Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Wood for the Trees (2009)

This story is set in India but the style owes more to the early stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the Japanese writer I was reading at the time I wrote the tale. It was published in my TALLEST STORIES collection in 2013. The idea that people marry trees is not an invention, however, but something that does actually happen in certain circumstances. I have hugged many trees in my life but never married any of them...

I’m stopping at Jitvapur now, so I might as well tell you a story connected with this place. Jitvapur seems no different from any other little village in Bihar, which as I’m sure you know is the poorest and most rural district in India, but appearances can often be deceptive.
Just like certain bridegrooms…
Not long before my arrival, there was a wedding here and everybody took part with the gusto typical of such happy events. Needless to say, Jitvapur is a very traditional community and all the customs were strictly observed to ensure a fruitful and fortunate marriage. Even the most absurd superstitions were carefully heeded, so that destiny would have no compelling reason to cause trouble.
The name of the bride was Amrusha, the groom was called Rakesh, they were healthy young people well suited to each other, and everything seemed in its proper place as far as anyone could tell, so a prosperous life together was warmly anticipated by all. There had been a small problem at the beginning of the arrangement, due to the fact that Rakesh was a manglik, but that was sorted out now.
A manglik is a person born under the astrological condition known as mangal dosha. In other words the planet Mars was in the second, fourth, seventh, eighth or twelfth house of the Vedic lunar chart when the individual entered this world. In India the condition is widely believed to be extremely bad for marriage and if a manglik marries a non-manglik the outcome is certain to be death or even divorce! The government of India has repeatedly attempted to discourage this superstition but in regions as remote as Bihar it persists strongly.
Two mangliks may marry each other safely because the negative energies will cancel themselves out. But Amrusha wasn’t a manglik. On the contrary, her horoscope was impeccable. So her match with Rakesh was dangerously unbalanced.
Nonetheless there exists a solution to remove the difficulties. If the manglik submits to the ceremony of kumbh vivah, in which the manglik marries a banana tree or a peepal tree, all the bad luck will be neutralised. Bizarre as it may sound to our ears, people in India do still marry trees, and in fact a famous actress did so just a few years ago. You have probably seen her photograph in newspapers even if you haven’t sat through any of her films.
Anyway, Rakesh had endured the kumbh vivah rituals and married a tree, so the final obstacle to his union with Amrusha had been removed in the approved fashion. He was first taken to the tree in a baraat accompanied by dancing villagers and hired musicians and many of his cousins sang songs to him along the way. Various rites were performed by purohits and he saw that the tree was already decorated as a bride. After the couple were pronounced man and tree the feasting began and the guests offered shagun to Rakesh, which he gratefully accepted.
A ‘baraat’ is a marriage procession in which the groom rides on a horse to meet his bride, while a ‘purohit’ is a wise scholar with a comprehensive knowledge of rituals, and ‘shagun’ is a unit of good luck usually wrapped up like a parcel in a blessing. But Rakesh already knew all that…
Clearly I am explaining for your benefit alone.
That was how his first wedding went and because of its success Rakesh was ready for his second. His horse was a beautiful and noble steed and the musicians played even more sweetly this time and the singers sang with even greater devotion. There was a pervasive but unspoken feeling that this occasion was more authentic than the other and that Amrusha was somehow a more deserving bride than the tree. She certainly looked radiant when he approached her and dismounted.
Suddenly this touching ceremony was disrupted by an intruder…
“What do you think you are doing?” demanded a voice that was powerful and yet insubstantial, as if it issued not from a mouth powered by lungs but on the surfaces of leaves rustled by the wind. Rakesh glanced up.
“I am getting married to Amrusha,” he answered weakly.
“But I’m your wife!” cried the tree.
There was a lengthy pause and everybody involved in the procession shuffled their feet and looked down at the ground, too surprised to even gasp or jump back, but Amrusha kept her nerve and gazed without flinching at the uninvited guest. She decided to explain the situation as clearly and concisely as possible.
“Yes, you are his wife, but only in a symbolic sense. Rakesh is a manglik, you see, and he had to marry you to make it possible to marry me. It was never intended for his marriage to a peepal tree to be taken seriously…”
“A peepal tree? A peepal!”
And now a large branch dipped down with a handful of twigs at its end bunched into a fist and this fist came to rest under the quivering chin of Rakesh. “Bigamist!”
The bridegroom wasted no time in taking to his heels. He ran towards the horizon, his feet throwing up clouds of dust that failed to hide his escape route. With a furious sigh, the tree set off in warmish pursuit, because anything too hot in a wooden lifeform might start a lethal fire, but Rakesh already had a notable headstart. First the tree tried to mount his horse and ride off after the errant husband, but the horse associated the shade of a tree with a rest period and refused to budge. So the tree had to rely on its own motive power. Instead of using its exposed roots as legs, it fell to the ground and began rolling at high speed like a gigantic pencil across a sloping desk. If it caught up with Rakesh it would probably crush him.
It was only at this point or even a little later that the wedding guests realised the tree was a banana.
Amrusha was shocked. “What a scoundrel he was! It seems I’ve had a lucky escape. Good riddance to his kind!”
Because of the distance and fading light, it soon became impossible to see the two receding figures and nobody got to learn if Rakesh reached the safety of the mountains to the north. Perhaps he is still running and the banana tree still rolling. Amrusha remains upset by the whole affair and is still unmarried, but that’s hardly surprising bearing in mind that these events took place only a week ago…
Yes, when I arrived at Jitvapur the story was extremely fresh, even though one of its elements had gone off. It would be hypocritical of me to apologise for that pun, because I intend to deliver another. Where I come from, when a human couple get married they say ‘I do’ to each other but trees only say ‘I would’. That’s a fact.
I did consider calling this story ‘Would for the Trees’ but that play on words seemed inappropriate because none of the characters speak fluent English in public, not even the tree. I’m fond of literary conceits but I do have limits. Having said that, this text does contain at least one other trick, a deliberate deception.
The truth is that I’m not really stopping over at Jitvapur right now. In fact I’ve never even been there. Which makes leaving in the morning much easier.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

