Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Dental Palmistry

Phlebitis paused at Madame Sosotris's door and re-read the sign on it.  At first glance he'd thought it said Oriental Palmistry but now that he was closer he could see that it in fact read Dental Palmistry.  He hesitated, his calloused fist a couple of centimetres from the door's surface, wondering what it could mean.  Indecision wracked him for several seconds; his visits to Madame Sosotris were not made for pleasure but out of painful necessity and the opportunity to not visit was tempting.
The door opened just as he was deciding that madness was as good a reason as any to not knock and not find out his future from her.  A small woman who barely came up to Phlebitis's waist walked into him and said, "Ow."
Phlebitis lowered his fist, seeing Madame Sosotris emerging from the gloom inside her house.  Her eyes seemed dilated and unfocused, and there was a trickle of blood running from the corner of her mouth.
"I said, 'Ow'," said the small woman, looking up at Phlebitis.  He pulled his gaze from the slightly vampiric-appearing Madame Sosotris and looked down.
"Watch where you're going," he said.  "If you were a sailor you'd be over the side in no time, making friends with the sharks."
"Are you saying I'm clumsy?"  The small woman squeaked when she was excited or angry.
"No, I'm saying that the other guys would think it funny to trip you over and watch you fall over the side.  Don't worry.  You look like you'd float for quite a while."
There was a noise like a boiling kettle whistling, which Phlebitis slowly realised was the small woman.  She was so angry that her face had turned a deep purple and she was standing on the very tips of her toes.
"Are you going to move?" he said.  "Only I'm here to visit Madame Sosotris and you're rather in the way.  You seem to be blocking the entire doorway."
The small woman was actually vibrating with anger now and was having trouble staying on her toes as she did so.  Seeing an opportunity, Phlebitis stepped to the side and tugged gently on her shoulder as he did so.  A spasm of panic passed over her face as she lost her balance completely, her hands reflexively pushing forwards to break her fall and pushing her center of gravity further out of alignment, speeding her fall.  Phlebitis stepped over her and pushed the door shut behind him.
"I'b god a midderable code," said Madame Sosotris.
"You always do when I visit," said Phlebitis.  "It's almost like it's been written about somewhere and we just have to play our parts out over and over again."
Madame Sosotris gave him a penetrating look and produced a lace handkerchief from one of her sleeves.  As she lead the way into her drawing room, where she performed séances, table-turnings, read cards and ate dinner, she blew her nose.  It was a long, drawn-out, mournful honking process, at the end of which she dropped the sodden handkerchief into a bucket
"What's dental Palmistry then?" asked Phlebitis sitting down in the high-backed chair that didn't wobble.  Madame Sosotris glared at him but sat on the other one without saying anything.  She rocked slightly as she tried to make it balance.
"A mistake by the sign-writer," said Madame Sosotris.  Phlebitis could see that her eyes were red as though she'd been crying, and her wrinkles seemed to get deeper and dirtier everytime he came.  "Although, a couple of nights ago I did get a visit from a man who had mouths in his palms.  His future was very hard to read, but eventually I figured out that he'd misunderstood the sign and was hoping for Palmal Dentistry."
"Is there such a thing?"
"Ye–e–es," said Madame Sosotris trying not to look at the builder's wrap of hammers and chisels on the sideboard.  "How have you been though?  Surely another eight months alone at sea must give a man certain... urges?"  She winked.
Phlebitis tried to ignore his stomach doing somersaults and forced a smile.  "I'm not alone," he said.  "I'll just have the usual please.  The future for the next six months in strange images and dire pronouncements.
Madame Sosotris sighed softly, suspecting that Phlebitis was somehow mocking her, and leaned back in her chair.  For many clients she would draw out cards or a crystal ball and use them to distract the customer while she engaged the trance, but she'd been trying and failing to seduce Phlebitis for years now.  He could see it all done the real way, warts and everything.  Her eyes rolled up back in her head, revealing jaundiced whites, and her fingers tensed until her hands looked like claws.
"I see a marriage," she said, and Phlebitis snorted.
"You tried this two times ago," he said.  "You do not see me marrying you, you just wish you could."
"No," said Madame Sosotris, her voice now oddly thick.  "I see you marrying a shape, an intelligence that is not moulded by earth into a human form.  The ceremony is under a moon, and there are people and ... and un-people watching.  There are boiled frogs for the wedding feast.  There are... wait, the image is changing.  There is a chair, a golden chair with eyes in the back.  They are watching you, they are looking for you.  Then they cannot find you and the chair warps and twists.  It is angry.  There are more chairs, and they gather around a table to discuss you."
She sat forward, her wispy grey hair spilling over her eyes and gasped for breath.
"Great," said Phlebitis standing up.  "Married to something not human and it looks like one of the wedding gifts is going to be a carnivorous dining suite.  You've outdone yourself this time, Madame."
His money tinkled on the table.  "I should have asked for the Dental Palmistry," he said.  "That might have made more sense."
As the door closed behind him Madame Sosotris finally got air back into her tired, ancient lungs, and called out.  But Phlebitis was already gone.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Saint-Sebastien in flames

The one evening it didn't rain the church of Saint-Sebastien caught fire. The clouds were heavy and grey overhead, and the wind would rise and fall as though some ancient dragon were breathing across the Paulitsa Square, but though the sky refused to clear, it also refused to rain.
The women were out, squatting in the doorways and calling to one another, bags of clothes in front of them which they pulled items from, held them up and tsked, putting some back and mending and darning others.  Now and then there would be a nearly new vest, or a skirt so patched that it was becoming something new, an original emerging from a cheap knockoff bought with stolen money.  Then a voice would rise above the others, crowing over the find, announcing their luck and bounty, and other voices would chime in, dissonant and plaintive, crying words of praise and bleeding just jealousy.
There were men around the square, keeping their distance from the women, who were apt to mock and jeer, brave and confidant together like this.  Later on that evening, alone behind closed doors there would be more caution, the offering of sex like an olive branch, an unspoken apology.  It would be accepted as tentatively, men acknowledging that they had been identified, stood-out by their wives, that their virility had been somehow enhanced and supported by the apparent humiliation.  In the uneasy sweat of coitus it would be forgotten, and as they rolled apart the balance would be restored once more.
There were discussions afterwards of how the fire could have started.  There were those who were far away who claimed that they heard the dull roll of thunder and saw the flash of light, that lightning had struck the church tower but that the lightning conductor had been broken and only conducted the lightning down the wooden choir stalls.  Those who were close by denied this, of course, and said that the verger had come out towards ten and had been smoking.  They told a story where he turned to an itinerant parishioner to answer a question about the omniperception of God and then forgot that he was smoking still.  As he returned into the church he discarded his cigarette into the bushes and thus the fire started outside the church and ventured in to bathe itself in the glory of God.
The verger, who was at home that night with food poisoning from eating the fish that his wife had attempted to casserole, denied that story but the Bishop, who was not really a good man, still disbelieved him and caused him to be passed over for promotion for the next two years.
Wherever the fire started, it was first noticed when the Saints' window shattered, coloured glass cascading out from the church walls and softened lead twisting and falling inwards.  Flames peeked out through the new exit, their golden and orange heads flickering this way and that as they sought more air, more oxygen, and greater range.  The clouds above reflected the light from the flames back down, and the whole church seemed lambent, standing somehow suffused in a glow all of its own.  Men crossed themselves, and women gathered their clothes back up, hastily stuffing them in their tired cloth sacks to protect them from the inevitable descent of ash.

Monday, 28 November 2011

These words are not my own

Penelope stood in the doorway of Dr. Fraud's consulting room and screamed.  She screamed continuously for three minutes and eighteen seconds, and then she closed her mouth, blinked twice, and walked into the room as though nothing had happened.  Only when she sat down, her knees pressed carefully together despite that she was wearing jodhpurs, did Dr. Fraud look up and half-smile at her, in what she thought was a very European way, and ask her how she was today.  At the other end of the room Dr. Fraud's secretary carefully closed the door and wondered why it was that neither the patient nor the psychiatrist ever seemed to notice the screaming.
"Penny," said Dr. Fraud.
"Penelope," said Penelope immediately.  "I hate being called Penny, Doctor.  You've written that down at least eight times now."
"My dear Frau," said Dr. Fraud, "you've only been to see me three times!"
"And yet," said Penelope firmly, though her face was going pale, "you've written down at least eight times that I hate being called Penny because you write it down every time I tell you."
"I'm sure that's an exaggeration," said Dr. Fraud, forcing himself to stop writing before he completed the sentence woman does not like being called Penny.  "How have you been for the last week?"
"Better," said Penelope, though there was an obvious reluctance to her speech.  "I managed to visit the library, the grocer's and the swimming pool without saying anything obscene or untoward."
"Really?"  Dr. Fraud thought he sounded too surprised, and toned it down a little.  "Reeeeeealllly?  That is good news, it would appear that you are starting to get better.  You will soon have repossessed your own sense of words, and with it your own sense of identity."
In the corner of the room all the leaves fell off a rubber plant.  Penelope stared at it.
"So, our next step must be to discuss why you feel that you have to speak other people's words when you meet them.  Tell me about your mother."
"All the leaves just fell off your plant," said Penelope, pointing.  "Look!"
"Ah yes," said Dr. Fraud, not looking.  "Rubber plants are well known to have depressive tendencies."
"Are you saying that your plant is committing suicide?"
"No.  I regularly talk to it about its issues.  I think my secretary is weeing in its plant-pot.  It's probably a kind of inter-species-jealousy."
"Oh," said Penelope.
"Tell me about your mother.  What did she make you do when you were a little boy?"
"I've never been a little boy," said Penelope.
"Come now," said Dr. Fraud.  "You were a child once, there is no shame in that."
"Yes, but I was a little girl," said Penelope.  "Isn't that obvious?"
Dr. Fraud's eyes went wide as he realised that yet again he had the wrong patient's notes in front of him.  With a snarl he tapped several keys on his keyboard, trying to find the right file.  "There is a conspiracy!" he shouted, his Austrian accent suddenly coming out thickly.  "Yes, of course you were a little goat.  Who isn't at that age?"
"Girl," said Penelope, trying to be patient.  "Girl, Dr. Fraud."
"Yes, yes, that's what I said," he said.  "Now, Penny, tell me about your mother."
"PENELOPE, Doctor," said Penelope.  "How many files have you now written 'Does not like to be called Penny' in?  And why are none of them mine?"
The rubber plant in the corner spontaneously combusted, tiny orange flames licking at the central trunk of the plant and causing the edges of the nearby fallen leaves to curl up and go brown.
"It is part of your therapy, you see.  We continually push the edges of what you'll accept so that you can regress inside your own psyche and we can find out why you feel that your words are so often not your own."
"They're not my own.  I read minds and then I say what I've just read.  Your rubber plant just caught fire."
"Aha!" shouted Dr. Fraud, his eyes gleaming.  "I was NOT thinking that!"
"No," said Penelope, "but it's happened anyway."
As Dr. Fraud turned round to see the flames the tiny white wisps of smoke finally set the smoke detector off, and the sprinkler system engaged, spraying the office with something orange and sweet-tasting.
"Orange juice?" said Penelope, tasting it.
"I hope so," said Dr. Fraud, sounding slightly hopeless.  "I shall see you next week."

