Tuesday, 27 September 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.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Kizomba Wanderers (2016)

I was asked to put together a collection of very brief stories for a publisher in Greece. As well as selecting tales from those I had already written over many years, I saw an opportunity to write several new stories. Brevity was a prime requirement. When writing for a foreign publisher, knowing that my work is going to be translated, it makes sense to write stories that aren't based on wordplay or semantics but that are fairly simple ideas-based pieces that will work well in any language.

Kizomba is one of the most sensual dances for couples to enjoy together. It originated in Angola but soon became popular in many other countries. I went to classes to learn and dance with other beginners. Although not as spectacular to watch as salsa, which I also hoped to learn, it soon became my favourite dance. The way it feels makes it special. It sets up a unique and deep connection with your partner, a closing of a circuit, and creates a powerful illusion that you have known them for many years, even if you have never danced with them before.
Before I tried it for myself, I wondered why kizomba partners closed their eyes when dancing. The truth is that it is easier that way. One can concentrate more fully on the feeling rather than worrying about how the performance looks to others. Kizomba isn’t really a dance that is danced for the benefit of spectators. It is a private dance, but danced in public, an island of sensuality in an ocean of eyes, but those eyes don’t matter. One locks oneself away in the movements, in the closeness, in the timing and the pulse of the rhythm, in the feeling.
But although there are no extravagant spins or twists, no tricky twirls or acrobatic postures necessary, it is a difficult dance because the subtlety is everything. A simple mistake is fatal. In salsa, bachata or forro, errors of timing or missteps can be remedied easily enough. The routine can be rescued. The leader can break away from the follower for a moment and reestablish the pulse or the footing before engaging again as a couple. In kizomba such opportunities are much more rare. The entire dance is close and the movements are meshed tightly.
If a man gets it wrong in kizomba, his error will transmit instantly to the woman and both will flounder. There is no chance to improvise one’s way out of the resultant mess. One must simply stop and start again and hope that the connection can be resumed at the point it was broken off. I think it can be safely compared to the stalling of an aircraft. Both dancers are the wings and the routine will plummet and crash on the smooth and shiny floor of the dance hall or nightclub. Perhaps that is a poor metaphor because aeroplanes don’t fly ecstatically.
Among the ladies who were learning at the same time as I, there was one who seemed to be at exactly the same level as me, and who appeared to progress at the same rate. We were drawn to each other because of this and danced perhaps too often together, for one should ideally dance with as many different partners as possible in order to understand differences of balance, temperament and aptitude. Learning is faster that way, but I liked dancing with Selma too much. We were utterly attuned, our heads made for resting on each other’s shoulders.
There was one move in particular that I could almost grasp but never quite get right, and the same was true for her. It was a sideways move in which the man leads the lady eight steps to the left and then after a pause involving slow gyrations, eight steps back to the starting point. It is called the ‘grapevine’, this particular move, and I was absolutely determined to become comfortable and then proficient with it. At first I would step on her feet all the way to the left, and she would step on my feet all the way back, balancing out the scales of suffering.
Selma and I practiced it again and again, our eyes shut, but always it was slightly wrong. We improved to the point where neither of us injured the other at all. The problem was more one of symmetry. My steps to the left were longer than those to the right, so we never actually returned to the starting point. Always there was some drift. On the dancefloor such drift meant ending up boxed into a corner among the dusty shadows. But even that wasn’t a disaster. One would simply use other steps in order to escape and return to the middle of the floor.
And who repeats the sideways move indefinitely anyway? Nobody at all. But it was a move I ached to get right, so I tended to use it more than I should. One evening at dance class my obsession rose up in full force. It dominated me and appeared to transmit a specific urgency to my partner. At the time I didn’t realise that the main door had been left open. It was a very warm evening in summer, that’s why, and dancers are often prone to overheating. Selma and I were in a close hold, closer than ever before in fact, and our eyelids were firmly shuttered.
Nothing short of an explosion or the roar of an adjacent hippopotamus could have persuaded me to widen my eyes. I was completely embedded in present time, lost in the moment, fixed in the now, a state we all strive to attain throughout our lives but rarely achieve. Kizomba is Zen. There are other activities in this world that achieve the same effect, but kizomba is the most reliable for me. I became so sensitive to the sensation that I was one big sensation all over. I knew that Selma was undergoing exactly the same process and our souls had merged.
The outside world ceased to exist, or rather it existed to provide space and time alone, devoid of worries, obstacles and impracticalities. We still knew, of course, that gravity was a force on us, that we breathed the air of the atmosphere, that one day we would have to die. The mundane serious nuisances of the world hadn’t been entirely forgotten, but they acquired a quality of abstraction that made them easy to ignore. And ignore them is precisely what we did. We danced and the hours might as well have been days, weeks, months. And then Selma spoke.
“The music has stopped.”
“Yes, it has.”
“In fact it stopped a long time ago.”
“You are right.”
“It grew fainter and fainter and then became silence.”
“Very gradually it did that.”
“Shall we open our eyes on the count of three?”
“A sensible suggestion.”
“One, two, three…”
We were no longer on the dancefloor. We were no longer in the dance class. We weren’t even in the same city that we had started from. In fact, we were in an entirely different city, for we had danced through the open door and down streets and along country roads and had ended up far from home and friends. Too much use of the sideways move! We had drifted to a place that neither of us recognised. How would we get back? We had no map, no compass, no transport. There was only one option and that was to enrol in a local kizomba class and try again.
It wasn’t too difficult to locate a venue where kizomba was taught and practiced. Again we lost ourselves in each other, Selma and I, and danced out of the hall and along the surface of the world. I don’t know if we were really expecting to return to our point of origin. I think we were desperate to try anything. Finally when we opened our eyes again we saw that more dancing had simply carried us further away. We were in a foreign country now and somehow we had danced over the surface of the sea, stepping on the tops of waves in our oblivious mutual bliss.
Again it seemed like a good idea to enrol in a kizomba class. Dance is an international language that needs no translation. This time our embrace was so profound that when we eventually stopped dancing, decades later, and lifted our creaking eyelids, we blinked them at a sun that was emerald green instead of yellow. So clearly we had danced right off the globe and onto the surface of another planet. Such things happen thanks to kizomba. And I know that other couples are standing on other worlds right now and still struggling to perfect the ‘grapevine’ move.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

The Furious Walnuts (1995)

This story seems particularly relevant now (June 2016)  in the wake of the Brexit victory in the recent referendum on EU membership. It is a story that originally appeared in my collection NOWHERE NEAR MILKWOOD. It is also the very first of my tales that I turned into an audio file that is available on YouTube. A sequel called 'The Smutty Tamarinds' appeared in my book TALLEST STORIES. It's highly likely I will write a third tale in this sequence one day.

