Friday, 29 July 2011

News of the weak

"Darling," said my editor, leaning over my desk. Her blouse was open a little too far, and I could see that she was wearing a grey, stretched-looking bra that surely wasn't supportive enough. "We should do lunch."
I ran through the possibilities quickly: this couldn't be important or she'd have either buttoned her blouse up or worn a better bra, but equally she rarely invited me anywhere, let alone to lunch. I concluded that this was going to be about that female blogger, Rosemary, again.
"Sure," I said, forcing a smile. "Burger King?"
"Good grief, no! You're a food critic, we'll go to wherever you're reviewing next. This should be a business lunch."
I was a little alarmed now, as it was becoming clear that my editor was planning on watching how I conducted my analyses and reviews, and decided to head things off at the pass.
"This is about that blogger, Rosemary, isn't it?" I said. "Don't tell me that you're actually listening to her complaints?"
To her credit, my editor laughed. "We can't listen to all of her complaints," she said. "She filled up the voicemail service before she'd finished. We're getting them transcribed though, we think we can put them in the Christmas magazine as an example of the kinds of madness we have to deal with sometimes. She's also written us a forty-page letter, did you know? And posted a hundred-and-fifty thousand word essay on her blog."
"Good grief!"
"Yes, exactly. We're still considering hiring her though, if we can get her to sign off on a fairly heavy editing policy. Someone that crazy will generate a certain kind of audience, the obsessive kind who never stop buying the paper to read what she's written next."
"Good grief!"
"Quite. So, no, lunch isn't about that, or about your increasingly bizarre expenses claims, or even the fact that you don't seem to have found a restaurant anyone can actually eat at in the last two months. It's... an internal matter."


The waiter presented us with a menu that appeared to have been hand-written on card torn from a corn-flakes packet.
"I'll have... well, the starter," I said, as there was only one listed, "the beef, and for dessert... the dessert." I passed the card to my editor, who concurred with my choices, and the waiter disappeared before I could ask if they had a wine menu.
"A little primitive," I said, "but let's see what the food is like. So, what's this internal matter then?"
"There's a little bit of a scandal about to break," said my editor. "It seems that certain journalists, whose names aren't to be mentioned, might have been stealing people's mobile phones, listening to their messages, and then 'finding' those phones again and returning them."
"That doesn't sound too good, certainly," I said. A plate of foie gras and brioche with a hint of salad was deposited rudely in front of me, but the smell had me salivating like a Pavlovian hound.
"Well, it's not illegal, exactly, but given the current climate, it's not something we'd really like to have to explain."
"Stealing's not illegal?" I said, a little indistinctly. The food was heavenly.
"Well, that bit might be, I suppose, but that's very hard to prove. The rest isn't really very illegal."
"Have you been talking to our lawyer again?" That woman was as twisty as a corkscrew, and about as attractive even in a good light.
"It was necessary, she thought you were one of the journalists."
"!" There was no way I was spitting food this good out, no matter how shocked I was, so I chewed, swallowed, and only then glared at my editor.
"Well, you're abrasive, you make strange expense claims, she thought you were just rather ineptly covering your tracks."
"So... does she now know that I'm not?"
"Not exactly."
I glared at her, interrupted only by the waiter leaning over me to take my plate away.
"Well," she said. "This is kind of why we're still entertaining Rosemary."
I raised an eyebrow and refused to comment.
"We're going to get her onboard, and then use her as our scapegoat. She's unpleasant enough that people will love to see her getting her comeuppance. But we need you to agree to hiring her, since she'll be in your department. There might be a little overspill of blame, but we'll be behind you 100%."
"I'd prefer you to be 100% in front of me," I said. "This is blackmail."
My editor nodded, and tried to look ashamed.
"Fine," I said, making a quick decision. "But no more questions about my expenses."
"We'll double the limit before we question them," she said quickly.
I think she might have held out longer, but then the beef arrived and neither of us wanted to be that close to something that smelled that good and not be eating it, so we shook hands and the deal was sealed.
And I finally had a restaurant so good I could recommend it. Which I'm not doing, as I'd like to be able to keep going back there myself, so I'm keeping it a secret.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Hounds of Love

I shone the pocket torch on the lock, scanning it back and forth to build up an image in my mind of what I was looking at. The torch's beam was a circle about as large as my thumbprint, to reduce the chances of anyone else seeing the light. Bill, standing behind be and holding the velvet-lined leather bag with our tools in, sighed softly, reflectively.
"You know, it'd be kind of cool to own a kennel," he said quietly. I held my hand out, and he dropped an electronic probe into it.
"You can get them from garden centres, I think," I said. "Or build your own of course, it's not like they're big or difficult. Hell, maybe we could go the whole hog and get an architect to design us one!"
"Not that kind of kennel! A kennel, like a stable. A collection of dogs."
"I'm pretty sure they're called packs," I said. The tool beeped softly, confirming that there was a voltage flowing somewhere inside the lock. I handed it back to Bill and asked for an isolator core.
"Well, whatever they're called. It'd be pretty cool to own one of them. What architect?"
"James," I said, realising I needed a fixative as well. Bill located it in the toolbag. "Why do you want this pack of dogs then? They'll probably view you as the runt of the litter and dominate you completely. Oh... this isn't your Temple of Love again, is it?"
"No! Jesus, a guy dares to dream and you go and drag his dreams down to the sewers. No, these are Hounds of Love."
I finished locking the isolator core in place and indicated I needed a nine volt battery. My silence was eloquent enough.
"Not like that Temple! No, these are Hounds of Love. I'd hire them out to people who wanted to find love, a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, and the dogs would race off and find people who could be compatible. Then, like Lassie they'd communicate, and people would say things like, 'What's that? There's someone who loves me waiting to meet me?'"
"Bill," I said in as even a tone as I could manage. "Think about this. You're proposing to let loose a pack of dogs who'll pounce on people, pinning them to the ground and slobbering on them, to tell them that a complete stranger is infatuated with them and plans to lock them in a small room and do unspeakable things to them day after day after day–" The lock clicked and I shut up. A moment later, a very quiet hiss told me that the voltage in the lock had shut off.
"Impact punch," I said, holding my hand out.
"You make everything sound bad," said Bill. "It wouldn't be like that."
"I've seen you trying to train things," I said, grunting slightly as I worked on the lock. "It would be exactly like that. And exactly those kinds of people would be your customers. And I don't make everything sound bad, just things you're doing. Which reminds me, how's the mushroom girl?"
"What mushroom girl?" He sounded genuinely puzzled.
"Chanterelle? Shi'itake? Morel?" I guessed. The lock pinged unexpectedly and I scanned the torch rapidly over it again, and discovered that what I'd expected to be reinforced and anodised was actually a cheap aluminium cover.
"Oh, Morel. No, I'm seeing Pomodoro now. Her name means 'Golden Apple,' how beautiful is that?"
I stifled a giggle and wrenched. The lock resisted for a moment and then slid out into my hand. I handed it back to Bill, and opened the door.
"Is she red-faced and slightly overweight?" I said. We walked down the corridor, our footsteps clicking slightly on the tiles.
"Well... hey, why?"
"Pomodoro means tomato in Italian, so I'd imagine she's red and squishy. Jesus, Bill, you're paying for these girls. Can't you afford ones with real names?"
He said nothing, but the corridor had widened into a room now, an exhibition space with the painting that we'd come to liberate standing on steel easels. We had work to do.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Piccadilly Throne

