‘Buck up, Diarmúid,’ called Gráinne. ‘We’ll miss the bus and be late for the circus.’

‘I’m just finishing this chapter,’ Diarmúid shouted from the bathroom. ‘I’ll be right out in a minute.’

However, he was much longer than a minute finishing his chapter and his business. The cousins ran at top speed but when they reached the bus stop, they were too late. A helpful street person told the children there wouldn’t be another bus for exactly one hour.

Gráinne turned to Diarmúid in despair. ‘It’s no good. I was so looking forward to seeing the dancing horses.’

Diarmúid’s brow furrowed as he thought of a plan. ‘If we take a short cut through the fields and cross the river at Simon’s Ford, I’m sure we could make it in time.’

random: without adherence to a prior arrangement

So the children set off. It was a warm day and Gráinne’s legs were tired from an afternoon of gymnastics. Climbing over the stile at the end of the meadow, the thin ribbon of the river appeared a long way off.

‘Will we ever make it?’ Gráinne asked in a small weak voice.

‘We must try our best,’ Diarmúid replied bravely, trying to hide his despair.

They trudged on through the next field; what a downhearted silent pair the cousins made.

‘Hullo, what’s that noise?’ Gráinne said in alarm at a menacing roar from above. Diarmúid barely lifted his enormous head, but the noise grew louder and louder. Right before their eyes a small plane came zooming out of the skies, landing in the field ahead of them.

‘Crikey,’ said Diarmúid. ‘Perhaps the pilot’s hurt.’

They ran towards the plane. A man climbed down from the cockpit. Swaying from side to side, he twirled a white silk flying scarf at the children.

‘I’m lost,’ he called out. ‘Can you children give me directions to the circus?’

While Diarmúid helped the pilot, Gráinne was distracted by a chattering noise coming from inside the plane. Her eyes widened in surprise to see a cage full of meerkats, gibbering away.

‘Gracious, flying meerkats,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ the pilot answered. ‘My Uncle Sid is expecting me to deliver them before the show tonight and I’m dreadfully lost.’

random: an unknown, unspecified, or odd person

‘Why we’re going to the circus too,’ Gráinne exclaimed. ‘Although we missed our bus and have little chance of making it.’

‘Climb aboard,’ the pilot offered cheerfully.

Gráinne and Diarmúid looked at each other in delight. What luck! They had never travelled in a plane before. As they began to ascend the small ladder into the cockpit, the man put a restraining hand on Diarmúid’s arm.

‘Not you son,’ he said staring rudely at Diarmúid’s enormous head. ‘I’m afraid there’s no room for that pumpkin inside.’

Diarmúid’s face fell with disappointment. Why must everything go wrong, all because he needed some extra time in the bathroom? How unfair.

‘Don’t worry old chap,’ the pilot said kindly. ‘There’s a trick I learned in my air force days that might work.’

As Gráinne settled herself inside, the pilot sat Diarmúid on the wing of the plane.

‘But I say,’ Diarmúid protested feebly. ‘I’m on the outside.’

‘That’s right. With this extra-strong army-issue belt, I can attach you to the window.’

He looped the strap around Diarmúid’s head. Once he was securely fastened on, the pilot took off.

random: arbitrary, casual, indiscriminate

What excitement! The meerkats turned their heads in all directions and the children were filled with wonder as the fields grew smaller and smaller. The pilot sang loudly over the roar of the engines.

‘Oh I say, look at Uncle Paddy’s hay barn,’ Gráinne exclaimed. ‘It’s so tiny now, like a plastic brick.’

‘You’re right,’ Diarmúid answered as his ears flapped in the wind. ‘Goodness, this is tops.’

As the plane flew on, the lush green fields gave way to the sparkling blue of the sea. Gráinne managed to catch the pilot’s attention by pulling sharply on his silken scarf.

‘The circus was only two villages over,’ she cried in dismay.

‘Never mind,’ he called back. ‘Different circus, same clowns.’

As the children wondered what to do, the plane took a sharp left turn and began to drop lower and lower.

‘I can’t believe it,’ the pilot said. ‘We’ve run out of fuel. And I’ve no extra parachutes.’

He worked the controls furiously, slugging from a bottle to wet his parched lips. Not too far in the distance, the children could see a rugged coastline. Would there be enough fuel to make it?

Even over the roar of the engines, Diarmúid could hear Gráinne rustling round in her satchel.

‘What are you up to?’ he shouted, pressing his face against the window.