For more than a week, Walter had been feeling a trifle Scottish. It didn’t help that his house was the colour of salmon. Nor that his wife was named Heather. He’d wanted a magnolia house and a wife named Patsy, but you can’t have everything. A primeval force was moving within him, an urge to plunge through moor, lake and glen.
Over breakfast, a meal of sheep’s stomach stuffed with lungs, he mentioned his condition. He wondered if turning into a Highlander would affect his career. He was, after all, paid to sell a chemical which removed ice-cream stains from trousers.
His wife glowered at him. Being a gentle soul, her glower was not hugely effective. If looks could kill, he’d be complaining of slight abdominal cramps and asking his pharmacist for aspirin. Fortunately, he felt sick enough already.
“You’ll have to adjust,” she told him. “My brother, Desmond, had a dose of Burma. Took to wearing rubies in his nose and making fish-bone curry. But he kept his job in the Civil Service. And cousin Joseph was a train spotter who became an Eskimo. Never needed to change his anorak, just noted down kayaks instead.”
Rather than feeling reassured, Walter finished his food in anxious silence, wiped his knife on his beard and stuffed it into his sock. He wanted to hold forth on bridges and pneumatic tyres. But his wife hated lofty or inflated topics. So he dressed for work, shook the last drops from the bottle of woad and mounted his bicycle.
Around him, men and women were changing, shells of identity falling off and rattling on the pavement. Walter blinked. It seemed to him that whenever an identity clattered to the ground, a horde of imps rushed out of shop doorways and storm drains and lifted it up. Then they fitted it onto the shoulders of some other pedestrian. They moved so fast, it was difficult to register their presence at all.
Walter felt he ought to investigate this phenomenon more closely, but at that moment he passed the bus station. Lately, the bus station had exerted a strange fascination for him. He spent the next hour or so hanging around the ticket office, threatening commuters and demanding the fare back to Glasgow.
When he reached work, his boss was waiting for him. Mr Jhabvala was a yogi and astrologer who had invented Caste Away, the ultimate frozen dessert stain eradicator, in Bombay. His prototype was so successful that jealous rivals had pursued him all over the subcontinent. Years in the Kashmiri mountains had taken their toll. His skin was pitted with cobra bites and his eyes glittered like opals.
He invited Walter to sit down, leant back in his swivel chair and stroked his chin. A run-in with brigands had left him with only three fingers on his left hand. The missing digits on his right hand, however, were testimony to frostbite in the Hindu Kush.
“Listen, old boy,” he began, toying with his cravat, “I’ve paid a lot of thought to this and I’ve decided to let you go. Awfully sorry, but you know how it is. Be a good chap and don’t cry. Stiff upper lip and all that. Thing is, old bean, we can’t allow a Scotsman to peddle our goods. Customers would take fright. Kindly accept this Cheddar as a parting gift and run along. Toodle pip.”
Sighing languidly, Mr Jhabvala pasted his kiss-curl back onto his brow and inserted a cigarette into a long holder. Walter ignored the gift and stomped out, cursing into his beard. On the street, he caught his new reflection in a tailor’s window. His Scottishness was growing worse by the minute. The claymore in his belt interfered with the back wheel of his bicycle, the tam-o’-shanter keep slipping over his eyes. He’d have to visit his doctor.
Dr Walnut was a family practitioner. He greeted Walter cordially, offering him a hookah and rolling out a carpet for his benefit. Walter felt uncomfortable in the surgery, possibly because he’d never seen Dr Walnut in a fez before. Foregoing the hashish, he outlined his problem. Dr Walnut nodded, poured himself a glass of raki and clapped his hands. The receptionist, Miss White, came in and undulated her bare midriff on the desk between them.
“A little thin, no?” he chuckled, exhaling noxious fumes through flared nostrils. Noticing Walter’s scowl, he held up his hands in a mollifying gesture. “You can’t get the staff these days. Now what can I do for you? You are turning Scottish? Well there’s a bug about. Rampant Internationalism. It’s the rains we’ve been having.”
Walter nodded. Dr Walnut stood up and moved to a filing cabinet in the corner of his surgery. He opened the drawers and a scruffy child popped out of each. In their features, they were miniature replicas of Dr Walnut. They leapt to the floor and began riding hobbyhorses in tight circles on the gaudy central rug. Walter caught the flash of silk, the creak of leather, the acrid odour of mare’s milk.
“My sons succumbed last week. Mongolianism, a severe outbreak. All my silver scalpels have been looted. Keep erecting tents in the kitchen. What can one do?” He inhaled deeply on his hookah and his eyes sparkled. “The little heathens! They’re absolutely furious, no?” One at a time, he lifted them and deposited them back into the filing cabinet, forcing the drawers shut with the toe of his curly slipper.
Walter wasn’t interested in other people’s children. He paced the room in dismay, his sporran swinging. “That’s all very well. But what can ye do for me?” He scratched at the lice in his plaid. Dr Walnut gave a mysterious smirk and reached into the folds of his robes. He removed a murky phial and held it up.
“It is most fortunate you came to see me at this time. I have just finished distilling this liquid from my sons. It is poison to the imps who cause the ailment. I call it Tartar Source.” He winked slyly. “It is expensive, but for you there is special price.”
“Och, give it here!” Walter snatched the bottle and swallowed the contents. For a moment he reeled and clutched at his head. Then he made his way gingerly out of the surgery. Dr Walnut followed, calling him the offspring of a dog and various unnatural partners. He brushed past Miss White, who had returned to Reception and was sugaring her body, and fell down the steps onto the street.
Over the next fortnight, a second transformation took place. Walter was at a complete loss to explain this one. He found his head was still eager to cycle everywhere but his abdomen wanted a bus. His arms had an urge to paddle a coracle. Most disconcertingly, his toes began to smell of fish and his neck of sausage. When he woke one morning to find that Heather had drawn isobars over his body with a felt tip pen, he guessed he’d also have to swallow his pride.
Dr Walnut was very forgiving. He studied Walter carefully, tapped parts of his attire with a tiny hammer and grunted. “The cure was only partially successful. Your head seems to have remained Scottish while the rest of you has altered. You have become a walking analogue of the British Isles. Your body is England, your arms are Wales and your legs reach all the way down to Cornwall.”
“That explains it!” cried Walter. “Yesterday, I was passing a cake shop and my feet were attracted by the cream. They went one way, my body went another and I slipped and landed on my Kent. But if I’m the mainland, where does Ireland fit in?” He saw the answer in Dr Walnut’s pout. “My wife! What do you mean! Oppressed?”
Dr Walnut shook his head. “No, no. Green and gently rolling.” He took Walter’s pulse. “Any pain in your Lancashire?” Walter had to admit there wasn’t. His Cleveland itched and his Herefordshire rumbled, but these were minor concerns. Something of much more fundamental importance had just occurred to him.
“What will happen if the Union dissolves? I’ve heard that Scotland stands a good chance of winning independence. If that happens will my head fall off?” he demanded.
“I think I know what your problem is,” Dr Walnut replied. “You’re a character in a short story. Some amateur hack is writing this down even as we speak. At the end, to entertain the reader, he’ll make the Union dissolve and your head will indeed fall off.”
“Isn’t there anything I can do?” Walter was in tears.
“If the reader doesn’t reach the end, you’ll be okay. You’d better try to be boring from now on, in the hope they won’t go any further. If you try really hard, they might throw the short story away in disgust and do something else.”
It was suddenly very clear to Walter. His fate lay in the hands of some non-accountable reader. But what was the best way of being boring? He thought about it. Whatever happened, the reader mustn’t be allowed to reach the end of the story. He thought about it some more. He appealed to the reader to stop at this point.
His head fell off.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