An Inconvenient Fruit (2010)

This very brief story is the first in a sequence of absurdist tales featuring a protean character by the name of 'Thornton Excelsior'. The stories were collected in a volume called The Lunar Tickle, one of my personal favourites of my books. The stories tend not to be based on empirical logic but on the logic of word and ideas association. As I have said elsewhere, this is quite a common technique with me.

It is unknown how Thornton Excelsior obtained the peach that destroyed the world by flooding it with juice. He simply doesn’t remember; the catastrophe was so immensely unexpected that it wiped his memory clean. He sat on his porch on a rocking chair and bit into the flesh of the fruit. And that was that.
Once the restraining skin of the peach was broached, the juice inside exploded outwards. The pressure of the spurting liquid jettisoned the fruit out of his grasp and it soared over the horizon and into the sea. The waves lapped themselves like cats made of milk. If he hadn’t been sitting on a rocking chair the recoil would have killed him.
The juice spread across the surface of the ocean. Already the slick was larger than a province, a state, a federation. Thornton was aghast; it’s not something that I recommend, being aghast, but you are welcome to try for yourselves. Sweet sticky juice rising inexorably, pouring over dykes and into flood plains. Inundation!
Presidents, kings and generals pointed the finger at him. They made an extra long finger by welding iron tubes together and poked him with it. He recoiled and hid under a table; but the steadily rising liquid forced him up the stairs and finally into his attic. The hollow finger followed him. Then it spoke; a voice vibrated out of it.
“Thornton, old son, don’t worry about a thing. Those presidents, kings and generals are superfluous and will come to a sticky end. But I have taken a fancy to you; and I will save you. I command you to build an ark, a vessel that can sail the tide of juice and keep you alive until the crisis is over; but this ark mustn’t be made of wood or fibreglass or other conventional shipbuilding materials. To surf a global juice surge, only one substance is proper: planks of frozen clotted cream! Do you hearken to me, Thornton Excelsior?”
“Yes, yes! But who are you?”
“I am Zesto, the God of Fruit. Do what I command and all will be well. After forty days, give or take a month, the juice will recede and the ark will settle on solid ground. Then you may rebuild civilisation from scratch, or if not from scratch from itch. You may also found a religion in my name.”
“Must I take one pair of every beast?”
“Animals on a ship made of clotted cream… Don’t be silly!”
Thornton constructed his ark and it floated on the juice without sinking. The voice that lived in the tube never came back, not even when there was a violent storm. But Rosie O’Gassy said, “What the hell am I doing in this paragraph? I’ve never even existed as a character before.” And Thornton Excelsior answered with a smile:
“You don’t expect me to save humanity on my own?”
He was the first of the dessert fathers. His ark went rancid a long time ago, so there’s no point looking for it; but I won’t stop you if you insist. And Zesto put a giant banana in the sky to symbolise his promise that the world would never again be drowned in juice. There’s a pot of yoghurt at the end of it, supposedly.
As for the presidents, kings and generals: they were impeached.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Two Christmas Stories (1992 & 2009)

Like most writers in the western world I have written at least one Christmas story. It's a tradition that is difficult not to continue. Here are two such of my tales, both very brief, the first dating from 1992 and the second from 2009. For some strange reason, fantasy writers are especially prone to attempting Christmas-themed fiction.