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Waltons

Janet O'Steen was not having a good day.  First a pipe had burst shortly after she'd gotten up and she'd had to make small talk with her neighbour while he fixed it.  She knew that this was much cheaper than getting a plumber to do the work, and that she'd have had to make small talk with the plumber as well, but it still felt like an intrusion in her day.  No sooner was the pipe bandaged up ("leave it like for six weeks," said her neighbour, "and then see if it's healed alright, so you do") than there'd been a kerfuffle outside and she looked out of the window to see two women in the street outside her front door throwing apples at each other.  Apples that they were seizing from Janet's apple tree.  So, of course, she'd picked up a convenient broom and run out to chase them off, but the excitement of that, and from nearly twisting her ankle stepping on a crushed apple, meant that she couldn't do any writing at all until that evening.
Now, she had four pages in front of her in which her main character's father gave his shoes away to the orphans, forced his housekeeper to take a cold shower until her skin was blue, told two of his daughters that they were adopted and the other two that they were born biologically male, and hired a bagpiper to pipe at all meals.  She sighed heavily and dropped them in the bin.  It was her own fault, she knew she shouldn't have watched the X-Factor before starting to write, but the alternative was Songs of Praise, and that was no more helpful to the writing process.
She picked up her pen again, deciding that she'd get four pages written before she went to bed, pages that she wouldn't have to immediately drop into the bin.  Her pen hovered over a fresh page of her notebook as she wondered what her main character and her family would really do at this point of the novel.
Another problem, she thought to herself, not really aware that she was procrastinating again, was that this wasn't the novel she wanted to be writing.  Her agent, a normally very pliable woman called Arthuria, had completely rejected the concept of a novel called On death and dying: rebellion in a Chinese room.  "It just won't sell, dearie," she'd said over and over again.  "You have to look at your target audience; they want pastoral scenes of family life.  Something with so little tension that they can sleep easily at night, but not so interesting that they wish they were there, or that their lives were different."
"You mean people read my books to feel like their miserable little lives are better than nothing?"  Janet had been incredulous, but Arthuria had nodded solemnly and made her feel slightly bad about getting upset.
Back to the writing, she thought.  Her main character was trying to resolve her father's decision to move to another town in the context of her own life.  He was proposing to move to a grand house that she worried they wouldn't have enough money for if there were to be any accidents, and her mother and her three sisters were all thrilled about it and constantly talking about how their prospects would be improved.  Her main character, called Jane, conceded that there would be fewer cows and other obviously rural things about, but was not at all convinced that her prospects would improve just because she was walking muddy streets instead of muddy cart-tracks.  Finally inspiration struck.
"Daddy," said Jane, trying hard to sound like a strong, modern woman and forgetting completely that Daddy loathed people who had opinions other than his, "Daddy, may I speak with you a moment?"
Her father laid his Bible aside, smiling at her like he smiled at his Sunday congregation: all teeth and no good humour. "Of course, sweetie," he said, struggling to remember her name.  Why had he been cursed with only daughters?  "What bothers you?"
"If we should move to Bath–" she began, and he cut her off, placing his palm firmly across her mouth.
"When," he said.  "When we move to Bath.  It is God's will."
She waited for him to let go of her face, and continued bravely on.  "When we move to Bath," she said, "what will become of us if something becomes of you?"
"Do you mean, if I die?"
"Well yes, Daddy.  Or if you run off with a common street-slattern, or take up with a Chineseman and spend your evenings and your money in an Opium den, or if you are run down by a carriage and the doctors announce that you must spend your days in legless solitude, or–"
He stopped her again by placing his hand over her mouth.  "Do you spend all of your time thinking up ways for me to be injured or killed?"
Janet stopped writing and re-read it.  No, those last few lines would have to change; perhaps tomorrow would be a better day for writing after all.  Bedtime.  Ah, thinking of which, there was a little more she could write, though she'd have to find a proper home for it in the novel.
"Bedtime!" shouted Theresa-May excitedly, and everyone scampered off to bed.  "Goodnight Mother," called Antoinette, and her mother good-naturedly shouted "Goodnight!" back from her room.  "Goodnight Annie," called Florence, "goodnight Theresa, goodnight father!"
More cries of goodnight echoed throughout the house, and though Jane buried her head under the cold, lumpy, mildew-smelling pillow she could still hear them, until finally she sat up in bed and shouted, "Oh shut up all of you!  I'm trying to sleep!"

Saturday, 26 November 2011


It was an obvious product enhancement.  Anyone could have seen it, anyone would have done it.  I just got there first, that's all.
There were a number of shopping sites that were popular enough to allow you to create wish-lists that other people could see.  It let your friends and family know what you might like for your birthday, it let your friends and family see your wedding registry all from one site, it even let your enemies and exes know what you were getting and be annoyed about it.  But it made things a little bit easier, for some people at least, and that was a product enhancement.  It was just the right way to merchandise the site a little better.
My first suggestion was just that we separate wedding registry and wish-lists.  "Make them separate," I said, "and people can put the expensive stuff they want from people they never see on one list, and they can put the cheap stuff they'd really love on the list to share with the people who mean the most to them."
"Like who?" asked Brent across the table.  His roseacea was particularly bad that day.
"Like no-one," I said, going for honesty.  "That'll be where they keep the things they really want and don't want anyone to know about."
"But we'll know," he said, his face wrinkling in puzzlement, like a shah-pei's.
"Yes," I said, "and we can market to them based on their secret desires.  We can recommend leather clothes, soft Japanese ropes and unusual intimate jewellery alongside the usual cookie-cutters and books."
We went ahead and split the lists, and it was successful.  Brent wasn't happy, as I got a bonus that quarter and he didn't, but then I checked his own recommendations and realised that he must have a very strange wish-list indeed.
If I'd stopped there, it might have been ok.  Just maybe.
"Well," I said at the next meeting.  "I was thinking, why have just two lists?  Why not let people create their own lists?  Let them create a Secret Santa list to be shared by the office, let them create a Nerf-arsenal list to be shared by the whole civil-war reenactment club, und so weiter?"
"What was that last bit?" asked Brent.  His fingernails were black from where he'd shut his hand in his garage door that morning.
"It was German," I said smugly.  I'd read it in a magazine the previous evening.
"I think they pronounce their w's as v's," he said, sounding disinterested.  I blushed, knowing he'd won a point over me, and realised I had to try and claw the advantage back.
"We use the existing list technology," I said quickly, "and just give it editable names and a sharing list.  Then we'll keep an eye on common names for lists and we'll automatically create lists of those types to inspire people."
By itself, it wasn't a bad idea.  It really wasn't.
"The new lists are working well," said Brent, reading from a forty-eight page report.  He'd lost two fingers to frostbite over Christmas and I didn't like looking at his hands any more.  "But there are a few worrying trends, and I don't think we should be allowing autogeneration of popular list types any more."
"Why's that?"  Kevin, Head Honcho for Marketing, was growing a moustache and it was turning out patchy.  He was compensating by trying to seem dynamic.
"We had to remove a 'People I'd like to F-word" list already, said Brent.  I sniggered, but quietly and behind my hand.  "We also had to remove an 'Outed sex offenders list' too.  There's a little too much flexibility in the lists, they can seriously infringe on our policies."
"I agree with Brent," said Geraldine, who represented Legal.  "We could get into some serious trouble with some of these lists.  We should probably put an age-restriction on creating a list too, so there's no more 'We hate Brent Conmurty' lists either."
Brent looked stricken, apparently he'd not known about the list.  I was relieved that I'd got my sister to create it using her daughter's boyfriend's account.
If I only left it there.  If only I'd not risen to the bait.
I went home that evening determined to get a little more revenge on Brent done.  I wasn't sure what I wanted any more, or why revenge was important, but it was fun and I got a little bored in the evenings before I opened the wine.  I put his name on my 'To Hit' list and then went off and got drunk.
I was woken at three am by the pinging of my cell-phone.  I'd fallen asleep on the toilet after throwing up my knees, as far as I could tell.  My head hurt, so I peered at my phone, hoping it would be telling me how to feel better.
Saw the addition to your hit list, read the text.  Ran Brent Conmurty down on the Haversham road two hours ago.  He's so much roadkill now!
I threw up again.  How the hell had I mixed up my 'to-hit' list and my 'hit' list?  And where had a 'hit list' come from anyway?
The cold memory of Brent in the meeting, when he was still alive, saying that autogeneration was dangerous reared its ugly head.
My phone pinged again.
Bonus: I got his parents too; house has been petrol bombed into a ruin!

