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.

The Islands of the Blessed

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The Western Isles mark the outermost bounds of human knowledge. East of their sands I have scanned the world from the wings of experience and found it wanting. Westward lies the sea, and beyond that, some say the world’s edge, others the Islands of the Blessed. But I have different expectations. I am a counter of things: I have numbered the hairs on a man’s shin, the blades of grass in a prince’s lawn, the endless combinations of the clouds – everything can be reduced to figures, and the sum of my calculations I proclaim forthwith: all is vanity. But being of an optimistic cast of mind I am offering life one last chance to prove me wrong before I dispense with it altogether. Here is my plan.

They say there is a pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow; but I am concerned with greater riches. Every day for untold ages a sun has dropped behind the horizon, sometimes as a great gold coin, sometimes a ruby or a diamond. The accumulated treasure beyond the world’s end could buy heaven and earth a thousand times over. But material wealth means nothing to me; the purpose of my journey is different. I mean to travel to that heap of suns and engage in one last dazzling feat of arithmetic, counting them by hundreds and thousands, with the help of my faithful tally stick, until I have found out what I wish to know: the value of existence, the total sum of days and weeks and years, and whether it is worth it, after all. If yes, then I shall fill my leather bag and return to the world to take up a position worthy of my venture: a warrior-king, an archpriest or a prophet. If no – then I shall let the suns consume me, content to vanish from the face of the earth and be forgotten, like my nameless forefathers before the days of tally sticks and coins.

Of all the petty human race the Western Islanders are the pettiest. Thirty-three – no more – have gathered on the beach to see me off, all ignorant of my vision. The white-bearded Headman leans on his decrepit wife among a gaggle of elders. Children hop in and out of my boat where she rests on the greyish sands. They have stocked her with rations enough to last me many weeks, although the dullest eye can see that the horizon is only five hours’ journey distant, and when I have arrived at my destination I do not expect to need corporeal nourishment.

The boatbuilder hangs between his crutches scrutinizing his handiwork, head sunk between his shoulders. The other onlookers are shepherds and fishermen with weather-blackened faces, rosy island girls, hags swathed in shawls with eyes as dull as rocks among the heather. A little way off the village cow crops the bitter sea-grass. A bird bobs on a nearby rock, making the noise of two pebbles clicking together in a schoolboy’s pocket. I long to throw off these barren regions and attain the vivid country of my dreams, where objects stand forth each from each in bold shapes and brilliant colours, all obedient to the eternal laws of geometry. These farewells have been protracted beyond endurance.

The Headman creaks a blessing, good wishes scutter from the elders like stones dislodged by my boots. The boatbuilder, who has grown familiar with me through our shared concern with his craft, nods his crushed head between his props.

‘Aye, aye,’ he whines through splintered teeth. ‘There’s wonders abroad on the bottomless deep. I’ve heard tell of savages ten feet tall with skin black as ebony from head to toe. I’ve heard of pygmies two feet high with bones in their noses who blow poison through tubes and devour little children. There’s tales of the anthropopagi whose heads sprout from their chests, whose eyes can pierce the blackest smoke and whose ears can hear the fall of a grain of salt in another room. There’s talk of the leviathan with stones and trees rooted in his back; of monstrous maneating birds and mermaids with breasts of ice. Aye, aye, we builders of boats might as well mould vessels of butter on bonfires as wear our bones to dust carving the seagull’s flight into hard wood that’ll rot at last among the crabs and oysters.’

Before he has half done I have set my shoulder to the boat’s stern and given her a mighty heave. Shepherds and children rush forward to help drag her to the water and shove her out beyond the breakers. Ripples chop against the hull. In these ungainly regions everything is always knocking against everything else! I shall arrange things better when I return from looking on the order of the suns.

The first real swell snatches at the boat’s ribs. I swing myself on board making the vessel lurch. Pebbles grate beneath the keel; for a moment I fear that the next surge will nudge me ignominiously back to shore. But the shepherds give me a final thrust and the ocean sucks me in.

