Saturday, 29 June 2013

Grim tides I

There are spring tides, the point in the month when the tide is highest, and there are neap tides, usually about a week later when the tide is lowest.  And then there are grim tides….
There was a point during the neap tide when the tide was so low that Nathanial – Nate to his friends, but always Nathanial to his daughter – didn’t bother taking his boat out.  Instead he would use the day to sit down and catch up on the chores that had built up through the rest of the weeks; he would repair nets, softly cursing over every knot like a charm to ensnare the fish, or he would paint the boat a little more, or he would sew up holes in the sails, or scrub barnacles if the weather was nice and he’d slept well the night before.  There were always jobs to be done, and the day of the lowest tide there were least fish to be caught so it made sense not to go out.
Two days after that low tide though, his daughter’s husband would come and visit him late on in the evening, and the two men would sit outside for a while on the porch, saying little but drinking copiously.  Robin, his son-in-law, was the undertaker for the town and was considered a solemn, solid chap by everyone who knew him.  He dressed soberly at all times, and could be relied upon for solemn words on solemn occasions, and gentle, usually punning, jokes on happy celebrations.  His eyes were grey and his hands were strong, and overall folk felt secure knowing that this man would see you properly into the next life.  They would sit and drink until the moon rose fully above the horizon, and then they would walk out to the boat and push it out, and sail off into the night.
When they were out of sight of the land the grim tide would become visible as a silvery haze above the water.  Silent as the grave the two men would steer towards the haze and eventually into it, where it became apparent that the haze was actually hundreds of ghosts, milling around atop the waves.  Robin would then move to the side of the boat and cast out the nets, throwing them to catch at many of the ghosts as he could.  Where the nets fell they pressed heavily on the ghosts pinning them to the surface of the water, where they held the nets and prevented them from falling down.  When all the nets were out, Nate would step up and the two men would draw the ghosts in, pulling them aboard the boat and letting them drift gently down into the hold that smelled permanently of fish and fish-guts.  When all the nets were in, Robin would cast them out again, and Nate would marvel at the light that limned each rope that formed the net, and how that light danced on the surface of water when the net fell and didn’t catch a ghost.  Two casts was all they got; then the moon’s light would break through the haze and the ghosts would drift away, slowly at first but then gaining speed, dissipating in the nighttime air and becoming nothing more that tattered blades of light reflected from the choppy waves.
They still couldn’t head back to land though, as the hold was full of ghosts now.  They would descend together, their nervousness palpable but unspoken, pressed tightly in a staircase intended for two men to only pass in opposite directions, and push open the door to the hold as though opening the door to the lion’s cage.
In the hold Nate would stand watchful, alert and aware, and Robin would greet each ghost in turn as though meeting an old friend, and bid them welcome.  Sometimes he did greet old friends; men who’d died at sea and only now found their way back home, or people from the village who’d simply disappeared without trace.  Their ghost being here explained where the body had gone, even if it didn’t explain how the body had got there.  But most of the time the ghosts were hoary-headed, desperate-eyed strangers, whispering in foreign tongues and clutching at the living with cold, insubstantial fingers.
Robin blessed each ghost, his fingers tracing out a seven-pointed star on their breast as he did so.  Each ghost seemed to thicken, becoming milky white, and then ran like candle was in a hot room.  As they became just an ectoplasmic puddle on the floor of the hold new light would emanate from it, soft, pales rays like a new moonrise, and the ghost would evaporate altogether.
Only when they were done, and all the ghosts sent on their way did the two men return to the deck and turn the boat around to go home again, each checking the moon against the stars in the hope that they wouldn’t be too late in getting back.
And then there came the day when both men recognised a ghost.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Sharp teeth

Isabella pointed straight ahead.  “We go that way,” she said.  “Don’t stop unless I tell you to.  We’re looking for a way out of here now, before there are too many of the teddybears.”
To her immense relief David did as he was told, moving swiftly at last, his head swinging from side-to-side as he tried to keep any potential threats in view.  She followed behind him, her head barely moving at all and the Kris out, probing into the air.  The last thing she wanted to do was do through into pitch blackness, but right now that would be better than being caught by the Teddybears.  She wanted to get the Sukhev Da out too, the Teddybear-killing knife, but she knew that since her stroke she couldn’t handle a knife in both hands.  If the Teddybear’s started closing in she’d switch knives and pray that she could get them out of this.
David moaned softly; Isabella caught the flash of movement at the corner of her eye.  They were fast, low to the ground, and were getting better camouflaged now that colour was returning to the landscape.  She estimated that there were four of them out there at the moment, still wary of approaching when their prey was still together and obviously healthy.  He flinched, throwing an arm up, and then veered slightly left.
“Stay on course!” she said, and he looked back, saw her, and corrected himself.  Nothing came at them, and she assumed that he’d just imagined another streak of colour through the air.  His breath sounded ragged, as though he were panting.
The blade of the knive caught on something and she swiftly twisted and opened, peering through.  A narrow rock ledge was a step away, high above a black drop and there was the sound of running water.  There was no sign of any way off the ledge except by falling, so she closed it up again and looked about her.  David had gained about eight feet on her, so she hurried a little, but the Teddybears still weren’t revealing themselves.
“Crap!”  David fell, clutching at his ankle, and she almost groaned out loud.  She stood over him and reached down a hand.
“Stand,” she commanded.  “I don’t care if it hurts, it’ll hurt more if they catch you.”
“I can’t,” said David.  He rolled a little and ignored her hand.  “I think it’s broken.”
“Get up!”  Isabella stared at him, and her other hand automatically put the Kris away and freed the Da from its sheath instead.  “Get up, David!”
There was a sudden blur of motion and then a Teddybear was stood next to both of them.  It opened its mouth revealing three rows of teeth, triangular and pointed like a shark’s, and then sank them into David’s knee.
He screamed and kicked at it with his other foot, which seemed to pass straight through it.  Then the Da plunged down, Isabella’s aim straight and true, and as it reached the Teddybear it seemed as though for a moment there were a hundred Teddybears stretching off to both the left and right, and a hundred Das striking at their heads.  Someone in the hundred one Teddybear connected with the Da and started to scream, and then the images all closed up and the Teddybear fell backwards, the Da pulling out of its flesh with a sucking sound, and brown ichor rising out of the wound.  It bubbled as it met the air and seemed to thicken, and moments later the entire Teddybear stiffened and stopped moving.
Isabella glared at David, and then scanned around her.
“Get up,” she demanded.  “Get up if you want to live.”