Bright lights cascaded around him and he instinctively put his hands over his head. Like silent fireworks, they exploded around him, each new burst of colour stabbing into his eyes like icicles. His head ached, his eyes hurt, and even thinking seemed painful now as though the synaptic pathways had been damaged and ruptured. He let loose a low moan, a primal connection to the pain he was feeling, and felt the ground meet his knees. Then he let himself fall over and put his hands up, trying pathetically to push the colours away.


A few feet away a tourist turned around, his camera held up obscuring his face. He saw the young man on the ground, writhing slowly, possibly having a seizure, and reached up to adjust the focus on his lens. The camera pointed at the young man like some strange mechanical proboscis and the tourist's finger began to depress the shutter release.


Something woke in the back of the young man's head. Another colour exploded, a shower of tiny green stars tasting of mint, but this time he didn't flinch.
Who are you? asked a voice, and he replied with his name, Nicholas. For a long moment he was surprised that he could remember it.
Why did you come here? asked the voice. Nicholas – Nick, he thought – paused, but the voice rifled through his mind and memories, sorting out relevant images and discarding ones it didn't like. For a moment there was a blur and a smeared sensation of pain, as though all his nerves were jangling in competition, then an image of his sister wearing her graduation gown. The focus on the image changed and he became aware of the background, of the caryatid columns behind her that had somehow all turned to face her and watch. Then the image dissolved in a blaze of static which in turn was replaced with an image of his father's funeral. A coffin was lowered into the grave and handfuls of mud were cast on top. But now he saw clearly; there were no mourner's near the grave, no-one throwing the mud save the earth itself. More images followed, all seemingly of one thing but always the background details resolved into something else, something bigger and potentially more interesting.
Finally the images ceased and his mind felt as though it had been raked through; his scalp blazed with criss-crossing lines of pain.
Thrones are not inherited, said the voice which was starting to sound disturbingly like his own. There was a hint of a tremble in it that hadn't been there at the start, something that reminded him of his own constant struggle to overcome his stutter.
Thrones are earned, said the voice. And you want the Piccadilly throne?
He tried to nod, but couldn't feel enough of his body to know if he succeeded. The voice seemed to understand anyway though.
So what did you bring to substantiate your claim? asked the voice, and again there was a sensation of violation, of things in his head being broken apart without his permission, and then there, front and centre of his mind was all that he'd brought with him.
The vial containing the blood of Anteros.


The shutter release depressed and the tourist took a picture of the young man, millions of photo-sensitive cells recording the instant of ascension.


Nick felt the vial shatter even though it was safely wrapped in cotton wool in a sturdy cardboard box. The voice tried to recoil, but as it had taken on his aspect, so now it was trapped inside his head. The colours around him exploded again and again, harder and brighter than before but to no avail; now they were contained within him, made part of him, gave strength to him.
He sat up, hearing the roar of traffic and feeling it, viscerally, through his skin. The buildings around him felt like part of him; he was sure that if he made the choice he could lift an arm vaster than any of his own limbs and shake the streets and buildings with his power. He had, without a doubt, claimed the Piccadilly Throne as his own.


The tourist turned away, the camera vanishing from his face and into a bag, the act of theft concealed from the only person it could matter to. And though Nick looked around him and saw the tourist, though there was a momentary flicker of recognition, it passed and the tourist faded away into the crowd with his prize.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
Phlebitis stands before the London Bridge.
So many travel its ancient stones,
Their feet wearing paths to the City's many thrones,
And yet none of those who pass him by
Acknowledge him, and he needs not ask why
For all carry a stone chained 'round their neck
That describes the day they died.

Saint Mary Woolnoth still keeps the hours,
Her dead chimes ringing as mechanical and soulless
As all the folk that cross the bridge,
Save one.
Phlebitis, though he fears he may be undone
Has braved the fog and the treacherous way,
And now stands upon the London Bridge,
Amidst a crowd of the curious dead.

And there he spies one who once he knew,
An erstwhile member of his ship's poor crew.
"Haregebo!" he spits,
The very name a curse upon his lips.
A grey-skinned head must slow arise,
An unearthly light glowing in its eyes,
And Phlebitis, uncaring, continues on,
Upbraiding a man whose spirit's long gone.

