Monday, 26 November 2012

That which is measured

That which is measured, improves.
Janet O’Steen, Ireland’s foremost logodisciplinarian finished typing the sentence and then sat back.  She looked at her laptop – new – and admired its sleek keyboard, its polished screen, and its attempt to be so thin as to be considered anorexic by other laptops.  Then she looked beyond it, at the word-processing program on the screen, and considered the sentence that she’d just typed.
She’d spent the morning measuring for curtains, and she was a little worried that the old curtains might have improved by the time she returned home, at which point she might have to keep them.  That would save her money, true, but she had seen some rather nice black and red curtains that reminded her of a sunburned tiger (she still swore that she’d seen one in the County Kilkenny Safari park one summer in the 1970s), and liked the idea of having a tiger in the living room.  Still, she had now committed to buying the curtains in her mind, so perhaps if the old curtains had improved she could move them to a different room.
“Oh, what a lovely sentiment!”  The soft, polite voice was like nails on a blackboard to Janet, reminding her far too much of her mother.  She controlled a snarl and turned in her seat to see who was talking.  Behind her, facing away from her, was a young woman holding a broken fortune cookie in one hand and a little strip of paper in the other.  To her side was a proper pram, an actual perambulator that was as big as a small woman and could fit six babies at once with a little bit of tetris-style packing.  Naturally it was blocking the aisle of the coffee-shop, occluding access to the tiny toilet, and contained only one small child.
“What’s a lovely sentiment?” asked Janet, torn between annoyance that the speaker hadn’t been reading over her shoulder and relief that she now didn’t have to explain what she meant to anyone.  It was, in her opinion, the reader’s job to work when they picked up a book.  Modern authors, who stopped and explained all the difficult words to their readers, and put in glossaries and appendices and maps and translations were, she felt, pandering to the thick, unwashed masses; the common quagmire.
“This fortune cookie,” said the young woman, half-turning to face Janet.  She held out the strip of paper.  “Look, it says that I will meet a gentleman in distress today!”
“It’s a fortune cookie,” said Janet, her annoyance growing at what was obvious credulity of the part of this woman.  “They’re randomly generated by computer somewhere.  They’re utterly meaningless.”
“To you,” retorted the woman.  “I intend to make this fortune happen, and then I can be pleased that it came true.  If I ran home and hid until tomorrow then I’m sure you’d be delighted to meet me here and point out how you were right; will you now meet me here tomorrow and be shown that you were wrong?”
“No,” said Janet swiftly, spotting the trap.  “You’re going to go looking for a gentleman as soon as you leave the shop, aren’t you?”
The young woman laughed gently.  “Aye, that I am,” she said.  “And then I’ll run over his foot with my perambulator and to be sure, he’ll be in distress then!”
Janet smiled despite herself, finding a kindred spirit with this woman and her quiet, pleasing baby.
“So now you know that I spend my time running over members of the gentry and then boasting about it in coffee shops across the county,” said the young woman.  “So what is that you do then?”
“I’m an author,” said Janet immediately, who believed in self-publicity, all the harder since her publicist had contracted mouth-cankers and had gone on long-term sick leave.
“Are you writing at the moment?”
“Of course!”  Janet looked slightly put-out, and then seeing an opening to start talking about herself, seized it.  “I’m writing a new book at the moment that shall be set in Canterbury and will follow the trials and tribulations of a young girl born into a society family who nevertheless dreams of being a surveyor.  Her mother, who in her youth seduced minor members of the nobility and contracted a slow-acting, drug-resistant form of syphilis, is in the third, brain-eating stages though and won’t hear of her daughter doing anything other than coming out with the other young girls at the Debutantes Ball.  Jane, the daughter in question, fears that her mother intends to set her up with a syphilitic noble son as a means of controlling her, and longs to find a way to leave home and join the Ordnance Survey.  She has romantic notions of sharing a theodolite with a handsome young man with a November beard, and sleeping in a quiet tent some hundred yards away from him at night. When she’s lonely, she cuddles her ruler.”
The young woman’s eyes had grown wide as she listened.  “You wrote Bride of Prejudice!” she said suddenly.  “I read that book so many times!  It was my absolute favourite for years.”
“What’s your favourite now?” asked Janet, unable to accept a compliment if she could dig up an insult.
The cat that walked into walls,” said the young woman.  “Only two parts have been serialised in the magazines so far, but it’s absolutely amazing.  Arbutternot is almost a hero of mine.”
“Sounds like something to go on toast,” muttered Janet, her heart only slightly bitten by dark jealousy.  “Jane, in my story, finds that the only way to improve things is to measure them.”
“Sounds kinky,” said the young woman with an approving nod.  “I bet her young man enjoys that!”
“With a theodolite!” snapped Jane.
The young woman got up to move her perambulator out of an agonised-looking gentleman’s way, somehow managing to run over his foot in the process.  He yelped, hopped briefly, then flushed crimson as something started leaking down his trouser leg.  He raced for the toilet, leaving tiny golden puddles behind him.
“That sounds painful,” she said, sounding a little thoughtful.  “There you go, my dear, one distressed gentleman.”

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