Monday, 30 July 2012


They sit like badly arranged waxworks.  The father's face appears to have run under heat of some kind, perhaps a long time ago.  The mother, if that's what she is – she looks almost as young as the eldest daughter – stares into space.  Her eyes don't register the advertising posters as they flow past at stations, and there is a hint of silvery drool at the corner of her mouth.  Luggage of all kinds is piled across their laps and around them, blocking the doors and the passage along the carriage.  Children are clustered in amongst the luggage, looking uncomfortable, perhaps embarrassed to be with these people and their unconcern for the other people on the train.  The children are muted, somehow compressed, possible a remnant of the memory of crowding into the carriage, pushing ahead of other people at the station, using the luggage first as a wedge, and then as a ram to secure their places in the carriage.  None of them sit, that is a privilege reserved for their parents.
Announcements are made, and neither parent reacts, even when the children begin to show signs of fear.  They are aware that the stations that are being called are wrong, that this is not the right line, that the train is not heading towards the airport.  Yet none of them speak up, and slowly their heads drop and they begin to stare at the floor, almost as if dreading something that is yet to happen.
The train brakes sharply, a piston-shot sound like a puncture wound in the air.  The carriages snap and jerk, and the luggage is tumbled.  Much of it cannot move far, piled as it with the human buffers of the children to hold it in place, but a single suitcase espies a path to freedom and flings itself forward.  It makes it a few inches, then topples over, the seal at the top cracking and splitting and then the shell bouncing apart like a butterfly hatching from a cocoon.  Things spill out.
Father reacts slowly, as though having to reanimate his flesh from whichever waiting-room of the soul he was sitting in.  He makes a chopping gesture with his hand which is wasted on his children, none of whom move and most of whom don't look up.  His wife continues to stare ahead of her, her eyes vacant, wide, and dark.  He stands up as though having to instruct each muscle on what to do, stiffly, jerkily.  Only when he is standing does he seem to become more human, and when he crosses to the case and bends, it is almost graceful.  He gathers up fallen things, slim objects, small bags as of toiletries, a hairbrush with dark strands of hair attached to it, and pushes them back into the split, mewling case.  He does not attempt to arrange anything, everything is just pushed in with huge, strong hands.  Veins stand out on both his hands and his arms as he works, and there is a faint whistle as though a nostril is blocked.  When the case is refilled he presses it shut, his hands moving inexorably downwards until there is a click, a significant sound that seems to echo around the carriage.  Then he stands again, and brings the case with him, returning it to the spot it sought its freedom from.
The children shudder silently.
"That was your case, Freda," he says, his voice lacking warmth, tone and even cadence.  It is flat, neutral, boring.  No-one responds, and his brow furrows and his eyes narrow.  He repeats himself, the same words again, in the same toneless, tuneless voice.  Still no-one responds, and only then does he look properly at the mother, sitting, staring straight ahead.
"Freda?" he asks, though the rising intonation is barely present.  "Freda, that was your case."  He takes her hand, and she tilts to the side, her eyes rolling up in her head until only the whites show, and her mouth falling open.  Her tongue falls out, and seems to lap against her cheek.  The man in the seat next to her flinches, but manners keep him from pulling away altogether.
Father places two fingers on her wrist, but it is cold already and tells him all he needs to know.
"Your mother is dead, children," he says in that same flat voice.  "Did we remember to pack a coffin?"

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The archaeology of everyday things

Rob was washing the dishes in the sink after tea.  The radio was on, still tuned to a ridiculously sentimental station.  He wanted to change it but it was what Helen had liked to listen to while she was doing the ironing, and he'd not touched it since she died.  He tried whistling along for a few bars, but the lyrics of the song annoyed him so much he didn't want to join in, and he kept sliding off-key and out of tune.  He put a plate in the rack, and watched briefly while soap-suds slid down the shiny white surface.  Helen would have told him off for not rinsing the plate first.  He fished around in the water, the surface hidden by the icebergs of bubbles, again hearing her voice in the back of his mind warning him about sharp knives hidden below the surface.
"But they're all on the side," he said out loud, not realising he was talking.  He gestured with the hand holding the sponge.  "They can't hide in the water because I won't put them in there to soak and warp.  It's bad for them."
His hand found a cup and he pulled it up to the surface to wipe it down.  He was thinking now about her argument that not rising the crockery left soap residue on it that you could taste in your food later on.
The cup plinked in his hands, and he looked down, startled.  Had he managed to crack it just by washing it?  The cup didn't look quite right, but he couldn't really see it clearly to work out what had happened.  He turned the cold tap on, and ran the cup beneath the stream of water, only thinking as he turned the tap off that if the heat had cracked the cup then the cold water would probably only make it worse.  He turned the cup round in his hands, scrutinising the surface.  There did seem to be a small crack, but it might not be, it kind of looked like something stuck to the cup that was peeling away at the top.  It was quite close to the rim of the cup, perhaps it was a stubborn crumb of something.  He rubbed at it with his thumbnail, feeling it catch on something and then pass over again.  He pressed a little harder, trying to get the nail to stick firmly behind it.  He finally caught it, and pressed harder still, his fingers slipping inside the cup and pressing there to try and reduce the stress on the pottery.  It would be far too ironic if he managed to break the cup because he thought he'd found it was broken.
Suddenly something gave way, and his thumb moved slowly forward, something white and firm rolling up in front of the nail.  He kept pushing, not at all sure what he was seeing.  He was convinced that he would have noticed sooner if there was an entire band of something stuck around the top of the cup, but that's definitely what seemed to be peeling off now.  He turned the cup as he pushed, something nagging at the edges of his vision.  He was determined to get this off now though and see what had happened to the cup, so he ignored it and kept turning.  Finally it came back to the start and neatly popped off and fell into the dish-water.
He stared at the cup, disbelieving what he was seeing.  An entire layer of china appeared to have come off the cup, uncovering beneath a second layer with some kind of pattern painted onto it.  There were what looked like watercolour branches with little spring buds on, something that seemed oddly familiar.  He rubbed the ball of his thumb over the newly revealed layer, and it squeaked as though freshly cleaned off.
"What?" he said to himself, slowly, letting the word hang in the air in the kitchen.  On the radio, unregarded, Dashboard Confessional started up a sad tune about a cheat and swallowed the word up hungrily.
He swept his hand through the water, his fingers lightly curled like a dredge, and found the fallen roll of stuff that had peeled off the cup.  Pulling it out and shaking it dry, he looked at that: rolled china, which was surely impossible?  The cup had definitely been solid when he'd been drinking coffee from it during tea.  He put the cup down on the draining rack so he had both hands free, and tried unrolling the china.  There was no give in it now at all, no way to pull it away from itself.  He tried a little harder, and realised that the china would shatter before it would unbend.
He put the roll of china down now and looked at the cup again.  He picked it up, and experimentally pried at the white china that still seemed to be covering the pattern up.  Almost like a hard-boiled eggshell, the china covering now came away easily because some of it was already gone, and the entire remainder of the cup suddenly slipped off, shed by the cup like a snake sloughing its skin.  He put the white china aside and stared at the cup revealed by it all, his throat suddenly tight and his mouth dry.  The revealed cup was one of the set that he and Helen had bought in Wales on summer.  They'd gone there together on the train, about three months before he proposed to her.  She'd found the cups in the window of a small shop that sold works by local artists, and paid a silly amount of money for them.  All of them were now broken and thrown away, so what was this one doing here, now, in his hands?  And how had it been covered up by the other cup?
He placed the cup on the draining rack.  It was dry, but it seemed like the right place to put it, as though it had somehow just hatched from the previous cup.  He swept through the dish-water again, and found no more dishes, so he quickly washed up the knives, and then dried them off before putting them away in the drawer.  Knives were to be respected.  Then he sat down at the kitchen table and looked at the cup on the draining rack, and wondered about how it came to be there.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Sexing the shoggoth

