Where be the Blackbird?

I know where he be. Next door’s front garden, head cocked to one side, orange beak grasping an almost-ripe cherry from my tree. I look round at the tree: the slender branch, once perilously bowed under the weight of its fruit, is no longer burdened. He stares at me fiercely, doesn’t budge. The patio around him is littered with pits.

‘So you’re the villain who’s been eating all my cherries, eh?’, says I. ‘There was me blaming the postie. You’re a bold one.’

The Blackbird drops the half-eaten fruit. ‘Oh right. Your cherries?’ says he, skewering me with an unblinking eye, ‘Tell me then – who made you the lord and master of the trees?’

‘Fair point, Blackbird, but you could have left us some.’

‘You look well enough fed to me, big lad.’


Black bird eating a berry

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Guest Post: ‘Judith’ by Eunice Yeats.

Judith, he goes to me, don’t be gettin’ up on that stepladder for you’ll fall and crack your skull. That’s Victor, my husband. Victor was married before. First wife died in 1986 and Victor never left their house for two years after. He’s with me this long time, and he likes our road. He can easy walk to the club from here. You know, the social club, for the men?

I took a tumble off a kitchen chair the other week trying to fix the top of the blinds and Victor thought I was done for. Battered a rib, but I was alright. I’m tormented with arthritis and them doctors haven’t a clue. That’s a fact. Some days I hardly can walk from here to that door.

Victor does all the driving now. I can’t manage no more. I rang the Council and I says to the woman, I need a disabled parking space outside my house. Is that right, she says. Aye. (Did she think I was ringing her with lies?) She sent a fella out and he says, Sure there’s loads of spots here. I was ragin’. That’s you seeing it on a week day, I told him, and he’s looking at me. They’re all away to work now! Sometimes Victor has to link me from way up the street, I add. For effect, I point up to the main road: see? He saw, but he didn’t approve the application. Victor says I’ll just have to thole it.

I haven’t any children. Victor has a son, Keith, in Canada. Rings every other Sunday and sends socks birthday after birthday. All still in their wrapping. Socks in our loft for more feet than a football team. Victor, would you not wear them lovely socks Keith sent? I’m saving them, Judith. There’s wiser chewin’ grass, I tell him, but he knows I’m only coddin’.

Victor’s at the chemist for my prescription. I’ve to take that many pills it’s a wonder I can string two words together. Sure nothin’d stop you talkin’, Victor goes. There’s Mr Ferguson away on the bus to the town. Goes every day same time. Flat cap in all weathers. If he sees me here at the window, he’ll nod. Keeps himself to himself, Mr Ferguson. Sure that’s alright. And here’s Big Luke, Phyllis along with him. She’s wild contrary, that one. Say hello today, ignore you tomorrow. Hasn’t smiled since 1970. It’s Luke I’m sorry for.

There’s only a few kids on our road now. Number 12 across the way sold last year when the Hamiltons moved to Omagh. This girl from Dundalk bought it, and I like her. She’s lovely, so she is. Waves every time she sees me. Hiya, Mrs Greer, she goes. Call me Judith, I always say. She’s a wee boy, Max, would buy and sell you. The boyfriend lives in Finaghy. Nice fella. He’s not the daddy.

I know all the neighbours bar the few renters. Everyone knows me. Judith.

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Thought for the day

Sometimes you just want somebody to make you a cup of tea.

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Guest Post: ‘The Circus’ by Harry Bradley

As I roved down by Carlisle Circus a fire was in my head,
And I didn’t know if it was the drink I’d drunk or the week of tea instead, aye-oh, or the weak auld tea instead.

For the girls were pushin’ prams with kids and they were gurnin’ my self same tears,
And those kids looked back with clever stares and I knew well what they said, aye-oh, I knew well what they said.

And I fell in to the City Bar with its speakers blurtin’ songs,
Of the great things we had won these years and the Bright Star of the West, aye-oh, the Bright Star of the West.

And I met a man who’d won the war and lost the will to win,
And I hugged him as we saw the past through the dregs where the next one begins, aye-oh, through the dregs where the next ones begin.

