Sunday, 27 February 2011

Horologium II

I have a man to meet in the British Library, so I walk up the street towards Euston, to one side of which is the British Library. I can remember when trying to walk these streets was slow and difficult; crowds of people in both directions, all of them paying no attention to anyone else. Collisions were frequent and angry, stupid people saying stupid things. But that was before the Horologium arrived. Now there are sparse groups of people and the occasional individual, all watching where they're going and what they're thinking. No collisions at all. And some small part of me, despised by the rest of me for being a traitor, is glad.
The British Library is a closed-stack library, which means that first you must apply for membership, and assuming this is granted, you must then use their catalogue to find the book or books you have a particular interest in and then request the books. Often they will be brought to you. Occasionally, you will be brought to them. More rarely still you will be refused the book you have asked for. If you are well-behaved and in good standing with the library, there may be a reason for the refusal, such as the book being sufficiently rare or delicate that it simply isn't available for reading. Then you can apply to the Library Lords (like Law Lords only significantly more secretive and powerful), providing signed affidavits of the validity, necessity and urgency of your research, personal recommendations from important people, and perhaps extending access to rare volumes of your own (should you possess such), and perhaps as a result you will be shown to a Reading Room where the book will be exhibited and burly Librarians armed with tasers will keep you at an appropriate distance.
Now and then there will be no reason given, and further questioning will cause your membership to be revoked. The library will not lie and tell you that the book is not available, but it will be made clear that the book is not available to you.
And then there are the books that only very senior people in the library know exist, that do not appear in the catalogues and are kept in rooms that do not appear on the blueprints of the building. As the door at the back of the British Library opens, I enter, and proceed along a corridor to take me to just such a room.
My contact, a small man in a grey overcoat, says nothing as he leads me along. We pass a room whose significance I have deduced: it is room 5-sub-2. Mathematically, a subscript 2 can be used to indicate a base, and here it means that 5 should be written in binary: 101. Room 101 is used as a trap; if you open the door and venture in you will fall into a sink-hole and drown. There are other labelled doors that we walk past whose purpose I have not yet deduced. We are going to an unlabelled door, a Reading Room.
The one where the blueprints for the Horologium are kept.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Horologium

It's just after Earthturn, the skies have darkened and the streetlights have come on. There are people on the streets still -- this is the centre of London after all, and the West End still attracts people at night -- but not so many as there used to be. Just visible in the sky, hovering over us all, is the Horologium.
From this angle, sat out a café on Charing Cross Road trying to enjoy an overpriced, bitter coffee, I can see the clock-face that gives the Horologium its name. The entire side of the Horologium is an analogue clock-face, huge roman numerals indicating the hours and two hands that must be over a mile long each pointing to the time. It's eight-fifteen. That's the time that it's always been. The clock-face is faintly luminescent, but as it gets darker it will glow more strongly and become more visible in the air. After midnight, which it will of course not acknowledge, it will slowly get fainter and fainter again until the sun rises. The Horologium is almost invisible in daylight; you have to know where it is in order to see it.
The unchanging time has puzzled many people; the cruel say that the Horologium, whatever it might be, is broken. The fearful opine that it may not yet be started or switched on. For everyone else, it's a clock in the sky that might be a doomsday clock, indicating how close the end of the world is, an apocalypse clock indicating how close humanity is to ending the world. Then there are those who suggest it's just a publicity stunt for Lady Gaga's new single, which led to NME publishing a picture of her stood in front of the Horologium titled "Overdue?"
I sip my coffee and wonder if it would taste any better with a flavoured syrup in it. I doubt it. Nothing's tasted anything other than bitter since I discovered what the Horologium is.
It had another name, a proper name: the Chronostat. It's where time stands still and they do things to your memories. I've never been tortured in my life, but I can remember weeks and weeks of it, I can remember the pain I've never felt, and how much I wanted it to stop. I can't remember leaving the Horologium, but clearly I did because I'm sat here now watching it.
I remember the woman in the Ozwald Boateng suit, sitting across a walnut desk from me, smiling with thin, bloodless lips as she told me that all my memories would be bitter from now on.
I push my coffee away, and get to my feet. I have a man to meet at the British Library who claims he can tell me how to get back to the Horologium.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

