A Darker Shade of Pale

It started in County Kerry. “A pint of lager,” I’d mumble after each day’s walking. San Miguel, Peroni, Amstel in a crisis. There was always one of my old mates on tap.

Alex, meanwhile was taking longer to decide. Now he was engaging the barman in a serious discussion about ‘local craft IPAs.’

IPA. That stood for India Pale Ale didn’t it? Dating back to the 19th Century. A beer that could withstand the endless boat trip to India. That I’d always characterised as flat and tasteless.

Yet here was my son having an in-depth conversation – and the hipster barman looking at me as though I was ‘flat and tasteless…’

He finally made a decision. We ordered. And then Alex broke off from his seafood platter to go to the loo. I took a furtive sip from his glass.

(You may not remember that far back. You could do that in those days. Share a glass with someone. Even share a bottle. Just give the neck a quick wipe on your sleeve… And there was once a time – I know, scarcely believable – when someone blew all over a birthday cake and the everyone ate a slice. Astonishing…)

Where was I? Stealing my son’s IPA in an Irish pub.

Hmmm… Not bad. But best stick to Peroni. Old dog, too late for new tricks now.

Then something happened. A disturbance in the force. Or in the fridge…

“There are still some bottles of Peroni in the fridge.”

“You mean since the children went back after Christmas?”

“That’s never stopped you before. Are you ill?”

“No,” I said. “Is that the latest symptom? Do I have to self-isolate if I don’t polish off the Peroni?”

The simple truth is… I’ve gone off lager. I’ve spent my life drinking it – and now I don’t like it. Too sweet.

I’ve gone over to the pale side.

It started when a voucher for Beer 52 tumbled out of something I was reading. They very generously offered to send me a case of craft ales every month. Churlishly they wanted money in part-exchange but it seemed… interesting.

And the wee fella was due home at Christmas. How impressed would he be if his dad had a fine selection of craft IPAs? ‘Yup, this one’s brewed in Buxton, Alex. Citrus notes. Hoppy. Good God, there are poor saps out there still drinking San Miguel…’

My case arrived. Some free nibbles thrown in. You may remember Dumbledore and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. ‘Alas, earwax…’ That was me with the nibbles. ‘Alas, wasabi…’

I hastily opened another can to put the fire out.

I drank my cans of pale ale in record time. ‘Red wine? No thanks, darling. Never touch the filthy stuff.’

I then I hit a brick wall. Well, perhaps not a brick wall. More a black forest gateau.

Lockdown has been hard for all of us. Clearly it’s taken its toll on one poor chap in Australia. He’s made a beer called Cake Hole, Black Forest Stout. Where was his wife? I have all sorts of good ideas in the middle of the night. Come the dawn my beloved hoses them down with cold water…

I e-mailed the delightful Carla at Beer 52. She sympathised. Updated my status to ‘not a real man after all’ and promised me only pale ales in future.

Phew. I opened my last can of IPA to celebrate. It was black. “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” my wife said.

I sighed, told her she was stuck in the past and turned the football on. And put the Cake Hole quietly on one side. Alex will be home soon…

A fabulous follow on from the first Brady book, this story really got me questioning my own morals. Just how far would I go to protect my own loved ones if the situation in this story were my own family?I found myself hating the victim/villain for what she had done, then a few pages later totally having sympathy for her and to some extent understanding her…”

The River Runs Deep, the follow-up to Salt in the Wounds, is now available on your Kindle.

The Dad’s Gambit

My eldest son reached forward. Picked up the chess piece. “Pawn to e4,” he said.

A classic opening.

I countered with one of the lesser known chess moves. But one I’ve been working on for years. I’ve perfected it. I am – at least as far as this move goes – a Grandmaster.

I reached forward. Picked up my glass. “Wine to mouth 1,” I said.

I pushed a pawn forward. “The Sicilian,” I confidently declared.

Two moves later and Dan had taken it. “Sicilian? I think you’ve confused it with the pizza, Dad.”

What happened this Christmas? My boys played chess.

Wind back the clock and they disappeared to their bedrooms, linked laptops and slaughtered aliens.