There Was a Ghoul Dwelt by a Mosque (1996)

In the mid 1990s I was a regular contributor to Ghosts & Scholars, a journal of ghost stories that took the writer M.R. James as its chief inspiration and motivation. I wrote many stories that had a connection to his work. At the same time I did not wish to produce straightforward ghost tales. My more outré efforts in this regard tended not to make it into the journal (although some did) and ended up being published elsewhere, the following story, for example, which was inspired not only by M.R. James but also by William Beckford. It is, in fact, a continuation-of-sorts of Beckford's VATHEK. It was published in my book THE SMELL OF TELESCOPES.

This is the story about ungodly deeds which Vathek, the mad caliph in Beckford’s novel, was hearing from one of the new arrivals in Hell, when his mother flew in on the back of an afrit to chide him for not enjoying the pleasures on offer. The tale is not given; Vathek’s acquaintance was damned soon after without having a chance of resuming it. Now what was it going to have been? Beckford knew, no doubt, but I am not bold enough to say that I do. I will offer a new story: one you will think made from scraps of other fables. Everybody should sew a patchwork coat from the materials he likes best. This is mine:
There was a ghoul dwelt by a mosque. His name was Omar and he was a potter with a shop built from broken vases. His doorway looked out on the Kizilirmak, the longest river in Asia Minor, and from his roof he could lean over and touch the mosque with his elongated arms. His wheel and oven had belonged to a human craftsman who died without heirs and was buried with his tools, but (this was in Haroun al Raschid’s day) ghouls were allowed to keep any items they dug up. The creature filed his teeth to stubs to reassure his neighbours — but never mind what they thought of him; he was skilled enough at his trade to make a living from the travellers who passed through Avanos. He rarely overcharged for his products and this frightened people most of all.
Omar lacked humanity in other ways: he kept an attic full of hair clipped from the heads of his female visitors. There were women pilgrims and merchants even then and they were politely requested to give up a lock or two for his archive. The monster labelled them and secured them to the ceiling on hooks, where they exuded a musty odour and shivered in the shifting air currents. Omar liked to imagine his attic was a cave beneath a garden — a garden of vegetable girls whose roots were pushing through into his subterranean kingdom. This unusual custom has persisted through the centuries; next time you are in Avanos, ask for the house of Master Galip and you will see what I mean. His modern collection is also illuminated by a single lamp.
The ghoul had a mother no less grotesque in her habits. She helped him collect the red clay from the river-bank, bringing him a supply each morning. Instead of cutting the clay into blocks, she would roll it in her hands and present it to him like a freshly-exhumed intestine. Then he would divide it with a pair of shears and they would gather round the wheel with excited giggles, as if they were grilling sausages instead of preparing to throw another plate or saucer.
The attic was also the place where the ghoul kept all his rejects, the warped and flawed work. Heavy urns, twisted over like slaves; cups with no handles, or too many; pitchers with clamped mouths or leaking sides; shapeless mounds as tall as men which should have been coffins but were unusable, save for lepers; pipes with stems which curled back into the bowl; teapots without spouts, or spouts which poured tea into the lap of the drinker. All these, Omar packed into his attic, loathe to discard them. With the hair above and the failures below, the room became a sort of museum of imperfection — the former lacking complete substance; the latter lacking complete form.
One day, a cowled traveller called at the shop. Veiled from head to foot, she betrayed her femininity by her poise and sibilant voice. She had come far and was taking her first holiday in many years. Her sisters were keen on stone figures for their garden and she had promised to take some back as gifts. But sculptors were rare in Asia Minor, the prophet had forbidden such art, and so, to make the best of a bad thing, she had decided to purchase pottery as a substitute. She wondered if she might view Omar’s most decorative examples.
“Well, my work is functional, not fine art,” said the ghoul. “But you’re free to look round. I’m self-trained and you mustn’t expect too much in the way of aesthetic gratification.”
“Come, these pots betray a certain flair,” cried the visitor. “Lead me through your shop and I will choose something.”
So he guided her along racks of ceramic utensils, which she studied with a slight wave, as if to indicate they were not quite suitable. When the conventional rooms were exhausted, they reached the attic. “The work in here is not really for sale,” apologised Omar, “but if you will enter and allow me to snip a strand of your hair...”
The visitor seemed about to refuse, but the door was swinging open and when she caught a glimpse of the mutated wares she forgot to voice an objection. Stepping forward in joy, she squealed: “Perfect! They are so delightfully strange. And this one is the oddest of the lot! I must have it at any price!” And she moved to the end of the attic and seized the ghoul’s mother, who was sleeping on a stool.
At this point, several things happened at once. The ghoul mistook his visitor’s cry for compliance with his request, and he reached across the room with his elongated arms to sever a lock with his shears. But the mother had jumped up in alarm, knocking over and smashing the single lamp. In pitch darkness, Omar felt under his visitor’s veil and detached it with clumsy fingers, whereupon he snipped the lock. While he groped his way to a hook to hang it up, his mother struck a flint in an attempt to relight the lamp; the attempt was unsuccessful, but the long spark which winked in the gloom was enough to illuminate the visitor, who was still bending over the mother. Then darkness came again, more intense for the momentary light: there was a groan, something brushed past the ghoul and clattered out through the shop.
When Omar’s slitted eyes had adjusted, he saw he was alone in the attic. No: his mother was there as well, but she was changed. Her arms flung up as if to cover her face, her body twisted away as if from some dreadful apparition, she was literally petrified. She had always had a stony expression; now it was real. Omar looked at the ceiling and his hearts raced madly; in place of a lock of hair was a very angry snake, hissing and writhing on its hook.
