Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Aquakitty Sanctuary for Psychopathic Cats

The Jinx, half Lynx, half Jaguar and half-mad, stalked its prey through the long grasses and waist-high shrubs of the Aquakitty Sanctuary. It moved like a shadow, slipping through the grass almost as though it wasn't there, disappearing completely when out of bright sunlight, and utterly soundless. When it was far enough away, and sure that no-one could hear it, it chuckled to itself.
Ahead of it, utterly oblivious to where he was, or the danger he was in, Doctor Septopus slipped through the long grasses and waist-high shrubs like an elephant, lumbering along so loudly that several nocturnal species had woken up and were feeling grumpy that their sleep had been disturbed. His tentacles weren't well adapted to dry land at the best of times, and the oven-like heat inside the sanctuary had dried out his scaly skin and given him a headache. He plodded on, looking for water.
At last there was a glimpse of silver on the horizon, and Dr. Septopus sighed heavily and turned towards it. He was worrying that one of his tentacles might be coming close to dropping off, and he was not at all happy about having to change his name to Dr. Sextopus if that happened: he could already imagine the smirk on Silvestra's face when she heard, and the Green Lightbulb had problems with far shorter words. The idea of being Dr. Sexypuss from time to time was cringe-inducing.
He crested a small rise, and saw to his mild pleasure that the silver glint was widening and looking promisingly water-like. Behind him, the Jinx stretched out, flowing forward like night enveloping the landscape, tensing muscles ready to spring. In front of him, an angry tiger that had been trying to sleep until Dr. Septopus plodded by also tensed, readying to spring.
Dr. Septopus saw the tiger as it launched, and collapsed, his tentacles crackling like dry newspaper. The Jinx sailed over Dr. Septopus's head, its claws just scratching his scalp, and crashed into the tiger. The two giant cats landed in a ball of fur, growling and spitting, and Dr. Septopus rolled onto his side and down the slope.
He bumped and crashed his way down, bouncing off rocks, crushing small shrubs, and leaving a faint ammoniac smell of fish behind him; a scent trail as visible as if he were laying tarmac for a new motorway.
At the bottom of the rise, he righted himself, noting with relief that he still seemed to have all his tentacles, and ran, hoping to get away from the catfight behind him, heading still for the water, which was glittering brightly as it got closer.
The Jinx broke the tiger's neck with a well-timed swat of a giant paw, and sat back on its haunches. It licked a deep scratch thoughtfully, and scented the air. Dr. Septopus was as visible as a fireworks show at midnight to it, and it decided that one accident wasn't a deterrent. It padded off, following the smell of week-old fish.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Technomad (I)

The technomad was cornered, flushed, and breathing hard. He flung his hands up in front of his face, and muttered something that none of the children could make out.
“Kick him!”, “Hit him!”, “Make him take a bath!” The cries mixed up together as the braver children pressed forward and the less-brave egged them on. A stick, too thin to hurt, bounced off his forearm, and he crouched, trying to hide himself behind himself.
“OK kids, that’s enough.” The voice was deep, masculine. The technomad stayed crouching though, now peering out from behind his hands. The children were crying out in dismay, but they were milling around a little now, less sure of themselves now another adult was present. “That’s enough, I said. Put those stones down, and get on. Leave it alone, it hasn’t hurt you.” Some of the stones that were dropped looked like housebricks to the technomad, but he wasn’t about to say anything now.
When the sounds of footsteps had fallen away he lowered his arms and looked around. There was a small rockery of stones and bricks lying around, and he realised he’d come close to being stoned to death. A little distance off a man in a tight green sweater stood looking at him.
“You know you’re not welcome here,” said the man. “We made that clear last time. Why have you come back?”
“We’re nomads,” said the technomad. “Technological nomads. We roam from village to tow--”
“Yes, I know all that. You substitute technology for living and you expect other people to support you while you make ‘art’.” There was a lot of disgust in that last word, and the man in the green sweater spat after saying it. “We’re not stopping you roaming, in fact, we want to keep on roaming. There’re no jobs for you here, we don’t want to see your art, and we definitely don’t have any bandwidth to spare.”
“So tell your little friends to pack themselves up and get going again, or we’ll be staging an art installation of our own: think Burning Man but with a little more realism.”
The technomad licked his lips, and kept his head ducked down. “We have one art piece to present; perhaps you could all come and see it this evening. We’ll leave immediately after.”
“You’ll leave now. We monitor our networks, we know you’ve been trying to hack our wifi since you arrived. We’ve hacked you back, but you haven’t noticed. You’re not much of a technomad really, are you?”
“You’ve what?”
“Giving birth is not art, no matter how you photograph it. Take yourselves off, find someone who’ll donate medical care to you. You’ll get none here.”
“Charity begins at home,” said the technomad.
“And stays there, as far as you’re concerned.”
“Does this remind you of a Bible story?”
“It might, if there were such a thing as a god.”
The technomad sighed, and shuffled past the green-sweatered man. The lifestyle had seemed like such a good idea once.