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A bromide with breakfast

“Who are those police-officers, dear?” Angela Mons-de-Lancefoy’s voice was as clear as the peal of church bells on a sunny Sunday morning, so the entire café stopped eating, drinking and gossiping for a moment and stared in the direction she was pointing.  Leslie daFox’s police-guard looked embarrassed, and the fatter of the two tried to conceal his plate of cream-stuffed pastries behind his cup of coffee.
“They’re mine, kind of,” said Leslie.  Angela was an old friend and fellow writer, specialising in sub-genres of crime fiction.  “They think I murdered two of my students and have been following me around every since.  Occasionally they try and pin other murders on me too; a few weeks ago I was in the supermarket and someone a couple of aisles away was murdered.  Despite that they were with me the whole time they accused me of doing it!”
“They don’t sound very competent,” said Angela.  She sliced into her cake and prodded it with her fork.  “Dry and crumbly,” she said.  “Which, curiously, isn’t a bad way of describing my latest sub-genre.”  She picked up the piece of cake and dunked it in her latte.  “Italian-style,” she said, seeing the look on Leslie’s face.  “Just the bits of Italy that you never went to.”
Leslie shrugged; he’d spent some time in the eighties visiting bits and pieces of Italy, Spain and Portugal and had rather liked the mediterranean climate.  “You were always more bohemian than me,” he said.  “Weren’t you shacked up in the commune for six months with whatshisface?”
“Oh yes!” Angela sounded delighted.  “He was fun.  I turned him into a serial killer in one of my books later on.  I don’t think he ever learned to read though, so I doubt he knows.”
“What was that you were saying about dry and crumbly though?  How can that be a sub-genre of anything?”
“Oh, it was my agent’s idea.  Did you know she’s also the agent for Janet O’Steen, by the way?  Anyway, she said that there’s a generation of baby-boomers now who have never looked after themselves and are heading into old age being pretty much decrepit and dependent on their families and the state for handouts.  There’s far too many of them, so the handouts are rather small, so they end up being kind of old and crumbly.  So I’m writing novels where the detective is one of these people.  He’s not that brilliant to begin with, and he’s only on the force still because he can’t afford to retire and the pension isn’t large enough, so he has to keep working.  But his very age and overall miserability makes people underestimate him, and he can talk to his own generation in a very sympathetic way, and because they’re all kind of lonely and mean anyway, they’re nosey and eager to talk about what they’ve spied.  So he starts being able to solve these difficult cases where the evidence is all there, but it’s really hard to gather.  And then the police force start to appreciate him more, so they get special dispensation to extend his working life, and now he can’t retire until he’s 80 anyway, and he starts getting bitter about that.  But he’s too ineffectual to do much about it, and he has to make do with pithy asides and cutting sarcasm.”
“People buy books about that?”  Leslie looked slightly appalled.  “Where’s the feel-good element to it?”
“Oh Leslie,” sighed Angela dunking more cake in her latte.  “You always want to make to people laugh!  Sometimes they just want to wallow in their own misery and leaven it with self-pity.”
“Maybe I should write about my time under police scrutiny,” said Leslie.  “It might appeal to the paranoid masses.”
“You think you’re joking,” said Angela, “but just look at the revelations about the monitoring of communications.  People are starting to wonder how much of it is going on and what’s truly private.  If you’ve got a story about always being under the watchful eye of the system, then you should tell it!”
“I think the panopticon has already been done,” said Leslie.  His eyes twinkled.  “But you’re right you know, it’s been too long since I last did something for me.  I think the last thing I did was contribute two hundred jokes to one of those topical tv news shows.”
“Top Yourself This Week?”
“Something like that, yes.  They used about seventy; they said something about the others having too many long words in them.”
“Hah yes!  Lowest common denominator, Leslie.  Never forget!”
“Doesn’t anyone get to write high-quality, intellectual books these days?”
“Janet does.  And people who don’t want to make a living from writing.”
They fell silent for a moment, drinking their coffees.  Then, three tables away, a woman fell forward and landed face-first in a plate of slightly-sloppy Black Forest Gateau.  For a moment no-one said anything, and then her companion screamed while almost everyone else in the café produced a mobile phone and started snatching pictures to Instagram and post on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.
“Did you do that?” asked Leslie and Angela simultaneously, and burst into mischievous laughter.  No-one around them noticed, being pre-occupied with the sudden death.  A knife was now clearly visible between the fallen woman’s shoulder-blades.  Finally Leslie waved at the police-officers.
“Yes Sir?” asked the thinner of the two.
“Aren’t you going to do anything?” said Angela.  “There’s a dead woman there who’s clearly been murdered.”
The policemen exchanged looks.  “Did you happen to see Mr. daFox do it?” asked the fatter.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The thing under the blankets

The blankets resisted momentarily, then slipped back.  Long strands of something white stretched out between the blankets and the cocoon-like shape beneath them and then snapped, floating lazily in the air until they fell to the bed again.  Beneath the blankets was a mummified thing.
Jim let the blankets fall and leaned heavily on the cane.  He squeezed his lips shut, refusing to make a sound, and tried hard to slow his breathing, which, through his nose, sounded like a racehorse that had come in first.  He stepped backwards, and again, until he bumped up against the portrait, which put an arm around his waist.
Now he screamed, unable to keep it in any more and pulled away, slashing at the arm with the cane.  There was no strength in it and it fell limply back.  It was the deformed arm, the tentacular hand that had reached for him, and as he stared at it, the pinprick eyes in the swollen head moved jerkily from side to side, and the head began to turn as well.  Jim could see that whatever the thing was, it was pulling itself slowly out of the painting and into the room.
He made for the door and slammed it behind him.  He reached for the key, and then remembered that this door had no lock; the other door on the other side of the attic had the lock.  Looking around him he saw the hole that he’d come in by, and without hesitation he ran over to it, ducking down as the roof sloped down, and standing up again through the hole and pulling himself out on to the roof.  Without really thinking, he slid down the roof, half-hearing the clatter of more tiles coming loose and sliding down with him until he reached the eaves, and then his feet caught in the guttering and slowed his descent.  The guttering groaned, cast iron pulling against the stays that pinned it to the brickwork, but it held and he stopped moving.  He cast the cane over the side, and then followed it, clambering down the side of the house as he’d come up, using the broad window frames and sills, and the crumbling brickwork to provide hand- and foot-holds.  He jumped the last few feet, stumbled slightly, and picked the cane up again.  Then he ran out of the garden and across the street, where he paused for a moment and looked back.  Up on the roof something dark and writhing was silhouetted against the sky, and he whimpered as he ran back up into the village.
When he reached the first streetlamp he made himself stop and lean against it, getting his breath back and trying to make himself stop sobbing.  There were no tears, though his eyes felt dry and hot, and he looked back the way he’d come, dreading seeing the swollen, bloated man from the portrait lumbering up the road in pursuit.  But the road was empty, and at the end of the road the roof of the house was free from odd eruptions.  He watched it for ten minutes, and no-one appeared, and so he concluded that whatever had emerged from the portrait had stayed within the house.
Only then did he look down at the cane and wonder why he’d taken it with him.

