Café Culture

No, please – sit down. This place gets so crowded at this time of day, and I always feel a little embarrassed to be tucked away here in the corner with my small black coffee when everyone else is doing justice to the substantial and expensive lunches on the menu. The staff are kind about it, of course – they always make me feel most welcome – but I can see they notice. There’s plenty of room at the table. Be my guest.

Oh dear oh dear. Would you mind? I must just help my poor old friend at the next table, who has dropped his cup again. Coffee all over his nice clean trousers. Could you pass me some of those napkins? Thanks so much. Really, the poor old fellow shouldn’t be out on his own – but he insists on maintaining his independence, even at the cost of his personal dignity. And who can blame him? It’s quite touching to see him struggle to maintain control over his bodily functions, especially in view of his – well – what can only be called his steep decline over the last few months. That’s better, he’s drier now and looks more cheerful. Of course, he nearly always looks cheerful nowadays; that’s one of the better side effects of a decaying mind. Last August, though – you should have seen him only last August. Sharp as a razor, sparkling as cut glass. People used to come here almost every morning to consult him on affairs of real importance – not just your ordinary mugginses but community leaders, company directors, sometimes even (better whisper it) members of the cabinet…

And now – well – look at him. The poor old boy can barely focus on his spoon as it lifts a precarious portion of soup to his drooling lips. Do I sound heartless? Believe me, I’m speaking from the bottom of my heart; his condition affects me deeply. He’s been a friend of mind for over sixty years, and here he is –

I beg your pardon? You can’t believe I’ve even been alive for sixty years? You flatter me, my dear. I’m seventy-nine.

Yes, yes, you heard me correctly. Seventy-nine years and eleven months, to be precise. It’ll soon be my birthday. I’m effectively an octogenarian. It’s kind of you to say so; people often tell me I look younger than my age, though I’m never completely sure if they’re being serious. Of course, my friend over there, he’s only three weeks older than I am – I know, I know, it’s hard to believe we’re the same generation – but just a few months ago you’d have said he was decades younger than me, not decades my senior. It’s true, it’s true. At sixty he looked like a man in his mid-thirties. At seventy he looked no older than forty-five. His neck was firm, his hands unwrinkled, his eyes flashed as he shot you down with spontaneous wisecracks, or delivered his verdict on current affairs in elegant sentences and exquisitely crafted paragraphs… You say I’m well preserved, but only last August you’d have said he was my younger brother, perhaps even my son. And now, I say again: look at him! It’s a warning to us all. Don’t get complacent. Time tarries for no man – and no woman either, if you don’t mind my saying so. Do forgive my bluntness. I get so philosophical when I think about what happened to my friend.

What did happen, I hear you ask in your quiet voice. Did he fall ill? Well no, not ill exactly. He ate something that disagreed with him. I find that ironic. After all, if you listen to a dietician just about everything we eat disagrees with us in one way or another. Every morsel we place in our mouths is wearing us down, grinding away our teeth, eating at our organs, consuming our digestive tracts, laying waste to our wastepipes, so to speak – I mean our rectal passages… Again, I apologize for speaking bluntly, but I know what I’m talking about – know it better, indeed, than anyone else. What happened to him wasn’t unexpected, at least not to me. But dramatic, yes. Far more dramatic, indeed, than I had dared to hope…

I can see from your expression that you’d like to know more. My hints have intrigued you. Well, you’ve got a hearty sandwich to consume in the next few minutes, so if you’re sure I’m not intruding on your lunch break – I’ll tell you what happened to my poor old friend with the tremulous hands, the wattled neck, the mottled skin and the bleary vision. (Did you notice his hair, by the way? Only in August he had hair right down to his shoulders – it put this mane of mine to shame, I can assure you. And now, he should really be wearing a wig to cover up those clumps of shriveled vegetation that so egregiously fail to conceal his flaking scalp…)

Let me see, now. Where to begin? Tell me, my dear; have you heard of the Elixir of Youth? Of course you’ve heard of it – I’m sorry, my question must have sounded patronizing – and of course you’ve never believed in its existence. No more have I. Oh ho! You’re not the first to assume I must have found it, the Well at the World’s End, the Fountain of Eternal Replenishment, the Restorative Fruit from the Tree of Life. But no, I haven’t. To arrest the process of decay one needs three things: a measure of luck, a great deal of effort (eat well, live well, take plenty of exercise), and excellent genes. There are no other ways to hold back old age, and never will be, if you ask me. But I mention the Elixir of Youth for a very good reason, and will return to it in time.

My old friend there – now he was someone you’d have said had found it, if you’d seen him in August. He used to joke about it, you know – tempting fate, I tended to think in my superstitious way. ‘I can’t help it,’ he would tell strangers in his forceful voice (do you hear how it whistles now as he calls for a drink of water to help him swallow the final crumbs of his frugal meal?). ‘I just can’t help it,’ he would bellow. ‘Everything I eat makes me stronger and younger. Everything I drink revives my flesh. My grandmother was the same, and her mother before her. They both of them lived to a hundred and twelve. I expect I’ll outlast them, God willing’ (he was always throwing in those religious references, though he wasn’t a believer). ‘Come back in forty years and I’ll be sitting here at this table, as I am now, regaling the company with stories of the days when we used to drink coffee instead of kale and grapefruit smoothies. Here, feel my biceps. Impressive, no, for a man over sixty? What would you say if I told you I was over seventy? Surprised? I’m surprised myself. But I can’t help it – can I, Freddy? I’m simply the youngest octogenarian in the world.’ He exaggerated his age, of course, for dramatic effect, but he didn’t need to – he really was a wonder of nature.

That’s my name, Freddy. You’re Patricia? Pleased to meet you. It’s such a pleasure to meet a young woman with a good attention span, who isn’t always fiddling with her smartphone in the middle of a conversation.

No, no, of course I don’t mind if you answer that text. Finished? Jolly good. Now then: where was I?

Oh yes: the decline. Well, I have to say I thought he was asking for it with all his boasting about the lifespan of his family, his own good health, the astonishing weights he lifted daily in the gym. Tempting Providence, I thought, though like him I’m not religious. Almost as if he was daring the world to prove him wrong. Well, what could I do but take up the challenge? After all, he himself acknowledged me as his closest rival. The second youngest octogenarian on the planet, he would call me, and he’d buy me coffee from time to time – full fat lattes with plenty of sugar, though he knew I always drink mine black. But then, he wanted me to put on weight, just as he has now, poor devil (just look at that belly).

So I took it up. The challenge, I mean. I took up the challenge, and I took up chemistry. Not conventional chemistry, of course – GlaxoSmithKline and all that jazz. What I wanted was a nice quick fix for one small problem: the Fountain of Youth which he seemed to have tapped. I needed something to combat his natural fortitude. I needed – well, I’ll be blunt, since I’ve been blunt before. I needed a spell. Nothing else would do. I wanted fast results, and quite specific ones, and nothing in the way of regular science quite fitted the bill. A spell, my dear. By my age you don’t discount such things. Or rather, perhaps, you’re prepared to try them out because you’ve nothing to lose, not if you’re an unbeliever and you’ve witnessed the failings of conventional chemistry too many times in your life to number. Why not? After all, what’s a spell but a wish expressed in substances and gestures as well as in words? We all wish for things, I think, and every now and then we’re lucky enough to see a wish come true.

I found one, of course. A spell. Where else but on the internet – isn’t that where we find everything these days? The Dark Net, of course, not the Light One, if there’s any such thing. Not just any old Dark Net, either. This one needs to be accessed using HTMLs you can only obtain from certain individuals not to be named in respectable company. How do I know such individuals? I didn’t at the time – my life up till that point had been a relatively clean one – but I knew full well how to get in touch. How does Marlowe put it?

For when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
We fly in hope to get his glorious soul;
Nor will we come, unless he use such means
Whereby he is in danger to be damned.
Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring
Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,
And pray devoutly to the Prince of Hell.

Isn’t Kit sublime? I want to cry every time I speak those lines. And I’m not even a believer! I can attest, though, to the efficacy of the method. You don’t do your abjuring out loud, of course, if you want a cyber solution; you do it on Google. But it works. My old friend there is proof of that.

One way or another, then, I got my spell. I can tell you what was in it if you like. Have you finished your meal? I ask, because – well, some of the contents were a little disgusting. Bitter aloes was the least of them. The central nervous system of a traumatized orphan. A migrant’s tearducts. Infected blood. Bile, spleen, a dysfunctional liver, a malignant tumour – all of them human, I’m sorry to say. Lots of saturated fat, mixed with glucose, fructose – any kind of sugar, the more the merrier. Petrol. Ash. Bat’s wings, of course, Pipistrellus pipistrellus being the preferred variety, the bird of evening as the Romans called it. Eye of newt. Those last two items can be found in all the most efficacious spells, and I have to tell you the eye of newt was by far the hardest thing to get hold of – everything else is readily available on the world wide web, but you have no idea how rare a great crested newt is these days, or how fiercely the conservationists protect them. A pinch of salt – no, make that a fistful. There’s more, of course, but you get the picture. Hardly palatable, you’ll agree; and of course it took me months to get it all together.

There were words, too, as there always are, but you can’t have those – I don’t want to get you into trouble, not at your age. (At my age, on the other hand, trouble should be actively sought out. Keeps you young, so my seniors tell me.) And then of course I had to get the timing right. Leave the noxious mixture to brew for several weeks, chanting charms over it at appointed times, when the planets were properly aligned etc. – wearisome stuff. Consult the usual star charts to ascertain the optimum moment to administer the concoction. And then…

Then came the difficult part, or so you’d imagine. How to make him drink the potion? Funnily enough, that was the simplest thing of all. I just had to tell him everyone was doing it – that the tincture I’d cooked up was the dernier cri in holistic wellness therapy – and he took it like a man. After all, he’d been inured to foul concoctions for many decades; you don’t get a physique of the sort he had without downing vitamins and proteins by the bucketful, mostly in the foulest form imaginable. He made a wry face as he tossed it down, but he kept it down, as I’d known he would, and even managed to drink a mug of green tea afterwards to wash away the aftertaste. Impressive.

The effects didn’t begin to show for over a week – I was on tenterhooks till I finally spotted the first telltale change in his complexion. He must have been as strong as an ox. I knew that, of course, but I’m sure you’ll agree that knowing something isn’t the same as seeing it empirically demonstrated. When he came in here looking yellow – well, I was in clover. I settled down, then, to watch the changes day by day as they swarmed across him like a plague of locusts across healthy farmland. An outbreak of boils, which made him waddle like a pregnant duck. Scurf and scabies, which quickly led to hair loss. Sudden tooth decay, so that between one week and the next he’d gone from a full set of gleaming gnashers without one filling to a full set of dentures, which didn’t properly fit his mouth (the shape of his jaw was in constant flux). A case of palsy in the hands, whose cause could never be traced. Wasting of the muscles. Chronic indigestion. Distortion of the bones; incontinence; a number of strokes. His conversation changed, becoming a litany of complaints which drove away even his oldest friends – apart from myself, to whom they were music, a driveling ode to the success of my necromantic efforts. Then he more or less stopped talking altogether. It was too painful at first, what with all those abscesses, and later on he simply forgot how to govern his tongue. These days he can only manage the simplest requests for a glass of water or a bowl of soup, and to be honest we can only understand him because we know his habits.

Must you go? Have I driven you off? Of course not, it’s just that your lunch break is almost over, you need to get back, your time is precious as mine is not. Well well, it’s been a pleasure to meet you, and I say it sincerely – I who say very little sincerely (there is so much enjoyment to be had from pulling the leg of an attractive stranger). Remember, I’m here every morning with my small black coffee; I’d be pleased to tell you more about my friend’s career and its unfortunate end. Or if you prefer I can tell you about my other friend, the one who gave me the spell and helped me work it. Don’t worry, my dear, you’d never find him in this café. He prefers the swanky places near Piccadilly Circus and Holland Park; he has expensive tastes. Just visiting, were you? Off home tomorrow? Never mind. But before you go, let me say one more thing. I think you’ll find it useful.

A young woman of your age doesn’t think about ageing, or if you do, you think of it as far away, a distant prospect, the tiniest blot on life’s horizon. As you get older, though, I assure you it starts to loom. Every time you look in the mirror it looms larger. You start to cast envious glances at other people, guessing their ages, making notes on the stealthy meddling of Father Time with their faces and bodies as compared with yours. There will come a day, I guarantee, when you start to think: how can I look younger? Can I afford to dress like a twenty-year-old any more, or will it simply bring out the grotesque disparity between my sense of style and the wrinkled, bespeckled texture of my skin? That woman there – she’s older than me, yet she looks much younger. How does she do it? What’s her secret? Will she tell me honestly, or will she fob me off with a bit of folklore, a fat red herring, a downright lie?

There will come a moment, believe me, when you’ll even start to find yourself half believing that it may exist: the Elixir of Youth. Wishful thinking, of course – but as I said, we all wish for things, and now and then we’re lucky enough to see a wish come true.

My advice to you is this: the Elixir of Youth is a waste of time. There’s no such thing. Forget it. You could waste years in search of it, and one day you may even find that you’ve sold your soul for it, given up your happiness – what there is of it left – for a piece of nonsense in a crystal flask which does nothing at all but give you stomach cramps or a temporary, painful high, swiftly followed by half a year’s worth of deep depression. Believe me, I know this from bitter experience. It doesn’t work. Put it out of your mind.

But there’s something else, in my view, that’s much, much better. One day, in a few decades, you’ll remember our meeting and what I said as you left the café, determined never to darken its door again (what a horrible man! What a dreadful story!). You’ll remember that I told you how to get hold of it, and who to call on when you want to find it. You’ll start to believe what I’m telling you now: that it’s the only potion worth possessing, the only spell worth seeking out. And you’ll go looking for it, as I did, with beating heart and a welcome warmth spreading through the normally chilly joints of your hands and feet. You’ll go wandering through the mazes of the Dark Dark Net until it comes to you at last, in one form or another, with the ghastly inevitability of death itself.

What am I talking about, you ask? Oh, I think you know.

The Elixir of Age, young woman. The Elixir of Age.

 

 

Vortex

IMG_4208Bob went up close to the screen, scowling as if this would change the weatherwoman’s mind and improve the forecast. The blue-green pixelated blot representing the Vortex remained clearly visible over the North Atlantic, edging its way coastwards as the woman talked her viewers through the next twenty-four hours. By the time she reached midnight the shapeless icon was pulsating over the city, venting weather warnings, stylized snowflakes and numbers representing wind speeds of up to one hundred and fifteen miles an hour. Bob continued to scowl, convinced as usual that it was her personal malice that had brought on the unprecedented storms of the last few months. ‘I’d better fetch in more wood,’ he muttered, flexing his shoulders. Instead he stayed put, toying with his glass and jigging one of his legs up and down to ease off cramp.

Anne was setting out candles in all available holders: church candles, household candles, tea lights, hurricane lamps, a paper lantern. ‘Quit bustling around,’ Bob snarled. ‘You’re giving me a headache.’ Anne shot him one of her looks. ‘You know very well, Bob Carlin,’ she snapped, ‘that every time the Vortex comes round we get power cuts all over the city. They sometimes last for days. You’d best get in that wood before it hits us.’

‘I’ll fetch it in when I’m good and ready,’ Bob muttered, and took another sip of his whisky. The slug went down the wrong way and he started to cough, lungs and gullet burning. The truth was he felt a deep reluctance to leave the flat. The storm hadn’t even struck and the wind was howling along the street like a CG bomb blast, tossing the branches of the trees so that they cast enormous shadows across the fronts of the tenements opposite. A year or two back they would have called this a storm; but the recent worsening of global weather conditions had changed the definition of a storm to something much more drastic. ‘When I’m good and ready,’ he repeated, glancing at the window. A spatter of raindrops rattled the glass as if in answer. You’ll never be ready, it seemed to say, not for the likes of this. He shuddered and shuffled off in his worn-down slippers to pour himself another dram at the kitchen sideboard.