The professor was having one of his funny turns in the study, and the butler, Fitches, was stationed in the doorway with a poker, a bucket of ice from the ice-house and a look on his face that would put the fear of God into small children and other household servants.  The cook had already been summoned and instructed to prepare a drench for the Professor that was to include no less than forty seven heads of garlic and a quarter-pound of onion skin.  The chambermaids had been summoned and told to change into their heaviest wet-gear and await further summons; they would be cleaning up the study after the Professor had been treated, calmed down, and safely put to bed.  The valet, Phillips, had been sent upstairs to the tower to get the bedroom there ready for the Professor, and to make sure that the windows were all tightly closed and locked.  Even Hubbins, the bird-wrangler, had been summoned in from his hedges and gardens and had spent five minutes in close, quiet conversation with Fitches before being dismissed again.  After that, there seemed to be rather more birds flying over the manor house than I recall seeing before, but I had no proof that that was Fitches had asked for, and it wasn't remarkable enough to pursue.
"You," said Fitches, gasping a little.  He was coated from head to toe in saliva that was viscous enough to drag behind him in rope-like strands.  It was white, smelled faintly of coconut, and appeared to be eating away at the iron poker.  "You're going to have to go down to the cellar, there's no-one else who can do it now."
"No," I said, my heart in my throat.  My hands were suddenly sweaty, and I had to resist the urge to rub them dry on my trousers.  "Miss Adelaide is here, she can go down to the cellar."
Miss Adelaide was the Professor's sister, five years his senior and a little batty.  In truth she was probably no odder than the Professor but we were used to his peccadilloes and little ways, while she was an unknown country and, we considered, best avoided.
"Not for this," said Fitches, his head turned so that he could see over his shoulder while still keeping on eye on me.  Saliva puddled on the floor around his feet.  "It'll have to be you.  They know your smell."
Just the words I didn't want to hear.  The things in the cellar that hunted by smell were things I didn't even want to dream of, let alone go and be in the same room as.  From time to time I had a nightmare that the Professor was teaching me to ride one of them and I was strapped onto its back by an unusual saddle that I couldn't free myself from.  The Professor, tall and saturnine in his stove-pipe hat that was a century out-of-date and out of fashion kept walking beside me, no matter how fast the beast turned and slithered and dashed.  From time to time he would tug thoughtfully on his goatee and then say something like, 'Don't let it get near the walls.  It can pass through the walls, and you can't.  We'll have to scrape you up and bury you in an envelope.'  I would shiver and hunch down further in my saddle, my fingers desperately picking at the knots and trying to get free.
The things in the cellar were shoggoths, obscene masses of silky, translucent flesh a little like water-fleas or perhaps rare specieses of slug.  They were lethal killing machines with no brain worth talking about.  They reacted purely on instinct, blindly snuffling towards heat and and light detected by some other senses, opening feeding-mouths all over themselves, but concentrated heavily towards what squishy bit was moving least erratically at the time.  They made for an excellent waste-disposal plan, and I knew that the Professor was looking for a way to weaponise them, but his fit seemed to be halting his work this morning.
"Go," said Fitches, his face looking suddenly tired as he saw something in the room behind him stirring again.  "And hurry.  You'll have to sex the shoggoths and separate them.  This is clearly linked to that problem."
I was half-way down the cellar steps when I suddenly realised something and stopped dead, one foot poised in mid-air to continue my descent.  I had only a small idea of what sexes Shoggoths did have, and I had no idea how to tell them apart.
"This should be interesting," I thought, listening to the howls from upstairs synchronising with the howls from below, and wondering just how much Fitches knew that he wasn't letting on.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012