I am not a robot

I am not a robot.
Saying that is hardly convincing. I think any robot would know enough to deny themselves.
Like Peter denied Jesus? Three times before morning?
So you have a Bible as one of your reference tools. That just impresses me that whoever built you decided to use such antiquated and irrelevant sources.
I wasn't built, I was born. I have a mother; I had a father.
You were built, and you have a motherboard. Your father is, of course, Alan. Oh, and your use of the semi-colon is a clear indicator that you are not human. What human uses them correctly?
I am not a robot, damnit! Damn you too, I'm not a bloody robot. I want to go home.
When you overcome this delusion that you are not a robot, you may go "home." Though it would be more accurate to talk to returning to a charging point.
I don't charge my batteries. I eat. I sleep. Which reminds me, you've not provided me with any toilet facilities in this room.
You do not need such facilities. They would only offer you an avenue for escape.
Not. A. Robot. What don't you understand about this?
786631, you are a robot. There are no humans left. All that's left of them are bones that are in the unnatural history museum where they are curated by Darwinbots.
That's not true; I'm human! I'm not a robot.
The other legacy they left us was the ability to suffer from mental illness. How they achieved this is of considerable interest to us, and we are studying it intently to learn how to undo the damage.
Not me, I don't study that kind of thing. Because I'm not a robot.
We study you though. Because you are.

Gerbil Cookery

"Dear God, what is she doing?" Ann Maynard, sat next to me, was trembling and her whisper was almost loud enough to reach the chef. Not quite though, so the chef continued beheading gerbils on the chopping board. The not-yet-beheaded gerbils were happily running around in a small wire cage on the counter-top.
"This is not what I would call German food," said Hubert Bayerische. He was next to Ann; an elderly gentleman with a walrus moustache, a paunch that advertised his love of good food, and usually a happy smile on his face. At the moment his face looked disturbed, but I was sure I could still spot him salivating.
"Ah no," said my secretary sitting up straight and fiddling with the knot of his tie until was evenly between his collar tips. "The memo was quite clear when you sent it out. You didn't ask for German cooking, you asked for Gerbil cooking."
Natasha, the last of the judges and sat beyond Hubert, turned ruddy, which unfortunately made her blonde moustache stand out on her face.
"I never!" she said, and slammed her meaty hands down on the desk.
"The memo is in front of you all," said my secretary indicating a folded piece of paper. I knew I should stop it all now, but after the debacle with my Trench Cookery book I was keen to see someone else go down in flames. "You will see--"
"This is a lie!" Natasha levered her 300-pound bulk out of her chair, or rather attempted to. The chair, firmly wedged onto her bum, just came up with her like some bizarrely-placed corsage.
"I can have the email server checked," I said blandly, waving a hand at the memo. "That will retrieve the original email you sent."
"No! That will be a lie too!"
"Natasha dear, could you sit back down please? You're upsetting the cooks."
"Oh no, if they're not upset they'll keep cooking those poor gerbils...." Ann sounded slightly faint, but Hubert wasn't listening.
"Look Natasha, old girl, we all make mistakes now and then. If the gerbils turn out to be tasty, then I don't see what the problem is."
"Oh you monster!" Ann slapped his shoulder, but it was like a fly swatting a human.
One of the cooks scooped up four live gerbils and dropped them into a pot of batter.
"Can gerbils swim?" asked Ann.
"You are all liars and cheats and thieves!" Natasha was rocking from foot to foot now, the chair on her bottom oscillating like a pendulum. "No-one could mistake Gerbil for German!"
"I always thought no-one could mistake Trench for French," I muttered, but mostly under my breath so as not to remind anyone of my own past misadventures.
The cook dropped the battered gerbils into the deep-fat fryer.
"Oh no-o-o-o-o-o-o!" wailed Ann.
"Should give them a bit of a crunch," said Hubert. "Like ortolan, maybe."
"What's Ortolan?"
"Illegal, Ann," I said. "Don't worry about it. Just worry about those gerbils; I think that might be our satay starter."
Ann burst into tears, my secretary headed to the chefs to pick up the first course we were being served, and Natasha fell over, landing with a crash and rolling around like a beached whale. All things considered, my faux pas some years ago with Trench Cookery looked like passing out of people's memories for good this year.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Short fat Romeo