This year? Chess is the new Halo.

The black bishops are the evil spawn from the outer Galaxy.

They trooped into the dining room, decided who was white – and spent an hour in silent contemplation.

They had an unofficial mini-league. Dan, Alex and Lizzie. You-know-what meant she couldn’t go home for Christmas. So here she was: 10,500 miles from her mum and dad and checkmating my youngest son.

“What’s that?” Alex said. “Twelve all?”

“I think I’m winning 13-12.”

And there you have it. Shared interests? Shared sense of humour? Forget ’em. Want your relationship to succeed? You need the same chess rating.

I didn’t get involved in the Christmas games. Largely because I spent most of Christmas washing up, peeling potatoes or exhausted on the sofa. I wandered in occasionally, noted that Dan generally seemed to be winning and wandered out.

And then Alex and Lizzie betrayed me. They braved Nicola’s border guards and went back to Edinburgh.

“Do you want to play chess after dinner, Dad?”

Yes.

And no.

Obviously I want to play chess with my son. But Dan’s doing a PhD. One that features equations. Equations that feature lots of Σ’s and those big, squiggly F’s.

So I wasn’t optimistic. The bookmakers were offering long odds on my survival.

And chess isn’t my game. I’m not sure it’s any writer’s game.

The wrong type of brain. Faulty wiring.

Creative, not analytical.

My brain especially. Definitely faulty wiring. But not the faulty wiring that Messrs Fischer and Spassky had.

I’d like to tell you that the game was close. That my ruthless execution of the Queen’s Gambit left him helpless. Floundering.

That after an hour of an intense battle between two intellectual titans we shook hands – whoops, bumped elbows – on a draw.

I’d like to tell you that. In truth it was the Chinese People’s Army against a primitive tribe who’d barely mastered the bow and arrow.

And it only got worse when he went back to Leeds.

Our games moved online.

See above. Faulty wiring. Inability to concentrate. And when you can’t concentrate, online is not a good place to be.

You’ve taken my Queen! I wailed into the chat box.

Yes, you moved your knight, he typed back.

Well I wasn’t concentrating

That’s not my fault, Dad

You took so long to make your move that I checked the football scores

So I checked the scores again. No change…

“I’d threaten his Queen if I had any pieces left,” I complained to my lovely wife. “I managed one cunning plan. Skewered his castle – ”

“And then you sat on your laurels.”

Yes. And drank some more wine.

“I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll offer him a draw. What could be a fairer result between father and son? A magnanimous draw, both players acknowledging the other’s skill and prowess?”

I reached for my mouse. Double-clicked the ‘offer draw’ button.

Dan’s response was simple and to the point. He checkmated me…

Michael Brady had my interest from the first chapter. By the fifth I had a crush. Salt in the Wounds is an exciting story, played out in a location almost as engaging as the book’s characters. Can’t wait for the second book…”

The second book, The River Runs Deep, will be published on January 31st. You can pre-order it by clicking the link.

Glued to the Garlic Grater

How do you get away with murder?

It’s simple.

All you need is a kitchen appliance, a tube of superglue and a stupid victim.

Stupid victim? Look no further…

My wife tried to do me in. Two days before Christmas.

Someone had broken our garlic grater. Is that what you call them? It’s lovely. A small dish, maybe four inches across. Very clearly hand painted. Blue round the rim, fading to yellow and then orange. A hundred jagged edges on the bottom. You whizz a clove of garlic over it and hey presto, you’re in Spain or Mexico. You have grated garlic – and very smelly fingers…

Anyway, the garlic grater had made an unscheduled visit to the floor, and a large shard had broken off.

At which point Lucrezia Borgia saw her chance. A poisoned dish of mushrooms? Why go to all that effort? The poor sap will do it himself.

So she bought a tube of superglue, left it next to the grater and waited…

‘Ah ha!’ I thought, seeing them there. ‘I can glue the garlic grater back together and score a hefty wodge of husband points.’

I didn’t even say anything. Usually I announce that I’m going to do a job. With a considerable fanfare. Ostentatiously write it on my to-do list.