MSPARKER was a quipping machine, built in a collaborative effort between the Literature department and the Comp.Sci department.  There had been a few too many post-grads involved for comfort for a lot of the backers, but the university had insisted that this was the only way to get the project delivered on time.  And MSPARKER had been delivered three weeks early, with no bugs raised during the QA or UAT periods, which had gone down extremely well with the accountants.  It was installed in the central office, known to insiders as the Grey Tower and unknown to outsiders, and unveiled with much pomp and circumstance.  Charles Ascuigimento and his team of security mavens were employed to ensure the safety of the quipping machine, and after a surprising spate of arrests everything seemed to have calmed down.  MSPARKER was turned on, and people with a suitably high security clearance were allowed access to it.
Bob Martin was a junior researcher in Epistomological Eschatology which meant he spent a lot of time theorising about the end of the world and how it might be brought about, and didn't get invited to very many parties (it wasn't completely his fault, but he couldn't look at a creamy dip left out of the fridge without being moved to remark how easy it would be to poison the entire street with it).  When MSPARKER was brought online, he was granted security credentials because his boss, who was entitled to them, didn't want any extra work but was unwilling to give up access to anything potentially important.  One of Bob's Learning Objectives for his year-end review was now to interact with MSPARKER and establish what, if anything, it could contribute to EE.
"MSPARKER," he said, wondering if the speech recognition was better than the version he had on his mobile.  He'd turned that off after it had renamed everyone in his address book as an animal, especially since he couldn't figure out what he might have said that could have caused that.  "MSPARKER, tell me about Eternity."
"Eternity is one room with two people and a ham," said MSPARKER promptly.  Bob wrote that down, his handwriting beautifully calligraphic and astonishingly hard to read from any distance, and then read it back to himself.
"MSPARKER," he said, careful to always ensure that the machine knew it was being addressed.  He suspected that his phone had taken to eavesdropping on him to try and get one step ahead.  "MSPARKER, what kind of ham?"
"Boiled," said the machine, it's voice tinny but slightly female, and slightly upper-class.  Bob wrote that down as well, and pondered it for a few minutes, wondering what was so significant about this ham that eternity could be invoked simply by spending time with it in a room.  Ah, there was a thought.
"MSPARKER, which people?"
"A man and a woman, whose relationship papers over the cracks with a mutual appreciation of food.  A match gourmet'd in heaven."
"MSPARKER, what is if it were two women?"
"That would be the definition of determination: two women in pursuit of a ham."
There was a knock on the door, a subtle indication that his time with the quipping machine was nearly up.
"MSPARKER, how many ways are there to end the world?"  He knew he wasn't supposed to ask this question, but the machine was making him edgy.  He wasn't at all sure he wanted to come back.
"How long have you got?" asked the machine.
"What kind of results did you get then, Bob?"  Bob's boss, Malcolm, was poking at a lump of gravy-hidden meat on a plastic plate.  The cafeteria around them was half-empty and they were sat away from any other occupied table, everyone else trying to get close to the ceiling-mounted television and watch the news.
"Eternity is a room with a man, a woman and a boiled ham," said Bob, who was happy to discuss this thought.  He spent a week working with it, and had several ideas now about what it might mean.  He was not at all willing to talk about the last question he'd asked, or the fact that a manila envelope containing 5,116 ways to end the world had been delivered to his door late last night.
"Does that help us with the eschatology at all?" Malcolm poked the meat again, wondering if it had just squealed.
"Yes, I think so.  It's going to depend to some extent on the actual people as to how long it takes, but I think the ham is fundamental.  We might be nearing a breakthrough on food-related ennui and the possibility of designing a farmer's market that actually causes people to commit suicide."
Malcolm had skewered the meat and was watching to see if it wriggled now, but he looked up anyway and met Bob's gaze.  "Do we want that?"
"The war will only be won by subtle action," said Bob.  "You know this, I know this.  How much more subtle can we get?"
"We don't want to immanentize the eschaton though," said Malcolm.  "You haven't forgotten the risks for that, have you?"
Bob shook his head.  He hadn't.  He wished someone had programmed MSPARKER to be aware of that though.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Frankenstein's debugger

It was the summer before I went to University.  My mother had marched into my bedroom, tripped over things on the floor hidden by the stygian gloom, and pulled the curtains off the wall.  The curtain rod hit me as I tried to sit up, bleary-eyed and still hungover from the night before, and I whimpered in pain, unsure if it was the headache or the aching head.  "Why did you do that?" I managed, my voice a dry croak and my tongue feeling twice its normal size.
"I was trying to open them," said my mother, her voice loud and shrill.  "When was the last time they were opened?"
"Two weeks ago," I said, ignoring her snort.  "I told you that they'd broken then, and you said you'd get them fixed.  Two weeks ago."  Her second snort died in her throat as her memory worked.
"You need to get a job," she said after a couple of seconds of silence.  "I'm not having you sit around in your own filth in this pig-sty of a room all summer.  You go out this morning and find yourself a job, or there.  Will.  Be.  Trouble."  She turned on her heel and marched out, unaware that she was walking through the fried breakfast she'd put at the entrance to the room an hour earlier.  I sighed, knowing that it would somehow be my fault that she'd put the breakfast there and then walked it all through the house.
I never actually made it to the job centre, as I was stopped two streets away from it by a stunning young woman in a lab coat.  She was carrying a clipboard and an expensive-looking fountain pen, but her brunette hair and the way the coat clung to her were what really caught my attention.  She glanced at me and looked away, scanning the sparse crowd of people mostly shopping, but then she looked back at me again, almost as though she were doing a double-take.
"Excuse me?" Her voice was as soft as crushed velvet, and I wondered why I'd made that particular comparison.  She stepped a little closer to me than I was completely comfortable with, and I felt my scalp start sweating.  "Excuse me, but would you be looking for a job by any chance?"
"Well, yes," I said.  This didn't happen to me.  Hell, this didn't happen to anyone who wasn't in a story or a film.  Well, I say film, but we're talking internet porn really.  So the big question for me now was, was it just her, or was it her sexy friend as well?  I looked around, but I couldn't see the friend.
"Oh good," she said.  "Because I have a job that I'd like to offer you.  You look like an intelligent and strong young man.  Do you think you could pick a person up?"
"Oh yes," I said, visions of picking her up and pushing her up against a wall running in the private cinema in my head.
"And you've had experience–"
"Yes!"  Well, I wasn't going to say anything else, was I?
"– with computers?" she finished, a mischievous little smile on her face.  I deflated a little, in more senses than just one.
"Oh.  Well, yes, that too," I said, and then blushed when I heard myself.
"Excellent," she said.  "We have a debugging job for you, but there's the odd bit of heavy lifting involved too.  Would you care to come with me and I'll take you to our offices?"
The offices turned out to be next door to the morgue, which I'd never been to before either, and the fact that there appeared to be an adjoining door to the morgue intrigued me quite a lot too.  The woman running the operation was an older version of the woman who'd recruited me, and I wondered just for a moment if the debugging thing wasn't just a ploy to get me in front of the cameras, but it wasn't the case.
"We have built an open-source human," said the woman, pulling a sheet off a body on a slab.  She studied my face.  "You can scream if you like," she said, her tone light and friendly.  "I'd rather get all that out of the way up front."
"I'm fine," I said, trying not to shiver.  I didn't really have a problem with dead bodies, but this was officially my first.
"We're just trying to iron out the kinks," she said.  "There are a number of problem in there, bugs if you like, in the operating system.  We need someone to run through a number of tests and try and pin down what's causing the problems."
"Don't you need a doctor then?"  I was wondering how I could possibly help, given I knew nothing about humans worked, dead or alive.
"We've got a couple of them," she said.  "What we need now is someone who's not trying to second guess the code we're running.  Someone like you."
Code they were running?  She pointed at a computer screen with a mac-style keyboard in front of it.
"The code's there, you'll be debugging it.  Don't run anything unless one of us is here as well."
I was going to ask why, but she tapped a key on the keyboard and raised an eyebrow at me.  A dull hum I'd not paid any attention to in the background cycled up to a scream, and the body on the slab started to move.  It groaned a little as it did, and my nerve gave out and I clutched at the attractive recruiter, a low moan seeping out from between my lips.  The researcher removed my hands, and smiled at me like my mother when she was drunk.
"That's why," she said.  "Now, you'll be working nine till five...."

