Saturday, 31 December 2011

Trombonhomie (1994)

This story was published in Psychotrope #3 in 1995; and then also in my first chapbook, Romance with Capsicum, later in the same year. It was influenced by the short stories of Donald Barthelme, a writer who profoundly changed my perception of what was possible and desirable in short fiction. I still consider 'Trombonhomie' to be among the best examples of my early work.

When my neighbour plays the amplified trombone it means another sleepless night. But I don't sleep anyway, so perhaps it doesn't matter. I don't sleep because my neighbour plays the amplified trombone.
         I also play the amplified trombone. I play the amplified trombone to annoy my neighbour for keeping me awake. I slide the notes like fish through my windows, beyond the trees, higher than the rising moon. I play blue notes and purple passages and make the house shudder.
         I once considered killing my neighbour. But I knew what this would entail. I would have to pack a bag with provisions and sling it over my shoulder. My other shoulder would be in a sling. My sling would be at my belt, my stones in a pocket. Journeys last longer than pockets; stones longer than journeys.
         So I would leave with a pebble-smooth chin and before I was close it would be as prickly as a pear. My neighbour lives far away. That is why I play an amplified trombone to annoy him. If I played an ordinary trombone he would not be annoyed. He would probably fall asleep and then I would have no reason to play any sort of trombone. And I am getting good now. I need the practice.
         At any rate, if I ever reached his house I would look very foolish. I would have to knock on his door and say, "excuse me, but your amplified trombone is keeping me awake," and he would look me up and down with his sombre eyes (but no, really, what would his eyes look like? The eyes of an amplified trombone player are always sad, must be) and his reply would be, "I'm awfully sorry, but I play the amplified trombone because my neighbour does," and I would say, "I am that neighbour," and he would shake his head and answer, "by your appearance you come from the lands of the west and my neighbour lives in the east," and I would say, "you mean your other neighbour?" and he would nod and I would bow a retreat and be unable to knock on his door a second time.
         And then he would return to his amplified trombone playing with renewed vigour. And I would have to feel a sort of sympathy for him. And reaching into my pocket to cast away my stones, I would find that they had already escaped through a hole.
         So I would have to look beyond the immediate problem. I would have to consider killing his other neighbour, the one that lives in the east. There would be no other option. What other option would there be? So I would pack a bag with provisions and sling it over my shoulder, etc. I would whistle a callow tune and fill my pocket with fresh stones. Not the pocket with a hole in it, but my other pocket.
         And I would travel for many weeks, down dark and winding forest paths where monstrous orchids dipped their anaemic heads at my passing. And finally I would reach the house of my neighbour's other neighbour and I would knock loudly on the door and make a fool of myself again. I would say, "excuse me, but your amplified trombone is keeping my neighbour awake," and the figure who would appear would scratch a warty nose and reply, "but it was my neighbour who started it," and I would raise my hands in an exasperated gesture and say, "well he never mentioned that to me," and he would gaze at me doubtfully and remark, "you look to me as if you have just travelled through the forests of the west and my neighbour lives in the east," and then I would understand that he too was referring to his other neighbour.
