Monday, 28 April 2008

Silent Spring

Thirty years ago
The workshop is long and narrow, each wall lined with benches, which are covered with body-shells, boxes of gears of various sizes, springs, screws, and much smaller boxes of tiny gemstones. Tools, sized perhaps for children, are gathered together in soft leather pouches, each held separate from its neighbours so that they don't damage each other. There are anglepoise lamps at regular intervals along the benches, and natural light comes into the room through skylights. There are no windows in the walls, instead there are corkboards mounted on which are pinned schematics, delivery invoices, and other paperwork. There is a metallic smell in the air that you can taste if you spend long enough in the room, with notes of old wood and hot oil forming a background.

At one of the benches sits a young man wearing a long white button-up coat with no collar over a grey shirt and matching trousers. A nearby lamp is angled over the part of the bench where he is working, and its bright, actinic light casts his face into harsh relief. He is using the tiny tools to bend and hammer a strip of glistening bronze into shape, making a repair to the body-shell just in front of him. This shell is that of a turtle, its eyes glinting rubies and its open body revealing detailed clockwork within. Surprisingly the clockwork is functioning, springs winding and unwinding against each other, gears whirring and ratchets ticking away counting time in a steady, if alien, chronology.

Another man comes into the workshop from a door at the far end which leads out to the shop. He is older, his hair is white at the temples and the sides, and there are deep lines etched into his face. He too wears a white, collarless, button-up coat, but there is no clue as to what he wears beneath it. As he walks the length of the workshop to his apprentice, the clockwork in the turtle sudden stops, and the only sound in the workshop now are his footsteps.

The apprentice turns and looks at the older man, his face pale with shock, and the hand holding the tiny pliers shaking.
"I never-" he begins, but the older man shakes his head and the apprentice shuts up.

"You didn't," says the older man. "Mr. Ethward was struck by a falling tree this morning and has been with the doctor since. It is no fault of yours."

The apprentice starts to put the pliers down, the relief on his face as visible as his nose, but the master stops him.

"You must still complete the repairs," he says. "Burying Mr. Ethward without that would be like taking out his organs and burying his without them."

Twenty-four years ago
The workshop has not changed much in six years, but the apprentice is now a journeyman, and has in front of him on his bench his first commissioned piece. A clockwork raccoon crouches, waiting to be started. Small yellow gemstones create the eyes of the raccoon, and a line of even smaller gemstones run down its belly and catch the light oddly, seeming almost to flicker independently of where the light is. A tiny hole in the back of the head is where the key would go to wind the clockwork, but there is no sign on the key.

Footsteps again, and the master walks up the workshop carrying an infant in his arms. When he reaches the bench, he gently pulls the child's arm up and holds out its hand, and the journeyman quickly pricks the child's finger with a bradawl kept sharp for just this purpose. The child is too startled to cry at first, and the droplet of blood that wells up is quickly wiped over the keyhole of the raccoon. As the child starts crying, the clockwork inside the raccoon starts ticking, and the raccoon turns its head, almost as if it trying to look at the child.

The journeyman picks the raccoon up and places it on the child's chest, who stops crying and seizes it in both hands. The master turns to leave with both child and artefact, but the journeyman asks a question:
"When will I learn how to make the keys?"

"When the need is greatest," replies the master, and walks away.

Fourteen years ago
The journeyman, a talented craftsman now, has been away from the workshop for four days exhibiting the clockwork that the workshop produces at a regional fair, and now he returns. He enters the shop, which is locked and quiet at this early hour of the morning, and walks through past shelves of clockwork. All that is sold in the shop are toys for children, and the occasional labour-saving gadget for busy people, though these are most often commissioned. He goes into the workshop, and stops still in the doorway. A bird, disturbed, flutters noisily up through an open skylight.

His master is slumped across a bench, unmoving, with his neck at an unnatural angle. When the journeyman can bring himself to approach, he checks for a pulse, but the coldness of the skin tells him before he has given up trying to find one that the master is dead. A little way along the bench is the master's clockwork familiar, an elaborately beautiful dragonfly, and held loosely in his dead hand, is the key to the winding mechanism.