Not this time. I quietly picked up grater and superglue and went to work.

Carefully, gently – a lot can go wrong with superglue – I pierced the top of the tube. Delicately ran a thin line of glue along the edge that shouldn’t have been an edge. Pressed the two pieces back together. Held them. Gave the glue time to do its work.

Walked proudly back into the kitchen.

…And made an announcement.

“I’ve glued myself to the garlic grater.”

“You’re joking aren’t you?” Lucrezia said.

“No,” I said, holding up my finger – and the garlic grater – to show her.

“You’re going to have to get it off,” she said. “You can’t peel the parsnips with that stuck to your finger.

More to the point I can’t type either. Maybe that should be mre to the pint. I’d glued my ‘O’ finger.

“I can’t take you to A&E,” she said, smiling at me. “Not two days before Christmas.”

It was the smile that gave her away. Because – if I couldn’t get rid of my new Siamese twin – I’d have to go to A&E. And what percentage of people have caught you-know-what in hospital?

Now, of course, you see the plan.

Just another stat. Not even name-checked by Smilin’ Matt Hancock…

At this point regular readers whose senses have not been blunted by over-indulgence may be puzzled. Hang on… Notoriously lazy, hates domestic chores, book to finish… And yet he’s found time to fix something. Badly, obviously, but still…

The explanation was simple. A conspiracy theory.

The internet had gone off. The whole town, just like that. Transported back to the 16th Century. Some hocus-pocus about BT and the exchange. Either that or the town crier had forgotten to put a groat in the meter.

So I volunteered to go to the Co-Op. “No problem at all, darling. I know how busy you are.”

Nothing at all to do with the reliable signal in the car park.

It was busy. And full of interesting people. “We’re an experiment, mate,” a fellow madman said as he panic bought iceberg lettuce. “Covid, masks, can’t see your grandma, and now they’ve turned our internet off.”

I said as much to Bill Gates as he came into the shop to inject us all with microchips.

Not that Bill would be interested in someone with a garlic grater glued to his finger…

Loved the book from the first page. Straight into the story, very well-written. The characters have great personalities. Love Brady, Ash, Archie, Dave and Mozart. Can’t wait for the next one…”

Salt in the Wounds is available now on Amazon

The River Runs Deep will be published in January

Why Am I Here?

Thank God, you think. After a year’s wittering about trivialities he’s finally addressing a serious question. Something worth reading. Some deep philosophical insight…

Why am I here?

Why are any of us here?

What is the purpose of our lives?

Nope. Sorry. I’m in the bathroom. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, I’m standing by the washbasin. And I’m asking myself that very question.

Why am I here?

What am I doing in the bathroom?

Bluntly, I have no idea.

But there are a limited number of things you can do in a bathroom. It won’t take long to whizz through the checklist…

Do I want to clean my teeth? At 4:30 with red wine to drink? Not a chance.

Do I need a wee? A quick conversation with my bladder. The answer’s ‘no.’

Shower? Cut my fingernails? Whatever I think of, the answer’s the same.

What did you say? Clean the bathroom? No, that one didn’t even cross my mind.

And then a light dawns. Slowly but finally, a light bulb goes on.

I don’t want to be in the bathroom.

I’m supposed to be in the bedroom. I’d been sent for the Christmas decorations. I’d forgotten in the time it took to walk upstairs. Turned left instead of right when I reached the top.

Not the first time, sadly. When the children were at home it would occasionally happen. “Hello,” I’d say, walking confidently into the lounge. “Does anyone know why I’m here?”

But of late, it’s getting worse. Obviously, I’ve an excuse. The book needs finishing. I’m already plotting the next one.

Even so…

I wandered into the lounge yesterday lunchtime. My wife was watching the news. Brexit. Covid. Experts…

“They haven’t got a clue,” I said. “They don’t know a thing.”

“Well what do you know then?”

“You want to hear what I know?”

“Yes, that’s what I just said.”

“What I know – for a fact – is…”

The sentence trailed away. I did know something. Definitely. And something that would have scored a significant point off my wife.

