Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Weaponising dandelions

Xogenes lifted the dandelion clock to his lips, pursed them, and blew gently.  Fluffy seeds parted company with the flower's centre and launched into the air; white fuzz forming tiny fractal clouds against the deep blue of the sky.  One, he thought, and pursed his lips to blow again.
The dandelion clock struck thirteen before all the seeds had gone and he laid the remnants of the flower down.  Thirteen o'clock, a strange hour for a strange day.  He looked around, wondering if the other dandelion clocks might agree, but found that Clytie had picked them all before him.  She had bundled them together, and, holding them in her cybernetic hand, was blowing on them like a voiceless banshee, her face red with effort and her eyes bulging from her skull.  A virtual fog of dandelion seeds launched from her hand and drifted westwards with the prevailing breeze.
"What time do you make it?" he asked when she'd finished at last and was gasping like a fish out of water.
"Forty-two... o'clock...," she said between gasps, and Xogenes laughed.
"I got thirteen," he said.  "I thought that was odd, but at least it's an hour on the twenty-four hour clock."
"You got a military dandelion?"  Clytie scrunched up her face in an effort to look thoughtful, but ended up looking like she was sucking on a lemon.  "That's kind of interesting really, how would you weaponise a dandelion?"
"I wouldn't," said Xogenes.  "You would.  You also got forty-two o'clock and used up all the dandelions."
"Yeah," said Clytie, her breathing starting to come under control now.  "Tough luck, Xoggie,"
They lay back in the grass, smelling the flowers growing around them and listening to the hum and buzz of insects.  Leaves rustled in the distance, sussurating hypnotically and Xogenes allowed himself to relax.  There was no-one here to see them, no-one to question their closeness and friendship, no-one to tell them that blowing the seeds off dandelions was pointle–
"You'd want to make the core explosive," said Clytie, breaking into his reverie.  "Maybe two layers though, one to free the seeds first and the second to explode in the face of the person blowing on it."
"I wouldn't," said Xogenes again.  "I'd paint dandelions, or perhaps make a sculpture of them.  I think one of the mad artists did something similar with some flowers associated with the sun."
"Jerusalem Artichokes?"
"...could be," said Xogenes, unsure.  "I think there was a severed ear involved as well."
"Hah!  And you say you wouldn't weaponise things!"
"He might have painted with the severed ear," said Xogenes, knowing that it was a bit of a stretch.  "People paint with palette knives and by squirting paint out of thei–"
"Don't know, don't care!"  Clytie was a bit of a prude sometimes, which continually surprised Xogenes.  The woman had a cybernetic hand, and he couldn't imagine how you could embrace that kind of physical transformation without losing your prudery.  Instead, she was somehow hyper aware of what was self and what was non-self.  She was like a T-cell.
"I don't think the dandelions cut his ear off."
"Jerusalem Artichokes," said Clytie.  "But if you shape the explosive charge you might actually be able to cut an ear off with it.  Imagine that, you blow on a dandelion to tell the time and it blows the side of your head off!"
"I don't think you should sound happy about that," said Xogenes, cringing a little.  He was glad that they were lying side by side so she couldn't see that.  "Can't you weaponise it in a less violent way?"
"What, like... like, you blow on it and it blows back on you?  Nerve gas!"
"Where do you store enough nerve gas to kill a human?" said Xogenes.  "That's ridiculous."
"Back to the explosives then," said Clytie, still sounding cheerful.
"And why dandelions?  They're not very pretty to look at like this."
"Yeah, but people interact with them.  When was the last time you saw someone interact with a tulip?"
"You attacked me with a vase of them last week.  Then Thomas came home and looked at us like we were naughty children and suggested I leave."  Thomas was Clytie's husband and the most sensible person that either Clytie or Xogenes knew.
"Oh yeah.  Still, normal people."
"Oh well, normal people...."
They fell silent again and stared up into the sky, watching as real clouds slowly pulled themselves together from frail white wisps drifting seemingly aimlessly around.  The insects continued to buzz and hum, and the breeze continued to gently disturb the nearby trees so that they rustled and shook like men afraid of pickpockets.
"Flesh-eating bacteria," said Clytie.  "Sprayed onto the seeds so that when you blow on them to dislodge them, the vortex formations pull the bacteria back to the face of the blower and condemn them to four days of agony as their face is eaten back to the skull."
"How do you know it's four days?" said Xogenes before he could stop himself.  Then, "and stop weaponising the damn flowers!"
"Four days," said Clytie, sounding pleased he'd asked.....

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A short history

Back at school – not university, please note – I was something of a keen amateur brewer.  My mother was simply uninterested in anything I was doing, and when I told her that I needed some garage space for a chemistry experiment she told me not to spill anything.  My father paid as little attention until the first products of my brewing emerged, and then he suddenly became my chief advisor and co-conspirator, happily telling my mother that we were working on a science-fair project together and finding reasons why he should go to the garage instead of her on those rare occasions that she needed something we kept out there.  I think she did start to wonder a little when he told her that her car would be living out on the driveway for the future, and I can remember her sniffing the air one summer's afternoon and asking the world in general why the whole street seemed to smell like a brewery, but otherwise she kept herself blissfully unaware of my little endeavours.
My first beer was hoppy and malty and not really all that nice, though my father considered its availability and cheapness to be its redeeming features.  I tasted it and thought I'd got it all wrong.  He tasted it, and started to teach me what I needed to know to make the kind of beer that he liked.  I had four more attempts before we nailed it though, producing a beer with a slightly toasty-wheaty taste to it, a hoppy nose that didn't make you feel sick by the third sip, and a good amber colour that seemed to make my father happy all by itself.  Once we'd got that one I had to extend my brewing set-up a little so that there was always another barrel of that on the go.
After that I got a little more adventurous, trying fruit-flavoured Belgian-style beers and selling them at school.  I got a small amount of interest from my class-mates, but a lot more from several of the more tweedy teachers, and for a few months I was making a small, but pleasant, profit from my brewing.
Then the chemistry teacher pulled me aside and spent an hour and a half making sure that I understood the  basic principles of hot and cold distillations and made me assure him that I wasn't thinking about using these ideas on my home-brew in order to produce spirits, because there would be licensing implications if I did.  I thought about everything he'd said on the way home in a taxi (I was, I think I mentioned, making a useful profit from my brewing) and extended my set-up again.
My first whiskey was strong and raw, and when my father came out to find out why I couldn't stop coughing and tried it himself, his opinion was that I needed more practise, less filtration, and that he should look after the bottle himself.  I reduced the filtration and got a honey-coloured liquid back instead of a crystal-clear one, and managed to get something that only made my eyes water when I tried drinking it.  It turned out that I could command quite a premium from that, and soon I was getting picked up and dropped off by taxis every day, and even my mother couldn't fail to notice that.
"Where are you getting the money for this from?" she demanded, cornering me in the kitchen while I was raiding the vegetable bin for vegetables that were old enough to not be wanted for tea and yet still in good enough condition to ferment into alcohol.  I thought hard while I dropped carrots and avoided her gaze.  She would almost certainly want to put a stop to anything I suggested.
"Prostitution," I said, trying to look ashamed.  "I've been going on dates with older women...."
I was grounded for the next six months, and I had to remember to tell the taxi-drivers to pick me up and drop me off round the corner so that my mother didn't see them any more.
Curiously enough it was university that brought my brewing to and end.  My student accommodation was too far from home for regular visits, and too cramped for me to realistically set up another set-up.  Having a room-mate who was muslim for the first year didn't help me either (curiously, he was only muslim for his first year, and it was only during my first year that I had a muslim room-mate) as he was having trouble overcoming his upbringing and religion, though he was enthusiastic about learning what the alternatives were.  And my father, attempting to brew more of his favourite beer, accidentally set the whole lot on fire and had to throw several cans of petrol into the garage to make sure that the fire-brigade didn't succeed in putting it out until all the evidence had been consumed.
The only survivor of the blaze was the wild yeast I'd brought with me to university as a culture, so I picked it up and used it to start a sourdough culture and make bread.