The journeyman's hand tremble as he fits the key into the dragonfly and turns it. The mechanism is smooth and turns easily as though it had been made and oiled only yesterday. When the key has made its fourth turn the dragonfly quivers and the clockwork starts ticking.

"Every craftsman must see this for themselves," says a voice, and the journeyman turns, knowing the voice as that of the master. The master is sat up again, pushed now away from the bench. His face is almost as the journeyman remembers it, but his eyes have been pecked out by the bird that fled when the journeyman entered. Foetor spills from the master's mouth, and the journeyman knows that he has probably been dead since he left.

"This is why the key is only made when there is great need," says the master. "This is not a life for the living, this is only undeath. The mind rots away, and though the key will animate whatever remains, it will not last long, and it will be a most imperfect tool."

The dragonfly shudders and the clockwork stops, and the master's corpse falls heavily back to the bench. The journeyman takes the key from the dragonfly and locks it in the safe beneath his workbench. He knows that he has been granted mastership, but somehow it is not the joyous occasion he had hoped it would be.

The master looks up as a short woman enters his shop and smiles at him broadly. Her teeth are mostly yellow, though a few are black and possibly rotting.

"I want you to make a clockwork penguin," she says. "One of the special ones."

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Pyramid schemes

The horse's head arrived in a large, plastic-lined cardboard box labelled Corsican Confections. I opened the box, and discovered to my relief that it had been refridgerated for the journey and so was still fresh, if a little cold. I patted it once, feeling a little sentimental. I'd bought the horse only a few months ago for my youngest daughter to learn to ride on, and now her lessons would be interrupted until the insurance came through and paid for a new one. However, business was business, and even family couldn't be allowed to get in the way of that. I picked it up out of the box, slightly surprised at just how heavy it was, and tucked it into my second son's bed.

In a way I'd started off the whole chain of events myself by leaving the kids with Shark Timmy for the evening so that I could pop down to the dog track to do a little doping and make a little cash. The kids are fond of Timmy, who they call 'Uncle Spacker' for reasons I've not bothered to go into, so I figured they'd be safe enough. Only while I was watching Gracie's Favour and I can't believe it's a whippet stagger round Wimbledon dog track Timmy took it on himself to tell the kids all about pyramid schemes and how they make money.

The first I found out about this is when I overheard the neighbours laughing because the kids had been round trying to sell them a pyramid. I laughed a little myself and made a note of their names; I'd send the boys round a little bit later to put the mockers on their mockery. And I thought nothing of it, just youthful exuberance and hijinks.

Three days later I noticed that there was a twenty-five foot high pyramid in the back garden of the house three doors to the left. I was surprised that they kids had made a sale, all the more so because it took up pretty much all of the garden.

It turned out that the kids had hit on a real way to make money from their pyramid scheme: they were installing the pyramid overnight and then charging to dismantle it and take it away again. Not a bad little racket, if a touch unsophisticated in its approach. And it probably would have worked rather well if a rainstorm a couple of mornings ago hadn't inconveniently revealed that they'd fashioned the pyramid 'stones' out of cardboard and pretty much melted their pyramid into a soggy mess.

The neighbours complained, and I found it convenient to pay them to keep quiet. But business is business, even when it's family business, so I passed the debt onto the kids. So far they've not paid up, so this horse's head is a little reminder that a debt must be serviced. I have an idea that the kids are putting the thumbscrews on Uncle Spacker, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that works out.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Import, Export II

It's been a busy few months, what with the tax year ending and have to sort out the rebate we'll be getting this year from the IRS. Thanks to the financial wizardry of my accountant this is the third year we'll have received money back from the government instead of having to pay any to them, but I know it can't last forever. I've got my contingency plans in place, and although my accountant thinks he's going to drop me in it and skip the country to South America, I know better than him. But it's business, and that's all part of the fun.