Friday, 21 June 2013

William Black

The house had been abandoned for fifteen years.  The windows were boarded up, the door was locked and padlocked; someone had driven metal eyehooks the size of a hand into the doorframe and the door and padlocked them together.  Even the chimney had been blocked up; Jim had been on the roof and seen for himself.  While he was up there, crouching low to avoid being seen by anyone carelessly looking up at the skyline, he’d discovered that the roof tiles were loose.  A couple had slipped his feet beneath him, and when he fell, grabbing at the peak of the roof with his good hand, more still had slipped away.  He’d waited there, hanging on as he heard the tiles fall into the overgrown garden below and hoped that no-one else had heard them.  When, minutes later when his arm felt as though it was on fire, there were still no voices or footsteps below, he’d tucked his legs up, got his feet back underneath him and taken the weight off his arm.  Then, half-crouching, half-lying on the roof, he’d looked at the damage.  A hole into the attic looked back at him.
Peering over the edge of the roof he could see that the street was clear, which wasn’t that surprising; the sun was starting to set and no-one came down this end of the village much at night.  There wasn’t a need too; apart from the abandoned house there was a shed used for shearing sheep, some kind of old stone ring that children played around after school, and a dirt path that led out into the cow pasture and then disappeared.  Satisfied, he pulled more of the tiles loose, dropping them through into the attic so as to avoid any more noise that might be heard.  The house was abandoned, it wasn’t like anyone was going to complain that he was messing up the attic.  And this way, if anyone did come and find it later, it wouldn’t look like anyone had been trying to get in.
When the hole was big enough he slipped through; the attic was long and the roof was slanted on both sides so it wasn’t much of a drop.  He crouched, and waddled a little into the middle of the room where he could stand up properly, and looked around.
It was disappointing; there were some tea-chests that contained dust and dead spiders, and there were a couple of piles of newspapers bound with frayed cord that snapped limply when he touched it.  He moved around, his feet stirring up dust from the reddish carpet on the floor, and then realised that if anyone did come in here now they’d see that someone had been here.  He started dragging his feet, scuffing out the footprints so that hopefully it would look like a largish animal had done it.  Further in there was a rocking horse that creaked and squealed when he touched it, swaying about too many axes to be in good condition.  Against the end wall was a door with a key in the lock, and next to that a fireplace.  Some cast-iron tools were still propped up against it, and there was cold, grey, lacy ash in the grate as well.
He tried the door, and to his surprise found it locked.  He started to turn the key, and then paused and looked at it.  How could it be in the lock on this side if the door were locked?  He turned back, and looked around the attic again, unsure now of what he might find, and if he wanted to.
There was another door at the other end, this time without a keyhole.  He pushed it, and it swung open silently, revealing a rectangle of darkness beyond.  He felt beside the door out of habit and found a light-switch.  He depressed it, not expecting it to work, and jumped, startled, when two small lamps flickered several times, strobing yellow light across the room, and finally came on.  The light they gave was weak and a brownish yellow colour, casting everything in the room in sepia, but he quickly saw that the room had no windows so the light was unlikely to give him away.
The room was tiny, maybe ten feet square.  There was a bed pushed up against the far wall, tight in to the slope of the roof so that anyone sleeping in it couldn’t sit up without banging their head, and on the other wall, next to the door, was a full-length portrait of William Black.
Jim looked at it, seeing the little brass plaque at the bottom with the name, William Black engraved on it, and the years of his life, 1886-1938.  The man was ugly, swollen-faced with mottled skin and bulging eyes that were more white than iris.  Tiny little pinpricks of black were presumably his pupils.  He was dressed in a dark suit that seemed to be straining to contain his bulk, and he was standing but leaning on a cane.  The hand that gripped the cane was normal, if pudgy, but the other hand, laid across his stomach, was missing all but two fingers, and those fingers were fused together and looked almost tentacular.  Jim shivered, and looked down at his own bad hand; missing the littlest two fingers at the knuckles before the palm, and his thumb crooked and almost immobile.  They were different, but close enough to make him shiver.
Suddenly he realised that the cane in the picture was leaning against the frame of the picture.  He picked it up, discovering that it was surprisingly heavy; it felt like it would do damage to someone if they were hit with it.  It was slightly warm to the touch, and fit well in his hand.  He leaned his weight on it, and though the floorboard creaked a little, the cane was silent and stoic.
Then he looked over at the bed, and noticed for the first time that the blankets were mounded up slightly.  Suddenly nervous, he made himself breathe steadily, counting under his breath until he reached ten.  Then, his nerves still all ajangle, but his hand steady and his mind braced for what he might find, he pulled the blankets back.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


“We need to innovate better,” said Stephanotte.  She was sat on a Yoga mat with her ankles tucked neatly behind her head.  A young man in a pinstriped business suit was sat on a tiny folding stool a little distance away.  He was wearing dark glasses to indicate his blindness, and had a stenography machine in front of him.  Every time anyone spoke he typed, recording their words onto bible paper to the accompaniment of little metallic clicking sounds.  “We need to disrupt more, and we need to be willing to take more chances.  I want you all to think for a moment about ADD and how we have recently responded to that.”
Lambriscet raised a hand carefully.  She was rather rounder than Stephanotte and found their morning Yoga meetings both painful and embarrassing.  She was squeezed into a lycra body-stocking that was squeezing back and balancing on ankles that had gone numb five minutes earlier.  She was a little worried that raising her hand would cause her to topple over, when she would inevitably knock one of the other executives over.
“Yes?” said Stephanotte.  One leg stretched out as she started to move into the next pose.  The three other executives took this as their queue to start moving as well, but Lambriscet knew that she couldn’t talk and do yoga at the same time.
“What does ADD stand for?” said Lambriscet.  “It’s not on my list of NGO–“
“The Association for Disarmament and Dismemberment,” said Stephanotte with a hint of disapproval in her voice.  “Has anyone else not done the background reading for today’s meeting?”  Lambriscet turned red with shame and tried to adjust her pose to at least be keeping up with the yoga.  No-one else made a sound, except for the exhaling of breath as tight muscles and overstretched tendons complained.  “Then you will have to do the reading when we finish this meeting, Lambriscet, and I will expect a report from you on ways to engage them before you leave tonight.”
She adjusted her other leg and was now supporting herself on just her hands, but her voice didn’t change or indicate that she might be straining.
“ADD have approached us to seek support for their campaign to cut the arms and legs off serving soldiers as a way of indicating that we are a peaceful nation.  We have, as an organisation, turned them down.  This is clearly not an innovative approach, and indicates a lack of proper thinking on the part of the people who were approached.  What I wish to brainstorm here is how we could use ADD to our advantage.”
Jacomo squeaked a little as he tried to pull one very hairy leg halfway round his waist.  Stephanotte moved her pose onto a single hand, and looked at him inquiringly.
“Well,” he said, his voice rather high-pitched.  “The ADD campaign would be very useful it were to take root in other countries.  We should suggest plans for expansion to them, encourage them to become a global entity and provide access to some of our thought-tanks in other countries.”
“There are countries where the removal of body-parts is part of the legal process,” said Marcek, who was sat next to him and looked like he was caught in the middle of a tetanus seizure.
“Precisely,” squeaked Jacomo.  “So we could direct them there, as they already have an acceptance for that.”
“Isn’t it a bit ironic that a campaign for the subtraction of elements is called ADD?” asked Lambriscet.  No-one spoke, the only sound in the room was the typing of the stenographer.
“Have we considered the Prostheticians?” asked Marcek.  “They would benefit from increased business, so they should be able to provide funding, at least indirectly.”
“Good call,” said Stephanotte.  She pushed herself up so that her entire body was now supported on a single finger.  “I hope you’re paying attention, Lambriscet, as I will expect all of these ideas in your report, along with a feasibility study of two of them.  And one of those had better be the funding potential of the Prostheticians and the channels that could be used to disguise it.
Right.  That should be enough yoga for today, I know I’m feeling refreshed and can feel my brain firing on all cylinders.  You all have work to be doing; shoo!”
As the room emptied of executives who moved stiffly and painfully, trying to disguise their suffering with thoughtful faces and discreet support on the desk and the doorframe, the stenographer lifted his head.  His dark glasses were revealed at that point as being video-glasses, branded by a large search engine.
“She’ll fail,” he said.
“I know,” said Stephanotte.  “And when she does, I’ll send her out to Syria to head up the ADD campaign there.”