Monday, 27 February 2012


"What the hell is that?" I asked.  Something fluttered through the air, hard to focus on.  It had wings, but there seemed to be streamers or tendrils somehow attached to the wings that moved more slowly, slipping past, or perhaps through, things.  Dark shadows like cracks in reality.  Its wings were hazy and blurred, I got a sensation of greyness but there was nothing I say for sure that I'd seen.  It's body was somewhere between the wings, and I was even less sure I'd seen any of that.
"It's a Fourierfly," said Jacques, nodding his head to the beat of some music from his headphones.  The white cable stretched down his torso and disappeared into the pocket on his jeans.  I frowned and gestured at him, my hands flipping away from my ears.  He frowned back, and reluctantly removed his headphones.
"Thanks," I said, insincerely.  "What's a Fourierfly?"
"What you get when you apply a Fourier transform to a butterfly," said Jacques, deliberately unhelpful now I'd made him pay attention to me.
"I see."  I didn't.  "And why is an experimental creature loose in this room?  I know the red light wasn't on when I came in, and I'm also sure that you didn't have a form-12 stuck up outside either."
"Yeah, well...."  Jacques suddenly looked a lot more alert, aware that he had broken lab protocol and annoyed me.  He was probably worried I'd report him, and I was definitely considering it.  "They keep slipping out of their cages," he said.  I wondered if he was lying.
"Build better cages," I suggested.  "Ones that are Fourierfly proof."
"We're trying," he said, and now it sounded like I was getting closer to the truth.  He sounded worried at last.  "Only they keep slipping through the mesh, and we can't work out how they're doing it.  Well–" he sped up to stop me interrupting, "– we think we know how they're doing it, but we don't know how to stop it."
"You'd better tell me all about it then," I said.
"Well, the problem is the Gibb's phenomenon, we think," he said.  "It gives them nearly 10% wiggle room at the edges, and they keep using it.  They fly close to the mesh, and one time in ten they just pass straight through it.  It's kind of like quantum tunnelling, only on a macroscopic scale."
"Does this just apply to mesh?" I asked, feeling a familiar cold shiver run down my spine.
"Anything, really," said Jacques.
"Including the walls, doors, and windows of this room?"
"Oh yes.  Oh.... oh no."
"Do you count them?"
"Ye–... not often enough?"
"Probably not," I said.  "I wonder how many have escaped already.  But you still haven't explained to me what a Fourierfly is."
"It's the Fourier transform of a butterfly," said Jacques.  "You know that Professor Albert figured out how to perform a physical Fourier transform, and move things between Phase Space and Frequency Space?"
I just nodded, as Jacques appeared to have forgotten that I'd been Professor Albert's collaborator on that paper and had done most of the theoretical maths.  "He applies it to group of up to eight atoms, cooled to close to 0 Kelvin," I said.  "They have slightly odd properties when he does that, and his current research lab is trying to work out what all the properties are, and their ramifications."
"Yeah, well we did the same thing to a cage of butterflies for a bit of a joke," said Jacques.  His face clearly showed that he no longer thought it was a joke, and was pretty certain I wouldn't either.  "They all transformed."
"You weren't expecting that?"  Now I'd put him in a quandary.  Either he said he was, and looked careless and irresponsible, or he said he wasn't and looked like he didn't have the ethics to be trusted with lab animals.
"I was," he said eventually.  "But not all of them."  I nodded, it was probably the best answer he could give me at the moment.
"What did they transform into?"
"Still some kind of butterfly," he said.  "But they... I don't know how to describe it. They seem to have access to another dimension or something, so they can sometimes oscillate perpendicularly to... well, the real world.   And when they do, they can bypass things in their way."
That was the shadows I'd seen then.  Not fractures in reality, but new directions, new dimensions for light to fall into.  Of which we knew nothing, including if there was anything else in those dimensions, and if was safe to input energy, even in the form of light, into it.
"You'd better tell Professor Albert," I said.  "This is beyond us now, we need some seriously clever thinking applied to the problem."
Jacques looked as relieved as if I'd turned up with a reprieve five minutes before he was due a lethal injection.  "Thank-you," he said.  "Thank-you so much–"
"Yeah," I said, interrupting his frankly embarrassing effusion of thanks.  "Let's just get the mess sorted out and cleaned up before anyone else finds out about it."
I stood up and left, feeling an immense relief myself.  If Albert could find a way to undo the Fourier transform for the Fourierflies then perhaps I could use it myself and get my daughter back.

Sunday, 26 February 2012


Light fell through the skylight and struck the shattered mirror on the floor.  Rays lanced out in myriad directions, illuminating motes of dust as they lingered in the air, unwilling to descend to the floor below and wait to be trodden on, and finally striking the painted faces of Popes.  Popes Innocent I through to Innocent XIII, collectively entitled Innocence.
Each Pope had been painted on a large canvas so that they were about 80% of life-size, and each had been painted as accurately as sources would allow.  Most of them were from writings, as Pope Innocent XIII had died in the early 1700s and the first Innocent had lived sometime around the fifth century, but now and then there had been other paintings available for study too.  Geraldinium Holmes had done her best with the material available, but in some cases had made up much of the image from her own imagination.  She'd been quite pleased to discover that there were thirteen Popes Innocent, as it allowed her to set the exhibition up in a circle and tell people that there was a Pope for every hour of the clock-face, and then see their confusion as they tried to work out why they didn't leave the circle when they subconsciously expected to.
  As the light faded through the skylight, because dark clouds were filling the sky and louring with the promise of rain, the artist Geraldinium Holmes opened a small door in the corner of the room and came in.  She was limping; after drinking heavily in a underground bar one evening she'd left, and reached the top of the flight of narrow iron stairs before losing her balance and common sense and falling backwards.  She'd crushed two other people who were also trying to leave, but had come away from it with a sprained ankle and an odd, but mild, fear of iron fire-escapes.  She leant heavily on a walking stick to help her manage her ankle, and she limped across the room to the shattered mirror on the floor.  She peered at it for a little while, and decided that it was right after all, and turned to leave again.  As she did so, Pope Innocent X caught her eye, and she paused to examine his picture again.
Innocent X was considered to be one of the more evil Popes, who had had interests in prolonging wars that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and of supporting Civil Wars in European countries.  She looked at his face: long, thin, slightly rat-like, and wondered if she should have emphasized the evil a little more.  Did it contradict the collection's title of Innocence, or could evil be just as innocent in its own way.  She had perched ravens on both of his shoulders, but was that enough?  Perhaps she could add a fly or two, possibly crawling across his robe, or on his hand as it clutched one of his Bulls, the Zelo Domus Dei?  She stood, thinking for a while, and then decided not to.  It had taken her nearly a year to put the collection together, and if she started changing things around now it would be another year before she'd be satisfied again.
She leaned back on her stick again, and limped, a little melodramatically, out of the room, locking the door behind her.  Something about all those Popes together was disturbing.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Turing Observer

"We need you to be a Turing Observer."  The man who spoke was quiet but authoritative, his manner suggesting subtly that he wasn't expecting me to say no.  I looked at him again, my eyes raking across him as I tried to work out what I was talking to.  He was wearing a dark-blue Italian wool suit with a nearly invisible pin-stripe and creases so sharp that they could only have been ironed in that morning.  Or he was a robot and didn't fidget, sit awkwardly or do any of the other hundred small things that caused humans to rumple their clothes.  His fingernails were manicured, so he either cared about his appearance – not unusual in his line of work – or he was a robot and they mostly kept themselves looking manicured.  He was wearing a signet ring on the little finger of his left hand, which seemed quite human until you knew that a lot of robots were now copying humans for their outward appearances and had picked up on small, distinguishing things like jewellery, freckles and key-jangling as easy, low-cost ways to fit in better.  His shoes were black and shiny enough to reflect nearby objects.  His eyes were hazel and looked slightly too wet, but that could as easily be an eye infection.  He was very, very hard to judge.
"What's one of those then?" I asked.  I knew what a Turing Observer was, it was a human hired by the artificial intelligences that oversee Turing tests, checking that the test was conducted fairly and judged correctly.  They claimed that there had to be both an AI and a human observer for fairness, but some of us knew that the real reason was that they were afraid that the humans were cheating.  And there was the crux of the matter: the Turing Observer was never told if the test subject was human or robot, so if you declared the test failed, and the AI Observer agreed, you might just have declared a human incapable of appearing human.
It gave people nightmares, and they rarely lasted more than a month or two in the job.  But if there were two AI observers, somehow the humans never failed, and the AIs had decided that the humans must be cheating somehow.
The man explained all this to me in clipped, dry tones, speaking a little bit fast, and hinting only very, very slightly at an accent.  Italian, I thought.  Again, it could be a robot, but it could also be what it appeared to be: a clever man with a lots of years of experience in dealing with people and handling difficult situations.  No comment that I must know what a Turing Observer was, which suggested a lot of patience if he was truly human.
"Turing as in...?" I said, testing a little further.
"Alan Turing, the British – you know, we have run background checks on you.  We know that you know all this.  Do you really need to hear me tell you?"
"I guess not," I said, smiling.  Again, borderline human/AI.  "It's not a light decision to take," I said.  "Would you like a coffee while I think about it?"
"I'm vegan," he said straight away.  "I like coffee, but it would need to be fairtrade really."
"They serve Kopi Luwak," I said, "though it's incredibly expensive.  You can't get much closer to vegan than that, I should think."
"The stuff that's pre-digested by civet cats?"  He frowned, and I automatically counted the wrinkles.  AIs had a slight preference to prime numbers, but this guy's head wrinkled into six slightly uneven furrows.
"Yes, but since the cats eat the coffee cherries, and aren't caged or in any other way coerced into eating them, and everything after that is pretty much manual labour, there's no animals harmed or exploited in the production of the coffee."
He thought about this, and as he did a tiny little tic appeared under his left eye and vibrated for a couple of seconds until he reached up and rubbed it.
"Sounds like it's worth a taste," he said.  "You're paying, right?"
"And you're a robot," I said, standing up to go to the counter.  He put out a hand to stop me.
"How?" he asked.
"Serial number first," I said.  "Confirm it for me."
"XJS6001-10189-5.88," he said, speaking rapidly and so quietly he was nearly whispering.  My phone automatically recorded the number and beeped, so I touched the Confirm icon and it came back nearly instantaneously: welder-droid in a factory in New Hampshire.  Had an arm, but definitely no face, no feet, and no expensive wool suit.
"Right," I said, knowing that I'd not looked at the phone for long enough for him to think I'd done anything but check the Yes/No display.  "You've got servo-motor stiffness that humans just don't show."
"Of course," he said, nodding his head, suddenly slightly jerky.  "You did extremely well to spot that.  You are, of course, no longer qualified to be a Turing Observer now."
"Of course," I said, contriving an expression of dismay with a hint of happiness behind it.  "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," he said, and left as abruptly as he'd arrived.
I looked around the coffee shop and sipped my coffee, and thought some more about him.  He was a robot, and he'd lied about the serial number to see how I'd react.  He was far too perfect to be human and showed too little interest in coffee crapped out by some kind of cat.  Even the most perfect vegan would have had more of an opinion on it than he had.
And I didn't want to be a Turing Observer again.  I'd hated having to fail humans, but I'd hated having to pass the AIs as well, because they were changing what it meant to be human.  Soon only the AIs would be able to be human enough to pass, and then they'd be free to redefine humanity in their own image.  I didn't much look forward to that day.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Contact Lenses

