think.

Mother Knows All

I cursed motorways as the miles sped away below our tires. Only five years ago this journey would have taken at least half a day, now we would be there in less than three hours. Why had I said yes? You’d think after twenty-five years I would have learned how to lie to me Ma, but no such luck. The memory of the conversation was vivid in my mind.

“So are you bringing that lover of yours? I’m mighty curious”

“To Christmas? Ma, I don’t know. That may be a bit much don’t you think?”

“Not at all. It’ll be grand. We’ll get the whole meeting the family thing over within a few short minutes.”

It made sense. Then again, it had never been easy to argue with me Ma or get one over on her. So I’d introduced the idea and much to my surprise I’d called my mother back a day later to tell her Jordan would be coming with me, as per her request.

“Will you stop worrying?” Jordan interrupted my fevered thoughts. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

I chanced a quick glance to the side before looking back at the road and the white lines flying by. Did Jordan really expect me to list every possible disastrous outcome? I opened my mouth to answer when a pull on the steering wheel combined with a horrible sound coming from the rear of the car informed me we had a flat tyre.

I called my mother to warn her we’d be late before we tackled the jack and tyres. The drizzly rain did nothing to improve my mood.

It was dark by the time we arrived and I could only hope our delay hadn’t spoiled the Christmas dinner. A wave of sound washed over us when I opened the front door. A cluster of nieces and nephews chased each other up and down the hallway and stairs. They stopped for a moment before running into the living room.

“They’ve arrived. They’re here.”

Nerves cramped my stomach and I briefly squeezed Jordan’s hand before taking a deep breath and walking toward the room where my extended and no doubt curious family waited for us.

I couldn’t stop myself from being on high alert and saw the double takes, the raised eyebrows and, most of all, every single head turning to me Ma, waiting to see what she would do and say.

When Ma didn’t say a word my heart dropped. I watched as she walked to the tree and picked up two identically shaped presents.

“I didn’t know what to get you.” She looked at Jordan. “So I got you what I get everybody else.”

I knew the presents would be toiletries, they always were and I had my apology ready for Jordan. Nothing prepared me for the words 'Nivea for Men' when Jordan finished unwrapping, or my mother’s words to me.

“Will you never learn you can’t keep a secret from your Ma, son?”

Monday 22 December 2014

Flash Fiction: Cold

I’d like to thank Theo Fenraven for providing today’s picture.

He stared at the snow before taking another sip of the still too hot coffee. Everything was ready for him to hit the slopes; he just needed to put on his suit. Only his head wasn’t convinced the planned excursion was a good idea.

It had taken a lot to convince him. “It’s just like falling off a horse” his friends had said. “You have to get back up or you’ll never do it again.” If he were honest, he’d admit he was good with never skiing again. Less than a year had passed since he’d fallen, broken his leg in two places and spent four hours lying in the snow before they’d found him.
He’d been happy to swap the cold for Florida. He should have stayed there. He wasn’t afraid of falling again, nor did he worry about breaking more bones. He couldn’t bear the thought of ever being as cold as he’d been while he waited again.

“Not ready yet?”

The man he’d grown to love during his months in the sun sounded amused. He repressed his scowl and turned.

“Give me a minute.” He reached for his suit and hummed a song he hadn’t heard in ages: 'The things we do for love'.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Humphrey the Last Elephant in Ireland

My husband, Dermot Kennedy, wrote a story for Edmond Manning recently. The inspiration for the story was the green elephant in the picture and both of us are very glad both the elephant and the story safely made the journey across the Atlantic. Edmond has gracefully allowed me to share Dermot’s story here. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did and both of us would love to hear what you think.

Humphrey the Last Elephant in Ireland

Thousands of years ago, at the end of the last ice-age, Ireland was still connected to the main landmass of Europe. Elephants roamed freely in the southern part of the country that was split between the ice-locked northern half and the temperate lush south.

When Humphrey was born, it was very evident that he was different. For one, he had less hair than his parents or any of the other elephants in his herd. His mom told him that this was because the general temperatures had been increasing for years now, and god was just trying to make him more comfortable. And secondly, he didn’t have the small hump on his back that all the other elephants had back then, and this is why he was named Humphrey (Hump free).

