Monday, 24 November 2014

I used to be Lunatik

"I used to be Lunatik, from the Gracious Days."
"Sweet Hobojesus!"  There was a pause as Timothy looked first at the thing in the chair that had been speaking and then over at Gordon.
"And who are you now?" he asked, a note of caution making his voice low, almost like he was purring.
"I'm Tik-tok the clockwork man," said the thing in the chair in a high-pitched sing-song voice.
The Gracious Days came between the Second and Third Comings, and Hobojesus was the Seventh Coming, before the Church had adopted the idea of checking how the Messiah was choosing to manifest himself on Earth before they announced and annunciated.  There were those who argued that the Church shouldn't be allowed to pick and choose like that, and there were also those who pointed out that that was how the Bible had been put together.  So far there had been twenty-three additional Comings, but only one set of Gracious Days.  Not so many people remembered them, because a lot of people hadn't survived them.
"Hobojesus," said Gordon.  He and Timothy were stood in the narrow, white-tiled kitchen.  They both had a cup of industrial coffee in their hands; Gordon had half-filled his cup with milk in a vain attempt to pretend he was drinking a latte and Timothy was sipping a cup of black bitter liquid and wondering if sugar would make it taste any better.  Opposite them was the viewing window, a huge one-way panel that looked into the interview view where Lunatik, or Tik-tok, was still sat.
"Yeah?"  Timothy yawned despite the coffee.
"Pretty certain he wasn't sweet, y'know," said Gordon.  "I think you're getting Hobojesus and Sweet'n'Sour jesus mixed up."
"You make it sound like people licked him.  Them."
"Yeah, pretty certain some people did."
"Some people are weird."
They both fell silent for a moment, looking through the window at Tik-tok.
"Think that's a person?"
"At least it's not a Messiah."
Tik-tok appeared to be robotic; there were steel plates visible here and there through its clothing, and even slumped in the chair it seemed to have more articulation to itself than a human would have.  But it also appeared to be breathing and had definitely eaten food the evening before when it had been brought here.  Timothy had put in a requisition for a doctor, endured the laughter on the other end of the phone, and had been given an ETA of Christmas Eve.
"Better get back in there.  Got more questions for it?"
"If it's really Lunatik, then... I guess so."
"You were Lunatik?  Really?"
The clockwork man nodded jerkily and its eyes flickered, but it seemed a very human flicker to Timothy.
"You were Queen Annie's treasurer then?  In the Gracious Days?"
"For four and a half years," said Tik-tok in its sing-song voice.  There was a sproing half-way through its sentence, but it acted as though nothing had happened.  "I took care of the bills and the bill-collectors."
"There are still things missing from those days," said Gordon.  He sounded contemplative, as though considering something profound.  "Like over a billion Euros."
"Burned," said Tik-tok.  Timothy looked up, wondering if he detected a hint of pride in its speech.  "I was Lunatik, that was my job.  I was only following orders."
"Bugger," said Gordon.
"There are two art galleries missing," said Timothy, wondering if they too had been burned.  "And I'm including the actual buildings when I say art galleries."
"Buried," said Tik-tok.  "It was a beautiful statement about the nature of art.  It was art itself to do that.  We buried them in sand though, so that it wouldn't damage the paintings.  Or the people."
"There were people still inside when we buried them, that was important.  Queen Annie said so."
Queen Annie was killed by the Third Coming when he dropped out of the sky and landed on her.  There were reports, though of dubious trustworthiness, that his scream had dopplered on the way down, and that if she'd only looked up she'd have understood it was righteous retribution.  Historians put no faith in this at all, preferring instead to point at actual evidence and conversational transcripts from people who spent time with her and declare that she would never have changed her ways.
The Third Coming is also known as Meteorjesus, but people find it hard to use that as an oath.
"When did you become Tik-tok?"
"During the Fifth Coming," said Tik-tok.
"Targetjesus," said Gordon.
"Figures," said Timothy.  "People were really on edge back then."
"Too many Messiahs," said Tik-tok, and the three of them all nodded together.  Then Timothy and Gordon looked at each other, embarrassed, and looked away again.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014


The lights were low and the walls were decorated with flock wallpaper; stark black geometric patterns on an ivory background.  Shadows cast across the floor and tables wavered as though unsure of their welcome here, and people stepped in and out of them lithely like dancers.  The bar had a small number of people stood at it, stirring cocktails they looked uncertain of having ordered, or holding tumblers of brown and amber liquids with spherical ice cubes in and sipping them as though being forced to.  The tables were equally sparsely populated, mostly by single drinkers with more determination that the bar-huggers.  There was a low hubbub from disparate conversations, but a determined listener could have sat still in the middle and distinguished the words from each and every one.  There was a smell of liquorice in the air as well that might have been from a spilled bottle of cheap Absinthe, but then again might not have been.
A woman in a thin white dress walked through the door and was ignored by everyone.  She paused, clearly annoyed by this, and adjusted the front of her dress to expose a little more tanned cleavage, and still earned no reaction.  She shrugged, mostly to herself, and adjusted her shoulder bag; pale green leather with a gold leather strap intended to look like chain-link.  She looked around, then again, as though unable to believe that she couldn’t find who she was looking for.
He tapped her on the shoulder, having come in to the bar behind her.
“Toni,” he said, his voice a little husky.  She half-turned her head, saw him, and then flinched, several seconds too late.  His eyes recognised the slight but his face remained otherwise neutral.  “Shall we sit?”  He gestured to the tables.
She walked to one in the centre of them all and sat down, her bag swinging around to rest in her lap, and her hand cradling it protectively.  The man, Jarvis, raised his eyebrows in the direction of the bar, got an acknowledging nod from the barman, and then walked over and sat down opposite her.
“Why did it have to be here?” she said.  Her fingernails, long and painted papal purple tapped the table like a demented woodpecker.
“Because this is where we first met,” said Jarvis.  “It’s appropriate, we’re coming full circle.”
“We’re coming full circle.”  Her mimicry was snide but excellent.  The barman appeared at her elbow and ignored her, looking at Jarvis expectantly.  “Hey, bud!  Bud!  I want a drink!”
“Directions on a cold, dark night, please,” said Jarvis.  The barman nodded.  “And sure, I’ll buy her a drink.”  Only now did the barman look at her, and his dark eyes held hers for a moment, quieting her.
“Prosecco,” she said.  “Fizzy, too.  None of that funny flat stuff.”
When the barman left them she glared at Jarvis.  “What was up with him?  Is he a faggot?  Couldn’t take his eyes off you, could he!  And what was that… that thing you ordered?  Directions to a big gay fight?”
“Just a cocktail,” said Jarvis.  “I think he didn’t like you.”
“Hahahahaaaaa.”  Her laugh was too close to a shriek for comfort.  “Yeah right, he didn’t like me.  He didn’t like you.  No-one likes you.  All of my friends hated you.  You were always just this big lump in the corner, getting fat and staring at people like you’d never seen them before.  You never watched tv, and you never listened to any decent music.  You were just fat and useless.  I’m glad we split up.”
“I watched tv,” said Jarvis.  “We just watched different shows, we listened to different music. Your friends did seem to hate me though, even the ones who’d never met me.”  His words floated past her, unlistened to.
“You’re so fat.”
“Sure,” said Jarvis.  He was wearing a hoodie that she’d bought him a month after they’d met.  It was three sizes too large and looked it, but after she’d bought it she made a fuss every time he came out unless he was wearing it.  It smelled faintly of wet dog, even when it was fresh from the dryer.
“Everyone here’s weird, you know?  Like no-one’s looking at anyone.”
“They’re just hungry,” said Jarvis.  The barman appeared again and set a tumbler of blood-red liquid down in front of Jarvis and a champagne flute of pale yellow bubbles in front of Toni.  His eyes caught hers again, and she wondered for a moment why they seemed so blood-shot.
“Yeah, I get cranky when my blood-sugar’s low,” she said, picking the glass up.  She sipped it, wrinkled her nose against the prickle of the bubbles and then downed it.  She set the glass down on the table, and looked at Jarvis.
“Same again.” she said.
Jarvis picked his drink up, and brushed away a little frost that had formed on the table underneath it.
“I said I’d buy you one drink,” he said, and sipped his drink.
There was a moment of peace as the liquid swirled around his mouth, aromas of red fruit and old leather bubbling up into his nose and a hint of sweetness washed away by a sea of bitterness like the regret of old sins, and then, predictably, Toni erupted.
“You cheap bastard!” she yelled, standing up so she breathe deeper and scream louder.  Behind her several people at the bar looked round at last.  “All I want is one more fucking drink!  Is that so fucking much to ask of my ex-bloody boyfriend?”
“Ex,” said Jarvis quietly.  She reached across the table to slap him, but someone behind her caught her hand.  She tried to pull away, but their grip was like stone; cold and uncompromising.  She turned, torn between continuing to shout at Jarvis and wanting to scream at this interloper and found herself looking into another pair of bloodshot eyes.  She opened her mouth, but something inside her suggested that this would be a really bad idea, and she closed it again.
“The thing is,” said Jarvis.  “The thing is, you never knew what bar you’d walked in to, did you?”
“What?” she wanted to look at him but she couldn’t pull her gaze away.
“Exactly.  You were just looking for another mark, another stupid little fuck to take for a ride and bleed dry.  And you would have got just the opposite if I hadn’t seen you.”
“What?”  She felt incredibly distracted.  She didn’t normally listen to anything Jarvis said – well, anyone said, really, except maybe Bethany, but Bethany had been like a sister to her – but now it was like she was being told not to.  Only no-one else was talking.
“This is a vampire bar, Toni.  Lestatic.  The name’s a clue.”
“What?”  It sounded pathetic this time, and she could barely hear herself speaking.  The room seemed to be darker than she remembered and she was feeling dizzy.  Only the bloodshot eyes in front of her were keeping her upright, she was sure.
“So here you are, back where we met, and this time I’m leaving you to your fate.  I gave you three months you didn’t deserve and don’t appreciate.  I think that’s enough.”