Christmas Overtime: a Vignette

It is Christmas again, of course it is, and a full-stop has been placed quite deliberately, like a glacé cherry, at the end of the year. This time, though, you are excluded from the festivities. You have lost the chance to eat, drink and make Mary. Christmas is red rotund, noble and inane, but you are not. You cannot spill the cream of indulgence down the shirt-front of success. You cannot laugh when neighbours toast your health with your own Malt. You cannot choke on the wishbone of convention.
So now you decide to cut through the season with a serrated truth. You decide to fight back. There is no goodwill to all men, at least none without an ulterior motive, and you will tear away this canvas of delusion and expose the facts as they are, a process as painful as the breaking of a tooth on a sixpence concealed in a pudding.
But how can you do it? Is there anything you can do? You ponder this over. Yes, there is one thing. There is one balloon you can burst before its time, one cracker you can defuse, one fairy-light you can ground to coloured glass.
His door is ajar. You peer through the crack. His eyes are open. They are large and moist and round. You almost falter before taking the fateful step, but then, sudden intoxicating courage overwhelming, you push forward.
You enter without knocking. He turns towards you and smiles. There is unaffected joy in his smile. There is excitement intolerable. His stocking hangs large and empty. The tree in the corner winks its tiny lights. You are not what he is waiting for, but it is early yet. The hands of the clock pass very slowly.
Good evening, you say, and the awkward pause threatens to drown your resolution, drown it in his large, moist, round eyes. But you are still drunk with purpose. So with a breath as deep as a snowdrift, you continue.
There is no Father Christmas, you announce, savouring the effect of these negative words. There is no Father Christmas and no reindeer sleigh. There is no such bulky benefactor, and thus no hand in a fur-trimmed glove to fill your stocking.
And, of course, he bursts into tears. You are a liar, he wails, and yet as he voices these words, he knows in his heart that you are right and that his dreams are gossamer webs, baubles to be trampled underfoot, pine-needles to be shaken loose and swept away.
And triumphant, you close the door and return to your desk, while the sobs of your boss echo through the deserted office.

The Precious Mundanity

After the boy was tucked up snugly in bed, the mother kissed his forehead but she didn’t turn to leave. Then the boy said, “I’m so excited about tomorrow I don’t think I’ll ever get to sleep!”
She smiled at him and patted the sheets, but her face was sad. “There’s something I need to tell you,” she said.
His eyes widened in response. “You don’t mean I’m not adopted?”
“Don’t be silly.” She laughed. “Why would I lie about that? You’ve always known my husband isn’t your real father. No, it’s something else. You’re seven years old now and it’s time you learned the truth.”
“I don’t understand, mother,” he answered.
She sighed and regarded the simple bedroom. They were a poor family and lived in a very modest house in a shabby town. Outside, the sun had already set, but the sky still held enough light to illuminate the people trudging up the dusty street. A donkey began braying and kicking a clay wall; elsewhere the tradesmen and merchants were shutting their shops. A pale moon rose over the low hills. A normal evening.
“It’s about Christmas,” she said.
He was sitting up in bed now, blinking at her. “Yes?”
“Father Christmas in particular…”
His eyes lit up at the mention of this name. “Last year he brought me a toy boat and the year before that he gave me a ball and the year before that…” He caught his breath and added, “I can’t wait to see what he’ll give me tomorrow!”
She placed a finger over his lips and shook her head. “That’s exactly what I must tell you. Father Christmas doesn’t actually exist. It’s your father who brings you those gifts. Your real father. That’s the truth.”
“What?” He was distraught. “You mean there’s no such thing as Santa Claus? The jolly fat man in red with a sack over his shoulder is just a myth? A lie?”
“I’m afraid so. Your father pretends to be him.”
“My father? My real father? The supernatural force that created the universe? The omniscient, omnipotent lord of everything? Oh mother! You’ve turned Christmas into a magical occasion. You’ve destroyed the mundanity of it! The precious mundanity! I’ll never forgive you for this. Never!”
“My poor son,” She reached out to hug him close to her, but he pounded his little fists against her and then fell back on the bed and turned on his side. She spoke to his bristling back. “I’m sorry to break the news this way. Santa Claus is from the future, you see. That’s why your father keeps up the pretence. Even Christmas hasn’t been invented yet!”
But it was no use. He wasn’t listening. She rose and quietly left Jesus sobbing into his pillow.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Birthday Message (2016)

This story was directly inspired by the occasion of my birthday and my musings about the way we measure time. It is rigorously logical but uses the logic of associations between ideas rather than the logic of empirical causality. As I have explained elsewhere, this is a common working method of mine. This tale also disproves the old adage that there are no 'new' plots. The central conceit relies entirely on the possibilities that exist because of the telephone and would have been inconceivable before the invention of that instrument. Technology opens up new narratives not merely in terms of the usage of the technological objects themselves but in the unexpected consequences that arise from their application in the world. These consequences are epiphenomena of the invention and can rarely be predicted accurately.