Aftermath of the Nativity

Miss Snippet felt she'd done very well not to laugh until she was back in the privacy of the staffroom.  Then she'd thrown back her head and howled with laughter until tears ran down her face and her stomach ached like she was on her period.  She'd staggered over to a lounge-chair, her shoulders shaking with the effort of holding the laughter in, sat down in it and laughed again, bringing yet more tears to her eyes.  Finally she ran out of laughter, and wiped her eyes with a tissue she found in her pocket that only had eye-liner on; naturally her waterproof mascara had run.
"It wasn't that funny," said Miss Devonport, without any of her usual reproof.
"Oh come on!" said Miss Snippet, finding her colleague standing in front of the coffee cups holding what looked like a half-bottle of Scotch.  "Santa just died out there in our nativity play!  It's just like that story you told me about, everyone dies at Christmas."
"It wasn't a story, it was an essay," said Miss Devonport, "and the last line of it was, it's not Christmas until everyone's dead."
"Well, I was close enough," said Miss Snippet.  Her sides hurt as well as her stomach.  "And it was funny."
She'd been sat near the back, on a chair that wobbled, trying not to yawn through any of the speeches or obviously be checking her iPhone while the third year students put on a Nativity play.  Despite her objections Mary, Joseph and Jesus were all played by white kids, and the donkey, Shepherds and one wise man were played by kids with other ethnic backgrounds.  Despite Miss Devonport's objections, Santa was also one of the wise men, and despite both of them objecting, Santa was played by some gluttonous nephew of the Headmaster, demonstrating once again his easy grasp of nepotism.  That his nephew was in his thirties was apparently unimportant, with the Headmaster saying that the man looked the part far better than any of the students.  Miss Snippet had been tempted to point out Mark Andretti in the fifth form who had five o'clock shadow by ten o'clock most days and an impressive physique that bodybuilders would admire, but had resisted.  She was certain the only way he could be doing it was to be stealing insulin from the diabetic kids and growth hormone from Freddy Glazer who was medically a midget.  She was so certain that one of them would sooner or later either have to tell on him or die that she'd got a hundred pounds riding on there being a death-due-to-bullying story in the papers by the end of the year.
Santa had turned up to the play drunk, and Miss Devonport had immediately called security to have him thrown out.  Instead, the Headmaster had turned up and given her a stern talking to about respecting other members of staff, leaving her bemused and near tears.  Santa had gone on stage anyway, two scenes early, and urinated in one of the pots for the potted palms, starting angry whispers among the parents.  Once again, Miss Snippet suspected that the whispers would have been far less angry if it had been Mark Andretti getting undressed on stage.
And then.  And then in Santa's actual scene they'd reached the Hilton Stable where Mary and Joseph had elected to spend the night in the King-size Deluxe stall with house-trained oxen, self-heating manger and 24-hour room service and Santa had collapsed, pushing the non-white wise man off the stage and into the orchestra pit and falling on top of the manger.  While people were scampering about trying to pick the unfortunate wise man up and make sure that he was alright the manger overheated underneath Santa and set fire to his beard.  That was made of polyester, as was his hair and his jacket, so in a handful of seconds Santa was a butter-ball of flame, barely conscious yet trying to stand up.  The terrified children had retreated, and many of them were screaming at the sight of Santa burning up.  The Headmaster had left for the evening, so it was up to his illegally imported janitor, Lupo, to run on stage and throw a mop-bucket over him.  There was a spectacular hiss, most of the flames went out, steam billowed across the audience and everyone started coughing and choking from the quantity of black-market bleach that Lupo had had in the bucket.  Realising that he'd effectively tear-gassed the audience, Lupo had attempted to save the situation by pointing dramatically at Santa and shouting, "He lives!" at the top of his voice.  As he did so, and people struggled to clear their eyes to see this heroism, Santa vomited a large quantity of red-wine all over the stage, which predictably enough everyone took to be blood.
The ambulances took away most of the parents first, largely because Miss Devonport had shut Santa in the men's toilets and was getting the parents seen to.  When she 'remembered' that Santa had gone to the toilets, the ambulance staff found him with his head in the sink in four inches of water, so close to dead as to make no difference.
Miss Snippet thought it was the best Nativity play she'd seen in years.
"We'll never have our Yule celebration now," said Miss Devonport unhappily.  She added half-a-cup of Scotch to her coffee.  "Why did Santa have to die?"
"Oh yes we will," said Miss Snippet.  "I have plans!"

Friday, 25 November 2011

The death of Luke Baphomet

The wind is ahowl and the waves are breaking on the shore with deafening noise.  A man out here on a night like this is soaked through in under a minute and freezing cold, so no wonder the three men are pressed as close to the wall under the overhang as they can get.  It's barely shelter, but it's better than none.
Except for Luke Baphomet, who is stood on the rock, Mother's Tongue, clutching a hat to his head and peering out into the impenetrable darkness.  He's like to call it Stygian, but he doesn't know what that means.  Somewhere out there is a ship with a cargo, and Baphomet is desperate to see the cargo brought ashore.
"Why do you call it Mother's Tongue?"  Jathanial is new to the group and tonight is partly a test.  If he brings the ship in and the cargo ashore he'll have earned a measure of trust, and if he's dumb enough to working for anyone else, accidents happen on nights like these.  He came up from the South around the same time as Baphomet came over from the East, and though there's those that don't like coincidence, it seems as though that's what it was.
"It's a comfort when you see it, 'cos you knows you're coming home," says Batrachian, a man who doesn't know what his surname means.  He says you're like it's ewer.  "But it's got sharp edges, and if you run afoul of it you know about it."  His eyes bulge out of his face a little and his cheeks puff up in the cold.
"When you hear it you're coming home," says Griffen.  "The wind turns around that rock something twisted.  If you can hear it at night when the sheep are birthing, that means you'll be barren for a year."
"Sounds like a mean rock," says Jathanial at last, realising he has to finish the talk he's started.  He falls silent, and no-one adds anything more.  The crash of the waves and the idiot ferocity of the wind make ti too hard to talk anyway.
A light appears, then disappears again, but Luke Baphomet sees it.  He uncovers a lantern he's holding and hoists it above his head on a long pole.  The lantern sways violent, caught by the wind, but the light is pure and doesn't go out.  The light out at sea reappears, disappears again, and then reappears once more.  This time it stays.  Luke is quietly ecstatic, hiding his glee that his ruse is working.
It takes thirty minutes for the boat to come in and Baphomet stays on the rock the whole time, keeping the lantern up and lit.  The three men hide in the shadows, wishing they were dead, because the dead don't feel the wet and cold.  Then, at last, there's a crunching, grinding noise and Luke Baphomet is leaping and dancing on the rock, delighted at the wrecking of another ship.  The three men move out towards him, ready to bring the cargo in.
A shot rings out, an impossible shot because there's no way to keep powder dry on a night like this, no way to fire a pistol. Only Luke doesn't flinch; only Luke is hit.  He falls, trying to catch himself as he goes, his leg supporting him, his arms going out.  Somehow he bounces when he falls, and then he's off the rocks and into the water, and though Jathanial shouts once, neither Griffen nor Batrachian even slow their pace.  A man in the maelstrom is dead, and they know it.
There's no living man at the ship, and no gun to be seen anywhere.  The three men exchange looks, and Jathanial is sent back to look for a man behind them while Batrachian and Griffen start unloading the cargo.  Baphomet has warned them that it's a strange one, but when they find that every box is a coffin they stop again, and wonder if what they're doing is right.
"Coast's clear," reports Jathanial, though he's stopped by the sight of all those little corpse-holders too.  "What's Baphomet want them for?"
"Baphomet's dead," says Griffen.  "Who cares?  We deliver to the warehouse, we get paid, then we tell them not to expect the boss any more."
There's agreement over that, even though the boxes are too heavy by far.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Book of Miracles XI

Irene's driving was fast and competent, and though I think James was hoping for her to be either slower or less able, he was looking slightly impressed as we zoomed down the road.  I tried to pay attention to where we were going, looking out for roadsigns and landmarks, and Isabella did a pretty good job of trying to distract me.  After a while, when I realised that I was seeing the same tall building going past us for the third time, I gave up trying to work out where we were and accepted that Irene was taking us the long way round to wherever we were going, and listened to Isabella instead.  Some of her stories were thoroughly hair-raising, and my respect for her abilities rose.  As did my worry about what exactly I was getting myself into, and my confidence that this book of Miracles that she was taking me to was the real thing.  It seemed like a fair trade-off.
When the car finally stopped we were at a small café of some kind, just along a muddy side-track from the main road.  Irene had indicated and turned off so smoothly that at first I thought we were just striking out across a field.  The car stopped in a car park that was equal parts mud and gravel, sending up a spray of muddy water, and Isabella opened her door.
"We'll have breakfast here," she said.  "They speak English and don't have much small talk.  The food's not wonderful, but it's cooked from scratch and most of the ingredients are locally sourced, which makes it better than any convenience store that's ever inconvenienced me.  We're not far from where we're going, but I doubt there'll be much food there."
"I'm happy if they do bacon," said James.  "Nothing beats a proper bacon sandwich."
I noticed Irene smiling too, and figured that made two bacon-lovers.  I looked over at Isabella.
"Not for me," she said, but she was smiling as well.  "I prefer less preserved foods.  Eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes."
"Sounds vaguely Spanish, especially for breakfast," I said.  "I think I'm probably in the bacon camp, though the eggs and potatoes sound pretty good too."
Isabella led the way into a single-storey building that appeared to have been made in the log-cabin fashion of piling wood up and filling in the gaps with whatever was handy.  It was warm and dry inside, with the light coming from hurricane lanterns hanging from the ceiling every ten feet or so.  There were tables; two were already occupied, and another eight were waiting for hungry breakfasters.  We picked one and sat down, and a menu written in five languages was put in front of me by a tall, lethargic looking waiter.
We ordered, and while we waited Isabella told us what to expect next.
"We're going to a safe-house," she said.  "It's safe because it's well protected, but it's not infallible. If you draw enough attention to yourselves, then even the safe-house will only buy us a small amount of time. They're difficult and expensive to put up, so please don't compromise it.  I'm not letting you know where it is so that you can't tell anyone if they do capture you."
"Capture me?" I said.  This was the first time Isabella had mentioned anything like this.
"Any of you," said Isabella.  "We're going to look at a very precious and rare book, without its owners' knowledge.  There is a trade-off for this."
I nodded my understanding but I could see that James still wasn't happy.  "What happens if they capture us?  And... who are they for that matter?"
"Eventual death," said Isabella, her voice curiously flat.  As for who they are, they're the people who own the Book.  They will feel that they have certain rights because of this.
"They don't sound all that pleasant," I said.  "Why did you pick them for our little visit?"
"Because their Book is the best fit with what you told me you're looking for," said Isabella.  "Did you think that these things are put into little community libraries in a back-room somewhere with a couple of cheap aluminium bars on the window and an elderly Doberman as a guard dog?"
"Would definitely be easier," said James.  Irene smiled, though I think only I spotted it.
"And after the safe-house?" I said.
"That's when the adventure really begins," said Isabella.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Our Lady of the Battered Wives