Well, he gnashed his filed teeth for many a moon, I can assure you. Without a mother, a ghoul is lost, like a bridge without a river or a pot without a price. Luckily, he dwelt by a mosque and the local muezzin was a sorcerer who made no secret of his skills. Standing on his roof at night, just after the evening call to prayer, Omar hailed the muezzin on his minaret and made a pact. He would sell part of his soul, the human part, to Eblis — the devil — in exchange for the return of his mother. So the muezzin lowered a glass tablet inscribed with arcane symbols on a gold thread and told Omar to place it between his mother’s granite lips, whereupon she would spring to life.
As he stumbled through the attic with this talisman, Omar happened to brush the snake, which bit him on the shoulder. He growled in pain and his great hands came together, crushing the glass tablet to powder. The sparkling shards flew up and settled on the warped and twisted pots. With a hideous scraping sound, they came alive — the urns, the pitchers, the cups, the coffins — tumbling awkwardly, snapping their lids, grating against each other, whistling, crowding round the ghoul like dogs round a master, or jackals round a corpse. With his fists and feet, he smashed them to pieces, then he went down and returned with the potter’s wheel, which he rolled among the wounded ceramics, reducing them to fine dust. The one place the magic glass had missed was the mother, who remained as motionless and igneous as before.
Unable to bear the loss of his soul for naught, Omar left his shop disguised as a minor prince and went searching for his visitor. But he succeeded only in passing into the domain of Hell. By now, his fears had altered. He was more frightened that another sorcerer would manage to reanimate his mother: she would be furious at being kept so long in such a condition and would berate him. Better to be damned, he decided, than to suffer the ill-will of a ghoul’s mother, who would be certain to bend him over her knee and smack......
At this juncture, Vathek’s acquaintance slapped off his turban to reveal the horns of a ghoul. His forked tongue poked out over his filed teeth. Vathek fell back with a cry of pity and alarm, but recovered soon enough and, tapping his nose, asserted that he knew another mother quite three times as dreadful as that one, but lacked enough horrid words to describe her. Indeed, at that very moment she was trying to dethrone one of the pre-Adamite sultans. More tangibly, in Avanos there is a curious statue standing in the square, waiting for something, a backward glance from an earlier tourist, I do not know; but it is a fact that Gorgons no longer go to Asia Minor for their holidays.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Spanish Cyclops (1999)

The monsters of Ancient Greek myths have always appealed to me. I first encountered the old legends retold in Nathaniel Hawthorne's WONDER BOOK and I have been enthralled by them ever since. When I was older I read the ODYSSEY and encountered the Cyclops as Homer envisaged him. The following tale is another example of 'flash fiction' that appeared in my collection FLASH IN THE PANTHEON, still one of my favourites among my own books.

There was a lens grinder who had fallen on hard times and who decided to revive his fortunes by exceeding the limits of his profession. Accordingly, he saved his remaining materials and set to work on the grandest project he could imagine.
The citizens of Valencia were perturbed at the noises that emanated from his workshop during the days and nights of a whole week.
At last he threw open his doors and rolled out into the town square the largest monocle in the world. It glittered below the green lamps that hung from the taverns and theatres. And soon a crowd gathered.
“What is the purpose of this object?” they wondered.
They walked around it, touching it lightly. It was too big to fit a king or bishop or even the statue of El Cid that loomed on the battlements of the palace. No eye in history might wear it comfortably in a squint. It was clear the lens grinder had lost his sanity.
The soldiers came to lock him up in a madhouse, but he stalled them with an explanation. They rattled their pikes uneasily.
He said, “The entity for whom this monocle was made will seek it out when he learns of its existence, and he will pay me handsomely, because he has waited to see properly again for centuries.”
There was much speculation as to the nature of this customer. People mounted the city walls to look out for him, but they saw nothing when they gazed inland. Once they called out that he was coming, yet it was only an elephant being led to a circus in Barcelona. Excitement and fear surged together.
While they watched, a ship from Cathay sailed into the bay and the citizens turned their attention out to sea. Even from this distance, the cargo of spices could be smelled. But as the vessel entered the harbour, a gigantic whirlpool opened up and sucked it down. The crew and all the pepper were destroyed.
A cry of horror filled the streets and bells were tolled in a hundred churches. Then someone remembered the great circular eyepiece and called out for help in rolling it down to the quayside. Within a minute, a crowd of volunteers was pushing at the rim of the monocle, bouncing it over the cobbles like a burning wheel.
The lens grinder followed helplessly, tearing at his hair as his marvellous creation gathered speed. Soon it slipped out of the grasp of the thousand hands and trundled along a jetty and over the edge.
There was no splash. The monocle landed in the eye of the whirlpool, fitting it perfectly. Men and women rushed onto the jetty and peered over the side, gasping in wonder at what they beheld.
The ocean was no longer blind. As the whirlpool moved across the bay, it revealed the gardens of the deep. Through the sparkling lens it was possible to discern the seabed in astonishing clarity. And now all the wrecks of ages past were focused on the surface, the gold and gems and casks of wine.
A few citizens jumped into boats and chased the roving eye to the horizon and beyond. They made maps as they did so, noting the position of each trove, planning for a future time when the treasures might be hauled up and distributed equally among the population, or perhaps they were just enjoying the spectacle.
There was general rejoicing, but the lens grinder went home in some trepidation and awaited a very big knock on his door.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Gone with the Wind in the Willows (1995)