We had a bit of scare earlier in the week though when a clockwork penguin waddled into the loading yard and stood there, rocking from one webbed foot to the other, buzzing and clicking to itself. I immediately suspected that one of the zoos we'd been shipping 'giraffes' to had sent me a warning message so I sent a kamikaze nun out to check it over for bombs. Neither of them exploded, and a routine EMP failed to disable it (although due to an accident of positioning we did fry all the electronics in a nearby tax office; I sent them a commiseratory bunch of dead daffodils). I have the penguin securely locked in a bomb-proof safe for the moment while I try to figure out what its purpose is.

My secretary is looking no better than last time I wrote, though I have now found out what the issue is -- she's been diagnosed with cancer of jaw. As I've said before, I can't afford to lose her really, so I've made provisions to assist her treatment, but so far it's not looking great. I did manage to catch her in the EMP when we checked the penguin out, but that doesn't seem to have helped.

Business is looking up though: we're processing low-level nuclear waste into luminous paint for childrens' toys and shipping the end product out to China, complete with the faulty Geiger counters that I picked up for a song at a recent 'auction.' Since we're getting paid for everything but the Geiger counters, we're turning a healthy profit there. We're using the same facility to irradiate food intended for nursing homes as well, which is even more profitable now we've worked out that we can cut the slaughter houses out of the loop by using sufficient irradiation! This has co-incidentally caused a drop in our line of boil-in-the-colostomy-bag pre-digested foods, but that's a job for sales and marketing now.

Things are looking up!

People like us

The kids were outside, lynching the goldfish. I was in the kitchen, peeling potatoes for the Sunday roast, listening with interest as they tried, and failed, to drown it in the paddling pool. Finally the eldest, Jimmy, came in and tugged at a corner of my t-shirt.

"Daddy, can we have the toaster and the extension cord please?"

I sighed; although the toaster is only a cheap'n'nasty Tesco toaster, I'd only bought it a couple of weeks ago and thought that I'd a get a few more months out of it first. However, ransacking my mind quickly I couldn't think of anything electrical that we had that would be cheaper to replace, so I nodded.

Jimmy ran off to dig the extension cord out of the cupboard under the stairs, and I finished peeling the potatoes. I'd got them on the hob in a pan of just-boiling water when the power went off and I mentally kicked myself for forgetting that the kids would have used the first power socket they found, and so would have tripped all the fuses. I went out to the fusebox in the hall, and before resetting the switches, decided I'd better check that they weren't still playing with the toaster.

The kids had, in fact, got bored and run off over to the park to play kneecappings so I fished the toaster out of the paddling pool, unplugged it and dropped it in the bin. I looked at the pool, with Joey the Goldfish lying half in and half out of it, his arms and legs spasmed and his face blackened, and tsked to myself. If people were going to make promises to the kids they couldn't keep then they had to be prepared to take the consequences.

Notions of Convexity

When I was younger I was kept locked in a empty room for weeks on end. The walls were painted beige, and the floor was a soft, dark green, plastic-like substance that indented gently wherever I walked on it, and slowly returned back to it's original shape. At some point I started thing of the flatness of the floor as its normal form. Food was provided for me, and liquids to drink, but always while I was asleep. I saw no-one in all that time, heard nothing other than sounds I made myself, and had only my own thoughts to entertain me.

I worked out after a while how to create self-sustaining dimples in the floor. It wasn't perfectly elastic and would initially overshoot when trying to return to its original state, and I could use that to set up a cycle that would retain dimples for what felt like long periods of time. That allowed me to write, in a primitive fashion, and helped me put my thoughts together.

And slowly, my mind became more convex. I think it became star-shaped from the centre at first, and as my thoughts turned more and more on themselves, the set of all star-shaped points expanded. Because that set is necessarily convex, so my whole mind became convex.

There are odd things in my mind that I found there, that seemed to have always been hidden behind corners before. I wrote down how I'd found them using my floor notation so that I wouldn't forget, and then I came back to them as often as I dared.