Jeronica wobbled slightly as she walked along the corridor.  The offices of Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations, nominally a market research firm with a small sideline in filibuster – the mercenary meaning of filibuster, – were very modern and thus the ceilings were ridiculously high.  Even so her hair brushed the ceiling when she was, as now, wearing her thirteen-inch high heels.  They were polished silver and dazzlingly bright under spotlights, a gift from a grateful fashion designer whose timely presence at the death of a pop-star had produced the best-reported funeral of the decade.  Her hair was also piled high on her head, reminiscent of a sixties beehive but with noughties glamour; a hint of sophisticated understatement, inasmuch as a three foot high hairstyle could be understated.  She looked absolutely stunning and completely out of place in the offices.
"Jeronica?"  The voice came from somewhere down by her knees and she paused in her high-speed wobble, caught her balance, and peered down.  There was a soft creak as her leggings stiffened to help keep her upright, and she saw that Colton was kneeling on the floor, his hands patting the carpet around him.
"Colton," she said, her voice flat and carefully neutral.  Colton had started two weeks before her, and the competitive atmosphere that Jeremy Diseased-Rat insisted that the office had meant that she was aware that he would be looking for ways to unseat her and steal her position as Head of Fashion and Soft Power.  Colton was currently Vice-President of Cults and Sects and there were rumours that he was trying to extend his portfolio into Charm Offensives, which was definitely borderline with Jeronica's Soft Power division. "Are you trying to trip me up?"
"No, Jeronica," said Colton.  "I've lost both my contact lenses on the floor somewhere.  I knew it had to be you coming past as all I could see was leg and no-one else is that tall."
Jeronica thought about this, wondering if there was a hidden compliment or veiled threat in there somewhere, and finally decided that it was a semi-pathetic chat-up line.  "Both your contact lenses?" she asked.
"Yes.  JD-R was congratulating me for locating three churches in Ghana that are willing to pronounce Sith as their official religion so that we can leverage it to get both Jedi and Sith declared legal UK religions and patted me on the back.  Enthusiastically."
Jeronica nodded, forgetting that Colton wouldn't be able to see this.  Jeremy had left more than one intern needing hospital treatment, and on one occasion a back-brace, with his enthusiastic back-pats, bum-slaps and bear-hugs.
"Oh, yes, sorry Colton, I nodded.  I forgot you wouldn't be looking up."
"Can you help me find my contact lenses please?"
Jeronica hesitated.  Helping him would mean taking off her shoes and getting down on her knees on the floor with him, which would be (at least symbolically) coming down to his level.  A bad precedent to set.  On the other hand, if she just said no or walked off, Colton would be sure to accidentally mention it in passing next time he was near JD-R, and his views on team-play, though fairly contradictory to his insistence on a competitive atmosphere, were held just as strongly.
As she dithered, her superior height let her see an approaching intern, which solved her dilemma.
"Of course, Colton," she said.  "You, Anneject!"  The unfortunate intern looked up at the sound of her name, and then looked up further, and then further still.  Craning her head back so far her neck hurt, she managed to make eye-contact with Jeronica.  "Help Colton find his contact lenses," she said.  "Have you met him?  He's Vice-President."
Anneject looked terrified, and dropped to her knees next to Colton straight away.  Colton looked dissatisfied, and ran his hand in a desultory fashion over the carpet.
"I'm sorry I can't stop," said Jeronica, speaking very quickly as she saw that Colton was about to say something.  "I have a meeting with JD-R and he hates tardiness.  If this intern doesn't find your contact lenses for you just let me know and I'll have a word with her about her teamwork."
It was enough, she saw Colton's mouth snap shut like he'd just caught a fly and his lips firmed into a mean little line.
"Thank-you, Jeronica," he said.  "I knew I could rely on you."
"Any time," said Jeronica, leaning forward enough to unbalance herself and start off her high-speed wobble again.  "Any time."

Thursday, 23 February 2012

LaTurf's Wedding

When LaTurf won the lottery her mammy threw her hands up in the air and despaired to everyone who would listen that the girl would now never do a day's work in her life.  Around her, the women in their colourful headscarves and long, flowing dresses that kept the summer heat out nodded their heads wisely and chorused that LaTurf's mammy was just so right, and all of them had the sense to keep the opinion to themselves that LaTurf hadn't done a stick of work so far in her short life either.  They clustered around LaTurf's mammy clucking like broody hens, offering sympathy and kindness, small gifts by which big thoughts might be engendered when, later on, LaTurf remembered her family and chose to share her wealth with them.  They huddled and cuddled, listened to her mammy bleating like a lost lamb as night approaches, and generally showed all the milk of human kindness that the prospect of money could buy.
Then LaTurf announced that she was getting married and now the wise and kindly women gathered in their own little clusters to whisper and worry, and to a woman they all forbade their sons to go out to the clubs that LaTurf liked, none of them were to go to the dance lessons that LaTurf attended in the church hall, and most of all, none of them were to be seen with LaTurf without at least two other friends with them, or four if any of those friends were women.  The sons were puzzled, and initially a little rebellious until they realised everything that their mothers did for them, and then they obliged them with a grudging ill-humour.
LaTurf didn't notice at first, and then she realised that the Banco da Leita looked like a lesbian joint and told her girlfriends that she just didn't feel comfortable going their anymore.  Then she found that there was no-one to dance with at the church hall, partly because she preferred a male partner and partly because the other girls there also went to the Banco da Leita and didn't like being called lesbians, not least by LaTurf.  And when she couldn't find a single male friend to confide in who didn't immediately find his best friend and half a dozen others, she began to wonder what she'd done to people, and quickly concluded that it was the money she now had, making everyone jealous.
So she hurried the wedding up.
The wedding was held on a Sunday morning and everyone came; the women to see who she was marrying (and there wasn't a one of them who didn't ready themselves to stand up and stop the wedding if LaTurf looked like she'd be about to try and marry their son); the sons came because their mothers ordered them to, so that they could have them there, safely at their side; the husbands came because it was an excuse not to have to go evening service, and LaTurf's mammy came because she was paid to.  LaTurf's daddy came too, to give her away, and later on the Sheriff admitted that LaTurf had come down to the gaol and paid him to escort her daddy up to the church, let him walk her down the aisle, and then take him away again.  The Sheriff told everyone that LaTurf's daddy cried all the way back and wouldn't tell him why.
The wedding was Tolkeinesque – it dragged on and on, the priest used long words that no-one knew or wanted to remember and talked about things that didn't make any sense to anyone.  The hymns were neuralgic, and LaTurf's cousin, who was tone deaf and had an unreconstructed cleft palate sang three solos that brought tears to people's eyes and blood from their ears, and all the while LaTurf knelt at the altar, the veil covering her face and a man that no-one recognised was kneeling next to her smiling the smile of a man who knows his bride won eight-hundred and forty-two thousand dollars three weeks earlier.
Finally the twin towers fell and the priest produced the One Ring to bind them and muttered the sacred words of the marriage ceremony like a blasphemous oath and LaTurf was married.  She stood up, threw back her veil, and almost devoured her husband in her hunger to have him.  To give the man his due, as everyone said afterwards, he stood there for a very long time while she almost negated the need for a honeymoon.  The crueller of the women whispered, but only well away from LaTurf's mammy, that he'd earned his money that day.
With LaTurf now safely married the women relaxed their strictures and their sons could go back out to the clubs and the dance lessons in the church hall, and to their surprise they found that LaTurf was back there as well, her husband apparently staying at home and looking after the house.  The house was very big, and a half-hour drive away, and paid for with her lottery money, so there was no doubt that it was a lovely house to look after, but the sons mentioned it to their mothers, and the women wondered about a husband who was negligent of his wife.
Four weeks later it seemed that the husband had left again, with LaTurf unable to decide if his secret agent job required him abroad, his accountancy skills were needed in Washington in a particularly cream-coloured home or if his acting career had taken him to Hollywood where she'd be joining him later.  The women nodded knowledgably and considered that there were some things that even money can't buy, and LaTurf was surely too much woman for just one man to handle.  And then they quietly took their sons aside and told them that all the money was gone with the husband, knowing that that would be enough to keep them away from her once more.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Food, blog, food, blog

It's me again!  Little me, back again, updating you all on this blog.  Once a year is like, plenty enough, for anyone isn't it?  That's what SJP says!
Well, Darryl and Jordan got together with each other and I got feeling a bit left out, so I started seeing Marcus again, and he didn't like sharing the bed with me and Darryl and Jordan, which I so didn't get, as I was lovely and toasty-warm and there was always someone to cuddle, so the next thing I know he's saying that someone has to sleep on the couch.
How the hell did that someone end up being me?  I slept there one night, with my Buffy slippers and my Jersey Shore dressing gown and this fleecy blanket thing that Ethel brought back from some third-world country she visited (oh God, I mean, Ethel.  Like you would!) and I woke up all cold and stiff and unloved and I decided enough was enough, so I moved back in with Mummy for a week.  Mummy was just back from touring in an aquavan so she was all like Cher in Mermaids and she and I just drank Limoncello all week and had a great time.
But then on Thursday Mummy sobered up a little and went down to the house in the country to feed the dogs or something, and said that when she came back she wanted to see that I'd done something productive.  Like, totes not going to happen!  I nearly had a job once, working in some miserable little council office where they implement government housing policies or something, and I remember distinctly this woman there with a bad perm and brown teeth who kept making everyone feel bad about themselves, and like, there's just no way I could have a job after that.  I mean, her dress clashed with her boots, and I'm sure that if I'd seen her bra and knickers I'd have taken my own straight off and given them to her as a spontaneous act of charity.
But Mummy's insistent, and she pointed out that I had this little blogette and said she wanted to see me adding an entry to it.
"The kitchen's empty," she said.  "We sent the cook off with the children when Social Services picked them up to make sure that they wouldn't be undernourished in some council estate somewhere, so it's not even like the last one where she just died in there and no-one noticed for a week."  (I remember that, that was the week I was on my toast-and-cigarettes diet, and when I finally got to the toast part I found the cook face down in the dirty dish-water in the sink.)  "Go and cook something and then write about it.  You're really good with words and verbs and things, so show me.  Make me proud."
So like, anyway, she's totes so, like, correct about me and words.  I've got verbiage coming right out of my fingers!  So I went and had a look at the kitchen.
So there was this dried pasta stuff, long, thin, brittle, and there was some red sauce stuff in a jar, and I thought, people eat pasta when they've got no money don't they?  And I realised then that I could add human interest to this blog by cooking for like, poor people, like the gardener and the pool boy and his deaf sister and people like that.  So I thought, let's give it a try.
So, I put the brittle pasta stuff in a glass dish and put it in the oven to bake it.  I put the sauce, Tabby-cat or Tabsi-Cola or something like that – it was just a little bottle but I thought that the pasta was supposed to be the main ingredient so it didn't matter – in a pan to boil, and then I realised that I should pick out a wine to go with it.
Then I remembered that Mummy has a Sommelier to pick out wines, so I found him in the wine cellar, crying for some reason, and showed him what I was cooking.  And you know, it was amazing!  One minute he's really upset about something, and then when he realises what a wonderful person I am, cooking for poor people, he really cheers up and ever starts laughing, though there might still have been some tears there as well.  I invited him to dinner, but he said that he's just had his stomach stapled and can't eat for a week.  What a good idea!
I got the gardener and the pool boy in and got the baked pasta out of the oven, but it didn't look very different to me, and poured the boiling sauce over it, and there really wasn't all that much of it.  I served it up, and they looked up at me with this look in their eyes that I couldn't interpret at first, and then I realised that it must be gratitude, which I never see from people like Edith.  It actually made me want to cry a little then, so I encouraged them to eat up and  went out in the hall to have a little cry and be impressed with how... noble I am.
When I came back in they'd eaten it all up and were already back at work.  They're dedicated, saintly people, and I have decided that I shall cook lunch for them everyday now.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