Mr. Binky

“And this is the bedroom.” She giggled. I had to push the door open myself to look inside, and as I brushed past her, she giggled harder and put a hand over her mouth. I was starting to regret accepting her offer of a nightcap.
“That’s Mr. Binky,” she said, pointing at a teddy-bear sitting stiffly on the bed in front of the floral cushion, which itself was in front of three pink-pillowcased pillows. Mr. Binky was wearing a charcoal three-piece suit and looked like an undertaker. For teddy-bears. “Do you want a cofoffee?”
“A what?” Mr. Binky was giving me the evil eye, I was sure of it.
“A cofoffee. You know, a coffee with a cough.”
I didn’t know, so I asked for a simple black coffee, and as she headed downstairs to the kitchen to make it, kicked myself for not asking for a caramel-soy macchiato and using her inability to make it as an excuse to leave. Everyone can make a black coffee.
I sat on the bed, and looked around. There was a vase of flowers on the windowsill, a floral-print wicker armchair by the window, and a small bookcase at the end of the bed. When I checked its shelves there were eight-years of back-issues of Cosmopolitan and Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War. Having read Sun Tzu a lot in college, I picked up the most recent Cosmopolitan and discovered that she ringed things on the pages. In red marker pen. I put it back down again, and sat back down on the bed.
“Here you go!” She was as cheerful as a Tequila Sunrise. She put two coffees, one black and one white down on the carpet, and then disappeared again. She reappeared moments later with a bottle of cough-syrup and poured a generous three fingers into her cup.
“Are you sure you don’t want a cofoffee?” She giggled, and I wanted to strangle her.
“No, thanks.” I said. “I don’t like sweet things in coffee.”
“Oh, but Mr. Binky does.”
I managed to smile, but I’m not sure how.
“Mr. Binky thinks you’re supercute! He’s really happy that I went out with you tonight.”
I sipped my coffee cautiously, just in case she’d put anything else in there while she was making it. It tasted bad, like most instant coffees do, but at least it tasted like bad coffee. Then I wondered what I was supposed to say; we hadn’t met for a date, she’d just been hanging around at the entrance to the bar when I’d finished watching the hockey and had decided to leave. Her giggle had been cute back then, an hour ago.
“That’s good,” I said, looking at my watch. “Oh, is that the time? I have to work tomorrow, you see, and--”
The growl definitely came from behind me, and I was looking at her face, gauging how nice I’d have to be about leaving, so I’m sure it didn’t come from her.
“Oh, that makes Mr. Binky sad,” she said, and then something warm and furry gripped my throat and pulled me backwards.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