Looking back I see the people gesticulating wildly, but their voices are already lost on the breeze. Could they not have raised a concerted shout, a song perhaps to cheer me on my way? Disgusted by their inadequacy I stumble forward to curl myself in the foresheets, fixing my attention on the brightness in the west. Waves open their glutinous mouths beneath the belly of the boat and I slither down their tongues, bubbles seething to left and right. An eddy and a swirl, then my face is pointing skywards between fleshy walls of water, a pallid lump of firmament clasped between their writhing lips. To my horror the waves are resolving themselves into human shapes, lifting and dropping on every side. Did I not, then, leave humanity gesticulating on the beach? The boat rushes to meet the clouds, which resemble the flabby buttocks of old men; but it has left part of my stomach stranded on the sea-bed.

Enough of frail mortality! My spirit can break free of this fleshly prison whenever it likes – leaving a safety cable anchored in my skull – and speed ahead of this coracle in the wake of the sinking sun. Only a few short hours and I will have reached the land where golden orbs form patterns on the pavement of eternity, where the houses are pillared with sunbeams and roofed with the crystal of the spheres. If only this boat would settle into a steady rhythm! The sea rises and falls, the boat rises and falls, even the clouds toss like seaweed at low tide. My paltry frame has no conception of its destiny. All at once earth, sea and sky dissolve into a single stream that gushes through my body. The boat swoops westwards on the wings of fate, while I crouch retching over the prow.

Just before dark I glimpse the tip of the island’s highest peak as it drops below the horizon. In a fit of facetiousness I compare its disappearance to that of the sun, and wonder whether there might not equally be a mound of islands lying below the eastern edge of the world like a pile of dung, bearing witness to the folly of creation as the suns bear witness to its glory. The sky spins round my head, spray soaks me to the marrow, boreal winds dash in from every side to spear me, as if the finny folk in these parts have turned harpoonist. I have seen men fish in my time, but never before fish men. I shall have one tale to tell, at least, if I return! Another convulsion jars the boat from stem to stern; but whether it was the sea or my body that caused it I cannot say.

Hours later, the sickness at last releases me. The invisible waves tumble on through the night. Wedged between lobster-pots and a water-butt at the bottom of the boat I wonder how far I have come, how much farther I have to go. Do I dare consume some of my rations? At the thought, something stirs in the place where my stomach once was, and I hastily turn my mind to my approaching transfiguration. Within hours I shall have looked on the greatest hoard of them all and either been scorched to cinders or begun my ascent to immortality. Men who were once my equals will become the lowest order of creation by virtue of their very likeness to my image. The earth shall split open at my footfall, planets fling themselves down in homage. Death shall swing from my belt. Words shall issue from my mouth as flames.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment at which the prospect of what I shall become stops being attractive. I know only that I have suddenly started to yearn in the darkness for little fires. Peat fires in hearths blackened by the smoke of generations; the flicker of light in the glaze of a simple pot; flakes of flame flashing in the eyes of a family huddled round a blaze at dead of winter. One among their number tells a story: the tale of the great house that lies below the horizon, pillared with sunbeams, roofed with the crystal of the spheres. Shadows shift on the walls as the tale unfolds, and in each heart there is a little bonfire that whispers and dances in response to the speaker’s words. So that no matter how far the mind may stray, whether to the fever-ridden plains of the anthropopagi or to the glass forests of the Arctic alive with a million rainbow hues beneath the Aurora Borealis, there is always a gentle warmth to greet its return, an answering warmth that flares up when the roofs of the tumbledown homestead hove into view.