But as he grew up, Humphrey became lonelier and lonelier. The other elephants of his age group didn’t play with him, and always resorted to whispering whenever he came within earshot.

So Humphrey began taking long hikes into the countryside. He was a very inquisitive elephant and liked to find out everything he could about all the other animals that lived in Ireland. Humphrey discovered something about himself in those days; he discovered that if he stayed listening to another group of animals for a long time, he would begin to understand what they were saying to each other.  He loved listening to the conversations of birds, foxes, badgers, wolves and even bears. He never feared any of them because he knew from early on that they were intimidated by his mammoth size, but sometimes this made him sad because all he wanted was to chat with them and be friends.

Humphrey’s favorite group of animals, were the man-things. He loved listening to them most of all, because they had the most interesting things to say. He would often meet them down by the edge of the river, where they came to clean things and fetch drinking water. They didn’t fear him for they knew Humphrey was a herbivore, he was also sometimes a herb after but mostly he was a herbivore.

After a few years had passed one of the man-things started to talk to Humphrey. Just random topics about the weather or how the crops were growing, but Humphrey liked the fact that the man-thing would actually take the time to talk to him. Every day when he saw the man-thing he would trumpet a “Helloooo” with his long trunk. The man-thing seemed to like this because he would laugh before imitating the “Helloooo” in response.

One day while Humphrey was walking through the woods, he came upon a small herd of man-things who seemed very excited about something. They were shouting and gesticulating to each other in a very serious manner. Humphrey’s friend came over to him and explained that a huge old tree had toppled over and trapped one of his herd under it. He asked Humphrey if he could help them and because Humphrey knew exactly what his friend was saying, he did.

Humphrey walked over to the fallen tree, wrapped his trunk around it, and lifted it enough so that the other man-things could free the one who was trapped.

All the man-things were very happy and clapped and shouted their thanks. The man-thing, who was Humphrey’s friend, came over to him and thanked him profusely, to which Humphrey replied, “you’re welcome”.

A stunned silence descended on the herd. They all stared at Humphrey as if they’d never seen an elephant before. Their faces were shocked.

Humphrey’s friend said, “You can speak! You can speak our language! How is this possible?” Humphrey looked at him and shrugged his massive shoulders.

“I just opened my mouth and the words were there. I didn’t know I could speak your language until just now. Although I do remember every word you’ve ever spoken to me for all the years you have been my friend, because, as the whole world knows, an elephant never forgets.”

“My name is Amergin,” said Humphreys man thing friend (which is going to make writing about him a whole lot easier for the rest of this story).

“Helloooo Amergin, my name is Humphrey, I am very happy to be your friend.”

After the initial shock had worn off, all the other man things started to laugh and dance with joy. Amergin said “We must celebrate this amazing event, we shall have a feast tonight and you, my friend, will be the guest of honor.”

This pleased Humphrey enormously and he followed the man-thing herd back to their village where a mighty feast was held. Everyone came up to Humphrey to thank him for saving one of their own, but really they all just wanted to hear Humphrey talk.

As luck would have it, all this happened on the middle day of the week and thereafter all the man things called it “happy Hump day”, and thus a phrase was born which still survives to this day (even if the meaning has been lost over time).

In the months that followed, Humphrey made his way to the man-thing village every day to help out the man-things in various chores such as moving heavy trees or boulders or uprooting tree stumps from fields planned for growing crops. But Humphrey’s favorite thing was to talk with anyone who wanted to. He let the children of the man-things ride on his back and squirted water at them with his trunk, when they all went down to play in the river. And every day, when all the chores were done, he and Amergin sat down by the campfire and told each other stories about their perspective herds.

Amergin was the chief Druid of all the villages in this part of Ireland and was famed for his wisdom and knowledge. One day he told Humphrey that all the other Druids were coming together for their annual moot and this year it was to be held in Amergin’s village. He wanted to introduce Humphrey to the other wise men, for he was the first non-man-thing who had discovered the secret of their language.

A week later (on Hump day as it happened) all the other Druids of Ireland were introduced to Humphrey. They sat in a circle around the campfire as Amergin told them how he met Humphrey, the rescue in the woods, and how they discovered that Humphrey could understand and speak their language. One by one they questioned Humphrey about the history of his herd, why he looked different from all the other elephants in Ireland and, most importantly, how he learned to speak their language. Humphrey answered their questions as best he could, but as to how he knew how to talk, he was just as mystified as they were.