English Breakfast

"The artist, Geraldinium, has installed an electric kettle and a large teapot..." began the opening sentence of the codebook. Emma, head of the Secure Service, looked up at her codemaster and frowned.
"How is this supposed to work?" she said, raising pencilled-in eyebrows and pushing mousy-brown hair back with a freckled hand. "Do these words all mean something special, and the order they go in then conveys the message?"
"No." The codemaster, who referred to himself as Alpha, shook his head for emphasis. "This is a multi-stage polyalphabetic quasi-Playfair cypher, which we then embed steganographically in artwork, typically that created by Geraldinium Holmes, and export back to the Sisterland. It's not for emergency messages, we use standard quantum cryptographic algorithms and secure channels of communication for that, but for ordinary messages we seek ways of passing them back that aren't even suspected as being such."
"So is this part of the code, or just background information?"
"Both." Alpha smiled thinly, his teeth just visible behind stretched red lips. "Use the first four words to set...." His voice droned on, and at one point he started drawing a geometric diagram on a napkin he must have brought into the office with him. Emma let her eyes rest on him, but she wasn't listening anymore. Hanging above her desk, behind Alpha, was a painting by Geraldinium Holmes entitled "Chihuahua reaching for cake", and Emma dearly wanted to know if there was a hidden message in it now.
"...eighty-eight miles an hour," said Alpha, and stopped talking.
"Right, that's good then," said Emma. She pointed at her painting. "Is that a steganographical message then?"
"You weren't listening," said Alpha reproachfully. His eyes seemed to dull slightly. "I just quoted three minutes of Back to the Future, and you didn't notice."
"Right," said Emma. "But the painting behind you?"
Alpha turned to look at it. "Is just a painting," he said. "Geraldinium does produce some original artworks, you can usually tell them because they're execrable."
"I rather liked it," said Emma, who'd paid for it herself. "Not a coded message then?"
"No," said Alpha. "I could have it checked for you though, but you wouldn't get it back. In one piece."
"Right, that's a no, then, thankyou," said Emma. "Now, tell me again what I'm supposed to do when Geraldinium, in this little story here, discovers that there's no hot water in the kettle because the chihuahua had drunk it all?"

Saturday, 16 April 2011


They deleted him from the system before they gave the order for him to be killed. It was a mistake that they shouldn't have been able to make, but once they'd made it, it was impossible for them to track it down. They had no way to stand outside the system and review it, and they didn't know about the system logs. The man who did, was the man they'd deleted and then ordered killed.
The robo-delenda awoke in section twelve and checked their orders. They downloaded the serial number for the terminee, selected weapons, and rolled out of their cubicles. His tracking beacon relayed its position on request, and they closed in. He was in a hospital.
The waiting room was almost empty, there was one man sat in a chair, looking relaxed but alert. The robo-delenda ignored him, rolled past, and through the double doors, still looking for their target. Their target, the man in the waiting room, smiled now, aware that his modifications to the system had had their intended effect, and had gone undetected. He stood up, left the hospital, and crossed the plaza outside to a skyscraper office building. He paused at the door; now that he was deleted from the system he had no access rights. He pressed the door entry button anyway, and waited while his retinas were scanned.
Inside the hospital, the robo-delenda located their new target, the person who'd been given the serial number previously belonging to the man. The baby was two days old, and being tended by nurses who did their best to save its life. The robo-delenda were unstoppable.
The doors opened. The access button had, the system believed, been pressed by no-one, since there was no match for the retina pattern. Therefore it was safe to open the doors. The man went inside, and found the lifts.
An alarm was flagged up in the system. No child under the age of five could be scheduled for deletion, yet two robo-delenda had just deleted such a child. The only cause could be corruption in their programming.
Still in the hospital nursery ward, the robo-delenda opened fire on each other, new orders coming in.
At the top of the building was an unsecured terminal with system access. Something else that was supposed not to exist, but this building was only accessible by the very-highly trusted, usually escorted by robo-delenda in case that trust was misplaced. The man sat down.
The system registered that more children were dying in the fire-fight and sent auto-destruct sequences to the robo-delenda. The explosion destroyed the entire hospital.
The man looked out of the window at the burning wreckage, and then rested his fingers on the keyboard. For a moment he wondered if he was doing the right thing, and then he decided he didn't care any more. Society shouldn't be ruled by robots.
He typed "exit" on the keyboard and tapped the enter key.