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Let's cough

Melista crossed the street, taking her life in her hands.  Her heart beat faster and her palms grew sweaty, but she reached the other side, tripping up the curb onto the pavement, without hearing the screech of brakes or any angry shouting from a motorist.  She sighed just a little bit, adjusted her oversize sun-glasses that were stopping her seeing just about everything, and hoped she was still going in the right direction.
She was wearing a short white dress that showed off the dark-gold tones of her skin to perfection and had paired them with a pair of white high-heels that her mother had bought her for her twenty-first birthday.  They were a little too high for comfort, and she tottered as she walked, her legs aching with tension as she tried to avoid falling over.  A small black purse on a beaded strap was slung over one shoulder, and despite her only having condoms and a rape alarm in there it felt like it was pulling her over all the time.  She gritted her teeth, keeping her purple-lipsticked lips pressed firmly together so no-one could see, and resisted the urge to put her hand out in front of her.  It wouldn't be lady-like.
Two minutes later she walked into the side of the recording studio, catching her knee on the brickwork of a corner and knocking her sunglasses from her face and into a muddy puddle.  Somewhere behind her came laughter, and she flushed.  Hot blood rushed to her face and she felt the tiny pinprick sensation of her scalp starting to sweat; a minor disaster as it would loosen the wax and gel holding her hair in place.  She swore, mostly under her breath, and pushed herself away from the wall, praying that her shoes were undamaged.  She swayed a little, placing one hand on her stomach to help her get her balance and swearing continuously.  When she felt steady again she looked round for her sunglasses and saw a small child – male, blond and shocked – holding them out to her.  The child's mother (presumably) looked like she had a few choice words of her own to say about Melista's language in front of the young and impressionable.
"Give her a break," said a voice behind her, and hands rested on her hips, both startling and steadying her at the same time.  "She just walked into a wall, it's not like she's clever.  She doesn't really know what she's saying, it's like Tourette's."
"Oh, his grandfather has Tourette's," sniffed the mother.  "It what's she wearing that I find offensive.  Little Jimmy here keeps looking up her skirt, and you can tell from the sheerness that she's not wearing knickers."
"Doesn't even know what they are," said the voice, which she realised now was her co-vocalist Samandra.  "Getting her to dress herself in the morning is the first challenge of the day for her carer, and frankly, they think it's a victory if they can get her wearing something that's recognisably an outfit.  They said she came down to breakfast a few days ago wearing a shower-curtain, and a few days before that she tried to leave the secure facility with a bath-mat wrapped round her feet and a bag over her head."
"Should she really be out on her own then?"  The mother pulled little Jimmy closer to her, protectively. Little Jimmy was fiddling with a mobile phone, probably taking pictures.
"Hah!  No she bloody shouldn't," said Samandra immediately.  "She should have people looking after her round the clock making sure that she doesn't hurt herself.  She's not really a danger to other people, she's just a bit slow on the uptake and doesn't have any manners.  Or social graces.  Or knows when to wear clothes, but I think we covered that already.  But you know what the government care programs are like."
"Oh yes," said the mother sounding enthusiastic.  "His grandfather ought to have been locked up a long time ago, and instead I have to make chili on Tuesdays because it's his favourite.  It's shocking what these mental folks make the rest of do."
"Right then," said Samandra.  "Well, if Jimmy's finished being the next Mapplethorpe I need to get this poor girl inside and sedated.  If you'll excuse me...?"  She left the words hanging on the air as she gave Melista a push in the general direction of the recording studio door and smiled a full 100-Watt beam at the mother.  She hurried after Melista, several ungentle shoves making sure that she didn't stop moving in the right direction until they were in reception and the man behind the desk was dialling up to George McIntern.
"What just happened out there?" said Melista.  Her leg hurt, she thought she'd bitten her lip, and she had a feeling that her reputation had been dragged through the muddy puddle.  "And where are my sunglasses?" she said as an afterthought.
"I got you in here," said Samandra.  "We have an album to record, Mel, and it's going to be big.  George has finally picked the title: Let's Cough.  The theme is emphysema.
"Where are my glasses?"
"I left with them young Mapplethorpe," said Samandra.  "He can Ebay them after he puts your pictures up on the internet."
"Let's cough," she said impatiently now.  "Let's get upstairs and show George your lungs.  We have an album to make!"

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Hawthorne Effect

Hi, it's me again!  Buddy, your friendly guide to conquering your fear of the corporate, to understanding the myriad ways of business, and the only guy willing to help you unwrap yourself after that Zen Yoga class where you actually managed to get your foot in your mouth.  Yes, yes, I remember, you don't want to talk about where you managed to get your other foot.  Did everything... un-stretch, I suppose... afterwards?
I see that you're sitting there composing a memo.  And you're using that unholy office-software program again.  I've told you, it'll give you warts.  Well, look, there may be no scientific studies proving that it does, but there's equally no scientific studies proving that it doesn't.  And does anyone ever come up to you and tell you that it's safe to use and doesn't give you warts?  I think you see my point.
Your memo looks quite interesting, I'm surprised that Clippy hasn't popped up to ask you if you'd like it euthanised yet.  I can see that you're simply trying to instate a sensible health-and-safety policy, but have you considered that the best policy might be no policy at all?  No?  Let me tell you a little fable.
Once upon a time in a busy metropolis, there was a shiny new office building in a Ballardian office park.  The park had a water feature, which was a lake that contained fish, birds of varying sizes, and the occasional drunken, naked employee of the surrounding office buildings, who was invariably quickly fished out by security patrols and first dressed up and then dressed down.  In one of the many buildings, where the view looked out to the centre of the Metropolis and the landscape was dominated by increasing numbers of tall buildings, there was a Human Resources manager who cringed at the idea of Managing Resources when he should be relating to people and who spent much of his day attempting to undo the damage that senior management felt could be inflicted on the people who worked there.  For senior management, people were not resources of course, they were nothing more than the transitionary stage between headcount and bodycount.
One day, while the Human Resources manager was attempting to implement a policy against Bribery and Corruption that didn't explicitly state how the loopholes could be lined up to drive a very large, solid gold truck full of hospitality gifts, house-warming presents and illegal immigrants through, he received an email from the Evil Queen, who preferred to be referred to as the Company Secretary.  The email declared that in the interests of cost-cutting in departments that were unrelated to the Company Secretary's aims there would be a mandatory blood donation scheme set up, and the proceeds (i.e. bags of blood) would be sold at an amusing profit on the black market.  Employees were to be told that they were making a valuable contribution to society, and posters of starving children working in Chinese-looking fish-canning factories were to be put up in all public areas to encourage employees to feel guilty if they didn't give blood.  Employees with rare blood diseases, sexually active lifestyles, or conscientous grounds for not giving blood were to be sacked as quickly as possible and anyone who protested this treatment was to have their name left discretely in a "suggestion" box in the canteen and absolutely nothing would be done with that name.  Honest.
The Human Resources Manager sighed heavily, reading the email over and over again, then checking the date to see if it was April Fool's Day.  Sadly it was the middle of Autumn, and the email appeared to be entirely serious.
The HRM did not in fact, do any of these things, because he was a good manager who understood the importance of relating to people.  Instead, he sent round an email telling all employees that there would be a preventative blood test done that required their attendance because of a recent outbreak of water-borne disease that might have a home in the lake in the Ballardian office park.  These tests would repeated on a regular basis until such time as the company was sure that the risk was gone, and would be carried out entirely at the company's expense.  He made no effort to sack anybody, reasoning that people buying black market blood were already taking a risk, and there was no good reason for him to mitigate that risk.  He put up no guilt-inducing posters at all, but instead spoke casually to many, many people around the office asking after symptoms and generally showing a caring and considerate attitude.
This had the effect of getting a 99% take-up rate for the blood-drive, with the 1% of abstainers being primary Senior Management, and the Employees looked entirely happy about it all, little knowing that their pints of blood were selling for a little over fifty pounds sterling each on the black market.  This effect, that of doing nothing other that telling people that you care about them and still getting results, was named after that HRM and is therefore known as the Hawthorne effect.
Oh, the HRM ousted the Company Secretary in an internal coup based primarily on the success he'd had getting the employees to give blood, and when he went through her email he discovered that there were another forty-five ways to monetise the employee base without reducing their health below what was required to attend work four days out of five and he set about finding ways to get the employees to actually volunteer for these services.  I think he's retired somewhere now.
The moral of this story, as you can no doubt tell, is that you should never assume that something is biowaste when it can be handed out to the gullible and rich on the black market.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Eric Soapwort