I have always enjoyed 'flash fiction', those ultra brief tales that used to be called short-shorts. The most famous exponent of the form was Fredric Brown. although later I discovered Daniil Kharms, who to my mind was even better at it. Notoriously tricky, this type of fiction seems a perfect fit for the extremely busy and rapid modern world. The following is one of my fairly early attempts. Most of my flash fiction has subsequently been collected in the book FLASH IN THE PANTHEON.

The Confederate Army was shelling Toad Hall. Down in the bunker, Toad and Ratty were cowering under a table, drinking bourbon. Plaster fell from the ceiling and filled the room with fine dust. “Where the hell is General Badger?” Toad wailed.
Just at that moment, Mole erupted from the floor, a message clamped between his jaws. Toad snatched the communiqué and devoured the spidery words with his rheumy eyes. “Badger's forces have been eliminated on the outskirts of Atlanta.”
“Oh my, we're doomed!” avowed Ratty.
Toad drained his glass of bourbon and puffed on a cigar. “Time for the cyanide and petrol, boys.”
Screams of terror reached them from outside. It seemed the entire Confederate Army was on the run. The door to the bunker flew open and a svelte figure stood framed by licking flames.
“I came as quickly as I could,” it said.
“Who the hell are you?” Toad cried.
“Bambi,” it replied. It trotted into the room. “I know I'm not in your story, but I couldn't sit and watch you be annihilated. I've brought the Hollywood Infantry with me.”
“Well I'll be darned, a goddamn postmodernist.”
“Not quite. What's that you're drinking? Bourbon? May I have some? I've got a tankard with me. Will you fill it up?”
“You are joking. This is vintage stuff.”
“I'll settle for just a wine glass of the liquor in that case.”
“No way. This is expensive 108 proof Wild Turkey Rare Breed with a kick like an electrocuted whore.”
“Well how about filling a whisky glass? I only want a taste.”
Toad climbed from under the table and sneered. “Frankly, my deer, I don't give a dram.”

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Telegram Ma'am (1998)

There is a tradition in Britain that the Queen sends a congratulatory telegram to every citizen who attains the age of 100. I have been told that the process is not automatic but must be requested and that the message now arrives by letter rather than telegram. However, the general belief persists that the Queen does actually send a telegram to every centenarian whether the centenarian wants it or not. From this premise the following tale was created. It appeared in my collection The Smell of Telescopes back in the year 2000.

The Queen sits on her throne, writing telegrams. There is a knock on the door. It is Perry, the inventor. “What do you have for me this time, Mr Perry?” He holds up a slim object, dripping like a snake fang. The Queen frowns. “Well what is it?”
“A fountain-pen, your majesty.”
“Is it faster than a quill, Mr Perry?”
“Much faster, ma’am.”
The Queen discards the quill, which tickles the floor.

Many more things have just reached their hundredth birthday. There is a frayed glove in the second drawer of a maple desk in a forgotten room in a cheap hotel in Brighton. There is an octahedral ruby cut from a flawed stone by a myopic jeweller with a blunt chisel in Winchester. There is a saying among the folk of Bideford, Devon, which declares, “Better to dip an organ in cider than a piano in rum,” and another in Folkestone, Kent, not recorded — they have both turned one hundred. And a vast telescope in the roof-garden of Sir William Herschel. And the silver ring used by Prince Albert to restrain his erections, hidden in a rococo box when not in use, and the box itself, or rather its lock, and in the pocket of the locksmith’s grandson, a farthing. There is a bicycle lying under a gorse bush on the North York Moors, where Joan Bailey lost it after her lover struck her on the head with a mallet, and she went wandering without her memory to Coventry, eventually becoming the manager of a puppet theatre, while the bush grew to help the lover avoid suspicion. There is a plough nailed to a wall in an Oxford tavern.
These have existed for exactly a century, and telegrams must be sent out to all of them.

The Queen is still sitting on her throne. Throughout the palace, the clocks are striking midnight. She covers a yawn with a hand. “Oh why must I congratulate everything?

The people are growing agitated, politely. Agents ride out beyond them, disdaining the clamour. “Our monarch has abandoned us!” The agents say nothing, except the younger ones, who reply, “No she hasn’t!” But the people will not listen. There is discontent in Dover. There is a hubbub in Huddersfield. There are murmurings in Manchester. The agents gallop faster. There is a gnashing in Grantham, not of teeth, which are rare there, but of groceries, pears gnashed against plums. “The monarch is neglecting us!” “No she isn’t!”
An agitator mounts a soap-box in Leeds. He has a speech prepared. A republican agenda. He opens his mouth, but an agent rides up to him and delivers a slip of paper.
“What’s this? A telegram?”
The lowest button on his shirt must celebrate.

Prince Albert sits with the Queen in the bedchamber, holding hands. There is an aspidistra in a vase. The vase has recently received its telegram, the aspidistra has not.
“I can’t take much more of this!”
She strokes his moustache. “Our duties must be fulfilled, dear. It’s the constitution, you know. A secret part of modern government, vital to the integrity of the state.”
“I am a man. I have desires. You are never being here, in my arms, like a wife. What shall happen when my erection restraint wears out? It was forged over ten decades ago.”
“We will order another, from the Sheffield Kama Sutra Co.”
“I am sure to die of frustration!”