"Haregebo, you rogue, you lying wretch!
Stand you alone amongst the men you were sent to fetch?
These corpses here were planted by you,
In the garden where things never grew.
The frost came and raked across the soil,
Wolves howled at the door,
And Famine stalked my porch for weeks.
You are as unfaithful a servant as I have ever had,
And to see you here dead; well I am glad."
But what Phlebitis cannot bring himself to say,
Is that even in death
A familiar face makes easier the way.

And so to the City, the Unreal City,
Phlebitis returns with heavy heart and leaden steps.
The City Directors still sit in state,
The City Directors still lie in wait,
And the Phoenician Sailor who can't know his fate,
Stands at last at the southern gate.

The nymphs have departed

The wind was cold but silent, tugging at Phlebitis's sleeves and the tails of his untucked shirt. It seemed to find all the gaps between his clothes, sliding icy fingers down his back and along the underside of his arms until goosebumps rose. He shivered, wishing that he'd not left his coat behind in the city. Even so, he thought, it was a small price to pay to have managed to leave unseen, undiscovered by the strange coterie of men who called themselves the City Directors. The wind tugged a little harder at his shirt and he tucked it in again, knowing that it would pull free when he started walking once more.
He stood on a gravelled path just inside a wood or forest; he'd not been able to see clearly from the path behind just how large the expanse of trees was. The leaves all around him were the colours of autumn and here and there were small drifts against the tree trunks; red and gold turning to a dead and dessicated brown. He'd been hoping that the trees would shield him somewhat from the wind, but it was contriving to blow past them and tickle him still.
He'd stopped because he'd found a small sign, a wooden rectangle neatly nailed to a tree. Carven into it, with something hot that had charred and blackened the wood, were the words "The nymphs have departed." As he looked at, reading and re-reading the words, he felt a sense of hopelessness settle on him like fog falling from the sky and hiding the road ahead. The last time he'd felt like this had been as he'd left Madame Sosotris with a future that he'd paid for and couldn't understand. Slowly, he was learning what it was that she'd told him only in the most oblique terms. And the nymphs, he knew, were somehow associated with Belladonna, our Lady of the Rocks.
Sighing in concert with the wind he started forward again, following the path with weary footsteps. He'd spent seven days in the city, only intending to be there a couple of hours but unable to find his way out. Streets that seemed straight turned subtly, winding back on themselves and leaving him where he'd started, confused and dizzy; while streets that clearly went nowhere somehow stretched out and branched when he walked along them, offering new places to be lost in and dark rooming houses where saturnine landladies tapped fat fingers against shiny timepieces with a look of menace in their eyes. At certain junctions he smelled the unforgettable stench of boiled frog, and at certain others there was a faint haze in the air that tingled against his skin. And then, finally, he'd come to a square where the City Directors sat together at a trestle table in the open air. A white tablecloth failed to cover the whole table, and set upon it were seven crystal glasses filled to a quivering brim with red wine. As he watched, lurking in a shadow in a doorway, they'd lifted their glasses and stood, chiming them together with a cheer and a toast to the end of summer.
He'd fled then, and been running ever since. A young boy with no teeth had taken pity on him and shown him a street that only appeared when you walked through a gate into a garden that then didn't exist. Looking at the urchin, seeing the desperation in his eyes, Phlebitis had slipped the coat from his back, checking the pockets first and taking the last of the jade statuettes from them, and given it to the lad. There was a flicker of gratitude and a shadow of shame on his face when he accepted. Phlebitis had barely taken another ten steps before the lad reappeared and handed him a verdigrised copped coin, worthless everywhere except inside the city. Only then did the streets straighten out and behave themselves, and as Phlebitis reached the southern gate at last he heard rumours from the travelling-folk that the City Directors were hunting for a sailor.
The wind, still silent, rose as he walked forward, listening always for the sound of water and a path back to the sea. It pulled his shirt loose, then blustered it around, lifting it up and trying to tear it from his skinny torso. Leaves rustled an angry sussuration, finally pulling free from the trees and swirling about him in an autumn blizzard. As he struggled onward, pushing against the wind into the leaf-storm, all he could think was how it seemed as though the air were bleeding.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Dinner with Rosemary

From the outside, the restaurant didn't look as dilapidated as the web-site photos had led me to fear. To be fair, I'd deliberately only looked at the photos presented on the Rosemary's Kitchen blog in order to give the blog its fair shake of the dice and I'd carefully not checked the restaurant's actual website, or gone looking for any other reviews. I studied the facade carefully, and checked the print-out I'd brought with me, and decided that whoever had taken the pictures was not a good photographer, and hadn't had a good camera.
Inside, the maître'd greeted me looking bilious and I declined to shake his hand. I explained that I was meeting Rosemary d'Artichaud for a meal and he grimaced.
"Your acquaintance is already here," he said. "Shall I take you to her table?"
I nodded, a little puzzled by his question which seemed to leave open the option of fleeing the restaurant and standing her up. He grimaced again, picked up a paper menu, and escorted me over.
The restaurant was half-full, and the people sat at the other tables were all thin, pale and looked faintly miserable. No-one was laughing, and the conversations were quiet, people leaning in to talk to one another. Several of them looked very intense, and one man stared at me in a very hostile fashion as we walked past his table. The maître'd left me at my table with visible haste, and I was regarded by a thin, pale woman with shoulder-length dark hair, dark circles under her eyes and black lipstick. I smiled. She didn't.
"I'm very pleased to meet you," I said, offering my hand. She ignored it, her mouth pursing into a thin line.
"Meet," she said in clipped tones. "A very typical masculine way to describe things, with the clear emphasis on an alternative spelling with heavy socio-sexual overtones."
"Right," I said. "You invited me to this dinner and suggested I might like to review this restaurant. Did I misunderstand?"
"Aggressive," she said. "Again, an attempt to establish alpha-male status upon arrival. Frankly, I'm surprised you haven't got your cock out and starting pissing on the furniture."
"Before dinner?" I said, making one last attempt at levity. The look on her face was enough, and I turned round to leave.
"Sit!" she said. "And keep your put-upon attitude to yourself. I'd like to show you that it's possible to write a review without resorting to your typical chauvinist clichés and hyper-macho posturing. You can write reviews like the ones I put up on my blog."