Monday, 17 June 2013

The inner cave

The smell of flowers lured me westwards.  Well, I thought it was westwards, based on where the sun was in the sky, but I’d long since learned that directions in the desert were never quite as easy as that.  I was sure I’d spent days walking in enormous circles, seeing the same rock formations in the distance over and over again, from a slightly different angle each time.  Every time I’d wonder, and then convince myself that it was my imagination and that I’d know if I was walking in circles.  I had to walk over my own footprints before I’d admit to myself that there was a problem.
But smells were different.  Mostly the desert smelled warm, slightly baked, except at night when the air chilled and I sat in my tent with the door zipped up and my sleeping bag pulled around me and all I really smelled then was my own humanity.  It was comforting in a way.  The flowers were a subtle, light scent, and at first I thought I was imagining it.  Then it came again, carried on a tiny current of air that stirred by hair (grown quite long by then) and tickled my nose.  I stopped, inhaled carefully, and there it was, a sweetness I’d almost forgotten I knew.  So I followed it.
This was the desert though, so I wasn’t incautious.  I stepped carefully, and I checked the sand underfoot for anything and everything; I scanned the horizon for early warnings, and I listened so hard I thought my eardrums might burst.  It took ten minutes, but then a rock formation appeared on the horizon, and the smell seemed to be coming from there.  It took an hour to walk there, but when I arrived I discovered that the rocks were about eight times my height and looked to go quite a long way down into the desert as well.  There were holes and clefts, lots of ways inside, into the caves.  I picked the cleft next to the one where the scent was strongest, and looked inside.
It was shadowy and went a long way back.  I paused here: I had an electric torch still at this point but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wear the battery out exploring a cave that happened to smell nice.  I had no idea when I’d find a way out of the desert, after all.  When I finally decided to get it out and spend just five minutes looking around, I quickly discovered a stash of rag-wrapped, oil-soaked torches in another small cleft at the side of the cave.  Lighting one was easy, and I put my electric torch away.
At the back of the cave where it was already beginning to feel cold, there was a tunnel that I could walk down if I crouched, so I ducked down and kind of duck-walked along.  The torch was much closer to my face now and I could see the slightly-greasy black smoke it gave off and smell the burning oil.  It smelled rancid, and obliterated the smell of the flowers.
At the end of the tunnel it actually got lower still, but I could see dim light ahead and thought that it must open out, so I got down on my stomach and wriggled along, the torch held out in front of me off the ground and my arm and shoulder aching horribly after just two minutes of wriggling.  It took nearly five minutes to reach the grey light, and thankfully the cave did open out, as otherwise I’d have had to drop the torch and wriggle backwards and pray that I’d not missed any side-turnings on my way in.
The cave was about the size of the interior of a small church with the ceiling reaching above my head far enough that I knew that I must have been travelling downhill through all my travelling.  Up at the ceiling there were holes in the rock that were letting in sunlight, but they were small, ragged gaps and the light attenuated as it fell through the still air.  Taking up most of the floor of the cave was a silvery pool of liquid that glistened and shimmered and looked more like mercury than water.
I took a single step towards it, intending just to look at it and see what it was.  I had no intention of touching it in case it was poisonous, and even the idea of drinking from it was ridiculous at that point.  It shimmered and rippled, and suddenly there were waves rushing across the surface of it.  They were small, white-capped waves, maybe a couple of inches high, and they broke on the edge of the pool and splashed just a little way over, but the sudden state change was enough to halt my feet, and I stood where I was, watching.  The smell of flowers rose up from the liquid and was suddenly so strong that I coughed and had trouble breathing for a moment.
When the waves didn’t change any more, I risked another step forward, and then a second when nothing happened from that.  Then I was stood at the edge of the pool, looking into it, and the waves died away as fast as they’d arisen.  The surface of the pool was perfectly flat, and should have been perfectly reflective.  Instead, when I looked into it I saw an image as though from high above, of myself standing on the edge of a cliff.  There was no sign of land below the cliff, just white fluffy clouds in a wide blue expanse.  I looked calm as I looked about, and to my relief I didn’t appear to be about to jump.
Nothing else happened; I didn’t move in the image, and the image didn’t change.  Finally I stepped back, and as I did so the image did move, just for a moment.  Something dazzlingly bright soared up, bursting through the white fluffy clouds and came to a halt in front of me, forming a vaguely humanoid shape.  And then my foot struck the ground behind me, and the surface creased into hundreds of tiny waves again.  I stepped forward, but the surface didn’t still, and the waves grew larger, and I took this to mean that I should leave.
But when I turned around, the low, cramped tunnel I’d entered this cave by was blocked by a rockfall that had either been silent or I’d been deaf while watching that vision.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Bill and Ben