The odd thing was that he usually loved the job of getting in wood. It gave him the feeling of being the provider, direct descendant of the Neolithic hunter-gatherers of Ice Age Europe, snotty-nosed mammoth-wranglers who would have sneered through their cavernous nostrils at the thought of cowering indoors on account of a bout of inclement weather. His actual resemblance to such a hunter-gatherer was of course minimal; it was mainly based on the fact that he had chopped the wood himself, then stacked it in the first and only woodpile he had ever built from scratch. Well, to be exact, he and Jurek had built it – and Jurek was a better stacker of logs than Bob. But it was Bob, not Jurek, who had watched as the huge Leylandia tree next door was dismantled piece by piece by chainsaw-wielding contractors. It was Bob who had seen the pieces carried out one by one into the weed-choked lane that ran between the high brick walls that separated the back yards of the tenements; and it was Bob who had kept an eye on them month by month as nettles and dock leaves sprang up between the chunks like a miniature forest. It was Bob, too, who had finally decided that they’d been forgotten, and that the time had come when he could reasonably claim the wood as fuel. He had planned to drag the pieces home alone, but the first chunk was such a weight that it jarred his shoulder when he tried to lift it. So he’d called in Jurek to help; Jurek, who could carry a washing machine up the stairs on his own without breaking a sweat; Jurek, who cycled thirty miles to work each morning on a bike like a sleek metal greyhound. But it was Bob, again, who supplied the axe: a logging axe nearly four foot long with a wedge-shaped head freshly sharpened by his close-mouthed brother-in-law, from whom he’d borrowed it. By the time he and Jurek had split all the logs the axe was blunt, and he’d had to ask Jurek to sharpen it again with his Belgian whetstone. As a consequence the wood from the huge Leylandia had to be shared between Bob’s family and Jurek’s; but you couldn’t resent the man his portion, not after he’d worked so hard for it. And Jurek’s wife had brought out beers as they’d chopped and sweated in the summer sun. Winter had seemed far off in those days of comradeship, when all the kids in the street had scampered up and down the lane to each other’s houses and a cold beer had been as pleasant pressed to the forehead as poured down the throat. Hard to imagine days like that in winter, after all the storms that had intervened since August.

He’d had plenty of occasions to be thankful for his foresight in the months that followed. The stack of wood, built up against the back wall of the close and covered with an old tarpaulin, had provided him and Jurek with all the fuel they needed to last them through the days and weeks when the power failed and the radiators cooled into lifeless slabs of moulded metal. Both men had been wise enough to keep the Victorian fireplaces in their front rooms, and though the cast iron inserts were really meant for coal you could get a good wood fire going with a bit of patience and some twists of newspaper. That was Anne’s job, of course; patience wasn’t one of the virtues Bob claimed to have mastered.

When he got back from the kitchen, glass refreshed, the weatherwoman had vanished from the TV screen. In her place, worried-looking cops were stalking down a corridor clutching handguns, casting suspicious glances left and right as if expecting the weatherwoman to spring out at them from behind a door. Bob settled in his chair to see what would happen next, nursing the tumbler in his hand to release the fragrance. But the tension on screen was mounting, and after a while he put the glass down on the coal box and leaned forward, running his fingers across the ten-o-clock stubble on his chin. Anne mentioned the wood again and he snorted, studying the cops like a private detective searching for clues.

Bob’s phone buzzed in his pocket and he swore as he struggled to pull it free before he missed the call. He didn’t recognize the number and almost put it away again, but something made him tap the green icon and raise it to his ear. An accented voice, Polish or Rumanian: ‘Bob? It’s Jurek. Have you heard wind? It sounds bad, doesn’t it? Worse than usual, I think – much worse. Listen, can I ask a favour? Do you mind if we come upstairs and sit in your flat, just till storm is over? We ran out of fuel, and Magda – well, she gets nervous. She don’t want me going outside to fetch in more wood. She says… well, she don’t want me to, that’s all. What you say, man? Can we come up?’

Bob swore again silently, placing his palm across the receiver in case the force of his feelings should somehow communicate itself to Jurek without the help of sound. Just what he could do without – a bunch of lousy Polacks jabbering away in his front room while he was trying to chill. They’d probably want some whisky, and there wasn’t much left. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he said with a dry mouth. ‘We’re out of wood too. I was just heading out the back to fetch another load. You want me to get you a couple of logs?’

‘No no, it don’t matter. We’ll just come up and bring duvets. We’ll all be warmer if we sit in same room, don’t you agree?’

Bob was casting about in his mind for a good excuse to say no and hang up when Anne butted in. For her, phonecalls weren’t a private matter: anyone could take part in them from any part of the flat, with often chaotic consequences. ‘Who’s that?’ she asked. ‘Is it Jurek? Magda’s been texting me all evening. They’d like to come up till the storm’s gone by. Says she saw something in the back court – really put her out, she’s a bag of nerves. Tell them to bring their duvets and some nice warm clothes and I’ll make a few hot water bottles while the kettle’s still working. The Vortex never lasts long, and it’ll be nice to have some company to keep our minds off it.’

Bob gritted his teeth and gave what he hoped was a convincing smile. ‘No problem, hon,’ he said. ‘Jurek, come on up. It’ll be good to see you. I’ll fetch in the wood and we’ll make ourselves comfortable.’

‘No need for wood.’ There was an urgency now to Jurek’s voice, as if he really meant what he was saying. ‘You stay put, Bob. We’ll be up in a minute. We bring duvets. We’ll be fine.’

Why, I do believe the man’s afraid, Bob thought in surprise. Magda’s got nothing to do with it; Jurek’s afraid to go outside. Who would have thought it? Big strong Jurek, put off by a bit of wind and sleet. Maybe they don’t get this sort of weather in Rumania. He smiled to himself and flexed his muscles unconsciously, testing his strength before he stood up and went into action. He relished the thought that he’d pass Jurek on the stairs. He would nod kindly, he decided, as he stumped past him, with his refuse-collector’s gloves and his sleeves rolled back to expose his impressive forearms. Bob’s forearms were his best feature, and he liked to expose them on every opportunity; he fancied he had caught even Jurek casting glances at them last summer as they sipped beer sitting at the table on the unkempt lawn. When body parts were handed out, Jurek got the biceps and Bob the forearms. Unfortunately he also got the belly, but he could lose that in two or three weeks if he put his mind to it…

The lights went out. The TV went blank. Darkness overwhelmed them.

Anne let out a small involuntary noise, a sort of gasp from where she lay stretched out on the sofa. Even Bob made a noise of some kind, though he covered it up a moment later by scuffing his slippers on the polished parquet. ‘Christ, not again,’ he swore as he heaved himself to his feet. ‘That’s the third time this week. We’re claiming compensation, I don’t care how long it lasts. I’m paying for power, not a string of blackouts.’

A battery of blows at the double front doors made him swear again. ‘Christ, Jurek, do you have to try and smash it down? Keep your hair on, will you? I’m on my way.’ As he pulled open the inner door and reached for the bolt that fastened the double doors – the portcullis, so to speak, which sealed off the flat from the communal staircase – he heard a high-pitched whimper from the other side and cursed for a third time under his breath. The Polack kids were awake, then. That was the end of any dreams he might have had of a pleasant evening in adult company. Kids never slept in a storm, in his experience. And Anne would insist he make up a bed for them in the second bedroom. He hated making up beds.

Jurek, Magda and the kids blew in through the doors, bringing with them a gust of cold air and a babble of voices. Light spilled in too: the phosphorescent glow Bob had earlier seen from the living room window turning the sky behind the streetlamps into a pallid screen. He contrived to twist his face into what he hoped was a welcoming grin.

‘Go on through, folks,’ he urged them heartily, waving his arm towards the sitting room. ‘Get yourselves warm. Anne’ll make some tea.’

Jurek hovered in the hallway, arms full of duvet, as Bob slipped his feet into his boots. Perhaps the big man wanted to urge him once more to stay inside, keep safe and warm till the storm blew over. But Jurek said nothing. No doubt he could see the resolution in Bob’s face, the determination to provide for his wife and neighbours whatever the weather, whatever the time. Bob shrugged on his coat and reached for the work-gloves, relishing the scrape of untreated canvas against his forearms as he tugged them on.

‘Back in a sec,’ he said with studied casualness, and walked out of the door.

A moment later he walked back in. Jurek was still standing in the hallway, looking lost. ‘Forgot the keys,’ Bob explained brusquely, and unhooked them from inside the little cupboard beside the door. His second exit was quieter, though no less resolute.

There was a peculiar atmosphere on the communal staircase. The wan light leaked in through the windows, illuminating the anatomically dubious birds painted on the panes whose mournful eyes stared down at him on every landing. Unexpected draughts kept buffeting his body, making him sway as he descended the stairs. By the time he reached the bottom he felt a little lightheaded, and had to pause to gather strength before approaching the back door. The key turned easily, the handle too, but when he tried to tug it open the door wouldn’t budge, held shut, he supposed, by the force of the gale outside – though surely the wind should be pushing it open, not keeping it shut. He tugged again, harder, to no avail. It’s an omen, his mind informed him, drawing on the lore from all those movies he liked to watch when Anne was in bed. It’s telling me I shouldn’t go out. Magda warned me, and so did Jurek. That’s three omens so far, if you don’t count the weird light in the close, or me forgetting the keys, or the nasty feeling in the pit of my belly. If I open this door I’m doomed – all the movies say so. I better go back upstairs and say I couldn’t get out. No one would blame me –

The door flew open, as if some prankster on the other side had let go of the handle. It banged against the wall of the close and a shower of dust rained down from the dent where the inside handle always hit the plaster. Bob stood in the doorframe with his jaw hanging open.

He looked out into the storm – or rather, into the void where the storm should have been.

The yard was eerily still, bathed in the greenish glow that wasn’t quite moonlight. Every blade of grass in the lawn had its clearcut shadow. The hedge that ran down the left hand side of the lawn stood rigid as sculpture, branch and twig and thorn immobile in the eerie light, deep darkness behind them. Even the washing lines didn’t stir, their nylon cords stretched out stiff and stark between the iron poles planted in the lawn. The garden furniture looked implacable, a set of standing stones on the spiky grass. Only the hectic flight of the clouds gave any indication that a storm was raging somewhere above this moonlit bubble of perfect silence.

The whole thing looked like one of those wee glass snowstorms you hold in your hand and shake till the blizzard whirls – only here the blizzard lay outside, and the globe held a tiny world cut off from motion.

It was painfully cold. Bob’s coat didn’t touch it; the cold cut through the triple fabric and lanced his flesh with surgical precision. His hands beneath the work gloves began to burn. His eyes went watery. He shuddered once, a titanic shudder, and stepped across the threshold into the night.

Not another sound, not another movement in the empty garden: just the crunch of his boots as they sank through the perished rubber of the doormat. He had never seen it so still. This is a bit of luck, he told himself firmly as he turned to his right, towards the woodpile. This must be a lull in the storm: a brief break in the relentless pounding that’s being meted out by the Arctic wind and the polar rain. If I hurry I might get the wood inside before it starts again.

The wood was piled under the green tarpaulin against the back wall of the tenement, beside the door. Like the garden furniture the logs looked stony, and Bob half expected them to resist his strength, cementing themselves to one another in solidarity with the frozen landscape of the yard. Instead, the first log lifted up so easily he almost lost his balance, staggering a little on the crunchy grass as he fought to stay upright. Once safely stable, Bob settled the recalcitrant log in the crook of his arm where it nestled like a changeling baby, prematurely aged and stiffened by long exposure to the winter nights. He stooped for a second log, then a third, working swiftly to pick out the best wood for the fireplace: small, dense pieces that would fit in the narrow Victorian grate. He had to turn his back on the lawn to lift them. He didn’t want to, but there was no other way, despite the nagging sensation between his shoulders which told him against all reason that someone was standing close behind him as he worked.

Absurd, of course. There had been no noise in the yard – in the city as a whole, for all he could hear – since he stepped through the door, apart from the puffing of his whisky-tainted breath and the creaking of his knees. Still, there it was: that sensation of being watched by an unseen stranger – and he couldn’t shake it off no matter how he puffed and creaked and stamped in an effort to fill the void with movement, stave off the oppressive silence till the job was done. Instead of retreating, the sensation grew and spread cold fingers across his skin. Only one way to get rid of it, he knew: stand up, turn round, take a long slow look at the empty lawn. But not before he had lifted as many logs as his arms would carry. He refused to be spooked by a draught of wind. There were people depending on him tonight – women, children, friends – and he wouldn’t go letting them down on account of a feeling.

Then the voices began.

They started out as what could best be described as a kind of muttering: a stream of consonants linked together by a faint semi-musical hum, coming at him from several directions, and closer than he would have liked – no more than a yard or two from where he was leaning over the woodpile. Under any other circumstances he’d have assumed he was hearing a radio, but how likely was it that there’d be three or four radios close behind him at the dead of night? He straightened slowly, clutching the logs, and stood there listening, one hand rested on the topmost log, fingertips slowly tracing the grain as if for anchorage. The voices got louder; he began to hear words. The tone of the voices wasn’t threatening, but there was an urgency about them, a quiet desperation that raised the hairs on the back of his neck like an uneasy army getting to its feet.

He didn’t turn round slowly. He turned in a rush of impatience, almost letting the logs spill out of his arms – he had to clutch at them to prevent them scattering across the lawn. The impatience came from his sense that this was all too childish; he hadn’t felt this way since he’d been a nipper of ten, and he didn’t like it, wouldn’t let the sensation last a second longer. The lawn, he knew, was empty, and he was much too old to let a trick of acoustics set his heart racing and fill his palms with sweat in the middle of winter.

There were people standing on the lawn.

Five of them altogether. A man dressed in some sort of tight rubber suit and an orange life vest. A woman in shorts, clutching a mobile phone against her chest. A couple standing side by side in climbing gear, helmeted and harnessed, hands tightly linked. A child. They were none of them looking at him, though all of them faced in his direction. No, not quite in his direction – they faced west, which meant they were angled slightly away from him, unseeing eyes directed a little to his right. The effect was that of looking at a flock of turbines on a level pasture, all positioned at the optimum angle to take advantage of the prevailing wind. The difference, of course, was that flocks of turbines look identical – clean and white with elegant blades – while these figures were a motley crew, all of different body shapes and colours and with different clothes. The child was wearing pyjamas, pink with some sort of grinning cartoon creature printed all over. Her brownish hair was plastered flat across her cheeks and forehead. Her face, like those of the adults, were unsettlingly colourful: bluish lips, a bluish tinge to the cheeks, wide open bloodshot eyes set in hollow recesses and staring sightlessly towards the place where the sun had set not long before.

All five of the figures were talking, a steady noise like a running brook. His ears weren’t what they used to be, and he had to tilt his head at exactly the right angle to catch the words as they trickled by.

His left ear was the best, and he found himself turning it towards the man in the rubber suit. The man stood bolt upright, hands hanging at his hips, fingers twitching from time to time with involuntary convulsions. ‘Okay,’ he was saying to himself in an urgent whisper. ‘In a minute I’ll have got my legs out, Jim’ll help me, current’s not so strong. I been in worse, Christ it’s cold but not so bad really, I’m pretty much numb, almost warm in fact, just need to hold out a few more seconds, just a few seconds and I’ll be okay. My lungs are bursting, my chest hurts, my head hurts, I can’t see anything in this water, things have been worse, can’t get hold of the catch, I know it’s here somewhere, things have been worse, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’

Bob’s head moved away from the man and towards the young woman, whose shorts and T-shirt were obviously sodden, clinging to her skin in icy folds. Her eyes were wide open – they looked as if the lids had been stretched apart with clamps – and her hair lay in weedy strands along her jawline. ‘No signal,’ she was saying. ‘So dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I thought that only happened in books, didn’t think it could get that dark once your eyes adjusted, not so dark you couldn’t see your hands right in front of your eyes. Tread carefully, don’t go too fast, there are cliffs nearby, I saw them when I was running through the glen, shouldn’t go too slow though, it’s much too cold, I could freeze to death. Someone knows where I am, I must have said where I was going, I never told them, why didn’t I tell them, why did I change direction and head up the mountain, what an idiot, what an idiot, still can’t get a signal, I’ll get one in a minute, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’

Relentlessly Bob’s head kept turning, though he already had a premonition of what he would hear from the climbers, whose hands were locked together so fiercely they must have been crushing one another’s joints. ‘I’ve got you, honey,’ the man was saying. ‘Thank God, thank God I got hold of you when you slipped, just need to get a better grip on the rock with my other hand, sliding a bit but I won’t let go, nothing on earth would make me let go, we’ve done this before, we’re prepared for this, I’m strong, you’re strong, we’ve both got the training. The weather turned so suddenly but we’ve got the gear, my shoulder hurts, my elbow hurts, my hands are slipping, I won’t let go, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’

The woman was speaking too, but he couldn’t hear her; and the child, when his ear was turned in her direction, was speaking nonsense, a rhyme repeated over and over: ‘Christopher Robin went hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity hop. Whenever I ask him politely to stop it he says he can’t possibly stop. Christopher Robin went hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity hop.’ She had some furry creature in her hands, clutched against her chest exactly as the older girl was clutching her mobile. There was a stain in her hair, and now he looked he could see a gash, well, more like a hole, and he looked away rather than peer any closer to see how deep it was, how obviously fatal. He wondered what had made it – then steered his mind away from the subject with another huge shudder.