And we limped on up the Ormeau Road to a bar where peace broke out,
And we fought like hell over sweet fuck all til the mad cunt started to shout ‘aye-oh!’ and got us both fucked out.

And we hit the streets all painted in their colours strong and true,
And the peelers’ tanks were whitewash white and our cans were red and blue, aye-oh, our cans were red on blue.

He says to me he dreamt one time of a Palace on a Hill,
Where there was no King nor Philistine to rob you of your will, aye-oh, of your only solemn will.

And we sank the cans and raised them high in praise of hope and folly,
And we were the kings of every hill that bleeds from a back alley, aye-oh, that runs from a back alley.

And the sky was trapped between two walls as we looked up through our hands,
And our fingers were like prison bars in that glorious wasteland, aye-oh, we were lost on rough wasteland.

I says to him “put on your boots, I’m gettin’ us both confessed”, but the confidential telephone would’nt listen to the blessed, aye-oh, we were full as Popes and blessed.

He says we should go across the town to the shebeen below the mount,
So we hopped a cab and sped away and rolled into that joint, aye-oh, it was a low and smokey joint.

He took a stool, I missed the floor, my soul was all adroop,
Til I met a girl with rebel hands who fed me mushroom soup, aye-oh, with her mushrooms all in a soup.

I barred my head out of that place, that woman freed my hands, and we took to the hill in search of love and the Golden Bobby Sands, aye-oh, our love was golden sands.

The hill was black and dark as hell and the hungry trees were flutes,
That whistled the wind of Evermore to the beer cans underfoot, aye-oh, there were good times underfoot.

I kissed that girl and she kissed me and the sky was slick with paint,
And we made love on a gable wall that was laid low as a Saint, aye-oh, we were patrons to a Saint.

And as we lay there cold and bright and feeling hurt and blessed,
We found the prayer on a pair of lips to the Bright Star of the West, aye-oh, we sang The Bright Star of the West.

So come all ye clowns and stallagnites that would free auld Ire-er-land,
You won’t free shite of a Friday night without stardust on your palms, aye-oh, she keeps stardust in her palms.


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A Christmas Wish .

And lo! The people awoke. And verily they said unto one another:

‘This … is not my lord.’

‘This prince has no dominion over me’.

‘Thou, puppet, art not queen of my heart’.

And thenceforth the people made their own joy and were content with the fruits of their labours. And no longer did they cast their eyes to far-off, magical places, but instead lived in peace with their neighbours. And there was no god to see that it was good, and no lord to rob them of it. And it was good.

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The Appointment

Who the fuck is Jerome?

No idea. No matter how deep I scrabble around in the usually-fertile soil of my memory, there is nothing there. I don’t recall meeting anyone called Jerome. Ever. But there it is: a reminder on my phone calendar to meet him a week today in the King’s Head, of all places. I’m not much of a drinker, and I haven’t been in the King’s since I was a student: that’s twenty years ago.

I stare vacantly at the phone until the screen goes black, jolting me out of my daydreaming. I press the wee button at the bottom and bring the calendar back. Its tasteless, waiting-room combination of brown and beige tones is supposed to be inoffensive, but right now I’m finding it really annoying. I scan it for clues, going back a whole twelve months to September last year, but there is no indication of when I made the appointment. Going forward another year there are no other appointments either. Just the one for next Tuesday; it seems like a strange day of the week to have a meeting in a bar.

Jerome. Where could I have met him? The wedding, back in July, maybe? It was well-catered, right enough, and I had a few too many, which might explain why I don’t remember him. I get rid of the calendar, find Maria’s number in my contacts, and dial her. It rings out and I check my watch to make sure she’ll be home from work. Yep. She should be in by now. Maybe try the house phone in a few minutes.

I go into the kitchen to make tea. Just as the kettle boils she rings: “Hello? Peter? I’ve a missed call from you. Were you lookin’ me? I was up the stairs there. You alright?”

“Hiya. Yeah fine, thanks. How’re you two getting on?”