“This place is a bit posh isn’t it?  Did you see that the waiter at the door had lavender in his buttonhole? Where’s the button go, then?”
“Jesus, of course it’s posh.  We’ll be coming back here a little later, on a special visit.”  I lowered my voice a little more, so that I was practically whispering now.  “And that wasn’t a waiter, that’s the maître’d.  He’s top of the food chain in restaurant service, and I don’t want us to piss him off, or we won’t get a good table.  And we want a good table so that we get a good view.”
“This can’t be right,” said Ben looking around.  “The name of the restaurant we’re supposed to be visiting is Middle Kitchen or something.  That’s not a posh name.”  I felt a moment of panic when Ben said that, wondering if I had gone and misremembered the name and booked the meal at the wrong place.  I pulled out my smartphone.
“Hang on,” I said.
The phone might be smart, and its little black touchscreen and bevelled aluminium corners were definitely alluring and seductive – looking at it I concluded that if I hadn’t had the opportunity to steal one I might well have bought one instead – but that just meant that I could be made to jump through all the more hoops in security-theatre.  I tapped the app icon and entered my passcode as prompted.  Then it beeped softly to itself and asked me to enter a pass-phrase on its little keyboard.  I typed this with care, aware of how enthusiastic the phone could be for choosing the wrong letter – autocorrect was clearly designed to embarrass people at the wrong moments – and then waited to see if it would recognise it.  The app closed itself down, and I looked around.  No-one else was on the phone.
Ten seconds later the phone rang, and I answered it before it finished the first full ring.  As I’d almost expected, the maître’d had heard the ring and was looking around for the culprit.
“The moon is full tonight,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
“I’ve not gained that much weight!” I replied.  The phone-call ended, and I took it away from my ear.  The app restarted, and the maître’d started walking our way with menace in his step.  It struck me that I’d not realised how muscular he was when we’d arrived; undoubtedly all to do with the way his suit was cut.  Expensively.
Medea’s Kitchen,” I said to Ben when the app produced the first page of my briefing notes.  I closed the phone down and slipped it into an inside pocket.
“That sounds a bit posher,” he said.  “Greek?”
“We don’t allow phone-calls in the restaurant, Sir,” said the maître’d, stressing the Sir rather unneccessarily, I thought.
“I hadn’t realised,” I said.  “I shall turn it off.”
“Please do,” he said.  “Or we can hold it for you at my desk.”  He turned to Ben.  “The name of the restaurant is not connected with Greek myth at all,” he said.  “People do sometimes make that connection, but is is, of course, incorrect.  Medea is merely the name of the owner’s mother, and she is the executive chef.
“Glad to hear it,” said Ben.  “Otherwise I’d be rather put off eating here right now.”
The maître’d glared at him.  “Your reservations are good until nine-thirty, gentlemen,” he said.  “After that your table is booked again.”  He walked away, his shoulders indicating that he would be sulking right now if that weren’t unforgivably unprofessional.
“So this is the right place then?” said Ben.  He picked up a menu and opened it.  Then he closed it and checked the cover, and opened it again.  “This is on expenses, right?”
“Yes, and yes,” I said.  “It’s nice, isn’t it?  Did you notice that the lighting is quite localised, you can’t easily see who’s sitting at the other tables.”
“Like a privacy veil?  I knew a girl who had one of them once.”
I looked at him.  “Yes, and when you say that…,”
“I mean it,” he said.  “She liked to use it for outdoor sex.  You could be shagging away, and the people right next to you wouldn’t know what was going on.”
“Except for the fact that you were just a little patch of darkness in the middle of a park on a sunny day,” I said.  “I think they could guess, you know.”
“Maybe,” Ben said.  “Not the park though. She liked to do it in the supermarket.”
“I don’t know how you find them,” I said, with sincerity.  “And I don’t actually want to know either.”
“So what’s our aim then?”
“Well,” I said, looking around.  “I think we’re going to have to get into here, and then use this as our base of operations to get the jewellery and bring it back to.  But I’ve got this idea–“
“May I take your order, gentlemen?” asked an elderly looking waiter whose hands were shaking as though palsied.
“Oh yes,” I said, with relish.  “Definitely!”

Thursday, 13 June 2013


Aunt Crystal had booked us into Longbleat for a spa-retreat, and my suspicion was that she’d picked it solely so she could make that rhyme.  However, she was paying for the whole affair, and my mother was thrilled with the idea of a short holiday where people would look after her, and had talked her priest into coming along with her.  I’ve no idea who was paying for him, but I knew it wouldn’t be Aunt Crystal.  She felt that Christians weren’t devout enough.  My sister was coming because she saw it as an opportunity to get away from her three children for a couple of days, and her husband (who was going to be left with them) was refusing to talk to any of the rest of us.  I sympathized, but even so I was grateful; my sister was far too quick to seize on anyone nearby as a potential baby-sitter.  My brother was going and was bringing some girlfriend with him.  I’d lost track of how many girl- and boy-friends he was keeping on the go at once but I assumed that whichever one he was bringing was either special or new.  Aunt Crystal kept talking about my father going as well, but he’d died the previous year when his shed collapsed on him after heavy rains caused subsidence in the garden, so we’d been mostly ignoring her and hoping that she didn’t have some mad idea about digging him up.
My brother was driving down on his motorcycle, but the rest of us were going in a tiny motorcade of three taxis.  Aunt Crystal was riding in the middle one, and had claimed a window seat. I was sat on the row behind her watching with interest to see if she was going to wave out of the window like the Queen to anyone we passed.  Aunt Crystal didn’t really hold with Royalty though, as she felt that they were too public in their behaviour.  She would far rather that they did secretive things behind high castle walls, and only appeared to the public on special occasions.  I thought she might have mixed them up with angels.
My mother and sister were in different cars after they’d had a falling out.  My sister had delightedly looked at the cars and announced that she was going in the front car and that the rest of us could be her entourage, and my mother promptly took offence.  We’d separated them as quickly as possible, and were hoping that at least one of them would be acting more grown-up by the time we arrived.
There was a mysterious box in the rear car as well, and we were all silently hoping that it wasn’t my father.
The approach to Longbleat was through fields and across small streams and along tightly winding country roads that appeared to have been less built and more the tarmacking over of cattle paths.  The taxis had to slow down quite a lot to navigate the roads, and there was a moment of great consternation in all the taxis when my sister spotted three people having sex in one of the fields.  The driver’s radios were commandeered by the passengers who gossiped about it for the rest of the journey.  I’d spotted my brother’s motorcycle though, and was only surprised that he’d only found one extra participant.
When we arrived at Longbleat my brother and two people were waiting for us at the doors, and I had had to suppress a smile as my mother and Aunt Crystal proceeded to tell him about the shocking sight they’d seen on the way there.  He smiled a lot and said very little.  Then the hotel doorman asked us to go in and stop cluttering up the drive, and so we did.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Words that hurt