All the wise men then went into a large meeting hall to discuss all manner of things druidy. Because Humphrey was a guest, he was allowed into the hall too and sat in the corner listening to the druids talk.
Even though they were discussing druidy things, none could stop themselves from sneaking a look at Humphrey every few minutes (And this is where we get the phrase “The elephant in the room”).

At the end of the moot, all the Druids said they were honored to call Humphrey a friend and they looked forward to seeing and talking with him again.

A few weeks later, Maktus, the chief druid of the northlands came to visit Amergin. When he heard the news his friend had come to report, he called Humphrey over to share it with him.

“Maktus has come with important news, Humphrey. You need to hear this too.” The druid nervously moved closer to Humphrey. “The northern druids have been auguring and consulting the stars and the portents are not good. Soon there will be a great increase in the temperatures and the ice that covers the north will melt very quickly. There will be a great flood and anyone or any animal who does not seek higher ground will surely perish”.

Humphrey was alarmed when he heard this. “Thank you for letting me know about this. I have to go warn the others of my herd.”

With that, Humphrey set off to find the elders of his own kind. When he reached them they listened to him with mild amusement. They didn’t believe he could actually talk and understand the man-things. Try as he might, he couldn’t convince them to move to higher ground, for elephants have a fondness for low lying prairies with lots of juicy vegetation to eat, and they do not like climbing mountains.

Humphrey had to leave them in order to save himself. He knew of a mountain called Slieve Ullghlas, which had a not too steep gradient but was high enough to survive the flood.

Not long after, the flood came. First he heard a great roaring sound, then he saw a giant wave of water that stretched as far as the eye could see from east to west. The water washed away everything in its path as it made its way south through the rest of the country.

Humphrey stayed on his mountain for a year and a day. All he had to eat was shamrock as this was all that grew there, but it was enough to sustain him. In order for him to have something to drink, Humphrey had to turn his ear horizontal and form it into the shape of a bowl. When it rained, and it rained a lot, his ear would fill up and he would have enough to quench his thirst (And this is the origin of the saying “copping an earful”).

After a year and a day, when all the waters of the world leveled out, and the land had reappeared, Humphrey left his mountain retreat and went in search of Amergin and the other man-things. He came upon a freshly made lake and decided he needed a drink. When he saw his image reflected in the water, he was stunned! He was green. A year of eating only shamrock had turned his tough skin an apple green color.

About a week later Humphrey found Amergin and his herd. They were shocked when they saw him.

 “YOU’RE GREEN!” they all shouted.

Amergin asked “how did this happen to you?”

Humphrey told them how he had escaped the flood, and how all he had had to eat for a year was shamrock.

“Ahh yes, I know shamrock has some special properties. We call it the lucky plant, but I’ve never seen anyone turn green from eating it” said the druid.

 At that moment, some of the other man things were busy trying to get a stray cow back into its pen, but they weren’t having much success. When Humphrey turned to have a look, he accidentally bumped into a small tree. The tree fell onto another tree, which in turn hit a third tree. This tree fell onto a bush, which had a bird’s nest in it. In the nest were some eggs, and one of these eggs was thrown far into the air, flew over the village and hit the stray cow on the head. The cow jumped with fright and ran straight back into his pen. Everyone cheered when this happened and thanked Humphrey for his help (And that was the first time the word “Eggstrordinary” was ever heard).

Amergin said to Humphrey “That was amazing, it looks as if you absorbed all the luck from eating shamrock for a year, as well as turning green.”Humphrey smiled but still seemed sad. “What’s wrong, my friend?” asked Amergin.

“Have you seen any of my herd since the waters receded?”

Amergin shook his head “No, I haven’t, Humphrey. You are the only elephant we have seen since the great deluge.”

Humphrey looked into the distance. “I have to go and try and find the survivors of my herd, if there are any”. Amergin asked him “Will you come back to visit us?”

“I hope so, my friend. Goodbye for now.” With that, Humphrey turned and walked out of the village and was never seen again.