And this was, in essence, why I was here. My editor had received an email from Rosemary d'Artichaud excoriating us for an unnecessarily aggressive style of restaurant reporting that seem more interested in describing my inability to have normal human relations and less about the food or making recommendations, or even telling people about places they might like to eat.
'Your last review left me almost unwilling to eat!' she'd bleated, completely missing, in my opinion, the point that the restaurant had left me unwilling to eat as well.
"You should meet this woman," said my editor, and I realised that I should write down Rosemary's response to my using the word meet so I could repeat it back to my editor. "See what she's got to say, see if we can perhaps use her. She could write complementary reviews to yours, we could offer a professional vs punter style thingy."
I objected until she assured me that my word count would remain the same, and then conceded only mildly ungraciously.


I sat down, a little warily. All the cutlery appeared to still be on the table, and her handbag was very slightly out of reach. It appeared to have been made from macrame and was rather tatty.
"Please, order what you like from the menu," she said. She had no menu in front of her, so I offered to share mine. She turned me down with a simple look of disgust. "I eat here regularly," she said. "They know what I like."
They also, it seemed, knew what I didn't like. A quick scan of the menu failed to turn up anything with meat in it, and a more careful perusal showed me that the menu was almost completely vegan, with only two items including dairy. This, I thought, explained the lack of happiness in the room.
"Perhaps I'll let you order for me," I said, forcing a smile. "You could tell me what's particularly good."
"Let me order for you? Let me? How very generous and condescending, your Lordship! My, I feel so privileged, and overcome with awe for your beneficence! I wonder if I could ever be as wonderful and male as you!"
"Sex change operations are remarkably cheap these days," I said, knowing full well that this would probably get me ranted at for five minutes, but unable to resist. The rant lasted fifteen minutes, during which time she waved an anaemic waiter away thrice. Finally she finished and let the waiter approach.
She ordered several dishes, mostly legumes and nuts, but with one dish of stuffed peppers that sounded like it might be filling. When the waiter looked at me I nodded and requested the same.
"So," she said. "I'll be writing for your paper, in competition with your column then. I think this should be really quite easy. I get over three-thousand unique visits to my blog each day. Including weekends."
"It's not quite that simple," I said. "There are a number of things my editor, who's a woman by the way, would like you to change first."
Rosemary opened her mouth, but then paused as the fact my editor was a woman sank in.
"Firstly, she feels that your current style is a little militant and would need to be softened slightly to appeal to a wider audience."
"No," said Rosemary firmly. "My style is part of my appeal."
"Mmhmm," I said. "Yet the paper has a target demographic, and in the blog-post where you suggested that the children of meat-eaters should be part of the food-chain themselves, we found that our demographic do not think of themselves as either cannibals or willing to see children hurt. In a later post, where you suggested that veal-producers should be tortured to death, you not only mixed up methods of veal-production with methods of foie-gras production, but you went into quite graphic detail of what suffering you wanted to see. Our demographic felt that approving of this would make them feel like Hitler, which was a negative sentiment."
"These people should be made to understand how they rape the environment!" she screamed. Our waiter, delivering plates of clearly undercooked lentils, ignored her, apparently used to these outbursts.
"And your blog is undoubtedly the right outlet for that," I said. "My editor, who is a woman, would like you to be less incendiary and more aware of the economic needs of publication."
"Eat your lentils," she said, spooning a number into her mouth and crunching energetically. "These at least have been honestly obtained and cooked without harming anyone."
I managed a spoonful, and then put my spoon down.
"Seasoned with the very earth they sprang from," I said. "And pulled too soon. Would you compare them to aborted foetuses, do you think? Because that's probably inappropriate for the paper."
"These are delicious!" she snarled, spitting lentils at me and across the room. "They're al dente"
"They're badly undercooked and should have been washed first," I said. "You will need to know these kinds of things to be able to write reviews for the paper. Opinion may be ninety percent of our columns, but the remaining ten percent does require actual knowledge."
She threw the plate of lentils at me at that point, and I only just dodged it. I stood up.
"I'm leaving," I said. "I'll tell my editor about this meal and leave the decision up to her. But if I were you, I'd learn something about food."
As I left, the maître'd shook my hand and whispered something I didn't quite catch, but sounded like "Thank-you. She's such a bitch."

Saturday, 16 July 2011

In the time of butterflies

Giacamo broke the surface of the water in a sparkling, crystalline fountain which rained back down around him. High above the surface the butterflies clustered, tiny fragile wings beating rapidly, forming a cloud that blocked the sunlight and chilled the lake. For a moment they hung in the air while Giacamo breathed deeply, flushing his lungs of carbon dioxide and refilling them with oxygen, and then they plunged downwards as one, a descending mass of insectile life attacking a man.
Giacamo dropped beneath the surface again, his toes pointing downwards, his legs kicking and fighting against his natural buoyancy, pushing downwards until the light started to change and the water became colder. Then he tilted, adjusting his stance to the horizontal, and touched a control on the belt on his swimming trunks.
There was a muffled crump somewhere beneath the lake, a damped roar, and then the waters of the lake exploded upwards engulfing the butterflies. Their wings were soaked through and lost their lift, the force of the water stunned many of the insects and the rush seized the rest. In the midst of the water was a body, the concussed form of Giacomo. Then gravity seized the escaping liquid and pulled it back, body and butterflies dragged in with all the rest, pulled beneath the water and tossed and mangled in the turbulance. Waves still bobbed across the lake five minutes later crashing in tiny white foamlets on the edges.
Strong hands lifted Giacamo out of the water, brushing a butterfly wing from his face, and a sunburned face turned to lay an ear to his chest.
"He still lives," said the face hearing a heartbeat. "He has survived again."
"He always survives," said another voice, this one belonging to the rower of the boat that was rescuing Giacamo. "I don't know how he does it, he has a charmed life."
"We must be grateful," said the sun-burned face. "In this time of butterflies, he is the only reason we survive here at all."
"And for how much longer? What do we do when he doesn't survive the butterfly trap?"
"It is not time to talk of such th–"
"And when will it be?"
"Next time," said the sun-burned face slowly. "Next time."
"It's always next time, even when you call it something else! When is the next time?"
"Three days. The weather forecast is not good."
They both looked at Giacamo, his pale chest barely lifting as he breathed.
"He will have to be ready," said the sun-burned face with sadness. "This is a time of butterflies."