Four of us were sat in the clubhouse, at a table that had seen better days, on chairs that had seen better years. The barman, who had clearly seen better decades, was failing to deliver our drinks. Egbert, whose golf score had been highest making him the wallet for the evening, was frowning hard.
"Why's he not moving?" he said for the third time, half-raising from his chair. "It's not like a Tom Collins is hard to make, and it is on the cocktail list."
"The ladies' cocktail list," said Damian, who thinks he's witty and has a secret stack of rejection letters from Private Eye.
I, who had of course won our little golf-foursome, spun a barmat idly on one corner and waited as patiently as I could. Unlike Egg, who got up and went over to the bar to make some noise. Damian promptly moved Egg's chair to another table, and shuffled his round to make it look like we were a trio.
"He'll notice," I said. "Even Egg will notice that his chair's missing."
"We can all pretend we don't know him, though!"
"The barman's on the floor, very pale and frothing," said Egg as he hurried across the floor. "What should we do?"
"Call an ambulance," said Tim, the practical one.
"On the way to another bar," I said, for once the more practical one.
And so it was that we arrived at a nearby gastropub, pulling into the carpark just as an ambulance shot by in the other direction, sirens blaring and lights flashing. The pub was called the 'The Hare's Hind' which is probably supposed to be clever somehow. We went in anyway.
"No drinks without food," said the woman behind the bar, whose hair was pulled back so tightly it had ironed all the wrinkles out of her face, leaving her looking stretched and shiny like good bagel dough. "This is a respectable establishment, and you gentlemen in your... trendy... shorts look like you'd like it to stay that way."
"I told you plus-fours were a bad idea!" Damian gave Egg a filthy look, but said nothing back. "Can we see the menu then?"
The menu was passed to me very quickly, and I passed it back laughing heartily at the joke. The bagel-faced woman put it my hands again, and told me it was no joke.
"This is cuisine," she said, mispronouncing cuisine quite inventively.
"Fine, fine," I said, remembering that Egg was paying. "Let's have the Grilled Yoghurt then for starters, the Scared Squid for mains, and... why not? The Tiramacaroonsu for desserts."
Good grilled yoghurt is yoghurt flavoured by grilled meat with the meat then thriftily removed and served to some other customer, with the chef hoping that nobody realises he's serving the same starter to two different people. This grilled yoghurt was yoghurt that had been heated on a panini press for three minutes, and was almost certainly lethal if you tried eating it. I advised putting it aside, and drinking our drinks instead.
I'd expected that the scared squid would turn out to be a typo for seared squid but I was wrong. Instead of hot, spicy encrusted pieces of squid with char marks from the grill and a piquant dressing, perhaps served on the side in darioles, we were presented with a sickly-looking live squid that the waiter then shouted at and waved knives near for three minutes. Finally I told him that it simply wasn't scared enough and he should take it back. We drank a little more.
Tiramisù, as most people seem to know now, is Italian for pick-me-up, but what we were served would have been far better called put-me-down. The normal sponge fingers had been replaced with lime-green macaroons, made soggy with coffee and Kahlua. A smear of mascarpone and a dusting of cocoa sat on top of this, which was then sandwiched together with yet more soggy macaroons, this time beetroot red.
We carried on drinking, listening as the wail of the ambulance sirens came back and faded once more into the distance.
"Come here again?" asked Damian, and Egg nodded happily; the cocktails were actually very good.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Deer Park