“What I know for a fact is…”

“Yes?”

“I’ve forgotten…”

Ah well, it’s an isolated incident. Well, technically two isolated incidents. Nothing to worry about.

Except that I’m also trying to burn the house down.

It’s the hob. Front right. That’s where I cook my porridge. And heat up my baked beans. Both of them – in my view – require long, slow cooking. Yes, the squeamish should look away now. I let my baked beans simmer away for a while. Until my wife says they look like… Well, you might be eating your breakfast.

But as I pour the porridge into the bowl (I’m a Golden Syrup boy) or I tip the beans onto what Masterchef would describe as a ‘bed of hand-crafted, artisan toast…’ I forget something. I forget to turn the gas off.

Where’s my ready-made excuse? Don’t cook and plot your novel at the same time.

But this cuts no ice with my youngest son. He’s already noticed this behaviour and ticked the relevant box on the care home application form. That was in the summer. And by the time you read this he’ll be home for Christmas.

‘Why am I here?’ may shortly be the least of my worries.

Interestingly for medical science there’s one time of day when I don’t have a problem with my memory.

Five o’clock. Every day, reliable as clockwork.

I remember it’s time for a gin. Not for me. No, no. no. For my lovely wife.

“What’s that, darling? It sounded like ‘I don’t want to drink alone.’ Alright then. Just to keep you company…”

Very enjoyable book. You know you’re hooked when you like or dislike the characters and actually care what happens to them.” Salt in the Wounds is available now on Amazon.

The sequel – The River Runs Deep – will be published in January

Chopped Mixed Nuts

I’m standing in the corner shop. Hopefully I’m in front of the bakery section.

I say ‘hopefully’ because I can’t see.

It’s the same every time. Put my mask on, walk into the shop, my glasses steam up. I wander round the shop with a basket in one hand and my glasses in the other. Can’t see a thing.

And yes, I know you’re supposed to pinch the mask over your nose. It doesn’t work. Not for me.

So come on Boris. Do your job properly.

Before I give you today’s figures and explain why lockdown is continuing until June 2026 I’d just like to ask Professor Van Tam to tell that grey haired bloke up in Yorkshire how to stop his glasses steaming up…

The fog gradually receded. Those seemed to be baking things looming out of the mist. But I was impatient. I took my glasses off and stared myopically at the shelves.

What did she want? Chopped mixed nuts? Or mixed chopped nuts?

Was there a difference?

No, because the corner shop didn’t offer me a choice.

Well, technically it did. Buy the bag of mixed nuts or don’t buy the bag of mixed nuts. Go home, admit defeat and face the consequences.

I handed over my £2.90 – on my phone, obviously. What is ‘cash’ by the way? – and returned home in triumph.

“Mixed nuts,” I said. “All they had. I’ll chop them for you.”

“No. Not chopping. They need smashing with the wooden mallet. You don’t want to trip over half a nut in your Christmas cake.”

Awesome. If there’s one culinary skill I’ve mastered, it’s smashing things with the wooden mallet.

“Idiot!” my wife shrieked. “Put them in a bigger bag. Otherwise you’ll burst the bag.”

For some reason she didn’t seem to like the idea of nutty shrapnel ricocheting all round the kitchen…

I dutifully did as I was ordered.

And that, dear reader, was the end of my involvement in the 2020 Christmas cake.

Correction, cakes…

She’s a wonderful woman. She’s made four of the little rascals.

I know what you’re thinking. ‘Four Christmas cakes? How many people are they having round? Let’s dob ’em in and claim the reward.’

Not so fast. She’s made four small ones. The logic – I think – was that half of one of the small ones could go to her mum. Which was fine, because the other half could stay with me. After all, someone had to check that the nuts were small enough.

And if a job’s worth doing…

“Why are you getting some cheese?”

“To go with a slice of cake. I’m just checking the nuts are small enough.”

“Why don’t you go the whole hog and pour yourself a glass of wine?”

“You don’t think 3:30 is too early?”

It’s been downhill ever since.