White Rabbit Syndrome

"I feel that there is a problem here," said Dr. Fraud. The blinds in his office had just been updated by the building manager to be remote controlled, and he pushed the little button on the control to close the blinds. They closed with a very satisfying whizz of noise.
"Aren't you supposed to solve problems, not find them?" said a voice from somewhere in the gloom.
"In order to solve your problems, I have to identify and classify them first," said Dr. Fraud, realising he couldn't see the buttons on the remote any more. He pushed one, hoping that it would open the blinds. They rotated to allow slants of light through the window, making the entire office feel as though it was behind bars on a sunny day. "And I think I may have identified one of your problems."
"I didn't come here to be told I have problems!" The second speaker was a woman dressed in what might have been a marquee. She was sitting on the floor, having broken the legs of the chaise longue when she'd tried sitting on that. Her legs were splayed in front of her like thick puffy rolls of bread dough. "Can you open the blinds please? I don't like the light like this."
"Really? It reminds me of the war," said Dr. Fraud peering at the remote. "Of course, I was on the other side of the bars then.... Where do you usually go to be told you have problems then?"
"I... what?" The woman might have looked shocked, but the fat padding her face made her look permanently cheerful.
"You said that you didn't come here to be told you have problems; where do you usually go?"
"I don't usually go anywhere!"
"Ah, so people come to you to tell you that you have problems?"
"No! No-one tells me I have problems!"
"So all your friends are manipulative liars? Are you happy with that, Alice?"
"Just open the damn blinds already!" Alice looked like she would have jumped up if she were a lighter woman, and Dr. Fraud was relieved that she didn't try. He hadn't yet convinced the building manager that he needed the floors reinforcing. He pushed another button on the blinds and, with a sad, metallic crash, they fell off their rails into heaps on the floor.
"I shall have to bill you for that," said Dr. Fraud immediately. "I think one of your problems, Alice, is that you have White Rabbit Syndrome."
"Is that myxamatosis? I'm pretty certain only rabbits can get that, and you don't look much like a vet to me."
"But how would you know, Alice? You don't even know why you come here, apparently. However, you are wrong again. White Rabbit Syndrome is a morbid fear of being late. You turn up here an hour before your appointed time, you drive my secretary to heroin addiction by constantly asking if you can see me before your appointed time, and you leave half-an-hour before your appointment is over so that if your bus is two minutes late you've compensated and got home before it even has the chance to delay you. Like the famous story, you're forever checking your watch and worrying about being late."
"Speaking of the time, Doctor,...."
Dr. Fraud sighed and pushed another button on the remote. Little motors whirred but nothing else happened.
"Very well," he said. "I shall see you next week at 8am."
"You don't open till nine!"
"And yet somehow I have this feeling that you will be stood outside the door to the building when I arrive at eight," said Dr. Fraud. "Pay my secretary on the way out, and not in cash please. He's started embezzling it to pay for his habit."

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Fray Bento

The Blonde had been re-reading T S Eliot's The Wasteland all week, and I'd been teasing her about it, asking her how many times she needed to read the same verse before she understood it. She'd taken it well for the first thirteen seconds, and then thrown the book at me. I dodged, it shattered a vase of flowers, and I took the opportunity to get out of the house and go vase shopping while she carried on reading the poem and occasionally consulting the dictionary.
When I returned with a new vase she had a deck of Tarot cards out and was frowning thoughtfully at them.
"I think they're broken," she said, pointing at the Tower. "This one keeps coming out upside down."
"The Tower?" I said, putting the vase on the table and picking up the flowers from where they'd fallen. "A symbol of strength and fortitude, assailed by outside forces."
"The lightning striking the tower is representative of the outside forces," I said. "When upside down, or inverted as Madame Sosotris would surely say, it indicates weakness and yielding, an ineffectual striking out at obstinate circumstance and the futile flailing of fists against outrageous fate."
The deck of cards narrowly missed me, hitting the vase and knocking it off the table, where it too promptly shattered.
"Shall we go and have lunch?" I suggested.