He was shuddering all over now, legs, arms and belly. The wind was getting up, puffs of it driving across the yard and disrupting the unnatural stillness, shaking the thorny branches of the hedge, bending the frosty grass stems. The cold cut through his body, parting fat and muscle and bone, making his legs and shoulders leap with the pain of it. One of the shudders sent the logs flying across the lawn, and a piece of wood struck the boot of the woman climber with a hollow thunk. Bob crouched and stretched out his hand to pick it up again, keeping his face down to avoid another glimpse of her vacant stare. But the wind was driving fiercely at him now, burning his face, burning his hands inside their canvas gloves, burning the bones inside his face, his hands, his feet. He remained crouched and locked his arms around his chest in an effort to get some warmth before he tried again. He wouldn’t go inside without that wood. He was the hunter gatherer, the father provider, and nothing could blow him into submission, not even the Vortex.

The wind buffeted him where he crouched, but the figures on the lawn seemed unaffected. Their bluish lips were moving still, but he could no longer hear any sound from them – the howling in his ears was too intense. A metal dustbin lid rolled away from the bin area, clashing as it bounced. The wind howled louder, and the lid was lifted into the air, spinning high up over the hedge and away to join other spinning objects in the yard next door. A plastic crate crashed against the tenement wall, scattering chunks of dust and stone into the rising storm. Flowerpots, branches, polythene bags whirled around in a kind of dance just above the heads of the murmuring figures. A piece of cardboard struck the canoeist’s helmet, but the man didn’t move; all his attention was focused on the stream of desperate words spilling out of his mouth.

And now Bob was swaying in a kind of dance beneath the mauling fingers of the puppeteer wind. Like a marionette he staggered to and fro across the grass, all balance lost. He bumped against the older girl and gasped a kind of apology before staggering on. He straightened in an effort to gain control, spreading his arms and fingers wide, lifting his chin. His feet left the ground for a moment, then landed again in a scuffling dance on the concrete slabs of the garden path. Another gust took him, and this time he was lifted into the air like the metal lid. His legs struck the hedge and he felt the cuffs of his trousers tear on the thorns. He spun head over heels, head over heels, whirling always upwards, hurtling with terrible speed towards a slanting frost-covered roof. Dimly he could see more figures beneath him in other yards, all facing westwards, all standing stiff and upright like ivory chessmen, all muttering still, no doubt, if he could have heard them. But the wind plucked him up and away, and his eyes grew dimmer, and he gritted his teeth in a furious effort to stop the words from spilling out.

Squeezing his lids together he could see the lights of the city spread out below him in a kind of cobweb. He was hundreds of feet above them and rising swiftly. His stomach lurched in terror, but he kept his eyes open, staring down, just to prove to himself he was still alive. So high, so cold, his body on fire, his lungs expanding to fill his chest in a last-ditch effort to catch enough air to feed his blood…

The words pounded through his skull in a driving rhythm, and after a while he knew he was saying them over and over. He couldn’t breathe, his chest was bursting, sight almost gone – but still his lips moved as he flew towards the clouds, and he heard the words, though not with his ears, a steady noise like a running brook in the upper air: it can’t end like this, it can’t end like this, it can’t end like this…

 

 

The Goblin Basements

3453163-dump-yard-full-of-dust-mess-and-garbageThe first time he visited the Goblin Basements he was very nearly unprepared. It was Christmas Eve, and the toys had been rioting all day, refusing to obey the simplest orders and breaking each other at the slightest excuse. He had given his laser to two members of the Imperial Guard so they could keep a couple of recalcitrant roboshifters at bay on the bedside table. His bodyguard ‘Thug’ Thorson was under interrogation in the kitchen cupboard, having been arrested the day before by the Bear Police for suspected dealings with a criminal gang on the True Crime channel. Gran had opened the flap of the garbage chute and a little vampire bat had escaped from inside, fluttering around and spraying noxious fumes all over the kitchen till Jenny flattened it with a spatula. ‘Bottom flap must be jammed open,’ said Gran. ‘Go down and fix it, would you, Ben? Quick as you can, tea’s almost ready. I’d go myself if it wasn’t for my gammy leg.’

Showering curses on elderly grandmothers and their gammy legs, Ben left the bears to grill ‘Thug’ Thorson and stumped out of the flat without so much as strapping on a light sabre. ‘Don’t be long, now, Ben,’ Gran called after him. ‘Don’t talk to strangers and don’t turn aside. If you see something useful in the basement bring it up – but never stray from the path whatever happens. You know the rules.’

‘I’m not a kid,’ Ben muttered under his breath, too softly for Gran to hear. He pressed the button for the lift and heard the distant clunk as it came to life in the depths of the building.

Then the lights went out.

The lights in all the public areas of the apartment block were governed by timing devices to save electricity. You switched them on by hand and after so many seconds they switched themselves off, usually at the most inconvenient moment possible. If you needed to switch them on again you could locate the switches because they had little red lights behind them like the eyes of Morlocks – those underground cannibals in the movie Ben had watched when he was eight, whose white fur and yellow teeth he could never forget when darkness took him. He thought of them now and shrugged his shoulders to shake off the shivers. He was older now; if he met a Morlock he would punch out its teeth with a blow of his fist. Still, he wished ‘Thug’ Thorson was with him. Thug wasn’t that big, and his left arm was missing, but he could talk Ben out of his fears with his Texas drawl and his cheerful grin. Maybe he should go back and get him now, before the lift doors opened –

The lift doors opened with a pneumatic hiss.

The cage of the lift was as dark as the corridor, though the light wasn’t governed by a timer. The bulb must be broken again. Ben stepped inside and felt for the button marked ‘Basement’. It would be the bottom button, wouldn’t it? He punched that. The lift gave an angry jerk and began its descent.

This was one of those old-fashioned lifts with open sides shielded with wire mesh to prevent you falling out into the lift shaft. When there was light you could see the concrete walls with their girders moving slowly past you. You could see other things as well: scribblings where, through one of the gaps in the mesh, someone had managed to scrawl his name as the lift went by; and other, more elaborate scribblings which could only have been done with time and patience. Ben had often wondered how they got there. Gran said it was when the lift got stuck, as it often did – then told him not to think about such horrible things, what was wrong with him, he should know better at his age. He thought the scribblings must have been made by the vampire bats or their leather-clad riders, who moved about the shaft independent of elevators.

Down the lift went, and down and down. Surely we should be there by now, Ben thought, tapping his teeth with one of his thumbnails as he always did when nervous. At least it was getting lighter. A pale green glow filtered up from below, and the usual groan and hum of the elevator was accompanied by other noises: a tapping as of distant hammers, a scraping as of shuffling feet. Must be workers in the basement, he told himself, though why they should be clearing sewage pipes or collecting refuse at midnight was beyond his comprehension. They would probably be strangers. When he got there he’d better keep shtum and stay close to the walls. Strangers meant trouble, and he didn’t want trouble so close to Christmas. You never knew what Santa would make of it if a brawl broke out and someone got hurt.

As the pale green light grew stronger he began to notice things. There were no longer doors at intervals in the concrete sides of the shaft; the last one had passed many seconds ago. And the drawings on the cracked grey surface were getting more ornate. They were mostly done in black and red: sharp, ugly little drawings that bore a family resemblance to the sharp, ugly little tap-tap-tapping noises in the depths of the building, which grew louder by the minute. Mostly they seemed to be of little black and scarlet figures, all spikes and jags, torturing each other with a range of complicated instruments. Under some of them slogans were painted in a childish scrawl: THE END IS NIGH, YOU’RE GOING DOWN, or simply DEATH. Ben loosened an imaginary pistol in its holster, acutely feeling his own defencelessness. His anger with Gran was still too hot for the cold to have entered him yet. If he was shivering it wasn’t with fear but with irritation; he would almost welcome, he thought, the chance to work off his feelings in a decent brawl. Deep down, though, he knew it wouldn’t be long before fear took hold, and he hoped against hope that he would have reached the bottom and stepped out of the lift before it did. If not, he would find it hard to leave the shelter of the cramped steel cage.

Now the lift was moving more slowly. Soon it stopped. The green light, as if governed by a timing device, went out. With another sharp hiss the doors slid open – he could tell by the gust of putrescent air that hit his face. Ben squared his shoulders and waited till his breathing was steadier. Then he stepped through.

Blackness swathed him, thick and breathless, muffling his ears so that the scuff of his boots on the concrete floor sounded far away and timeworn. His nose, too, was plugged by a stench that turned the air to acrid tar. He looked around for the small red glow that would mark a light switch. There were several, none close by. As he edged towards one of them along the wall, the distance turned out to be far greater than he had imagined, and was made to seem further still by the jumble of oddments that covered the floor. He kept treading on brittle sticks that snapped or crunched beneath his heels, or kicking aside hard hollow objects that clattered and rolled. The darkness, too, kept changing texture, sometimes stifling him like a pelt, sometimes clinging to his skin like plastic sheeting or trailing sticky cobweb-threads across his face. The journey to the light became a trek and then a nightmare, extending itself beyond all probability until the space he moved through seemed as vast as the vaults of hell and as full of torment.

Just as he reached the little red light – and by this time he had become uncomfortable with its shape – it suddenly vanished. He found himself utterly without coordinates, unsure where he had come from or what lay ahead. He had lost the wall; when he stretched out his hand to find it he felt only the brush of tepid air against his fingertips. Ben turned full circle in a desperate effort to locate another switch, the rubberized heels of his boots letting out small fearful squeals as they ground against concrete.

A squeal rang out to his left.

He stopped dead and stood unmoving, holding his breath, ears pricked to detect any further sounds. There were none.

After what seemed several minutes he could stand it no longer and broke the silence. ‘Anyone there?’ he whispered hoarsely. Then louder: ‘Anyone there?’

At once an echo seized his words and whipped them away into the cavernous blackness, making them rise and rise in pitch as they moved higher and circled faster, until the air was filled with squeaks and the frantic flutter of tiny wings. That was when Ben realized where he was. Everyone knew about the Goblin Basement – the yawning gulf that lay beneath the lowest level of the building, the abode of vampire bats and other things best left unnamed – and though the knowledge made his knees melt under him, it meant that he wasn’t wholly unprepared for what he saw when the light returned, flooding the unwholesome chamber with its luminescence.

The room was vast, as he had guessed, and half filled with rubbish. Parts of the ceiling had fallen in, dropping chunks of plaster on mouldering heaps of rusty cans, old stoves and fridges, twisted hub-caps, plastic bags, crushed cardboard boxes, broken bottles, the arms and heads of dismembered robots, the shattered shells of ancient visiscreens with sense-o-listic sense-stimulators trailing limply from their sides like the tentacles of long-dead octopods. From the holes in the broken ceiling, tubes and chutes stuck out at haphazard angles like severed limbs. Oily liquid drooled from the pipes, slavering the refuse underneath with yellow slime. As Ben crouched in the middle of the room, his features bathed in the uncertain glow from the globe above his head, he heard something crashing as it bounced against the sides of a nearby chute: down, down, down, louder and louder, till it whizzed from the open mouth and smashed to pieces on the rubbish beneath. He knew what the object was when a uniformed leg bounced against his foot: one of the guardsmen he’d left on duty on his bedside table. The leg gave a feeble jerk and then lay still.

The globe flickered bright and dim and dim and bright as if in time to some sickly heartbeat. By it, you couldn’t tell if there was anything else besides the rubbish in the Goblin Basements. But Ben knew there was something else; he’d heard the stories. He looked wildly around for the lift. There it was, impossibly far away to his right across the desert of the concrete floor. Between him and it the concrete stretched, a dusty plain marked with tiny ripples like the ocean bed and littered with overspill from the tip. He swiftly turned to face the rubbish and started to back towards the elevator doors. Always face your enemy, Gran had warned him, unless you fancy the thought of something long and sharp and rusty between your shoulderblades. Not tonight, he didn’t. Not on Christmas Eve, alone and weaponless in an underground dump.

A tap-tap-tapping broke out behind him: the same noise that had sounded in the lift shaft. He glanced over his shoulder, one swift glance, then returned his gaze to the mountain of refuse. The glance had been enough to show him a tall thin figure with an oily cockscomb of black spiked hair, a torn leather jacket, a T shirt asking DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, chains on its chest. Where the face should have been the figure wore a mask made from the front panel of an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner, with a vacant ‘O’ in the middle for dust to be sucked through. The legs were jointed metal lampstands, terminating in high leather boots without soles or toecaps. He could see through the gaps that there were no feet inside them. Strapped to the boots was a pair of rollerblades, a wheel missing from one axle.

The tapping came from a monkey-wrench being gently swung against the elevator doors.

‘Look alive, lads,’ a whistling voice called through the mask. ‘We have a guest to share our midnight frolics!’

Piece by piece the refuse stirred. Each piece turned out to be connected to another piece and moved by a will. The plastic face of a cabbage-patch doll, grotesquely small, attached to the barrel-chest of a boiler, rose on frail mop-o-matic legs and blinked its lashes as it looked Ben over. A small green rubberized monster with lightswitch eyes uncurled itself from under an unsprung armchair, which itself unfolded arms made of copper wire and peered at Ben from bloodshot eyes embedded in the upholstery. Kicking jars and cans aside, the Goblins lurched from their putrescent hiding-places and gathered in a semicircle about ten feet from where Ben stood. Ben went on retreating, right hand held out in the defensive posture favoured by ‘Thug’ Thorson. The thumb of his other hand – the one Thug didn’t have – knocked against his teeth, tapping out a nervous tattoo in time to the tapping of the monkey-wrench against the metal panels.

‘A big fellow, this,’ the whistling voice remarked, close by his shoulder. There was a rumbling sound as the rollerblades changed position on the concrete floor. Ben stopped dead, acutely aware that another step or two would bring him within range of the tool in Cockscomb’s fist. ‘Big enough to do the Jinglebells Waltz, I should imagine,’ the voice whistled on. ‘Or the Crimbo Caper, or the Krampus Can Can. Which will it be?’

‘The Krampus Can Can! The Krampus Can Can!’ ground out a waste disposal unit with iron teeth. ‘There’s so much more leftover waste in the Krampus Can Can.’

‘Can you dance, friend?’ Cockscomb whispered in Ben’s left ear, touching his elbow with the tip of its wrench. Ben swung round suddenly and smashed the panel from its crested head with a blow of his fist, sending it scuttering across the floor like a wrecked toboggan. In the space where the panel had been, a confusion of wires and fuses spat out sparks as if in outrage.

Ben broke into a run. ‘He’s dancing, he’s dancing,’ shrieked the Goblins, scampering to plant themselves between him and the liftshaft. A serve-o-bot mounted on a set of twisted pramwheels screeched past on his right. The faceless rollerblader passed him on his left, trailing sparks and smoke. Ben stopped dead and kicked out backwards with his steel-capped boot, felt the rubber monster bounce away at the impact, dodged around doll-face, then wheeled abruptly and started to run back the way he’d come, towards the mountain of waste. Wrong-footed, the Goblins didn’t recover quickly, which gave him hope. They careened into each other, cursing and laughing hysterically and spinning in circles to see which way he’d gone. He plunged straight into the garbage, driving forward with all his force until he reached the guardsman’s torso and snatched at the pouch he’d seen on its belt.

‘He’s meddling with our property!’ Cockscomb vented in a stream-train shriek. ‘He wants to play rough! Stop hedging, boys, and grapple him! Let him feel us!’

Ben had just managed to unfasten the pouch and get his hand inside when a hubcap, hurled discus-fashion, struck the side of his head. He fell sprawling into a pile of rotting vegetables and the rubber monster landed on his chest. Luckily his hold on the pouch never loosened; he clung to it like death as he rose to his feet. And now the Goblins began to shove him from one to another like a broken puppet. One pushed him in the small of the back so that he stumbled forwards; a second struck him on the cheek so he spun to his left; a third stamped on his boot so hard that he shrieked in pain, despite the steel toecaps. ‘He’s dancing the Krampus Can Can!’ the Goblins screamed, and clapped their hands, claws, gloves, or drill bits in a rising cacophony of wild applause.

In a lull between the punches, shoves and gouges, he managed to grasp the thing in the pouch, the thing he had stolen from Gran last week for just such emergencies. ‘Stop, all of you!’ he bellowed, holding it aloft. So loud he bellowed that even the bat-echoes forgot to transform his words into metallic shrieks. So loud that the Goblins did indeed stop for a moment, stunned into silence by his urgent tone.

The silence lasted only a moment, but it was long enough for him to shout again: ‘I’ve got the thimble! Don’t any of you move! I’ve got the thimble!