A little off the top

"A guillotine!" said Miss Flava.  "I wasn't expecting that."
"What were you expecting?" asked Playfair, looking at her as though she were stupid.  "How you could have been expecting anything?"
"Oh leave it be, Playfair," said Miss Flava.  "You know what I meant."
"Sloppy speaking engenders slopping thinking," said Playfair.
"Oh, very Sapir-Whorf," muttered Miss Flava, making sure it wasn't loud enough for Playfair to catch.  "Let's go look at the guillotine then."
The guillotine was a spotlit blade mounted on two tall columns of wood with a thin bar stretched across the top of the two columns.  A rope stretched from the blade of the guillotine to a tying off point on the floor of the stage, around which it was wound in a figure-of-eight.  Beneath the blade was a black padded bench with a floral pillow a little after where the blade would fall.  A piece of shaped wood propped up against the bench looked as though it was intended to fit around the victim's neck, holding their head in place so that the blade could slice cleanly through without being blunted or turned by vertebrae.  On the floor next to the bench, behind it from where Playfair and Miss Flava had been stood in the wings, was a body.  Playfair saw it first, and sped up, while Miss Flava, seeing what her boss had spotted, stopped where she was and pulled her notebook out.
"Anyone we know?" she asked, holding her pen tightly over the pad.
"Not exactly," said Playfair, bent over the body.  "But I think we encountered his head just a little earlier."  He lifted up the chest of the body to reveal that it was headless.  The stump of the neck had little metal contact points and socket junctions instead of veins and bands of muscle.  Miss Flava put her pen away.
"He?" she asked.
"Very definitely male," said Playfair, looking further along the body, which was now clearly just a very lifelike mannequin.  "Either he's needed for some other part of the act, or the Great Stormy has some insecurities."
Miss Flava thought about that for a moment, and decided that she wouldn't like to have to guess.  "OK," she said. "So we have a guillotine on a stage, so it looks like we know what the rehearsal was going to be.  Head's in a cupboard, so perhaps it's not needed for the main trick?"
"We should probably ask Ronald and his dreadful sister," said Playfair. "They were supposed to be here helping with this rehearsal."
"Sister-in-law," said Miss Flava, patiently.  "Right, well, we can do that later unless you think this is important?"
"Everything is important," said Playfair.  "I've told you that, and I keep telling you that."
"Yes," said Miss Flava.  "But at the end it always turns out that some things were much more important than others, and what I really want to know if how to spot them."
"Start off by understanding that everything's important!"
"Shall we carry on looking around?"
They went off the stage the way they'd come, walking back through the prop-room in the corridor and through the sticking door.  They looked at the door that seemed to lead into the rest of the house; it was still locked.
"Do you think Ronald will have a key?"  Playfair was eyeing the door up.
"Possibly," said Miss Flava.  "Why don't you go and see if he's still here?"
"You go," said Playfair.  "You're better at negotiating than I am."
Miss Flava sighed and walked back out to the auditorium.  Calamity was still underneath the table, curled up now and making little doggy dreaming noises, the empty trays next her showing that she'd eaten all of the sandwiches.  Miss Flava shuddered a little, still worried that they might yet have a dead police dog on their hands.  She looked around, and realised that Ronald had managed to leave most of the stuff they'd thought he'd brought with him behind, taking apparently only his sister-in-law and their bags.  She went to the French doors to see if he was still in the carpark, but a thud back where she'd left Playfair had her running back to see what had happened.
Playfair was stood where she'd left him, but the locked door was now swinging open and the lock looked a little bent.
"It opened," said Playfair, smiling as though stunned.  "I was just standing here, and it... well, it opened."
Miss Flava didn't believe him for an instant, but gestured at the open door anyway.
"After you, Sir," she said.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Yo mama-bot

"Yo mama sucks legs in hell," said the mom-bot.  Dad shook his head and said,
"Eggs.  Yo mama sucks eggs in hell," into his neck-mike.  Then he walked around the chair that the mom-bot was strapped into, so that he passed out of her view and then back into it again on the other side.
"Yo mama so fat the local cricket side roll her across the pitch before they play," said the mom-bot when it caught sight of him again.  Dad started to smile, and for the first time in an hour I thought he might be looking happy, and then his perennial frown reappeared.
"Wait," said his voice, tinny over the neck-mike.  "Was that part of the playbook?"  His assistant, sat at the desk next to mine, was leafing through a loose-leaf binder increasingly frantically.  Dad let her have two minutes, then he spoke again.
"Well?  Was that in the playbook?"
"No," moaned his assistant softly.  "She's supposed to say Yo mama so fat her belt's an equator."
"It," snapped dad, and I watched his assistant cringe.  I didn't feel sorry for her though, I'd grown up with his insistence of identifying what things were and addressing them correctly.  I'd never be unaware  enough not to recognise that a mom-bot was a genderless machine offering a dangerous temptation towards humanising the inhuman.
"It," she repeated meekly.
"Right," said Dad.  "Let's stop the experiment here, and review the learning banks.  And the code.  All of it."  Each staccato sentence elicited another wince from his assistant, though the last one also got a sigh from me.  I'd have to go through the code as well since Dad had decided that I should start learning about mom-bots properly.  I quite enjoyed reading through the code, but the stuff here was appalling, and although I was steadily tidying it up, economising it, and improving it, I was getting a fairly hostile response from the piss-poor developers who were writing the initial versions.  And Dad wasn't listening when I complained to him about it.
While Dad turned the mom-bot off and closed down the lab-room, Angelique (who pronounced her name An-gel-ick-way, wore white contact lenses to make her eyes look all-white with little black dots for pupils, and wrote the Latin names for large cats in the back of all her notepads) picked the binder up and dropped it a few times, until I asked her if she was ok.
"No," she said, a little redundantly.  "He's your dad, can't you get him to be less... well, like a mom-bot!"
"How do you mean?" I said, genuinely puzzled.
"He's like a mom-bot all the time, never wrong, always knowing what's best for you," she said.  "Hadn't you noticed?"
"I never had a mom-bot," I said.  "Dad didn't like them, he said they were subversive tools with a murky agenda."
Angelique thought about that, her overly red lips pursed and her fingers twisting the ringlets of her dyed-auburn hair around.  It reached down to her waist.  "Huh," she said.  "I guess he still thinks that, too?"
"Certainly seems to," I said, managing a smile.  Angelique didn't wash as much as I'd be brought up with, and I didn't really like the near-omnipresent smell of stale sweat she carried with her.
"Like, does it matter if the mom-bot's said something off script?  They think for themselves, surely we should be expecting that?  Why does he care?"
"Because," said Dad, opening the door to our room before she finished speaking, 'the mom-bot's programming does not allow her to deviate from her script.  All the commercially available specifications clearly indicate that.  The military-grade specifications are even more firm about requiring it.  So: either we screwed up the coding and entered the wrong phrase in, or the manfacturer of this mom-bot allows it more freedom with its programming than is reported."
"But that's a good thing," said Angelique.  "If it can think for itself it can save children from road-accidents or strangers, or something."
"It's programmed to preserve the life of children," said Dad.  "We should be worried if it wasn't doing that, which actually, is what this kind of laxity in programming allows.  The mom-bot could make a value judgement about the life of the child and refuse to save it.  The mom-bot might decide that it prefers to live more than it wants to sacrifice itself for some ungrateful, screaming brat.  This is why we're running these tests."
"And the Yo Mama jokes?"  I saw Angelique's mouth twist in disgust; she'd already told me that she thought the jokes were ridiculous and made a mockery of the whole experiment.
"That's already interesting," said Dad.  "They're mean and abusive, and no-one's claimed to be able to program a sense of humour yet–"
"The British–" I started, and Dad waved me to silence.
"Yes, the British are producing some very odd mom-bots which fit very well with their culture, and the levels of sarcasm they've achieved are seriously impressive," he said.  "But they're bleeding edge and they don't have a mom-bot that smiles at a comedy-show or laughs at a spoonerism, all they have are mom-bots that can be sarcastic at appropriate junctures.  But, and this is the point, these jokes should be causing lots of internal damage to the mom-bot because they're mean and abusive and should violate the hard-codings.  Not only is that not happening, but the mom-bot appears to be able to generalise from them.  This is incredibly worrying.  Go and check the files and the code and make sure that this isn't our mistake and is genuinely a problem with the mom-bot manufacture."
Angelique went, though her mouth didn't untwist.  I looked at Dad.
"What are you afraid of?" I asked.  He looked old all of a sudden.
"That this might all be too late," he said.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Clytie and Xogenes