The problem with convexity is that it's not the highest level notion. I soon found myself increasing the sophistication of the floor notation, and realised that my mind was becoming subharmonic. And the odd things I found in my mind no longer seemed so odd. When I successfully applied the maximum principle to myself, something inside me seemed to turn through 90 degrees in a direction I'd not seen before, but which had surely always been there, and then there were whole new things to look at.

I used the fork that came with my next meal to prick my fingertips and draw on the floor in my own blood. The design was found in part of my mind that now lived in that extra direction I'd found, and even as I drew it on the floor, parts of it seemed to move by themselves. When I was done there was something organic on the floor. I punched the obvious spot in the design, and the floor rippled, and kept on rippling, the energy for it being supplied from outside. And with the energy came something else.

My subharmonic mind stepped up another level and became plurisubharmonic at that point, and yet more unsuspected directions opened to me, and the something else that I had summoned took up residence in the new directions and helped me see things that hadn't been visible before. This time when the food came I was only feigning sleep. My captor, a woman wearing a pale grey veil, dropped the tray of food as I moved, but my helper had moved faster and was invisible to her, and she became physically completely convex very briefly, and then was no longer my captor.

But the world outside seems so limited and convex, and I long to find a way to enhance its dimensions and show everyone the potential that it has. My helper will then be able to bring its friends and families through to live in this world as well, which can only be good for all us. I am sure of that.

This whole world needs a new, convex, normal form.

Sunday, 13 April 2008


Moonlight falls through the gaps in the curtains and the room is like a black and white photograph. You are asleep in the bed, a shadowed hump, with a bare shoulder like a blazon in the night. Dark hair spread across the paleness of the pillow, contrasting your sallow skin, is like an inverse halo, a penumbra gone somehow wrong. Not for the first time I have the feeling that I am caught in a painting; that you and I will never move again; that we are frozen in time, waiting forever while other people puzzle over our meaning. Are we lovers, doubting ourselves, waiting for morning and the revelation of sunlight; or we stalker and victim knowing that for one of us the sun will never rise again?

If we are stalker and victim, then is it too late to end the hunt, pull back from the quarry, relax and embrace hesitation? Or is obsession too coarse in itself to permit such an ending?

I lean forward, resting my chin on my fist, my elbow on my knee, feeling self-conscious. You have laughed at me so many times, calling me your Thinker after the statue, and I have laughed with you and accepted your teasing with gracious good humour. And so the hours pass, as I watch you sleep and you dream of me thinking, and the snake eats its tail eternally.


I light the candles in the bathroom and press Play on the CD player: Mahler's first symphony breaks the silence. I have filled the bath with warmed mineral water, which Undine adores. I disrobe and hang the dressing gown on the door, a dark shadow against pale wood. I step into the bath and lie back.

The water flows around me and over me, climbing up my body and embracing me. Finally it reaches my lips and pauses, and slowly solidifies. The water gathers shape and sensation, firming against me. Undine holds me.

"I thought Undine was a woman," I murmur, my mind hazy and my sight dim.

"Love takes whatever shape it needs."

My love is in every drop of water.

Fortune Cookie

It was a simple plan really. I would go into the chinese takeaway and order food for both of us. When the food was done, and I needed to pay, Billy would burst in with his dad's gun, and announce that he was holding the place up. He'd order me and anyone else in the shop to pick up their food and leave, and when I was out, he'd suddenly realise his mistake and run off. No-one would be hurt, and we'd have chinese takeaway that we couldn't afford to pay for.

Billy had the idea when we found his dad's gun in his dad's underwear draw, next to the vibrator. Billy's eyes had gone wide, and then mine had too.
"Look at that!" said Billy, sounding awed.

"I know," I said, sounding shocked. "Why does your dad need a vibrator? Your mum left him years ago." Billy doesn't really remember his mum, so he doesn't get upset when I'm a bit tactless like that.