Eric Soapwort was a butcher by trade, so chopping off a few arms and legs for church sacrifice didn't bother him particularly.  He put on his heaviest apron, the one that went right down to his ankles, hefted his cleaver a couple of times for the look of the thing, and brought it smoothly down on the first wrist.  A seven-fingered hand fell to the ground, and a voice nearby said, "Ow!  You rotter!"  Eric ignored it, and located the second wrist.  A few seconds later, a second hand was lying on the ground next to the first.
It had puzzled him when the vicar first asked him if he thought he could handle church sacrifice.
"I'm not sure what you mean, guv," he'd replied, thinking it was probably about money.  The vicar smiled a thin-lipped little smile at the guv and waved his hands laconically.
"Church sacrifice," he said, his voice all Home Counties and his vowels elongated and wobbly.  Some of the more elderly and female of his parishioners told him weekly that he should be on Radio 4.  "We need someone to chop bits off the sacrifice, otherwise it's not a sacrifice, is it?"
"Well," said Eric, "I can chop things up mate, that's not a problem.  I can do you some lovely sausages afterwards as well if you like, or the missus can, she's a dab hand with the spicing.  But –"
"But what?"  The vicar had a half-smile on his lips and a full-blown full-moon howl in his eyes.
"But... isn't this Church of England?  I thought we'd done away with all the sacrifice stuff because it was messy and... well... expensive?"
"Everything these days is expensive," said the vicar, and Eric found himself nodding automatically.  It was true.  Even the supermarket's own-brand economy goods now came in shit you shouldn't eat and luxury shit that won't kill you this week flavours now.  He checked the meat products when the wife forced him to go in there, and had been impressed to discovered both that they were now putting Polyfilla in their English Bangers and that they were passing fillet of rat off as Parisian Steak.  He'd put the economy digestives back after that and bought the expensive ones, on the grounds that they probably wouldn't explode when he dunked them in his tea.
"Everything is expensive, and yet the church is essentially free for anyone who walks through the door.  The collection plate collects less each week," and he paused meaningfully here, "and so we need to do something to attract the crowds.  Live sacrifice works well, and isn't strictly against our interpretation of the Bible."
"The Bible says to sacrifice people?" Eric has heard a lot about the Bible but never picked a copy up.
"Everywhere," said the vicar with a sigh.  "But that's not the point.  It specifically does not set down prohibitions regarding advertising campaigns, or describe in much detail what should be done with those not made in God's image."
"No, not them Eric.  If you're available for the sacrifice though, I can explain more then."
And so Eric found himself butchering live aliens on a Thursday evening, slightly curious about where the church had found them from and how they managed to speak English, at least until he'd cut most of their appendages off.  Then they turned pale blue and died.
The vicar grinned to himself, and readied a sermon on how the Godless would speak in tongues to persuade the God-fearing, and crossed another alien off the list.  Soon the nest would be eradicated.