On Tuesday the bookshelf slipped a little bit through the floor.  It annoyed Xogenes a lot as he'd put the big, heavy books on the bottom shelf, and now he couldn't quite get them back out to read them.  That meant that his collected editions of Britney Spears's Thoughts were completely inaccessible and  that he was left with reading Justin Bieber's Aphorisms over his breakfast cereal.  It just wasn't the same.
Clytie came over a little before lunch and knocked on the door with her hand.  She'd had reconstructive surgery on that hand a few weeks earlier and had taken them up on the cyborg option and hadn't learned about her own strength yet, so instead of tapping out an amusing rat-a-tat tat-tat on the door she put her fist through the wood with a firm crunch.  Xogenes heard the crunch and came out of his studio to see what had happened, and discovered Clytie trying to pull her hand back out of the door and swearing a lot.
"Why didn't you use the doorknocker?" asked Xogenes, opening the door and pulling Clytie into the hallway with it.
"It's merged into the door," said Clytie, pointing with her free hand.  And it was, so it looked that it had gone at the same time as the bookcases; sometime Monday night or early Tuesday morning.  Xogenes sighed, trying to sound put upon, but Clytie was still struggling to pull her hand free.
"Give us help here, Xoggie," said Clytie, tugging away from the door.  "I think there's a big splinter or something stopping me from pulling back properly.  Have you got a hammer?"
"That's my door," said Xogenes, not moving.  He smoothed his smock down when Clytie just stared at him, finding a smudge of Chalcedony-effect paint on a shoulder.  "Well it is," he said.  "You can't just come over here knocking big holes in people's doors, Clytie, it's insecure."
"So what?  Do I have to stay here now to protect your door from visitors?"
"Well, yes," said Xogenes.  "It's all your fault, isn't it?"
"If you had a door-knocker this wouldn't have happened!"
"I do have a door-knocker."
"No, you don't.  You have half a door-knocker, submerged in the door and unusable."
"You could have pulled it free with that cyborg hand of yours!"
"And then you'd be complaining about the hole in your door still!"
They fell silent after that for a few moments.
"So, have you got that hammer then?"
"No," said Xogenes firmly.  "I'll call a... who do you call about doors?"
"A carpenter," said Clytie.  "Unless your door's not make of wood.  This one's mostly Polyfilla, I think."
"I'll call a carpenter," said Xogenes, looking around for his phone and not seeing it.  "Although, if you're going to keep coming over maybe I should get a stronger door."
"You'll still need the carpenter to reinforce the door-frame," said Clytie.
"How do you know all this all of a sudden?  I thought you had a husband for anything practical."
"I'd slap you if I had my hand free," said Clytie.  "I've had to get the doors replaced at the summer house."
There was another shared silence and then they burst into joint laughter.  Finally it subsided and Xogenes started looking for his phone again.
"I could still use that hammer," said Clytie, a little sharply, so Xogenes got her the meat tenderiser from the kitchen, finding his phone in the fridge in the process.  Clytie looked at it, looked as though she was going to say something, and then changed her mind.  She she pounded on the door, trying to free her hand, Xogenes called the carpenter.
"I need a carpenter," he said.
"And you thought of calling me?  Well, that is a stroke of luck!"  The carpenter was clearly as helpful as Clytie.
"My friend just stuck her hand through my door," said Xogenes, trying to ignore the carpenter's sarcasm.
"Friend?  Female friend, metal hand, sharp tongue?"
"Well, yes, actually, but don't tell her I agree with you."
"Give me the address," said the carpenter.  "She's turning out to be really good for business."

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Tactile hallucinations

"You're suffering from trans-finite hallucinations," said Dr. Fraud.  He was bored; this patient didn't appear to have anything interesting to say for themselves, and didn't even seem to be having interesting hallucinations.  His last hallucinite had believed that Lovecraftian Elder Gods had already returned to earth and were working in hairdressing salons to facilitate access to human brains.  This one hallucinated lemons that were real enough to touch.
"What does that mean?" asked Marcel.  He was sitting cross-legged on Dr. Fraud's chaise-longue, with his shoes taken off and tucked neatly underneath.
"It means that there are a countable infinite number of your hallucinations, and that you will keep counting them," said Dr. Fraud.  He was sure that he'd given the right definition, but it didn't seem to be what he'd had in mind when he wrote the diagnosis down.
"Will they end when I finish counting them?"  Marcel was in his mid-forties and looked a little older.  His hair had gone the kind of undecided grey that people referred to kindly as salt'n'pepper and his beard stubble had more white than ginger in it.  There were deep crow's feet around his grey eyes, and a haunted look ingrained in his face.
"No," said Dr. Fraud, sounding a little annoyed.  He was sure he'd specifically said 'trans-finite'.  "There are a countably infinite number of them, not a countable number.  You'll never stop counting them."
"But if I lived for long enough I would, wouldn't I?"
"No, you stupid little man.  You are not listening to what I am telling you.  If you lived until the heat-death of the universe you would not stop counting them.  You would run out of names for numbers before you ran out numbers, and you'd still run out of numbers, if that were possible, before you ran out of hallucinations."
"Oh," said Marcel.  "That sounds like a lot of hallucinations."
"It is," said Dr. Fraud, feeling satisfied that he'd achieved something with the man.  "Pay on your way out."
"No, wait," said Marcel.  Dr. Fraud checked the time on his desk-clock so fast there was a tiny thunderclap as air rushed into the vacuum his movements had created.  Marcel still, technically, had eight minutes of his session left, so Dr. Fraud tried not to grumble too loudly.
"How do I get rid of the hallucinations?"
"How do I get rid of the hallucinations?  You cure them right?  You're a mental doctor."
Dr. Fraud eyed Marcel carefully, wondering if he was being cheeky.  That was the problem with English, he thought regretfully.  You could say anything in it, in at least three different ways, and each way provided its own subtle commentary from the speaker.  It was a minefield, a despicable language that allowed two people to hold two entirely different conversations without ever learning that the other person didn't have a clue what was really being said.  And there it was: did Marcel mean that he was a doctor of the mental faculties, or simply a mad doctor?
"I can help you, I think," he said a little stiffly.  "For a price."
"Exactly," said Marcel.  "That's what I need.  Help.  Someone to hide behind."
"To hide behind?" Dr. Fraud was very puzzled now, this seemed to be a non-sequitur.
"Yes, they're starting again.  The lemons are coming to get me!"
"Don't be sill–" started Dr. Fraud, then stopped abruptly.  He rubbed his eyes, peered in front of him, and then rubbed his eyes again.  Marcel took advantage of his distraction to clamber off the chaise-longue and run behind Dr. Fraud's desk.  Dr. Fraud stared still; there was a six foot tall lemon in the doorway to his office.
"Tactile hallucinations," he said, light dawning at last as to why trans-finite hallucinations had seemed wrong.  "You're having tactile hallucinations."
"Save me," squeaked Marcel, as the lemon bore down mercilessly on the pair of them.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Killer chili

It was lunchtime on a Tuesday.  I remember it especially because I'd decided I was feeling rich that day and gone down to Rebecca's Diner for her chili.  While I was there the Van Tosten kid up and died, and that's pretty much where it all started.  That, and the woman with the black stockings who came to my office while I wasn't there and shot my accountant.  Twice, a bullet in each eye.  That annoyed me.
Rebecca's Diner is housed is an old railway car that she bought when the railroad went bankrupt.  She describes it as a fire sale, and from the outside of the Diner, I think I can guess what was on fire.  I can't guess what was going through her mind at the time though, which she and I agree is because she's a woman.  We also agree not to talk about meaning different things by that.  Anyhow, the Diner is an old railway car, and the entrance is though the end where there's a flight of three steps that leads up to a tiny landing and then you walk inside.
The counter's at the end of the carriage, and the car used to be a dining car so there's little tables on both sides, all the way along, with seats on two sides that you have to shuffle along if you've got the window seat.  Rebecca cooks and her husband, Steve, waits on the tables.  It kind of works, even if sometimes you're sat at a table with three people who'd rather spit on you than break bread with you, but that might just be my luck.  There's white tablecloths that look lacy but wipe clean with a wet cloth, the forks hardly bend at all when the meat's tough, and the knives can give you a nasty scrape if the bread's stale.  I like it, it reminds me of my childhood, only it's better.
When I got there there was a child's easel outside with a blackboard set on it and the specials listed in pink chalk.  The chili was up there at the top of the list so I didn't bother to read down any further, I just went in and hoped that I'd get a table to myself.  Steve saw me coming in and nearly sprinted down the carriage to meet me.  I have that effect on people.
"Mac!" he said, a tiny bit breathless from his sprint.  "We... we weren't expecting you today.  You normally come in for the meatloaf.  Tomorrow."  There might have been a little odd emphasis in his tone, but I wasn't paying much attention to it.  I could see an empty table, and I wanted it.
"Hey Steve," I said.  "Table for one, yeah?"
"Well Mac, we don't reserve tables like that, you know?  Look, Mac, come back tomorrow and get the meatloaf, and I guarantee we'll shut the doors while you're eating and help you out a little with that.  I know you're shy about eating."
"Seems like the table's free over there," I said, pointing, and Steve looked over his shoulder to look at it.  There was a moment where he just seemed to be looking at it, then his shoulders slumped and he sighed, a bit louder and more heavily than seemed really appropriate.
"Sure Mac," he said.  "Just eat up and leave, hey?  We weren't expecting you today and well... well some of our Tuesday diners won't like you very much.  The Wednesday crowd all know what you're like, you see?"
I didn't see, but I didn't care. I was hungry, and I had a table to myself.
"Gimme the chili," Steve, I said.  "It looked good on the board out there, all done up in hot pink."
"Ha Mac, you're a card," said Steve, but his laughter was hollow and reminded me too much of the time one of mother's boyfriends dropped me off in the forest on a 'camping trip' and told me that foraging for a tent was all part of the experience.
By the time Steve had got the bowl of chili, with a sprinkling of cheese and green onions on the top, the Van Tosten kid had turned up and sat down at my table all uninvited like.  I gave him a death stare, and he looked at the end of my nose like there was a fly on it and finally we looked away from each other and I called it a draw in my head.  Which wasn't so bad, the Van Tosten kid was known to be strung out on just about anything he could get hopped up on.  And that kind of made his eating here at Rebecca's a little more interesting.
His chili came out at the same time as mine, one bowl in each hand for Steve as he walked out from the counter towards us.  He was clearly concentrating hard, and he seemed like he was mentally checking three times before he put one bowl in from of Van Tosten and the other in front of me.  I stared at my chili, my suspicions aroused and my nerves ajangle, and the Van Tosten kid dug straight in, a spoon pulled out of a napkin and plunging through the meaty red surface of the chili like a lava diver at the Olympics.  So it wasn't all that big a surprise when after two mouthfuls the Van Tosten kid fell forward, his spoon clattering onto the table from his hand and his face splashing down in his bowl.
"Not hungry, Mac?" asked Steve as he came running over, his face pale; he sounded short of breath.
"Seems like it didn't agree too well with him," I said, pointing, "so I might wait and see what he's got to say about it."
"Police'll be here in no time," said Steve, nodding at the windows.  "Want me to bag that up for you?"
I didn't, but I wanted to meet the police less, so I said yes.  By the time I was halfway back to my little office the sirens were howling and the cars were racing past, so I knew that Van Tosten's death wasn't going to be one put in front of me to solve.  I was pleased, I liked eating at the Diner.
When I opened the door to my office and it stuck I kicked it until it opened enough to get through, and discovered my accountant dead on the floor, blood stains everywhere, with a bullet hole for each eye socket.  I ate my chili before I sighed and called the police myself.  It was going to be one of those days.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