A hundred eyes fixed fearful gazes on the tiny thing he held above his head. Red eyes, hole eyes, single eyes, composite eyes, glittering or midnight black in the verdigris light that kept up its flickering from bright to dim, from dim to bright in uneasy response to the irregular current. The waste disposal unit took a step backwards on chickenbone legs, grinding metal teeth. A visiscreen retracted its sense-o-listic tentacles, which had been fully extended to deliver stabs of electric pain to Ben’s face and hands. A stove with lion’s-claw feet lost its balance and fell, crushing a sentient cardboard box that had been standing behind it. Still holding high the thimble, Ben stepped between the Goblins, taking care to hold their eyes with his fierce black stare. For a horrible moment he thought that Cockscomb and Pramwheels would not shrink away from him like the rest. But as he came closer the serve-o-bot trundled off into a corner and Cockscomb skated aside to let him pass. A whispering and murmuring followed him and he turned to face it, because, Gran said, you must never turn your back.

‘The thimble,’ Cockscomb was muttering. ‘He’s got the thimble. What does it do?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ Pramwheels hissed back. ‘I never felt it and I never want to feel it. See how it shines!’

‘Anyone here ever felt the thimble?’ Cockscomb called, and Ben knew his time was short. He picked up the monkey-wrench from where Cockscomb had dropped it and weighed it in his hand. Then he hurled it with all his strength at the glowing green globe in the middle of the ceiling. He had practised throws like this for many months on the roof of the building, hurling spanners, bricks and pool balls at a range of targets, until he could throw almost anything of any size and shape with pinpoint accuracy across a distance of up to fifty feet. The globe exploded, spraying the nearby Goblins with luminous goo. Screams rang out as the affected Goblins began to melt like plastic soldiers on a red-hot stovetop. Ben lunged for the elevator doors and punched the button. The doors began to open. Tires, claws, boots, pincers and caterpillar tracks clashed, rumbled, screeched or squealed as the Goblins rushed him. He flung the wrench at Cockscomb’s head and threw himself backwards, twisting round to punch a button, any button, as he landed inside. The doors hissed together with maddening slowness. A leather glove encasing steel pistons jammed itself between them. Ben gripped it and gave it a yank, the mightiest yank he had ever given; he’d practised for many months to perfect that yank, pulling rivets from twisted girders with bleeding fingers, ripping wheels and accelerator pedals from the wrecks of cars. It came off in his hand. The doors hissed shut. Outside a Goblin howled, a steam-whistle shriek of pain and fury that hurt his ears. Bleeding from head and sides, Ben sank down in a corner, clutching the glove.

As the lift ascended, the lights went on.

At Ben’s floor it stopped with a jolt and the doors hissed open. ‘Thug’ Thorson stood there, his one thumb hooked in his tooled leather belt with the snake’s head buckle, his Stetson tipped at a rakish angle on his shaven skull. With him were two or three members of the Imperial Guard, their uniforms still blackened from the famous battle in the attic a few weeks previously. They lifted Ben to his feet and half led, half carried him along the corridor towards Gran’s flat. ‘Thug’ Thorson stayed behind to cover their retreat with a rapid-fire crossbow.

Gran was at the kitchen sink, peeling tatties for their Christmas dinner. Carols drifted faint and shaky from the ancient wireless. ‘Did you manage to fix the chute?’ she asked without turning. Then, catching sight of his reflection in the kitchen window, she swung round and let out a cry of concern and anger.

‘Oh you poor dear foolish boy!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’ve got yourself thrashed by them boys that live in the rough parts of the building, haven’t you? You turned aside when I told you not to. You spoke to strangers when you should have kept shtum. I’ve told you over and over, but do you listen? Do you heck. Oh, whatever am I going to do with this mindless idiot?’

‘Lock him in the loony bin,’ Jemima suggested, cramming a fistful of tortilla chips between her jaws. She and Jerry were watching a horror film on the visiscreen, surrounded by the usual litter that accompanies such viewings: magazines to hide behind, armchairs likewise, screwed-up crisp packets, popcorn, plates. But Jerry took one swift glance at Ben’s bleeding wounds and let out a shriek fit to wake the dead, then buried his head beneath a pile of cushions.

‘Jemima, mind your wicked tongue!’ Gran snapped. ‘Ben can’t help his intellect. And Jerry, stop that awful racket. It’s bad enough having one fool in the family without you making it two.’

‘I saw a f-f-face at the window!’ Jerry stammered from under the cushions. ‘It was green, and it had red eyes like the lights in the c-c-corridor!’

‘Oh, hold your noise!’ Gran snarled as she steered Ben towards the bathroom. ‘You should be in bed. I always said them sorts of films was bad for young minds.’

But when Ben’s head had been bandaged up and his other wounds seen to, he went straight back to work, despite Gran’s weary demands that he go to bed. He did the rounds of the flat with extra care, stationing a guardsman at every window, a space platoon under every table, a laser-wielding bear on top of the tree. Far into the night he sat with ‘Thug’ Thorson in the living room, making his plans. Now and then he heard Gran muttering in her sleep, or one of the kids crying out in terror at some vivid nightmare: a monster remembered from the movie maybe, or a vision at the kitchen window, or something worse. Tonight, though, Ben didn’t go and comfort them as usual with a story or a wordless song. He was far too busy. Ben was plotting the Battle of the Goblin Basements; and as he plotted he paused now and then to raise his head, listening intently to the tap-tap-tapping that echoed up the waste-chute from the depths of the building.

The Reader

220px-Marbled_PaperCaptain Abend had asked to arrest his old friend Professor Bildnis himself, out of some confused desire to conduct the matter with the respect that had always characterized their dealings with one another. But now, as he stood at the great front door of the professor’s ancestral Schloss and waited for the ancient housekeeper to answer the bell, the uneasy feeling possessed him that this had been a mistake, and that he would have been better occupied burying himself in the pile of paperwork that was waiting for him on his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion. He tried to imagine the look on the professor’s face when she realized what he had come for: hurt betrayal; tragic loss; or worse still, a barely-perceptible nod to indicate that yes, she had known this time would come from the moment she first saw him lingering on the threshold of her library, eyes wide with mingled awe and bitterness, as if he had already known at nine years old that he would never make a room like this his intellectual home. As old Marta led him across the hall he shrank, in his mind, to the size he had been then, recalling the prickly suit into which he had been crammed by his nervous mother before the visit, and how it had seemed to lock him into itself as he walked towards the monumental figure in front of the window, forcing his overheated legs to stride forwards even as his protesting mind yearned to make them sprint in the opposite direction, towards the manicured lawns and regimented woods of the Bildnis estate. ‘Captain Abend,’ Marta quavered as she pushed open the library door – he would have liked to help her, since the door was heavy, but knew that any attempt to do so would have inflicted appalling pain on her proud old servant’s heart – and he stepped through into the land of enchantment, the forest of books in which he had lost himself so often over the eighteen years or so since he had first entered it.

Professor Bildnis was standing at the great bay window with her back to him, poring over a gigantic volume which seemed to contain brightly-coloured pictures and exquisitely painted initial capitals – though of course he couldn’t make out any details at such a distance. The Professor herself was just as massive, on a human scale, as the book was on the bibliographical one. She wore a shabby plush dressing gown as dark and voluminous as an academic robe, and her tangled grey hair hung like cobwebs across the great flat boulders of her cheeks. Yet there was something light and nimble about her: the way her big hands caressed the leather binding of the book she held, the way she was poised almost on tiptoe in her old worn slippers as if about to take flight, etherealized to weightlessness by her excitement at what she had found there.

As he walked towards her, his polished boots boomed aggressively on the floorboards and he shrank still further inside. The echoes of his footsteps rolled about the room like out-of-control dirigibles, bumping against the age-dimmed spines of the books that lined the shelves from floor to ceiling, bumbling up and down the steps of the wheeled wooden staircases that stood around the edges like patient giraffes ready to help any undersized reader – such as the captain himself, as he felt at this moment – to reach the upper shelves. Captain Abend came to a halt in front of the professor, clicked his heels together – not very smartly – and saluted. The professor raised her grey eyes from the page at which she had been gazing, her lips still curved in the smile of pleasure the words and images on it had conjured up.

‘You’re here to arrest, me, aren’t you?’ she said, in a voice both distracted and kindly, as if this were a minor disturbance which was drawing her attention away from important business, but which she must pay attention to, for a while at least, out of courtesy and a lifelong affection for the young man who had brought it about. ‘I’ve packed my bags, if I’m allowed to take them. No?’ she added quickly as Abend gave the slightest shake of his head. ‘No bags? Not even a toothbrush? Never mind. I’ve made arrangements for the books here. I once hoped the city library would take them: I always meant to hand them over to the people, but I somehow doubt most of the people in their present mood would be inclined to accept the donation. Marta and her family will keep them safe for those in the future who care to read them.’

Captain Abend stared at her as she spoke, then sensed that his mouth was hanging open and closed it hurriedly. She had always had this effect on him: one unexpected observation (you’re here to arrest me, aren’t you?) and all his carefully-planned excuses and words of comfort fell round his feet, where they lay twitching their ascenders and descenders like exhausted mayflies. The professor watched him for a while, the same sweet smile playing on her lips, though there was a hint of sadness to it now. In fact, when he came to think of it, there had been a hint of sadness mixed with pleasure in her face when she first looked up. Sadness was what she lived on, it was meat and drink to her; her arrest, it seemed, was merely the culmination of a succession of sad moments born of the excessive hopes her books had awoken in her at a tender age.

‘May I ask, at least,’ she said at last, placing her big hand on his arm – she held the giant volume open in the other hand as if it had been a child’s hornbook – ‘may I ask why I’m being arrested? Is it for what I’ve written? If so, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t expected the generals to take such a sudden interest in the obscurer byways of historiography. They have risen several notches in my estimation.’

Captain Abend shook his head again and cleared his throat. ‘Well, yes and no,’ he said at last, his throat so dry the words hurt as they forced themselves past his larynx. ‘Of course they’re aware of what you’ve written. In fact you’re doing them an injustice to accuse them of ignorance. Some of them are actually fans – General Halfisch, for instance, told me the other day that you’d been an inspiration to him in his student days at Heldenbein University. The fact is, though, it’s you yourself they disapprove of. A woman of your ancestry and standing who has chosen to lead a life of scholarship, to involve herself in radical politics, to invite workers and poets and thinkers to her Schloss without regard to the view of their activities taken by the government, to draw the attention of foreigners to their so-called “cause” by virtue of her international reputation as a historian… Need I go on? You’ll know the charges against you well enough, Professor. I’m only sorry you didn’t listen to all my warnings.’

The Professor nodded her head slowly, still looking distracted. ‘That’s a pity,’ she murmured, though Abend saw at once that she wasn’t talking about her failure to pick up his mumbled hints at the growing hostility to her among the ruling party. ‘They should have read my books more carefully. If they had they would have arrested me long ago.’

All at once her eyes hardened, as if she were really seeing him for the first time. ‘But you’ve read them properly, haven’t you, August? Not just my books, but my dreams, my quest – I’ve spoken about these things to you many times, you are well acquainted with the book of my mind. You know what I’ve been looking for all these years. You know that my writings are little more than a record of frustration, scribbled notes on a lifelong search that kept leading me up blind alleys in chase of a glimpse, a damaged map, a riddling clue, a forgotten archive which, when I reached it, invariably turned out to contain no more than second-hand information, scraps of gossip, castles in the air. You’ve followed me on my mental journeys. You’ve embarked on mental journeys of your own from time to time. I could have wished you’d journeyed more, boy, and not let yourself get mixed up in this bad business. You can see plainly now, I think, the blind alley to which that particular path has brought you.’

Abend felt a flash of rage and clenched his fists, half tempted to strike her. He could never have dedicated himself to the journeys she spoke of – unlike her he had to make a living, he had younger brothers and sisters to think of, who had depended on him since his father’s death and his mother’s illness. Besides, his military career was not so much of a dead end as all that. He was well paid, he had glittering prospects – the general had told him so when they’d met by chance on the mansion staircase. And who was she to talk to him about blind alleys? Where had her reading got her? To this room, to this moment in time when her young friend stood awkwardly before her with an order for her arrest in his inside pocket. This was a cul de sac if ever there was one. He ought to pull out the paper at once and show her the wording, with the general’s extravagant signature at the bottom.

But his anger quickly faded as he noticed her eyes straying back to the book in her big left hand, as if pulled by strings. She would hardly notice the paper, even if he waved it in front of her eyes or struck her head with it; she had already half forgotten about it and him. This was not even a proper conversation, really, because she’d been talking to herself all along, as she always had, as she always would. He had never really been of any interest to her, and it was mere hypocrisy in her to express regret about his failure to follow intellectual paths for which she had always shown a supreme indifference. He might as well let her go on talking. There was no great hurry. This job once over, he had only the other dull papers on his shabby desk to attend to for the rest of the day. If he took his time over this arrest he could at least make sure that the rest of the day didn’t last too long.

And now she was speaking loudly, almost shouting, and waving the book at him as if it contained evidence of his sins of omission. ‘But August, August!’ she cried, cheeks wobbling with emotion. ‘I have finally found it! To think it was always there, right in front of my nose, in a book I knew as well as the inside of my head – a book I’ve known since I was younger than you were when I first met you! I would be embarrassed by my blindness if I weren’t so happy. Come over to the window; let me show you. It’s a matter of looking at the words and the pictures, both at once. I knew how to do that once, as a little girl; but you may have noticed how such skills melt away like frost with the passing years. It’s because we don’t read with all our attention, we don’t inhabit our books and populate them as we did when we were young. They don’t live in our minds, words and pictures together, when we go to sleep. They don’t talk to us in our dreams, as they did when we first discovered the heaven-sent miracle of reading.’

In a dream – half mesmerised by the flow of her words – he saw that she was looking at him now with what seemed genuine attention, as she beckoned with her head towards the bay window. ‘It’s not our fault, you know,’ she went on companionably. ‘We read too much, as adults – we know too much to be able to inhabit the books we read as we did before. We’d go mad if we tried. But every now and then, when we concentrate hard, we recover that skill again for a few short minutes. And those minutes stay with us for a while after we’ve stopped reading – long enough, sometimes, for us to set down some bald impression of what we’ve learned.’

As the Captain moved with her to the sunlit bay he experienced another sudden flashback to his nine-year-old self. Again and again she had beckoned him to some corner where she was poring over a page, often in another language he didn’t know. Forgetting his age, she would read it out to him, the mellifluous clatter of Greek, the dancing curlicues of Italian, the baroque efflorescences of formal French or Latin. He had listened enrapt, with pictures forming and fading before his eyes. The shape of the scripts told him stories more energetic and convoluted than the comics he secretly scanned in the shops when his mother wasn’t looking (she thought them vulgar and feared exposure to them would impede his development as a reader). Later he became resentful of the Professor’s blithe assumption that he could understand the erudite syllables she intoned. But now, striding after her, a sensation caught him by the throat, a thrill of excitement as of some imminent revelation, a door about to open on some world of wonders. He remembered it well now, that sensation, though he had thrust it down to some hidden cellar of his being, where it had mouldered under the stacks of soulless documents he had been piling up through his wearisome years as a military administrator. Each of the Professor’s readings had been, for him, a musical performance with a visual accompaniment, like the ballads sung by old men as they rapidly flipped through the great shimmering pamphlets full of crude hand-coloured pictures displayed on easels in the market squares of Helden. Suddenly he felt sure that he would now recover that half-forgotten pleasure, the one he had denied himself in his teenage years because of mounting frustration with his limited prospects. He drew close to her shoulder and found himself too short, still, to peer over it. Instead he squinted round the side of her massive gown-draped arm, allowing the script and illustrations on the page to fill his vision.