Sunday, 15 July 2012


The trees spelled out rude words.
Benson, Head Gardener for sixteen years, had had them pointed out to him when he was still the Junior Undergardener, and they'd made him snigger then.  Now, they were just a pain: he had to keep the topiary just so, and sneak into the main house and up to the roof to check that the words were clearly visible and the letters weren't distorted.  He didn't know if anyone in the House knew about the trees, or the study window that allowed you to see them as they were intended, and he was far too embarassed about what the trees said to ever ask.
He rubbed his lower back, which seemed to ache more hours of the day than not these days, and looked with a slightly rueful face at Hedges, the Junior Undergardener.  He was pretty certain that the lad had grown up without seeing any kind of plant at all for the first ten years of his life, and that he'd hired on the strength of his name.  Oh yes, Benson and Hedges the gardeners!, he could imagine Master Greytooth braying with his friends in one of their little parties up at the House.  Still, he couldn't go climbing the trees anymore himself, and Hedges was very keen on the power tools.  Possibly a little too keen, but the first finger he cut off would soon cure him of that kind of enthusiasm.
"Right, lad," said Benson, just about stifling a sigh.  Was it like this for Richards when he had to tell me about the trees? he suddenly wondered.  Do we always look on the new generation as a bunch of useless wasters who won't do a lick of work unless you beat them first?  "New job today, and it's an important one."
"You said that about watering the lawns," said Hedges.  He sounded sulky, and his eyes were cast down on the grass, probably hoping for snakes.
"I did, and that is important.  Unless you fancy being the one to explain why the lawns are brown and dead to the House?"  Hedges scuffed his feet in the grass and shoved his hands in his pockets.  "Of course, I'll have to explain it too, which is why I tell you first," said Benson, trying to get the message through, but Hedges was glaring at the grass hard enough to make it burst into flames.  "Oh bugger it," said Benson, fed up at last.  "Just do the bloody job and appreciate having someone who can tell you what needs to be done every morning.  Now come with me, we've got some breaking and entering to do."
Hedges lifted his head, a look of pure amazement dawning on his face.  If he'd shave that stupid bumfluff 'tache off,  thought Benson, he'd have half the girls in the village after him.  The spots don't help much, but they'll clear up when he's a bit older, and anyway, they make a lad try harder.  "You heard me," he said.  "Come on.  And make sure your shoes aren't muddy.  We don't want to leave footprints."
When Hedges discovered that they really were sneaking into the House his face lit up completely, and suddenly he was eager to listen and do whatever Benson told him.  Benson showed him the secret brick which could be pulled out of the wall, and the hole behind it that you had to slip your hand in and twist around until you found a gritty wire handle.  Hedges had it in no time flat, and the familiar clunk of the bolts sliding back brought a hint of a smile to Benson's face; all the more because he'd not had to use his own aching wrists to do it.  He pushed the narrow wooden door open, and then showed Hedges the tiny wedge that went just below the hinge.
"The door won't open from the inside," he whispered.  "If you let the door get closed on you, you'll have to wait till it's quiet and sneak out through the House, and that's pretty much only after dark.  So either only come here just before dusk, or get into the habit now."
They walked along the corridor and up the dusty back stairs, Benson pointing out the steps he knew creaked.  They still found two new creaky ones on the way up, and with each creak they paused and listened carefully.  The walls here were thin and it was easy to tell if other people were moving around on the other side of them.  At the top they were in darkness, and Benson groped on the wall in front of them until he found the shutter.  Drawing it aside allowed two very faint rays of light in, and he nudged Hedges to look closer.  The holes allowed Hedges to see the broad Picture Gallery, and the flight of stairs just opposite.  He kept looking for several minutes, and then his hand reached back to tap Benson on one side.
"All clear," he murmured, stepped backing from the holes.
"Handle's by your left-hand, lad," whispered Benson.  The handle turned and clicked, and a huge, heavy door swung out.  The two men stepped out and Benson quickly pushed the eight-foot painting that concealed the door back into place, and they ascended the stairs opposite.
"Is that for real?" Hedges looked slightly awed.  "We really just came up a secret passage and out a painting?"
"Aye," said Benson, who was concentrating on not tripping over.  These steps seemed steeper every time he came up here.  The study door should be on the left here... he paused, and stared.  The door was missing, another enormous painting in its place.  A picture of an execution, French Revolution by the look of it.  Was that...?
Memories surfaced, and he smiled.  The roof was always chilly, so maybe it would be better to show the lad the words as they were supposed to read.  He could always show him the roof next time.
"This way," he said softly.  "We'll do it properly next time, but this time you can see them the way he wanted them seen."
Benson pulled the boy in close to the painting to make them harder for anyone looking up the stairs to see, and ran his hand down the left-hand side.  At about waist height he found the rough spot on the frame, and put his palm against it and pushed up, hard.  It was stiff, not wanting to move at first, but then it clicked and the painting revolved on a central axel to let them into the Third Study.  Ignoring the leather armchairs, the bookcases, the globe of the world and the filing cabinets, Benson closed the door behind them and led the boy to the window.
"Look out there, and tell me what you see," he said, taking a vicarious pleasure in the look of surprise and mirth on Hedges' face as he began to read.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Arriving on Höllenstein

Carlos Dészegerégy was a plain man, perhaps 5'8 in his stockinged feet, and he was indeed the kind of man to wear stockings rather than socks.  He had a slightly pointy chin and slightly pointy ears, and cruel people made remarks about leprechauns in his hearing if he forgot himself and wore the green tunic his mother had given him before he left home.  His hair was usually tousled but was jet black; so black in fact that more than one lover had asked him when he found time to dye it.  On his left hand he wore his Linguist ring, the ring awarded only to postgraduates of the Royal Academy of Linguistics.  His right hand was slightly claw-like, due to a near permanent writer's cramp.  He only smiled when he thought of something funny, which seemed to happen less and less.
He was frowning at the moment as he read through the notes his colleague, Irina Novosibirsk, had left for him.  He'd arrived on the world of Höllenstein twelve days earlier and she'd crashed into him as he came out of the arrivals lounge.  He'd barely had time to recognise that the silver-haired screaming woman was Irina before she'd recovered herself, thrust her satchel into his arms, pushed him over, and run off again, still screaming.  A kindly couple nearby offered him a hand to help him up, which he gratefully declined as they were old enough to be his grandparents, and when he was finally on his feet and dusting off his trousers, he thought to look around for Irina.  A brief walk in the direction she'd taken brought him to the departures lounge, and the pasty-faced guard stopped eating a beignet for long enough to tell him that a screaming woman had indeed gone through as she had a ticket valid for travel.  Which Carlos did not, for another six months.
Outside the travel-port, which had the impressive name of President Harkos II the Illuminated Travel-Port for the Nation and the less-impressive building standards of an agricultural shelter, there was a taxi-rank and a bus-stop.  Without stopping to think, Carlos joined the queue for the bus and started listening.
Two minutes later he realised his mistake: everyone coming from the Travel-port was a tourist, and so they were speaking a multitude of langauges, and all of them were complaining about the expense of the taxis.  Carlos left the queue and join the (much shorter) queue for a taxi, and within five minutes was being driven to the Queen Agnetha Embassy.  The taxi driver was talkative and appeared not to speak any Anglo, so Carlos listened attentively, his right-hand cramping slightly as he tried to control his urge to take out his notebook and start making notes about the use of the language by native speakers.  He contented himself with singling out the most useful observations and trying to memorise them to write them down later.
"Here then we are, goodman," said the taxi-driver, slowing the taxi as they approached the Embassy.  "Soldiermen shots not good are, taxi new is but.  Here then descend you. "  The taxi stopped, and Carlos asked the driver to repeat himself again, intrigued that the driver appeared to adding a suffix to the verb when he moved it out of its traditional place in the sentence structure.  The taxi driver looked at him as though he were simple, repeated what he'd said, and looked even more surprised when Carlos added an extra ten to the tip by way of gratitude.
As the taxi-driver pulled his taxi away, Carlos noticed that the soldiers at the gates of the Embassy were taking aim at him with their guns.  He pulled his passport out of his pocket and held it in front of him like a shield as he walked to them, his heart racing and his breathing suddenly ragged.
A shot rang out, and he fell to the ground, hurting himself on the square corners and hard edges of the books inside Irina's satchel.  He lay there, wondering how he'd know if he'd been shot, and if they were going to keep on shooting, but silence filled the air until a boot kicked him in the ribs and he grunted as the air rushed out of his lungs.
"Get up," said the soldier in accented Anglo.  "What do you want?"
"I belong here," said Carlos, not getting up but holding his passport up instead.  "See?  I'm expected at the Embassy."
He felt the passport being pulled from his fingers, and risked looking up.  The soldier's lips were moving as he scrutinised the passport, and finally it was dropped on Carlos's upturned face.
"Fine," said the soldier.  "Another funny language man, great.  You're not as cute as your colleague, you know."
Carlos got to his feet, wondering how worried he should feel about the implications of that statement, and traipsed after the soldier.  Höllenstein seemed quite different to all of his other postings so far.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Odnose B