"What's a vibrator?" said Billy, reaching for the gun. I thought about telling him, and then decided that he could find that out for himself when he got older.

"I don't think we should play with the gun," I said, but Billy had picked it up now. He nearly dropped it again, clearly not expecting it to be so heavy, and then he pointed it at me. I dropped to the floor and scuttled under the bed where I found a snowdrift of used tissues.

"Put it down, Billy," I said. "It might be loaded!"

That's when Billy had his bright idea, and he put the gun down, so I came out from under the bed and made sure that the gun was unloaded before we went out for chinese takeaway.

I walked into the chinese takeaway and was relieved to see that no-one else was in there. Behind the counter, a tan formica rectangle running the length of the shop, sat a little chinese woman watching a talk-show on a tiny bakelite tv set. I smiled nervously, and ordered from the menu on top of the counter, pointing at the items we wanted on the laminated A4 sheets. She nodded, said something I couldn't understand, and disappeared through the door behind the counter, presumably into the kitchen.

When she came back she was carrying two white plastic carrier bags with foil and cardboard containers, and as she put them down on the counter, Billy burst in waving his dad's gun. The little chinese woman shrieked and ran through the door at the back of the counter. Billy stopped for a moment, looking around at the shop with only us two in it, then pushed the gun into his pocket, grabbed the bags and ran out of the shop. I waited a minute, but the chinese woman didn't come back, so I left too.

Back at Billy's we put the gun back in his dad's underwear drawer and ate the food. Billy was beaming, laughing and joking about his success holding the chinese takeaway up, and was making plans to do it again. I was concentrating on eating, this was the first proper food I'd had in two days. Then suddenly Billy went quiet, and I looked up. He'd opened up one of the two fortune cookies, and was staring at the slip of paper inside it.

"My fortune cookie's gone all weird," he said.

"Let me see?" I held my hand out and he let the slip of paper flutter into it. I looked at it.

"You're going to regret that," I read. "You're right Billy, that is weird. Pass me the other one."

I cracked it open, and shook the paper slip out of the crumbs, and picked it up.

"So are you," I read.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Talk radio

I let myself in through the kitchen door of Terry's house, intending to make the coffee myself before he could offer to microwave me some and found him sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, looking almost asleep. Seizing the opportunity, I checked the water level in the white electric jug kettle and flicked the switch to turn it on before saying hello.

"You look knackered, dude," I said. "Is your mum keeping you on your toes?"
Terry's mum, Mrs. M to me, had bruised her hip during a riot at the post-office a few days ago and had been advised to stay in bed for a few days by her doctor. Much to the surprise of us all, she'd been doing so as well.

"Mum's not too bad," said Terry, his eyes barely opening any wider. "I'll have a cup if you're making it. But between her and the exchange student and the job I don't seem to get much time for anything else anymore."

The kettle boiled quickly, and I pulled two cups from the dishwasher and looked for the jar of coffee.

"Is the student still in the manacles?" I said carefully. Terry's mum had taken in a Polish exchange student a few weeks ago in order, she'd said, to augment her pension a little. I had been a little surprised to find out that that was why Terry had been installing manacles in the spare room, and then felt I'd been told too much when I learned that the student was mostly kept chained up and in a gimp mask while he was in the house. Apparantly this was part of the arrangement.

"Yes, well, he likes it, doesn't he." said Terry, and there was something furtive about the way he said it that made me realise that the student wasn't the only one who liked it. I decided it was better to be ignorant and content than aware and trying to wash my brain out with carbolic soap.

"So, what's your mum doing while she's confined to bed? Has she had a lot of visitors? I know she's popular down at the WI," I said. "Although it was a bit weird, where those crack dealers tried to land-mine the driveway and blew themselves up."

"She's phoning radio talk-shows," said Terry, and there was a new note of depression in his voice. "I had the social services round here two days ago, because they'd traced her number. She'd phoned up one of those radio agony aunts and convinced her that she was being held in the basement of a nursing home as a sex-slave for geriatrics."