"Comradette," said Sally, and then stopped.  "Sister Comrade," she tried, but Hilary shook her head at that and bit her lower lip until it turned white.  "Comradistina," was her third attempt, but they both winced at that.
"I think Comrade is gender-neutral, actually," said Hilary, but Sally flushed at that, and so she back-pedalled a little.  "But a feminised version would be preferable.  Maybe... maybe... Comrette?"
Sally thought about it, her eyes rolling up into her head as she did so.  Hilary swallowed and tried to pretend that it didn't scare her when Sally did that.  Finally her eyes rolled back down again, and she focused on Hilary.
"Comrette," she said, "I had completed the Nowomenklatura, as you requested."
"The what?"
"The Nowomenklatura.  The list of names."
"Ah!  Right. Which list?"
"Which list?"
Hilary stared at Sally and Sally stared at Hilary, until finally Hilary half-smiled and realised what the problem was.
"Ah right, there are two lists of names.  I asked you to compose one and Ermintheldra to compose the other.  You're doing... the list of people to be dissolved by the state when the revolution has happened?"
"No," said Sally.  "I didn't know that was available.  Why did Ermintheldra get it?"
"I don't know," said Hilary.  "It was just the order the lists came out in I suppose."
"You suppose?  You know that woman doesn't like me!  I'm going to be on that list!"
"Oh no," said Hilary.  "I've already told her twice, no-one from the Party is allowed to be on that list."
"Told her twice?" Sally's voice was hollow and resonant.
"Well yes... oh, I see what you mean.  Look, it wasn't you she kept putting on the list."
"Who was it then?"
"Oh... er..."  Sally glared at her until Hilary began to feel really uncomfortable.  "Oh ok, it was Suki."
"Suki's my girlfriend!  Of seven years!"  Sally actually looked ready to cry, which made Hilary feel even more uncomfortable.
"It's not that," she said, awkwardly.  "It's got nothing to do with you.  It's just... just that Ermintheldra thinks that Suki's a bit... butch, you know?  She thinks she might sympathise with men when the revolution happens.  She's just trying to keep us all safe, you know?"
"No I don't know!  Of course she's butch, she works in a Steelworks!  They're all butch in there, even the kids they illegally employ and the donkeys!  There are little old women in there that are more butch than Ermintheldra and have used less lipstick in their entire lives!"  Sally was shouting now, and little white flecks of spittle spotted her lips.  Hilary tried not to let it distract her; Sally angry was always a little bit erotic.
"I know that Ermintheldra's a little... delicate," said Hilary, but Sally wasn't going to let her finish.
"She's a pussy, and a whipped one at that!  She should be taken out with the men and shot as well for cheapening the cause of the revolution!"
Hilary was silent for several seconds, reflecting that that was exactly the argument that Ermintheldra had put forward for putting Suki on the list in the first place.
"Suki's off the list," she said finally, noting to herself that she'd have to check and make sure that was true.  "How has your list come along?"
"The Nowomenklatura?" said Sally, not really calming down much.  "Yes, it's done.  It's here."
"And which list is this?" asked Hilary, wishing that she'd written down who'd had which list to write.  One of them had her shopping list and she was starting to run out of things and really needed it.
"The list of names.  Those who are entitled," said Sally.
"Entitled to what?"
"Just... entitled," said Sally.  "I didn't think we should worry too much about what we're entitled too until we know what's up for grabs."
"That's not exactly a Marxist philoso–"
"Nor is putting my girlfriend of seven years of the list of undesirables."
Hilary froze for a moment, and then nodded, conceding that she'd lost this point for the moment.
"You're on here as Party Chief," she said, noting a name.  "And I'm... what is this?"
"Stalinissima," said Sally.  "Woman of most steel, steeliest woman, or woman made mostly of steel."
"Why three?"
"The first two are for your first newspaper interviews, until we've settled on the kind of autocrat you want to be," said Sally.  "The third is for when you die and we replace you with a robot."
"And why is Ermintheldra not on the list?"
"She's not entitled," said Sally.  "I ran out of jobs before I got to her."
"And you got as far as 'Janitor for cleaning the party tables after elevenses,'" said Hilary, trying not to sound reproving.  "So you clearly tried.  However, she did write the other list, so perhaps we could put her down as Literati, or somesuch?"
"Somesuch," said Sally taking the list back and annotating it.  "There you go."
Hilary looked it over.  Ermintheldra was now listed as "Litter Box Eater (pp Hilary)."
"Right," she said weakly.  "That's great then.  How's the revolution coming?"
"Dunno," said Sally.  "I gave Juliet Anthrax a couple of weeks ago and haven't seen her since."
"Gave her Anthrax?  Surely you mean 'gave her the vial of Anthrax'?"
The two women stared at each other in mutual disbelief and belated comprehension.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Per version

Janet O'Steen, Ireland's foremost logodisciplinarian cracked her boiled egg open with a silver teaspoon reserved especially for the purpose.  It just felt wrong to use anything else to open hard-boiled eggs, and when, on holiday once, she'd had to watch a retired Colonel carefully slicing the top off with a knife, she'd run screaming from the breakfast room.  The next day she'd been met at the door to the breakfast room by a woman with more muscles than the female of any species should possess and steel grey eyes who suggested that she should eat breakfast in her room.  Alone.  She levered the cracked fragments of shell from her egg and let them fall onto the plate below, nudging them into a tidy pattern with her finger.  Once the shell was right she could salt her egg and finally eat it.  It was often cold by then.
On the table next to her were the pages of the eighteenth chapter of her current novel, which she was revising.  The first page was already covered in notes in a blue pencil in a cramped hand, with words moved, replaced, and on occasion excised with force, holes torn in the page.  Most of the notes in the margin were about the novel itself, but now and then a note would simply accuse Janet of stupidity, cupidity and other words ending in -idity.  She'd written them all herself.
The novel concerned a young woman whose domineering mother refused to let her marry a Navy Captain because all men in the Navy were known to be Sodomites, Gomorrheans, Syphilitic and Decadent.  The young woman, who Janet wanted to call Janet but suspected that this would cause comment from her critics so had called Malice for the nonce, felt that her mother was overgeneralising a little, but could not bring herself to disrupt the social order and stand up for herself.  Her father, a gentle man who ran a grocer's shop and sold short measure to everyone, was suffering from Alzheimer's, though no-one in the time the book was set had heard of such a disease, and was generally considered to be an idiot, not least because he rarely recognised his wife or his daughters.  As his disease, and the novel, progressed, he began to do odder and odder things because he couldn't remember from one moment to the next what he was supposed to be doing.  He would regularly wash his hands sixteen times, forgetting as he turned the tap off that he'd already washed them.  His wife considered him to be suffering from perversion, with a desire to be more holy and devout than her, and so redoubled her own efforts, going to church so often that the vicar thought that she was stalking him.  He began to seek out ways to avoid her, which led to her believing that her husband was conspiring with the vicar to condemn her to hell and so she began to seek out evil wherever it dwelled, expecting that she would necessarily catch the pair of them plotting against her.
Malice, surrounded by the insanity of her parents, continued to wish that she could step away from her parents and go and accept the love of her Navy Captain.  However, in chapter 17 he took another wife, accepting his rejection by Malice, and deliberately picked one that would have to annoy her.  In chapter 18, despite her numerous revisions, Malice encountered the Captain for the first time after his wedding.
"I married a woman," said the Captain with a supercilious smile.  "She's got everything you could look for in a woman, and the word No crosses her lips so infrequently that I would swear she's the friendliest, most helpful woman in all Christendom.  I should thank you more, Malice, my dear.  Without you I would never have been driven to the Singaporean Entertainment venue where I met my sweetheart."
"You were in Asia?"  Malice was surprised, and a little concerned.  Was it possible that mother had been right and the Captain was indeed a Deviant?
"Of course," said the Captain, smiling again.  "I was posted there for fourteen weeks this last year.  I took the opportunity to buy a necklace of pearls for my sweetheart, something that she could wear while she was performing.  It was hard to find anything that she would be permitted to wear."
"I had heard that the women of Asia are very hairy," said Malice who had heard no such thing but was trying to make conversation.  She thought that maybe mother had told her than the vicar had said such a thing as she chased him into the belfry to ask him about the use of the Communion Wafer for curing rashes in the nether regions.
"Perhaps some are," said the Captain looking a little taken-aback.  "I'm sure that they're very warm at night though, and who wouldn't want that from a woman?"
Has he married an ape? wondered Malice.  He was still tall, impossibly handsome, and appeared to still have all his own teeth.  "I would very much have liked to come to the wedding," she said, thinking all the while that she'd have liked to have been there as the bride.
"Oh, I don't think so," said the Captain dismissively.  "Hardly a place for a chit of a girl like you."
Janet finished her egg and finished reading that line.  It wasn't really abusive enough.  Perhaps the Captain could slap her about a little for her impertinence in wanting to come to the wedding.  Split her lip maybe, or mildly concuss her.  Yes, concussion would be good.  Her father could find her and assume that she was a street-girl laid out after an altercation with a client and pack her off to Bedlam.  Then her mother would find out and fear for her own safety, so refuse to go after her.  Writing eight chapters in a madhouse would be rather easy, and would serve Malice right.  She could eventually persuade the doctors to let her have a visitor, which would of course be the Navy Captain who'd been looking for her ever since she'd disappeared.  She'd confess her love for him, and he'd confess a love for his cabin-boy and that his Singaporean bride was in fact a complete fiction and they could enter into a loveless marriage together.
Janet paused for a moment, realising that she was radically rewriting the novel, and then shrugged.  Logodisciplinarianism wasn't easy, but it was worthwhile, she was sure of that.  Now, she thought, how could she punish Malice's mother a little more?