We’re cutting down before Christmas. Makes sense obviously. It’s either that or take the battery out of the bathroom scales.

My wife has lost weight – I won’t tell you how much because I’m a gentleman – and I’ve er… Well, technically I’ve gained a kilo.

My fault? No, obviously it isn’t my fault. This case of craft beers arrived…

So far I’ve eaten half a small Christmas cake, drunk a bottle of the Christmas wine and polished off a case of craft beer. It’s December 4th.

And none of the children – do they ever lead their poor old dad astray – are home for Christmas yet.

This isn’t going to end well.

But you know how it is over Christmas. You’re always short of batteries. Good job there’s a spare one in the bathroom scales…

I’ve have many late nights reading this book and even set my alarm half an hour earlier to squeeze more reading time into a busy day. Authentic and believable, gritty and dramatic, compassionate and compelling. I’m very much looking forward to the next instalment.”

Salt in the Wounds is now available on your Kindle and in paperback

The Soggy Middle

Last Friday. Three conversations with my wife.

8:30 “I got on the scales this morning. Must lose weight before Christmas.”

11:30 “I’m just having one of these new chocolate biscuits with my coffee.”

3:30 “It must be five o’clock by now. Shall I open a bottle of wine?”

I’m currently half way through my second novel. The euphoria of the opening chapters has worn off. I’m a long way from the end. I’m in what writers refer to as ‘the soggy middle.’

I said as much to my beloved.

She gazed lovingly at me – in my sagging track suit bottoms.

Yes, her reply featured ‘soggy middle’ – or words to that effect.

So – how many times have I written this in my life? – something has to be done.

I am not fit. The words ‘me’ and ‘fitness’ are not so much in different postcodes as at opposite ends of the country.

Last year I walked round County Kerry with my youngest son. I was 3kg heavier than I wanted to be when I sent off. And now I’m 4kg heavier than that.

What has caused this sad state of affairs? Simple folk would say, ‘your pathetic lack of will power.’

No, no. The answer is much more complicated.

There are two culprits.

Writing – and my wife.

Ladies first. She bought some ‘luxury chocolate biscuits’ – which she then left in the kitchen. Well what’s a chap to do when he has a coffee? How did I know they were for Christmas?

Seriously, the box has ‘luxury chocolate biscuits’ written on it. She buys it in the middle of November. And expects me to look at it for six weeks?

And writing. According to the research thinking uses a lot of calories – 320 a day just for the basics like remembering to put your socks on. So it follows that planning a murder – is the answer in Gina’s past? – must use about 1,000.

Sadly my waist hasn’t realised. Possibly because I find thinking a lot easier with a luxury chocolate biscuit for company.

Here’s an interesting question. I’m a stickler for imperial measures. I’ll have no truck with that kilometres malarkey. I know how many chains there are in a furlong and I know how many furlongs make a mile. I like talking about rods, poles and perches – and if something is less than a quid I’ll cheerfully convert it back to pounds, shillings and pence.

Long division of pounds, shillings and pence… There’s a phrase to make the teaching unions tremble…

So why do I express my weight in kilogrammes? Easy. If I express it in old money I’m a fat pig. Or ‘pat fig’ as I said after my extra glass of wine.

Kilogrammes? Bah, it’s just a number. A big number, but not one that conjures an image of the stones and pounds monster.

What I need is some retail therapy. I don’t mean I need to buy something. No thanks. My black track suit bottoms are fine. And when they’re in the wash I’ve got a navy blue pair.

No, I need to go and try something on in Next. See myself in those surround mirrors the changing rooms have. When my football team scores a goal I like watching it from ‘every angle.’ Seeing myself from ‘every angle’ is truly terrifying. But last time I tried something on in Next it shocked me into losing half a stone.

Anyway, time for some more creative thinking. Don’t tell her – helped by the new packet of LCBs that’s arrived in the kitchen.

Look at this. She’s written me a romantic love message on the packet.

Oh! A two word romantic love message…

So is the answer in Gina’s past? ‘The River Runs Deep’ – the follow-up to ‘Salt in the Wounds’ – is now available to pre-order on Amazon. It will be published in mid-January.