         So I would have to bid him farewell, refusing his kind offer of a cup of blue-green tea, and go on my way in a kind of light-hearted despair. And this would go on and on (imagine, if you will, sixteen thousand similar encounters, variations without the theme) until I was sick and beyond redemption. And strange and subtle things would start to happen, so subtle that they would be almost unnoticeable. Language would begin to change, until I found myself in a completely alien country. But as I pressed further eastwards, it would come back into focus. And one day, I would eventually find a man whose neighbour did not play the amplified trombone and I would ask, "why is this the case?" and the man would explain, "he used to play, but he has not sounded a note for over a year now," and racing onwards to greet this man who had given up playing the amplified trombone, I would discover that it was myself.
         No, I don't want to take that course of action. I would rather stay at home and have to contend with my neighbour blowing those infernal lines on his amplified trombone. I would rather slide my notes like fish, pace my darkened room, anger my heart with coffee and cheap cigarettes. The rising moon rests like a steady flame on the wick of my bedside candle. I bury my head under the pillow; a premature burial because I am still breathing, crying out for release. If I could connect an amplifier to the moon as it changed gear over the horizon, I would have a celestial revenge indeed. But I do not possess the necessary skills.
         One evening, while we are both playing for all we are worth, a curious thing happens. Our widely diverging melodies form a compelling harmony. The time lag has been taken into account, his preference for atonality also. But suddenly we are playing together, an unearthly counterpoint, a music whose sum is far greater than its parts. For the first time, we have made a sort of contact with each other; it is as if we are sitting in the same room, at the same inglenook, warming our boots before the fire, tapping the stems of our Churchwarden pipes against our teeth; the hearth of our hearts. For the first time, I bless the technology that can amplify trombones.
         Our duet continues throughout the night. The wind rises up from the distant sea and the clouds scud across the milky sky, entangling themselves in the branches of the highest trees. The grass picks up our refrain, each slippery blade an Aeolian harp. I no longer hate my neighbour; I almost love him instead and resolve to make the arduous journey to his home as a gesture of friendship. But there is little need. Why make a gesture of friendship to the man or woman you are already embracing?
         When the moon sinks down over the opposite horizon, and the sun spreads its orange nets once more, we end with a remote and beautiful chord. I sink exhausted back onto my bed and sleep the sleep of the satiated. I know that I will never be able to play another note on the amplified trombone. I will have to dismantle my instrument and create something new from the brassy tubes. All this applies in equal measure to my neighbour. So what will we make from our throaty monsters? How will we pick over the trombones of civilisation?
         When my neighbour plays the amplified triangle it means another sleepless night. But I don't sleep anyway, so perhaps it doesn't matter. I don't sleep because my neighbour plays the amplified triangle.