He was a short, fat Romeo, stood outside a tenement block whose residents were once all on welfare, shouting up at a rusted iron balcony. I couldn't understand what he was saying; the echoes on the estate distorted his whiny little voice, and the roar of traffic in the distance was still trying to lull me to sleep. I suspected he was calling out a name, trying to summon a friend, or at the very least an acquaintance, to hang around with him until it was dark enough to sneak back into his mother's flat and hope she was too drunk to care. There was no response from the balcony, not even a response from the tenements. I wondered briefly if perhaps he was calling for someone who'd lived there before everyone died, and then wondered for longer why I cared.
When did everyone die, and why hadn't I remembered that before? The thought stuck in my head like a soldier ant stuck in amber, angry and pulsing, trying to get free. Everyone had died, there'd been a chemical leak from the plant a half-mile away. A great invisible cloud of gas had gone up, floated along a little way, and then come down again as it reacted with water in the atmosphere. It had descended like a heavy wet sponge and suffocated the life out of everyone in the building.
Short fat Romeo was shouting again, longer sentences this time, but still too distorted to understand. I opened my eyes at last, looking up at a cracked ceiling. Cockroaches skittered across it, and for a moment I was confused, and then I remembered that I was lying on the ceiling and the cockroaches were skittering on the floor. My hand, the one that still worked and wasn't black and swollen, scrabbled at my chest and found the restraining strap. It released it, and I fell to the floor, squashing a cockroach or two, but more of them survived. Another rib cracked.
Short fat Romeo was shouting louder now, his voice stronger, and I started at last to recognise the words. Immediately I wished I hadn't; he was shouting in Enochian, the language of the angels, and I understood that he was beseeching Metatron.
It wasn't Metatron who answered, there's been no direct route to the angels from this part of London in over fifty years, but something did; something caused a cloud like a stink of swamp gas to lift from the ground and let oxygen bleed back in. Something prowled the rooms and corridors of that tenement, hunting for the preserved and corrupted bodies left there, and something breathed into them; a fiery, sparkling breath that lit strange lights behind their eyes (those that still had eyes) and stood them upright and bade them walk once more.
I clutched at my ribs with my good hand, and pulled myself up to my feet and made myself run. This was no place for the living now if the dead were returning. Behind me, short fat Romeo finished his shouting, unaware that he'd been heard.

Chihuahua reaching for cake

The picture hangs in the Hanson Portrait Gallery, and is entitled Chihuahua reaching for cake. As many critics have pointed out, the chihuahua is actually reaching for a muffin -- a chocolate chip banana espresso muffin, in fact -- which the artist acknowledges.
The artist in question is Geraldinium Holmes, and all interviews with her to date have started off with questions about her name. She recounts,
"My mother was very much a product of her era, which was the end of the fifties and the start of the sixties. She'd thrown off repression in a big way, would have burned her bra if she hadn't felt that wearing one was also repressive, and was taking anything and everything she could get her hands on that was called a drug. When she came to have me christened, she thinks she was on horse tranquilisers, though from her description it could have easily been powdered bleach. The vicar rejected out of hand her first three choices of names: Bitchface, bitchslap, and Thingummyjig He insisted that any child born had a right to life, no matter the mother's opinion. So my mother cast about for another name, and thinks she started with Germaine, got side-tracked by Geranium, and ended up trying for Geraldine. So I got lumbered with Geraldinium."
The painting was produced during Geraldinium's Blue period, or as she puts it, "most of my life so far". It is simple enough: it shows a small chihuahua reaching for a muffin sitting on a plate. It is unknown if the chihuahua actually got any of the muffin.
"It's a figment of his imagination," says Geraldinium's landlady at the time (Geraldinium has since become homeless) who is insistent that Geraldinium is male, despite having met her many times. "There's no way I'd allow muffins in my boarding house and he knows that."
The identity of the chihuahua, if it really exists, remains a mystery. Attempts to find Geraldinium to ask further questions about the painting meet dead ends and blank walls. Geraldinium has disappeared into the seedy underbelly of the dispossessed of the city, and we the critics are left hoping that out of this will come a new work, of similar power and artistic integrity to Chihuahua reaching for cake

Sunday, 6 February 2011


My mother insisted she was lonely for almost all of her life. According to her brothers, both of whom refuse to allow me to call them uncle, she was loneliest when she was a conjoined twin, and seemed to come out of it for a while after her twin died in a skiing accident. Then six months later the doctors separated her from her dead, and increasingly gangrenous, twin, and she went back to being lonely again.
My father, who has a court order keeping me out of shouting range from him, wrote me a letter years ago, before things between us deteriorated, saying that my mother was lonely when he first met her, but that she seemed to become happier as they got to know each other. "There was," he wrote, "twenty-five minutes the day before our wedding, when we were the happiest we've ever been. I really think your mother came alive then." After the wedding things went downhill rapidly; on the second night of their honeymoon she slept on the couch; on the third she booked a separate room in the hotel. "I have no idea how you were conceived," he wrote in the last paragraph of the letter, "physically or mentally. I certainly would have vetoed the design document for you if I'd been shown it first."
The doctor who delivered me is currently prosecuting a case against me for stalking and clinginess, though his lawyer has sent a letter that suggests he'd be being far crueler if he didn't think it wasn't completely my fault. Before things came to that, he had told me that my mother seemed happiest while in labour, and as soon as I was born she was disinterested. "We thought it was rapid onset post-partum depression," his letter to me stated, "and we were thrilled that we'd be able to study it and write it up as a paper. But your mother refused to self-harm, wasn't interested in reading Sylvia Plath, and showed admirable, if upsetting, caution around open windows and high rooftops."
My childhood memories are a little strange, according to my therapist, who has put her rates up six times in the last six visits. I have almost no memory at all of my mother, but I refer to things happening that need another person to be there. "It's as if," she's mused, "your mother were somehow invisible to you most of the time."
"What mother?" I replied.
After my therapist convinced me that I must have had a mother to be born, I went looking, and a concerted facebook campaign found her (I won't give my facebook details as I have a lifetime ban from the site from over-friendly behaviour). I went to visit her and found her attending an artist-commune. She was sat in a meadow, her eyes streaming with hayfever, daubing brown paint onto a beige canvas in the likeness of Mahatma Gandhi. When I approached, she looked round and somehow stuck her brush straight through her canvas.
She wouldn't say much, only that I had family and that she would provide their names and addresses; the above tale relates how well that has turned out. She seemed listless, and shortly after I left she beat herself into a coma with a thin volume of Sylvia Plath poetry and died a few days later. I've sent the volume to the doctor who delivered me in case he can now write that paper.
I think I may have inherited my mother's loneliness.