It was the day before my fiftieth birthday. I sat in the most comfortable chair in my house and tried to focus on enjoying the fact that I was still in my forties. I wanted to squeeze every last drop from that decade before I finally reached the half century point.
         I closed my eyes and concentrated on doing this, as if the pressure of my tight eyelids was the mechanism by which the juice of youthfulness was extracted from the flesh of the year. Not that one really is a youth in one’s forties but time is relative, as we know, and the impending leap into my fifties did seem a considerable one.
         Then I realised that there wouldn’t actually be a leap. There could be no abrupt switch from my forties to my fifties, as if I had to jump a hurdle and land on the far side with slightly more weary bones. The process was in fact gradual, like gangrene, and had commenced during my sojourn in the chair. Parts of me already were fifty.
         This requires an explanation. Let me provide it.
         I am not referring to the truism that ‘age’ is how you feel rather than a simple measurement of how long you have existed on the Earth. It is clear that the number of times our planet orbits the sun is merely a convenience of administration when applied to people.
         It is useful to society to define an exact age in this manner but it is not accurate. We age not astronomically but biologically and for some people the process is slower than for others. This may be unfair but it’s the truth and there is no point arguing. Genetics, fitness and luck all play a part, of course, but this is not what I discovered.
         No, the insight that was granted to me in that chair at that moment had a spatial, one might even say geometric, foundation, rather than any direct association to biology. On the wall opposite my chair hung a large map of the world and it confronted me when I opened my eyes. The map showed lines of longitude clearly marked, thin strings connecting the north pole to the south, and strong enough not to snap.
         Forgive that absurdity. Those lines are not real, of course, but they aid our understanding of the cosmic body on which we thrive. And they help divide this spinning orb of ours into time zones. As I blinked at the map, I saw that my former conviction that acute mindfulness would allow me to fully experience and enjoy the last day of my forties was a delusion and a naïve product of geographical ignorance.
         For now I knew that the time zones across the globe were loading my fiftieth year into my body and life the same way that a program loads on an old-fashioned computer. It was happening by increments, percentages. Already I had been fifty in Kiribati, the easternmost of all lands, for the past hour. Soon I would be fifty in Fiji.
         Thus I was able, by examining the map in conjunction with a clock on the mantelpiece below, to closely monitor the spread of the infection, for want of a better word, of this invasion of my present reality by a fiftieth year I wasn’t ready for. I turned my mind inwards too, trying to analyse and confirm the effects on my system.
         The aspects of my soul that shared something or anything in common with those Pacific islands in terms of… what? culture or aesthetics? were older than the rest of me. They had forged ahead, those pesky pioneering aspects, deciding to be a vanguard pushing into the future. Or maybe they had merely grown wearier more easily.
         The Earth continued to revolve and my fiftieth birthday moved like an indomitable explorer across the map. Now I was fifty in New Zealand but not yet in Australia. My kiwi was older than my kangaroo. But what was my ‘kiwi’ and what my ‘kangaroo’? They were totems, metaphors, signs and symbols of something deep in my psyche, and although I was unable to say or even guess what they represented, it was mathematically certain that one was older than the other. I felt that the kiwi part of my soul was a more mature portion than the kangaroo.
         But the kangaroo caught up. They always do. Then I became fifty in Japan, in the Philippines, in Thailand and Burma. And I kept examining my soul to determine how it was changing. My pagoda was older. Unlike gangrene, the change didn’t creep but selected discrete blocks of aspects and transmuted them, aged them, but these blocks might not be adjacent to each other. My stupa was stupefied…
         A quarter of my life was fifty, then one third. I was uncertain whether this was a less painful method of crossing into my fifties than the sudden midnight plunge. Then the logic of the time zones reached India and my chakras turned fifty. A shiver ran through my frame. There was a subtle disconnect now between my chakras and the body that housed them. The idea was troubling, too troubling to bear.
         I had to take action at last. I have a friend in Madras who is a guru of sorts. My friend would hopefully give me the advice I craved. I picked up the telephone and called her and although it was late where she was, she answered without a sleepy voice. I spoke to her, telling her of my distress and the feeling of discomfort in my nerves. She listened with a repressed laugh that I could hear despite the fact it was silent. But she is a good and sweet friend and didn’t mock me openly.
         As I was babbling to her, it occurred to me that although I was sitting in my chair at the age of forty-nine, my voice on her end of the telephone connection was fifty! This thought made me break off in mid sentence. A voice older than the throat that utters it. I don’t mean older by fractions of a second but by an entire year and decade.
         So my voice was older than I was. It would have stayed the same age if I hadn’t called India. What a fool I was!
         Or perhaps I had been wise without knowing it. The reason my voice was older wasn’t necessarily because it was more of a feeble duffer than the mouth that had projected it. That was one way of looking at it, true, but one could equally declare that it existed in the future, an explanation that fitted all the facts just as plausibly and far more conveniently for my purposes. The sound of things to come…
         “Shubha, listen to me,” I said to my friend. “This voice of mine now has a temporal advantage over my ears.”
         She answered with some witty retort, but I found that I was concerned more with listening to my own words than to hers. I made hasty apologies and put the phone down. My voice was fifty and it was a part of me, so it must be fifty here too as well as in India.