“Ah yeah, you know. Grand. Pluggin’ away. Trying to pay off the wedding and all that. What can I do for you?”

“Well,” I reply, “hope I’m not disturbing you. I was wondering if you could do me a wee favour … it’s a bit mad.”

“Fire away, and I’ll tell ya,” she answers, “as long as it’s legal. Never know with you.” I picture her smiling face, the old cream-coloured BT phone up to her ear, and realise I haven’t seen her since the wedding.

“Do you know … was there anyone called Jerome at the wedding?”

She draws out the first word, “No. Don’t think so. Why d’you want to know?”

“It’s like this: I was looking at my diary on the phone today, you see, and I noticed an appointment with a guy called Jerome, for next week. Only, I don’t know anyone called Jerome. So I thought it might have been someone I’d met at your wedding, and forgot about.”

She laughs. “Aye well. You were pretty full when we poured you into the taxi. No wonder if you didn’t remember meeting him. But I don’t recall any Jerome being there. We certainly didn’t invite anyone of that name. Jeremy neither. Here … what if it’s Jeremy, and you put it in all wrong and then the phone autocorrected it?”

I hadn’t thought of that. “Jesus – you’re just making it worse, for fuck’s sake,” I laugh, “I don’t know anyone called Jeremy either.”

“Hmmm. Hold on, I’ll go and ask Luke.” She puts down the phone and I hear her footsteps on the wooden floor of the hall fading as she goes into the back room. There is a brief muffled conversation, then the footsteps return. The line crackles as she lifts the phone again. “Hello? Yes. Luke reckons Mary White’s boyfriend is called Jerome.” She shouts into the other room: “You sure, love? The tall skinny fella with the ginger hair? Was up going nuts dancing? Yes. No. James, aye. Yeah I thought it was James.” She comes back on the phone. “Sorry Peter. Thought we had him there.”

“It is James, I know him,” I answer, deflated, “he’s a rocket. You’d not forget him in a hurry. Sure, I’ll keep on looking. Thanks anyway. I’ll call round soon, it’s been ages.”

“Yes, do that. Maybe next week after the mystery meeting? You can tell us all about it. Anyway, here, have fun with the detective work. I’ll have a wee look at the guest list after dinner and see if there’s anything there might help. I’ll give you a buzz if we find anything, ok? See you next week; bye!”

Back to square one. But with the added possibility of autocorrect. Let’s see. Tea ignored, I go back into the calendar and type in ‘Jereme,’ ‘Jeromy,’ ‘Joreme.’ The autocorrect suggests both ‘Jerome’ and ‘Jeremy’ in the Spellcheck panel for each, but doesn’t actually correct what I have typed. Probably not Jeremy then; I wouldn’t have got it that wrong, even after a few glasses of wine. I switch the kettle back on.

Stumped. Can’t think of anything else to do except turn up on the day and see who’s there. Hopefully someone I recognise. But what if it’s a setup? Or a frape? No. Too elaborate for a frape, and I don’t know anyone that’s interested in practical jokes. It’s not my birthday or anything like that. Also, I never leave my phone out where it could be tampered with, or nicked. Never. Keep it tight since that one got stolen on me. What if it’s something sinister? Could it be? Visions of capture by Somali Pirates, Captain Philips, ocean, sunburn, flit through my imagination. No. Don’t think so, I’m not worth robbing or blackmailing. But on the other hand, maybe I should get Maria to scope out the King’s Head before I arrive anyway, just see if there’s any kind of suspicious activity. Jesus. I’m acting like a spy; ‘Harry’s Game’ or something. It’s probably just someone who came into work or I met somewhere who wants to sell me a water filtration system or double glazing or some other shite. Wise up and stop wasting time on it. It’ll be some wee man in a suit wanting to talk to you about your pension. If this Jerome guy was so dodgy, I wouldn’t have made the appointment in the first place; I have good instincts about people.