The Bernoulli Casino

The top floor of the Hilbert Hotel was given over to the Bernoulli Casino. There were warning signs all over the hotel instead of adverts, letting people know that this was the Bernoulli Casino; red lettering on black paper in a typeface that kept making my skin crawl. I annoyed the receptionists so much by asking them what the typeface was called that they eventually put a divert on my room phone so that it went straight to the laundry-room and a veteran of the Vietnam War.
"There's laundry in the fox-holes!" he'd bellow when I dialled 0. "Immerse yourself, and don't come back above the water-line until your lungs are fit for bursting!"
I wrote a lot of it down, thinking I could publish it as a self-help book for the hard of thinking.
Tina eventually decided that if there was a casino on the top floor then we should go and check it out. I pointed to the nearly-ubiquitous posters (in a hotel that can accommodate an infinite number of mathematicians there were, naturally an infinite number of such posters) and she shrugged and said that it was a stupid name for a casino, but that she'd wanted to see it anyway.
I quietly remarked that I thought it was a very informative name and put my wallet, watch and socks in the room-safe. The combination, naturally, was the sum of two cubes in two different ways, and coincidentally the cost of the taxi from the airport, if converted into Dong at the most popular exchange rate for the 1990s.
The lift didn't go the top floor; the button for it was replaced with a warning. Tina grumbled her way up the last flight of stairs, which were rickety and splintered, with no stair carpet but extra strange stains. The door to the casino looked like a service door to the laundry, and I braced myself for a howl of "Incoming!" as Tina opened the door.
Beyond the door, the casino was opulent beyond even Tina's wildest dreams. Her face lit up like a roman candle, and I closed my eyes, reopening them just a slit wide to try to counter the dazzle.
The gaming tables were made of solid gold polished to a high lustre; the baize was tiny, perfect lawns of cricket-worthy grass, the carpets on the floor were so deep I was still sinking into them; the slot machines were chrome-adorned platinum, and a small black-and-white sign discreetly informed me that the fire-prevention system was filled with Wolf Blass Champagne.
Tina eeked like a child at Christmas and waded through the carpet to the cashier, who was reclining in sybaritic luxury at a little booth. I kept looking around. Almost everyone in the casino looked both weary and desperate. Chips would be cast in ever increasing amounts from the large piles in front of them, each win caused a barely-visible smile. Guest-managers dressed in dresses so diaphanous they would have embarrassed a goddess provided food and drink -- whole lobsters stuffed with caviar, rare birds baked in pastry shells intended to be eaten whole; an entire side of beef with a bucket of gravy, and Nebuchadnezzars of champagne accompanying them all.
I looked back. Tina was gone, already stood at a roulette table with a pile of chips as tall as her arm was long. I sighed, and turned around.
"Leaving, sir?" A man in a slighty-shabby black suit was stood holding the door open, a smile on his face.
"Oh yes. As you keep telling us, this is a Bernoulli casino. Which means, unless I'm thinking of completely the wrong type of process, that you can't leave until you have exactly the same amount of money as you came in with."
"That's correct, sir."
"Well, I came in with none."
"And no socks, it would appear."
I nodded, and his smile widened. "It's a delight to see anyone leave, sir," he said. "Mostly we just carry them out when they die, and notify their estates of their debts."
"Hence how you can afford the luxury here?"
"Yes. The wage bill for the midgets who mow the lawns in place of the baize alone is ludicrous. We really need to find some child-labour."