I burst out laughing, and because I'd just picked the kettle up to pour the water, I splashed boiling water all over the counter-top. I looked for a dishcloth to mop up the spill.

"Of course," he continued, "I couldn't let them look round, because they'd have found the exchange student and they'd get the wrong idea, and mum's bedroom still has all the bones in from when she was in Italy, so in the end I slipped some of mum's Valium into their coffee and drove them out to the Copperfield estate and left them there. I'm not proud of that."

"Did any of them get out alive?" I was shocked, this kind of thinking was what I expected of Terry's mum, not Terry.

"They've not been back. But she keeps phoning the stations and winding them up."

"Worse than pretending to be an old-age sex slave?"

Terry sighed, and took the cup of coffee from me, and turned on the radio on the shelf behind him.

"...well, Joanne, I've been scared of open spaces for a long time now, and I've not been out of my little flat since November last year," said a familiar voice. I looked at Terry, and mouthed your mum! and he nodded back. "But then recently I'd started to feel a little bit confined. You know, when you're looking at the same walls all the time, you start to get itchy feet."

"Well yes," said the soft tones of the radio show's agony aunt. "So, have I got this straight? You've been agoraphobic for a while, and last November it got so bad that you no longer wanted to leave the flat?"

"I don't know about the agriculture thingy, but yes, that's right. Only now I'm not very comfortable staying in the flat."

"Well, how do you feel about going outside?" said the agony aunt. "Have you tried just opening your front door and looking at the outside from the safety of your hall?"

Suddenly we heard a banging sound on the radio, echoed from upstairs. I looked at Terry, and I could see tears in his eyes. He just shook his head, so I carried on listening.

"Oh there's someone at the door," said Terry's mum. "I hate the hall, it's so small, and I feel like the walls are closing in on me when I'm in there. Hang on while I see who's there."

There was a pause, and then she spoke again, sounding frightened. "Oh Joanne, there's men hammering nails into boards across my door!"

Terry reached up and turned the radio off again.

"She did this yesterday as well," he said. "She's going to tell that poor woman that she's being boarded in, and then a petrol bomb will come through the letter box, but she'll be too scared to leave the house, and too claustrophobic to hide anywhere in the house that might protect her. The one yesterday had a nervous breakdown on air.

I finished my coffee in one gulp and put the cup down on the counter top. "Your mother's a remarkable woman, Terry."

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Puss in Boots

Dick Whittington lay dead on a grimy blue mattress that reeked of cat's piss. His arms were flung out over his head as though he'd tried to stop himself falling, and the sleeves of his ragged shirt were rolled up, revealing track marks down the length of his arms. His plump, pale face was turned slightly to the side, and a trickle of dried blood, burgundy like the port I'd been drinking before being called out here, ran from a nostril down to his chin. His feet were bare and the soles of his feet had been slashed with something sharp. I suspected a razor blade.

"It's murder, isn't it?" said the woman stood in the doorway to the room. Silhouetted against the neon lights outside, her figure curved like an ecstatic scoliosis sufferer and her thigh-high burgundy leather boots glistening wetly she leaned one arm against the doorframe and bowed her head slightly. Thick blonde hair cascaded over her face and her shoulder trembled ever so slightly as though she were crying. If she sobbed I couldn't hear it for the howl of the night-time wind that very nearly drowned out the wail of the sirens: in this neighbourhood the ambulances were often attending to the fallen police and fire brigades. I shrugged my shoulders, and kicked Dick's feet.

"Miss Bootes," I spat, and then started coughing, heavy, wracking gasps for air like a volcano god with indigestion. I doubled over, feeling my cracked ribs grating against each other as I did so and a hot sensation in my eyes that would have been tears if Mad Frankie hadn't had my tear ducts cauterised last week as a precaution against me giving him the Evil Eye. Slowly I recovered and pulled myself upright, and looked to the doorway. She had come a couple of paces into the room, keeping her distance like most people do, and was looking at me with something less than loathing.