What welcome can I expect on my return from the sunny country? Will the boatbuilder glance up from shaping the prow of a smack? Will the Headman hobble down to the dunes leaning on his ancient consort and kiss my cheeks with withered lips, as once he did when I blessed his hovel? But this is frailty, wanderer. On your return there will be no more need of welcomes. Spray drenches me, the boat leaps like a hooked fish, and I am awash with sentiment. I should be ashamed of myself. Am I not more than human? Have I not stretched forth my hand to grasp the celestial orb and drawn myself up alongside it in lonely splendour? Yet here I float on the flood, yearning for a flame, a match, a candle. Surely the boat is spinning in circles, an apt emblem for my frailty.

The sky is light again, the sea no different. But look – as I am shrugged on the shoulder of a wave above the sea’s concupiscent rolling – surely that is land I glimpse rising like dawn from the disorder! In my astonishment I loose my grip on the gunwale and sprawl face downwards in the bilges: for stability in this chaos is a greater miracle than a city of golden spheres! When I top the next wave I find myself closer. In desperation I thrust my hand over the side and paddle till my fingers lose all feeling. At the next crest – heaven be praised! I can almost distinguish rock from heather!

How far have I floated? What land is this? Visions spring unbidden from my memory: of the land where rivers run uphill, where the lotus blooms tended by nymphs of unspeakable beauty with ambergris and jasper in their hair. Visions of bejewelled chimeras, unicorns, golden fruit and the armoured basilisk, the cockatrice, the corkendrill and the solitary firebird. The firebird, hatched from the sun! To this I am transformed as I shrug off the darkness. My nostrils snort the wind in quest of some spicy fragrance. My clothes glow with a tropical warmth, encrusted with salt like coral. All it needs is for the sky to turn a deeper blue and I shall know myself to have entered the odoriferous Indian ocean or the balmy waters off the coasts of Afric. As I have not done since childhood, I raise my feeble voice in a squawk of thanks to the powers that drove me hither over the turbulence.

It seems only moments before I am approaching the shore. I have studied it carefully from a distance to make sure it is no leviathan. The skyline is surely too ragged, the shape too irregular for a fish, however monstrous. A savage climate it seems, scourged by hurricanes, beaten by the tide. A land peopled with primitives who will submit without question to the behest of a golden voyager borne in on the ceaseless surf. And I will be their generous lord: for I no longer despise humanity. My heart leaps in my breast, for here, as if at my summons, a band of natives troops down from behind a promontory to congregate on the dunes. Broken shreds of noise stream past on the wind.

And what a band it is! Giants ten feet tall with skin black as ebony, pygmies no more than two feet high who leap about as if eager for human flesh. One creature appears to be swathed from head to foot in white hair; another is an anthropopagus whose face sprouts from his chest and whose legs spring from his shoulders. Ruddy sirens hang like seagulls above the sands, attended by spirits draped in lichen. And what shaggy beast is this that prowls the middle distance? Surely it is the fabulous cameleopard that stalks the African bush? Legs trembling, I stand erect in my ship to salute the fruitful alien soil. Ever closer skims the boat. My heart soars in my breast.

The keel grates on pebbles, water chops against the hull. Giants and pygmies rush into the shallows sending showers of spray about their knees. They seize the gunwales, cheering and shouting, and draw me up onto the sand. My love for these bright beings is beyond endurance.

Somewhere nearby, an angel spins on a stone, making the noise of two pebbles clicking together in a schoolboy’s pocket.

The Quitting Shop

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The man stood in front of the shop window, hesitating.

He was so much in two minds that his body seemed to have divided itself at the waist, shoulders and ribcage twisted round to face the shop, hips and legs striving to drive him forward towards an important meeting in one of the anonymous streets that stretched out in all directions from this roundabout. A twinge at the base of his backbone promised hours of painful regret for his indecision: he would spend this evening stretched out on the sitting room carpet with the cat crouched on his chest, trying to relax as the unctuous voice of the therapist oozed into his ears through headphones thick with earwax. But his two minds would not be reconciled. He was already late for his meeting – and yet the shop called to him in tones of piercing sweetness, assuring him that the meeting did not matter, that meetings need never matter again if he accepted its promise.