Water was pouring over his face.  Cold water.  Reflexively he tried to breath and got a mouthful of mixed water and air.  He started coughing, and crunched up.  Finding he was free to move he kicked out with both feet, and felt them connect with someone.  There was the noise of something falling over, and then he got his head out from under the water, and his feet underneath.  He crouched, using one hand to wipe his eyes clear and the other ready to strike.
He was in a small bathroom with a peach-coloured bathroom suite.  There was a bath-mat hanging on a towel rail and two toothbrushes in a small ceramic pot stood on the corner of a basin, where the groove for the soap was.  Edward had fallen backwards into the bath and was struggling to get out.  Behind him was a shower cubicle with the water running.  It took him a moment to realise that that must have been where he was a moment ago.  He grabbed Edward’s hand and hauled him out of the bath.
“Where is he?” he said.  The bathroom door was closed.  “Did he run out?”
“Who?” Edward’s voice was slightly choked.
“The guy who was waterboarding me.  And what were you doing while he was doing that?  Practising swimming in the bath?”
“No-one was waterboarding you!” Edward sounded indignant.  “You passed out when I opened the door, and I dragged you in here to wake you up.   Only then you attacked me and pushed me in the bath.”  He bent down and rubbed his shins.  “That hurts!”
“I passed out?”  Martin paused, and thought back.  There was a hazy in his memories that felt somehow familiar.  The door had been opened, Edward wasn’t being anywhere near cautious enough.  There had been a girl, sitting at a desk… had she said something? Everything fuzzed then.
“Yes!  You just staggered forwards, your hands at your ears, and fell on the carpet.  God knows what you’ve done to the scene out there!”
“There was a girl…,”
“Yes, handcuffed to a desk.  She’s still there, she can’t go anywhere.”
“How long have I been out?”
“Three minutes?”  Edward checked his watch, which Martin noted was a slim Rolex.  “Four minutes and eight seconds now.”
“Right.  Right.  The girl – was she speaking when we came in?  Talking to someone?”
“Reciting,” said Edward.  “I’ve put a sticking plaster over her mouth to stop her.  She was reciting numbers in Odnose B.”  Martin stared at him.
“Didn’t you do your background reading?” he said at last.
“What do you mean?  Of course I did!  I wrote the background reading!”
“On me.”
“What?  No, you’re just another goof-up sent to ‘help’ me with a retrieval job because you messed some other job up.  Why would I care what you did wrong last time?”
“Because my last time would have been surviving five minutes of Odnose B.”
The two men stared at each other across the tiny bathroom, Martin’s gaze fiery and direct; Edward’s cold and piercing.  Neither man broke eye contact, but Edward said,
“That’s longer than I’ve ever heard anything managing.”
“That’s why you should have done your reading.”
They held their stare for another few seconds before Edward looked down.  “Can you take her out to the car?” he said.  “I still need to get the books and we’ve lost a lot of time.”
“So long as she can’t speak now, shouldn’t be a problem,” said Martin.  “Looks like I’ve been sensitised to the language.”
Edward opened the bathroom door, and then stopped.  He sighed.
“What?” Martin considered pushing past him, but then decided that no-one could know that he was in the bathroom at that moment.  That might be an edge.
“She’s gone.”  Edward walked out into the grubby living room and pointed at the desk.  Blood had sprayed all over it, and the handcuffs were still there, still around her wrists, which dripped dark blood onto the carpet.  The torn flesh was ragged and long strips of skin dangled, floating slightly in currents in the air.
“Sweet Mary,” said Martin looking at it.  “Who rips someone’s hands off just to get them out faster?”
“They did it near silently,” said Edward.  Martin snorted.
“The shower is still running,” he said.  “You’ve been listening to it for so long you don’t notice it anymore.  We gave them all the noise-cover they needed.  Where are these books you came for?  Let’s get something out of this mess.”

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Interactive art

Geraldinium Holmes picked up her welding mask and put it on.  Then she picked up the welding torch and turned that on.  The actinic blast of light illuminated the scorched and twisted metal beneath her arms and chased the shadows the periphery of the room.  In the next room a young girl sobbed and strained at the restraints that kept her affixed to a wooden bed, and below them both, in a suburban bedroom decorated with too much chintz and pink fur, a middle aged man paused in his reading of the Daily Mail and wondered what the noise was.
The scrap metal had come from the wreckage of a helicopter crash via a contact who refused to meet Geraldinium in person.  She’d spent several weeks on Craigslist hunting for suitable scrap for the sculpture she wanted to create, and just when she was beginning to think that she was going to have to go accident hunting in order to obtain it, she’d received the kind of ill-spelled, semi-illiterate email that most people consign to the spam folder.  She’d assigned it to her assistant, the orphan girl, to follow up, reasoning that if anything happened to her then at least she had no family to worry about her or miss her, and that the orphan girl was quite mad enough to be a danger to the writer of the email anyway.  Two days later, the orphan girl turned up at Geraldinium’s street-long attic studio with a flat-bed truck with the wreckage atop it, and apparently a boyfriend in the truck-driver.  Geraldinium had wished them both luck and starting unloading the truck.
She lowered the torch to the metal and listened as the hiss of the acetylene changed tone.  In the bright, retina-searing whiteness of the flame she felt a purity and cleansing that was almost religious, and reminded her of her Pope period during which she’d created life-size images of thirty-one of the longest serving Catholic popes.  In exhibition they were hung in a large circle and the viewer invited to sit in a wooden chair in the centre of them all, on a dais that slowly rotated.  She’d been forced to discontinue the exhibition because of the high incidence of mental illness in the viewers.
The metal softened and yielded as it heated, and she used rusted iron tongs to seize it and mould it against and into other parts of the metal.  Slowly, painstakingly, the helicopter wreckage began to resemble a trapped giant, a man or woman trying to pull themselves free of the grasping machine.  As the gas hissed and the metal spoke in its own soft, tortured way, she could almost believe that it was talking to her.
In the bedroom below the man in the bed with the paper frowned at the quilt.  Something hot and metallic appeared to have dripped from the ceiling and had burned a hole both through the duvet and, by the looks of things, into the mattress.
“Acid rain?” he muttered, and reached for his writing pad.  The paper would have to hear about this!
On her bed, the orphan girl screamed again and writhed against her bonds.  Geraldinium had tied her down when she’d told her that she wanted to elope with the truck-driver.
Geraldinium turned the acetylene supply off and the flame extinguished like life cut short.  Afterimages danced in front of her eyes despite the smoked glass of the mask, and she sat back on her heels for a minute, letting her eyes recover and re-adjust.  Then she took the mask off and looked at the sculpture.
“Rust,” she said softly.  “That’s what it needs now.  Rust.”