The words were arranged in short, neat lines that formed a column from top to bottom, which told him they were verse. The columns were broken at regular intervals, which told him the verse was arranged in stanzas. Alternate lines were indented apart from the final couplet of each stanza, so he had a good idea of the rhyme scheme. The Professor didn’t recite verse to him, however, nor did she speak in the archaic dialect of the poem. She spoke rapidly in the language he knew best, turning the pages to match the pictures to her words. Yet the story made little sense: something about a princess in a castle on an island, whose loneliness drew birds and beasts to her through the waves, till at last it drew a young fisherman who took her away with him on his skiff to the place where fishes have wings and birds have fins and beasts can sing. The story ended badly – ‘all stories from this period ended badly, it’s as if they didn’t know how to write a happily ever after’ – with the fisherman dead and the princess imprisoned once again on her lump of rock. ‘But look here!’ the Professor cried, tapping the final illustration. ‘The picture of the room where she lies dead after giving birth; do you see the door? It’s exactly like the door to this library. The carving on the lintel, the details of the paneling, the smallest glimpse of the room beyond. Her child is walking towards the door, growing as she walks – she’s almost grown already, see how tall she is, how long her hair. And the door is the door to the library – I can only assume the painter copied it from life, if that’s the right expression, still life I suppose it should be. If you look closely at the picture you can see the edge of this bay window. Do you see it, August? Her child is walking into this room, this very room where we’re standing now. I’m assuming – it’s a reasonable hypothesis – that the writer and illustrator knew very well that it would end up in this location; they must have been commissioned by one of my ancestors. The books themselves – the books are the key. I always assumed, when I was a child, that the king had won, that the child in the picture was myself, trapped in this castle without escape like her mother before her. But the books hold the key to the end of tyranny. She’s even carrying one in her hand. Can you see the title? With eyes like yours you can surely read it even without the magnifying glass – though of course you can borrow mine if necessary.’

Of course Captain Abend could read the title: his vision was perfect, they had complimented him on it only the year before when he had undergone the annual test. Only his asthma had let him down, condemning him for ever to a desk job despite his impeccable scores in every element of his military training. He could see the title of the book, and knew full well why it had excited her so greatly. The title was hers – the name of the book she had written three years after he had met her. She had talked to him about it as she wrote, and later he had read it himself, head spinning with the visions she had put into it of better times to come. But this was hardly news – much less the miracle she was making it into. Clearly as a girl she had read that title, when her eyes were as good as his. Clearly she had recalled the title – though perhaps she had not known where she’d first read it – when she’d been writing her book. The Professor knew about the unconscious; she’d explained it to him often enough. How could she imagine the name of the book was a clue to anything?

The fact was, though, this was typical of her: to see her life as a perfect circle, beginning and ending in this room where her books had made her. What a charming justification that would be for a life of reading – for a life spent travelling, as she would put it, in the realms of gold, where ordinary men and women could not follow! How naïve she was, how profoundly selfish, to see such a life as having been worth leading, as having had any kind of purpose or significance for her people! While they had suffered and died outside her estate, here she had flipped the pages of ancient books with unsated hunger, searching and searching among forgotten texts – for what? For a fairy tale, a castle in the air, a chimera. She had never grown up, that was her problem; could not conceive what adulthood meant, or responsibility, or pain. Even her arrest wasn’t real to her; just the typical sad ending to one of the romances she had been reading since she could read.

‘That is… remarkable,’ he said coldly, hoping the irony of his tone would not be lost on her. ‘The library, the book, the title. I’m sure you’re right, and this old romance holds the key to everything you’ve been looking for all your life. I shall be sure to tell my friends at the officer’s club, and my brothers and sisters; they’ll be overwhelmed. But now, Professor Bildnis, I’m sorry to say that time’s against us. We have to go. Formally, of course, I’m supposed to show you the mandate for your arrest – but we can dispense with that formality if you don’t care to see it. Is there anything you wish to do before we leave? Any final instructions you want to leave for Marta? A note of farewell, perhaps, for someone close to you?’

The Professor turned her great grey eyes on him – they had always been her finest feature, the eyes of a woman slimmer and swifter than she, a dryad of the woods, a mermaid. To his surprise, they were full of tears. She shook her head gently, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that she was shaking it in pity at his willful ignorance. Her expression was exactly as it had been when he had had that outburst, on the last occasion he had seen her before enlisting.

‘You’re very kind,’ she said. ‘You always were, you know – though now I think of it I’m not sure you ever did know it. He hath ever but slenderly known himself. No, thank you; I’ve said my farewells, and my books will be my note to my friends and allies – especially that one. Read it again for me, will you, when I’ve gone? Just one last time. And try to read it with seeing eyes. I know you can.’

He was blushing now, though he was not sure if it was with childish embarrassment or anger. He had reached out to take her arm, ready to steer her through the Schloss to the great front door; he fancied he could hear the horses pawing the gravel, impatient to return to their stables and the excellent fodder they would receive after this long divergence from their normal routines. But the Professor was holding up her finger as if in remonstrance. Not just yet, her finger was saying; you know very well there is one last thing I have to do before we depart. Do I need to tell you, after all these years?

‘I had better put the book back,’ she said softly. ‘I want to be sure other people will find it in the right place when I am no longer there to find it for them. Wait by the door, my dear; I shan’t be a minute.’ And she turned away, cradling the book in her two great arms like a much-loved infant.

For a moment Captain Abend stood looking after her, as if turned to stone, as if striving to fix her massive form in his memory once and for all, so he could summon it up at will whenever he needed to consult her later in life. He could not have known, of course, that his life would not last much longer – that he would be one of the few casualties of the bloodless revolution of the following year, and that old Marta would find his corpse beneath his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion, a sheaf of papers clutched to its chest as if to defend it against the bullets that had sprayed the building. He had no premonition of such an ending as he watched the Professor walk stiffly to a free-standing bookcase and vanish behind it. He thought only of how he would miss her, in spite of her ugly face, her eccentricity, her air of always knowing so much more than he did about everything – even the things she could not possibly know as well as him, such as life in the army and the ways of generals.

He heard her characteristic sniff from behind the bookcase. He heard a faint thump, as if she had stamped one of her slippered feet on the ancient floorboards – like Rumpelstilzchen, he thought, when he stamped his foot so hard he fell through the floor into endless darkness. What in the world, he wondered, had called that tale to mind? It was not as if she were angry with him – at least, not angry enough to make a hole in the castle floor and tumble through it, disappear without leaving a trace, apart from a heap of golden straw and a woman with a young child in her arms, a newborn baby, sign of the future…

All at once, fear swept through him: a sudden wind of panic blowing in from nowhere. He tensed where he stood and listened intently. There was no sound from behind the bookcase – and this alone was enough to chill his bones. The Professor was incapable of staying silent; she huffed and puffed as she moved around the library, her joints creaked, her slippers scuffed, her dressing gown swished as it brushed against incidental tables and the wheeled wooden staircases that waited to serve her like tame giraffes. And she sniffed constantly; her sniffing had driven him mad when he was a teenager. Why was she not sniffing? Had something happened to her? Could that thump have been the sound of her death?

In rising terror – ridiculous, really, he would think that evening, since he had come to the Schloss, to all intents and purposes, with the task of escorting her to her execution – he lurched forward in a clumsy run. His boots drummed against the floorboards once again with the aggressive tread of an intruder. He rounded the corner of the bookcase, bracing himself for what he would find, and stopped dead, heaving great gulps of vellum-scented air into his lungs. He put out a hand to steady himself against the top of the bookcase. He stood there panting and staring, staring and panting, letting his heartbeats slow to a steady rhythm against his ribs as he struggled to take in the scene in front of him.

Lying on the floor lay the painted volume, wide open at the page where the child was approaching the door with a book in her hands.

Behind the child, the princess lay on her curtained bed, eyes closed, hands neatly folded across her stomach.

Before the child, beyond the door, you could see the edge of the great bay window.

All in the picture was exactly as it had been a few moments earlier.

All except for the monstrous shadow on the floorboards under the window, the shadow of an ogre or a rampant bear.

All except for the hem of an old plush dressing gown, trailing in the air as if its owner had whipped out of sight when the book was opened.

All except for the expression of wild excitement on the young girl’s face as she hurried towards what lay beyond the door, clutching the book as if her life depended on it, her black hair streaming out behind her like a banner.

A sudden draught from the open window caught the edge of the page and flipped it over. The Captain still stood transfixed, staring at the marbled end-papers as if searching for words among the swirls of blue, green, red and muted yellow that marked the space between the story and the world.

 

A Beautiful Shade of Blue

images

‘Yes! Yes, love! Well done!’ someone was shrieking. ‘Rage, that’s what we’re looking for! Let me feel your anger!’

Yana dreamt she was in her studio painting a picture while a team of visiting sponsors watched over her shoulder. She hurled paint at the canvas with increasing desperation, aware that she had lost control of the composition long ago.

‘Good! Good! More red! The colour of anger, the colour of new blood!’ One of the sponsors was bellowing in her ear as though determined to rupture the drum.

‘But not too much red,’ put in another. ‘Remember the décor. We want it to blend.’

‘To hell with blending!’ screamed the first. ‘We’re paying for art, not interior design! We want something that says to our clients, We dare! We dare!’

‘Could you put something shocking in the bottom left hand corner? There’ll be a rather unsightly water dispenser to the right of the picture, and we need to distract our clients’ attention from it, to draw away their eyes, as it were…’

‘Don’t listen to him, love, he’s a philistine. We want you to feel free to unleash the rage that made you famous. This year everybody who’s anybody in the city is looking for the return of raw power to the canvas. We’ll supply the publicity. You supply the terror. Terrify us again!’

She was aware that she had used up all the colours on her palette. She looked around for more tubes of paint, but could see nothing but plates full of macadamia nuts and half-empty glasses of champagne.

‘Almost finished, love? I’m only asking because we’re expecting the delegates from Tokyo at twelve, and of course they’ll want to see the finished picture.’

She mumbled something about more paint.

‘Paint, love? Why didn’t you say so? You can have all the paint you want. Come with me to the factory and choose the hues for yourself.’

As she turned away from the painting she noticed that there were hundreds of tiny, boneless creatures squirming under the oily surface like maggots in rotting flesh.

Accompanied by a crowd of sponsors she hurried out into the street. Together they all rushed along a few inches above the pavement, without any visible means of propulsion. All around them the city was in flames. Groups of women carrying babies and pulling small children by the hand darted round the corners of tower-blocks. Soldiers followed them. Cars exploded by the side of the road. A man ran up to a shop window and threw a brick through it, then ran away. Alarms went off up and down the street, and as he ran the headlights of the cars he passed began to flash, while car-alarms wailed in sympathy with the electronic shrieks from the vandalized building. A posse of policemen burst out of a side-alley and closed in on the fugitive. The last she saw as she rushed away was a mass of truncheons and shiny boots rising and falling where the man had been.

Now she found herself in a street lined with glass buildings and empty of people. Newspapers blew along it opening and closing, revealing and concealing silently raving headlines and grainy photographs of bewildered teenagers with enormous breasts. A tank rolled forward at the other end of the street: she heard its tracks crack the tarmac.

Just as her crowd of sponsors hurried her through sliding doors in one of the glass facades she noticed that a little girl had wandered into the path of the tank, clutching a doll. ‘Wait!’ she shouted, and struggled to free herself from the hands that gripped her by the elbows.

‘No time, no time!’ barked the sponsors in unison. And now she was inside the factory, and the noise blotted out her memories of the street, all but the ache of loss that always grew more acute as her dreams went on.

High overhead, a network of steel girders defined an invisible glass roof. The net was held in place by thick steel pillars. Lower down, metal walkways led from pillar to pillar, along which ambled men in overalls with long steel poles in their hands. Conveyor-belts moved between the walkways, with elongated sacks dangling from hooks at intervals along them. Now and then one of the men leaned over the metal railings and used the prong at the tip of his pole to shift a sack that had drifted too close to one of its neighbours. On the concrete floor below the conveyor belts vast witches’ cauldrons bubbled and fumed. From the streams of brilliantly coloured liquid that ran down the sides, she guessed they were full of paint.

‘You see, this is where the paint comes from,’ said one of the sponsors, rushing her up a metal stairway onto a platform near a vat full of dark red pigment. ‘We have every conceivable shade of black and brown, a wide range of yellows and greens, a somewhat limited supply of azure – it’s very expensive to produce – and of course a lot of red. Would you like to see how it’s done?’

She had no wish to see how it was done, but her tongue (which had been sluggish since the dream began) refused to obey her. The sponsor signalled to a nearby foreman with a moulded plastic helmet. The man leaned out over the railing as the others had done and with a twist of the little claw at the end of his pole snared one of the dangling sacks. A deft slicing movement, and the sack split open.

Inside hung the naked corpse of a young black woman. Her eyes seemed to gaze mournfully at them as the belt jerked her past.

‘There you have it,’ said the sponsor. ‘A fine rich chestnut, wouldn’t you say? This particular colour-source is destined for that vat over there, where it’ll be separated, melted down and carefully strained. Our colours are renowned the world over, and now you know the secret of their brilliance. Nothing like animal products for putting life into paint. Some might say it’s cruel, but our methods are really very humane, and there honestly isn’t any substitute for good old-fashioned flesh and blood. We import much of our yellow ochre from Southeast Asia, so that’s why the tubes cost more – we have to pay tax on our carbon footprint. The green is relatively simple to produce: we simply wait for the bodies to fester, then extract the mould. Ultramarine, cobalt and indigo we have to distil from our sources’ eyes, and as you can imagine it’s difficult to get hold of cheap azure eyes in the current state of the global economy. As for red; well, red is the easiest of all. If you please, foreman?’

The foreman moved to the other side of his walkway and reached out for another sack.

This one wriggled and kicked as he split it open. Tarek hung inside. As soon as he saw her he started to yell: ‘Yana! Yana, for pity’s sake! Help me!’

Tarek was moving in long jerks towards the vat of dark red paint near the platform she stood on. As he approached, a circular blade on the end of a jointed metal arm emerged from a tangle of machinery and stretched out lazily to greet him. She turned to the sponsor. ‘For God’s sake! That’s my husband! There’s been a terrible mistake!’

‘No indeed,’ said the sponsor, turning to her. ‘We want you to give us rage. We need the power of rage to lift the economy out of recession. Your husband will help you supply us with what we need.’

And now she saw that the sponsor had no eyes, only gaping holes with ragged edges. ‘You see, we all have to make sacrifices,’ he explained with a sidelong smile. ‘My eyes were a beautiful shade of blue, I tell you. A beautiful, beautiful shade of blue.’

The Mouse Messiah

gerbil

…died since our ship touched down on this planet, eighteen days ago. The nature of the disease hasn’t been diagnosed: we know only that it occurs instantly on contact with the atmosphere, and that there’s no known cure. I’ve been confined to my quarters since nine this morning, when I re-entered the ship with a gash in my suit. If it really is a disease… to me it seems more like a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. I’m running a temperature that would have killed me hours ago, if it weren’t for the drugs.

Through the glass door of my cubicle the crew regard me with contempt. The accident need never have occurred if I hadn’t ignored our botanist’s advice and got too close to a sword-plant. But I was always the joke member of this expedition. After all, why should a priest have been assigned to a ship without Christians aboard, its destination a planet without intelligent life-forms? A bureaucratic slip at head office, perhaps; or a cruel prank played by some peevish atheist, who gigglingly transferred my name from one list to another without a thought for the years I would waste on this pointless mission. There’s no-one on the ship but miners, technicians, scientists, military personnel – every one of them a committed materialist, with a zealot’s passion for debunking the notion of transcendence. And there’s nothing on the planet at all. Just a wealth of newly-discovered minerals, which we shall mine, and a species of rodent, like rabbit-sized mice, which we shall of course exterminate as an accidental side effect of our mining operations. In my situation Saint Francis would have preached to the rodents, but we all wear helmets for fear of infection. Our helmets and suits are not decontaminated; we’re not afraid of infecting. Each time we step out of the air-lock we unleash a swarm of alien bacteria, enough to set off a thousand epidemics among the flora and fauna of this fragile ecosystem.

So the mice are doomed, unless some miracle interposes itself. But why should this concern us? We have our own body-count to fret over: the fact that three valuable crewmembers have died since touchdown, and that a fourth entirely useless crewmember is about to follow them. We’re already beginning to view this planet with hatred, and to treat its victims as traitors, feckless collaborators with an invisible army of hostile micro-organisms committed to wiping out all human life. The sooner we rid ourselves of both, the safer we shall feel.

So here I lie in this bare room, making the smooth walls bulge. This is a skill I’ve acquired since falling ill: I can alter my surroundings with a glance. The only ornament in my room, a crucifix, stretches and bleeds whenever my eyes light upon it. Tiny gaps between the panels on the floor expand and contract as my gaze sweeps across them. My hands lie inert on the sheets and my mind is mostly empty; but not for lack of power. Not at all! On the contrary: I’m afraid that if I move, say, my foot just a quarter of an inch I might punch a hole in the side of the ship, even as I buckle the walls with sight alone. And if a thought should cross my mind – a real thought, I mean, not this burbling stream of consciousness, this aimless interior chat – it might rend the walls of my understanding and scorch me with intolerable light. So I lie inert in this naked berth, sweating with the effort to contain my energies, trembling with force withheld.