Thursday, 29 December 2011

Interview with the City Treasurer (1991)

This story remained lost for more than 20 years. I discovered it at the bottom of a box in the cellar of a friend's house on Christmas Day, 2011. I do remember that shortly after completing it I showed it to a friend who judged it to be "puerile", which probably explains why I discarded it. The piece certainly is crude and clumsy but I have resurrected it for minor historical interest and because it does reflect my concerns (mainly financial) at the time it was written.

Q: Have you ever emerged from your chamber?
A: No. There is no precedent. My predecessors were content to stay down here, in the darkest depths of City Hall, and so am I. I will never meet the public face to face, or face to arse as the case may be.
Q: Have you ever answered the telephone?
A: Sometimes I like to be responsible enough to be unhelpful personally. I vomit streams of steaming excrement into the mouthpiece. There is no difference between my mouth and my anus. When I am constipated, I grow silent.
Q: Do you have a conscience?
A: I have the conscience of an aardvark, the urgency of a tree. My mentality is that of a worm or a snowflake. My one purpose in life is to PROMOTE SUFFERING. I PROMOTE SUFFERING with great efficiency.
Q: How do you choose your victims?
A: At random. It gives me particular satisfaction to destroy upstart intellectuals.
Q: How do you destroy them?
A: The ways in which SUFFERING can be PROMOTED are many and varied. I relish them all. I have made the PROMOTION OF SUFFERING into an exact science. The very synthesis of SUFFERING could be formed from my array of subtle Mindfucks. The Poll Tax Mindfuck is my personal favourite. There are many others. The Housing Benefit Mindfucks have been the downfall of many.
Q: Why do you scratch at the sores that cover your body?
A: So that the yellow pus will dribble down between my legs.
Q: What do you eat for breakfast?
A: A jar of worms. I spear them with a cocktail stick. My black tongue moves up and down. My teeth mash the slimy bodies. Worm juice splashes over my chest. Shifting my weight on the toilet that serves as my throne, I pick my nose with the cocktail stick and open my bowels with a grunt. The wealth of the city plops down into the bowl. This is the real jar of worms: the one that will never be opened.
Q: Do you ever read the letters you receive?
A: I never read Applications for Housing Benefit. When I masturbate, I use them to wipe the come off my belly.
Q: Why do a calculator and a vibrator lie next to each other on your desk?
A: With one I work out Poll Tax Rebates; with the other I fuck myself. It is not entirely clear, even to myself, which I use for what.
Q: Who is your favourite writer?
A: Kafka. I have read The Trial many times. The theme of this book is well known: a victim is punished by a system for a crime he probably did not commit. I have adopted this system that punishes crimes probably not committed and refined it. I have removed the doubt.
Q: How many assistants do you have?
A: A great many. They were once normal people. One by one I have buggered them all, with a member as pale and fat as a monstrous grub. The experience has left them mere shells. This is how I like them. I am such a misanthrope that I cannot bear the company of any rational being.
Q: How else would you describe your penis?
A: Cold.
Q: For how long do you torture victims?
A: A long time. I like to turn the screw slowly. When I break wind in the face of humanity, the smell always lingers.
Q: How would you describe that smell?
A: Like that of charred bodies. A miasma of evil that expands in choking purple clouds.
Q: Why do you have no navel?
A: Because I was not born. This is my secret. My victims know I am not a normal man but they have not yet realised I am not a man of any kind. Only an utterly alien lifeform could have such a fanatical hatred of humanity.
Q: Can you describe your present/general state of mind?
A: Completely dead/defunct.
Q: Do you ever have moments of doubt?
A: In darker moods I sometimes wonder what effect my reign is really having on the city. Reports of mass homelessness, poverty and despair reach me daily, of course, but I have only statistics. I long to see the SUFFERING for myself.
Q: What is your greatest dream?
A: One day a victim will commit suicide near City Hall and my assistants will be able to snatch the corpse. They will bear it down to my chamber where I can molest and mutilate it and practise bizarre forms or oral sex and sodomy upon it. This corpse will be proof that all my policies are working. I will not longer have any moments of doubt.


Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Grave Demeanour (2010)

The custom of remembering a deceased loved one by killing healthy flowers and laying them on the grave, a practice I had always accepted as unremarkable, suddenly seemed strange and perverse to me. That's why I wrote this story. As I get older I become more acutely aware of (and depressed by) the casual destruction of life that seems to accompany so many 'normal' human activities.