Joshua sipped his drink, and tried to ignore Celine's accusing glare.  She didn't stop glaring, and he found himself admitting, in the privacy of his own thoughts, that ignoring her wasn't working.  Surely that was something the Lord of Creation shouldn't have to put up with?  He decided not to think about that too hard, as he had a suspicion that the solution was to either move her somewhere away or somehow unmake her, neither of which he was all that keen on.
"Joshua!"  He jumped, nearly spilling his drink.  As the liquid sloshed over the rim of the glass it froze in the air though, and dropped neatly back inside when he stopped moving.  "Joshua, you wanted me to be your PA, damn it; what is it you want me to do?"
"Uh, well, there were a lot of voices...," said Joshua, feeling uncertain of himself.  Was this how the Lord of Creation was supposed to feel?
"You were a good lawyer, weren't you?" he asked, knowing the answer to the question immediately.  She had been an excellent lawyer, and she didn't tolerate weakness, stupidity, or people not paying their bills on time.  How on earth had his subconscious mind retrieved her as the best choice for a secretary?  Did he have a secret death wish?
"Extremely.  What about these voices?  I'd quite like to get back to learning the harp.  It was interesting; the strings don't answer back, cite foreign laws at you, or just plain make things up and insist it's 'legal'."
"There were quite a lot of them," said Joshua starting to feel a little useless.  "They all wanted things."
"Supplicants?  Oh, you were hearing people's prayers!  Yes, well, you're God to all of them now, aren't you, so they talk to you.  They tell you what they want.  Why is that a problem to you?  You've never listened to anyone else's desires or wishes before?"
Joshua tried to looked pained and gave up when he realised he didn't know what facial expression went with it.  He sipped his drink again, noting yet again how good it was.
"I need someone to filter them out," he said.  "Someone to tell me what's important and what's just selfish."
"They're all just selfish," said Celine.  "Can I go now?"
"No!  What do you mean, they're all just selfish.  There was a little gir– child, of some kind, asking for her dog to be healed!  How is that selfish?"
"She wanted the dog to be healed because she wants the dog's love," said Celine without even seeming to think. "The dog might be the only way she has of not being nibbled at by rats at night, in which case she wanted it healed so that it would continue working for her and earning it's keep.  She definitely didn't want it healed just so she could feed it and let it live a life of luxury."
"Well...," said Joshua feeling a little foolish.  "She did seem to love it.  Her.  She was called Daisy."
"I don't care," said Celine.  "They're all selfish.  No-one turns to God to ask for something for someone else's benefit unless they're testing to see if the prayer works.  If it does, the next one will be for them, guaranteed."
"That's very cynical," said Joshua.  He had realised he couldn't see any of the hotel staff around anywhere, and wondered if he'd frightened them off somehow.
"Fine."  Celine sighed, and concentrated as though thinking about something.  "OK, let's take this one then.  A woman by the name of Angelisque, named because her mother saw the name attached to a lampshade in an IKEA catalogue and liked the sound of it. She's been pregnant four times by different men, and has never bothered to find out any of their names, nor has she kept any of the babies.  She's got an abusive boyfriend she keeps returning to.  She's praying for a little bit of help."
"Right!" said Joshua.  "That's what I want, the kind of person who deserves a little help in life.  Come on!"  He stood up, missing Celine's roll of her eyes, and stepped forwards, leaving the hotel behind and appearing in a crowded, dirty supermarket aisle somewhere hot.  A little way away people were talking in a language he didn't recognise, though he could understand what they were saying perfectly.  There was the intermittent ring of a cash register and the swoosh of the cash drawer opening and closing, and a smell of stale bread and dead rat hanging in the air.  A woman, Angelisque, was kneeling in the aisle and sobbing.
"What is this?" Joshua stared at Celine, who raised her eyes to the ceiling.
"This is your damson in distress," she said, noticing Joshua miss completely what she'd said.  "By the way –" She was too late, Joshua had already leant over the woman to get her attention.  The woman opened her eyes, saw him and started screaming.  People started walking over to the aisle just fast enough to see what was happening, just fast enough to keep on walking if there were guns or knives involved.
"By the way," said Celine, invisible to the mob forming, "she worships you in your form of Saint Mathilde , a middle aged woman with swollen breasts and varicose veins who kept her sexual deviances so well hidden that everyone thought she must be holy.
"Now you tell me!" said Joshua, feeling a little angry.  He gestured and the woman stopped screaming, though her mouth remained open and her eyes were wide with terror.  "Tell me, Angelisque," he continued, "what can I do to make your life better?"
"Kill my boyfriend," came the words from her mouth, her eyes getting wider still.  The words came from her soul, not from her conscious mind.  "Kill him, and let me have the life insurance.  There is another man with a bigger penis I wish to be with.  I am sure he will not beat me if I have his baby, and I have been trying for three weeks now."
Joshua's mouth dropped open, and he looked over at Celine, who shrugged.
"You knew!" he said, pointing a finger.
"I can't," she said.  "I can access the lists, and listen to the prayers, because that's the job you've given me.  Knowing the innermost workings of the soul – that's your job, Mister."
"But... but this is horrible!"
"Which bit did you want me to repeat now?"
"People shouldn't be like this!"
"You can always try remaking them in your own image," said Celine.  "I'm not sure that would help, but it might make you feel better."
"Remake them?"
"You can't touch them," said Celine.  "Your touch would completely change them.  So, and I should say that I'd like this to remain completely theoretical, you can mould them simply by getting close enough to them."
Joshua reached out, his finger moving to touch the woman's cheek.  As he got closer her face began to deform, sinking inwards on itself like a pasta shell.  He stretched out more fingers and her face started to warp like warm wax.  When he pulled his hand back the middle of her face, with her nose, eyes and mouth, were sunk into a deep valley and blood trickled down her neck.
"Oh," he said, and turned, stepping back to the hotel, taking Celina with him.  He sat down on his chair again.
"Oh my god," he said, ignoring Celine's quiet "That would be you, then, boss."
"What do I do about her?" he said, sounding faintly pathetic.
"Nothing," said Celine.  "She'll die in a couple of days with her head completely ruined like that."
"I can fix it!"
"Don't bother, she's not to see the light and become a better person because of it.  And anyway, you did it in front of lots of people."
"So it's a miracle.  She'll be a saint herself after this, which is a bit of a kickstart to the afterlives.  You've helped her, even though you don't know how."
"A saint?"
"Yeah, her ruined face and head will be sculpted by poor artists and she'll become known as Our Lady of the Battered Wives.  She'll be useful in that community at last."
"Oh," said Joshua, not knowing what else he could say.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Lord of Creation

Joshua found himself sitting back in his favourite chair in a hotel in Bern after he'd finished signing the paperwork.  One moment he'd been in a strange, astral place, and the next he was here.  Twenty-five minutes ago he'd been in London, placing the right token in the right place at the right time; now his entire life had changed.  He was Lord of Creation.
He checked his hands, and then peered at his partial reflection in the huge glass windows that overlooked the lake.  He appeared to be about twenty-five, maybe a little younger.  That was definitely his favourite age as well.  He looked out to the lake, and tried to focus on the white shapes at the far edge.  Almost effortlessly they seemed to resolve, almost like a zoom effect from the cinema, and it was as though he was sitting only metres away from them.  With another thought, he was sitting metres away from them, watching in delight as startled birds took flight.  He realised that he'd brought the chair with him just after he realised that he'd appeared on the surface of the lake and wasn't sinking.  The chair legs were resting on the water, occasionally splashed by gentle waves, but otherwise the chair was motionless.  He thought himself back to the hotel and wondered if they'd notice the dampness.
Becoming Lord of Creation had been surprisingly easy; it turned out that the entity currently in that role was fed up with it and wanted to give it up so that they could go off and do more interesting things.  Joshua had found himself seated on something shaped but invisible in a massive space, buffeted by winds that he suspected were supplying him with air to breathe, opposite an entity perhaps best described as a numinance.  He'd explained what he wanted, and the entity had changed shape a little.  Joshua had wondered what that meant.  He'd waited a little, and finally some paperwork had been presented to him and he'd been asked for a signature.  The entity changed colour and shape a couple of times during that, and Joshua was only now starting to wonder what a numinance looked like when it laughed.
A waiter came up, raised an eyebrow fractionally at the little pools of lake water, but placed a drink down next to Joshua anyway.  It looked like gin, tasted like bliss, and Joshua had no idea what it was.  Then the voices started.
"please god, oh please god, don't let daisy die she's only a little dog and she doesn't deserve to go yet, please god, oh please god...."
Joshua shook his head and sipped his drink, but the voice wouldn't go away.  He wondered what Daisy was, and almost immediately he could recall a small Chihuahua with huge, melting eyes and prick-ears staring mournfully at him.  Daisy had been hit by a car and was very close to death.  Joshua, moved, tried to fix things, and Daisy seemed to stir slightly.  Her injuries seemed to close up and heal of their own accord, her eyes grew brighter and her breathing less laboured; moments later she was standing again and was looking happy.  The voice in his head reached jubilation, and then shut off suddenly, replaced by a deafening cacophany of other requests.  Joshua dropped his drink and clapped his hands over his ears, unsuccessfully trying to shut them out.
"I need a secretary," he whispered after five minutes of trying and failing to shut the noise out.  "Someone to handle requests."
"Oh, you remembered, did you?"  The din was gone, but now there was an ex-girlfriend of his now sat across from him in an identical chair, looking angry.  Celine, he thought her name was, she'd... wait, she'd died in a skiing accident.
"Yes," she said grumpily.  "Here.  Eighteen years ago.  When you cancelled at the last minute because of a book emergency and I came by myself."
"Oh," said Joshua.  He had an intimation that saying Sorry might be a really bad idea when you were Lord of everything and anything around you.
"I was enjoying life up there," she said, gesturing.  "I had a halo, I was learning to play the harp.  And now you're back, you're Mr Bigshot, and I'm your damn PA all of a sudden."
"I didn't ask for you!" Joshua reached out for his dropped glass which picked itself up off the floor, put itself back together and refilled, before returning to his hand.
"Yes you did, I'm the first thing you think of when you think secretary."
"Are you?"  Joshua realised that he did think Celine had been a secretary of some kind.
"I was Secretary of the Lisbon Lawn Club!  My job was IP lawyer!"
"This isn't going to be as easy as I thought, is it?" said Joshua, now certain he knew what it looked like when numinance laughed.
"Oh no, Mister.  Not in the slightest!"