‘Oh you absolute rotter,’ he said. ‘You’ve started to eat the sweets. Aunt Eileen told us to keep them until the circus.’

‘Didn’t you hear the pilot?’ Gráinne said. ‘We’re about to die.’

‘Then give me one,’ Diarmúid said as the plane veered downwards at a dangerous angle. Reaching in the window, he ripped the satchel from her hand and stuffed the boiled sweets in his mouth.

‘You’re a hateful boy,’ Gráinne said bitterly. ‘You always have been and you don’t know how to share.’

With that, she unbuckled the extra-strong army-issue belt and Diarmúid disappeared under the wing.

random: odd, unusual, or unexpected

As he dropped down the plane turned upwards. The pilot looked around. His eyes shone behind his flying goggles and a grin split his face.

‘What did you think of that? I didn’t tell you I’m a stunt pilot for the circus.’

‘What!’ Gráinne cried.

‘I say, where’s our prize turnip?’ the pilot exclaimed.

‘He’s gone.’ Gráinne peered anxiously out the window. ‘Because you said—‘

‘Oh dear. We have to make it to the circus with these meerkats. Can’t disappoint the children. We’ll search for melon brains later.’

The little meerkats in the back made encouraging noises. They were determined not to miss their first show.

Diarmúid dropped headfirst through the sky like a heat-seeking missile attached to a school bag. Hurtling through the clouds, a forest of green came rushing toward him. With a whoosh, he seemed to be heading straight into the middle of a huge tree. Then the branches took hold of him and softened his landing.

random: made, done, or happening without method

My goodness, thought Diarmúid. What a bit of luck. Of all the trees in all the forests, I’ve landed in the Faraway Tree.

At the top of the tree he found Moonface’s slippery slide. Diarmúid jumped on it and slid the whole way to the ground. Suddenly he heard a strange noise from a clearing. Warily he made his way over, crouching down behind a large oak tree.

Seven or eight children were slouched against a tree trunk.

‘I say, what are you chaps up to?’ Diarmúid demanded. ‘Playing Red Indians?’

The leader, a red-haired freckle-faced boy, stepped forward.

‘Say nothing to nobody,’ he warned his gang before he addressed Diarmúid. ‘What’s in your satchel?’

None of your business,’ Diarmúid cried out as the boys swarmed around him, jostling his enormous head back and forth.

‘What’s your business here?’ the leader demanded. ’This is our patch.’

‘I’m on my way to the circus.’

‘A likely story,’ the boy replied.

Quick as flash the boy pulled a length of rope from his pocket and bound Diarmúid to the tree. How Diarmúid’s eyes smarted as he watched the gang settle down around their campfire across the clearing. There were peals of laughter as they set about emptying his satchel of crisp sandwiches, Afternoon Tea biscuits and a bottle of red lemonade.

‘Where is this peculiar place?’ Diarmúid wondered aloud.

‘I’ll tell you,’ a voice said. ‘It’s the Park of the Phoenix, our home.’

Diarmúid hadn’t noticed the boy guarding him, the smallest of the gang with bright blue eyes and the blackest mop of curly hair you could imagine. Curly stared hard at Diarmúid. Diarmúid stared back defiantly.

‘Wouldn’t you like to see boxing kangaroos?’ said Diarmúid. ‘If you untie me, you can come too.’

‘How?’ Curly asked.’ I don’t have any money. If I leave I might never find my way back. ’

‘But this is a terrible place,’ Diarmúid said, ‘I shan’t be staying.’

‘Is it?’ Curly replied sadly. ‘Jolly well better than a doorway. And we have our own deer.’

‘Look,’ Diarmúid said. ‘I’ve got two front row tickets for the circus.’

‘Alright. Let’s escape while they’re not paying attention,’ Curly said as he untied Diarmúid. Holding hands, they ran the whole way to the circus, taking their seats just as the ringmaster in a shiny black top hat cracked his whip.

Diarmúid looked across the ring over the heads of tumbling clowns and dancing horses and who should he see but Gráinne? She was peeping in the tent right at the very back. She waved across but Diarmúid did not return the gesture. Instead, he took the remaining sweets from his pocket and offered them to Curly.

random: done or happening without method or conscious decision

When the meerkats came out dressed in the funniest little suits and bonnets, Gráinne tried to catch his eye once more. But Diarmúid sat closer to Curly and ignored his cousin.