The click of the kettle switching off interrupts my chain of thought. Normally I put it off way before, or it goes on boiling for ages, but I’ve let it go the distance this time. C’mon. This is stupid. Teabag in my favourite mug, I take the milk from the fridge, open it and sniff to make sure it’s good. It seems ok. After a quick stir there are a couple of floaty bits, but it’s drinkable. I’m not that fussy. I take out the marker and add milk to the shopping list, then get the last two Malted Milk biscuits out of the packet. Add them to the list as well.

Jerome. The name conjures up images: A tall black man. A Catholic. A Frenchman. An Irishman. Jerome K. Jerome, ‘Three Men in a Boat;’ never thought it was a strange name before now. No point speculating, although it’s hard not to. Stumped as I am, I decide to do some research while I wait for Maria to call. I take my tea over to the table and bring the laptop out of hibernation. Straight to the web, I ignore the lure of emails and Facebook. ‘Wikipedia’ first: get a general idea.

Saint Jerome. Here we go. Bit of a rake in his youth: “Superficial escapades and wanton behaviour.” Repented of his wicked ways though. On many’s the cold dark morning. Well. Didn’t we all? Latin Vulgate Bible his greatest work. Patron saint of translators, encyclopaedists, and librarians. I’m quite pleased by this:  class: even us librarians have a patron saint. Bit controversial in his time, Romans not mad about him. Rumours of him and a widow called Paula. Ah, Paula … and Rome; there’s a spot. Would love to go back. Feast day 30th September. Not far off, next week in fact. Paintings by Bellini and other Old Masters I’m not familiar with. Removing a thorn from a lion’s paw in the Syrian desert. Sounds vaguely familiar but I can’t remember the story.

Enough. Despite my love of books, I’m not really all that interested in Jerome’s works and letters. Time to make some dinner and then read a bit. Maria still hasn’t rung by bedtime; nothing coming from that quarter by the looks of it.


It’s only on Friday when it occurs to me. It was staring me in the face the whole time, and I never thought of it. Jesus. So simple. It’s quiet at work; not many in today. Friday afternoon at the beginning of term, of course, a lot of the undergrads go home for the weekend or else they’re on the rip, especially the freshers, wee bastards. The ones that come in here are doing serious work: postgrads, doctors, and profs with tight deadlines. Even so, most of the lecturers are gearing up for the new semester and they’re cramming in the last-minute stuff in other locations.

I like to have a bit of banter or conversation when I’m on the desk; it helps to make the day go in. I’ve been here long enough to know some of them quite well. Generally I make a bit of time for the ones I like, even if there’s a queue. And then there’s the others, just plain ignorant or awkward, and I try to get them through as quick as I can, without any unnecessary words or eye contact. Hate awkwardness. And then there’s the ones that fall between; those that might have potential for some kind of social contact, but it hasn’t been realised yet. This afternoon it is one of the in-betweeners that does it. As always, her mass of red hair arrives in my peripheral vision first, then I get the muttered “Taking these out. Please.” This time, she’s borrowing a sizeable pile of books. As usual, she’s not up for a wee chat. I wish she’d smile.

When her mobile goes off it’s loud; the ringtone is candy-floss pop music. It’s unexpected, and the reflection of my face in the monitor expresses simultaneous surprise, disappointment, and hilarity. She reads this expertly, reddens up, fishes the phone out of her bag and jabs at it. And then stands, fidgeting with the phone. I am holding on to the last two books, for badness.

I smile up at her: “I hate it when that happens. You feel like everyone’s looking at you.”

She fixes me for an instant with dazzling blue eyes, then looks down again and grimaces: “So. Embarassing.” Welsh accent. I hadn’t noticed it before.

“Ah, it’s not so bad,” I reply genially. “If you were in Special Collections, total disaster. But here, no. It happens all the time. Make all the noise you want.”

I hand her the books, and she moves down the desk to bag up her haul, pauses to scrutinise her phone, then hurries away towards the exit, my offer of contact rebuffed. I wonder for an instant who was calling her, and whether it was important.