“Jar–?”  She had a feeling something important had just happened, but she wasn’t sure what.  She inclined her head, trying to hear the voice that had just been speaking, stretching her neck out as she turned and twisted.  The light in the bar fell on it, graceful as a swan’s, and for a moment everyone held their breath.

Monday, 6 October 2014


There was a gentleman sitting in the Reception area of Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations, his face carefully neutral while he read through a brochure describing the more public aspects of the purchase of a small island off the East Coast of America for the construction of a health-state on behalf of ADHD, the American Drivers for Healthcare Distribution.  He looked up briefly as a woman stalked past him, curious for a moment if giantesses were employed here, but then looked away again.  The woman, Jeronica, was simply wearing high-heels that must give her the most fantastic calf-muscles in the history of competitive body-building and appeared to add thirteen inches to her height.  That would explain, he mused momentarily, why the ceiling appeared to be so much higher in some places than others.  A short while later another man, much shorter, squatter, and smelling of patchouli oil paused for a moment opposite him, but he seemed interested only in checking the pile of newspapers and magazines for something he didn’t find.  He left again, and the gentleman carefully adjusted his position so as not to have to notice the slightly oily handprint that had been left on the back of the Claes Olson chair.
At one-seventeen exactly the receptionist, a young woman with white contact lenses that made her appear blind, a beehive hairdo that would have made Amy Winehouse bite through her microphone with jealousy, and a necklace around her neck that must have cost her two years’ salary pressed a buzzer.
“Dimitrion will see you now,” she said, her voice as modulated as Siri’s.  “In his office.”
The gentleman considered that information extraneous, but stood up anyway and carefully walked down a corridor different to the one the Receptionist was indicating.  He’d been here before.
Dimitrion was sat on a wooden platform suspended from the ceiling of his office by thin black chains.  The platform was directly over his desk, and the chairs that would normally be arranged around it were instead pushed back so that people sitting in them could clearly see Dimitrion on the platform.  Even so, he was slightly discomfitted when the gentleman came in from the door on the other side of his office.
“I believe you were invited to take the main corridor,” he said, a little waspishly.  He had a goatee that went wispy after the first three inches, and he looked a little like a goat.  His hair was dark and curly, and occasionally the drunk-and-suicidal would ruffle it, looking for horns.
“I felt like saving myself a little time,” said the gentleman, his words quiet and clear.  “You’ve kept me waiting exactly as many minutes after our appointed time as I arrived early for it.”
“We agreed a time,” said Dimitrion.  He was cross-legged, and he rested his elbows on his knees and then his chin on his prayer-folded hands.
“And you were not asked to see me any earlier,” said the gentleman.  “You were simply expected to let me sit in your reception area, drink your coffee, and read your brochures. How can you be annoyed about that?”
Dimitrion had no problems being annoyed about the sun rising every morning and him still not having found a way to monetise this, but he decided that at this stage he’d made his point and could afford to be generous.  “How was the coffee?  We have the interns make it.  Typically it takes them three months to learn how.”
“How very wasteful,” said the gentleman.  “Even assuming that they pay you for the privilege of working here and pay you bonuses for all the political and sociological information they encounter that’s still wasteful.  What else do you do with them?  Turn them into prosciutto for Christmas?”
“I hear that Margoyle uses them for pedicures,” said Dimitrion.  The concept of intern prosciutto had been floated at a company meeting a couple of years ago but he didn’t wish to go into any detail about it.  “However, you are here to talk about desalination, not pedicures or Christmas hams.  Perhaps we should attend to business?”
“Resalination,” said the gentleman placidly.  Dimitrion frowned.
Re-salination?” he said.  “That can’t be right.”
“Oh yes it can,” said the gentleman.  “As you are aware, I represent what me might choose to call a cartel, but only here and in the confines of these walls and the numerous listening devices your colleagues have installed –“ he paused, looking at Dimitrion’s upraised hand.
“There are no bugs that I don’t know about,” said Dimitrion.  “If you look on my desk you’ll see what appears to be a desktop calculator.  That’s feeding the various bugs that I haven’t accidentally destroyed or blocked with an appropriate conversation between myself and the Global Head of Ancient Samoan Tributes.  The Receptionist knows you’re here, but she’s a professional.”
The gentleman nodded as though not quite believing.  “Be that as it may,” he said.  “The people that I represent recognise that water must flow to be useful, and that water is often useful because of its dissolutive properties.  We wish to compete in a meaningful manner with the resort and tourist opportunities that the Dead Sea represents, and as such we wish to re-salinate a large inland lake where there is a significant tourism project already underway.”
“Lake Saras,” said Dimitrion.  He produced a clicker from his pocket and used it to first lower the lights and then to turn on a projector screen that showed a geographical map of the region.  “Also a major supplier of freshwater to about three-hundred villages and towns in a two-hundred-and-fifty mile radius.”
“Whose populaces have little interest in politics,” said the gentleman smoothly.  Dimitrion understood this to mean that the populace considered that the gentleman and his friends had inappropriate ideas about politics and the means to ends.  “But freshwater can be obtained in other ways, such as desalination plants and aqueductage.”
“Expensive options,” said Dimitrion.
“But affordable if the tourism industry at Lake Saras can be increased.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Dimtrion smiled and offered his hand.  “I’m absolutely certain we can do business,” he said.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Peace Dividend I