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Nosing around

Miss Flava and Playfair left Ronald tugging at his sister-in-law's leg and walked to the stage at the back of the room.  The curtains were drawn, and Calamity was still sitting beneath the trestle tables and had nearly finished a whole tray of sandwiches.  They looked at each other and decided silently that they'd leave her where she was for now.  Then they looked at the apron, which was about three feet high.
"Climb, or find stairs?" asked Miss Flava, sure that she could get up on the apron without trouble.
"Stairs," said Playfair after a moment's hesitation.  "Technically, moving the curtains counts as interfering with the scene of the crime."
"Do you think SOCO's been here yet?" asked Miss Flava as they both turned to the left, where the shadows suggested that there might be doors.
"Hah!  I don't think anybody but us has been here yet," said Playfair.  "Except maybe to ring the front doorbell and then write down in a little notebook that no-one appeared to be in at the dead man's residence."
"You're not giving the police in Little Haversham much credit, are you?" said Miss Flava.  They located two doors in the gloom at the side of the room, one appearing to lead out into the rest of the house, and being locked; the other was smaller, flimsier, and looked as though it might lead to the back of the stage.  Playfair gripped the handle firmly and opened the door with a shove.  It scraped along the floor for a few inches then moved freely, so he ended up slamming it back against the wall.  Calamity barked once, and then presumably went back to eating the sandwiches.
"They've not given me any reason to," said Playfair looking through the doorway.  "It's been three days at least, and they've not checked the house out.  That's given this upper-class twit a chance to get in with his simple sister and do god-knows-what in here.  We could be missing valuable clues because he's been tidying up or putting them in the sandwiches when his sister's not looking."
The doorway opened onto a small ante-chamber that was essentially a wide, short corridor with lots of shelves on both sides.  The shelves were lined with props for tricks, and some parts had been fitted with doors to turn them into cupboards.  Playfair opened the first and found several stacks of playing cards; the next was contained stacks of oversized playing cards.  A third cupboard contained a realistic severed head that seemed to eye Playfair back as he stared at it.
"Sister-in-law, not sister," said Miss Flava.  She was looking at the shelves on the other sides with their little machines, linkages, and boxes of nuts, bolts and washers.  "And... damn, does that mean we should have been treating the sandwiches as evidence?  You did say they looked like ham, and we've pretty much believed Ronnie when he said they were mackerel mayonnaise."
Playfair took the severed head out of the cupboard, a little carefully as it proved to be heavier than he was expecting.  Miss Flava turned to see why he hadn't answered, and took a step back, her hands coming up protectively in front of her.
"My God, Playfair, what is that?"
"Latex skin," said Playfair examining it, "over a metal frame I think.  There's a switch here...."
He pressed it and the head seemed to come to life, a soft interior glow making the flesh seem warmer and more human and the eyes blinking a couple of times.  The lips moved, and a hint of a pink tongue seemed to lick them.
"That's creepy!  Put it back, Playfair.  It's not evidence."
"We don't know what is and isn't evidence yet," said Playfair, but he pressed the switch again and put the head back in the cupboard anyway.  He closed the door on it.
"You might be right about the sandwiches," he said.  "But we've got a lot of them in Calamity now, so there's probably no call for worry."
Miss Flava considered that a potentially dead police dog was certainly cause for worry, but couldn't be bothered arguing with Playfair over it at the moment.  They carried on, walking through the corridor into the wings of the stage.  Towering curtains of black cloth now created entrances onto the stage that prevented the audience from seeing through to the wings or the prop room, and allowed the performers to move on and off stage as though vanishing from the world.  There was enough room for about four people to stand in the wings before it started getting crowded, and there was a small prompter's desk with a blue-shaded light-bulb tucked into the corner.
What they could see of the stage through the curtains was much more interesting though.

Monday, 13 February 2012


"Well," said Playfair, "you should be picking your unconscious sister-in-law up and taking her away so that we can get on with our investigation, shouldn't you?"
Ronald looked down at Melissa and rubbed the tears from his eyes.  "I suppose so, yes," he mumbled, his accent coming back a little.  Miss Flava flicked back through a couple of pages in her notebook, then forward again.  As Ronald bent down to grab one of Melissa's feet, she looked up.
"I still don't understand why you dislike your sister-in-law so much," she said.  "Bad cooking and fancying someone who sleeps around a lot aren't a bad thing–"
"Indicative of poor taste, though," interrupted Playfair.  Miss Flava scowled at him.
"Aren't a bad thing," she repeated.  "But they're not really enough to hate someone the way you seem to hate her."
"I don't hate her," said Ronald, giving her foot a tug.  Her shoe, a cream, strappy thing that made Playfair think of frozen cod fillets, came off in his hand.  "Hate would be a bit much."
"How is she your sister-in-law?" asked Miss Flava, her pen poised over her notebook again.
"She married my sister," said Ronald.  Miss Flava carefully wrote that down before looking up at him, and her face was as neutral as she could manage.
"In this country?" she asked.
"Oh no, they met in Europe and got married somewhere out there," said Ronald.  "It was a little bit of a surprise when they came back together, and Mother had a couple of strokes in quick succession but that was really kind of her own fault... then Father had his little accident and left my sister quite a lot of money in his will, and Melissa kept spending it.  And spending it.  And my sister never seemed to see any benefits from it, which didn't seem quite right really.  Then Mother died, and Anna the nurse died two weeks later, and then my sister drowned herself in the fish-pond.  It really wasn't a good year, to be honest."
"Did your mother have a stroke because your sister was a lesbian?" Miss Flava was looking over Ronald's statement, tapping her pen against her teeth.
"No!  No, like I said, it was really her own fault.  She'd decided to unpack for Felicity – my sister – and found... well, things in there that apparently you can... use... somehow... if you're... if one of doesn't have..."
"And the shock gave her a stroke?" said Miss Flava, seeing him struggle with his embarassment.
"No.  No, it was trying them out for herself that seems to have got her a bit... er... overexcited, you see...."
Playfair burst into laughter, and Ronald stared at him.  His eyes seemed to bulge a little from his face, and his hands, large and pale, twitched spasmodically, trying to clench into fists.  Playfair ignored him, and just laughed more.
"That sounds very tragic," said Miss Flava, making herself heard over Playfair's laughter.  "I'm sure it was a very trying time for you."
"What was your father's accident?" asked Playfair, grinning broadly but no longer laughing.
"Does it really matter?" asked Ronald, stiffly now.  He was holding himself tightly under control, and if looks could kill then Playfair would certainly have been maimed.
"No," said Miss Flava quickly.  "Thank-you, Mr. Verges, you've been very helpful.  We... have your address, and I'm sure we'll be able to find you if we need you further.  Does your sister-in-law live with you?"
Ronald sighed, and nodded, and dropped her shoe on the floor.  He pulled on her foot again, and she slipped a little towards him.
"Come on, Playfair," said Miss Flava, closing her notebook up.  "Let's go and look round the house."