The door shoots aside to admit the captain, a tall woman with hair so thick with product it looks enamelled. Her helmet flashes as she enters, almost detonated by my vision. At the press of a button a seat slides out of the wall; she sits. I struggle with the muscles round my mouth, not because I’m trying to speak, but to stop them wrenching my jaw into a mighty yawn that would swallow her helmet and all. I haven’t spoken to her more than a dozen times in the course of this expedition, intimidated by her height, her authority, the rigidity of her coiffure.

‘Any better, padre?’ she asks the wall. Inside her helmet she has formed a decision, like another chamber in her skull. With infinite gentleness I shake my head. The room leaps from side to side, shimmering with fear of my hidden strength.

‘You understand, of course, that I have no choice,’ she says harshly. ‘We can’t go back to the station with the plague on board. It’s simply too contagious. Doc reckons it could work its way through an unprotected human population within hours; through the race as a whole in the time it takes for the slowest of our ships to reach the Outer Reaches. Even as it is, we’re going to have to go through the most rigorous decontamination procedure in history before we can dock at the station. It’s my duty to begin that procedure now, before we leave this planet. I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay here, padre.’

No reaction. You can see from her face that she thinks I haven’t understood a word, that I lost her drift before she’d finished her final, punitive sentence. As she speaks, her harsh voice over the intercom above my pillow grows gentler, more thoughtful, as if trying to soften the cruelty of duty with its maternal inflections.

‘Is there anything I can do for you, Padre? Any messages you want me to take back to your friends, your family? We’ll leave you with supplies, of course. But is there something else you need?’

I say nothing, but I’m touched.

My mind is almost tempted out of hiding by the captain’s kindness. I can feel it pushing against its restraints, swelling, burgeoning, growing. Be careful! Once free of my skull it will continue to expand till it fills the ship, crushing furniture and people against the vessel’s inner membrane as it thrusts itself into every corner, eager to make the most of its fine new cranial cavity. With a violent effort I force it back into the skull’s narrow casement, commanding it to retreat like a swollen snail into its shell. For a while its tender horns explore the bony walls of its enclosure, probing for weaknesses, shoring up fragile areas with its mental secretions. I satisfy myself that my head is sound, that the bulk of my new-found power may be safely contained there. Then one by one I allow the horns to steal forth into the open.

Good God! The sky!

My mind gives a dreadful lurch, almost dissipating itself into the limitless acreage of heaven before I take hold of it again with a grip of iron. Its mollusc foot once anchored in my skull, I dare tentatively to look around, take stock of my situation.

I’m on a stretcher, and the stars jump from horizon to horizon with the stretcher’s motion. They are carrying me in a straight line from the ship to the place where they plan to maroon me. Apart from sword-plants, the planet supports little vegetation: only many-coloured lichens carpeting the rocks and patches of crawling fruit-vines bristling with spikes the length of nails. The heart-shaped fruits burst beneath my bearers’ boots, spattering their suits with bloody liquor. We are making for the highest point in the vicinity, a hollow mound of rock eaten away by the acid rain so that it’s pocked full of holes. From one angle it resembles a crumbling snail, from another a skull.

Now and then rodents trot from the shelter of the thorns and stare at us with alien eyes. We know nothing about these creatures. The only biologist on board is a botanist, who advises us on the dangers posed by sword-plants and refuses to waste his attention on the little quadrupeds. Once I tried to interest him in the question of why they like to stare at us with such apparent interest. I have a theory of my own, I said. Somewhere I’ve read that there was a species of rodent on earth called a groundhog, long extinct, which used to sit along the verges of highways absorbing vitamin D from sunshine through a kind of plate in the top of its head. Perhaps the rodents here absorb energy through their eyes, so that they’re literally drinking us in as they watch us crashing about the surface of their planet, fiddling with our equipment, clearing paths through the foliage, gesticulating at one another and shouting through our intercoms. That would be a nice thought, wouldn’t it, I said: that we’re giving them, as it were, a visual feast, even as we spread the germs that will eradicate their species? The botanist just glared at me and returned his attention to a lichen he was trying to chip away from a boulder. I suppose he thought my theory as stupid as my faith; but it comforts me now as they carry me past a row of staring rodents. What a sumptuous banquet they must be getting from the heat that radiates from my feverish body! It would be strange and pleasing if I should finally get a proper function only after I’ve been abandoned to die on an alien planet!

We reach the hollow mound by picking our way between crazier and crazier rock formations, some leaning so steeply that the stretcher-bearers hunch their shoulders in anticipation of an avalanche. Happily, though, we arrive unharmed at one of the skull’s decaying cavities. As we enter, the roof arches overhead like the roof of a mouth. The cave is deep, the floor uneven. They set me down in a corner, at such an angle that by the merest twist of the neck I can peep out of the cave-mouth and scan the twisted land beyond. By my right hand they place a plastic picnic hamper full of goodies. At least, that’s how I like to imagine it: stuffed to the brim with honey-roast ham, chicken drumsticks, pickles, cheeses, raspberries and cream, a dozen kinds of freshly-baked bread. In fact, of course, it contains only nutrition tablets, water tablets, and painkillers – enough of these to kill an ox. If I swallow the painkillers I shall be able to leave the other tablets for the next poor unfortunate to be marooned in this cave.

They place my battered old bible gently on the lid of the hamper. Then they gather round in awkward silence, hands clasped as if holding hats, heads bowed in a show of reverence they never managed at the daily act of worship. With the hint of a smile I raise two fingers in blessing, then inch them towards the bible on the hamper. I prod the spine, striving to open my lips and offer it as a gift. But the stretcher-bearers have gone; I must have taken longer than I intended.

My mind again retracts to wrestle with its power. This time I’m no longer a mollusc: I stand knee-deep in a pitch-black chamber full of echoes. Somewhere something flounders in the water, its splashes magnified by the high curved walls. Somehow I must reach that floundering thing before it drowns, discover its identity. A shower of acidic rain hisses down outside the cave, each drop raising a wisp of vapour where it hits the ground.
A flicker by the cave-mouth. A rodent sits there gazing at my face. Has it come to absorb another dose of my body’s warmth through its giant pupils? Another rabbit-mouse hops to its side; a third, a fourth. Dropping to all fours, the mice approach me paw by paw in a dance too complex to be followed by the uninitiated.

Now and then they sit up again and stare at me with alien eyes. Each time I find my thoughts distributed in dialogue.

RODENT: Are you sick?
MAN: I think so.
RODENT: So were many of our people.
MAN: What was their sickness?
RODENT: An epidemic brought by you, the creatures with two heads.
MAN: Aren’t you afraid I might infect you?
RODENT: Don’t be afraid. Our Queen is coming. She cures all disorders.

The conversation has gone this far before I know I’m neither dreaming nor delirious. Our speech isn’t made of words: it’s a mutual understanding. I hear the scrabble of claws on the rocky floor, the uneven sound of my breathing, but nothing else is audible over the intercom. An extraordinary warmth washes over me, an ecstasy of a wholly unfamiliar kind, as I bask in the sudden consciousness of full communion. We are speaking together without the use of tongues, rolling back the intervening ages since the fall of the Tower of Babel! After so long without speaking to anyone, the joy of this easy exchange is almost past bearing.

The first rodent has reached my boot and sniffs at it, nose a-quiver. I long to take off my glove and touch its fur, but fear that my hand will crush it into lifelessness.

MAN: Tell me about yourselves.
RODENT: We are the little dancers, we dance the star-dance among the piercing thorns. And you?

We believe, I’m about to say – some of us believe – that this lump of pallid flesh shares natures with infinity. But in my mind-vault I’ve finally reached the floundering thing and am struggling to lift it from the water, poor sodden mouse. It’s the magnitude of my next question, not the heightened power of my body and mind that dries up my tongue at the root. How share my faith with creatures who don’t share my humanity, to whom parables are nothing, comparisons mere confusion? Our minds have touched for an instant; but where on earth, or off it, can our souls connect?

Fever makes my head ache, but the pain in my heart is worse, because the love of those who have shared your skull is the deepest love of all. I remember the rodents’ Queen, the one who cures disorders. Perhaps one might draw a parallel from that?

MAN: Tell me about your Queen. What is her nature, what rooms does she inhabit?
RODENT: There is no telling, there is no knowing, there is only showing. She is here, she will give you comfort.

As we speak, more rodents gather at the cave-mouth looking in, then spill forward, more and more until the floor is crawling with rabbit-mice. Like the lichen on the tottering rocks they are all colours – purple, orange, emerald green, magenta – and they range in size from six inches to three feet. The multitude divides down the middle, leaving a gangway from the entrance to the soles of my boots. There’s no sound apart from the patter of claws, but the thoughts of this mighty gathering eddy and mingle like the voices of massed choirs. A light, sunshine I guess reflected from the steaming puddles outside, flashes from the cave-mouth. And now there’s a rodent scuttling down the passage as if on a sunbeam, a delicate white rabbit-mouse with a glint of gold on the top of her head, on the place where the groundhog absorbs the rays of the sun. Every mind in the assembly bows down low, every rodent’s nose touches the ground between its foreclaws in honour of their tiny Queen.

Again words lack. I know the Queen shares natures with infinity, that she travels through this many-coloured Gethsemane towards some rodent passion as terrible as Calvary. I know that there is pain in her heart as there is in mine, that ahead of her lies sorrow, torture, despair and death, and that she can see the path ahead with appalling clarity. Wherever there are empty chambers, chaos-filled caskets, lonely cubicles or vaults teeming with isolated lives – there you will find Golgotha, place of the skull. The pain in my body and mind is worse than ever. But her claw touches mine and the doors are flung wide open, every room and closet filled with light.

And once again I’m lying in my naked berth. The captain sits beside the bed, hands propping her forehead (she has taken off her helmet). Between her elbows rests my battered old bible, shut. There are stains on the cover where she has wept, each tear raising an invisible wisp of vapour where it struck the binding.

A smell of burning, traceable to the gun in her holster, pervades the room. I planned to maroon you, padre, she whispers, because I feared you. The heat you radiated scorched my cheek, as if something inside you had grown so huge it was seeping through every pore. So why did you stumble out from behind the crazy piles of rock, scaring me so badly that I pulled out my gun and shot you down at my feet? And then why did you bless me, padre, broken on the broken ground, and press your book like a treasure into my trembling glove?

On the wall the crucifix shivers as if under water. There were suddenly so many rodents, padre, rodents of every size and colour milling about our boots as we carried your corpse to the ship, bursting fruit at every step. And now my crew regard me through the glass door of the cubicle with undisguised contempt, because I’ve murdered you twice over – first by giving the order for you to be marooned, then by blasting a hole in your chest through which the last few fierce convulsions of your heart were clearly visible. Where are you now, padre? Can you hear me at all? Have you found a tongue large enough to speak with? Is there room enough in the universe to accommodate such a tongue?

From the swelling in my skull I fear I’ve caught a touch of your sickness. If sickness it is… I find it more a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. Four crewmembers have died since we touched down on this planet, nineteen days ago.

Devilled Kidneys

[Apologies to my Medievalist friends for the liberties I have taken here with history…]

Hardys-Cottage-1351

A passer-by might have taken the pair, one with his broad-brimmed hat and sober garments, the other stiff and weathered as a signpost, for some allegorical gatekeeper setting a footsore pilgrim on his road.

‘Aye, master, we’ve our heretics in country parts same as in the city. Take Father Whiting now: as wicked an old sinner as you’d wish to meet in a summer’s day. Not a sentence he lets fall but begins and ends in the foulest heresy. Go you to Father Whiting, master, and you’ll count your pains well bestowed.’

The man in black stared at the peasant with hatred. In these days when heresy was punishable by burning such levity was intolerable. Briefly he wondered whether to sound out the man’s opinions on scripture, knowing that his own long experience could twist the cripple’s answers as vilely as his frame; but there was little to be gained from netting such small fry. Besides, he owed the man a debt of gratitude. This account of Father Whiting tallied in every detail with the intelligence gathered by the church authorities, and the peasant might come in useful at the trial. He dropped a groat into the cripple’s pouch and turned down the lane that had been indicated by the man’s knotty finger. The stranger walked swiftly, despite his limp.

It was a lane whose toils were as devious as an equivocator’s reasoning, he told himself, leading to a garden of paradisal fertility. The presbytery sprouted from the centre like a forbidden tree, concealing no doubt (all gardens held the same association in his mind) its serpent. Such a garden! Bored by botany as he was, the man in black saw in it every variety of flower, tree, herb or shrub he knew and more, flourishing in regulated profusion on either hand. Treading the pebbled path from gate to porch, he heard a burst of high-pitched laughter from an upper window. A patter of feet on a flight of steps, a babble in the hall, and a cascade of children spilled out of the open front door. They converged about his knees as if he were a long-expected visitor and drew him towards the threshold where a tiny woman stood beaming, her arms extended in welcome. Her face was narrow and pointed as that of a mouse; wrinkles radiated from the corners of her mouth like whiskers, and she let out a series of shrill squeaks as she ushered him into the house. In a moment he found himself seated in the kitchen by a blazing summer fire, looking about him in bewilderment (a sensation unfamiliar to the man in black).

The kitchen was dark and spacious, its ceiling criss-crossed by heavy beams, from which hung herbs, onions, pheasants, rabbits, kitchen implements and a large stuffed crow, spreading its tattered wings in simulated flight. A haunch of venison drooped from a metal spike an inch or two from the visitor’s nose. In one corner, a cask lay on its side in a wooden cradle, its vent stopped with a twist of cloth. Dark viscous liquid dripped from the cloth and splashed among the jugs and pots that crowded round the cradle’s feet. Against the wall stood a dresser crammed with pewter, glass and earthenware of every shape and size. A massive cauldron gurgled on the fire; steam gushed from it in gobbets. This was a place congenial to the visitor’s heart, for he loved hot rooms where meat was suspended from hooks.

A tabby cat curled its tail round the woman’s legs as she bustled to fill a jug with ale from the cask. Her hair, a grey mist, betrayed her age, but to the man in black she seemed oddly attractive in the fragrant twilight. ‘And where do you hail from, master?’ she sang out over the bobbing heads of the children. ‘A friend of Father Bernard’s, are you? Or a pilgrim on the road to the Holy Martyr’s tomb? There’s many and many a pilgrim passes through the village once the summer storms are past. Frogspawn and crowsfoot, children, we can’t hear ourselves breathe! Run along into the garden and catch me a dragonfly, won’t you? They haven’t a net,’ she explained as the children trooped out of the kitchen, ‘so that’ll keep them occupied till owl-light.’

When the room was still, the man in black accepted the ale and sipped noisily, shooting his eyes over the household treasures displayed on the dresser. The woman picked up the cat – which looked half as big as herself – and stroked it, her own gaze fixed upon the stranger. When the ale was finished he set the jug on the floor by his chair and stretched his boots across the hearthstone with a satisfied grunt. His cloak was bunched up like wings about his shoulders by the back of his chair. His restless eyes kept wandering to his hostess and darting away again.

‘The children,’ he observed to a fine pewter plate. ‘They belong to Father Whiting?’

‘Gracious, no,’ exclaimed the woman with a needle-sharp laugh. ‘They belong to the Lord. God forbid we should lay claim to the ownership of His children!’

The stranger stared at her a moment, then transferred his stare to a string of onions. ‘That is not what I meant,’ he said. ‘Who gave birth to them? And who is the father?’

The woman laughed again: her laugh was beginning to get on the stranger’s nerves. ‘Bless us, master, I quite mistook! You must think me very dizzy! Let me see now, the father. There’s Molly Wither’s children, the eldest not eight; I wouldn’t care to guess who the father might be. There’s Matty Moon’s daughters I mind when he’s away, and Billy Badger’s three boys; the fourth drowned in the beck. Bless us, Father Bernard has only seven of his own. Only seven, that’s it, with another on the way. Due in the fall, so Fanny Fireside tells me; and she ought to know, for she’s had nine already, and this’ll be the tenth if it lives!’

The man in black drew in his breath with a hiss and raised his eyes to the haunch of venison. ‘Seven, woman?’ he said between clenched teeth. ‘Did you say seven? Father Whiting is a priest of the Church of Rome!’

‘That he is, master, that he is,’ said the woman. ‘And he dearly loves the little children at his knees, just like our good Lord Jesus.’ She never ceased to stroke the tabby cat.

‘And you?’ inquired the stranger, his eyes now sliding down the poker. ‘What is your position in this household?’

‘The dear preserve us, master,’ cried the woman, her little black pupils drilling into him. ‘What position does any woman stand in to her husband?’

Here the man in black removed his hat, which he had refused to take off in the porch, and mopped his brow with a black silk handkerchief. ‘A husband,’ he repeated. ‘Do you know nothing of priestly vows? Does he?’