Villa St. Antoine was reached by a long, winding drive through trees, after a four-hour high-speed train-ride from Frankfurt Airport.  Jeronica sat in the back of a limousine wearing sunglasses as though worried that someone might somehow peer through the tinted windows and discern her there.  In fact the sunglasses were electronically tuned to the windows and allowed her to see through them as though they were plain glass.  She watched the landscaping go past and observed to herself that the winding route, the soft hills and the tall, ancient, thick-trunked trees were surely laid out like this to prevent any easy assault on the Villa.
Which made a certain kind of sense, as the head of Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations, Jeremy Diseased-Rat, had the kind of paranoia that made it very difficult to deal with him unless you were his favoured kind of prostitute or in a large venue with very many other people around at a sufficiently discrete distance.  Jeronica liked neither of these things, but was keenly aware of the need to socialise and network, and so forced herself to attend most functions that the company arranged.  Such as the Management Off-Site here at Villa St. Antoine.
The car pulled up in front of the doors of the Villa with a soft crunch of white gravel and she waited while a doorman dressed in burgundy and gold-braid sauntered from his post to open the door of her car.  She was pleased to note that though a second limousine came in behind her thirty seconds later the doorman didn’t even acknowledge, attending to her car first.  The door opened soundlessly and she stepped out.  She made sure she was stood firmly on the ground and then tilted her wrist slightly.  The mercury tilt-switch sewn into the sleeve responded, and the heels on her shoes smoothly elevated her by eleven inches.  The doorman barely flinched, though he did lean back very slightly to make eye contact with her.
“Guests are asked to report to the Viridian Drawing Room,” he said.  There was a touch of insolence to his tone, she thought.  “Please enter through the main door and turn left, then left again.  It may interest you to know that the Villa was built over one hundred years ago, and most of the doors are slightly lower than six feet high.”  Perhaps she’d mistaken warmth for insolence.  She was already on her guard against her colleagues and was probably looking for traps where there were none.  She smiled, about to thank him, and then realised that she had no way to verify his directions.  She smiled a little more broadly, and laid a hand on his his shoulder.
“Perhaps you could show me the way,” she said, squeezing a little.  The man had muscles.  “My sense of geography has always been poor.”
The car behind them crunched the gravel very gently as though the driver, getting impatient, had moved it an inch forwards.  The doorman looked slightly puzzled.
“One moment,” said Jeronica.  She crossed to the car behind, allowing her heels to slide down to only three inches high, and rapped imperiously on the driver’s window with a white-gloved hand.  The window slid down a quarter-inch.  “Tell your passenger that we’re meeting in the Drawing Room,” she said.  “I need the doorman.”  She walked off without waiting for an answer, hoping  and expecting that if there was a Viridian Drawing Room there would be others as well.
“You may bring my bags,” she said the doorman as she returned.  His face remained immobile, but she fancied that there was a hint of annoyance as he moved to collect them from where her driver had positioned them on the gravel next to the car.  “And lead on!”
The Villa St. Antoine had been built for use by gentlemen and then seized the by the Nazis during the war and used as a refuge for thugs and layabouts, which combination meant that the entire place was opulent like a harem and decadent like the court of the Sun King.  As she walked inside her heels sank into carpet with pile so deep that with just three inch heels she appeared to be walking smooth on its surface, while the doorman struggled slightly to keep up his pace.  There was a cloakroom to the right that appeared to have a four-person staff of its own, and there was the smell of freshly opened champagne in the air, bright and acidic.  Bowls of strawberries were set out on a counter, and smaller bowls of thick, clotted cream were set adjacent to them.  Silver spoons, hallmarked visibly, waited nearby for use as well.  Jeronica picked up three of each and followed the doorman.  She hated strawberries, but she knew how to act the part.
The Viridian Drawing room was left and left again as promised, and when she arrived she dismissed the doorman to take her bags to her room.  She looked around: Margoyle was already there and sitting in a high-backed chair near an empty fireplace, and Stephanotte was stood surrounded by three accountants that were her de-facto bodyguards.  None of them had strawberries.

“Not hungry?” asked Jeronica casually, allowing her heels to elevate her another two inches.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Turkey club

It was raining outside, which was how you could tell, at a glance, that it was a British Bank Holiday.  The weather is traditional, as are the predictions of the weather, complaining about the weather, and dragging the children off to do whatever you’d planned to do if it turned out nice after all.  I have many memories, as a child, of sitting on a grey, wet beach in the drizzle, wondering if the tide would sneak in while it was foggy and cut us off from the land, stranding us to drown slowly in a grey gloom better suited to making foreign films.  I could almost have forgiven my parents if that had happened, as at least my death might have been recorded by a passing Italian with a penchant for large-breasted actresses and a depressive streak a mile wide.
“Who are you reviewing today?”  The voice shocked me from my reverie and I stopped looking out of the window and looked around the office instead.  The office had been empty, a fact I’d been counting on when I’d fled the house and come in earlier in the morning.  The Blonde had her mother over, who is also, technically a Blonde (though not one I’ve dated), and the conversation had been threatening to get on the subject of weddings, grandchildren and other things I’d rather not discuss without a decent bottle of whiskey and a non-disclosure agreement signed by all parties.
“There’s a new place,” I muttered, spotting my Editor leaning against the doorway.  I can only assume that she was attempting to look louche, but she looked like a constipated actress from a 60s Public Information Film.  “For a change they’re not run by a celebrity chef or theming the food to a culture that went extinct two hundred years ago, or localising themselves to an area of Europe so small that it can’t actually sustain agriculture forcing the local cuisine to be large rock-based.  They’re describing themselves as ‘Comfort Food’, which makes a nice change.”
“I was hoping you might do Contemporary British next,” said my Editor, lounging a little more artistically.  I wondered for a moment if she’d ever done any of those Health & Safety videos about being sexually harassed in the workplace, and then rejected the idea as ridiculous.  “I’ve been talking with the Futures committee–“
“The what?”
“The Futures committee, they’re new.”  Well, I could have told her that, since I’d never heard of them before.  I raised an eyebrow to indicate she should continue.  “They’re kind of like a think-tank, they’ve been tasked with looking to the future and predicting what the public will want to read about in two months to a year’s time.  I was talking to them, and they think British Contemporary is going to be a real thing.”
Thing?” I said with heavy emphasis.  “Oh well, if it’s going to be a thing….”
“Don’t be snooty,” she said.  “You’re always just following trends, going to what’s just opened.  Why not broaden your remit a little and go to places that aren’t even open yet?”
“Because I’d go hungry?” I said.  “Because my readers want to go to these places, or not go and tell their friends that I’ve derided it to the point that they wouldn’t be seen dead there.  They don’t want to not go to places and then tell their friends that it’s the next big thing.  Where’s the fun in that?”
“Yes, but you could tr–“
No I can’t!  You’ve reprimanded me and cut my expenses budget for going to places that weren’t open yet!”
“You were claiming to go to places that didn’t exist.”
“They did exist!  They were just so execrable that they’d closed down by the time you got the fact-checkers to look over the receipts!”
“Fine,” she sighed, looking a little careworn.  I thought that maybe she looked like Marlene Dietrich as Dietrich did yesterday.  “Just make sure that it’s on my desk by Wednesday.”
The Turkey Club’s headline item on the menu was a “reconsidered and deconstructed Turkey Club sandwich, served with parsnip and swede fries and a choice of ketchups”.  I ordered it, noting that much of the rest of the menu was carb-heavy and probably did constitute comfort food.  It was still pouring with rain outside, and the idea of spending the evening inside stuffing myself with dumplings, pasta, sandwiches and red wine was strongly appealing.  So much so that I was actually looking forward to the food when it arrived.
“Excuse me?” I asked almost the second the waiter’s hand had let go on the plate.  He looked at me, and I swear I saw the glitter of a tear in his eye.  “This isn’t a club sandwich.”
There were slices of toasted white bread wrapped around chunks of turkey that had been dipped in some kind of gravy to try and keep them moist; there was lettuce and tomato, and that was it.
“Where’s the middle slice of bread?  The bacon?  The egg?” I asked, aware that I sounded slightly hectoring, but unable to stop myself.  A club sandwich is an easy recipe, it’s just the execution that’s hard.  I noted at this point that rather than skewering the quarters that the sandwich was cut into, the chef had opted to staple them together instead.
“The classic club sandwich,” said the waiter in a tone of recital, “does in fact not have a third slice of bread.  The owners have gone back to the original recipe.”
“That’s as maybe,” I said.  “People expect three slices these days, and it doesn’t say on the menu that you’re skimping on the bread.  And where is the bacon?  Or the egg?”
“Egg’s not classical either,” said the waiter.  There was a hint of apology in his voice, but he seemed to be avoiding the most important question.
“Where’s the bacon?”
“The turkey gravy has been made with rendered bacon fat,” he said, now holding his hands up in front of him as though to ward me off.  “The idea of bacon is present all the way through the sandwich!”