Sunday, 12 February 2012


Jim looked out of the window.  In the garden the children were playing, Elise and Misbet were discussing something, and Little-jim and the Van Tosten child that only seemed to have a surname were doing something involving running in and out of the tree-house.  He dipped another dirty plate in the soapy water in the sink and wondered if he should go out and check on them. He scrubbed the plate, vaguely curious as to how Mrs. Van Tosten could make such a mess with just a cup of tea, some loose dentures, and a malted-milk biscuit and decided that he'd just open the window a little and listen in.
He pushed the window slightly ajar as stealthily as he could when none of the children were looking his way, selected another dish from the pile, and listened while he scrubbed.
"It's a motto," said Misbet.  "My mummy has lots of mottoes, and she lets me use them if I ask her nicely and she doesn't have one of her headaches."
"My mummy gets headaches too, after Daddy hits her," said Elise.  Jim's jaw dropped open in shock; the only time he hit his wife was during sex and she pretty much insisted on that.  And she gave as good as she got; he was still surprised that they'd managed to conceive Little-jim after the beating he'd taken that night.
"My mummy hits my daddy if he touches her mottoes," said Misbet.  "But only with an open hand, she says.  Never with a fist."
"What an open hand?"  Elise looked puzzled.
"I don't know," said Misbet.  "I think it might be one of her ornaments, I saw her hitting him with one of them once."
"My daddy only ever hits mummy with cushions," said Elise.  "They do it when they think there's no-one watching, but I hide behind the couch and they never find me."  Jim relaxed a little; Elise was talking about play-fighting.  He thought he should probably talk to her about this a little later on though, and explain that he and mummy weren't hitting each other, just in case she mentioned it to anyone at school.
"Oh that's no fun," said Misbet.  "I go to the hospital all the time with Daddy, and the nurses there give me things for being a brave little girl."
"You're so lucky," said Elise, a little wistfully.  "I've never seen a hospital."
Just then Little-jim came flying out of the tree-house stark naked and pushed between the two girls, who squealed, then ran off round the garden.  Moments later the Van Tosten boy, also naked, ran after him, and the girls squealed again.
What the hell? thought Jim, but again he decided not to go and pursue them.  The garden had high fences and lots of trees and the boys had been wearing clothes when they went into the tree-house, so they'd probably go back and put them on again.  Possibly when they got cold.  It was good practice for university anyway.  He decided not to consider that that was still a good ten years away.
"Oh, they stepped on your motto!" said Elise, looking down.  Jim stood on tiptoe and craned his neck and saw that there was a strip of paper trampled on the ground at Misbet's feet.  "Here!"  She bent down and picked it up.  "You can still read it, see: Do not dwell on things that do not deserve to be dwelled upon!"
Jim smiled, and realised that he'd finished all the plates, so he started on the cups.  He could definitely agree with that motto.
"What does it mean?" asked Elise, her pretty face scrunched up like a pretzel as she tried to understand it.
"It means you should try to live on things that aren't for living on," said Misbet confidently, and Jim's smiled stretched further across his face.
"What like?"
"Well, ironing boards," said Misbet.  "Mummy hates it when Daddy puts me up on the ironing board."
Elise thought about this, sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth.  "Ye-es," she said at last, "where would you do the ironing if you lived on the ironing board?"
"Exactly," said Misbet, with just a momentary hesitation.  "Or the sink, you couldn't live in the sink."
"You could live in the bath though," said Elise.  "But you'd get wrinkly and look old all the time."
Little-jim and Van Tosten came running back again, and Jim noted with some surprise that they wear both fully clothed again, and that he didn't recognise any of the clothes.  They raced into the tree-house, which he'd built at ground-level to avoid having any of the children fall out of the tree.
"Daddy lives in the dog-house a lot," said Misbet.  "I don't know where that is though."
"That's a pub," said Elise, confidently.  "My mummy and daddy go there on weekends, only they tell the babysitter they're going to a restaurant."
Jim dropped the last cup and it bounced on the floor, luckily not breaking.  How the hell had Elise picked up about the sex-club they called the doghouse?  He thought quickly and decided it was time to bring the children in for something to eat and drink and change the subject.  Just then Little-jim and Van Tosten tore out of the tree-house stark naked again, and he realised that he'd better find out where they were getting all the extra clothes from as well.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

So Longbleat

"What's for breakfast?" asked Megan as she sat down at the table.  She had to pull the chair out quite a long way before she could fit between the seat and the table, and the chair creaked as she rested her weight on it.  She'd spent a good part of yesterday complaining to the staff that their Louis XIII furniture seemed too old and battered to be serviceable, and the staff had spent the evening trying to reinforce the bits of it that Megan seemed inclined to sit on.  Which, unaccountably, appeared to include the trouser-press in her room.
"Muesli," said Barbara, her mother.  "They've given us the spa-menu again instead of the full-board one.  I say!"  She waved her menu threateningly at a waitress.  "I say!  Waitron!  We've been given the wrong menu.  Again!"
"Waitron?" asked Megan looking over the condiments on the table in case there were any she could eat while she was waiting.  The brown sauce looked appealing, so she scraped some out with a butter knife and tried it.
"It's the neuter term for a waiter or waitress unit in catering establishments," said Barbara carefully, checking that she got all the long words right.  "Your father told me about it."
"Dad's dead," said Megan, scraping more sauce from the bottle.  It was tangy, and she wasn't sure she liked it, but not enough to stop eating it.
"In the seventies," said Barbara.  "When he was alive."
"Do they still call them waitrons now then?  I thought they were front-of-house staff, or place-faces, or something like that."
The menus arrived, clattered onto a side plate with a meaningful glance, and their spa-menus with the healthful and calorie-free items disappeared into the waitress's arms.  "Tea or coffee?" she asked, her tone suggesting that she was biting back something she really wanted to say.
"Hot chocolate," said Megan immediately.  "With marshmalllows, whipped cream, caramel syrup and sugar cubes.  Please."
"Hot grapefruit juice," said Barbara.  "Not boiling, but hotter than lukewarm."
The waitress disappeared without another word, and Barbara watched until she thought she was safely out of earshot and said, "Bitch is what I'd call her.  So ungrateful."
"I know," said Megan.  "They had the cheek to tell me that room service only served the spa-menu after 11 last night."
"I heard you shouting," said Barbara, who had the room next to her daughter's.  "Did they hear reason?"
"Oh yes."  Megan got a smug look on her pimply, plump face, and a mean little smile dimpled her cheeks.  "I made sure of that."  She leaned across to another table, swapping her now-empty bottle of brown sauce with the one there.  "What have you got planned for today then?"
"Well, I've got a massage with Thierry first," said Barbara.  "You had him yesterday didn't you?  Is he good?"
"Oh, he's lovely," said Megan.  "A bit shy, when I took my towel off you'd think he'd never seen a naked woman before!  He's so polite, he was covering his eyes and whispering prayers, and then he asked me to put something on again.  Apparently there are rules about remaining towelled at all times."
"I told him he could towel me any time," said Megan, grinning again.  Her little black eyes glinted.  "You'll like him, he's got strong fingers.  I think he might be gay though."
"Oh."  Barbara sounded chastened.  "Well," she said, cheering up a little, "the walk after that has been cancelled due to Foot-and-Mouth, so I'm going to try the hot-stone therapy and then lie by the pool for a couple of hours."
"Indoor or outdoor?"
"Oh indoor," said Barbara immediately.  "They've got tanning beds round the indoor pool.  It's all very convenient."
"Oh nice," said Megan.  "I want to visit the third floor restaurant today, so I thought I might do brunch there, and then lunch in the Greenhouse CafĂ© back on the ground floor.  Then there's a knitting circle that meets here on Thursday afternoons, so I thought I'd go along to that, and after that maybe we can do tea?"
"And supper," said Barbara.  "They're doing some kind of late buffet this evening for the marathoneers which I thought we could gatecrash.  We could pass for runners, easily."

Friday, 10 February 2012

Broken Heart

Candles – check.
Matches – check.
Electronic lighter thingy in case the matches don't work – check.
Wibbly thing that came out of a frog – check.
Printout containing the lyrics of a paean to the rotten God – check.
Singing lessons at five – check.
"What's this?" Miss Sharples peered myopically at the printout I'd brought with me, and groped for her glasses.  They hung on a chain around her neck, but the chain was far too long for the low-cut blouse she liked to wear, and when she leaned forward, as she was doing now, and groped for her glasses, as she was doing now, I was treated, if that's the right word, to a view of sixty-year-old cleavage.
Invitation to the local LGBT community monthly meeting to see if I'd prefer being gay to seeing sixty-year-old cleavage – check.
Discrete photographs of said cleavage taken to send to Gorgeous Grannies magazine – check.
Vague feeling of self-loathing mingled with the prospect of cash – check.
"It's a song I'd like to learn how to sing," I said, trying to avert my eyes and take more discrete photographs with my iPhone at the same time. 
"Well, I was rather hoping we could complete River Deep Mountain High today," said Miss Sharples, tugging another button on her blouse open.  "But sometimes a change is as good as a rest, so let's give this a try this week, perhaps with a little River at the end, shall we?"  She finally got her glasses on and I put the iPhone away and tried to look attentive.  She held the paper at a more reasonable distance from her face, and frowned.
"This is very odd," she said.  "This is really choral, it's for... well, it says 800 voices, but that must be a misprint.  Medieval Latin can be a bit like that though.  The range for the scoring though... even with your recent practice I'm not sure you'd manage it."
"You can read Medieval Latin?" I said, rather stunned.  An ungenerous thought at the back of my mind offered that she'd probably been alive back then.
"Oh yes, of course," she said.  "And Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Peloponnesean, Phoenician, and I can manage a fair amount of Ritual Gaelic as well.  You appear to be wanting to perform the Sacrament of the Broken Heart of the Rotten God.  By yourself?"
Note to self to have flabber ungasted – check.
Note to self to buy crowbar, tyre iron, or other blunt, heavy bludgeoning weapon – check.
Note to self to check and see if wibbly bit of frog was put in the fridge before I left the house – check.
"Yes," I said.  I would have to kill her now, so there wasn't much point lying to her.
"Be careful, then," she said.  "I've had four students now want to perform that particular Sacrament, and none of them seem to have done any research before performing it."
"What do you mean?  I had to do research to find this paean!"
"Yes, but did you actually find out why the Rotten God is so called?"
"Because he's evil," I said, a little louder than I'd intended.  "He's plain rotten, to everybody and everything.  That's why I want to bind him to my control.  Oh, and you're first against the wall when that happens, missy!"
"Hah!  No, he's not evil, he's rotten.  Or, more accurately, rotting.  He's one of the twelve fallen deities than Antaschen wrote about in the Alexandrine Codex, and he's the one who was poisoned by the Eritic apple, hence why he's rotting."
"Erotic apple?" I was a little confused, and becoming apprehensive.
"Eritic apple, the apple of Eris, goddess of discord.  He was poisoned by that apple, and because it was a divine creation intended to create chaos and discord it infected his flesh and caused him to rot.  He's got a divine case of necrotising fascitis, and he'll be more than happy to share it with anyone who performs the Sacrament."
"Oh," I said, wondering how she knew all this.
"And the Broken Heart," she said.  "You'll have been told that the wibbly bit of frog substitutes for it, but the only way to perform the Sacrament safely is to actually have the God's Broken Heart so that it can be returned to him.  Only then can he overcome the rot of the Eritic apple and be raised up again."
"You seem to know quite a lot," I said, now rather hesitant.  "How?"
"I do my research," she said, winking at me suggestively.
Panic – check. 
"So, perhaps we should just go back to River?" I suggested, holding my hand out for my printout back.
"Oh no," said Miss Sharples.  "My last student actually found the Broken Heart.  It's in the fridge right now."
"Oh," I said, a sudden presentiment of what was to come flashing over me.
"Oh yes," she said, grinning so widely that her head seemed to start splitting open.  "The God is awaiting his Sacrament."