Friday, 7 June 2013

The language of dogs

Laughter came from the living room, following a couple of moments later by a different voice, heavy and slower, saying “I don’t get it.”  Leslie daFox, who had thirty years earlier scripted the show they were watching now, bowed his head as he used the tin-opener on a can of condensed milk, wondering if he shouldn’t feel more angry than depressed.
“Well, it’s because she’s got a hat on, innit?” said the first voice, still laughing slightly.
“Oh,” said the second voice, sounding uncertain.  “Is that funny?”
“No,” whispered Leslie to himself.  “They’re laughing because they know she’s the Health Inspector but the guys she’s inspecting are so misogynistic that they think she’s escaped from the community care hostel up the road.”
“Here, where’s the murderer gone then?”
Leslie tipped the milk into a saucer and put it down on the floor.  Two burly policemen, one red-faced and slightly out of breath, burst into the kitchen.  They looked relieved when they saw him.
“Did you sneak out of the room?” demanded the red-faced policeman.
“No,” said Leslie.  “I asked you both if you wanted coffee and then told you I was going to make some.  You both watched me leave the room.”
“That sounds sneaky to me,” said the red-faced policeman.  “Hiding in plain sight, that’s called.”
“Only in your lexicon,” said Leslie, aware that neither officer would know what lexicon meant, or would lose face by asking him for a definition.  They reminded him a lot of his community college class, both in aptitude for study and for the length of time he liked spending with them.
“Here, there’s a saucer of milk on the floor,” said the red-faced policeman.  He picked it up and sniffed it.  “Were you going to drink this, Sir?”
“No,” said Leslie.  He was convinced that one day the red-faced policeman was going to ask for a reminder on how to breathe.
“Oh right then,” said the policeman.  He tipped the saucer up and drank the milk.  “Hey, this is the sweet stuff!”
“That was the cat’s milk,” said Leslie.  “There were cat medicine tablets in there.”
“Aha!  You’ve tried murdering a policeman now!”  The other policeman seemed to spring to life all of a sudden at the prospect of finally being able to arrest Leslie for the murders they were convinced he’d committed, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
“I have not,” said Leslie.  “Your colleague picked a saucer up off the floor and drank from it.  That’s rank stupidity and ought to qualify him for a Darwin award.  My actions were peripheral and had a completely different end in mind.”
“I don’t think so, Sir,” began the second policeman, a gleam appearing in his eye.
“Cyrus!”  Leslie’s voice carried throughout his house, and there was a whimper from the laundry-room.  Both policeman turned towards it instantly.
“What was that?”
“The maid,” said Leslie.  “She hides in the washing when you’re here.  She’s getting very wrinkled and agoraphobic, and I may have to sue you over this.”
“You can’t sue us,” said the red-faced policeman promptly.
“I rather think he can,” said a smooth voice, and Cyrus, Leslie’s twenty-three year old lawyer walked into the room.  Both policeman looked angry, but closed their mouths firmly.  “Is there a problem?”
“Another baseless accusation of murder and an attempt to frame me,” said Leslie.  “This time he picked up the cat’s saucer of milk and drank it and her worming tablets.
“If we incorporate your cat as a business I think I can sue them for theft,” said Cyrus, grinning.  “If we can make it a high-tech firm then I might be able to get them on industrial sabotage, if you like?”
“That sounds very tempting,” said Leslie, “but frighteningly expensive.  Can’t you just send them to their rooms for the evening?”
“Can’t let you out of our sight, Sir,” said the red-faced officer immediately.  He appeared to be sweating profusely all of a sudden.  Cyrus eyed him.
“When was the last time they let you out of their sight?” he asked.
“Less than five minutes ago, while I was getting coffee and sorting out the cat’s medicine,” said Leslie.
“Precedent!” yelled Cyrus.  “Go to your rooms!”
The policemen grumbled and argued, but Cyrus prevailed and sent them off to watch the rooms of the house on CCTV instead.
“You don’t have a cat,” said Cyrus after they’d gone.
“I know,” said Leslie.  “But they don’t, for all they’ve been here five months now.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013


The pianist came out first, a dapper man in a tuxedo and tails, wearing a top hat that was a little bit battered.  When he turned and bowed before sitting down at the piano we saw that something had taken a large bite out of the crown of his hat at some point, and you could see his bald spot.  The hair that hung down from below the hat was long, lank, and the colour of the liquid you find in an old oil sump.  He sat with his back to us, raised his hands theatrically and cracked his knuckles.  A couple of people in the front row ducked, reflexively, and not all of them sat back up again.
Then Gaby sauntered out in her burlesque costume: a whalebone corset in burgundy lace, some fishnet tights, fishnet sleeves that ran from her elbows to her shoulders, sage-green high-heels, and a little too much puppy fat for the look of emo seduction she was going for.  She caught the eyes of the crowd, and pouted, crossing one leg in front of the other in the most strained pose I’ve seen in a while, and I can still remember an evening in an S&M club where if you couldn’t pay your bar bill you were hauled on stage to become part of the entertainment.  The pianist struck a chord on the piano, and I braced myself.
Gaby opened her mouth, and then closed it again.  She winked, and turned around, bending over to pick something up off the floor.  Someone in the audience wolf-whistled, but the rest of us were still reeling from being confronted with so much flesh – it was like a new island rising from the ocean and assaulting you with geography.  She stood back up again slowly and I realised that now I knew what watching Atlantis sink below the waves must have been like.  She turned around again, winked once more, and spread her hands apart.  She was holding juggling torches.
The pianist stood up and produced a gold-plated cigarette lighter from inside his jacket and struck the flint a couple of time until a tall yellow flame was produced.  Gaby held up her clubs, and he approached them at lit each one.  I turned to look at Tom, and to my surprise he moved over to my elbow, carrying a fresh Pink Lady with him.
“Fire?” I asked, sotto voce.
“Can’t stop her, Mac,” said Tom putting the drink down in front of me.  “We’ve pointed out the hazards, but she’s dating the Fire Chief’s daughter so he’s refusing to shut her, or us, down.”
“Wow,” I said.  I tasted the drink.  I was pretty certain there was a hint of bleach in there, but Tom’s being trying to poison me for a long time and bleach is nothing I can’t handle.  I coughed politely though, to let him feel that he was getting somewhere.
Gaby started juggling the torches as the pianist played something jaunty, and she actually wasn’t bad.  The lighting tech turned the spotlight down again so we could see the tracks of the flames through the air better and every now and then, as the clubs threatened to get out of control and escape from her, someone would gasp and there would be the scrape of thirty chairs being moved ready for people to run out of the bar if it caught fire.  Then she caught all of the torches and held them in one hand.  One by one she carefully put the flaming torch in her mouth and then pulled it out again, revealing afterwards a tongue of flame that she’d somehow managed to steal from each torch.  She blew the flames at the audience, who were on the verge of stampeding out of the bar by now.
Finally the pianist stopped playing and Gaby dropped her arms and extinguished her clubs.  The lights came back up, and the bar calmed down again and started drinking once more.
“Another drink, Mac?” asked Tom, innocently.