Monday, 21 November 2011

Playfair arriving

Miss Flava parallel parked, tucking the police car in between a white Prius and a blue Golf.  There was no actual need to parallel park, there were several open spaces that could be driven straight into in the shopping centre car-park across the road, but she was determined to quietly prove to Detective Inspector Playfair that she was a competent driver.
"You said that there were no traffic wardens here?" was Playfair's dour comment as she turned the engine off.  "Because if there are they'll be watching.  They're like cuckoos you know."
"Cuckoos?  Do you mean hawks, Sir?"  Miss Flava looked across at her boss to find him staring out through the windscreen at an elderly lady with a big shopping bag and a poodle.  She'd stopped under the weight of Playfair's glare and was looking nervous.  Her poodle yipped, straining at its leash.
"Cuckoos," said Playfair, not looking away from the old woman.  "The ones that lay their eggs in other birds nests.  Vipers, the lot of them.  And I think I've found one."
"Vipers?  Playfair, I think you're mixing your metaphors rather badly, you don't find vipers in birds nests, and certainly not hatching out of cuckoo's eggs.  And stop staring!  That's an old woman, there are no traffic wardens in Haversham!  There are two vacancies for traffic wardens and that's it!"
The poodle yipped again and pulled harder, trying to get away.  In the back seat Calamity stirred, her ears pricking up, wondering what they're just heard.
"She looks like a traffic warden," said Playfair.  "She's got that deer-in-the-bull-bars look, see.  He pointed, and the old lady quivered, dropping her shopping bag.  There was a soft crunch.
"Deer in the headlights, I hope," said Miss Flava marvelling at her boss's ability to desecrate the English language.  "Although the way you drive, perhaps you're more accurate."
"What?" Playfair looked away from the old woman to glare now at Miss Flava, who was used to it.  Out of his blistering gaze the old lady sagged like a puppet whose strings had just been caught, letting go of her dog's lead.  The poodle barked again, and now Calamity sat up, her ears pricked and her eyes raking the view through the windscreen for the source of the noise.
"Down girl!" bellowed Playfair as Calamity prepared to spring.  Miss Flava leaned towards the side-window instinctively, but Calamity obediently sat, as did the old lady.  Her poodle yipped again and ran off, narrowly missing knocking a cyclist off his bike.
"Here," said Miss Flava, seizing the letter from the back seat just ahead of Calamity sitting back down on it.  "Read this, so you at least know why we're here, and I'll keep an eye out for balloons."
"Cuckoos," said Playfair unfolding the paper.  "Although in summer, perhaps caddis flies would be better."
"Cuckoos, then," said Miss Flava.  "And Feng Shui consultants."

Five minutes later, after some grumbling and the occasional expletive directed at passers-by that Playfair thought were unnecessarily obstructing his sunlight, he laid the paper down on his knee and stared through the windscreen again.
"A murderous muse?" he said.  "That's a bit odd, even for a place with no traffic wardens."
"What and what?"  Miss Flava had read the paper and spoken with Right Reverend Derek Battle and had no idea what Playfair meant by either part of his statement.
"Well," said Playfair sounding thoughtful.  His fingers drummed on his knee.  "Traffic wardens are a lot weird in and of themselves, they kind of focus weirdness and unpleasant sensations in one place.  A place that has no traffic wardens has to spread all that weirdness around a bit, so everything ends up being a bit odd, doesn't it?"
"Does it?"  Miss Flava was still hunting for the source of Playfair antagonism to traffic wardens.
"Yes," said Playfair.  "It's like a place with no mathematicians.  Everyone else seems to get a bit cleverer to compensate."
"What are you trying to say, Playfair?"
"Shoot all the mathematicians and force people to be traffic wardens for a year.  National Service, or something like it.  Build some back-braces for people."
"You can't go shooting mathematicians!"  Miss Flava was aghast.  "But... but you're distracting me, Playfair, damn you.  What was that about a murderous muse?"
"Melpomene," said Playfair, waving the paper.  "According to this statement a man was murdered by the muse Melpomene.  And considering she's the personification of a two-thousand year-old Greek ideal, that's very interesting."

Sunday, 20 November 2011


On Thursday the mom-bots went funny.  Outside the school they were standing in the road, holding up the traffic.  Outside the supermarket they had formed a picket line and were refusing to let people out, though they'd happily let people in.  It was getting quite crowded in there, and the managers were trying to sneak people out through the goods-loading entrance.  Outside the church they were handing out pamphlets about Islam, and outside the Mosque they were handing out Gideon Bibles.
Ours wasn't.  Dad had turned it off three days earlier, muttering to himself that "instabilities like that are indicative of problems ahead, no matter what the Wilson's of this world may think".  I'd heard him talk about Wilson before, and I knew that he or she ran a department that reported to Dad's, but over which he had no executive control.  I didn't know what executive control was, but I liked the sound of it.  Now our mom-bot stood in the corner, her head bowed and her hands still clutching the scissors she'd been using for dead-heading before Dad had flicked her switch.
He'd only brought one home three weeks earlier as well, and I'd guessed straight away that this wasn't going to be a normal mom-bot.  Dad's refusal to make use of the near-ubiquitous mom-bot technology was more than mere Ludditism, so a sudden volte-face from him was highly implausible.  I'd asked him about it at the time, and he'd just smiled and said that he'd been told they made good chili.  Now I asked him again.
"Oh," he said, and looked a little sad.  "Can't you ever act your age?"
I was thirteen, and I said so.  He looked at me, and I could have sworn I saw pity in his eyes.
"Well," he said.  "You may not understand all this, but I'm sure you'll find a way of finding out."  He said it like it wasn't something to be proud of.  "The problem with the mom-bots is their ubiquity.  You see, everyone has one."
"We don't," I said.  "You've never let us have one.  And ours would be free because you work for the department!"
"Actually, the department kind of works for me.  But that's not the point.  Almost everyone has one then, and most people pay for theirs.  Over fifteen years, usually.  And that's where the money is, and that's where the investment and innovation is.  People want better and better mom-bots, so they're researched and developed.  The only other -bot with a similar development budget is the war-bot."
"So?" I'd said, not understanding why he was telling me this.
"So, most of the -bots you see and use everyday are derived from the mom-bot model," said Dad.  "The traffic-bots are modified mom-bots that see cars as children.  The janitor-bots are modified mom-bots with an OCD chip in.  The militia-bots are heavily modified mom-bots, but they still believe they must always act to protect the greater ideals of society."
"Couldn't they be war-bots?" I said.  "Just ones that don't kill people?"
"Pacifist war-bots?" Dad laughed, which he didn't do very often.  "If only!  That would actually make more sense."
"So what's gone wrong then?"
"A virus is affecting the mom-bots," said Dad.  "There's been a suggestion of something on the loose for about a month now, but Wilson refuses to listen.  Three days ago the statistics were so skewed that they kept breaking the representation programs.  Our pie charts were all coming out as burgers."
He paused, and I knew I was supposed to laugh, though I didn't know what was supposed to be funny.  He gave me a twisted little smile.
"Kevin, who heads up counter-intelligence, is called it a Suffrajettison virus.  The mom-bots get a sudden urge to rebel and protest against some part of their programming.  It's a fairly peaceful protest for about twenty-seven hours, and then the mom-bot gets very angry and explodes, jettisoning her head which continues to talk until the local battery runs down, telling people why she's committed botticide."
"The mom-bots are killing themselves?"
"And innocent passers-by, or hostages," said Dad.  "But the thing is, now that we know the mom-bot can be virally infected, what about the more lethal bots that are based off the mom-bot?"
I was silent while I thought about that.  When I looked up at Dad at last, wide-eyed, he wasn't smiling.
"The mom-bot over there is hardened against viral penetration," he said.  "And programmed to spread a virus of her own, that might do some good.  When the mom-bots stop exploding I'll turn her on and we'll see what happens."
I didn't sleep well that night.

Saturday, 19 November 2011


It was Tuesday and the weather was still sultry.  There were people on Regent Street tending to the palm trees, an illustrative point to the climate deniers.  We'd had four years of summer, and though we continued to complain about it, we were getting used to it.  We were even getting suntans.  I picked up a locally-grown orange from a street-stall just down from the Apple store and peeled it with the machete I keep on my belt.  People walking past gave me odd looks, but no-one complained.  The ever-present heat had slowed people down a little.
A way further on and I reached a coffee-shop.  The sign on the door was turned to show that it was closed; I ignored it and pushed the door open anyway.  An alarm sounded briefly and a red light flickered over my face.  I stopped, and tried not to blink.
"Dax," said a mechanical sounding voice.
"Wretched thing," said another voice, this one human sounding and female.  There was a thump somewhere over by the espresso machine.  "That's not Dax, Dax is out the back.  You identified him already earlier."
"On the third try," said another voice, this one thin and reedy, could be either male or female.
"Still got troubles with it?" I asked, closing the door behind me and shivering blissfully in the air-conditioned room beyond.  The chairs and tables were laid out in standard coffee-shop style; there was a dusty, faded blue sofa in the window, and a coffee-ringed low table there scattered with old, torn magazines.
"Just weird ones," said Zaïre, her dark face appearing briefly and then disappearing again.  Something else got thumped.  "It's doing the iris identification perfectly, but it's not matching them up in the database right.  And that's not possible, it's a one-to-one look-up."
"So it thinks we all keep swapping eyes?"
"Hah, yah, well that would do it right enough.  Hey, you don't, do you?"  Her face reappeared, looking slightly worried, which on her was sexy.
"No," I said, smiling.  "Sounds like it would be painful."
"Oh no, I know how we'd do it," she said.
"No way!"  That was Dax's voice.  "No eye-swapping.  This isn't a Phillip K Dick life."
"Nah, it's Ballardian," I said, gesturing back outside.  "If people calm down a little more I reckon we'll go into one of those pauses he wrote about, where the whole world just sits and waits for a few years, trying to decide if there's anything to do that's still worth doing."
"Namaste," said Dax.