The mountains are empty now, cleared first by soldiers and then by fire. The soldiers came in their thousands, roaming through the small pastures and shooting cattle, clambering over the rocks and tearing wildflowers from the soil by their roots. They stopped at the snowline and the Lieutenant ordered a head-count. Finding himself six men short, he declared that they had fallen off the side of the mountain and into the hands of the small gods, and then ordered the men to descend, checking for places they had missed on the way up.
At the foot, they set fires, and the wind fanned them and the flames ascended, burning what was wooden and not wet, drying out what was wet until it would burn. By that point, eighteen of the Lieutenant's men were in the hands of the small gods.
No-one comes here any more, but you can still hear the voices of the dispossessed. The mining project that the mountain was needed for dug into the side of the mountain, tunneling to its heart, and then stopped. Miners would not go into the tunnel and those who did often did not come out again. Voices whispered that the mountain was cursed, and they brought first one priest, then two, then twenty. Twenty frightened men circled the mountain, chanting prayers of appeasement and burning costly aromatic herbs. At the mouth of the tunnel an animist waited, checking with his spirits and listening to what they said. When all the priests had returned and were huddled together back in their rusty little van he shook his head sadly and said that the spirits were still angry.
But other ores were found elsewhere, and so the mountain was abandoned, left alone with just a gaping wound in its side that lead towards its heart.
Sunlight falls now, passing through the branches of trees that have grown since the fire, warming coloured mosses that grow amongst the branches and feed on the feet of birds and insects that are unwary enough to walk upon them. A clear sticky liquid with hallucinogenic properties drips from them when they've eaten, leaving sparkling trails of light in the darkness. One day, people will move back close enough to the mountain to see the fairy trails and seek them out.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


The barman tried to guess the Blonde's weight. You can, loyal readers, imagine how that went down. Anchors have slipped into the sea slower; hungry tigers in the lamed-wildebeest rehabilitation sanctuary have reacted slower and with less ferocity. And it didn't stop him.
Letrice is a small restaurant just off Greek Street that took us a ridiculous amount of time to find. The Blonde had insisted first on downloading a map and directions from the web and second on following them to the letter. Common sense was thrown overboard and her usual impeccable sense of direction jettisoned as she stared at her (slight tatty) piece of A4 paper with its grey-scale map and terse, enumerated instructions and attempted to follow them.
"Through here!" she insisted, pointing imperiously at the front-door of Brindisa after counting off the number of feet we'd travelled under her breath.
"It's a shop, I don't think we can go through," I remonstrated, and she waved her piece of paper in my face aggressively.
"The map says we go through here!"
The man behind the bar turned out to be someone I used to drink with until the early hours of the morning in Soho House when we were both younger, and he correctly interpreted my roll of the eyes as meaning that the Blonde was to be humoured, and so we stumbled through a stock-room fragrant with curing spice that reminded me of a summer in Morocco, out into a narrow back-yard, over a wall that reminded me how athletic the Blonde is when she's in the mood, and into a church-yard.
"This is the wrong place," she announced. "We have to go back and start again."
I took the map from her (gently) and looked at it myself. "This is a map of London from the 1940's," I said. "Things have changed a little since then."
She was going to sulk, but luckily I thought to ask her where Greek Street was and she cheered up immediately, pointing without even looking in what would, of course, prove to the be right direction.
Finally in the restaurant the maître'd took our coats and the Blonde hung on to her handbag for dear life and we were directed to the bar because, despite being five minutes late, our table still wasn't ready. And so it was that we discovered that the barman had been a fairground barker in a previous life and had a death-wish.
"ROLL UP, ROLL UP, GUESS THE WEIGHT OF THE LADY!" he bellowed as I sat down and the Blonde headed back to the door. It took all of my (considerable) powers of persuasion to get her to sit down, which I now deeply regret. The barman served us a distinctly inferior champagne, and made a first guess at the Blonde's weight. She, in turn, took a first swing at his head.
We were seated only after an expensive bribe and reassurances for the Blonde that the barman would not be allowed near her, and assurances from her that she wouldn't go near the barman. The menu was brought, and I turned to the starters
"The crab ravioli sounds... well, it sounds banal, but I think I could write something interesting about it if it isn't awful," I said. "And look, there's a pâté forestiere if you're interested?"
There was silence. I ventured to peer over the menu hoping that she was engrossed in the wine-list. I was close; she was engrossed in constructing a Molotov cocktail from a napkin, the vase on the table that had contained a single orchid, and the remnants of her martini. I waved the waiter over and asked him to give me one of everything with crab in it and to bring it as a takeaway. He started to sniff dismissively, and then the Blonde launched her firebomb at the bar, just missing his head in the process. His sniff turned into a splutter, and then he and I were walking very quickly into the kitchen and away from the warzone.
The crab ravioli was definitely not worth writing about. Very banal.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Mariner's Angel