Monday, 3 June 2013


“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.  No, seriously, that’s just going to –.  Well.  Ouch.  That’s quite a lot of blood you’re losing there, don’t you think?
You don’t need to shout.  In fact, I have my doubts that you’ll be able to shout much longer if you don’t do something about that blood loss, and quickly.  You’re staining the carpet as well, you know?  Oh, you hadn’t noticed?  Well you are, and I believe that Facilities are very big on charging these kinds of things back to you if you can’t demonstrate that it was genuinely an injury occurred during your working day.
Well, you’re in the office, even if it Saturday.  Facilities aren’t going to just roll over and play dead because it’s overtime you know.
No, I’m not in Facilities.  I find that quite complimentary actually, they work very hard at what they do, and if it all goes smoothly then no-one ever comes up and congratulates them on a job well done, do they?  What?  No, I’m not going to call an ambulance for you.  I’m Buddy, I’m here as a corporate guru, your helper through the minefield of office politics.  My job is to see that you’re fit for the chase, not to pick you up half-way through, kiss your boo-boos better and tell you ‘better luck next time, child’.  Call your own ambulance.
Well, pressure on the wound is definitely a good idea, though I’m not sure I’d use my belt as a tourniquet like that.  Because it’s going purple, that’s why.  Fine, if you’re comfortable like that, you do so.  You should still call an ambulance in my opinion.
Why am I here?  Ah, I’m glad you finally asked, I was starting to think I was just part of the furniture to you.  I’m here to talk to you about Forcing.  Oh don’t look so embarrassed, even HR knows about the magazines in the locked drawer of the bottom of your desk, but that’s not what I meant.  As a life-lesson though: don’t keep that kind of thing near people you don’t want seeing it. Keep it at home, or if that doesn’t work, put them in a heavy-duty plastic bag and find a field somewhere, with some concealing bushes, and bury it there.  After all, and this is, you understand, only peripheral, your drawers can be forced too, and locking them just makes that all the more appealing.
No, of course the drawers don’t look forced.  Facilities have all the master keys, for those days when you lock your laptop in there and accidentally swallow the key.
Forcing is about taking an idea whose time has clearly come and sanding it down a little, smoothing away the rough edges and trimming off the inconvenient corners until it will fit like a tight little peg in the hole you’ve picked out for it.  Like family-trees, only with fewer recriminations and withheld party invitations.  It’s big with the kind of people with corporate, non-food, uses for transglutaminase.  Actually I know you know what I mean, but you should be aware that you have a tell when you lie.  You breathe.
You’re at the point in your career now when you need to consider Forcing as an option.  The corporate ladder doesn’t just grow new rungs when you need them, nor do people climb down very often, or fall off without a little help.  You need to figure out how to use Forcing to shoulder your way up to the next rung and stay there, elbowing the people around you until you’ve cleared enough space for you to be confident of Forcing your way up to the next level.  No, it doesn’t have to be illegal.  Unless you feel there’s no other viable options I suppose, but I’m sure there will be.  I’ve never had a client yet who actually needed to do something illegal.
Well, we have some simple exercises for you to do – although I would recommend that you call that ambulance before you try any of these.  Yes, I’m aware how hard it is to use a touch-screen phone when your hands are all bloodied and weak, but you don’t need to know the details of that.  Just keep trying, you’ll get there eventually.  But back to the Forcing: do you remember your secretary telling you about the cruise she’s booked for her fifteenth wedding anniversary?  Your secretary.  Short woman, wears purple a lot, types at 150wpm and drinks camomile tea from a mug with a yellow daisy painted on it.  Your.  Secretary.  Yes, that one.  The ambulatory shrub, yes.  How much blood do you think you’ve lost now?  Well, her holiday will mean that she’s not around during the next corporate retreat, which you’re expecting to give three presentations at.  Ah, that look on your face means that you’ve seen the issue as we– oh, I see if meant you’d just lost control of your bladder.  Oh well.  Facilities will be charging you for that too, you know.
Back to your secretary: if she’s on holiday you won’t be organised enough to give all three of those presentations, but you need to in order to show everyone that you work much harder and are more committed.  So you need to find a way to get your secretary to be available, you need to Force her.  More than that though, you need to provide her with an outlet for her anger at your Forcing, and that outlet should be Scott’s PA.  That way Scott won’t be as-well-prepared as he should be, and you can leapfrog him.  Yes, quite possibly literally; I hear there’ll be team-building events on this retreat.  So you need to find a way to cancel her holiday and make it Scott’s PA’s fault.
Are you listening to me?  Hello?  Don’t make me hit you.
Huh.  I guess that ambulance is going to be a bit la–.  Ah, you never actually managed to hit the Call button.  No ambulance then.  
I wonder what Scott is doing today?

Saturday, 1 June 2013


Sometimes before I slept I’d open the door of the tent and look out at the stars.  The skies were always clear in the desert at night, unless there was a sandstorm going on.  I could look up into a midnight-blue infinity and see the blazing silver points hanging there, while the chill night air made the hairs on my skin stand up on end and goosebumps felt like a religious revelation.  I stopped doing it when the stars started moving though.
It was subtle at first; I’d be lying there, looking for constellations.  There were a couple that I remembered from when I was a child and my aunt would sit me on the step outside the house, point at the stars and tell me stories of the people they represented.  I could find Orion, and his sword, Cassiopaeia (or at least her sword) and the long chain of Draco without any trouble, and then I’d sweep further, looking for Leo or Scorpio, or Capricorn if I was feeling adventurous, and wonder how the Ancients ever saw animals up there from these stars.  Then I’d have the oddest feeling that there were more pictures there, and I’d look again and a lion would suddenly take shape.  It was like a magic-eye picture, it was as though I’d just got how to look at the stars and now it all made sense again.  But then one evening I smiled at seeing Capricorn and tried to reset myself by looking at Orion.  Only Orion has disappeared; all the stars that should have made him up had migrated over to Capricorn.
I zipped up the tent door and spent the night with my eyes tightly shut and my face buried inside my sleeping bag hoping and praying that nothing was going to tap on the taut canvas and ask to be let in.  The next couple of nights I was careful to wear myself out completely before I went to bed so that I was relieved to sleep, and didn’t wonder about the sky.  And then, as always happens, my rational mind took over and pointed out that I couldn’t possibly have seen that happen, that I must have fallen asleep and dreamed that I’d found Capricorn and it had used up all of Orion’s stars.  The more I thought like that the more rational it sounded.
I looked at the stars the next night, and they didn’t move around or do anything odd.  I began to believe that I’d just dreamed it.
A little over a week later I was looking for Gemini and trying to remember the names of the twins they were, when I noticed that the stars in Orion and Cassiopaeia weren’t quite in the right place.  Orion looked wonky and Cassiopaeia had to be sliding off her chair now.  I blinked a few times, looked away, and when I looked back again they were back where they ought to be.  This time I kept watching them, and this time I saw the stars start to slide out of position and rearrange themselves.
I waited, not knowing what to think, watching the stars glide across the night sky like distant ice-skaters.  They rearranged themselves into something huge, mounded and only vaguely humaniform.
“What would that be called?” I wondered aloud, and then watched transfixed as more stars moved to spell out a name below this new constellation.  Shoggoth.
I knew the word, I knew that such monstrosities weren’t supposed to exist on Earth any more, and if there were any to be found then the desert was surely the place to find them.  I had a dim memory suddenly of a woman saying in a quiet voice in another room, “When the stars come right, they will return.”
I closed up the tent flap and spent the rest of that night wondering if I should gouge my eyes out.