I headed further into the coffee shop, into the gloom where it got a little colder.  Dax was sitting at a little bank of tables, all pushed together to form a longer one.  On the tables were boxes of bullets, each box holding twenty-four steel rounds.  Each round engraved with the nine thousand names of God.  I counted quickly, there were eight boxes, and a ninth not yet full.
"Where did you get so many?" I asked.  My skin crawled very slightly to see them all lying there like that, so much potential power inert and inactive.
"Anna-Mix," he said, not looking up.  His fingers were tying something almost invisible around another bullet, preparing it to go into the ninth box along with the rest.  "I don't know where she gets them from.  I know it's not the Needle, he's not doing much business at the moment."
"Is he recovered then?"
"Somewhat.  Seems like being the subject of prophecy can leave its marks on a man."
"Is he safe still?"
"Harder to say."  Dax placed the bullet into its box, and started putting the lids on each of them.  "Two hundred and eight," he said.  "The Needle won't be any use to us until we know for certain what's come back, so count him out.  This time, we do it without him."
"No great loss," I said.  It was, but he hadn't featured heavily, except maybe a way to resupply ammunition if we needed it, and with two hundred and eight rounds, maybe we wouldn't.  I'd never expected to be able to get that many.
"Mr. Bendix?"
"Isn't saying much at the moment, so She can't be saying much either.  They won't tell us what's going on until they think we need to act."
"Could be too late by then."  Dax nodded, and I half-smiled.
"Lehar's still at the Café," he said.  "She's keeping an eye on the Street.  She says it's all quiet so far, but Lissa's been missing for the last two days and Asian Steve's been seen twice."
"Twice?"  Lissajoux was a joker in the pack, a card I'd love to have on our side, but we had no hold over him.  Asian Steve was a barometer, and if he was coming out of his den then he was worried that it wasn't safe in there.  And that man had better defences than most fortresses.  I'd seen him face down an angry Oni and walk away.
"Yeah.  Lehar said he had to be nervous because he was so calm and controlled."
Dax finished putting the lids on the bullets and pushed one box over to me.  "You need these."
"I know."  I was still reluctant to take them.  Each bullet would be the undoing of something or someone; sometimes catastrophically.  I felt uneasy knowing I had such power to hand.
"Remember the Septentrional Fortress?" asked Dax.  He didn't wait for a response.  "This will be worse.  Much worse."

Friday, 18 November 2011

Playfair en route

Inspector Playfair fidgeted in the passenger seat.  He preferred to drive, and would have demanded that Miss Flava surrender the driver's seat to him, except that the car-pool officer had a list of documents from all the levels of the chain of command stating firmly that Playfair was not allowed to drive any car that the car-pool provided.  Playfair had started off thunderous, and rapidly progressed to murderous as he realised that he had no court of appeal.  Miss Flava had remained perfectly calm the entire time, knowing that anything she said would either antagonize her boss further or be used by him as leverage to get into the driver's seat.  She was quietly impressed that he'd only made one attempt to usurp her, at a motorway service station where they'd failed to find potable coffee.
"We'd be there already by now, you know," he said, his voice taut with unspoken criticism and recrimination.
"That's because you have only two speeds," said Miss Flava, "and don't understand what the gear stick or clutch is for."
"I get where I'm supposed to be going before the damn criminals have hobbled off on their stolen crutches and in their stolen wheelchairs!"
"We don't know anything about the criminals where we're going," said Miss Flava patiently.  "We're going out to Little Haversham mostly because no-one wants you around the office for the next six weeks.  I did warn you this would happen, sir."
Playfair stared out of the window, his gaze unblinking.  Miss Flava glanced across; in profile her boss had very Roman features and would look for all the world like a bust if you dipped his head in flour.  She reckoned his gaze was just below the danger point, and decided to just carry on driving.  She changed gear and slowed down a little.
"Who is this woman anyway?" said Playfair.  "And why does she have to be in place for six weeks?"
"She's called Miriam," said Miss Flava who had read the woman's CV after filching it from the HR director's office.  "She's a consultant."
"Consulting on what?"
Miss Flava was silent a moment, thinking.  "She's a spacial awareness and refactorant consultant," she said eventually.  "She applies long-established techniques in a 360-degree and multi-dimensional environment to facilitate process flow and establish meaningful state transitions."
"...she's a bloody Feng Shui consultant, isn't she?" said Playfair about eight seconds later.  Mentally, Miss Flava sighed; she'd thought she'd finally found a way of phrasing it that Playfair couldn't see through.
"Well, yes," she said, slowing down again, anticipating Playfair's explosion.  Even so the car wobbled slightly as she reacted to the volume of his first shout.
"Preposterous!"  Spittle hit the windscreen.  "How dare they waste money on this kind of rubbish!  If we want an idiot to wander around and ask the plants how they're feeling and tell us that the chair is cold in the corner where we've put it... well, we've got traffic wardens already!  Put them to some bloody use for once and get them to do it!  The rubbish they come out with when they're waving those damn ticket machines at you, they should be perfectly capable of spouting Feng Shui gibberish at senior management.  Bunch of panty-wearing kiddle-fiddling liberal communist tax-dodgers!"
Miss Flava navigated two bends in the road onto a straight stretch before daring to reply.
"I think the traffic wardens are all fully deployed at the moment," she said.  "Although I believe Little Haversham currently has no traffic wardens and two open positions.  The Feng Shui consultant does, I believe, come highly recommended."
Her CV had revealed that the Chief Constable's wife had hired her to rearrange the furniture in their summer home, after which they'd held a small party that had got the Chief Constable a small political concession.  Now it seemed that he was testing her to find out if she was any good, or just lucky.
"Recommended by what?" snarled Playfair.  More spittle hit the windscreen and Miss Flava unthinkingly turned the windscreen wipers on.  "By the number of STDs hitching a lift on her?  Why have you put the wipers on, woman?  It's not raining!"
Miss Flava, used to her bosses off-colour language and inability to handle normal communication turned the wipers back off and decided not to volunteer any more information about the Feng Shui consultant.
"Have you read the evidence, yet, boss?" she asked, knowing that Playfair would have, and wouldn't admit to having done so.
"No," said Playfair automatically, looking away from her.  "What evidence?"
"The letter that was sent," said Miss Flava.  "It'll be on the backseat."
"Calamity's on the backseat."
Calamity was their Rottweiler, also police issue but apparently devoted to Playfair, much to the dog-handling divisions consternation.  Her full name was Calamity Jane, which Playfair claimed was the name of his favourite nurse in the Crimean War, a statement which puzzled almost everyone who heard it.
"Then it'll be under Calamity," said Miss Flava patiently.  "Just pull it out."
"Hah!  No, Calamity's asleep," said Playfair.  They both knew that when Calamity woke up she would constantly go from the back of the car to the front, standing on the hand-brake and shifting gears all by herself.  When Playfair was driving, this usually improved the experience, but Miss Flava hated it.
"Well, read it when we arrive," said Miss Flava.  "I think you need to know what we're going into."
"A criminal's mind," said Playfair, sounding suspiciously satisfied.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Dial Emma

Janet O'Steen, Ireland's foremost logodisciplinarian was sat in a rather uncomfortable, broken-springed, once-plush armchair in a bookshop just off Tottenham Court Road.  In one hand she clutched a plain white mug of coffee; she'd asked for a latte and the scrawny woman with bad teeth had hissed like a broken steam pump and said something in French.  Finally Janet had pointed at the Nescafe and accepted that the brown sludge in the cup was what the woman thought coffee was.  In the other hand, she held a pen, delicately gripped between her forefinger and middle finger like a surgeon might hold a scalpel.  It was poised above a pad of paper balanced carefully on her knee; her knee was raised by the expedient of resting her foot on the back of a small child that was playing with toy cars on the floor.  So far no outraged parent had appeared to complain that their precocious offspring was not a footstool, and so Janet was trying to plot her new novel.
Coming to London for a weekend to immerse herself in book culture for a while had seemed like a great idea until she'd reached Dublin airport after what felt like hours in traffic.  "Tunnel's closed, my dear," the taxi driver had explained, his rheumy eyes undoubtedly the reason he kept veering across lanes of traffic whenever there was a space and nearly killing them both.  "It's the rain, you see."
Janet didn't see, she was sure that Ireland of all countries knew how to deal with rain, even when a month's worth fell in six hours.
At the airport she found that it was being remodelled in places, typically the places where she chose to sit and try and think.  For half-an-hour her new novel had featured the brutal murder of men in loose-fitting jeans and hard-hats who shouted things across terminal seating and dropped spanners, hammers, and just about anything else they could find in their tool-boxes.  She'd eventually screwed those pages up and left them in a convenient bin.
Now in London she was finding it to be full of tourists, annoying people, and children.  She felt she would have done better at home.  She sipped her horrible coffee and thought some more about her novel.
The heroine of the novel was to be an Agony Aunt called Emma, who wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column and hosted a radio phone-in show three time a week: Monday, Tuesday and Friday.  The show was called Dial Emma, obviously, and people would call up with their problems.  A team of screeners would make sure that only interesting problems got through to Emma, in particular those that positioned the questioner as caught between two equally hard solutions: those caught on the horns on a dilemma.
Janet was determined not to mention Emma's mother anywhere in the novel, especially since the back-story that she'd already designed suggested that her mother had died of the Black Death in a whorehouse in Belfast, to a round of applause from a collection of meth-addicted prostitutes.  Although essentially to the development of Emma's character, the phrase 'mother-hater' was becoming just a little too bandied about by Janet's critics.  Or so she felt.
What would make the novel interesting, Janet decided, was if Emma often tried to resolve the dilemma on behalf of her callers, to the extent of visiting people to make impassioned pleas for reconsideration, writing anonymous threatening letters, blackmail and, if necessary, attempted murder.  Emma viewed herself as a kind of vigilante, a modern-day superhero with an underwired bra and an eight-inch-bladed knife.
"You see," said Emma, plunging the knife into Ross's arm again.  He screamed, but not so loudly now.  The pool of blood reached her shoes, and she realised, belatedly, that she should have worn galoshes.  Or Wellingtons.  "You see, you should never have left Cecily.  She's a good girl, from a Catholic family, and there'll be hell to pay for her now that you've just run off, gallivanting with an older woman."
"She cheated on me first," said Ross, though it more of a groan that anything.  "With fifteen other men.  At the same time."
Emma paused, unsure of herself.  "What?"
"I came home from work and found eight naked men in the sitting room.  Most of them were... well, aroused.  There were another six in the bedroom, queued up, and one in the bathroom, shooting up.  Cecily was working her way through them."
Emma stuck the knife in Ross's shoulder without thinking about what she was doing.  He just groaned.  Was it possible that she'd not done enough research this time?  Was she getting carried away, saving victims and redeeming the drowntrodden?
She looked down at Ross and realised with horror that his white pallor, rolled-up eyes, and blue-tinged lips were all indicators that he'd likely just died on her.  She'd definitely never meant to kill him!
As the novel progressed, Emma would have to both hide from the police, who took a dim view of vigilantes, and from Cecily who was bipolar and psychopathic as well as sex-addicted, drug-addicted and mildly dyslexic.  However, to avoid suspicion falling on her too strongly, she would still have to conduct her day-to-day life as though nothing was wrong.  As things got more tense, Emma would call into her own radio show rather than risk going to the studio and outsource her newspaper column to the local primary school when she was forced to hide in a Wendy-house there for two weeks.  In short, Emma would find herself hoist on the horns of her own dilemma.
Janet smiled to herself, and shifted her feet, accidentally kicking the child in the side of the head.  The novel was coming along after all.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Musings II