When the man known as John Loop died he was buried in an old churchyard and his friends cut some flowers from his own garden to lay respectfully on his grave. The rains came and the dead flowers began to slowly rot.
         The other flowers in the garden were stricken with grief at the loss of their friends. The murders of those seven daffodils had been blatant and cruel. The surviving flowers had no chance of getting revenge, but they wanted to express their sadness by making an appropriate gesture.
         They waited until the first bumblebee of the year appeared and landed on the petals of the nearest flower. The moment it crawled inside the trumpet to look for pollen, that daffodil made a special effort and snapped shut around it, just like a Venus Flytrap, and kept squeezing tight until the bee suffocated.
         It wasn't easy for the daffodil to uproot itself and walk all the way to the churchyard. Even the hardiest perennials find such activity exhausting and rarely indulge in it, so for a daffodil it was gruelling in the extreme. Eventually it arrived at the grave where the murdered flowers lay and it opened its trumpet and placed the dead bee on top.
         Then it went back to the garden and replanted itself, satisfied that it had discharged its duty and employed the correct symbolism in doing so. Humans are mourned with flowers; flowers are mourned with bees. But the story doesn't end there.
         The friends of the bumblebee were distraught when he didn't return to the hive and they went out to search for him. At long last his corpse was found in the churchyard. The other bees decided to hold his funeral the following day and adorn his grave with a freshly killed bear.
         Shortly after the next sunrise they swarmed out and chased a bear over a cliff. Then they pushed its body to the churchyard and laid it on top of the bee. It was fatiguing work but worth it for the symbolic value of the huge hairy cadaver.
         The friends of the bear wailed and wept for an entire week before fishing a salmon from the river and draping it over the dead bear's head. As for the friends of that salmon: once they heard the news they ganged up on a squid and ended its many-armed life. But how they managed to get it to the grave is still a mystery.
         The friends of the squid decided to honour its passing with a dead albatross, so one of them reached up through the surface of the ocean and snatched a bird in flight and dragged it down and drowned it. The corpse of that albatross was later positioned with great reverence on top of the squid on top of the salmon on top of the bear on top of the bee on top of the flowers on top of the man John Loop.
         A few days later, the friends of the albatross caused a small aeroplane to crash. The pilot bailed out in time but his craft plummeted into a hill. The birds dragged the wrecked plane to the churchyard and laid it gently on the grave. Then they flew away.
         The friends of that aeroplane bombed a cathedral and piled the rubble on top of the smashed machine. Then the friends of the demolished cathedral all crossed a bridge at the same time and caused it to collapse with the weight. The broken bridge ended up on the grave on top of the bombed cathedral just as etiquette demands.
         But the friends of the bridge responded to the loss of their friend by killing the east wind that was making their railings sing; and so the other winds killed a radio transmission that was passing through the atmosphere shortly afterwards; and the friends of that particular frequency sent an offensive message into space that would kill with shame the satellite that received it. And so on.
         Months, years, centuries passed…
         One day a robot found himself passing through the churchyard. He saw the tower of dead objects and his scientific curiosity was engaged. Extending his arms, he climbed to the summit and sat there with a dreamy look in his crystal eyes.
         "This tower contains a single example of everything in the world and many things outside it," he said to himself, "with the exception of—"
         Suddenly he lost his balance and toppled over the edge. He was so high that the Earth was only the size of an alien fruit below him. As he accelerated he dimly wondered what the juice of that fruit might taste like. The answer was oil and electrons. But that, in fact, was his own juice after he landed.
         While he cooled in pieces beside the grave of John Loop, his friends brought a newly slaughtered human to lay on top of him…


The Martian Monocles (2009)

Ray Bradbury was my favourite writer when I was 17 years old. I devoured his stories and tried unsuccessfully to imitate them, but then, for some reason I stopped reading his work and didn't return to him for many years. Yet I still regard him as one of the authentic masters of the short form and one of the best American authors of the 20th Century. This moderate tribute to his genius was first published, shortly after it was written, in Wamack, an online journal of the arts.