Salt in the Wounds is a brilliant book. Couldn’t put it down. Would highly recommend. Can’t wait for book 2 to come out from this great author…”

The Whipping Boy

Where did we leave it last week? Ah yes, a slight accident with the bread. The wife had carelessly left me in charge.

A slight loss of concentration. Forgot the timings. Had to take a wild stab at it.

Don’t worry. She’s none the wiser. “Hmmm…” she said, “This bread hasn’t risen very much.”

I nodded my head sagely. Straight outta Bake Off. “Probably not kneaded enough, dear. Under-proved maybe…”

I got away with it.

And then it struck me. How had I not thought of it before? Twenty-seven years of marriage. The occasional helping of cold tongue pie. And now I have a way out. An excuse. A scapegoat.

A whipping boy.

His name’s Michael Brady. He’s the hero of my novels. And the answer to all my problems.

Forgot to put the bread in? “I was working on Brady, sweetheart.”

Forgot to put the bins out? “Brady, darling. Crucial part of the plot.”

Staring into space and ignoring my wife? “What was that, dear? Just doing some creative thinking. Yes, Brady…”

There’s only one problem Brady can’t protect me from.

Christmas.

Fortunately Amazon are on the case. But not with any degree of accuracy…

As regular readers know, last time there was an Amazon special event their all-knowing, all-powerful algorithm suggested – ‘based on your previous browsing history’ – that I might like to buy an Abrams M1 battle tank.

I thought about it – the woman next door will insist on parking in front of our drive – but it was the merest fraction too wide for the garage.

Now they’ve gone one better. As we limber up for Christmas and Amazon insist my life will be meaningless without Alexa in every room – ‘Alexa, lift the toilet seat for me will you?’ ‘I’m having trouble connecting to the internet’ – they’ve gone one step beyond.

Based on my previous browsing history they’ve suggested I buy…

A pogo jumper.

Not sure what a ‘pogo jumper’ is? It’s a pogo stick on steroids.

Seriously, I have fallen in a bog. I have walked a mile of the Pennine Way in my underpants. I have accidently applied a cow dung poultice to my own leg. Amazon think I should be let loose on a pogo jumper?

‘How did your husband die?’

‘He lost control of his pogo jumper. I told him not to use it on the pier…’

Maybe this is the modern equivalent of Demonic possession. Instead of your head turning through 360 degrees, instead of projectile vomiting if you see a crucifix, maybe your Amazon account goes mad…

Maybe the Dark Lord is down there in Hell, hacking into my browsing history. ‘What next? The battle tank didn’t work. Ah, yes. A rocket-powered pogo stick…’

Mind you, the Dark Lord won’t be needed if I don’t get organised for Christmas.

I’m thinking of buying the wife her own gin still.

You know, cut out the middleman…

Mind you, I’ve made a rod for my own back. Or whatever the maritime equivalent is. I’ve spent the year waxing lyrical about An Dúlamán Irish gin – made from seaweed hand picked by Donegal virgins at the full moon.

And I might need to be careful…

‘I wanted to make a batch specially for you, darling. I know how much you loved that Irish one. Yes, I’ll make it with seaweed. Well, no, sweetheart. Not ordinary seaweed off the beach. I thought when it was low-tide. Really low tide. You could harvest some rare seaweed. At the full moon. There’s that rock pool… Yes, it is a long way out. Yes, I know the tide rushes in and catches people. But I’m only thinking of you, darling…’

I’m delighted to say that ‘The River Runs Deep’ – the second book in the Michael Brady series – is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Here’s the link.

Brady stood up and walked over to the window. Tried to process what Frankie had told him. Tried to work out the implications. He turned round. Frankie was bending forward, reaching for her laptop. “You need to prove this to me,” he said. “And you need to do it now. Because there’s no way I’m going to sleep. Not knowing I’ve wasted two weeks. And that Kershaw has known all the time. And that…”

That someone has to tell Ian Foster.”

What did I say in the car? His life was unravelling. This is going to tear it apart.”