The woman smiled. ‘Father Bernard knows only his vows to God, master,’ she said.

The man in black revolved the hat in his hands as if inspecting the brim for dust. The priest, he thought, was clearly some sort of fanatic, one of those lollards who denied the authority of Mother Church. His eyes flicked to the woman and at once flicked back to a nail sticking out of the wall above the fireplace.

‘Tell me about the garden, will you?’ he said, with what he hoped was a friendly grin. ‘Where do the plants come from? They must have cost a pretty penny!’

‘How would a simple wench like me know where the plants come from, master?’ asked the woman, her fingers running through the cat’s fur from tail to neck. ‘I always tell the children that the seeds form wherever the sun weeps, but I don’t know the truth of the matter.’

‘Who tends the garden? Father Whiting? Where is he now?’

‘Baptising Sally Moleskin’s daughter, born out of wedlock Wednesday was a week.’

‘Baptising an illegitimate child without a dispensation? The bishop has expressly forbidden it.’ In his mounting excitement the stranger’s eyes darted from tongs to wood-basket, from wood-basket to kettle then back again to tongs. Here, truly, was a catch to weigh in with the heaviest! Before the judgement throne this priestly lunatic would condemn himself ten times over out of his own blasphemous mouth. The prize-money would be prodigious, the conflagration spectacular! Already he was formulating the indictment in his head, listening to the sentence as the Grand Inquisitor pronounced it, basking in the frightened glances of women and children as he approached the quaking heretic to minister the last rites by the light of the torches…

And the woman! Just a passing mention of her relationship with Father Whiting (the bishop wanted all such scandals smothered), an inventory of the contents of this kitchen, a thumbnail sketch of her appearance… trials for witchcraft always drew the crowds. Two such birds with one stone! Preferment beckoned surely this time. This was his lucky day!

And yet, and yet… she was certainly attractive. Although no youngster himself, he too knew the pangs of the flesh, and he was not ill-looking, he thought, in a gaunt kind of way. His eyes stroked the tabby’s fur along with her fingers. What a crowning achievement it would be if he could share her sheets while plotting her destruction! Finger by finger he pulled off his gloves, then rubbed his palms together.

‘My poor dear woman,’ he mumbled to the butter-churn. ‘You are in a sorry pickle, indeed you are.’

Her puzzled gaze made him squirm somewhat. ‘I, master?’ she said. ‘I’m the one as does the pickling hereabouts!’

He gave a nervous bark of laughter. ‘My poor dear woman, in yourself you are as innocent as the sucking babe. But you are fast becoming corrupted. You have no notion of Father Whiting’s wickedness. I must explain.’

‘Explain, master? I’m sure there’s no need to explain. There’s some things need no explaining.’

Once again his eyes made a bound to hers and away. In his fancy the air between them swam like the atmosphere over a fire. He started to twine one of his gloves round the other till they were locked in an inextricable embrace. His lips peeled back from his gums in another effort at a friendly smile. ‘Poor foolish creature,’ he murmured. ‘It is my wretched duty to shatter your illusions. This Father Whiting you so admire – this hedge-priest, this heretic – is an irredeemable scoundrel.’ The space between them tightened as he leaned towards her. ‘A scoundrel, and more than a scoundrel. He is a devil. He has broken every edict human and divine. He has married and begotten children in violation of his holy profession. He has expended money, time and labour on the cultivation of luxuries, which should have been devoted to the pastoral care of his flock. He has flagrantly disregarded the bishop’s edicts. And it would not surprise me if he were a poacher’ – gesturing at the pheasants and the venison – ‘or a practitioner of the Black Arts’ – with a gesture at the crow. ‘In conclusion, woman, Father Whiting is damned to everlasting torment. But this is not the sum of his malignancy. Alas, woman, his most unpardonable crime is this: that he has drawn your hapless self into the trains of his infernal schemes. He has ensnared your soul with lascivious blandishments, glutted your tender flesh with sensuous drafts and the dishes of venery. Unless you change your ways at once, my child, you will find yourself impaled on a spit by his side in the blackest pit of Purgatory. Do you understand your danger?’

He rose several inches in his chair as he spoke, and finally fixed her with a terrible glare, pinning her down as if with red-hot pokers. ‘Oh heavens, master,’ she whispered. ‘Is that so? What shall I do, master? How shall I be saved?’

The stranger held her in his gaze a moment longer, then released her with a shuddering sigh. She was well netted. He reached into the folds of his cloak and drew forth a scroll tied up with red ribbon. ‘You are a good woman at heart,’ he announced as he plucked at the knot with his nails, ‘and you have already taken the first step towards salvation. The second is almost as simple.’ The ribbon dropped to the floor and the scroll flew open in his hands. ‘I have here a precious document entrusted to me by my superiors. It is a simple declaration, nothing to be alarmed at, attesting to my conviction of your innocence. You need only sign along the dotted – but I forget, you do not write. A mark will do, and then I can guarantee your safety.’

He reached the scroll towards her. As her hand closed round it a shudder ran down his spine. She studied the legal script for several minutes with some intensity before he realized she was holding it upside down. He smirked to himself and fumbled once again among his garments.

‘Here is pen and ink. When you have completed the form I must ask you to accompany me to my residence for a short interrogation – you are familiar with church bureaucracy…’ The laughter of children filtered through the leaves at the kitchen window. ‘When the inquisition is over you shall never be troubled again.’

The woman perched on her stool, the scroll in one hand, the pen in the other. The late afternoon sun was screened by a hedge of yew so that the room lay thick with shadows. The cauldron bubbled and belched. A log fell in the fire sending up a flock of sparks. Solitary flames twirled on the tips of twigs, red-hot caverns roared amidst the geology of crumbling wood. A heavy odour clung about the stranger’s nostrils; his forehead glistened with perspiration. Truly the woman had a presence; the air fairly crackled with the electric charges that shot between them.

‘Well, master,’ she said, rising and crossing to the dresser (how catlike every movement!). ‘What a blessing it is that you troubled yourself to visit me in my wickedness! I might never have known I was treading the path to perpetual pain. How can a simple wench repay such kindness?’ A thousand answers jostled at his lips, but before he could speak she had turned to him holding a bowl. ‘Would you care for a drop of stew, sir? Nothing special, but Father Bernard loves it dearly.’

The stranger smirked and smirked. A libation – a thank-offering! And how charming that she should put her life in his hands along with a mess of pottage! ‘With all my heart,’ he said, rising likewise and moving towards the cauldron. As he bent over it, the fire cast shadows like horns from his bushy eyebrows.

‘It is always pleasing to encounter gratitude in my line of work,’ he went on. ‘Too often the instrument is mistaken for the instigator, the slave blamed for the caprices of his master, the effect condemned instead of the cause. You and I and Father Whiting are all of us no more than tools in the hand of that inscrutable craftswoman, Dame Fortune. What a delectable aroma!’ His nostrils dilated. ‘Mine is an unpleasant vocation, certainly, but the job must be done and a strong spirit is needed to do it. Yet to tell the truth, there are moments when it palls on me. Moments when I find myself seized with an irresistible passion for one of those I must betray – be it a frail young monk unable to combat heretical thoughts or a handsome woman like yourself – seized with a passion beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. A strange phenomenon, don’t you think?’ The bubbles bulged, swelled and popped like the turbulence in his stomach. ‘Tell me, woman, what is in the stew?’

At this point the woman, who was standing behind him, dropped the bowl so that it smashed to pieces on the floor. In the same movement she bent, seized the stranger by the heels and tipped him over the lip of the cauldron. Gravy slopped into the flames, hissing venomously. As he kicked, his boots flew off to reveal his cloven hooves, his tail disengaged itself from the sinking cloak. Fingers of steam groped up the chimney, fumbled the woman’s pointed features, poked among the fragments on the floor. She stirred the pottage twice before she replied.

‘Devilled kidneys,’ she said.

 

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article-1252250-08578F66000005DC-683_468x312One day she came in to find him sitting at the computer, his face streaming with tears. ‘What on earth’s the matter?’ she asked, thinking he had got an e-mail to say that another of his friends was dead. ‘I’ve found the website for my memories,’ he said.

She looked, and saw sunlight spilling from the monitor, lighting up the tracks of his tears on his poorly-shaven cheeks. As her eyes adjusted to the screen’s brightness she glimpsed willows by a river, sunlight glinting on water, tiny insects dancing in the sunbeams, while peals of birdsong and distant bells poured out of the speakers. Everything was as clear and precise as a sudden recollection that catches you unawares when you’re busy with something else. Tears gathered in her eyes too; that kind of precision is reserved for memories of childhood and youth, and is in itself a trigger for nostalgia regardless of the thing remembered. Gently she stretched out her hand and moved and clicked the mouse so that the picture vanished from the screen. Then she shut down the computer.

He sat staring at the silent machine, the storm of his grief subsiding as she held him in her arms from behind. At last he stirred and turned to smile at her. ‘That was extraordinary,’ he said. ‘But why did you switch it off?’

She laughed. ‘I didn’t know the river with the willows,’ she said. ‘It must be something you remember from before we met. I suppose I was jealous, thinking you could grieve so much for the life you led then. Stop living in the past, my love! Now’s the time to be making memories we can share.’

‘But my darling,’ he said, and stood up, rubbing his eyes. The room was dark and empty, but when he ground the heels of his hands into his eyeballs the darkness was filled with sparks of light like tiny insects dancing.

A little later he went into the kitchen and made himself a pot of fresh coffee. Then he came back carrying a steaming, fragrant mug and turned on the computer again. ‘Memories we can share,’ he said, adjusting his glasses. He ran his eyes up and down the list of options, looking for a suitable search engine.

Possible Worlds

UNICORNWhen J99 opened the door to the headmaster’s study she was blinded by the light blazing in from the window behind his desk. She had to stand motionless for a while to let her eyes adjust to the glare; but she was damned if she was going to stand where he could watch her in her ugly new clothes, her raw new body. Shielded by the door, she screwed up her eyes and peered into the room to see if she could make out where he was lurking. Was that him, over by the shelves in the corner with a book in his hand? He had the ability to make himself almost transparent when he chose to, as if he was only ever partly present in any place where he happened to be.

‘Come in, J99, come in,’ he called in his quavering voice, and that too sounded somehow absent, as if the sound was coming from a great distance, from a place where he was terribly busy, though he could spare you a precious minute or two as long as you weren’t too demanding. ‘Won’t you take a seat? I’ve been looking forward to our little chat.’
J99 edged into the room and quickly sat in the huge leather armchair that faced the desk. Like everything else in the school it was worn almost to redundancy, and the deep impression in its seat had clearly been made by a backside much larger than hers; she had to sit forward on the hard ridge at the front of the chair to prevent herself sliding backwards into the smooth bowl in the middle.

The headmaster shut the book he had been studying and placed it carefully back on the shelf. Then he shuffled to the desk and sat behind it, so that it formed a protective barrier between himself and his pupil.

He was a tall, stooped man with a mass of white hair which caught the sunbeams and burned as if on fire. His small round glasses flashed too, and she was dazzled again as she tried to meet his eyes. ‘So, J99. I’ve been reading your plan for a project, and I have to say I’m impressed. Most unusual, my dear. We’ve not had a plan like this in all my years at the school; and I can tell you I have been here for a very long time. A very long time indeed.’
‘Of course,’ he went on, leaning back in his own chair until his head must be nearly touching the window pane, ‘of course it’s quite impossible. It simply can’t be done. But to have thought of it shows an inventiveness, a real originality which deserves some credit. Well done, J99. Well done.’

This was unexpected. When she had shown the plan to her class teacher, Q3, the prim little woman had almost had a fit. ‘Are you quite mad, J99?’ She’d cried. ‘If this is your idea of a joke it’s in very poor taste. Good God, girl: we’ve given you the biggest opportunity you could wish for – the biggest opportunity anyone could wish for – and you throw it back in our teeth like… like rubbish. The headmaster shall hear of this. Now go and stand in the corridor for the rest of the lesson. Use the time to think about what you’ve done.’

Standing in the dimness of the corridor, listening to the soft murmur from the classrooms and shifting her weight from foot to foot as each got tired of bearing her weight, J99 had had plenty of time to think about what she’d done. She also had time to think about her school uniform and how she hated it. A new hole had appeared in her shirt where she’d caught it on the corner of her desk as she left the class: the fabric of shirt and skirt seemed to tear as easily as paper. In fact, they were probably made from paper, since paper seemed to be the one thing they had plenty of in this threadbare institution, and the clothes didn’t need to last long – in most cases, just a few weeks, till the pupils had had their plans approved and moved on. She wondered how long it would take for her plan to be approved. And she wondered what would happen if it was not. Nobody had ever told her what happened then.

Putting her finger through the rent in her shirt, the tip of it brushed her stomach and she jumped as she always did when something unexpectedly touched her flesh. She remembered this feeling from adolescence: the feeling that all your nerves were acutely sensitive, that your skin had been stretched to breaking-point by a recent spurt of growth, that all the defensive layers of your body were peeling off one by one…

She had hated being a teenager, hated it with a passion. When she woke in the sick room and found herself young again – smooth skin, soft hands and stick-thin legs – she had screamed and hit out in rage and horror, and the matron and under-matron had had to hold her down till she was calmer. How dare they do this to her, she shrieked? After all those years of struggle, all the marches, all the verbal fighting and the censorship; after childbirth, divorce, grief, old age, cancer and death; to find the laughter-lines and frown-lines erased, the stretch-marks smoothed away, the scars wiped off – it was as if the School Board had contrived to censor the whole of her past, to remove all trace of who she was in one triumphantly dismissive gesture. And to be subjected once again to the contempt of adults – to have lost even that grudging respect her enemies had given her when they found she would not capitulate, would not be bought… and to return to the state of utter powerlessness, of unfocused desires and seemingly endless frustration… For the first few days after waking she had thought she would go mad every time she met her own eyes in the sick-room mirror, or met the gently condescending eyes of the under-matron. Her disgust with her new young body was even more intense, in fact, than her disgust with her paper clothes.

So why was she behaving like this, she wondered? Why make things difficult for herself? Why not simply do as she was told and escape from this hell-hole as soon as she could?
The headmaster had come round to the front of the desk and was leaning against it, looking down at her with a benevolent smile. People were always looking down at her here. ‘Yes, you have an imagination to die for,’ he observed, and there was perhaps a hint of menace in his words. ‘Think of what you could do with it if you chose! Don’t waste it, J99. Why don’t you use it to put together a workable plan?’

She looked up at him curiously, conscious of the awkwardness of her position, wondering if she should stand up too, put herself closer to his level. Yes, there was menace in his words; but wasn’t there also something else? What was it? Could it be respect? Could it be… fear? ‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, ‘but I think the plan I have is workable. Why shouldn’t it be?’

He frowned and folded his arms. In one of his hands he held a silver pen, and now he tapped his mouth with it as if warning himself not to blurt out something rash. ‘I’m sorry, J99, but it really isn’t. You’ll have to take my word for it; I’ve had years of experience with this sort of thing. The plans we approve involve possible worlds, not impossible ones. Take the world you knew, tweak it a bit, improve it in one or two tiny ways – just to make your own life a little more comfortable, a little more fulfilled – and be content with that. What you propose is simply too extreme. Too – how shall I say? – Utopian.’

‘I don’t see why,’ she said. ‘The changes I suggested didn’t involve anything physical at all; just a change of attitude. Why shouldn’t that work? It’s happened before, on my world. Or so the historians tell us.’

‘Not just a change of attitude,’ the headmaster said solemnly, wagging his finger at her so that the silver pen danced before her eyes. ‘What you describe as a change of attitude is in fact a change of heart; a fundamental alteration of the composition of the human body and mind. Let me tell you a story, J99.’ And he settled himself more securely on the desk, placing the pen at his side and folding his hands around one of his knees in a calculated display of relaxation.