Two things drew him towards the shop. One was its situation on the roundabout, lodged in the middle of a row of shops, its windows humming to the throb of passing traffic. The curve of its façade suggested it had been designed to sit on this roundabout, perhaps at a time when the traffic wasn’t so heavy, when you could easily cross to the circle of grass in the middle of the ring of roads and settle yourself on a bench beneath an ornamental tree, among curved flowerbeds, to enjoy the spectacle of passing horse drawn vehicles, the occasional motor driven by men and women wearing goggles and thick leather gloves. Now crossing the three lanes of traffic towards the grass would be an act of suicide, and there was nothing to cross for anyway, no tree, no bench, no flowers on the central island, just a windswept savannah of badly-mown grass. The shop stared out at a blur of hurtling vehicles, torpedoes aimed at targets far away. It had the look of having been stranded in the middle of nowhere, a symbolic ‘O’ of nullity. Yet that gave it a mysterious aspect, transforming it into a kind of small, neat question. This shop had made the transition from somewhere to nowhere with its dignity intact; there must therefore be something behind or beneath its bland white frontage that gave it a firm foundation, a stable identity, in defiance of time and change. What could it be?

The other thing that drew him to the shop was the sign, painted in fancy letters on a grass green background. He read it again as he stood twisted underneath: THE QUITTING SHOP. A shop that invited you to quit. A shop entirely dedicated to making an end. Quit what? he asked himself. Make an end of what? The windows gave no clue. They were entirely screened by expensive-looking white blinds, pulled down so low you couldn’t get a glimpse of the interior by peering underneath. What was this shop inviting him to quit? Well, his journey to the meeting for a start. Late or not, he would have to go in, he knew it now, despite the familiar knot of anxiety that had lodged itself in his chest, despite the urgent alarm bells sounding in his ears, which told him, as his watch did, that the meeting had already started, that he would be late.

He could still get there, he thought, in less than five minutes. This would make him only fifteen minutes late – quite an acceptable margin if he claimed to have been delayed for some specific reason, rather than just because of incompetence in planning his journey. But extend that narrow margin to thirty minutes – such a stretch of time would put the seal on his inefficiency, mark him out as a business associate you could not trust. He hadn’t taken a mobile number, couldn’t call to offer his excuses in advance. He would fetch up on the doorstep red-faced and sweating, without a decent story to excuse his lateness. Could he come up with a decent story inside the shop? He doubted it: his mind was blank, and for all its pull upon him, its magnetic attraction, it didn’t look the kind of place to inspire invention, to awaken the smooth, soft-spoken eloquence that had eluded him on such occasions throughout his life. It looked small and neat and plain. It had no truck with eloquence.

He twisted his hips around till they were aligned with his chest. He could not help himself; he was obeying impulse. He approached the door.

Inside, the shop was as small and neat and plain as it had looked from the street. Plain white walls, ornamented with a single picture: a square of faded patchwork framed in teak. A counter made of some man-made, fawn-coloured substance, smooth and cool. A door behind the counter with a grass green curtain hanging in front of it. Another door in the back wall of the shop, to the right of the counter, this, too, discreetly veiled by a grass green curtain.

A stage set, he thought, for a modern play, an exercise in minimalism.

Somewhere in the depths of the building a little bell rang to announce his entrance. He walked to the counter and laid a hand on the smooth cool surface, hoping to look as if he had a purpose. And he had a purpose, he suddenly realised. He would ask for directions. He would ask the way to the house where the business meeting was now in progress. He would note the directions down on the square of paper he always kept in the inside pocket of his various suits. Everything fell into position: that was why he had entered the shop, that was how he would explain his actions when he finally arrived, in ten or fifteen minutes, waving the paper with the directions on it as evidence of his resourcefulness. He had done the sensible thing: stopped to make inquiries of a friendly local, who would offer him guidance with the clarity and precision one might expect from the proprietor of a shop as neat as this one. The fact that he was a man who never asked for directions, on account of his consuming shyness, would not occur to the people at the meeting, because they did not know him. He had effectively made himself immune to accusations of incompetence. A warm glow swept across his body from left to right, and he relaxed. He would be late, but it did not matter. He was… well… saved.