Fray Bento was an Argentine Sushi restaurant that my editor had been pestering me to visit for a few days now, and which I'd been procrastinating over. I was peripherally aware that Argentina was a South American country and probably had splashy coastal bits where fish might be found still fresh, but it was most strongly associated with beef in my mind. And the name of the restaurant was clearly intending to focus that assocation. When we walked in and saw the leather-covered banquettes and the mechanical rodeo horse I very nearly turned round and walked out again, certain that we'd stumbled into a steak-house by mistake.
If only.
The waiter seated us using the three words of English that he knew ("Heel!", "Sit!", "Beg!") and presented us with fish-shaped menus that were greasy to the touch. The Blonde, eager to show that she's not just a figure of physical perfection, thanked him in Spanish. He looked confused.
The menu featured some very classical sushi dishes, but looking closer I realised that I couldn't actually find any fish in them. The nigiri rolls were vegetarian, the sashimi turned out to carpaccio, and the Zaru Soba was served with Bovril rather than dashi. I waved at a different waiter and he turned his back on us, so I got the Blonde to flutter her eyelashes at another one. He hastened over.
"English?" I said, a little hesitant.
"Norwegian," he said in perfect English. "I suspect, however, that you were hoping to ask me if I were capable of speaking English."
"I was certainly hoping to patronise you more than you seem able to patronise me," I responded. "This menu, where's the fish? This is a sushi restaurant, and yet everything on here seems suspiciously beefy."
He nodded, much to my dismay. "Argentine sushi," he said slowly, carefully enunciating each word as though for a child, "Is a euphemism for beef. In the case of our chefs, corned beef. I'm told they corn it themselves."
The Blonde stood up and left without a word. She had a bad experience with corned beef when she was a child.
"I see," I said, aware that I still had a review to write. "Well, I guess that's better than buying in tinned corned beef."
The waiter's inclination of his head told me all I needed to know.
"Bring me whatever you'd personally recommend," I said, stressing the word personally.
He brought me the bill.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Madame Sosotris

Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyante, still had her bad cold. Phlebitis looked in dismay at her rheumy eyes, so watery he wondered if she sometimes thought she'd drowned, and shuddered to hear her ferocious sniff.
Every bloody time, he thought morosely. It doesn't matter what time of year I come, or how hot or cold it is, but that bloody woman always has that bloody cold. Does she keep it as some kind of bizarre pet? She looked up then, and he forced a smile onto his face.
"Madame Sosotris," he said almost pleasantly, "It is always a delight to see you again."
"I have a premonition coming on!" she said sharply, one wrinkled hand moving across her plucked-and-pencilled eyebrows. "You are going to ask me about... the future!"
"Does anyone ever ask you about anything else?"
"No," she said, dropping her hand and looking a little sad. "And it would be nice, if even only for once, someone asked me how I was, or if I'd been keeping well since the last time I saw them."
Phlebitis nodded. "I know what you mean," he said. "The crew on my ship all jump to carry out my orders quickly enough, but none of them ever asks me if they're doing it right, or if I'd like it done differently, or even how I'm feeling for that matter. Sometimes you wonder why you're doing it all."
"People can be so self-centred," said Madame Sosotris. "I don't know how you cope." She arranged her necklaces, many strands of gold, silver, electrum and uranium, across her wattled neck, and adjusted the neckline of her age-discoloured linen shirt, and then looked up again.
"Are you still here?" she said.
"Madame Sosotris," said Phlebitis, feeling in his pocket for the leather purse he'd put there before leaving his ship. "I have come to purchase your services."
"Ah well--"
"Your clairvoyant services," said Phlebitis quickly, stressing the second word. He shuddered again at the look of real disappointment on her face, and tried to push the images that it raised far from his mind.
"You'd better sit down then," she said, ungraciously. "And put that purse where I can see it."
She pulled a torn deck of cards from a pocket of her sea-green skirt and gestured casually to a stool on one side of a small circular table. A lace cloth, its pattern enhanced by moths, draped casually over the table, and she whisked it aside and threw it to the floor. Underneath the wood was polished with age and warped with neglect, and she sat on the other side of it in a high-backed chair with carven arms and legs that would have been impressive in another place. Phlebitis sat, noticing that the deck was barely half the size it had been the last time he'd been here, and waited.
She held the cards out to him, and he shuffled them, cutting them three times always with his left hand and handed them back to her, whereupon she dropped them on the floor, spilling tattered painted pasteboard everywhere.
"Butterfingers!" she swore, sweeping them together as best she could with a calloused bare foot. Phlebitis crouched down and gathered them up, handing them back to her in a higgledy-piggledy pile.
"Right," she said, turning the first one over. "This is the signifier, this is your card." The card she laid on the table, as close to the centre as the twisted wood would allow, was the Boiled Frog. It was a vivid green, its eyes closed and an oddly blissful smile on its all-too-human face, sitting in what appeared to be a copper boiling pan.
"The Boiled Frog," she said. "Sitting replete in a vat of briny water. I am sure that this will have some signficance to you."
Phlebitis ground his teeth and merely nodded.
"Your second card is... Belladonna, our Lady of the Rocks," she said, laying down half a card, torn lengthways so that only half of a woman's face and body remained. Phlebitis stared at it as Madame Sosotris laid it crosswise on the Boiled Frog, unable to grasp why its presence terrified him so much.
When he finally made himself look away from the cards, he found that Madame Sosotris was industriously sorting through the remaining deck of cards.
"I cannot find the Hanged Man," she said. "He was in here this morning, I know it. I had a man in who wanted to know his future, and bugger me backwards with a broomstick if all the cards I could pull weren't the Hanged Man."
Behind her, shadows formed and writhed, and a pair of yellow eyes observed her actions. They met Phlebitis's briefly and conveyed a warning of silence, and he knew without being told that somehow Madame Sosotris was cheating, and that there were forces afoot that disapproved.
"Oh well," she said flipping over another card. "Your third card ought to be the Hanged Man, because if there's anyone I'd like to see hanged it's you, but instead you're getting... oh." The card on the table was the Jade eyeball, depicted as having fallen from the head of a tentacled idol of a god. "I've not seen that one before," said Madame Sosotris. "Oh well, fear death and slaughter. That's always good advice."
Phlebitis pushed the purse across the table and Madame Sosotris made it disappear far more dextrously than she'd handled the cards, and he stood and left, forgetting to thank her for her time. As he walked away, unseen behind him and her, the shadows thickened and the yellow eyes blinked.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