         Anything I now said to myself would feature words that existed in the future, that originated from tomorrow. We often daydream about what it would be like to offer advice, from our more experienced perspective, to our younger self. I had a chance to do so.
         “The weather tomorrow will be sunny,” I intoned. I grinned at this, for the forecast predicted rain, but that was merely the educated estimate of a meteorological team using mathematical modelling, whereas my assertion came from the time itself, from tomorrow.
         In other words, my voice had looked out of the window and seen there was sunshine. No mathematics necessary.
         Had I been a gambling man I could have taken commercial advantage of the fact my voice existed in the future. Horse race winners would have contributed enormously to my funds. But that’s not my character. I have a philosophical outlook on life and feel contempt for the amusements of the acquisitive consumer society that has evolved to envelop us like a malign growth. My voice wouldn’t stoop so low.
         “I will meet the love of my life tomorrow,” I told myself and the news excited me. It is one thing to encourage oneself with a positive statement, to bolster one’s confidence and keep away despair, but quite another to receive that statement from the future, from a time when the happy event has actually happened, to be told it as a fact.
         After all, it had to be true. To my voice it wasn’t a future event but a contemporary observation. I wondered how exactly I would meet her, but then I realised I wasn’t required to do anything to make it happen. It was fated to occur. My voice had promised me.
         She was a vague outline in my imagination but the parts coalesced as I concentrated, the outline firming while remaining soft, and I found to my surprise that she looked a lot like my friend in India. Then I reasoned that my voice had very recently been within Shubha’s ear and surely still was basking in the afterglow. This was natural.
         I told myself many things that would enormously improve my life on the following day and I realised that I had a truly spectacular day to look forward to. I supposed that the source of many of these promised boons would be my friends bringing me gifts.
         The time passed in this manner and I turned fifty in Turkey, Italy and Spain. Only one hour remained before I turned fifty where I sat. Slightly less than half of me was fifty now, the rest still in my forties, so there was a neat balance. My doumbek, spaghetti and flamenco were a little older than my bagpipes, stout ale and riverdance, and rather more elderly than my banjo, burger and chicken strut. I was like a jigsaw man, with pieces that were both newer and yet older replacing those that already comprised the picture of myself. A curious paradox.
         Then the inevitable moment arrived and the clock struck midnight and my forties slipped off my bones like a silk negligee from the curves of the woman I was destined to meet very soon. Except that… not all my forties went away. By no means! Almost half remained. They were declining on the other side of my official birthday but they were still there. The world was revolving and embracing them in turn.
         I quickly phoned a friend in the United States of America. My friend was wide-awake because the night was relatively young over there. With breathless urgency I asked, “How old am I?”
         “Forty-nine,” he replied.
         “Then my voice is now younger than me.”
         “And you prefer for it to be the same age? Don’t worry, it will come back into synchronization soon.”
         “No, I want it to be older than me, to exist in the future, so it can tell me about events that will happen.”
         “Well, now it can tell you about events that have happened instead. It is good to know what has been.”
         “I already know what has been. The problem is that I no longer know what will be. It’s worse than that. I don’t even know what is. My voice is a past voice and so knows nothing of the present. No more than it knows about the future. What have I done?”
         I put the phone down and chewed my fingernails.
         Anxiety made me feel nauseous for some minutes. I told myself that I was worrying about nothing and that I should calm down, but such advice came from a voice existing in the past. How could that voice understand clearly what was happening right now?
         I ignored my own voice. I disdained its ignorance.
         Sleepiness finally overcame me and lulled the turmoil in my brain. I went to bed and although I muttered to myself in my sleep, as I always do, I didn’t wake with the feeling that I had missed out on some topic of importance. My voice was behind the times.
         Or was it? I jumped out of bed and consulted the clock and discovered that I was fifty in the USA too now. In fact I was fifty everywhere in the whole world. My voice had returned to me.
         I had planned to go for a birthday walk, to visit my friends and receive their blessings and gifts, to go for a special dinner, to celebrate. But none of this was required now. All these things would come to me wherever I was and whatever I did. My future voice had told me so. The love of my life would come to me no matter my location.
         So I stayed indoors and slouched on my chair and waited. The phone kept ringing, no doubt my friends wanting to know where I was and why I hadn’t met them at the designated hours. They were probably worried about me. But I sat tight and ignored their attempts to get in touch. There was no need for me to move a muscle. The events that were fated to occur would occur no matter what action I took.
         It rained heavily all day. I kept my faith until the end.
         When night fell I finally began to suspect that my voice had lied to me and had played a horrid trick on its owner. Probably it desired Shubha for itself and didn’t want me to have her…
         Even advice from the future can be mistaken, especially if the giver of the advice is deliberately deceitful. The rain against my window was like the tears of frustration I felt like weeping.
         Calling my friends one by one, I humbly apologised.
         I had wasted too much of my intimate time with the future and past and missed out on all my presents.