No one came.

His contentment drained away as if through the hand lying on the counter. He shifted position. He looked around to see if there was another bell to ring, perhaps on the fawn-coloured front of the plastic counter, perhaps to one side. He knew there was not. Anything as conspicuous as an electric button or a bell pull would have stood out in that plain room like a footprint on the unblemished surface of a field of snow. He allowed his fingers to drum the top of the counter, very softly. He looked at his watch.

It was time to go. His tardiness was getting embarrassing.

Still he did not move. A faint draught was stirring the bottom of the grass green curtain that covered the door to the right of the counter. He peered at it, with studied casualness, out of the corner of his eye. He was still facing the curtain behind the counter, but he could feel his body reorienting itself inside, twisting as it had done outside the shop till it faced in two directions, not just one. His feet pointed at the counter in their polished shoes – the left shoe was a little scuffed, he should give it a rub. His chest and head pointed at the door on the right of the counter. He wanted to walk to it, twitch aside the curtain. It seemed an impossibly bold and dangerous move, a move not to be countenanced. He yearned to make it.

He walked to the door, twitched aside the curtain. It was heavier than he had expected. Was it made of velvet?

Beyond the door his nearsighted eyes took in a rolling expanse of countryside, a patchwork of fields that stretched as far as the eye could see into the hazy distance. He adjusted his glasses. He needed a new prescription, had needed one for many months, there never seemed time to make an appointment at the optician’s. He breathed in the scent of the crops in the patchwork fields: the honey smell of pollen, the wholesome smell of wheat and oats and barley, the soothing fragrance of lavender, the perfume of poppies, the whiff of toadstools hidden in the grass. He hadn’t seen fields like that for ages, hadn’t smelt them for even longer, since he was a child. He took a step forwards –

And tripped on something, and pitched forward, reaching blindly out with both hands to cushion his fall.

He sank into fabric. The fields yielded at his touch and folded round him. Their cargo of vegetation pressed against him like a lover’s cheek. The scent of lavender filled his nostrils. Music sounded, and he closed his eyes, and opened them again to find himself sprawled on a giant quilt, an eiderdown for a child as big as the moon. Stars shone above him, embedded in the ceiling, he assumed, or pinned to the fabric of the sky like a million sequins on an evening gown.

He sighed, and settled deeper into the softness.

*****

quilts

The woman stood in front of the shop window, clutching her bag.

She had known for many weeks that she would enter the shop on a day like this, had planned ahead for this very moment, packing samples and other necessaries in the holdall, putting on her stoutest shoes when she rose this morning – to the excitement of her mother’s dachshund, who thought the shoes must signify a walk. But now she’d arrived at the door she stood there irresolute, hanging fire, unsure if she should step inside or hurry away. No one knew she had meant to come to the shop this morning. She could just as easily have been going to the shopping centre, or returning from it, though the holdall was an odd kind of bag to take to the supermarket. And if she did go to the supermarket after all, and if someone looked inside the bag as she was putting things into it at the till, they might be surprised to see, alongside samples of fabric from her seventh quilt, a floral nightdress, a heavy torch, a first aid kit, a knife. She wasn’t sure herself why she had packed them. The eccentricity of the lonely, she supposed.