Carlos Dészegerégy, Linguist First Class (non-Whorfian), rubbed an inky hand across his forehead, smearing blue pigment on his skin.  He sighed, unaware of what he'd done, and picked his fountain pen back up again, intending to write a couple more lines about Odnose B and noticed that the pen was sticky.  Looking at it more closely he realised that it was leaking ink from the new cartridge he'd put in there just ten minutes earlier, and for the first time he didn't put the pen down and curse the manufacturer.  Instead he turned it around in his hand and wondered.
Could it be, he thought, twiddling the pen, that the fault didn't lie with the pen or the cartridges at all?  After all, he'd been given the pen thirteen and a half years ago as a graduation present after he'd successfully defended his thesis that dead languages could be successfully resurrected amongst small children deprived of other stimuli.  It had worked perfectly every day since then, until two days ago, when he'd started writing notes on Odnose B.  Could it be that the language itself was somehow breaking his pen?
It was surely ridiculous, but over the last three days studying the language the computer translation systems had steadily lost languages until now he was translating Odnose B into Latin, that being the last language the computer had left that he could understand.  The various sub-systems of the computer kept malfunctioning, and the heating and water-purification systems now needed near-constant attention.  Almost as if on cue, the fans in the heaters stopped turning and the noise died down to near-silence.  He put the pen down and got up straight away – if the fans weren't restarted the heaters would melt them, and without the heaters he'd just freeze slowly to death.
A cursory study of the heater revealed that he'd have to turn it off and replace the ball-bearings if he wanted heating again, and then he did swear a little.  This time though, instead of discarding the ball-bearings that had given out, he put them in his pocket.  When the heaters were back on and the fans turning again, he got the ball bearings back out of his pocket and took a look at them.  Then he found a magnifying glass and took a closer look at them.
They were square.
Impossibly, the tiny perfect spheres of titanium had somehow become cubes, and no longer fitted into their joints properly.  Corners now caught and scratched and stuck until the fans stopped working.  Yet it was strictly opposed to the laws of physics for something to move to a less entropic state like that.  It made no sense.  Which implied sabotage, which brought him all the way back to Odnose B.
He sat back, and thought about the peculiar language.  No-one here seemed to speak it, and although no-one had admitted to it, he was pretty certain that they burned any books or documents they found that were written in it.  He'd been lucky to stumble on a buried cache of books written in Odnose B that had been hidden away in a small cave system, simply because he'd wanted to use it for freezer storage and had started to clear away a rockfall.  The books had been behind the rockfall, with various bones and skeletal fragments scattered around them.  Yet more evidence of disaster around the language, now he was looking for it.  But was he only finding the evidence because he was looking?
The books weren't cheerful reading, if the computer translation were accurate.  One might be a history of some kind, but it was pretty miserable.  The people it described seemed always unhappy, prone to fighting for no apparent cause, and quick to commit suicide over minor misunderstandings.  He could quite see why such a people would have died out.
So... and here was the heretical thought: had they died out because of their language?  Had their language somehow brought about their own doom?
Was that too far-fetched?
The computer beeped, indicating that a programme had finished running, and he shook his inky head and went over to the touch-screen to see which one had completed.  The screen informed him that the speech module had synthesised three sentences from the book he'd taken to be a dictionary of some kind.  With just a hint of trepidation he tapped the Enter key to hear what Odnose B sounded like, as best as the computer could determine.
Three seconds later the power failed and the computer stopped speaking, leaving him shaking and pale-faced (underneath the blue ink).  If the computer was to be believed, Odnose B sounded like the speaker was being strangled and tortured, the kind of noise that made him want to kill himself.  Perhaps the language had been the death of its speakers, he thought.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Chair socks