I ate it anyway.  It was a passably good sandwich as it went, but it wasn’t a club sandwich as anyone would understand it today, and calling it such showed a strong lack of understanding of marketing realities from the chef.  I wrote that down when I thought it to make sure it got into the review.  The chips were uninteresting, but then I find swede terminally dull even when the Americans try and make it more interesting by calling it rutabaga.  All in all I was quite disappointed and had to console myself by ordering six desserts, each with an individual pot of creme anglaise and calling it custard whenever the waiter was in earshot.  That almost cheered me up.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A room of one's own

Though Mabel Fate had looked thunderous when Stella asked where her room was to be a room had been found and, looking around herself now, Stella had to admit that it was quite nicely furnished.  Which, she thought, it should be considering that Mabel had decided to charge her rent for it.
“If you’re a paying guest,” she’d said, “then there are proprieties that you should observe, and being a well-brought-up and college-educated girl I am sure you know all about such things.  They would have been taught in the same classes where you were told to write letters in this modern age, and probably taught to curtsey and patronise.  But if I allowed you to stay here as a family member you would probably feel compelled to interfere in the lives of the people around you, and since my family are successful I have no desire to have you meddle.”
“Where are my cousins, Great-Grandmama?” Stella had asked, her tone as sweet as honey and as dangerous as a agitated wasp.  “I was most certainly hoping to meet them all at last!”
Mabel Fate had looked at her for several seconds before answering, and then the answer sounded guarded, as though perhaps the news imparted was being carefully edited before delivery.  “Seb is home for three days,” she said.  “He will arrive at the station within the hour and I have sent Rupert to collect him in the Bugatti.  The Rolls is a little ostentatious, and the Bentley is being polished.  Seb is currently appearing at the Old Vic and his career as an actor, while not perhaps of Hollywood proportions is better than you might expect from a typical twenty-year-old.  Rupert is now returned from university with a basic degree in agriculture, a special project in the application of organic fertilisers to ancient soils, and a Masters degree is animal midwifery and husbandry.  He wishes to take over the running of the farm, and his father is thoroughly delighted by the idea.  Dolphin–“
“Dolphin?” said Stella, aware that she was interrupting but still unable to believe that she had a cousin called Dolphin.  Mabel seemed too sensible for that.
“The priest that year was regrettably hard-of-hearing,” sighed Mabel.  “Dolphin is overweight and underintelligent and I would despair of the child except that when I allowed her to attend the Debutantes Ball, against my better judgement, she came away with three proposals of marriage and some rather personal body jewellery that I instructed her to return by post rather than in person.  It seems that much of the landed gentry round here believe that a woman who looks like livestock is likely to be good with it.  I have endeavoured to teach the poor child to write poetry several times, but it seems like I have raised a farmer’s wife and that’s to be the end of it.”
“I have written poetry,” said Stella.
“I don’t doubt it.  Benny you have met already, and I discern in your letter a belief that he might be your maternal grandfather.  I should tell you now that I find that unlikely, but only because I believe he is your maternal grand-uncle.  You are clearly a child of the Wooden Post, and I will do everything I can to help you learn that sooner rather than later.”
“Is there an inheritance that goes with that?”
“Splinters, my dear child.  Splinters.”
That had ended that conversation, and now Stella looked around the room that she was paying to stay in.  The bed was solid with a firm but yielding mattress, and when she pulled back the sheets she discovered memory foam.  The pillows were feather but appeared new and soft, and the blankets were embroidered with homilies.  Or rather she had assumed they were homilies until she tried reading them.
The most dangerous word is bathtime.
Young devils may carry your knickers away.
Humility and Indigestion are often confused.
She pondered the last one for a minute or so before deciding that while it might be true, it was scarcely helpful.
There was a bedside table with two drawers and she wasn’t entirely surprised to find a Gideon’s Bible in the top one.  She was slightly more surprised to find it bulging with bookmarks, and when she opened to one at random it seemed like a full third of the page had been underlined with pencil or highlighted in a soft lemon ink.  She put the book away and closed the drawer with haste and crossed to the window.  It looked out over a nice green field with a wooden shed at one end and she immediately felt closer to the land.  This was surely what the countryside was all about.  Perhaps she might have a nice time here after all!
There was a robust tap at her door, in fact it was almost a thundering rather than a tap, so she leaned against the windowsill and faced the door, and called out in a light and cheerful voice, “Come in!”  The door opened and a middle-aged woman in a peach tracksuit that matched her lipstick stood in the doorway.  She held out a piece of paper, and when Stella approached to take it she saw that it was a printout of an email.

“Your parents are dead, miss,” said the woman flatly.  “Both of ‘em.”