She hung outside the window, practically balanced on the tips of her toes, the handles of the holdall clutched in both fists. Why couldn’t she move? She’d been promising herself this visit ever since she’d first seen it, when walking the dachshund in the wrong direction, looking for the park. Though she’d walked that way before – or thereabouts, she couldn’t be sure, all the streets near her mother’s house looked much the same – she hadn’t noticed the shop, she thought, till that afternoon, and only then because the old dachshund had chosen to have a kind of seizure in front of it, throwing itself down on its old bald belly and quivering from head to tail like a wound-up spring. After tending to the dog – which quickly recovered, looking up with an apologetic wag of its whiplash tail as if to say, ‘Sorry! I was just practising! Not dead yet!’, she had glanced up at the sign above the shop as if in search of some kind of clue to the dog’s condition. THE QUILTING SHOP, the sign had said, in fancy letters on a grass green background. Quilting, she’d thought. What a lovely word. And the picture had formed in her mind of an ancient eiderdown of her mother’s, handed down for generations, which lay on the bed in the unused bedroom at the back of the house. A slightly musty-smelling eiderdown, its colours dulled by the passing years, but patterned with ingenuity and exuberance, like a map of a strange but half familiar country.

Quilting, she thought. The construction of a new pattern from old material. I’d like to try that, one day.

She’d taken a mental note of the shop’s location – marked it on the map in her head with a small red dot, as a thing of importance – then picked up the dog and set off back the way she had come. She had joined a sewing club that week, begun her first quilt, completed it in a frenzy of activity inside three weeks, begun another. She didn’t visit the shop, not yet. She must have a reason. It was not the sort of place you could simply enter, as you’d enter a café for a cup of tea. And then, quite suddenly, the reason came. She had run out of fabric half way through her seventh quilt. So unprofessional! Such a lack of foresight! She was sure no self-respecting seamstress in the old days could have so radically underestimated the quantities of fabric needed to complete a simple design. She must get help, as well as fabric. Expert advice. She must visit the shop.

That night she had packed her bag, but she did not go to find the shop the following day. Day after day went by, and she always found reasons for putting off the visit. A trip to the dentist (though this reminded her to put a toothbrush in the holdall). A doctor’s appointment (ditto paracetamol). A shopping expedition in a neighbour’s car (that was when she had bought the folding knife). It was only that morning, when she woke up, that she had known it was the right day. She had thrown in a few more items: a sunhat, a pair of plimsols, a pen and notepad. She had kissed her mother goodbye, and phoned the carers as she walked away, the leather bag bashing her knees like a malevolent substitute for the arthritic dachshund. ‘Are you still all right for tomorrow? Oh good; that’s kind. I shan’t be able to visit for about a week. I’ve stocked her up – frozen meals and such – but I’d be so grateful if you’d just be willing to keep an eye… You’re so sweet, thank you! See you next week!’ Now, as she stood in front of the shop, she wondered what she’d been thinking. The holdall was very heavy, and the shop very small and ordinary – and besides, her mother might be calling for her even now, in that quavering voice that made you think her frail till you made out what she was saying, the commands, the threats, the imprecations.

She had better go home before she made herself look even more of a fool than she was already.

She raised her eyes to the sign. THE QUILTING SHOP, it continued to say. Quilting: the making of something new from something familiar. She took a deep breath and plunged inside, as if she were plunging into the sea on a chilly morning in early June.

Once inside, she gave hardly a glance to the plastic counter, paid no attention to the distant bell. With a resolution that took her by surprise she marched across the brown linoleum to the curtain that concealed the door on the right of the counter. She swept the curtain aside with a theatrical flourish. Then she stood staring across the rolling fields of barley, the fields of wheat and oats and rye, field after field heaving up and down like breakers towards the dim and distant hills. She gripped her holdall and screwed up her eyes against the rays of the setting sun.

Far, far away, on the crest of a hill, she saw a figure marching away towards the sunset. She thought it was a man dressed in a suit, the jacket of which he had taken off and was carrying loosely across his arm.

She set off after him, walking briskly.

After a while she put down the holdall and began to walk faster.

A few minutes later she began to run.