Gut Road (2004)

A brief horror story dedicated to D.F. Lewis, a very prolific writer of brief horror stories who was the first writer I ever met personally, in a pub called The Shakespeare near Victoria Train Station in London back in (I think) 1993.

That was the sort of person Mr Lewis was, a man who seemed happy to leave the hotel just as the sun was going down and walk into the hills with insufficient supplies and the wrong shoes. Probably a product of his desperate need to compensate for a sedentary youth with belated adventure.
The men at the tables made conversation over their beer as they watched him leave. He had already mentioned his interest in exploring the entire length of Gut Road. A good excuse for dark comments.
“He’ll soon be back.”
“No, we’ll never see him again.”
“You’re both wrong. He won’t come back but maybe somebody else will...”

The path was steep and narrow and soon he was alone in the dark but he knew another hour of hard walking would take him to the beginning of the ledge. Down in the valley there was always some light, the glimmer of the river and maybe a distant village or two. His fear was still smaller than his resolve.
All the same, he guessed his pace was slowing as he neared the broken fence and NO ENTRY sign. Two tourists had fallen to their deaths the previous year and the authorities had made token efforts to comply with official safety regulations. But of course this was a country where the people ignored authority.

Gut Road came as a big surprise. He had expected a concrete walkway bolted to the side of the mountain, an artificial ledge winding its way around the edges of the gorge as far as the reservoir, but instead he was confronted by the mouth of a tunnel. He groped at his belt for his powerful flashlight. He almost regretted it was there. He had no excuse to turn back.
He switched it on and stood on the threshold. Even before he looked to see what the beam revealed he had already called out: “Anyone there?”
Then he sniggered quietly. Anything truly hostile lurking in the tunnel would be unlikely to give him a reasonable reply. As he walked forward he imagined possible answers, all of them absurd by the nature of whatever spoke them.
“Yes, I’m here. A ghost.”
“I’m here as well, a demon of sorts.”
“Don’t forget me, a nameless cosmic horror. From the gulfs between the stars. But what are you doing here? It’s not appropriate.”
Mr Lewis nodded. Not appropriate and not clever, but all he encountered was dust thickly spread on the floor. It cushioned his feet and there were no other footprints in it yet. Nor tracks of any kind.

Back at the hotel the men still drank beer and infrequently toasted the faded portraits on the wall above the hearth. Already the landlord was preparing a new picture, huddled over a small desk in a cool corner, dipping his pen into a jar of crusty ink. The scratching of his nib on the rough yellow paper was the only significant sound in the room, a furtive but obtrusive noise like the mirth of a prehistoric rodent. He worked quickly and finished early and rose to glue his latest creation among his growing collection of ink faces.

Mr Lewis had entered a region of stalagmites and stalactites which chewed at his clothes as he ducked and stretched around them, his weary body moving up and down in the precise rhythm needed to dislodge the sweat on his neck and roll it down his spine. He puffed and shivered at the same time and itched under his own salt.
These spikes of rock turned the tunnel into a maze and the idea of retreating began to seem more tempting but he still craved a sense of achievement and could not quite bring himself to give up yet. He compromised by resting for a minute in a clear space, squatting in the thick dust and taking a long drink from his bottle.
He also found a loose cigarette in his pack and inserted it between his lips. But he had nothing to light it with. With a jolt of malign inspiration he unscrewed the lens of his flashlight and held the naked bulb against the tip of the tobacco cylinder. It charred slightly but did not blossom into flame. No matter. He should not risk damaging his single source of illumination.
He groped again in his pack for a match and his fingers closed on his mobile phone. This was a relief but he doubted a signal would be available from his present location. He left it where it was and cast away his cigarette. As he rose and continued his journey he wondered who had constructed Gut Road and for what purpose. Had it really been designed in the shape of a gigantic intestine?

Eventually his own digestive tract started to occupy his immediate attention and he found a secluded spot between the side of the tunnel and a thick column made from three or four fused stalagmites. He chuckled at his own shyness as he pulled down his trousers. There was an awful symmetry in conducting this process here.
Still no signs of other life, no relics of habitation or previous exploration, but he knew many others had preceded him, his guide book had told him so. How could tourists fall to their deaths inside here? Perhaps he was supposed to walk on the roof of the tunnel rather than push his way through it. A simple mistake.
Lighter in body and mind he walked reluctantly and was absolutely on the verge of turning back when his flashlight caught a sign nailed to a pole planted in the dust. NEXT HOTEL 20 LOOPS. Everything was safe again. Travelling down Gut Road was acceptable and possible after all.

The beer was almost exhausted and the next delivery was an hour after dawn but nobody moved. The portrait of Mr Lewis gleamed down at them, fading slowly, fitting in with the rest of the collection.
“Funny this constant exchange of residents.”
“But good for local culture. The valleys are so isolated. That must be the reason it exists.”
“Some people still think it’s a sculpture.”
“Are there other Gut Roads?”
“No, there was only ever one giant. A freak of nature millions of years ago, never to be repeated.”
“Not everyone makes it right through the body.”
The landlord glanced up and made his eyes wise. “Some are digested by their own incompetence.”