For years after, many animals and man-things often heard a distant call on the wind…. “Helloooo”, but when they went to investigate all they found was a big pile of elephant poo. And because they knew it had to have come from Humphrey, they knew it would be lucky. When they spread it on their crops, their harvest was three times more bountiful than before. Potatoes grew so big, one would feed a whole family, one stalk of wheat could make an entire loaf of bread, and one bean would have the whole village farting for days (And this was the origin of the phrase “Windy today, isn’t it”).

Hundreds of years have passed but still legends persist about the last green elephant in Ireland. Many people make small figurines of Humphrey, in the belief that they will bring them good luck and good fortune. These talismans have become treasured items among the people of Ireland and anyone who owns one is considered extremely lucky indeed.

Some folk believe that Humphrey is still out there, searching for the last remnants of his own kind. And every once in a while, a call can be heard on the wind, if one listens very carefully, …. “Helloooo”.

Monday 15 December 2014

Flash Fiction: A Winter Reunion

I want to thank Brigham Vaughn for providing today’s picture. I had fun giving these boys their story.

I rest my forehead against Paul’s, unable to believe we’re really both here again.

It has been exactly four years since we last stood in this grove - ankle-deep in the snow - both of us sixteen and Paul about to move away with his parents. We’d had ninety-two days of happiness together. Three months during which we’d spent every free minute together. We’d thought it would last forever. The announcement of the move had taken Paul by surprise as much as it had me. That last day we’d promised each other we’d meet here exactly four years later.

“They found out, you know. My parents. About us. They thought separating us might cure me of my adolescent confusion.”
It explained why he’d never written to me. I thought of the dozens of unsent letters in my room, every envelope showing just his name, no address.

“I didn’t think you’d come.” Paul’s smile wavers.
“I had to know.” It had been the most difficult thing I’d ever done, coming here. “I couldn’t give up on you until I knew for sure it had been your choice not to see me again. If you hadn’t been here I would have allowed myself to forget you.”
“And now?”
My grin turns into a full smile. “Now I’m not going to let you go again. Parents be damned.”

Monday 8 December 2014

The Hammock: A Very Special Flash Fiction Short

Eileen Griffin provided the picture for this week’s flash fiction short. For reasons I won’t go into here, this story was written with Eileen in mind and especially for her. I hope those of you who aren’t Eileen enjoy it too.

With special thanks to Tiffany Reisz for allowing me to steal some of her wonderful words.

I slowly stroked myself as I read. This book, these characters, had captured my imagination and fed my fantasies.

‘”I want to own you,” Griffin whispered into Michael’s ear. Michael smiled, and for the first time in his life knew exactly what to say and how to say it. “You already do.”’

“Stop.” I looked up from the page and stared at Chris.
“Stop here? But we’ve still got 45 pages to go.” 
Today was the third day in a row we’d spent lazing in the hammock while I read my favourite book, Tiffany Reisz’s The Angel, to my lover.
“It’s perfect. The story should end right there.” 
The wistful expression on his face took me by surprise. I allowed my gaze to travel down his tanned body until it reached his engorged cock.
“Perfect, you say?” 
I smirked at Chris as a blush started on his chest and slowly crept up his neck until it charmingly brightened his cheeks. I moved my foot and rubbed my big toe against his balls.  
“You want Griffin and Michael’s story to end there?” Chris nodded.
“And what about ours?”
His smile was shy and lopsided.
“Can we start a new chapter?”

Monday 1 December 2014

Flash Fiction Holiday Blog Hop: Home is...

Last October Thorny Sterling introduced the idea of a Flash Fiction Holiday Blog Hop on his blog, Thorny Not Prickly. Thorny together with Kris T. Bethke and  LC Chase set the wheels in motion and the rest of us enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. Below is the photo they provided for the participants’ inspiration followed by my story. At the bottom of this post you will find a link to the Blog Hop page, the ‘rules’ and links to the other participants’ blogs. All stories will go up over the next seven days. I have no doubt we’re in for a wealth of imaginative writing as well as a good dose of holiday spirit. Thank you Thorny, Kris and LC for this wonderful idea and allowing me to play along.

Home is...

God, why do I have to be such a prick?

When had I turned into this moody, self obsessed wanker?  Why did I feel the urge to shrug him off? I knew I’d regret it the moment I did and yet a small but persistent voice in my head dared me to do it.