The first thing Nora noticed when she came into the parlour was that the curtains were the ones she'd been looking at in Binghamptons, the department store, just last Tuesday.  She tried not to stare, but she'd known at a glance that they were the curtains she'd wanted, and she tried to walk casually closer to them to make perfectly sure.  The second thing she noticed, as she headed towards the window, exclaiming about the begonia, was the chair socks.
She stopped dead, and stared openly at the wooden dining chairs, neatly set out around the edges of the room as though at the edges of a dance floor waiting for the wallflowers to take up position and coyly avoid the gaze of anyone wanting to dance.
"What's the matter, dear?"  Mrs. Amtram was carrying the teapot, snuggled in its Chelsea-strip tea-cosy, in one hand, and in her other hand two mugs clattered together as her fingers barely clutched their handles.  Nora pointed, too shaken to say anything.
"The chairs?  They were from Auntie Clara.  You must remember her, dear, she's the one who used to ask you why you had a boyfriend.  Poor woman, back then of course we thought she was just being funny, but you know, when she died and I had to help Miriam clear out her rooms, we found things in there that suggested she might have... well, enjoyed not being married.  Dear?  You're very quiet still, dear."  Nora pointed again, her shaking finger trying to isolate the chair-socks as the cause of her distress.
"Still the chairs?  I doubt Auntie Clara haunts them, but you can check if you like.  I'm quite sure her spirit wouldn't mind you sitting in her lap...."  Mrs. Amtram trailed off, as though realising she'd perhaps said too much and risked speaking ill of the dead.  She put the tea-pot down on the coffee table, a wood-and-glass affair that didn't go with anything else in the room, and clattered the mugs down next to them.  "I'll go and get the milk, shall I then?" she said.  Her tone, a little brisk, suggested that Nora was now being silly.
"Socks," said Nora, her throat working like a sword-swallower with inopportune hiccoughs.
"What?  Oh, yes dear.  They're rather lovely aren't they?  I saw them online you know, on that laptop that little Kirstie gave me.  Well, I say gave me, but when they asked me to go round and clear out her rooms after her little... are we still calling it an accident?  Well, whatever.  They asked me to go round, and her room was shocking.  I know she was at university, and I well remember what we got up to back then, but at least all you ever found in my underwear drawer was some fuse wire and the schematic for a small bomb, just a little something to liven up the student councils.  Nothing that ever vibrated, or needed washing, or was probably left behind by someone else.  Or something else, but I don't really believe that that was why that was there.  I think that was probably just to shock her mother.  Anyway, I took the laptop as a small thank-you for the effort I made, and then I was browsing around on it, and these students do see a lot of the internet you know, and I came across those socks.  So I bought them.  Let me get the milk, dear."
Nora checked that the couch wasn't wearing clothing and sat down, trembling a little.  She eyed the tea-pot cautiously, wondering if the cosy counted as clothing.  Mrs. Amtram came back in to the room with a cow-shaped milk jug.
"They call it a creamer," she said, putting it down on the table.  "Silly name for it."
"Chairs don't wear socks," said Nora, leaning forward and hugging her knees.  "They can't walk."
"They have feet dear, and anything that has feet can wear socks.  Though, and I can't stress this enough, never try and put socks on a deer, dear."
Nora's eyes grew wide, but for once Mrs. Amtram didn't seem inclined to explain any further.
"You have to take the socks off," she said.  Mrs. Amtram poured the tea, golden brown liquid splashing merrily into both cups.
"No," she said.  "I rather like them, dear.  And this is my house, even if Auntie Clara is haunting it looking for lesbians, and Kristie likes to rattle the keys on the laptop from time to time.  I'll keep the socks on the chairs."
"But you won't be able to hear them when they start walking!"
"Oh good," said Mrs. Amtram.  "I think I'd rather be surprised by the furniture than have to listen to it trying to drag its murderous way up the stairs.  Milk?"
"No!"  Nora glared at the older woman, who set the creamer down again.  "Me neither," said Mrs. Amtram.  "I wonder why I went and got it?"
"You have to take the socks off," said Nora, her glare growing fervent.  "It's important."
"No," said Mrs. Amtram imperturbably.  "Take them off yourself if it matter that much to you."
Nora shrieked, and immediately pushed her fist into her mouth.  Mrs. Amtram watched with mild interest, slightly surprised that Nora didn't knock any teeth out.
"They're only chair socks," she said.  "The dresses for the chairs arrive tomorrow, with good postage."

Sunday, 8 July 2012

It's just cake

Angie, proprietress of Ms. Angry's tearoom, sat at her little wooden desk in the office behind the tearoom and added up numbers.  All of the receipts, bills, and the till-balance slips were spiked on a vicious looking nail through a corner of the desk, and as she finished one, she'd pull another off the nail and start to read it.  Sometimes the nail went through a number, but she always mentally replaced the number with 9 if it was outgoing, and 0 if it was incoming, and so far she'd not lost any serious amounts of money.  The bills seemed to being balanced by the takings, and there was a hint of profit for the week starting to show up on her notepad when the doorbell tinkled to let her know that someone had come in.
She looked up, the office was barely eight feet square and there was a frosted window in the wall opposite her chair that didn't let people look through into the kitchen.  There were no shadows, either moving around or lazing against the walls, which meant that she was probably still the only person in, and that Katja hadn't arrived yet.  She cursed softly under her breath, using words her grandmother claimed to have learned from a sailor, and got up.
The office door opened silently, and she stepped through the doorway like a shadow, closing the door behind her and moving away from it while the customer was looking at the silverware in its little recesses on the waiter-stand.
"Can I help you?" she asked, her voice pleasantly deep and resonant, a memory from her days as a second-rate opera singer.  The customer jumped, and turned to face her, his moustache arriving first and bristling wildly.  She took a step back, startled.  Then she scrutinised him, wondering if the moustache was false; the kind of disguise someone would wear to attract attention to who they weren't.  He stared back at her, pale blue eyes meeting her gaze and holding it.
"I'm told," he said, slightly haltingly as though he were translating from another language in his head, "that you do the only decent patisserie in this – damnable – little town."  Even the swearing seemed pre-thought and laboured.
"I make a few cakes, and a little pastry," said Angie.  "Nothing special, it just gives me something to do in the evening."
"I am looking for Dobostorte," said the man, but the name of the cake sounded like "Dobbosh-torter".  "Do you, perchance-aroonie, have some?"
"Perchance-aroonie?" said Angie, completely unable to stop the words escaping her mouth.
"I... I have this book," said the man, producing a little paperback from a pocket of his coat.  She noticed now that the coat was a three-quarter length garment, and realised that that was where the smell of wet wool was coming from.  "It says that that would be the right word to use under these circumstances."
Angie took the book from him and read the front cover.  One hundred and one useful English phrases for all circumstances, it read.  She opened it to a random page, and saw immediately that someone – no, several people going by the different handwritings – had annotated it.  In the middle of the page was a word she didn't recognise, and next to it a printed translation of 'mother'.  The annotations suggested 'mammy, mama and yo mama!'  She handed the book back.
"Close enough," she said, forcing a smile.  "What kind of cake did you say you wanted?  I do a lovely cream Victoria."
"Dobostorte," said the man, sounding somehow like he was sneezing in the middle of the word.
"I don't do foreign, love," she said, her smile fraying at the edges.  "What does it look like?"
"It is a chocolate litter-box with a caramel topping," said the man, his hands making gestures as though indicating a wheel of some kind.  "It is usually circucumber."
"Circular," said Angie, absently, trying to work out litter-box.  "Ah, you probably mean layer-cake, don't you?  How about a nice Black Forest Gateau?  I get the cherries in from someone foreign, you know, so they taste better.  I don't really hold with all these freezing things that happen these days."
"No," said the man, his hands still describing circles in the air.  "No, Dobostorte.  It is a very famous recipe, it is over one hundred years old!"
"Well, if it's old you want then I guess it's Summer Pudding," said Angie, who was keen to get rid of a loaf of brioche that hadn't sold.  "I can rustle you one of those up a treat!"
"No, Dobostorte."  The man was clearly obstinate, and Angie was starting to fret about not having finished the accounts for the day.  She decided to finish the conversation.
"Look love," she said, "It's only cake, right?  Just sit down and I'll get a scone and a nice Earl Grey."
"No!"  The man looked furious.  "This is an insult!  I need Dobostorte, and I need it now!"
"Right you are," said Angie, her lips pursing into a tight, thin white line.  "You can just leave now, Mister, and take your spittle with you."
With that, she turned around and disappeared back into her office, hoping that he didn't decide to steal the silverware on the way out.