The Queen sits on her throne, writing telegrams. The fountain-pen is faster than the quill, but the workload does not lessen. There are more things in the world now, more objects to grow old. And as the Empire continues to expand, it gets worse. A gold-mine in Natal. A brewery in Australia. A religion in Rajasthan. There is a knock on the door. It is Stephenson, the inventor.
“What do you have for me this time, Mr Stephenson?”
“A locomotive, your majesty.”
“Is it faster than a horse?”
“Much faster, ma’am.”
“Kindly demonstrate, Mr Stephenson.”
“It is too large to bring indoors.”
The Queen cocks an ear and hears a distant whistle and the scrape of a shovel on coal. The years chug past.

The Prime Minister is arguing with the Lord Chancellor.
“But the tradition is doing wonders for our economy. Think of the technological offshoots it has created!”
“The Queen is exhausted. Remember what happened to George III. He went mad. And William IV took to drink.”
“Nonetheless, the tradition must continue. Too much time and effort has been invested to cancel it now. I have personally meddled with the archives of the Patent Office, altering dates and names, so that future historians will not perceive a link between progress and the tradition. You know which tradition I mean.”
“The tradition which is kept secret from the people?”
“Yes, precisely that tradition.”
“The tradition which has been indirectly responsible for numerous inventions, including the cantilever bridge, tarmac, the dynamo, sewing machines, the gyroscope, the compression refrigerator, corrugated iron, dirigibles, and the first-class stamp?”
“That’s the one! Strike this from the record!”

Agents sit in the buffet-cars of locomotives. Behind them, they tow nine carriages full of telegrams. At various points along the route, they open the doors and leap into the night, clutching a message. One has a trowel concealed under his hat. He lands awkwardly, shuffling toward a nameless village. The locomotive turns a bend and leaves him alone. He enters a churchyard, searching mossy headstones for the correct name. Here it is! He crouches and hacks at the fog-drenched earth with the trowel. At last the coffin is revealed. Pausing for breath, he glances around. An owl in a blasted yew returns his look. The agent jumps onto the coffin and inserts the edge of his tool under the lid. Rusty nails yawn from crumbling wood. Spiders flee. He throws back the lid like the cover of a Penny Dreadful and gags as a moonbeam, challenging a cloud to a duel and running it through, impales a madly grinning skeleton, bones jutting from mouldy suit! Hurriedly, the agent pins the telegram to the collar of the skeleton’s shirt, replaces the lid and soil and dances the plot flat, with a lame leg.

Prince Albert has sickened and died, of frustration, or typhoid, it is not clear which, possibly both. “Now I will have more time to devote to the writing of telegrams!” sobs the Queen.

The agitator squats in the hold of a prison-ship. A warder approaches, checking cells with a lantern. Something is wrapped around the glass, casting a stream of words over beams and bulwarks. At regular intervals, for no discernible reason, the warder lashes at his captives with a cat o’ nine tails. The agitator counts ten stripes on his legs when it is his turn. He notes that the extra tail is a length of paper, dangling from the handle of the antique whip.

The Queen sits on her throne, writing telegrams. There is a knock on the door. It is Littledale, the inventor.
“What do you call that thing, Mr Littledale?”
“A typewriter, your majesty.”
“Is it quieter than a locomotive, Mr Littledale?”
“Slightly, ma’am. It is powered by ribbons.”
“Can it do the writing for me?”
“Not at this stage. In a century or two.”
“It must write a telegram to itself when that happens.”

The French President is worrying his Chief of Police.
“What are the English playing at, mon cher?”
“I don’t know, Monsieur President.”
“They are cutting down trees at a furious rate. Obviously to make paper. But paper for what?”
“English novels, perhaps?”
“Ah yes! Do you like English novels, mon cher? I ordered one from London last week. A Defoe. The seventh word in the twelfth line of the sixty-third paragraph of the ninety-fifth chapter had a telegram glued to it. With noxious fish glue!”
“An extraordinary coincidence, Monsieur President! I also ordered a Defoe from London last week. At the centre was a compressed oak leaf and stapled to the leaf was a telegram.”
“Rosbif! Barbarians! Louts! We must consider forging an alliance, mon cher, to discover the meaning.”

A gold tooth under a pillow in a Padstow cottage, still waiting, without an owner, for a fairy. A wig in a box at the rear of a kennel in Durham, guarded by a dog with the morals of a cat. The belief that some cherries contain real stones, probably flints, held by the farmers of Thetford. A picture of a summer day in the Cotswolds, painted with clotted cream and magenta jam, in an unhygienic bakery in Winchcombe. A pistol in the hand of the very last man to fight a legal duel in Breckland, eating cherries to ignite the charge. A rotten hymn.

The Queen sits on her throne. Telegrams, knock on the door. A figure who wears his sideburns like camshafts.
“Who are you? I have no inventor called Babbage!”
“With respect, ma’am, I have been seeking an audience with you for thirty years. Allow me to demonstrate this analytical engine here. It is an early type of computer and can be programmed to perform a large body of functions, such as writing telegrams.”
“How dare you talk of body functions in my presence?”
“No ruler can afford to be without one.”
“I am busy! Take it away!”

Tears in the palace. A silver ring taken from a box, lovingly pressed to lips. “Once I was your barrel of sauerkraut. You whispered to me, ‘Liebe Kleine. Ich habe dich so lieb, ich kann nicht sagen wie’, and I presumed you were asking to visit the bathroom. But now you are gone. And my life has become a telegram without news.”

“You sent for me, your majesty?”
“Yes, Prime Minister. We have a problem. The tradition of sending telegrams to everything is one hundred years old.”
“Then you must send a telegram to the tradition.”
“But how? How can one send a telegram to a tradition? Who can carry it? Where will they go? I am bewildered.”
“You must try, ma’am! You must try!”
The Queen tries:

Dear Tradition,
Congratulations on reaching the centenary of being yourself.
Best wishes,
The Queen.