The phone. I haven’t researched the phone. The address book. Fuck. So obvious. I leave the desk, walk in behind the stack on the left, and check. There he is: Jerome, in white letters and digits against a black background. Mobile phone number, no other information. Now what? Ring? I wrestle with the idea for the remainder of the working day, but there’s no real choice: I have to call him.

At home, faced with the cold plastic reality of the phone I am no longer resolute. Tea doesn’t help; it just makes me piss. Stronger measures are called for. I pull on my coat, pocket my keys, and exit the house. The street is quiet enough at this hour, but it’ll be a different story by 1 a.m. when the bars kick out. I feel like a microscope specimen in the off license. Fluorescent light reflects off refrigerated cabinets, and packs of confidence-oozing youngsters jostle and slabber as they stock up with plastic two-litre bottles of garish high-alcohol pre-load. I settle for a French red, Bordeaux. It’s more than £10, so it should be ok, according to my rulebook.

Halfway through my second glass, I dial. As the ringtone buzzes in my ear a series of ‘what-ifs’ crowd out other thoughts, and a fizz of adrenaline sweeps through me. After only a few seconds he’s there. The voice is deep and clearly foreign, but I can’t place the accent: “You’ve reached Jerome. I can’t take your call right now. Please leave a message and I’ll ring you back.” I breathe again, and hang up. Very businesslike, confident. No background noise, kids shouting, television, no hesitation. Smooth. No second name or business name either. Nothing to help me. Involuntarily, I scroll through the Jerome stereotypes in my mental gallery; he could still fit most of them. Ring again? No. I’ll just turn up on Tuesday. I don’t know what to say to him anyway. I go into the front room to finish the glass. I can’t be bothered cooking tonight. Pizza it is; a student Friday night for me. I wonder, would the saint approve..?


Tuesday 30th September 2014. The day is here; I don’t need the phone calendar to remind me of it. When I open the curtains, sunlight streams in, briefly invigorating and energising my spirit. I love this time of year: that scent, the first leaves yellowing, a touch of cold in the morning air. When I wake up in the morning I’m transported in time to my schooldays, that back-to-school buzz. But by the time I leave for the library there’s a black cloud in the sky. If I’m walking to work like a condemned man on such a beautiful day, what will I be like by 7 p.m. this evening? I wonder. I don’t understand why I’m not more excited and positive about this meeting: I know it will probably be bullshit, but what if it’s not? What if it’s transformative, dangerous, just even interesting? He probably won’t even show up. I cling to this thought like a life ring, keen for the comfort of the everyday.

Work passes by in a blur of meaningless chit-chat, enquiries, books, and swiped cards. No red-haired lass today. By the end of the day I am ready to lie down in a heap on the sofa, watch shite TV, and forget about the appointment. But these thoughts are futile: there’s no chance of me not going at this stage; I’ve become a bit obsessed. Pointless questions occupy me until it is way past time I was ready: what to wear? Drink? Say? I change into the usual casual stuff: jeans, t-shirt, jumper.

The King’s Head is a bit out of town, and I decide to ring a taxi. As I wait, jacket on, I pace, check that the keys are in my pocket (more than once), and sporadically juke through the curtains like a nosey old man. It takes forever, of course. As I lift the phone to demand its arrival, I hear the faint sound of a car engine outside. As soon as I replace the receiver the phone rings. I lift it, but there’s nobody at the other end; it’s the automated ringback service, of course.

The bar is like one of those English pubs, all black timbers and whitewashed plaster. Inside it’s oak-beamed, dark, cosy. The walls have the usual decorations: horse brasses, watercolours of old Belfast, framed cartoons. I scan the room, but there is no sign of anyone, stereotypical or otherwise, who fits the bill, just a middle-aged couple in the corner by the window, who are staring at everything except each other. Walking up to the bar, I check that Jerome isn’t hidden somewhere in the shadows; he isn’t. I catch the barman’s eye: “’Scuse me. Is there another bar here?” “Yes mate, just round the corner there.” He points down the counter to a badly-lit recess.