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


Droplets was the name given to the farm; burned into a large wooden shingle that hung on the wall at the entrance to the farmyard. The farmyard itself was set at the edge of a cliff so that anyone incautious enough to step out of the farmhouse's back door would have a single stone step on which to regret their decision, and then a fall over over eight hundred feet to a sandy beach below. When he was drunk, which was most mornings as he would wake at three and drink to forget his nightmares, John Clarke the principal farmhand would mutter that the name of the farm was a prediction: that it would take only droplets of rain to push it over the edge itself. As it was raining heavily when Stella arrived at Droplets, and continued to rain for most of the days she was there, she disbelieved him the moment he put this suggestion forth.
She arrived clinging to the back of a produce truck whose driver had stopped to help when her car had broken down in a runnel by the side of a narrow country road. He had offered to let her sit in the truck itself, but the front seat was occupied by two growling alsatians, and the truck body was refrigerated, so she'd bitten down hard on her collection of journalistic swearwords and clung on as tenaciously as old ivy. The journey had been cold and wet and her fingers were blue and claw-hooked when she arrived, but she still surveyed the farmyard with the eyes of someone who thought they were a Jane Austen heroine.
She was quite dismayed to see that the farmyard, though inevitably muddy in places, was well-swept and tidy; rope neatly coiled on hooks, bales of straw stacked carefully against walls and under shelter, and an old but serviceable flat-bed truck parked up near the house. As she sighed, unable to think of anything to improve, the front door opened and old Benedict came out to greet her.
He greeted the produce truck, the cataracts in his eyes being so bad that everything was seen as though in thick fog, and when corrected of his misapprehension he smiled and hugged the produce man. Stella sighed again and walked inside, leaving the man who was probably her maternal grandfather to his misty confusion.
"I saw something nasty in the water closet," said a small, lugubrious child as she walked past it. She paused, wondering if she should be able to determine its sex, but the swaddled clothing and its extreme youth made it impossible for her to guess.
"I saw something nasty in the linen cupboard," said a young girl, dressed a maid, walking past.
"I saw something nasty clinging to the back of the produce truck," said the produce man, who'd come in behind her leading Benedict by the hand, and Stella whirled around, spraying water droplets everywhere, to berate him.
“If I’d wanted to be soaked in my own kitchen I should have bought a dog,” said a cool voice behind her before she could open her mouth, and so she turned again.  This time she turned more slowly so that her wet hair slapped lightly against her face and the water droplets simply hazed a little in front of her face.  The speaker was an elderly woman, tall and well-dressed.  She stood with impressive mien, suggesting that she fully ruled all she surveyed, and her face had a certain smoothness to it that Stella understood to mean that she was much older than she actually looked, but had taken care to conceal it.
“You have four dogs, Great-grandmama,” said the lugubrious child, walking now in the opposite direction and carrying a pie in a china dish.
“Hush child,” said the woman, not taking her eyes off Stella.  “None of my dogs would come into the kitchen and shake themselves free of water from their coats.  They are too well-trained for that.”
“She said she were comin’ ‘ere,” said the produce man, and Stella considered turning yet again to face him, but then worried that she might seem like a whirling dervish.  She’d never seen such a thing, but she’d written four articles on the topic for Sunday supplements and had received a modest amount of appreciative letters that she’d been able to feed to the Editor for the Letters Page over a period of weeks.  “So I let her come along.  I’d no idea that she would be so ill-mannered, Ms. Fate.”
Ms. Fate!  The woman who faced her, whose eyes seemed to be trying to dig into her face and tunnel through her skull to inspect her brain must be Mabel Fate, head of the clan at Droplets Farm!
“No blame attaches,” said Mabel sounding eerily like the I Ching.  “I’m sure she seduced you with her London ways.”
“A seduction!” roared Benedict, his voice too loud even for the large kitchen.  It echoes from the walls and bounced off the rafters and threatened to rattle the glass in the windows.  “Now there’s a thing!”
“Indoor voice, please, Benny,” said Mabel.  She spared him a glance, freeing Stella momentarily from her icy gaze, and Benedict subsided, his own near-blind eyes casting to the floor.  “Now child, what brings you to Droplets?”
“I sent a letter,” said Stella.  She was trying to sound calm, collected and defiant, but she was worrying the whole time that she sounded petulant.  “And I received one in return, filled with mysterious references to sexual liaisons and the promises of rights owing to me if I came here.  So naturally I came at once.  I sent another letter ahead of me, surely you’ve received it?”
“And what is wrong with email anyway?” said Mabel, her words as smooth as new ice on water.  “Or a phone-call perhaps?  Heavens, I think there’s even still a fax machine in the hall if you’d tried that.  The number is on the Droplets Farm website.  But either way, I dictated the letter you received myself, and I am certain that what I said was: ‘that if you came here, I’d see you bang to rights’.  I imagine in your London hurry you were reading it while rushing through the Underground and managed not only to misread the words but to misunderstand those that percolated through.  You are, after all, the Wooden Post’s child, and I am expecting little more than a stump.”
Stella’s mouth gaped like a stunned goldfish, and after a short pause she collected herself and closed it up again.  She was sure that the letter was different, and she’d only written out of deference to the fact that these cousins, however remote, lived on a farm!  Of course they couldn’t be expected to be modern and moving with the times.  And Mabel Fate, legendary dowager, had to be eighty by now, and presumably was scared of televisions, hairdryers and microwaves.  Email was unthinkable to a woman like her, surely?
“I was hoping to visit for a while,” she said, aware that it sounded mean and wheedling.
“You were hoping to interfere in family life,” said Mabel, as firm as Stella was indecisive.  “It will not happen.  I have no desire to incubate adders in the womb.”
“I wanted to ask about that!” said Stella, latching on to something where she felt she might have an edge.  “Your name is Mabel Fate, yet the family here are all called Arkstabber.  Why is that?”
“There have always been Arkstabbers at Droplets Farm!” said Benedict suddenly, cutting Mabel off before she could speak.  “Always!”
“In fact,” said Mabel in the tones of one who has had to explain this more times already than she felt was necessary, “this a New Farm built in the 60s when the government was worrying about too few people living off the land.  Before that it was a crematorium, and before that it was the site of two kilns.  This explains the local deforestation that made this viable as farmland, and allowed the crematorium to take advantage of the kilns and repurpose them as ovens.  We have further repurposed them as small, inadequate granaries, but we they’re apparently listed buildings so we have to do with them what we can without materially affecting them in any way.  Since no Arkstabber has been cremated, let alone worked in a crematorium, and kilning is simply not something Arkstabbers do, there has in fact been Arkstabbers at Droplets for only the last 50 years or so.  Benny.”
The old man dropped his gaze back to the floor again and looked a mere shadow of himself.
“As for you, young lady,” she continued, “You may call me Great-grandmama only.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful,” said Stella, endeavouring to protest.  Her voice was still weak and reedy in the large kitchen.  Only Mabel seemed to have the trick of using the acoustics to add body to her words and reverb to her speeches.

“Then perhaps it will encourage you to think through the rest of what you’re saying before you say it.”

Sunday, 8 June 2014


Old men line benches in the square, leaning companionably against each other.  Gnarled hands, all varying shades of sun-weathered brown, grip bottles of beer and cider.  None of them have facial hair; even their eyebrows have been shaved off, and they have a slightly startled look as a result.  Their eyes vary from rheumy, trickles of fluid running down the channels made by wrinkles on their faces, to clear-but-looking-elsewhere, windows into a vacant head.  They drink slowly, though a waiter comes regularly out of a tavern on the corner of the square, a white towel slung over his arm and his tray filled with tall bottles, condensation forming dew-like droplets on the side.  He distributes them evenly, collecting up the empties, and no money changes hands.  He disappears back into the tavern, and the men talk quietly amongst themselves, or stare into the distance in silence.
The square itself is only small; a young boy can run across it in the time it takes his distracted mother to notice and call his name, bringing him up short so that he turns around and sullenly retraces his steps, back to her side.  There is a tree in the centre, protected by a circular iron hoop at waist height that is supported in turn by four iron rods each as thick as a finger, set at compass points.  The tree is not quite as tall as the four-storey buildings that line the square’s sides, and though its trunk is long and smooth for ten feet, its branches eventually splay out so that it shades most of the square.  The men on the benches are in sunlight though, except when the shadow of the buildings they lean against falls over them.
The square is paved with dark grey stone that absorbs the rain when it falls on it and is never slick underfoot or smooth to the touch.  No moss grows in the cracks, no leaves from the tree linger here; they are soon blown away by a neverending breeze that comes from the west.
This is Inukis, city of the soulless.
Behind the square a road leads gently uphill towards the Hotel Abaddon, a name pulled from an archaic religious text by a man who was hoping to acquire authenticity without effort.  The hotel is large, it has over seventy bedrooms for paying guests, a wedding suite and the entire top floor is given over to suites intended for royalty, nobility, and other people who do not have to pay for their stay.  A campanile is set at one end of the hotel, though the bells in it have never rung, and at the other end an otherwise matching tower terminates in an observatory dome from which the gleam of a telescope may be seen on dark nights.
The main doors of the hotel are reached by climbing eighteen steps, the stone for which was looted from Melkempis when the tombs were broken open and the mummies turned out to be burned on pyres.  As the flames licked the sky and soot occluded the moon men with damp cloths wrapped around their heads to soften their breaths and hide their features laboured to haul the stone away to ships waiting in the harbour.  The steps now are rumoured to be haunted; linger too long on any step and a shadowy figure will form out of the nothingness of the air and reach out an imploring hand to you.  Perhaps this is why visitors to the hotel hurry up the steps to enter the hotel, and practically race down them to leave it.  And why the hotel staff prefer the small, mean entrances round the sides and back of the building.
Across the road from the hotel are government offices, and the windows of these buildings are lines with grey glass that drinks light in.  Looking at them shows nothing of the inside, and the reflection of the viewer is softened and wearied so that it seems someone much older looks back.  It is not considered wise to linger here either, for the fear is that the reflection might reach out a longing hand, old, black fingernails might rake across an unwary face, and a switch will take place, freeing the reflection to walk in the world again.
There are many who say that in Inukis there is no way to avoid this, and that it is called the City of the Soulless precisely because of this.  Then there are those who gather at the docks for the departure of every ship, no matter how small, and cry out to the crew, the captains and the passengers, pleading to be taken away with them, pleading for escape.

But there are those, like the old men lining the square, who are happy where they are and have no intention of leaving.