No, it is too absurd. Something must be done. The law will have to be altered, so that only old people receive telegrams, not everything. A secret bill must be passed.
The Prime Minister weeps at the thought of change.

A dream: a world where inanimate objects can rest in peace. Unemployed agents race nowhere in automobiles. Paradise! But a cloud looms on the horizon, cooling the idyll. There will still be much work to do. Wines, books, spoons, piers, guitars, floods, hearths, stables, gutters, pots, vendettas, crotchets, cuffs, doors, accidents, comets — these and many other items have been set free, but the population is increasing at an exponential rate. What if people come to outnumber things? How can this be avoided? Only a war, the like of which has never been imagined. That will stall the trend. But with whom?
On nights when the silver ring was kept in its box, Prince Albert gave her children. And these children have also produced children. One is named Wilhelm. Machine-guns, gas.

We are not amused.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Cottage in the Cottage (2012)

This is a story that (bizarrely) got me into a lot of trouble with the 'horror community' a few years ago. It's one of a set of stories that appeared in a collection that poked gentle fun at some of the more corny tropes of horror. To my surprise the collection caused a storm that broke the proverbial teacup and had to be accommodated in a larger coffee mug...

It so happened that in the autumnal days of a gloomy year many decades ago, long before I was born, the writer of ghost stories and tales of mortal terror known as Ewepond Crosse-&-Blackwell, who had published many hardback volumes of highly-regarded prose works, was invited to stay in the remote cottage of his friend, Charles Fizzy-Refreshment, also a writer of ghost stories and mortal terror tales.
Ewepond accepted the invitation without eyeing a batlid, for although the cottage in question had an awful reputation for creepiness, indeed for being so creepy that even creepy things avoided it (apart from those that were responsible for making it creepy), he was a man with a tough spirit who rarely blubbered with fear like a sissy. Accordingly, he caught a train to the nearest town, Ambience-on-Spec.
There was an hour’s wait before the gyro-bus arrived to convey him a dozen more miles into the country, to the crossroads where a gibbet hung in former times, generally with the corpse of a highwayman rotting inside it for the edification of travellers who might come that way, not that many of them did. Indeed, so infrequent were wayfarers out in that lonely zone that gentlemen of the road and other bandits usually starved to death for lack of victims to rob before they ever had a chance of being arrested and executed by any court-appointed hangman.
During this wait, Ewepond Cross-&-Blackwell visited a tearoom and ordered a cup of tea and a teacake. The waitress fussed and grumbled and muttered that it was no time for tea, because it wasn’t teatime, but it can’t be confidently asserted that she refused to serve him, for she did, and she also gave him a complimentary mint, which he placed beneath the root of his tongue like a cross-section of mandrake.
“Excuse me, do many visitors come here?” he asked her.
“O heaven no, sir! Not on my nelly! An honest waitress I’ve been for sixty years, knowing my station in life, and I ain’t seen more than half a dozen outsiders venture here in that time!”
“Really? That’s not many, is it? Too bad. More sugar!”
“It’ll rot your pearlies, sir, it will!”
Ewepond had expected this response. “My buggering pearlies are my own business. Get it pronto, wench-hag!”
And she did. And the sugar came in a bowl of lumps, two lumps only in total, both deformed, one looking like a ghost, the other like some sort of sodding psycho. But he dropped them in his tea anyway and they made a little splash and tannin strained his shirt.
“Oh blast! Now I shall have to arrange a washday!”
He drank his tea, munched his teacake, dissolved the mint with the spit of his considerable erudition, and then stood to climb aboard the gyro-bus that had just pulled up. A curious vehicle, donated by the Swiss, who had invented them. The motor turned an iron flywheel slung under the chassis as well as the wheels; coasting downhill in neutral without power did the same thing; then the energy stored by the iron flywheel helped the engine to go up hills more cheaply and efficiently.
“Where to, guvnor?” called the cheery yokel driver.
“To the frigging crossroads, man!”
“Return to the frigging crossroads, right you are!”
“Not a return, you blithering thickie, I want a single!” shouted the very talented author Ewepond Cross-&-Blackwell. “I’m not coming back this way. Ambience-on-Spec is a dull place.”
“A s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-single?” blurted the terrified driver.
“Yes, yes, like a man without a girlfriend. Why are you gaping at me like a cider-soaked monkey? Hasn’t anyone ever gone to the crossroads without needing to come back before?”
“Well,” swallowed the driver, recovering his composure with extreme difficulty, not that he had much in the first place, “I don’t know anything about need, sir, but they don’t come back if you go one way. That’s right enough. Sure as legs are legs, sir. Yes.”
Ewepond scratched his chin. He was intrigued.
“My friend lives near there,” he said.
The driver turned pale. Then he opened his mouth and laughed. “Your friend? Oh, I see! Ha ha! Very good, sir! Yes, very droll! A fine man like yourself from the upper classes is certainly allowed to play a joke on the stupid lower class workers like myself.”
Ewepond was exasperated. If the fool wanted to think it was all a joke, so be it! As long as he gave him the ticket he asked for, it didn’t matter at all to him. And that’s what the driver did.
Ewepond was the only passenger on the gyro-bus. There was, in fact, another passenger, but she was thick and doesn’t count. She sat alone at the very back, on a seat by herself, without any companions, knitting with her disgusting needles a grandfather clock.
“Bloody woollen timepieces!” sneered Ewepond.
The gyro-bus wound its way through the blasted countryside. First it went this way, then that way, then this way again, then that way again. It carried on like this for a time, then it went that way, then this way, then it went this way again, then that way, then that way, then this way twice. It finally went this way, that way, that way.
“Here we are, sir. The crossroads of hideous doom!”
“Stop the vehicle then, moron!”
“Yes, sir, right away, sir, thank you, sir!”
Ewepond got out without saying thanks. He was in a grumpy mood, a dark blight had descended on him, indigestion played rubbish drums deep in his belly and his bum cheeks ached from too much scholarly farting. A lonely walk over fields and through a forest now awaited him. He had his map with him, one that Charles Fizzy-Refreshment had mailed to him in the post. Charles had drawn it himself.