They won't let me see my ex-wife; they say she's not in any fit state. They will let me look at the baby, which is in an anonymous crib in a room with twenty-three other anonymous cribs and a large viewing window. Nurses move up and down the rows, smoothing blankets, checking for signs of cot death (I can only hope that when it happens they start shouting 'Code Blue!' but I suspect they don't), and generally looking after the babies. I can tell which crib Julie's baby is in because the crib is oddly ornamented. When I asked about that the nurse's face went vacant, and she drooled until I went away. I hid round the corner and watched, and her face took a good minute to unslacken after I'd left, so whatever hit her was intended to keep her out for a while.
I've seen ornamentation like that before, and that's part of the reason I'm not describing the child as my baby. I don't think I had anything to do with it, not directly anyway. But I remember the ornamentation from the desert.
I was walking more or less south, it was just afternoon and I was heading towards the sun. The sand underfoot was so hot my ankles felt like they were cooking, and the breeze only seemed to go as far down as my knees. There was no shelter around though, and I wanted to leave the desert now, so I wasn't pitching the tent in daylight. Then I took a step and a hole opened in the sand before me.
I froze, before I realised that the perspective had changed and I was stood at the top of a slope down into a valley. Again, the sand became sandstone as I descended, and the at the bottom was a narrow trickle of water in a stone channel. I tasted it warily, and it was clean and cold, so I refilled my water cannister and looked around. To my astonishment, there was a small boat sitting on the bed of the valley. Its hull was the same colour as the sand, and from anywhere else it would probably have been invisible. I went over to take a look.
I think I could have jumped and grabbed hold of the railing on the side, but there was a rope knotted at intervals hanging down so I pulled myself up that way. On the deck, I stopped.
Tied to the mast, looking tired and thirsty, was a man with an ageless face, eyes as green as jealousy, lips as red as a television vampire's and the soft glow of applied electromagnetism all around his back and shoulders. When he saw me his eyes glistened, and the glow solidified briefly into thousands of softly bristling feathers. He was an angel, an electromagnetic angel.
He croaked, and I held out the water cannister, making sure not to touch his fingers as we exchanged it. While he drank I walked round him; the wire binding him to the mast was copper, there was a grey cube at the base of the mast behind him, almost surely a field generator, and there were earthing wire tied to manacles around his ankles.
"Thank-you," he said, holding out the cannister. I took it back; it was empty.
"Why are you here?" I said.
"The Mariner has tied me here to bring luck for his voyages," said the angel. He didn't sound angry or upset, nor even resigned. He sounded matter-of-fact.
"Seems like a dangerous thing to do, leaving you on your own like this."
"It's been three years and two days."
I knew I shouldn't; I'd seen so much in this desert already that I knew I should have walked away and minded my own business, but I reached out to the grey cube and turned the field generator off.
"Take this." The angel threw a coin to me, and I slipped it into a pocket. Then I jumped down from the boat, ran to the stream to refill the cannister, and hurried back out of the valley from the direction I'd entered. I kept my back turned when the light got brighter and brighter and I knew that the angel was hovering on unseen fields of electromagnetic energy behind me, freed from his prison at last. Finally it faded away, and I took the coin out of my pocket and looked at it. It was covered in tiny, dense carvings of strange aquatic things that seemed to have built a city and be inhabiting it. The more I looked at it, the more I felt drawn into it, so I put it away, but not without wondering who -- or what -- the Mariner was.
Those same carvings are now all over the baby's crib, and no-one wants to talk about how they got there.