Monday, 19 May 2014


Well it had to be Heart of Glass didn’t it?  The song came on, and the entire dancefloor shuddered to a halt.  Couples dropped their arms from one another and stepped apart, suddenly maintaining a decent distance that any chaperone from the fifties would have approved of.  On the edges of the floor the wallflowers and the drunks looked up and moved away from the protection of the shadows and joined the erstwhile dancers.  When the entire room was stood there, arrayed like the pieces on a chessboard, they all stretched their faces into an identical grin like that found on plastic dolls and started stepping in time to the music.  If it weren’t so slow I’d have mistaken it for a modern aerobics class.
I sidled into the DJ booth where Samantha Panther was standing, legs akimbo and a thin trail of icy drool running from the corner of her mouth, her eyes unfocused and staring out beyond the dancefloor into an infinity she wasn’t sharing with anyone else.  In front of her the computer indicated that Heart of Glass was on repeat, and it looked like it was going to go on for several hours.
Someone cleared their throat, and I had to look everywhere to find the guy crouching under the mixing desk.  He looked uncomfortable, and was wearing a suit that looked as though someone else had thrown-up on it.  I raised an eyebrow.
“What are you doing?” he said.  His voice was clear, low, and somehow familiar.  I looked at him, wondering if I’d seen him before, and his suit suddenly seemed familiar.  “Yes,” he said, without inflexion.  “You threw up on me earlier.  In the smoking area.”  Oh yes, that would be why he looked and sounded familiar.
“I’m turning the music off,” I said.  “It’s turned everyone on the dancefloor into a zombie.  It’s completely choking the vibe.”
“I can’t let you do that,” he said, still inflexionlessly.  “They’re not zombies, they’re soldiers.  And it’s important that they remain soldiers for the next nineteen minutes.”
“Soldiers usually have weapons,” I countered.  “Or are you intending that they Tai Chi some invisible enemy to death.”
“Look out there,” he said.  I looked.
On the dancefloor they were still moving, but from this angle I could believe that they were marching in place.  It reminded me for a moment like a Pink Floyd video from the late 80s.  Then, as I watched, I saw shimmers in the air that coalesced and I could see the dancers all holding guns in parade rest, glass weapons that barely existed at all.
“What.  The.  Fu–“
“Quite,” said the man under the desk.  “How did you know that the enemy is invisible?”
I took several moments to stare at him as though he was quite mad, which he clearly was.  Even though I had to have been drinking the same polluted beer as him, because I could see weapons that obviously couldn’t exist and didn’t just spring into existence because a large group of people started doing the right kind of calisthenics.  That kind of thing would put the arms manufacturers out of business, and the things about upsetting people who make weapons is that they’re the people who eventually have all of the weapons.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.  “Or what you’re doing.”
The wallflowers are out there joining in, my brain reminded me.  That was bizarre.  That never happened.  They lingered on the edges like leeches, waiting for someone too drunk to know better to stumble off the floor and into their arms and be carried home to be sucked dry.  Or something like that, I’d never been drunk enough to experience it for myself.
“We’re fighting a war,” said the man.  “We’ve found out who we’re fighting at last, and we’re using their technology against them.  The tables are turning!”
“It’s an MP3-player,” I said.  I couldn’t resist pointing it out.  “They haven’t had vinyl here for six months.”
The man waved a hand.  I wondered how long he could crouch there before he got cramp.  “Irrelevant,” he said.  “The point is that we know how it works, and we can make it work for us.  They can’t enslave us any more!  We’re going to be free!”
“You sound very sure of that,” I said.  “And yet all you’re doing is playing a 70s song.”
“It’s the choice of song,” said the man.  “Some of them weren’t really songs at all.  You should see what happens when we play Video killed the Radio Star.”
“So what happened?” I asked.
“Sorry?  What do you mean?”
“Why did they stop making these songs?  If you have to go back all the way to the 70s either they already won, and you’re an idiot, or they already lost, and you’re an idiot.  Hey, look at that!  You’re an idiot!”
“They never stopped,” said the man.  “Haven’t you listened to Pop Idol?  They’re actively trialling their songs for effectiveness on directly now.  That’s why they have to be stopped!”
I reached out to the mixing desk and the man tried to grab my wrist.  I dodged, and tapped the keyboard, changing the playlist so that at the end of Heart of Glass something else would start playing.  The man under the desk tried to get out to see what I’d done, and I pushed him back in.
“What are you doing?” he spluttered, trying to get leverage to force his way out, but his uncomfortable stance prevented it.  I could hear his breathing shortening as panic started to overcome him.
“Picking the next track,” I said.  “I fancied St. Elmo’s Fire.”
“I figured you needed a new horizon,” I said.
“What?”  I waited.  Achingly slowly realisation crept across his face like an elderly mystic realising that he’s known the secret to transcendence all along.  “You’re one of them.  Aren’t you?”
The song changed, and as the music crescendoed and the singer started howling about new horizons a bright light erupted from the dancefloor.  It struck the mirrorball, an ironic celebration of an earlier, cheesier disco era, and, impossibly, lased.

“Oh yes,” I said softly.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Will they see the sky again?

“Pull the covers over their heads, sister.”
“Will they see the sky again?”
Here at the Hospice the flowers are always kept in full bloom.  They are the same flowers, unchanging though the days drift by like blossom falling from the cherry trees in the garden.  Tall women dressed in black dresses, white wimples, and enormous brass crosses that should bend them double traverse the halls and corridors, each standing tall and moving in an elegant and stately fashion.  The crosses have equal arms, the one as wide as their shoulders and the other as long.  They are suspended on brass chains where each link is as long as my hand, and made of metal as thick as my thumb.  They must weigh tens of pounds, and yet the tall women glide around like ghosts and just as silent and cold.
I try to cross the corridors but I am scared.  The women bear down on me like ice-skaters on a freshly polished rink, moving fast and seemingly deadly. I retreat back to the doorway of my room, standing on the threshold but not daring to step back inside.  There’s a smell in the air like a swimming pool, and a distant beeping comes from the inside, but the door is only just ajar and I don’t want to peek through the crack.  I’m worried that someone might be peeking back.
“The rain has stopped.”
“At last.  It must have rained for days.”
“It gave our sisters something to talk about.”
“As though they needed anything more.”
“Will they see the sky again?”
The tall women do not deviate from their paths even when they must have seen me.  If I time it right, if I stop moving at just the right place they glide past me without touching me, and there is just a caress of cold air as though they carry their own atmosphere with them.  Sometimes I am not quite accurate in where I stop, and I find myself tantalisingly close to them.  I could stretch out a finger and touch their robes; if I breathed too hard would they smell the garlic on my breath and wonder if I thought them vampires?  I have no idea who brings me garlic, but the only food I see in the Hospice appears on a blue dresden plate on a wooden tray on the floor outside my room, and it is always three slices of warm garlic bread, chicken schnitzel with garlic breadcrumbs, and garlic custard.  There is no cutlery, and so I eat with my fingers, using the schnitzel to scoop up the pudding from its blobby, misshapen pile.  Once I licked the plate, but it tasted like steel and made my teeth tingle, so I don’t do that anymore.  It’s been hours since I was last at the door to my room though.  I have traversed six corridors, and I don’t want to turn back and have to do it all again.  And I don’t dare touch the tall women.
“We are all digging, sister.  Some more than others, I’d warrant.”
“Just dig.  There will be time for recriminations later.”
“Of course, sister.  And there will be recriminations, you may be sure of that.”
“I am aware.  But perhaps the end must justify the means.  Or perhaps the end is inevitable and the means must be chosen to have least impact.”
“You never tell me though, will they see the sky again?”
How many tall women are there?  They look familiar, but different, every one, but how can there be this many?  It has been hours and hours now, and I’ve lost track of time.  I tried counting seconds under my breath, but I don’t know that many numbers.  I am tired, and when I reach the next junction I will sit down.  I will rest for just a moment, with the smell of the swimming pool strong in my nostrils and the tall, becrossed women gliding around me like some abstract ballet where the lake was polluted and the swans all befuddled.
“Gently.  We still have a duty of care to them.”
“We are carrying them to their graves, sister.  What care you do think we can have left?”
“You asked me a question, sister.”
“Repeatedly.  You never answered.”
“You never asked the right question.”
“Will they see the sky again?”
“Have you ever seen the sky?”
“…no.  When I look up it starts to rain and saltwater gets in my eyes.”
“When they next open their eyes they will see the sky, sister.”
At the next junction, where the floor is so highly polished that it is dazzling to look at and I struggle to skid to a halt before touching a tall women, there is a door in the wall.  Almost recklessly I dart for it, and collide with it with a thump.  Before I can do anything else, it swings open.
Anna kneels on the floor in front of an altar.  Her head is bent, her blonde hair falls down to conceal her face completely, and her hands are clutched together as though she is praying.  In front of her, enclosed in a soft blue light, are the same flowers that are everywhere in the Hospice, and suddenly I know why the flowers are always in full bloom.
I say her name.
“Shovel faster.”
“He spoke, sister.  He said a name.”
“Shovel!  Before he can open his eyes!”
“But you said–“