"Call me Pussy," she said. "Dick always liked that."

I bit my tongue hard to stop myself from laughing; with my fragile physical state I'd've ended up on the mattress with Dick, and corpses don't get paid. I tasted iron and remembered a night with a sadistic acupunturist when the wind had howled like this and I'd howled like the wind, and the laughter died.

"Seriously, McArthur," said Pussy, "It's murder isn't it? They've murdered the former Lord Mayor."

"You seem very certain of that," I growled, wishing I had enough lungs left to smoke. My voice grated like gravel in a washing machine. "So far I'm seeing a junkie with a bastinado fetish, and that's not a crime. Hell, dying in a one-room shit-hole like this is just a cliche."

"But what about the stiletto?" said Pussy. She frowned at me, and for an instant I felt like was six again, standing in front of my mother who would frown in exactly the same way wondering why I hadn't run away from home yet.

"What stiletto?" I said, and frowned back at her. She recoiled as though I'd shoved a 3-day old fish under her nose.

"The one in his chest," she said, and her voice was now flat and calm. She crossed her arms, threw her head back and shook her hair out like a sudden blaze of sunlight in the depths of the night.

I kicked Dick again, and rolled him over with one aching foot, and there it was, just as she said. A red stiletto-heeled shoe embedded a good three inches deep in his chest.

"So the question is," I mused aloud, "where's the other one?"

"Does it matter?" said Pussy.

"Of course," I said. "When someone is shot you ask where the gun is that goes with the bullet. When someone is knifed, you ask where the hand is that wielded the knife. And when someone stamps on your chest so hard that they leave their shoe behind, you ask where the other shoe is. But tell me, Puss, how did you know where to find Dick?"

"The mayoral elections are in two months time," she said, her eyes going wide. "Dick keeps me up to date with his whereabouts, in case we can find a PR opportunity."

I looked around the room, ill-lit with a 40 watt bare bulb hanging from frayed flex. There was the mattress and the corpse, some floorboards ripped up from the floor and stacked in a corner, and some writing on one of the walls, but otherwise the room was empty of everything but dirt. I checked the writing on the wall; it was a shopping list.

Pussy glared at me, her eyes sparkling defiantly. "Even here," she said. "I can turn this into PR about the poor housing conditions that still plague the city, and make the mayor a martyr for spending time here to get a feel for how the people who slip through the cracks in the system live."

"People like me?"

"There are no people like you McArthur! If you have membership of the human race then it's with a forged birth certificate."

I shrugged, my doctor had been telling me the same thing for years, and my mother had always been elusive when I'd asked her about my father.

"I'll take your case, Puss," I said. "I'll find out who did for Dick."

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Travelogue 3: Tal Mallan

Haruspice is farmed on the hills within the walls of Tal Mallan and nowhere else. As the name suggests, it is used by diviners and prognosticators to accurately see the future, and Tal Mallan jealously guards them so as to take best advantage of this unusual spice. I came to Tal Mallan by the only safe route, on board a ship that had left from Port Sinistrex under license from the Emir of the city.

Tal Mallan is on a peninsula, and is surrounded completely by walls that are ten feet high at their lowest point. The walls are well maintained, built from the dense, egg-yolk-yellow-veined grey rock that is quarried from higher up the peninsula. The cubic blocks cut from the quarries are each half the height of a man and are either dressed, if being used for the foundations of the walls, or carefully carved if being used for the visible area. The carvings are images taken from the Tal Mallan religious beliefs, and hard to describe and unpleasant to see. The Gods of Tal Mallan are despotic.

Guards in uniforms of ochre and brown patrol the walls both inside and atop and are fiercely loyal to the Emir. Although no human agency has attempted an assault on the city in two hundred years, there are periodic incursions from the large phlogistonic mammals that live further up the peninsula, beyond the quarries, and where the land is in a constant state of tectonic upheaval and volcanic activity. Looking north at night you can see a dull red glow on the horizon from the active lava lakes and rivers, and when the eruptions are in full swing the sky sometimes seems filled with fireworks. Rains of ash over the city are commonplace.