It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t even know there was a problem. How could he? I hadn’t told him. He didn’t know this would be my first Christmas without my family.

I picked up a small ornament. The bright red ceramic house glittered in my hands while the tiny words on the side mocked me; Home is where the heart is. Only if the heart followed well established rules, apparently. I put it back in disgust before we walked on. Everything around me was bright, sparkly and festive as if to emphasise everything I’d lost. The beautiful wrapping paper and bright bows reminded me of the people I hadn’t bought presents for this year.

“Give me a moment. There’s something I need to do.” Too caught up in my dark musings I barely noticed him walking away.

No, it wasn’t Declan’s fault. It wasn’t fair to take it out on him. And yet...if I’d never met him I wouldn’t be in this situation. I almost laughed out loud; who was I trying to fool? Without Declan I’d still be living a lie, how was that better?

“What’s wrong?” Declan had returned without me noticing. His arm tightened around me and his warm breath caressed my neck.

“Nothing.” My single word reply made an instant liar out of me.

“Doesn’t sound like nothing to me.” He kept his tone light but I recognised both the concern and frustration underneath his words.

I wanted to tell him and yet couldn’t bring myself to say the words. I didn’t want to be just another ‘rejected by his family for being gay’ sob story.

“It’s this...” I waved my hand around. “All of it, the lights, the glitter, the forced happiness, all of it gets on my nerves.” It wasn’t untrue; it just wasn’t the whole truth. Today I did detest the decorations and huge crowds. Christmas used to be my favourite time of year. Before I became persona non grata. Now every single Christmas tree, all the bright lights, the decorations and seasonal jumpers only grated as they reminded me of everything I’d lost... again.

For a moment I allowed myself to sag into his embrace. I tried to find strength while my back rested against his chest. The soft brush of his lips over my cheek made me feel both better and worse. In Declan I had found everything I’d ever wanted in a partner. Declan, or rather my attraction to him, was what kept me away from my family. The urge to pull away struggled with my need to turn around and kiss him openly, for all to see.

I wondered if things would have been different if it hadn’t been for the earlier incident. It had taken a lot for my parents to forgive me after I’d been brought home by the police. My friends at the time had been into joy riding and one night, after a few drinks too many, I’d hung around when they went on the rampage rather than walk away as I usually did. One wrecked car and arrest later, the fact I’d only been a passenger had made little difference. Of course, I’d only hung out with those guys to prove my manliness, to deny my nature, even to myself.

“Let’s go for a pint.” His simple and very welcome suggestion made me wish I could tell him how I admired his patience. I had no idea how he put up with my mood swings. There’d been days over the past two weeks, I could barely tolerate myself. He had the option to walk away from me, even if I didn’t, and yet he stayed.

Only a few other people were in the small pub when we entered. I walked straight to a booth at the end of the establishment and moved along the bench until I reached the wall. While Declan walked to the bar to get our drinks I gave myself a stern talking to.

I had to stop taking it out on Declan. I’d known I was gay long before I met him, even if I had tried to deny it. It was true I’d come out to my parents because of Declan. But I couldn’t blame him for that or the resulting rift either. He hadn’t asked me to come out. He’d never mentioned it after he’d discovered my family didn’t know. I’d told them because Declan was important to me, because I wanted to share the man I’d fallen for with the most important people in my life. Much as I wanted to blame him for the loss of my relatives, I couldn’t.

“Here you go.” Declan placed the perfectly poured pint of Guinness on the table before sitting down next to me, pushing his way along the bench until our thighs touched. Our movements mirrored each other as we picked up our glasses and brought them to our lips. A long drink later we both put our pints back on the table. I felt rather than saw his unwavering focus on me.

“Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” When I turned to look at him, the confusion on his face and the pain in his eyes squeezed my heart.

No. This wasn’t his fault and yet I punished him as if he’d caused the problem. I took another large mouthful of the black stuff and decided he deserved to know why I’d been treating him like shit. Now was as good a time as any.

 “It’s my family. And Christmas.” Telling the story turned out to be much harder than I thought it would be.

“You told them.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, I did.” I paused again. “And they didn’t take it well. Words like ‘no son of mine’ were used. My mother cried and my sisters just stared at me.” Hard as it had been to open up, now I’d started I couldn’t stop myself from continuing. “It was the single worst experience of my life. By far. Worse even than the joy riding incident I told you about.”