On the set of the movie

"Mr. deNeel will see you now," said his secretary, a woman having the mother of all bad hair days. She reminded me of growing up in the eighties, and of drag-queens I'd watched in the very late nineties. She wouldn't have looked out of place as some conquest of the first Captain Kirk, come to think of it.
"Are you sure?" I said, trying to stand without irritating my hip any more than necessary. The reason I was here -- the real reason -- was that I could use the money to get a hip replacement operation done. I was having trouble believing that I was actually wanted though.
"Yes, we're sure. Oscar is very good about getting the right person for the role," she said. The product supporting the left-hand side of her hair in a gravity-defying halo around the back of her head lost some tension and her hair sank gracefully down until it covered her eyes.
"Yes. Yes, but..." I couldn't let it lie. "Yes, but the film's called Abigail Spanker. And... and, it's Oscar deNeel."
"Mr. deNeel will explain the reasoning behind it," said his secretary, prying eyeholes in the ring of hair around her head. And don't, no matter how amusing you think you are, refer to him as 'O'."
I went through the connecting door to Oscar's office, favouring my right hip and shaking my head, unable to believe that I was going through with what was going to be utterly humiliating for me.
"Lazarus!" shouted Oscar, his wrinkled face breaking into the kind of grin Hugh Hefner manages when he sees the new intake of Playmates. "It's been an age, old boy!"
"Oscar," I said, offering him my hand to shake. "Well, I retired, didn't I? What good is a middle-aged porn-star, after all? And Lazarus was just my screen name, you know."
"Laz, I know you retired. I know that was twenty years ago. I want you to come out of retirement and start again. I want to make you famous all over again, I want you to make films with me."
I just stared at him, and lowered myself into an easy chair, that turned out to be all too easy. My hip started a low-level grumble of pain.
"I'm a bit old, Oscar," I said. "Even if you find co-stars willing to work with me, I think we'll be needing quite a lot of Viagra and possibly prosthetics. Maybe a cock-double."
"No, no! We won't need any of that!" said Oscar, waving his hands expansively around. "That's not what we're after at all!"
"I won't do animals or children, Oscar. That's not changed."
"No animals," said Oscar straight away. "Some of your co-stars may be young enough to be your daughter, but that's still a good thirty-five these days, isn't it?"
I spent several seconds feeling very grateful that I'd never had a daughter.
"Right, fine," I said. "What's this about then, Oscar? What's the big plan?"
"The thing is," said Oscar rocking back in his chair, and staring up at the ceiling, "the thing is that our demographic is changing. We used to appeal to the middle-aged and the young, and there was a lot of fantasy in there. Men wanted to see women they couldn't get and see them acting like what they really wanted was slightly mediocre sex with men who wanted to punish them for being too good for them. Women wanted something that wasn't too offensive or explicit and wouldn't result in the man watching it with them wanting to do anything too kinky. Now though, all those people have aged, but they still want porn. So our demographic now wants a bit more realism, something they can relate to. They don't want to see young people enjoying themselves, or doing things that they've never done, and now can't do on account of being too fat, too inflexible, or having a career that stops them going to A&E after an accident."
"Really?" I said, not believing him.
"Absolutely! I made 'Viagra Virgins last year. Fifty-five minutes of a man struggling to get it up, then fourteen minutes of slightly embarrassing sex with a woman who clearly doesn't have a clue about satisfying anyone. We got so much fan-mail I had to hire someone to write replies; we included a bottle of Viagra with each letter and still made a profit! And, get this, the company that makes Viagra is now sponsoring us on the quiet!"
I was quiet while I thought about this. I'd see Viagra Virgins of course, I'd torrented it a few months after it came out, and I'd actually quite enjoyed it because I'd been there so many times before. The slapper from the fish-shop I'd been with that night had enjoyed it a whole lot less when I pointed out she knew less than the girl in the porn movie.
"So what would I be doing, then?" I figured a supply of Viagra would come in handy and it sounded like Oscar could get his hands on the good stuff.
"Do you remember a show from the eighties called 'My two dads'?" said Oscar too casually.
"No children!" I snapped back, reflexively.
"No, no kids, you ethical old rogue, you." Oscar grinned in a way that made me uncomfortable and reminded me that I'd never been unhappy to have stopped working with him. "We're going to call this one 'Abigail Spanker', but the working title is 'My three grannies' and you're going to be the stud. The plot's simple enough, you call by your granny's house because you've been told she's dead, but it turns out it's all a plan to get you there so she and two of her bridge buddies can grab you."
"It takes four people to play bridge," I said.
"Yes, well the fourth is actually dead at first," said Oscar and as he went on, his mad schemes of things I probably didn't want to do a litany in my ears, I realised that I was going to do this, partly because I needed a new hip and partly because I wanted to be part of this new, exciting, utterly dysfunctional porn.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Bracelets of smoke

Here I sit, in your favourite chair, my arms held stiffly out in front of me. Bracelets of smoke swirl around my wrists, never dissipating, never drifting away. They bind me as surely as your love ever did.
I dare not leave the house any more. Even high winds don't push the smoke away, and in sunlight they scintillate, coruscate, sparkle so brightly that teenage girls come up to me to ask me if I'm Edward. I stare at them every time, willing them to step back, to hide their faces and run away like the timid creatures they are, but they are trapped by the depraved urges of wish-fulfillment. They stand their ground, pretending to a cloak of sexual allure they've stolen from their older sisters and their mothers, but beneath it all is the frightened virgin desperate for me to be some kind of shiny eunuch with deep-rooted emotional problems that they can angst over until they finally grow up. It is always I who walks away, tongue-tied, unable to see how I can say a word that won't destroy the illusion.
And your bracelets of smoke writhe and contort around my wrists like fiery snakes mating at dusk.