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Jenny was a friend

Bees buzzed in the shrubbery behind the church and sunlight fell through a gap in the trees and onto the occupant of a deckchair.  He was not quite.  Not quite tall, not quite thin, not quite balding, not quite smiling.  His hat, a brown fedora that was turning to black as the stains accumulated, was clutched to his chest despite that his thinning hair wouldn’t protect his scalp enough and he’d need to rub cream on it later for the sunburn.  His shirt was buttoned to the neck, and his coat, though open, was still worn and looked warmer than the weather really warranted.  The coat was brown as well, and might once have matched the hat, but it was fading with use and wearing holes in elbows and pockets.
There were two other deckchairs in the little clearing, and they were set discreetly behind the first one.  Both of these were occupied by large gentlemen wearing suits and the kind of patient expressions that suggested that their patience was just about to run out.  They were relaxed but tense, as though they were ready to unrelax in an instant and stand up and block the sunlight out.
“Uh, excuse me,” said a worried sounding voice, and the man in the front deckchair opened his eyes and shaded them with a hand.  Approaching on nervous, quick-moving feet, was the local vicar.
“Your holiness,” said Des politely, not getting up.  The Vicar looked first embarrassed, and then awkward.  His hands twisted each other, writhing around like restless snakes in sun-trap, and Des noticed that they were so pale as to be bloodless; even the chill blue of veins was absent.
“I believe that’s an appropriate form of address for the Pope,” said the Vicar, his voice slow and careful.  You could almost hear him trying to find a way of saying it that couldn’t offend.  “I, of course, am from a different Church–“
“You’re still top dog around here though, eh, Pope?”  Des sounded bluff and cheerful, and he waved the hand that wasn’t still shading his eyes casually.  “But if it makes you feel more comfortable I can call you something else.  What would you like?”
“Uh, well,” said the Vicar who now looked a little taken aback as though he’d been expecting to have to keep pushing away the overgenerous epithet of Your Holiness for a little longer.  “Well, how about Nathanial?  It is my name, after all.”
“I know,” said Des.  “But it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?  Don’t you have a nickname?  What do your mates call you?”
“Nathanial,” said the Vicar patiently.  “And what should I call you, Mr…?”
“Des,” said Des.  There was a long silence, when even the bees had stopped buzzing.  Finally they got fed up of waiting for anything to happen and started buzzing again.
“Des?” said the Vicar, his face screwing up as though he were in pain.  His hands gripped each other so tightly that they went whiter still, and Des found his eyes drawn to them, wondering if the man would snap his own fingers off.  “Des, as in, Presiding Religious Authority Des?”
“That’s me,” said Des.  “You’re new aren’t you?”
“I came after Mr. Felicity’s little accident–“
“You mean where he jumped from the belfry after what was found on his computer hard drive.”  It should have been a question but Des’s tone made it clear that it wasn’t.  “Yes, that was very unfortunate.  The police were quite curious to talk to him.”
“Mere accounting irregularities,” murmured the Vicar.  “The Bishop told me all about it.”
“Yes, well,” said Des.  “That would certainly interest the police, but they were all the more curious about what the money appeared to have been used for.”
“Medicinal purposes,” said the Vicar, his voice barely a whisper now.  “Of a kind.”
“A meth lab,” said Des.  “In the crypt.  Employing the bloody choir boys.”
“…profitable…”  Des had to strain to hear the new Vicar now.
“Not the point,” said Des.  “The people he was selling it to, now that’s the point.”
“The Bishop said it was mostly sold to distributors who took it quite a way away,” said the Vicar, returning to audibility at last.  “Which is a blessing of a kind, in such a sorry story.”
“Mostly,” said Des.  “Mostly.  When he got wind of the police closing in he tried to pack the operation up temporarily, and he had stock left to get rid of.”
“I wouldn’t kno–“
“He baked it into the communion wafers,” said Des.  “Not one of his better ideas I should think.”
“That does sound a little stupid,” said the Vicar, staring at his feet.  Little spots of red burned in his cheeks.
“He left a note, saying that he thought that God would transubstantiate it along with the bread,” said Des.   “Quite sincere, I think.”
“…the Lord moves in mysterious ways?…”
“Very bloody mysterious,” said Des.  “In that apparently the good God decided to leave the meth untransformed and let it affect the entire congregation.”
“Jenny was a friend of mine,” said Des.  He put his hand down from his eyes, and hauled himself out of his deckchair.  The Vicar immediately took a step back.  “I wasn’t pleased,” he continued, “being called in to exorcise a woman who’s no more possessed than you are.  Vicar.”
“No-one would have known what they were seeing!”  The Vicar looked up, his eyes brimming with tears.  “They weren’t used to that kind of thing.  This was a nice community!”
“Still is,” said Des.  “A bit smaller than it used to be of course, and not all the folks we buried are those that deserved to be.  But it’s still a good community.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll never get a mastermind contestant from this lot, and if they don’t buck their ideas up soon the mud’ll be brighter than them, but they try hard.  When they’re pointed in the right direction at least.”
“What note?” said the Vicar.  He was staring at Des, his eyes reddened but suddenly clear of tears.  “You said there was a note, but the police never found a note.”
“No,” said Des.  “They wouldn’t have.  But it was a very interesting note anyway, and it said another thing too.  Would you like to guess what it said?”
“That he was very sorry?”  The Vicar’s words were flat, as though he knew what was coming.
“No,” said Des.  “He wasn’t sorry at all.  Not even after the push.  Never understand why what he’d done was wrong.  But he did mention how he reached the distributors, and you know, it was the obvious way, and the one you really wouldn’t think.  But there you go, sometimes you just don’t want to believe how far the corruption goes.”
“The Bishop is a powerful man,” said the Vicar.  He had stopped fidgeting now and was staring straight at Des.

“Just so,” said Des with a smile.  “Though I think you may find that he’s had a little accident of his own.  When the news reaches you.”