Even to my own ears my voice sounded detached and flat, devoid of emotion.

Declan put his hand on my leg and squeezed. “That sucks. I’m sorry.”
I stared at the man next to me. The man who’d come to mean so much to me over the past three months. The man I could imagine a future with. The man who’d separated me from my past.

“No, don’t you dare say you’re sorry. This is not your fault. Even I didn’t know my family were such bigots. It hurts. But you’re not to blame.” My anger was way out of proportion; I knew it and couldn’t stop myself from venting it anyway.

“That’s not what I meant. I’m sorry you have to go through this. I don’t...” His words trailed off as he looked over his shoulder. A grin appeared on his face.

I’d started to turn when a voice reached my ears. “Hello lads. Want another pint or are you okay for now?” I froze in my seat as time stopped and my heart skipped a few beats. 

Declan’s grin had turned into a broad smile. “I’ll have a pint. Thank you Grainne. But I’ll get them. What are you having?”

Grainne. My sister. I vaguely heard her ask for a Guinness as I tried to make sense of what had just happened. I refused to believe this was the coincidence my brain tried to convince me it had to be. No way had she accidentally walked into the pub we’d picked. No. Fucking. Way.

“Aaron, how are you?” Grainne sat down on the other side of the table and looked at me. Completely lost for words, all I could do was stare at her. I glanced at Declan and wasn’t surprised by the silly grin he threw me over his shoulder as he walked towards the bar.

“I’m sorry bro.”

My heart broke a little when she used the pet name she and my other sister had called me for as long as I could remember.

“Things happened too fast that evening. Between your announcement, Da and Ma’s reaction and everything, I didn’t have time to respond. By the time I’d figured out that none of it mattered, you’d gone.” Grainne paused to take a breath. “Sarah feels the same. She couldn’t come today but I speak for both of us.”

“Thank you.” The words weren’t big enough to convey the relief and gratitude I felt but they were all I had in that moment. “I was sure I’d lost all of you.”

“That was never going to happen, how could you even think that?” Grainne’s voice held a note of disappointment.

“It’s been two weeks, sis. None of you contacted me. It was as if I’d fallen off the edge of the world. Of course I thought I’d ceased to exist for you.”

Grainne looked at me for a moment and understanding dawned on her face. She opened her mouth to reply but Declan’s return to our table with the drinks made her close it again. When he placed a pint in front of my sister a few pieces of the jigsaw slotted into place. How had he known her name or her preference for pints over glasses?

“You two met before.” I didn’t phrase it as a question.

Declan had the decency to look embarrassed. “Yes. About that.” He glanced at Grainne, who smiled at him, before continuing. “Your sisters called the house phone a few days ago, looking for you. Remember, it was the night you didn’t get home till midnight?”

The night my phone had run out of juice and I’d forgotten to bring my charger. I nodded and waited for him to continue.

“We met in our local pub and they told me what had happened. Initially they wanted to wait for you to come home but it got too late and they had to leave. We planned this encounter as a surprise. At the time it seemed like a good start to your Christmas, but...”

“But what?” I didn’t know whether to be angry or delighted.

“You never said anything. You didn’t tell me about your disastrous meeting with your family.” A defensive note had slipped into Declan’s voice. “If I’d known how torn up you were about the whole thing I’d never have kept their visit a secret.” His tone softened and he stroked my hand. “I’m sorry.”

I looked from my sister to the man I loved. It would be so easy to stay angry and blame them. But most of this mess had been caused by my lack of communication.

“Ma and Da will come around as well you know?” Grainne’s voice broke through my thoughts. “Ma’s almost there already, but you know what she’s like. Anything for a quiet life. Da will take a bit longer but I’m willing to bet this time next year you and Declan will be planning a trip home for Christmas. Mark my words.”

With that my anger evaporated. For the first time in weeks the tension in my muscles and the pressure behind my eyes were absent.

“Here, I got you an early Christmas present.” Declan reached into his pocket and retrieved a tiny package wrapped in golden paper.

I opened it with fingers not quite as steady as I would have liked. Inside was a Christmas tree decoration in the form of a red ceramic house. Tiny letters said, ‘Home is...’

 It was bright and glittery as fuck. I loved it.