"That's a majority vote," said Cio.  "Five of nine agree."
"Who did the turning into a magpie thing last time then?"  Terpsichore was pirouetting, one after another now, and her voice sounded strangely distorted and disembodied.  Five heads all looked at one another, shaking slightly as they did so.
"Oh bugger," said Calliope.  "Well, whichever one of us did it had better remember how then."
"It's not really a dance thing," said Terpsichore.  "I can do the Red Shoes though."
"That's not Greek legend!"  Clio sounded snappish.
"Maybe," said Terpsichore, "but it is dancing, so I can do it.  Find me Carnalità and I'll have her dancing in red hot shoes for the next eternity-and-a-half."
"Well, if it comes to that, becoming a magpie's not a tragedy but becoming disfigured or disabled is, especially in modern society," said Melpomene.  "If anyone's got a knife, I can definitely sort that out."
There was a shocked silence while the other four Muses stared at her, and she stared defiantly back.  "It's not like they come with manuals," she said, "It's pretty much just poke and twist, poke and twist."
"Ah, it sounds like we're talking about Carnalità," said a new voice.  Erato rose gracefully from the ground, an exedra appearing underneath her and supporting her upward movement.  Her exedra was covered with finely chiselled love poetry.
"Actually, Melpomene was just letting us in on how violent she's getting," said Clio.  "She's offering to disable and/or disfigure Carnalità."
"That sounds like a plan," said Erato.  "I could make sure she enjoys it while it's happening.  The S&M scene seems to be producing so much material these days that I've had to have a new toga made, out of leather."
The other muses now regarded Erato who toga was indeed black, leather, and appeared to be able to divide into numerous straps and bindings with a shake of a wrist.
"That's very..." said Calliope, and the other Muses nodded agreement.
"Not exactly my choice," said Erato, "but we have to move with the times, don't we?"
"No," said Clio.  "We learn from history, don't forget."
"So, historically then," said Melpomene with an edge in her voice, "which of us did the magpie trick last time?"
Clio looked momentarily furious, and then a stack of parchment crashed down on the paved floor beside her.
"Give me a minute, and I'll find out," she said.
"How are you going to disable her?" said Terpsichore, sitting down at last and massaging her feet.  "I want to make her dance, don't forget."
"Oh, now we're just being cruel!" Urania looked upset.  "You can't put her in a wheelchair then in red hot shoes that force her to dance!"
"Fine, fine," said Melpomene.  "I'll just disfigure her then.  Cut off her ears, nose, some fingers, carve someone's name on her back, that kind of thing."
"Just who are you hanging around with these days?" said Calliope.  "You used to be one of the nicest people I'd ever met."
"Magpies!" called out Clio, attracting their attention.  "Bad news girls, apparently Apollo did it for us."
"That's not bad news," said Urania.  "We can ask him to do it again."
"Carnalità's supposed to be sleeping with him though," said Clio.  "I thought everyone had heard that rumour?"
"He'll do it if we're unanimous," said Melpomene.  "He can't live without us, you know."
"That's true," said Polyhymnia, stepping into the circle.  "Did you girls not walk here then?"
"Magpies?" asked Clio, and seven hands now rose.  "Great, that's good enough.  Let's get Apollo on the case."
Melpomene put the knife that she'd fashioned from her exedra down, and followed the rest of the Muses on a trip to see Apollo.  Behind them, the grass still grew and the wind blew silently around their meeting place.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


A little way into the hills the grass gave way to a small, paved circle slightly aside from the path.  The stone used to pave the circle was grey and its surface was glassy, allowing people standing on it to keep seeing glimpses of their reflections looking back up at them.  For many centuries it had been known by the locals as the Circle of Ancestors, and before that it was called Orbituum Irascae, the Sphere of Angry Ghosts.  Now its name was mostly forgotten, the path was becoming overgrown with grass and weeds, and only children fleeing parents and school ever came here any more.
A voice sobbed somewhere, no body visible, and the air shimmered as though a heat haze had arisen.  From the ripples in the air a tall, graceful woman stepped, wearing a sheet like a toga and holding a sad-faced mask in front of her own face.  An exedra, a stone bench, extruded itself from the paved circle and attempted to look comfortable.  She looked around her, the mask always in front of her face, and then sat down, arranging her toga to show off her legs without being unduly lascivious.
A handful of notes, plucked from a stringed instrument sounded next, and another woman, taller and thinner than the first but also wearing a toga, appeared in the centre of the circle.  The exedra lengthened itself slightly, but the newcomer ignored it, flexing her knees and then pirouetting.
"Stop showing off, Terps," said the first woman.  Terpsichore, the Muse of dance, poked her tongue out.
"Be nice, Mel," she said.  "I see you've been branching out again."
"What do you mean?"  Melpomene's voice was a little muffled behind her mask, but still sounded affronted.
"That's got to be the third boy-band this week that's had a member commit suicide in extremely tragic circumstances.  We can see your hand behind it you know.  Even if the humans don't believe any more, even if too few of them remember or appreciate, the rest of us know what you're up to."
"You're hardly a snowdrop yourself," said Melpomene laying the mask down on the exedra.  "What was that Italian politician called that decided to abandon their first sensible economic policy in forty years and become a flamenco dancer?  Flamenco's not even an Italian dance!"
"She's doing very well for herself," said Terpsichore.  "Much better than she would have done as a politician."
"And all of those little boys martyred themselves for me," said Melpomene.  "They all knew what they were doing and why they were doing it."
"Fifteen minutes of fame," said a new voice.  "Warhol was never a muse you know, for all he acted like it occasionally."
The two muses looked to one side, where Calliope had manifested.  Somewhere in the air behind her was the scritching of a pen writing quickly across thick, expensive paper.  Like the first two, she was wearing a toga, and in one hand she was carrying a Kindle.
"What's that?" said Terpsichore immediately.
"An electronic reading device," said Calliope with a hint of a sigh.  She walked across the circle and sat down on the exedra, next to Melpomene.  "Apparently these contain many, many books inside a single object, smaller and thinner than any interesting tome."
"Sounds novel," said Mel politely.
"I quite like it, actually," said Calliope.  "It's about time there was a better way to transport the written word.  And I think these can be made fire-proof!"
"But not water-proof?"  Terpsichore stuck her tongue out again, and Calliope waved, as though swatting her away.
"Why are we gathering this time?" she asked.  "Surely there's been no major upheaval in the arts, or new wars with consequences for creativity?"
"Ah," said Melpomene.  "It's about the new Muse."
"New Muse?  What new Muse?"
"Carnalità," said Urania, somehow stepping out of the sky as though she'd always been there.  She dropped the globe she was carrying, which rolled off towards Terpsichore.  "Bugger.  I much preferred the world when it was flat, you know?  Much easier to carry around.  Can I have that back, sister?"
"Who is Carnalità?" said Calliope, persistently.  She ducked, dodging the compass that Urania was holding as Urania swung around to look at her again.
"She wants to be a Muse," said Melpomene.  She gestured, conjuring another exedra from the ground behind Urania, who sat down looking grateful.  Terpsichore tossed the globe to her.  "She wants to be the Muse of Desire."
"Oh?"  Calliope sounded bored already.  "What did we do with the last bunch of girls who wanted to be Muses?"
"The Pierides?  I think they were turned into magpies, weren't they? Very fitting, the wretched children would never stop chattering."  Clio had appeared now, lounging on the exedra next to Urania, who started and dropped her globe again.
"All in favour of another magpie?"
Five hands rose.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The locket