The back room is dingy, and completely unoccupied. I wipe the thin sweat off my palms onto the arse of my jeans and perch myself on a bar stool. After a moment the barman comes in, “Well, what can I get ya?” I order a pint of ale, and we chat while he pulls it. Always dead on a Tuesday in here, it’s a long shift. I sympathise: better to be busy, the evening flies in. No, nobody has been in looking for me. He’ll let me know if anyone does come in asking for me, yes Peter, right. After he goes, I sip my beer and survey the room. The decor is much the same as the front, except that the walls are wood-panelled. There’s an old musket hanging above the fireplace, a copper warming-pan, and next to it, hidden away in the gloom of the corner is Jerome.

Bellini’s Jerome, a quality reproduction in an ornate gold frame. Jesus Christ. It’s a set-up. Someone’s idea of a joke. I must have been fraped after all. But how? I ponder. Very clever anyway, elaborate and cunning. I suppose there will be no end of Jerome references at work tomorrow. Whoever did this must know me pretty well, must have been confident that I’d do the research and find the picture. I picture Maria, Luke, Paul from Special Collections, sniggering away. Maybe they were all in on it; I half expect them to jump out from behind the bar. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow. Have to hand it to them, it was a good job. I ring a taxi to take me home: 5 minutes. I finish my beer as I wait, and head for the door when my mobile vibrates with the ringback.

There’s a soft rain falling outside. A woman is coming up to the door, her face obscured by a large umbrella. As she takes it down a familiar cloud of red hair comes into view. She shakes the water from the umbrella, furls it, then looks up into my eyes and smiles. She is beautiful.


Vernacularisms Jason O'Rourke

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That moment between sleep and the coming day,

when nothing else matters –

just being;

The unblemished intimacy of soft skin;

blissful union of mind and body.

Innocent as childer

we are


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Guest post: ‘sometimes’, by Martin McKenna

sometimes when the traffic weakens

you feel you could have the run of the city

in memorium. when there were

no capitalisations, only silent confetti


and these light needles

back through these shut blinds

seam all the day mine.

safe in this little cell, out a way

from dark tourisms smaller and smaller ghosts.


sometimes a greater fear rips an emptiness

where everyone runs so petty.

with spears and one conch shell,

smashing ugly, pulsing lightbulbs

upon the streets like fish of jelly.

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Guest Post: ‘from a kitchen on ravenhill’, by Martin McKenna.

as rain sloshed everything else,

you in my gut, again.

i try to think about outside,


again. buck chopping board smile,

the sag of my knives give

away the other side. spear through to


blot bottle of wine i’ll get,

get not; that beckett play

in coffee pot stop, that pound of

dripping wet, word made flesh


which mark these days. damp most

from the way you edit away

parts of my poems where feeling this

exists. drip dry these days.

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No Laughing Matter

Nobody knew where it came from, or how it spread so far, so quickly. It appeared on three continents in the course of one day; a mark on the calendar that became portentously known as Day 1. It was soon apparent that the outbreak was worse than anything that had ever been seen before. It was apocalyptic, almost as if a bamboo-style mass die-off of the human species had been triggered. In no time, the horrendous West African Ebola epidemic of 2013-16, which had claimed the lives of over 11,300 people, began to look parochial in comparison. Reactions to the threat were entirely predictable: everyone blamed each other, the usual suspects were scapegoated, and God was enlisted on the side of the righteous. The virus, memorably named HKN1H7A, did not discriminate, however. It was given its nickname, Hyena, by a bright spark at the New York Times the minute its grisly symptoms became known. The name was entirely fitting: the illness announced its presence with bouts of uncontrollable laughter, accompanied by tears, coughing , and sneezing. After several hours red measle-like spots appeared on the chest, followed within about twenty four hours by a ghastly, wheezing, frothing death as the patient’s lungs filled with fluid.