Time flew by and before they knew it the ring was deserted, the stilted boys, the lions and women, all gone.

The boys wandered outside, looking at the gaily painted caravans and deeply tanned circus folk. The pilot and Gráinne appeared from behind the lion’s cage.

‘Well children, ready for that lift home?’ the pilot said cheerfully, his goggles perched jauntily atop his leather flying-helmet.

‘Let’s get the colossal coconut over to the plane,’ said Gráinne.

The children turned to say good-bye to Curly.

‘I’m afraid not,’ the pilot said.’ I lost my extra-strong army-issue belt in the accident. I think this little street urchin would fit in much more easily. Sorry old chap.’

‘Perhaps that will teach you to be kinder in future,’ Gráinne whispered as she and Curly climbed into the cockpit behind the pilot. Diarmúid wondered why he had ever agreed to be strapped outside earlier. What would become of him now?

As the plane flew high above the sea a strange thing happened. Curly began to shrink and shrink, his cheerful face growing pinched until he resembled a baby chimp.

random: unknown, unidentified, or suspiciously out of place

‘Why, these street urchins aren’t like us at all,’ Gráinne said, shutting him into a little basket.

On her return home she promptly sold Curly to an organ grinder for a pretty penny. Goodness children, the human circus can be quite as entertaining as the real thing. Don’t you think so too?

Diarmúid thought quite a lot about that day and how he had changed from a happy-go-lucky boy to a ragamuffin child without a home. He was very angry with Gráinne and that horrid pilot, Curly and the bad boys. But as time passed Diarmúid was too tired and hungry to think much of these matters.

The first thing people always noticed when Diarmuid was begging on the bridge or sleeping on their steps was his enormous head. Surely, they thought, that must have something to do with his poor circumstances. But we know, don’t we children, where all the trouble started for Diarmúid and his enormous head? In the littlest room in the house where he had lingered too long on the day of the circus. Diarmúid, you must take some responsibility for the horrid mess you’ve got yourself into.

One day as he was sitting outside a shopping centre, a woman dressed in the finest clothes bent down to drop a coin in his torn check cap. It was Gráinne!

‘I say, Diarmúid,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry about what I said on the plane all that time ago.’

‘And I’m sorry about the sweets,’ he yawned. ‘What a topsy-turvy land I ended up in. I’ve learned so much since then.’

‘Me too,’ Gráinne said, ‘I’ve been to college.’

‘How splendid, ’ Diarmúid said wistfully.

‘Have you learnt how capitalist forces are ranged against us?’ she asked. ‘How difference can be our strength, but ultimately it’s exploited as a vulnerability in our society? That dominant narratives distort and suppress reality as much as childish tales?’

‘Isn’t it queer?’ said Diarmúid closing his eyes. ‘No,’—he blushed at the thought of struggles in hostels and back alleys with his constant costiveness—‘I meant what Aunt Eileen always told me, that prunes really are our friend.’

Gráinne looked at him in astonishment. Aunt Eileen? Why, she was gone many years ago; no one spoke much of her anymore. In fact Gráinne could barely remember their holidays spent in that shabby little farmhouse.

How random, Gráinne thought, as she waved goodbye. Perhaps it was true, that all people of no fixed abode were quite mad.

random: in 1980s slang it began to acquire a sense of inferior, undesirable e.g. randomer: an unspecified person of no importance

That night, snuggling her head into her feather pillow Gráinne thought about Diarmúid. How on earth, she wondered, could that tiny cloth cap even cover one quarter of his enormous head? We wonder that too, don’t we children, when we see people lying around the streets in ill-fitting garments? Perhaps it’s time for Diarmúid to consider a headscarf.

THE END

*After this story was first published, I received many letters from children asking me why such bad things happened to Diarmúid and how they could avoid falling into homelessness themselves. I’ve been asked by my editor to address this. The simple answer is: ‘Children, you can’t.’ You can brush your teeth and your hair, polish your shoes and keep your pencils sharpened. But you’re at the mercy of your parents and other ir/responsible adults. They’re at the mercy of functionaries and governments and secret monetary interests that have no place in our little tales. As for all the dear homeless children who have written to me, particularly from the hostels and shelters of Ireland, sharing their fears and nightmares, I hope this tale brought a smile to your face. Isn’t the thought of those meerkats in their fancy suits and bonnets quite something to imagine? If that doesn‘t help you sleep, perhaps ask your parents for a few drops of Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. That should do the trick. *