Sunday, 3 July 2011


Nietzche famously talked about an abyss that looks back into you when you look into it, and I've always taken this to be philosophical drivel. I guess he was trying to say that there are no actions without consequences, but the number of people who've since decided that this is somehow deep and relates to evil is ridiculous. Apart from that, I found that abyss when I was wandering in the desert, and it was far less worrisome than almost everything else I found while I was there.
Some way away from the abyss was a settlement; a collection of one-room huts built on boards that in turn rested on the sand. When the wind blew, the occupants lifted the hinged rooves of the huts like sails and the huts would skate across the sand, rattling and hissing like angry snakes. The occupants would tack into the wind or run with it, always staying within a mile or so of the abyss, circling round it like strange, land-bound birds.
There were about fifteen people living there, although their numbers changed from time to time as people went to the abyss and people-shaped things came back from the abyss. Their leader, at least while I was there, was a woman who called herself Oisha. She had waist-length black hair that she braided like a rope, brown eyes that watered constantly, and skin so brown and wrinkled that I first thought she was one of the people-shaped things that had come back from the desert. When she told me, trying to seduce me, that she was only twenty-two, I dug a bottle of SPF-60 sun-tan lotion from my rucksack and gave it to her, advising her to use it daily until it ran out, and then go and find more. If ever there was someone who needed to wear a burqa, it was her.
I asked her about the people who lived in the huts, and she said that they were travellers, people stopping off at a waystation before they went to the abyss to become consumed by what it showed. She stopped abruptly at that point, and nothing I could say or offer would induce her to talk more about it, and I wondered for days afterwards what she'd said that she thought she shouldn't have. It was clear enough that the people who came from the abyss weren't the same as the people who'd gone to it; many of them didn't appear to have ever had had human form before! But perhaps there was something else. She changed the subject eventually by showing me the fifteenth hut, where no-one lived.
This hut was a garden in the desert; beneath its roof was a verdant green expanse. All around the edges were thick-leaved, glossy shrubs with small green berries, and beyond them were a few fruit trees and then vegetable plants, only some of which I recognized. But there wasn't enough to feed even fifteen people for any great length of time, and I pointed this out.
"People who arrive bring food with them, water too," said Oisha playing with the end of her braid and fluttering her eyelashes at me like a moth trapped by a window-pane. "There are small animals in the desert that can be trapped for meat. Sometimes the abyss... sends meat as well."
I could see from the look on her face what she meant: sometimes what came from the abyss couldn't be allowed back into human society and had to be killed. I wondered then if eating such 'meat' was really the safe thing to do.
"And these shrubs," she caressed a leaf, "suppress the appetite and show you visions that tell you when you should go to the abyss."
"The leaves or the berries?" I asked.
"The berr--" she stopped, puzzled. "The berr--." She stopped again, and left me to talk to the others in the huts. When she returned she was disturbed.
"Some say the leaves, others say the berries," she said. "Some say that what you take influences what returns from the abyss."
I nodded and we moved on, and she never noticed that I'd plucked a branch from a bush to put in my rucksack, leaves, berries and all. Later that evening I slipped away as they all gathered at the fifteenth hut and left them to their dance with death.
Chemical analysis when I returned from the desert revealed that both the leaves and the berries contained psychoactive nerve toxins, and even one berry would be enough to kill a man, though only over a period of twelve hours. The bark, however, contained the psychoactive ingredient without the nerve toxins and could be relatively safely consumed.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

More wisdom from Buddy

Well hello and welcome once again! Yes, it is I, Buddy, your corporate guide to spiritual enlightenment... wait, is that right? Or is it "your spiritual guide to corporate enlightenment?" Well, I'm sure you'll choose whichever is right for you!
I see that you're struggling to cope with your email as you sit there in your leather-upholstered executive power-seat, and the way that vein throbs in your forehead when I mention it -- I can see that this is a sore point for you. A stress-point, somewhere that your underlings and headcount can apply pressure and take revenge on you for the petty immoralities you commit daily against them. Ah, you look even less happy now.
What you need, my student, is a system to handle all of this for you, in an easy, intuitive way. You need a GUIDE: a Good Understanding of Inbox-Driven Email.
Your Inbox is the source of all your stress. When you look at, it looks back at you, and sees deep into your soul in a Nietzschean feedback loop that slowly saps your sanity. Look at your Inbox -- you have over 4,000 messages in there, of which you've read perhaps ten percent. All those other emails haunt your dreams, invite themselves to your corporate luncheons, and taunt you in meetings, whispering in your ears that you've missed the email that would make the meeting make sense.
Oh, Sandy from Accounting wants you to know that your expenses won't be approved until you can demonstrate that 'Ginger' is actually a client.
For Inbox-Driven Email we work solely with the Inbox and ignore anything that's not in there. So we need first of all to clear out all the email in your Inbox and start you from a clean system. Like a reboot.
Consider, if you will, the tale of the lonely mouse. The lonely mouse lived in a corporate office, sneaking out after everyone else had left for the day and enjoying the silence and the space to get his work done. The lonely mouse would relax at last, certain that no-one would disturb his focus, break his concentration, or catch him picking his nose (on those very rare occasions when it itched uncontrollably). And he would work very, very hard, putting together spreadsheets, documents and agenda on topics of deep and abiding interest to him: the lack of cheese in the fridge ("Who moved my cheese?" was his first classic email), the benefits of vi over emacs, and staunchly defending the office's anti-cat policy. But the mouse was lonely, never hearing the interactions of his co-workers and never invited to meetings to discuss office policy, or to taste the cheese that had been found in the fridge with no name attached. He suffered from a lack of connection with his co-workers, and he felt listless and fidgety by turns.
Then, while fidgeting near his desk, he spotted a tasty-looking cable and decided to chew on it. This was very satisfying for a couple of minutes, and then he chewed through the insulation to the conducting core and was electrocuted almost instantly. This caused some system-wide anomalies, and the entire content of his Inbox was deleted at the same time as he died.
None of his colleagues noticed, and the office bought a cat just two days later.
The moral of this tale is, of course, that the quickest way to empty your Inbox is to chew through the power cable for your computer. Go ahead now, try it. Just try i--.