You can imagine the impact when the first pictures were broadcast: a middle-aged man in striped pyjamas bubbling up his last moments in a Sydney hospital isolation tent; a taxi driver in Mexico City, who’d slept in his cab, rolling in the street with yellow spume encrusting his cheeks; a Turkish swimmer emerging from the sea, her upper torso peppered with livid crimson dots. Governments across the globe were caught on the hop by the sudden and widespread nature of the outbreak. Virologists and tropical disease specialists appeared on TV screens theorising about incubation periods and how the disease was transmitted, but really at this early stage they knew very little about it, apart from the fact that it was spreading very fast, and leaving a lot of bodies in its wake. The virus was, of course, reported in the news as originating in tropical Africa; the journalists knew the script. They’d all seen Outbreak. They were wrong.

World leaders promised their panicking populations that they were doing everything possible to contain the virus or prevent it entering their country. Borders were shut and travel restricted. But it was already too late: by the end of Week 2, the village of Buldug in Azerbaijan (population 1,797) was officially recorded as the first community to have laughed themselves out of existence. Other grim statistics were to follow in quick succession. In many countries laughter was prohibited in order to protect cheerful healthy citizens from being banished, locked up in isolation cells, or attacked and killed by rampaging vigilante mobs. A pseudo-scientific fake news theory that the virus attacked ‘funny people’ spread like wildfire on social media. Thick black smoke rose above burnt-out comedy clubs and joke shops, and cinemas no longer showed anything remotely humorous; even Hugh Grant romcoms were shelved. A Scottish stand-up comedian sourly announcing the end of his career remarked, “They always said laughter was infectious; well, now it’s true, only in a bad way. It used to be the comics that died on stage, but now it’s the audience killing themselves laughing. It’s beyond a joke”. Laughter disappeared from streets, bars, and other public places. Having a sense of humour became an undesirable character trait. The acronym GSOH vanished from dating websites and personal ads, to be replaced with NSOH and DOUR. Demand for certain illegal drugs slackened, while ‘downers’ became the order of the day. Psilocybin mushrooms went unpicked.

In Northern Ireland the border was quickly sealed by the army and navy. Republicans called for an island-wide response to the new security arrangements, but were secretly glad of the extra layer of security and didn’t push their argument too hard. At first, loyalists were  unsmilingly jubilant at the closure of the border, but it wasn’t long before boredom and a sense of purposelessness set in, and rallies were held outside Belfast City Hall against their new isolation from the rest of Britain. Addressing the crowd, a senior Orangeman stated that the travel ban was a flagrant attack on their traditions, and they would march wherever they wanted. Later that week, a suspected case of Hyena from Cobh was hospitalised in Cork city, sending anxiety levels and paranoia soaring over the whole island. The first minister took to the airwaves from Stormont to declare a national emergency, weakly hinting that the virus was the work of republicans and stating through pursed lips that laughter was “no longer the best medicine”; the good old days of the chuckle brothers were emphatically over. Vigilance was urged, and a new campaign to Keep Ulster Sombre was launched. Kitchener-style posters appeared encouraging people to tout on their friends, neighbours, and relations if any frivolity was suspected. Flimsy pretexts were entirely acceptable, and vendettas, petty feuds and sibling rivalries now had a new means of settlement. Pyjama-clad grandparents and solitary professionals were dragged from their houses in the early hours by the newly-formed Police Isolation Group. The theme music to Only Fools and Horses or a suppressed guffaw being heard through the walls was enough for the PIGs to kick in the door. Quarantine camps were hastily set up on disused airfields, and Long Kesh was re-populated. Diageo issued a profit warning while Dale Farm increased buttermilk production by 23%. A new book, Solemn Tales for Presbyterians, became an instant best seller as the War on Laughter escalated.