He had miscalculated very badly. The loops were further apart than he had assumed and the obstacle course created by the stone teeth was becoming more hazardous. He decided not to think about the consequences.
Although the tunnel had not forked at any point, he felt thoroughly lost, an illusion which excited his curiosity as much as his fear. He realised he was bleeding from a gash below his left knee. At least there would be a trail of blood to follow back this way. But in fact the dust drank it all and his own footprints seemed abnormally shallow. His adventure did not want to let go of him.
The flashlight was losing power. The bulb was dying. Too late to return now but if the going became easier he might still make it to the far end. He limped faster.
Less than one hour later he came across another sign. He snorted with pleasure but his beam revealed a blank square of wood. Nothing had ever been written on it. For an instant he gritted his teeth, furious at the worker who had erected it, but then his expression cleared. He walked past and studied it from the other side. That was the sort of person he still was.
In the timid flicker he made out the words. They were intended for a traveller coming in the opposite direction. NEXT HOTEL 20 LOOPS. He clutched the post for support.
Time to summon help, if he could. He pulled out his mobile phone and thumbed the number of his hotel, already rehearsing the apology he would offer but unconvinced that a connection could be made through the mineral walls. He was astonished to hear the dialling tone. Even before an unseen hand picked up the receiver he was already calling out:
“Anyone there?”

The landlord listened carefully, frowned and then replaced the telephone. The standard answers were no longer amusing. Ghost, demon of sorts, nameless cosmic horror. Not now. Old worn out jokes, completely pointless.
The others began to drift off to bed.
“Are there portraits of us in that other hotel, I wonder?”
“Do they actually look like us?”
“Will they fade with dignity?”
“That was the agreement,” confirmed the landlord.
The stairs did not creak but the carpet made an unwholesome sound rather like indigestion under the weight of tired feet and mildly bewildered souls.
“What I don’t understand is who did that to the giant? Pulled out his bowels and just left him to petrify. Who? Why? And how?”
“It was a long time ago,” said the landlord.

Mr Lewis was resigned to his fate or perhaps it was resigned to him. Either way it was best to abandon the struggle and rest his misplaced being. The bulb was almost dead. It gave off a deep red glow that turned his environment into a hideous kind of photographic darkroom. He selected a place and lowered his pack to the ground.
The only thing that might develop here would be a very sharp panic. But not yet. He sat in the dust and rummaged for the paper bag he had concealed at the bottom. It was still there, slick with leaked grease.
He planted his flashlight in the dust and settled back but the effect was too eerie, the weak beam casting formless bloody shadows on the irregular roof, so he reversed its direction and suspended it from a stalactite like a lantern. He used his belt to secure it in place. No need to keep his trousers up, not here, not now.
He returned to his paper bag. A meal at last. Nothing very palatable but that was an expected consequence of undertaking an expedition with insufficient supplies. Black pudding, an ironic choice. He tried not to breathe through his nose as he bit into it, to avoid the smell and lessen the taste.
Dust to dust, shit to shit.
And guts within guts.

A Girl Like a Doric Column (1997)

A simple absurdist fable that I just sat down and wrote one day without any prior thought. It was published in my collection THE SMELL OF TELESCOPES in the year 2000. A sequel-of-sorts called 'The Great Me' was published in my collection ORPHEUS ON THE UNDERGROUND in 2015.

1....”Excuse me, is your girlfriend feeling unwell?”
“I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”
“Stop me if it’s none of my business, but she seems to have a... It appears that her... I mean to say...”
“Dribble it out man. What’s wrong with her?”
“Her head is made from blue marble.”
“What? Nonsense! Wait a moment, so it is. Somebody must have stolen the original and substituted this lifelike replica. Who would do a thing like that? Why didn’t I notice anything?”
“Gangs of pickfaces roam the subways. They target a victim and make a replica head from whatever materials they feel comfortable with. Heads which are already loose can be swapped in seconds. I bet your girlfriend had a heavy skull on a slender neck?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t particularly valuable.”
“To the right people it might be...”
“That sounds rather ominous. Please explain.”
“The gangs export them to China. I read about it in the paper. Huge demand for heads over there. They use them for ornamental purposes. It’s just not safe to take a lady out.”
“Good job I didn’t like her very much. But I promised her father to get her home in one piece before midnight.”
“Will he notice that her head isn’t real?”
“Absolutely. He’s obsessed with details. Besides, she sings for him in the parlour after supper. It’s a family tradition. I’d better confess and face the music, or lack of it.”
“Rather you than me. What will he do?”
“I shudder to think. He’s very protective. He works in the foundry. Perhaps he’ll boil my ankles over a red-hot girder. Why do relationships always have to be so complicated?”
“I asked myself the same question when my wife left me. The ceiling was falling down and she was fed up with getting plaster in her hair, so she just walked out. Packed a suitcase and went, without saying goodbye. She was run over by a steamroller.”
“That’s life, I guess. But what shall I do?”
“Maybe I can help. I’m used to dealing with vengeful fathers. It’ll cost you, though. I’m not a charity.”
“I’m willing to pay. What’s the price?”
“The girl. I collect females like her.”
“I’m not sure. She might not want to go with you. She’s very choosy with her affections. You are bald and ugly.”
“With a blue marble head how will she tell the difference? Come on, it’s either that or facing the father alone. If you’re worried about how I’ll treat her, put your mind at rest.”
“Well I’d like to know. It’s only natural.”
“Of course. She will be assisting my religious studies. I’m turning my house into a temple. It’s a sacred task I have lined up, nothing odd. Think of her as a foundation of spirituality.”
“I can’t argue with that. Let’s shake hands on the deal.”
“That’s more like it. You won’t regret this. I’m a professional and always guarantee my work. Wait and see. I bet if you have trouble with a father in the future you’ll seek me out.”
“I don’t intend losing another girlfriend’s head!”
“I think you’ll find most women have loose ones these days. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and meet a divorcee. They tend to use glue. But nothing is really secure on the subway any more.”
“The next stop is mine. You’d better follow.”
“The stop belongs to the railway, but I know what you mean. Shall I take your girlfriend’s arm to help her down?”
“She’s not yours yet. Come on, let’s jump off here.”
“We’re right behind you... Not that way, dear... You have a complex and exquisite network of veins, like a map of an antediluvian city ruled by intelligent reptiles... Mind the gap...”