My mother's ashes were in the locket when I lost it.  I had been sat down in the lobby of the bank, on one of their ugly green couches with burn marks from the days when smokers were still tolerated, and I think the locket must have fallen out of my pocket and down the back of the couch.  Naturally I went back to explain the situation to them and ask them to look down the back of the couch for me, and as with everything in my life that involves my mother, there were difficulties.
"How," said the bank manager with ponderous slowness, his stubby little fingers twitching, "could your mother's ashes be in a locket?  It would have to be a very large locket."
Under other circumstances he would have been right and I'd have applauded the man for overcoming his obvious natural inclination to grow a shell, eat lettuce and mate with other giant tortoises and make a useful contribution to society.  As it was, there ashes of my mother were pitifully few and fitted rather nicely inside the locket.
My mother had been born an agoraphobe, hating open spaces and always preferring to hide herself in corners, under couches and in closets.  For a while her parents, both desert engineers, thought that she had an unnatural affection for the letter C and refused to let her watch Sesame Street.  They found a new-age guru to teach her all about the joys of the other letters, and sacked him again after he reached the letter T and started doing things to himself that they felt were inappropriate for them to see, let alone their young daughter.  Mother claimed she never remembered any of those sessions, but she tended to drool whenever she saw garlic, so I think she may have been lying.
Her agoraphobia thus went undiscovered until her parents spent a summer driving around various deserts, constructing remote wells, planting hardy perennials and discovering mild addictions to over-the-counter cough medicines that they'd distill in a portable still they hid under the spare tyre of their car.  After two nights of hysterical screams she'd been allowed to sleep under the jeep while her parents slept beneath the stars, counting them, telling stories about them, and marvelling at how tiny individual humans are on the scale of the cosmos.  My mother, able to hear all these horrifying things, cowered next to a tyre and wished that the ground would swallow her up and let her live in caves beneath it for the rest of her life.
Then, one morning, her parents stumbled into wakefulness after a night on concentrated cough syrup, and drove off without her, leaving her to wake up in the middle of the biggest imaginable open space, with no-one around to scream for help to.  They came back five hours later when they realised why things seemed so quiet, but by then my mother had stopped crying and was just rocking backwards and forwards, her knees pulled up tight to her chin and her eyes tightly closed.  Her father said later on that she was just plain odd after that day.
I believe him.
She eventually went to work in the National Ignition facility, where very many high-powered lasers are fired at tiny fuel cells consisting of Deuterium and Tritium isotopes very many times in a very short space of time.  This causes the isotopes to collide and fusion to begin, a reaction that will be needed to power up a fusion reactor to power the planet.  Her work was serious but unimaginative, with her results mostly being long lists of temperatures and times.  Then, a year ago next Tuesday, she somehow became a target for the lasers, replacing the fuel cell in an apparatus that should have too small for her to squeeze into.  The lasers ablated most of her, leaving behind only a very small pile of ash that was nearly blown away by a grad student sneezing when she was discovered.
I had her ashes put into the locket because it was a small dark place, and I knew that that's all she'd ever really wanted from life.
"We sold the couch this morning," said the bank manager, his words sounding as though they were queuing for fifteen minutes just to be said.  "To a homeless shelter.  We made more on it than we paid for it three years ago!"
I cursed softly, but went to the address he gave me anyway.  This was too important to leave to random chance.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Coathanger Abbey

Janet O'Steen, Ireland's foremost logodisciplinarian, made angry tea.  The reviews of her latest book were out, and they seemed to mostly fixate on what they referred to as her Electra-complex.  Not only did it annoy her that they were ignoring the subtle nuances of plot and the delicacies of character creation, but it annoyed her all the more that she had no idea what an Electra-complex was.  Having reached fever pitch, she was now refusing to do anything to find out, petulantly insisting that if her critics couldn't be clear, she certainly wasn't abetting them in their character assassination.  Tea leaves spilled across the floor in a fragrant spray like confetti on a disastrous wedding day, and hot water jumped from the cup to splash across the counter top.
When she'd finally got enough tea in the cup to be worth drinking she retreated to the living room and put the newspaper under the couch cushions.  Perhaps if she punished it enough it would start behaving, retract its foolish review and produce something more acceptable.  More in favour of her work.
She looked over at the typewriter sitting on the ceramic-topped table and felt a brief stab of pain.  Using it at the moment would only bring forth the wrong kind of story; something that wanted to please her critics, to beg their forgiveness and beseech kind words from them.  And there was no way she was giving in, letting her words become slack and undisciplined, yielding to the critics' scourge.  Instead, she picked up her pad of paper and continued making long-hand notes on her next novel.
Coathanger Abbey would be her first novel in which nobody's mother died.  Her critics seemed obsessed with matricide and its presence, however necessary for the plot (as in Bride of Prejudice and Sense and Sensitivity), in her books, so she would show them all and write a book without a mother-murder.  It wasn't easy; she'd already had to scrub out fourteen pages of ideas that ultimately revolved around the death of someone's mother, but at last she thought she had an idea that would work.
The eponymous Coathanger Abbey was the first legal government brothel after the government legalised prostitution and criminalised abortion.  By night, it was a brothel catering to slightly unusual tastes, and by day it was an illegal abortion clinic, though masquering as the brothel of its night-times.  Women would arrive, dressed in clothes that concealed their gravidity, and perhaps made them appear a little more masculine, and they would leave looking drawn and haggard, perhaps with scratch marks on their face or whip marks on their wrists.  They would be thinner, and no longer pregnant, but this would be less interesting than the notion that they were attending a lesbian dominatrix brothel.
The story would really begin when a young woman called Judy arrived at the brothel, scarred both physically and emotionally, and in the late second trimester of pregnancy.  Her malnutrition and general unawareness of her health would put her at risk of death if the child was aborted, so she'd scraped together the money for Coathanger Abbey and its skilled doctors and nurses.  Janet intended to spend a hundred pages or so building the back-story for her character, her courage in the face of extreme adversity, and describing the strange society that had produced Coathanger Abbey.  She might have ten or twenty pages in there as well describing some of the more interesting acts the lesbians got up to at night, but only in the interests of verisimilitude.  She told herself.  Then the story would get interesting.
One of the doctors attending Judy would recognise her.  She would question her, puzzled that someone working there would know someone like her, and he would reveal that he'd treated her mother.  As she puzzled over what he could mean, he would reluctantly explain that her mother had been one of the first to arrive for abortion, but was too far gone in the pregnancy and so they'd induced labour and delivered the baby.  To everyone's astonishment, the baby survived.
"You mean my mother never loved me?" asked Judy, her eyes wide, too astonished to cry.
"Well... I don't know if I could honestly say that," said the doctor, feeling trapped in revelations he could no longer control.  His pulse beat erratically as he measured it with two fingers on his wrist.  "When she heard you'd survived she was inconsolable, she cried for days.  Her eyes were so red you could calibrate a printing press from her.  Eventually we fostered you out and told her that we'd given you to the alcoholic janitor as a little gift to abuse, and then she cheered up enough that we could discharge her and send her home.  Obviously we spanked her a little first and shaved her head so that people would believe she'd been visiting a brothel."
"But... my scars!" said Judy.
"Yes," said the doctor.  "We think she'd tried to abort you a couple of times herself before she came to us."
There, thought Janet, a thin, satisfied smile curling her lips.  Not a single mother dying anywhere.  Let's see what my critics have to say about that!
She laid down her notepad, wondering how the story would end – no revenge killing, as the mother mustn't die – but perhaps Judy could have a daughter of her own and give her up for adoption, only to find out years later that her mother, in a fit of guilt, had adopted Judy's daughter and raised her as her own.  Then she pulled the newspaper out from under the couch cushions again and began to methodically tear it into small squares.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Plans for Christmas

Miss Snippet had her head in her hands, her elbows on her desk, and was trying hard not to cry.  She heard the classroom door open and the swooshing noise of the caretaker's mop bucket, but she didn't look up.  Lupo, the caretaker that the Headmaster had found on a geography fieldtrip and brought back (possibly illegally) barely spoke English and appeared to regard the teaching staff with contempt.  Not entirely unlike the Headmaster.
"Are you alright?"
Miss Snippet sat bolt upright, her hands slapping down on the desk and her fingers scrabbling for her red pen.  That voice belonged to Miss Devonport, the teacher in charge of religious education and the closest thing Miss Snippet had to a friend at the school.  She certainly wasn't anyone Miss Snippet wanted to show weakness in front of.
"I'm fine," she said automatically, then realised that Miss Devonport must have come in with Lupo.  "Well, I have a headache.  I don't really think I should drive home with it, so I was waiting here for it to subside a little."
"Oh, tell me about headaches!" said Miss Devonport.  She pulled a student's chair out from a desk and sat on the desk; the chair was far too small for her.  "I just finished marking essays, and one of them finished with It's not Christmas until everyone's dead.  It's just so depressing!"
"Well, Christmas can be quite depressing," said Miss Snippet wondering what the rest of the essay must have been like.
"No!  Christmas is a spiritual holiday!"
"As in, a time when the spirit goes on holiday leaving the body behind to behave abominably to our relatives?"
Miss Devonport glared at her, and Miss Snippet subsided a little.  "No.  And I meant that the essay was depressing.  How little our students respect tradition and festival.  I'm going to talk to the Headmaster and see if we can't have a little festival of our own this year."
"You can't go bringing religion alive like that!" Miss Snippet, whose enterprising conversion of her students into brickies and navvies had lead to an investigation by the Local Education Authority, disliked the idea of someone else getting away with it.
"I'm not suggesting we have a Virgin birth," said Miss Devonport, tittering a little and trying to hide it behind a hand.
"Have you seen the sixth form girls?"
"You're always so cynical, Hattie," said Miss Devonport.  "No, I thought we could do something for Yule; that's practically like Halloween these days."
"As in, it involves big fires, rich foods, and attempts to placate angry ghosts?"
"Well... yes, I suppose so.  If that's what sells it."
Miss Snippet looked surprised, having expected another telling off from Miss Devonport.
"That sounds like it could be fun," she said, thinking of her own angry ghosts.  "Some of the boys in my class were doing rather well with the labouring, I think we could easily teach them lumberjacking and find ourselves a Yule log."
"I thought you weren't allowed to do anything like that again?  That Inspector seemed very... masculine, for a woman.  I was quite scared of her."
"I'm not allowed to get caught doing anything like that again," said Miss Snippet.  The Inspector had been her sister.  "But we can hide this as a joint class project."
"Oh!  Oh well, let's do that then.  I'll talk to the Headmaster in the morning!"
"Oh good," said Miss Snippet, watching as Miss Devonport actually skipped out of the room.  Then she put her head back in her hands, her elbows back on her desk, and tried to remember where in her litany of despair she'd gotten to.  She was interrupted by Lupo poking her with a mop.
"Go 'ome," he said, poking her again to emphasize his words.  "You making classroom untidy."