Tal Mallan is annular for visitors. You enter through the port and pass through the customs house where there is a simple visual inspection to check that you are not on a list of people banned from the city or wanted for crimes. You may bring anything you like into Tal Mallan, but you leave with almost nothing. If you look across the customs house to the queue of people leaving they are empty handed and all wear the same ivory shirts and trousers. These clothes are provided by the grace of the Emir to replace your own, and are soft and comfortable, though not entirely suited to a sea-voyage as they become see-through when wet.

Visitors may travel anywhere between the outer and inner walls, but not beyond the inner walls. Inside those walls are the central hills of Tal Mallan where Haruspice is farmed, the temples to the pantheon have been built, and the Emir's palace stands.

When I entered the city for the first time, I was warned not to stay any longer than two weeks. The guard who warned me was a middle-aged woman wearing a brown and ochre uniform and carrying a bone-handled da, the weapon they use to kill the alligator-sized salamanders when they swarm in the mating season. She had a lined face that made her seem older than she was, and hazel eyes that never quite focussed on me when she was talking, but constantly slipped away and looked over my shoulder. Haruspice, she told me, permeated the air and the water of the city because it was farmed from the centre. Haruspice is addictive over long exposure times, and the longer I spent in the city, the harder I would find it to leave.

I stayed only four days that time, but she was right, and I've not been able to stay away for longer than eight months at a time. I woke last night to find I was sweating blood and my fingernails had turned a deep green, like the colour in the depths of the abyssal ocean just before the light gives out. I could remember fragments of a dream about things I would be doing today, and I've been experiencing deja vu all day. I've been expecting it, and so I walked down to the Sinistrex harbour this morning and booked passage on the next ship. It's time to return to Tal Mallan.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008


The surface of the water sparkles with early morning sunlight, and a water-skater skitters across it, tiny feet pressing gently against the tension and failing to break through. Tiny bubbles of air gust through the water, heading for the surface, and I imagine that a silver-red fish noses through a cloud of them, then turns and is gone as fast as I can blink.

The water is beautifully clear, not at all what I'd expected, and although it was cold at first, it has warmed now. It is comforting around me, supporting me, and for a long moment I feel regret again, that the rest of my life has not been like this. I shiver, and force myself to relax, and realise that I had started to float up from where I lie. Relaxing I sink back down again, slowly, steadily. Purposefully.

I can hear my heart-beat in my chest as a pounding of blood in my ears, slow and rhythmic and I am tempted to rest my hand on my chest just above my heart and feel the pulse there beating in time to the one in my ears. I feel a sense of belonging to the universe, an idea that all of me in no longer centred just inside my body, but that I have expanded and become something bigger than I was, something better than I was before. Euphoria suffuses me like a fresh breath of air, and my body feels heavier and yet somehow lighter too, as though I'm starting to break free of it, and overcome mere physical limitations.

More air escapes my lips, and there's a flat sensation in my chest that tells me I've let the last of it go now; my lungs are empty and soon, very soon, it will time to breathe again and inhale the pure water and leave this feeble flesh behind.

There's a huge SPLASH and my vision dissipates into a crazy white haze of thrashing water. Huge, huge hands seize me and pull me up and I am dragged roughly from the womb-like comfort of the water and hurled into the bright, jarring coldness of the air again. I stumble and fall, but I am caught once more and pushed roughly out of the water where I collapse on the hard rubber surface at the water's edge. A heavily pregnant woman with bare feet kicks me in the ribs and spits her cigarette out; it bounces just next to me, hisses and goes out in the pools of water dripping off me.
"You selfish fuck!" she screams, her face distorting like a banshee. "How dare you try and drown yourself in our birthing pool!"

I cough and cough, each wracking breath hot and painful in my lungs while my ex-wife, pregnant with my child, shouts imprecations.