2....”Well that was a cheap trick to play on me!”
“Not at all. I fulfilled my side of the bargain. You have little to fear from that father now. A successful mission.”
“You replaced his head with a mahogany one!”
“Some people are never satisfied. I’m a pickface, but I work alone. You should have realised that when I talked so knowledgeably about China and the export market. But I’m only able to carve heads from hardwood. A marble head is quite beyond my ability.”
“Do you make a habit of this? How many commuters have you deceived? I ought to inform the transport police.”
“Don’t be churlish. Just give me your girl.”
“I guess you deserve her. But I feel nervous. Why do business-deals always have to be so complicated?”
“I often ask myself that question when I’m sitting at home, burning incense to the deity who lives in my broom-cupboard. He lurks behind the buckets and refuses to come out.”
“Heavens! I thought dry-rot was bad enough. What sort of god is he? Does he answer prayers or hurl lightning?”
“Neither, I’m afraid. I think he might be one of the Old Ones, left behind during the last ice-age. At night he plays the washboard with his gnarled fingers. I’m sure this music is what made the ceiling fall down. He lives on spiders and detergent.”
“Sounds like Baby Jesus to me. Is he swaddled?”
“No, completely naked. When my temple to him is finished, I believe he’ll be more approachable. I’ve chosen the Dorian style of architecture for his sanctum, because it represents the last period when the Old Ones openly interacted with humanity.”
“And the girl is a sacrifice to him?”
“Oh dear, no. I need her to hold the roof up. I’ve got a dozen with blue marble heads lining the lounge. When there’s enough of them to take the weight, I’ll knock the walls down.”
“Hey presto! An instant temple!”
“That’s the idea. He’s far too small a god to digest a whole female in one go. For sacrifices I rely on my wife.”
“I thought you said she left you?”
“She did. But I rushed out after the steamroller and peeled her off the asphalt in a single flapping sheet. I rolled her up under my arm and stored her in the downstairs toilet.”
“You sentimental old fool. How touching!”
“Whenever he gets frisky and starts playing his damned washboard, I tear off a required length and feed it to him on a pole. My wife doubles up as a blanket on cold nights. I think I prefer her after the accident. But she’s getting shorter every month.”
“This is my stop. I’ll take my leave of you here. But I’ve got some bad news, I’m afraid. I’m also a pickface.”
“I should have known! You have fingers like chisels.”
“I specialise in brass heads. I made a switch when you looked away. Now you shan’t finish your temple.”
“You swapped her blue marble head for a brass one? That’s breach of contract. Give it back this instant!”
“You misunderstand. I can’t blame you, considering what your brains have to sit in. It’s your head I picked.”
“So you have! That’s really brassed me off. You’d better return it. How will I ever enter an ironmonger’s without losing face? You’ve ruined me. Come back here for a good polishing!”
“Sorry, I have to deliver a parcel to China. But look on the bright side. You’ll be able to fry mushrooms on your cheeks. Haven’t you wanted to do that for years? It’s not all doom.”
“What will my god say? He’ll be absolutely livid.”
“But mine will be enraptured. I’ve also got a broom-cupboard with a resident deity. He’s the last of the Older Ones, who are much older than the Old Ones. Apart from the Oldest Ones they’re the oldest Ones of all. He plays the spoons all evening. I suppose diabolism and skiffle must be connected somewhere along the line.”
“It’s not fair! I’m a widower!”
“So am I. My wife was a steamroller. She blamed herself for rolling over a pedestrian and committed suicide.”
“But what about my temple? It was so ambitious.”
“I’ve decided to adopt your idea for my house. Perhaps it will keep my god away from his blasted spoons. He’s bigger than yours so I’ll have to build a larger temple. He’ll need a higher roof and girls just aren’t tall enough. Let me think it over.”

3....”Excuse me, is your boyfriend feeling unwell?”
“I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”
“Stop me if it’s none of my business, but he seems to have a... It appears that his... I mean to say...”