Powdered cupcakes

The bus wasn't moving. I know, you're wondering what I was doing on the bus instead of in a taxi, or balanced on the shoulders of some homeless person I was whipping to run faster; something less common denominator. I wish there were some selfless, even altruistic, reason for it, but the simple fact is that my editor had peered over the top of her affected pince-nez glasses a couple of weeks ago and asked me if I'd consider giving up my expense account for Lent. Naturally I laughed.
"Seriously," she said, lifting the glasses off and rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Look at this, you've expensed a Louis Vuitton handbag and a... a replica Charlie Chaplin bowler hat for the last story alone. Yes," she held a hand up in front of my face, "I know they were both referenced in the piece. But you're a restaurant critic. Your expenses should consist of transport and food."
"Er, there should be some transport expenses in there," I said.
"We're not paying for your flight to New York."
"I see."
"So, if you won't give up expenses for Lent, how about using public transport for it instead? And before you ask, taxis don't count. Buses, trains, and whatever madness the Mayor of London has up his sleeve for the next quarter. Hmmm?"
I acquiesced, partly from lack of choice and partly so I could use the word acquiesce in my next column when telling you all about this. This explains, at least, why I was on the bus, but not why the bus wasn't moving.
Somewhere ahead of us a fat woman with numerous Tesco's carrier bags had shed her load; eggs and milk were mingling in the gutter, the cheapest, whitest economy loaf possible was floating downstream and a rogue melon, which I can only assume she intended to wear as a hat, was racing for Waterloo Bridge. And instead of getting out of the way of the traffic and bewailing her fate like a hired mourner on the pavement she was bending over, clutching ineffectually at a hand of bananas green enough to be mistaken for celery and waving her free hand behind her as though to prevent us from mowing her down.
"In my day," said the driver who appeared to be sixteen, "we'd have run her down."
"This is my day," I said. "We still can."
I exited the bus with ill-grace, resisted the temptation to hire some students as sedan-chair bearers, and forced myself to walk to the restaurant. The blonde was already there, stood outside with a martini glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, looking irritated. I took both, finished both, and we went in.
The restaurant was ill-lit and appeared to have been furnished by Helen Keller's parents; wide avenues between narrow tables that were bolted to the floor; corners rounded off and provided with little rubber cushions and chairs that appeared to be predominantly macrame.
"Let's just pretend we ate here," said the Blonde surveilling the room. She put her sunglasses back on. "And then never tell anyone."
The waiter was helpful and the menu was very focused. The first eight dishes all made use of celery; the same stick of celery as far as I could tell. Parts of it were braised in ox blood, other parts were juiced and condensed and served as a micro-soup; the leaves were dipped in sodium alginate and congealed inside a wine-glass that then had a hemi-demi-semi-snifter of Pernod dripped inside.
"I'll have the fish," I said, finally spotting something that resembled a main course.
"I'll have the celery," said the Blonde.
"Which one?" the waiter asked politely.
"All of it."
The main courses were just as fussy, and when we'd sent the medaillons of veal with essence of mirepoix and London Haze back three times because it was cold the waiter told us that the microwave appeared to be on the blink and would we like something else. I elected for dessert, for which there was apparently no choice.
"What's this?" The blonde poked at the mound of crumbs on the plate the waiter had reverently set in the middle of the table.
"Powdered cupcake," he said. "This way you get frosting and cake in every mouthful."
"And how do I take a mouthful?" she enquired. There were neither forks nor spoons provided.
"Ah, lick your fingers...." The waiter withdrew a step or two as he saw the dark look form on her face.
"I think," I said quickly, "I'd like to see the bill now. And I expect there'll be as little of it as there's been edible food this evening."