Up on the hill, the Stormont assembly was recalled for an emergency session to define exactly what constituted laughter. Smiling was to be discouraged but acceptable, up to the point where visible bodily shaking (the ‘laughter movement’), occurred. Children under the age of five were exempt from automatic isolation, but parents were instructed not to behave in such a way as to encourage any sort of hilarity. Tickling was strictly prohibited, as were tall tales, silly voices and walks, jokes and impersonations. Pyres were made to publicly dispose of anything that might be considered humorous, and citizens were encouraged to purge their shelves of all such material at public bonfires. There was, of course, debate as to what constituted humorous material and what did not; Steve Martin, Jim Davidson, and Mrs Brown’s Boys were included on the incineration list just to be on the safe side. Strict penalties for owning ‘media liable to incite laughter’ were introduced. Websites were closed down and internet service providers forced to censor content. LAD made one last defiant post, rejuvenating the famous ‘No Surrender’ city hall fleg protester video before they were forced off the web under threat of incarceration for incitement. Attempts to post satirical yet un-funny material were unsuccessful.

Predictably, the suicide rate increased, quadrupling in the dark winter months, and GP referrals for depression went through the roof. Marriage break-ups increased by 40%. By the end of Month 4 of the Hyena outbreak around half the population was on some form of therapy, and production of anti-depressants was tripled by the pharmaceutical companies. There was, however, an upside to this bleak statistic: half the population didn’t even need to reach for a copy of Solemn Tales to dampen their mirth, as they weren’t in danger of even cracking a smile. And there was more good news: Northern Ireland remained Hyena-free, even as the world’s continental land masses succumbed to unwanted hilarity, riots, lootings, and martial law. The security forces were by and large successful in their attempts to control people-smuggling due to the implementation of a shoot-to-kill policy, although some attempts to get relations and high-paying individuals in were successful. The population of Rathlin Island grew mysteriously by 30%, despite a naval blockade.

As would be expected, it didn’t take long for illicit activity to mushroom across Northern Ireland. A black market for funny movies and stand-up shows burgeoned. For those who had the funds and were willing to risk it, a bootleg Benny Hill DVD could be purchased for £75 on the Dark Web; the original Pink Panther movies could fetch up to £300 each. Isolated farmhouses and soundproofed city social clubs turned into comedy venues. The authorities were vigilant, however. In one shocking case, a raid on an East Belfast premises, using state-of-the-art listening equipment, uncovered a whole Father Ted box set, with one DVD still in the player. Thirty five people were taken away in vans by the PIGs. An elderly man had to be restrained after refusing to control himself; a UTV news anchor reporting the incident struggled to keep his face straight. Allegedly, as he was taken away, the man had repeatedly shouted “I don’t beleeeeeeeve it!”, “down with that sort of thing!”and “feck off!” with tears streaming down his face – until his rebellion was suppressed by the application of a baton to the solar plexus. In a later court case this was deemed to be a reasonable use of force given the level of incitement.

In another case a retired judge was taken away in cuffs from his Malone Road home after being found in possession of black-market VHS tapes of Porridge, Fawlty Towers, and Red Dwarf (series 1-6). He remained defiant even as they shipped him off to Long Kesh to begin his isolation, stating that he regretted nothing, and would do it all again if he had to. Reporting back after his release, he described his time inside as rather pleasant, once he’d got used to the conditions. Although strictly segregated, the inmates were able to share jokes and laugh as much as they wanted. The judge described the atmosphere as generally comradely and warm, although he admitted to hoping that the guy who did the Frank Carson impressions was genuinely infected, after ten days of “It’s a cracker!” every five minutes. Once news of the convivial atmosphere inside isolation got out, there were those, mostly habitually jolly people and compulsive joke tellers, who actively sought incarceration despite the risk of infection. As he was taken in for telling one-liners on a street corner, one wag commented: “Month inside for dealing craic, wha?! Better off taking your chances in here and having a bit of a laugh, than living in Miseryville over there”.

It took a year and ten months for a vaccine to be developed and distributed. In that time the global population had been decimated, and life everywhere had changed completely – apart from some as-yet-undiscovered corners of the Amazon rain forest. The demographic and social changes were enormous. As life returned to a new normality that once again accepted laughter – albeit grudgingly in some quarters – the debate in Northern Ireland turned to recalcitrant legacy issues: the repeal of the shoot-to-kill policy and emergency anti-humour legislation, the disbanding of the PIGs, and the re-opening of the border with the South. Everyone was back on familiar territory.

Isolation Tent

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