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Room to grieve

The street was quiet and leafy; the trees were showing off their new green coats and a couple of the more adventurous ones were budding blossoms as well.  Around their roots were flower beds with spikes of green shooting upwards with enthusiasm, and scatterings of colour showed where the flowers were already out.  Des walked along peacefully, his mind free of worry and blissfully in tune with the natural world around him.  About twenty feet behind him two burly gentlemen followed discretely.  Both wore suits that were stretched across their muscled frames, all the buttons done up and straining for release.  They wore white shirts with silver cufflinks, and their shoes were polished enough to reflect their Brillantined hair if they were to bend over to tie a shoelace.  Birds twittered in the branches of the trees, invisible to the looking but clearly audible.  Des was sure that their conversation, if he could only understand it, would be about sex.  But that the case with most conversations, whether he could understand them or not, and he felt that this was just part of the natural order of things.
He stopped when he reached number 57, and looked at the house beyond the green wooden gate.  The gate itself had last been painted years ago and the green was peeling off in large leaves that fitted well with the general late-springtime air of the street; the corners were splintered with long use and little care, and there were deep cracks running the length of the palings, testament to icy winters and hot summers.  The majority of the house beyond was in a similar state of disrepair; the front door looked dilapidated and the window frames were beige from the old wood showing through what was left of the white paint.  There were net curtains up, but they were grey and stiff with dirt and age; the brickwork was missing mortar here and there, and the lawn was uncut and unkempt.  The chimney pot, a relic of an age without central heating, had a large hole in it, and there was at least one bird’s nest stuffed in the hole with the enthusiasm and disregard that birds have for all human actions.
Yet despite this suggestion that the house had been inherited by someone who had no clue was housework was, there was a tarpaulin up and stretched across what was clearly building work.  Des found himself unsurprised that the lay-out suggested that the new construction would take up half of the lawn and stick out from the living room, probably leaving the majority of the room in a dingy darkness that would depress the poor souls forced to live there.  The congregation that he tended to, as their Presiding Religious Authority, were eager but intellectually impoverished, and he had occasionally wondered if they’d had occasion before he arrived to sell off their collective intelligence and just got by on lucky guesses ever after.
He pushed the gate open, listening to rust-tortured hinges creak with a cry that would have made Procrustes shiver in delight and walked up the path, taking his time to step carefully from one mislaid paving slab to the next.  The two burly gentlemen following him unobtrusively stopped at the gate and rested hands with fingers like raw sausages on the wall, one either side.  After a moment, though neither looked down, they started tearing the yellow-green moss from the bricks.
Des knocked gently on the door and waited.  After a minute and a half there was the sound of footsteps in the hall, and then the door opened.  A gust of warm air smelling of wet washing and burning fish-fingers engulfed him, and he blinked.  In front of him, clutching the door as though ready to slam it shut in his face, was a woman with a thin, hungry face and huge eyes sat in sunken dark circles.  Her thin, greying hair was wrapped tightly in curlers that looked like torture instruments and there was a smear of lipstick across her mouth that looked like she’d swiped at herself and not quite missed.
“Jane,” said Des, his voice deep and resonant.  “How are you doing today?”
She smoothed down her pinafore dress, an ivory colour that Des knew was more from its age than intent, revealing without realising that she was thin enough to be called emaciated, and shivered a little.  “It gets better,” she whispered, looking down at her slippered feet.
“He’s been dead for sixteen years,” said Des.  He’d found out only four days ago that Jane was still mourning her first husband, despite having been married three times and divorced twice.  His voice was gentle and warm and listening to him was a little like being wrapped in warm arms.  “You have to make room to grieve properly Jane, or you’ll never be free of his ghost.”  He sniffed; the smell of burning fish-fingers was getting stronger.  “You should turn the grill off too,” he said.
Jane disappeared for a moment, and Des shifted his weight gently, settling his stance for a longer conversation.  When Jane reappeared she had a sandwich on a plate with her; charred fish-fingers set between two slices of economy white bread that had been slathered with equally economy mayonnaise and then sprinkled with table salt and sliced neatly on the diagonal.  She offered the plate to Des, who shook his head.
“I did hear you,” she said, gesturing at the construction work.  “I’m making a room to grieve in.”  She picked up a sandwich half, which sagged sadly and dripped runny mayonnaise onto the other half, and bit into it.  It crunched in a way that suggested there was more breadcrumb coating than fish in her fish-fingers.
“Ah,” said Des, a note of sadness creeping into his voice.  “I’m afraid Jane that you’ve misunderstood a little.  You’re not supposed to make an actual room, you’re supposed to make time in your day to sit down and think about what you’ve lost and what there is without it.  You need to understand why this loss has been so hard for you, and see that there is still joy in living.  I really think you need to see for yourself how this loss has contributed to you losing your subsequent husbands.”
She finished her sandwich-half and stood there, shaking a little, her head bowed and clutching the plate with the other sandwich-half on like it was a talisman.
“Let me help you, Jane,” said Des.  He gestured behind him and the two gentlemen stopped exfoliating the wall and pushed the gate open.  “My friends here will do away with this unfortunate construction for you, and use some of it to provide you with a seat under a shady tree.  There you can sit and think about things for a while, and I’m sure that when I come back you’ll be ready to start grieving properly.”
“Yes, Des,” said Jane, her voice so quiet that he had to strain to hear it.  “But… the builder….”

“I’ll have a word,” said Des, his smile as wide as his face.  “I’m sure they’ll understand.”

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Directions on a cold dark night

Frost crunched underfoot and Jake’s breath condensed in front of him; nanosnow falling silently to the barren ground.  This was the edge of town, where the earth was dry and cracked.  It was as beige as his parent’s drawing room in the house they’d spent their entire married life in and as humourless.  Rocks lay scattered here and there, thrown aside and discarded by tyres from when the high-school kids came out here to burn rubber and turn donuts.  There were none here tonight, and that almost seemed prophetic.
Jake turned away from the distant lights of the town and looked out into the night.  The stars were out, white and pristine in the engulfing darkness, reminding him that the universe was once thought to be expanding, vast and effectively unending.  He looked up, noting the absence of the moon, and counted the constellations that he knew.  It shamed him that there were only four, and the rest were just stars spilled across the sky.
“You came.”
He jumped, his heart suddenly thumping hard in his chest and a cold sweat breaking out on his brow.  Even as he turned he could feel it freezing, prickling against his skin as his body heat melted it and broke it apart only for it to refreeze.  Behind him, wrapped in a torn and filthy stripy shirt, was a waif: a person whose gender he couldn’t identify, huge, manga eyes poking out of a lean, mud-streaked face.  A hand, on the end of a wrist so thin that he could see the outlines of the two bones of the forearm knobbling through the skin, stretched out.
“I’m not giving you anything,” he said reflexively.  All through his childhood he’d heard his parents dictum: don’t give to beggars.  Don’t give away money that you might need for yourself.  Think of what that money could be used for and then use it.  He wasn’t sure he’d agreed with it back then, but it was a litany now, inescapable.
“Thingth don’t come for free, mithter.”  She, or he, lisped a little.  Jake squinted, unsure that he’d seen a pointed tongue appearing between teeth for a minute, but the person had closed their mouth again.
“Yeah, that’s true,” he said, waiting for them to get his point.  The hand remained outstretched though, and he raised an eyebrow.
“Everyone’s a philosopher,” said the waif, the lisp disappearing momentarily, but the tongue flickered out between the lips with the effort of getting the sounds right, and it was dark coloured, thin, and too long.  It might have been pointed too, but the light was bad and Jake knew that the waif was watching him as much as he was watching it.  “You don’t get something for nothing says the guy who has nothing, and you tip your hat and repeat back to him because you think he’s offering you nothing in return.  But he’s offering you his gratitude for taking a moment to consider him and his situation, same as he considered yours before he asked you.  He’s giving you the chance to feel good about yourself for being the big man, for being generous, for being charitable.  All these things he offers you, including his shame at having to ask in the first place, and his humiliation at accepting what you’re willing to spare – what you have so much of that you can give it away because you don’t need it – and you tip your hat and tell him that he’s offering you nothing in exchange for your condescension.  That says nothing profound, Mister, that says only that you can’t be bothered to think.  And philosophy from a non-thinker?  That’s a non-starter.”
“You’re male then?” Jake couldn’t think of anything else to say.  He had no idea why it was bugging him so much that he couldn’t tell the gender of the waif, but it was niggling away at him that he was missing something.
The waif pulled the shirt open, revealing its nakedness underneath and Jake fell silent, unable to look away.  After a few seconds the waif wrapped themselves back up again and shivered.  Then the hand poked out once more, palm upwards, slightly cupped.
“I don’t pity you,” said Jake, but his voice wobbled slightly and the lie was apparent.  “Not like that, anyway.”  That was closer to the truth.  “I’ll pay you, but I want to know what I’m paying you for.”
“Directions,” said the waif.  “What you came for, even if you haven’t asked yourself that.  Directions on a cold, dark night to somewhere else, somewhere where questions can be asked and answers found.  It’s up to you if you want to follow them, but they’re worth what you pay for them.”
There was a soft rattle that disturbed the silence that followed, and it took Jake a couple of moments to realise he was listening to the waif breathing.  He tried not to think of what diseases might make someone sound like that.  Finally he put his hand in his pocket and made a fist, pulling out everything that was in there.
“This is everything I’ve got,” he said, holding the fist over the waif’s cupped hand and opening it, letting the objects fall.  Bright eyes watched him from a pale face framed by blonde hair, and then the hand retracted, the other hand appearing to sort through the litter.  “There’s no point asking for more, there isn’t any.”
Coins jingled as they moved around a hand, and a paperclip was lifted into the dim white light from the stars and examined.  Two pieces of paper were unfolded and folded back up again, and Jake suddenly realised that one of them had to be Alice’s phone number.  It seemed too late now to ask for it back.  A condom was pushed from one side to the other, and then suddenly both hands disappeared back inside the shirt.
“Accepted,” said the waif.  “Follow me.”
“Wait,” said Jake, reaching out a hand, but stopping as he got close, unable to bring himself to touch the waif now.  “You said I was getting directions.”

“I said you got what you paid for,” said waif.  “And you’ve paid for a guide.”