‘Not long ago – no more than a hundred years or so – another young woman was sent to me; a girl very much like yourself. Much the same age, and now that I come to think of it, her hair was a lovely auburn just like yours… She came to me with a plan which you might think even simpler and easier to execute than your own. She wanted a world where unicorns exist. That’s all. All her life, she said, she’d dreamed of meeting a unicorn; and now that she’d come to this place and found out she could in theory have her wish, nothing anyone said could put her off. Of course, other girls had dreamed the same thing; every little girl loves the thought of a unicorn, and it’s sometimes taken us weeks to explain to our pupils about the consequences of putting one into your plan; the effect it would have on the ecosystem, on the structure of belief systems, on human culture generally. An intelligent, long-lived mammal with a single very valuable and deadly horn and a predilection for – well – for unmarried women: think of the repercussions such a creature would have on the way people thought and acted throughout the world? Every other girl allowed herself to give up the dream at last, persuaded that a unicorn was not worth the damage it would do to their overall plan, the disruption it would cause in the organization of reality itself. Every other girl who has passed through our hands has finally seen reason.
‘This girl though – J52, her name was: this girl was different. Nothing would do but a world with unicorns, and nothing we said would change her mind. I was not very well at the time – not very alert, not very present; brought low, perhaps, by a fit of ennui, a bout of mild depression, a touch of flu. In the end I let myself be persuaded to approve her plan. It really was quite an ingenious one – as fully conceived as yours – and I thought, fool that I was, that it might be worth trying. We processed it, we had it evaluated, costed and sketched in all its details, then we sent her down to the workshops and waited till the recommended germination period was over. A week after the project was set in motion I sent one of the teachers to see how it was getting on. Shall I tell you what she found?’
J99 shifted in her seat, trying to get comfortable. ‘Wonderland?’ she said rudely.
‘No, J99. Not Wonderland. Not any land at all, in fact, nor any world, nor any thing, but a young girl lying on the floor of the workshop, a little putrid – a little smelly – with a round hole in the middle of her chest, just there – ’ and he leaned forward to poke J99 in the sternum, tearing another small hole in her shirt as he did so and almost pushing her backwards into the pit of her chair. ‘A hole just the circumference of an animal’s horn; say the horn of a narwhal.’ He smiled again, and took off his spectacles to wipe them with his handkerchief.

‘We could never use Workshop 7 again,’ he went on. ‘It was permanently damaged. You see, her plan wasn’t viable; her world didn’t work; and the whole school system was thrown off kilter as a result. The generators were drastically overloaded, several fuses blew, and the bio-units in the science lab dipped below optimum temperature for the first time in the school’s history. We only managed to get things back on track after seven years’ hard labour, which involved all the teachers and pupils in the school as well as all the technicians. And the loss of Workshop 7; well, it’s been a disaster. Our production rate has never regained its former levels, and the volume of wastage has increased fivefold. We can’t let it happen again. That’s why we’re so very careful now about the projects we approve. We can’t afford over-ambition. We can’t afford irrationality or self-indulgence. Tried and tested formulae are all we’ll allow. After all, you know the old saying: better the world you know and love…’

‘I never loved the world I came from,’ said J99 sullenly. ‘At least, I loved some parts of it. The trees, you know, and the sunshine,’ and she gestured at the window, beyond which she could now make out the sunbeams streaming between branches. ‘But the way people treated each other; the injustice and the cruelty. I hated that. I hated it almost as much as I hate this place.’

The headmaster clucked his tongue reprovingly. ‘Such negativity!’ he said. ‘You hated your world, you hate this school… And yet you propose to construct your own new personal world on the model of this building, and populate it with the people you’ve met here. Why?’

‘Because this is the place that needs changing,’ said J99. ‘If I made a new world, a perfect one, it wouldn’t need anything doing to it. I’d be perfectly happy, always. But I’d also remember every day my unhappiness in this place, and in the other place I lived in. The other place is too big to change – too big for me to change by myself, I mean. But this place; this is just the right size. I can imagine changing it completely, every inch of it, every atom. And I can imagine the way the people in it could be if it were just a little different. How Q3 and the other teachers could be if they weren’t so utterly miserable, if they weren’t so resentful of the children in their classrooms, of the happiness they’re capable of, of the dreams they’re brave enough to dream of making real. I can even imagine how you could be, if there were no such thing as headmasters.’

This time it was the headmaster who shifted uncomfortably on the desk, trying to maintain his look of casual but kindly disdain. He cleared his throat. ‘J99, I’m frankly disappointed in you,’ he said. ‘I had hoped we could have a lengthy heart-to-heart, a free and open discussion of the things you’ve already discussed with your teacher. But I can see such a thing would be quite useless. You have entrenched yourself in your position, and nothing I or anyone else can say will ever alter that. So I have just one more thing to ask you. Will you draw up a new plan, along the lines recommended by the School Board? Or will you stick to your current plan, even if it risks not being approved? I should tell you in all confidence,’ he added, ‘that there is no chance on earth – this one or any other – that it will proceed to project status. And I think you can guess what the consequences will be if it does not.’

J99 drew her legs up under her and got to her feet. She felt as unsteady as she had when she first woke in the sick room. ‘No, sir,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I can guess what the consequences will be. Won’t you tell me?’

The headmaster sprung to his feet with surprising agility and placed his hand on her shoulder. Outwardly, he seemed as casual and courteous as ever. But there was a stiffness and awkwardness about his movements that suggested that he was in an acute state of inner turmoil.

‘I’m sorry, J99,’ he said. ‘The School Board forbids us to disclose that information. You will have to make up your mind without possessing it. Well, what’s it to be? A new world, a perfect one, an exclusive heaven all for yourself; or – disapproval, nullity, rejection? I think you’ve experienced rejection many times in your former life. Do you really want to suffer that again?’

This was J99’s cue to smile. When she smiled, although she didn’t know it, her face looked much older than when it was still. She brushed a stray strand of hair from her cheek and relaxed for the first time since entering the headmaster’s study.

‘I’m used to it,’ she said. ‘I’ll stick with the plan I’ve got.’

The headmaster gave a deep sigh and rubbed his eyes under his round glasses. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

Leaning across his desk, he struck a brass bell with the palm of his hand. A clear, sweet sound rang out, the loveliest sound J99 had heard in this school full of muted voices and muffled yearnings.

The door opened and the energetic young teacher S26 put his head in. ‘Yes, headmaster?’

‘I’m sorry to say that J99 has made her decision. She will tell you what it is, and I would ask you to do the necessary for her. Well, J99,’ he concluded, holding out his hand for her to shake. ‘I’ve enjoyed our conversation, even if it hasn’t ended the way I’d hoped. I wish you all the best for the future, and if ever you find yourself in this part of the universe again, do look us up, won’t you? We like to stay in touch with our former pupils.’

To J99 it seemed that he had begun to disappear again, and when she put her hand in his she could hardly feel it: it might have been a gust of moist warm air brushing her fingers. As she turned to follow S26 she noticed that the headmaster was now between her and the window, and she fancied that she could see the windswept branches of the forest through the dusty folds of his scholar’s gown.

He stood looking out of the window for what seemed hours, until a sharp knock came at the study door and S26 put his head in again. ‘It’s done, headmaster,’ he chirped with his usual air of vacuous efficiency. ‘I’ve never known a pupil go under so quickly. Her heart seemed to have stopped before I’d pressed the plunger. Shame, I must say. She seemed like such a bright kid when she first woke up.’

‘Have T49 put her clothes in the incinerator,’ said the headmaster without turning round. ‘And her body had better go for recycling. It’s in excellent condition.’

He hardly heard the door close: he was concentrating too hard on controlling the pain he felt in his own throat, where a lump had formed as large and round as an apple. His vision, too, seemed to have gone all blurry; the sunlight really hurt his eyes. Once again he squeezed them under his glasses; squeezed them till coloured lights flashed in the retinas. When he took his fingers away he saw a white horse standing between the tree-trunks. It was hard to tell at this distance, but it looked as though there were something protruding from the middle of its forehead.

Jealous Gods

little-mount-ararat-michele-burgessThe High Priest of the Sun stood on a little hill and lifted high his palsied gloves before the multitude. He was older than the hill he stood on, and somewhere in the course of his many reincarnations had lost the use of his eyes, his ears, his taste-buds and his sphincter muscles. On his head he wore a massive jewel-encrusted crown of seven layers: gold, silver, bronze, tin, wood, glass, and salt. The topmost layer had rather changed its shape in a recent downpour. His robes were made of seven-ply cloth of gold, which rendered them hot and stiff. There was a small bench attached inside so that when he got tired during a ceremony – which he often did – he could seat himself comfortably and still give the appearance of standing upright, supported by the rigid folds of his inner garment. His face was a mass of wrinkles, the sightless eyes deeply recessed in his delicate skull.

When the High Priest got agitated his jawbone sometimes detached itself due to weaknesses in the condylar process and the masseter. So a skilled ventriloquist was standing by, ready to take over his speech in the event of an awkward silence. There was ample room for the ventriloquist in the hollows of the old man’s cloak, which was half a mile long with a pearl to every inch.

The High Priest of the Sun raised high his palsied gloves before the multitude, dropped his jaw so that saliva dribbled down his chin, and nudged the ventriloquist with his foot, warning him to pay close attention.

‘Brethren!’ he cried, in stern and ringing tones. ‘Or children, or sinners, or Chosen Ones – depending on your preference. We are gathered together in this place, as well you know, from every corner of this vast terrestrial orb, or plain, or shell, for an experiment. An experiment on a scale never attempted since the creation – or big bang, or birthing of the world, or hatching of the cosmic egg, whichever takes your fancy. We are all here, emissaries from every known religion, devotees of every known cult, firm in faith and ambitious in design, glorying in the honour of our temples, churches, or sacred geographical features, and inspired by the sight of this, the grandest mountain in this or any other dimension…’

At this point there was a resounding crack, and the High Priest’s chin flapped uselessly on his scrawny neck. Inside the folds of his cloak the ventriloquist gave a start and ruffled hastily through his manuscript.

‘…in …in …in order to participate in a test unprecedented in human history.’

As he spoke, officers picked for the clarity of their voices roared the speech to one another, relaying it to the ears of the millions who had gathered in the shadow of Mount Shi in obedience to the summons of the High Priest of the Sun. One officer shouted to the next what the High Priest was saying, the next bawled the same words to his nearest neighbour, and so on, so that gradually more and more of the priests, shamans, god-kings, acolytes and faithful believers found themselves nodding in agreement, and a ripple of movement, a faint swell of sound ran over the surface of the crowd like a cat’s paw of wind over the surface of a quiet ocean.

‘We are here, worthy brethren, to move Mount Shi.’

A murmur rose from the first to hear this. Then gradually, as the sentence was relayed about the throng, the murmur grew to a rumble, and the rumble to a steady throb that vibrated in the soles of the High Priest’s cork-heeled shoes. The crowd’s anticipation was palpable; and the farthest section of that unprecedented congregation was only beginning to voice it a quarter of an hour after the nearest had fallen silent.

The priest, his gloves still quivering in the air, gave his head a shake to try and relocate his jaw. He must keep his arms extended skywards, for if once he lowered them he would lose the right to continue speaking. But he had remembered something he had omitted from the ventriloquist’s notes. Something important. Something on which their very lives might depend… He shook his head, and nodded it, and wagged it wildly round and round. Drool from his gaping mouth splashed the ventriloquist in his hiding place, but that highly-trained professional had been instructed to ignore the physical symptoms of his master’s decrepitude. Safe in his nest, he rustled his papers importantly and carried on, uplifted with the excitement of addressing so large a multitude.

‘Brethren!’ he cried. ‘Brethren! Our researches indicate that you have all included in the tenets of your religions – enshrined as a saying or a song, a hieroglyph, a rune, or a meaningful gesture – the unshakeable conviction that Faith Moves Mountains. Today we shall test that conviction. Today we shall discover the true religion, the One True God!’

Another half-hour murmur thundered about the plain beneath the snow-capped mass of Mount Shi. Behind the mountain, dawn was crouching ready to brindle the horizon. The clouds flocked by in small pink herds, unconscious of the imminent approach of morning. A few of the faithful chosen souls had fallen asleep where they stood or knelt or lay, patiently waiting for their own particular officer-interpreter to relay the High Priest’s latest words.

‘The experiment will be conducted as follows. Each of you will stand or kneel or lie facing the mountain; and each shall call out, in a stern and ringing voice, the following command (or some suitable modification that conforms to your own theological perspective): IN THE NAME OF GOD, BE THOU REMOVED AND BE THOU CAST INTO THE SEA. If you turn your heads you will see the Ocean of Pish directly behind your backs.’

This news was greeted with a rustle as of wind-tossed leaves in a mighty forest, as every individual turned to get a look at the distant waters glittering between the dark silhouettes of the western hills. Then all eyes turned again to the tiny figure of the Priest, perched on his hummock at the mountain’s feet. The sun was beginning to stretch and yawn behind Mount Shi, scattering rays of light from its tousled mane.

‘As the organizer of this experiment,’ cried the ventriloquist, his voice breaking a little with emotion, ‘I claim the privilege of initiating this holy procedure.’

Together, High Priest and Ventriloquist revolved until they were facing eastwards. Trembling now with faith as well as palsy – trying to dismiss from his mind the nagging anxiety that refused to let him be – the High Priest lifted his sightless eyes to the sheer West Face of the holy peak. He stood up straight in his cork-heeled shoes, raised his arms a little higher and cleared his throat. Then the ventriloquist stepped forth out of the shadow of his cloak, and cried aloud in the sternest and most ringing tones he could muster:

‘Three pounds of tomatoes! A carrot! Take two large onions, chop them to bits, and fry until transparent!’

The officers began to repeat the words, then clamped their lips suddenly shut and looked round in amazement at the High Priest of the Sun. The ventriloquist went bright red, muttered, ‘I beg your pardon… I must have got my notes muddled up…’ and vanished into the protection of the cloak. The High Priest nodded his head and let his arms drop to his sides. His eyes popped out of their sockets, his tongue unfurled itself from between his mottled gums, and slowly, very slowly he subsided into the recesses of his gown. His sphincter muscles gave a final, brief convulsion. His heart ceased to beat, warmth died away in his brain, and his soul departed thankfully, already looking forward to its next incarnation. It thought it would try something more modest this time: a newt, perhaps, or some sort of crawling insect. A creature without voice or ambitions, and highly unlikely to live to a ripe old age.

Meanwhile the ventriloquist, eager to distract attention from his master’s collapse and his own unfortunate part in it, squeaked ‘Your turn now!’ and dived to the ground with his hands over his ears.

There was a long, long pause as the officers explained the situation to the multitude. With uncharacteristic patience, the first to hear the ventriloquist’s invitation waited in utter silence as the word spread abroad. Heads bowed in thought, hands clasped on their stomachs, they concentrated on summoning every ounce of their spiritual energy for the momentous challenge to come. Then, as the last officer barked the three-word phrase to the most distant members of that innumerable assembly, every priest, shaman, god-king, acolyte and faithful believer on the plain before Mount Shi raised his or her head with the fire of fanaticism flashing in his or her eyes. Every religious leader on the earth’s surface adjusted his or her stance minutely, planting his or her feet firmly in the churned-up sand, straightening his or her spine and rising to his or her full height. A million gazes fixed themselves on the snow-covered peak of the mountain. A million throats gave a nervous cough, and a few rocks were dislodged by the sound from the serrated ridge above the High Priest’s promontory. A million voices trumpeted, in a thousand different languages, in the sternest and most ringing tones they could manage, some variation on the command with which they were all so familiar:

‘IN THE NAME OF GOD, BE THOU REMOVED AND BE THOU CAST INTO THE SEA!’

It was at this moment that the ventriloquist belatedly realized what the High Priest had been trying to say. ‘One at a time! One at a time!’ he squealed with all his might. Nobody heard him.

With a thunderous groan the mountain gave a heave and cracks ran across its many faces. It rumbled like a very large man with toothache; roared like a beast in intolerable pain; and finally howled in a terrifying all-consuming shriek. Boulders tore themselves loose from their age-old moorings in its flesh, then bounded down as if exulting in their brief mobility and drove furrows through the screaming crowd. A huge crack opened in the earth at the mountain’s feet, and the little hill on which the High Priest’s lifeless form still stood – still attended by the ventriloquist, whose hands were still clamped firmly over his ears – subsided into the depths. More cracks ran across the plain, opening rifts between segments of the crowd into which screaming knots of faithful believers tumbled, clinging to one another as passionately as they had ever clung to their convictions. Pits opened here or there like wounds and the earth’s fiery blood squirted out of them, drenching god-kings and acolytes without discrimination. Dust rose in a choking cloud that clogged the lungs and filled the mouth. Interpreter-officers ran about madly, their mouths wide open as if still discharging their offices, relaying fear from ear to ear till they plunged into an abyss or were crushed beneath a falling lump of granite. Priests, shamans, monks, nuns, prophets, faithful believers, and believers who had been seized with sudden doubt – all found themselves unceremoniously stripped of life and tumbled into a chaotic common burial ground. And Mount Shi began to slide. It slid across the plain, between the western hills and into the seething Ocean of Pish, where it vanished from mortal sight and mind, never to be seen again in this or any other dimension.

As the mountain sank beneath the waves a cloud of steam obscured the sky from horizon to horizon. But before this happened, in the lull before the final storm, the sun appeared in the space where the mountain had been standing.

Dawn came, and the birds in the nearby forest began to sing.