“No official maps of the region exist,” he’d explained.
Ewepond squinted at it, mumbling:
“Let’s see now. Walk up the eastern arm of the crossroads, looking out for a stile as I go. Then over the stile and through the meadows of Plonker Dong, the idiot farmer, avoiding his bulls. Then into Trumper Woods and out the other side and across Poo Marsh on the rotting boardwalk. Then it is only five miles to another woodland, Spitroast Forest, and in the middle of this forest I will locate the cottage!”
So he set off with grim determination and a long stride.
Eight hours later, as the sun was setting, he eventually stumbled to the door of the cottage and rapped on it.
“Let me in, for the love of God’s insurance policy!”
A thin voice came. “I don’t like salesmen. Go and piss off. And don’t come back ever again in your life.”
“Charles! Charles! It was a figure of speech! An expletive! Don’t you recognise my voice? I’m Ewepond!”
And the door creaked open and there in the doorway loomed a man, a very creepy man, with a rusty axe blade wedged in his head. His purple eyes rotated like wobbly cartwheels. “Ewepond! So good to see you! So glad you accepted my invitation, what?”
“Of course I did, you buggering softie! B-b-b-b-but—”
Charles smirked. “Oh, you’ve noticed the axe blade. An accident when I was chopping wood. Very odd. There have been some changes since I last wrote to you, but don’t worry!”
“May I come in and eat your food and drink your whisky?”
“Certainly. Empty your bladder too!”
And the two friends embraced, but not like sissies, and went inside the cottage. Then Charles led Ewepond into the main room and sat him down on a chair in front of the fire and fetched him a bottle of Malt, passing it to him without a glass, because the glasses were all full of sick and bad to use; so Ewepond, who had massive talent at writing stories, glugged from the bottle like a tramp and wiped his lips.
“Delicious. I love your buggering whiskies, buddy.”
“Cheers, pal. So how was—”
“My journey? Awful. Too many thickies.”
“No, no, not your journey. Your prejudices. I mean, do you still keep a brace of prejudices inside your soul?”
“Of course. And I water them regularly with lies.”
“Nice! I bet they are huge now?”
“Frigging enormous, don’t you know? Yes, I still cultivate prejudices, biases and all sort of intolerance. What about you? Do you have hobbies? I seem to recall you collect aerials.”
Charles shook his head, the axe blade gleaming in the firelight like the cheek of a robot, and laughed. “Not aerials. Antennae. Yes, I have 93,563 of them now and add a new one every ten minutes. But less of the casual small talk! I have something to show you.”
“Is it your scrotum scar again?”
“No, it isn’t. Sorry.”
“Is it the mushrooms in your underpants?”
“Nope. Guess again.”
“Is it something scary, something creepy and mad?”
Charles nodded like a whore on her knees facing a customer and doing you know what, or maybe you don’t know if you’ve led a sheltered life as I flipping have. Anyway, he nodded.
“Show it to me then, you cow!” cried Ewepond.
Charles lit a brown candle from the fire in the grate and guided like a bipedal toad his friend down a winding corridor that seemed to dip down into the bowels of the earth itself.
“This is my cellar. Where I keep my w—”
“Wife?” gasped Ewepond.
“Whisky,” corrected Charles with a snort.
Ewepond was relieved. “For one moment I thought you’d switched to the Lips of Isis.” And when Charles turned his head and draped a baffled expression over it, Ewepond added, “Switched from the Eye of Horus, I mean…” But Charles was still confused.
“No matter!” said Ewepond, blushing furiously.
They reached the end of the corridor, which like a backward intestine disgorged them into the stomach of a cellar. Whisky bottles were all over the place; and leather jackets hung from pegs hammered into the rock of the wall, the living rocks, even though rock’s not alive, and in the pockets of those leather jackets were more whisky bottles. It was paradise or hell or both at the same time, if you prefer.
Ewepond did prefer, but before he could open and glug himself silly, Charles plucked at his tweed elbow.
“This is what I found the other day,” he hissed.
And he pointed with his finger at a space behind a barrel of whisky in the darkest corner. Ewepond went to look but it was too dark to see what was there, so Charles turned around, bent over, held the candle flame near his buttocks and broke a mighty wind.
The fart ignited; and in the sudden, brief but glorious flash, Ewepond saw what no man was supposed to see.
“It’s a model cottage!” he croaked, holding his nose.
Charles nodded. “An exact replica of my cottage. Exact, I say! Guess what? The detail is perfect inside too.”
“Including this cellar?” Ewepond whispered.
“Yes, and even including the whisky; and even that whisky barrel and even another cottage, even smaller, which contains another cellar and yet another cottage and so on, and so on!”
“But this is some sort of mathematical horror!”
“Aye, it farting well is!”
“But what does this mean? What? What?”
Charles Fizzy-Refreshment turned pale, so pale that even pale wasn’t pale in comparison but dark, darker than dark in fact, so dark that even dark wasn’t dark in comparison but pale, paler even than the pale that was the paleness of Charles. That’s how pale he was. Pale. Beyond the pale. A pale man indeed. Very bloody pale.
“It means… it means… that there are two little men in there right now. You and me! And in the even smaller cottage there are two littler men in there right now; and in the even smaller cottage there are two littler men in there right now; and in the even—”
“I get the point. Muffle it,” said Ewepond glumly.
There was a dreadful horrid pause.
“And if they are us, they must be writers!” Charles finally blurted like a bloated trapeze ape. “And they must have written our books! And they must be getting all the royalties too!”
“Burn the frigging cheats!” screamed Ewepond.
And he plucked out the axe blade from Charles’ head, leaving a hole that gaped and revealed a wriggly giant white worm curled up inside the skull instead of a brain, and he used this blade to broach the whisky barrel so that the liquid spilled onto the model cottage; then he snatched from the hand of his friend the vile candle.
“No! You don’t understand!” protested Charles.
But it was too late. Ewepond cast the flame onto the model and at once it burst into an inferno. Suddenly there were flames all around them, for the bigger cottage itself, the one they stood in right now, had also been set on fire, by a vast Ewepond from some larger dimension. It was connected in some way, all of it. Everything…
They screamed as they roasted. “Aaaaiiiiiieeeee!”