It's true we know more about the surface of Mars than the bottom of the ocean, but not for want of trying. The problem with diving so deep is that the pressure is enormous and only the strongest bathyspheres can survive a journey right down to the abyssal plain. Many vessels and explorers have been crushed over the years attempting to plumb the ultimate limits of the deepest marine trenches.
         Every time a bathysphere implodes somewhere far under the seas of Earth, the most advanced beings on Mars shed big oily tears in sympathy, but not because they assign a high value to human life. No. They aren't even aware that those bathyspheres are crewed. Such misunderstandings are normal between the life forms of different worlds and only rarely can an authentic connection be made.
         The Martians in question resemble giant eyeballs that have fallen out of colossal heads and a legend says that when they all weep together the ancient dry riverbeds of the red planet fill to the brim with doleful water, but in fact there aren't enough of them to produce sufficient liquid for that. What is true is that the eyelids that slam like shutters to protect them are the same colour as the desert.
         These eyeball beings are clairvoyant and that's how they know about the bathyspheres on Earth. They see images in their minds that are almost as clear as the pictures they focus on for real. They dislike being stared at and are instantly aware when anyone or anything tries to study them from afar, and that's why it took so long to detect them. They aren't exactly shy but they do value their privacy.
         The moment a telescope is trained on them or a probe passes overhead the eyelids close and they remain very still, so nothing can be seen but the endless desert with its scattering of spherical rocks. When the intruder has gone, the rocks turn back into eyeballs. They move by rolling like globes and they derive nourishment purely from photons. In other words they eat whatever they see, just like fat men.
         It was only by accident that humans first made contact with them and the circumstances of that encounter are so unlikely they are worth telling again. A habitual sleepwalker on one of the first exploratory missions got out of his hammock in the middle of the night, suited up inside his rocket, opened the airlock and walked off alone. He was still fast asleep when he blundered into a group of eyeballs.
         Because his eyes were closed all the time, and his conscious mind was switched off, the Martians didn't telepathically pick up his vibrations or take evasive action until it was too late. The astronaut woke up as soon as he hit the ground and then it was pointless for the eyeballs to pretend they still didn't exist. So Mars and Earth were introduced to each other. Formal trade links were rapidly established.
         Unfortunately, it turned out that the Martians had nothing the humans wanted, and the humans only had one resource the eyeballs valued at all. Books. To be precise, the books of one author, Ray Bradbury. Try as they might, the humans couldn't interest the Martians in any other writer, not even Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert or Kim Stanley Robinson. So crates of Bradbury titles were rocketed to Mars.
         As those rockets took off from the launch pads of Earth, the heat of the departing exhausts turned winter days into summer, melting snowdrifts and baking nostalgic cakes in ovens not yet lit. But that doesn't concern us now. Every Bradbury volume was reprinted and small-press magazines from the 1940s were trawled in an effort to retrieve those numerous short stories that the author had disowned.
         The Martians devoured these works, but because the eyeballs were so big and the typeface in the books so small in comparison, severe eyestrain was the inevitable result. Soon every Martian was myopic. They bumped into each other constantly as they trundled over the desiccated continents and irritation turned to anger, then anger became a desire for revenge. An interplanetary incident was inevitable.
         Disaster was averted by the resourceful owner of a spectacle shop who recalled an old fable about a Spanish lens grinder who made an enormous monocle for a cyclops. This was lucky, as nobody else seemed to know that story. He saw no reason why the spectacle factories of Earth couldn't make monocles for the Martian market. His idea was taken up by various governments and rapidly implemented.
         Soon the eyeballs could see clearly again and the wearing of monocles even imparted to them an aristocratic air they hadn't possessed before and the reissuing of the entire Ray Bradbury back-catalogue was resumed and everything should have been fine, but a new problem arose in the wake of the solution. That's often the way. While wearing their massive monocles, the Martians were no longer able to roll.
         An eyeball is a spheroid and spheroids move like balls, but a monocle is a disc and its flat surface impedes that kind of motion. Anger became a desire for revenge again. A second interplanetary incident loomed and it seemed that two worlds would be forced to engage in mutual destruction with futuristic rays because of a retrogeneric Ray, which sounds neat but isn't. All because of short sightedness!
         Fortunately, the owner of the spectacle shop was also a transportation expert. Neat coincidence, that. He quickly grasped that the dry riverbeds of Mars could be utilised as roads, as twisting freeways that would enable joined eyeballs facing away from each other to employ their monocles as wheels, eating up the Martian kilometres on the transparent rims of those vision rectifiers. An ingenious solution.
         Although the Martians were loose eyeballs and hadn't lived in sockets for aeons they still possessed residual optic nerves that dangled like short tails from behind, just as the coccyx of humans is a residual tail. A pair of friendly Martians could splice these nerves into a flexible but strong axle, and that's what they did, rapidly acquiring a taste for high speed cruising and irresponsible driving while blinking.
         The owner of the spectacle shop had become an unofficial ambassador to the red planet and he warned the drivers to take more care, to cut their speed, to keep their eyes on the road, but the third part of that advice was a joke, because no matter how inept they were they couldn't do otherwise, and soon enough there was carnage everywhere and a third interplanetary incident was on the verge of erupting…
         At this point the owner of the spectacle shop gave up. He couldn't be bothered to avert another apocalyptic war. It was somebody else's turn. He concentrated on relocating his entire stock into a subterranean bunker and living in close confinement with many wives. History doesn't record his name, partly because history no longer exists, but rumour maintains it was Yrubdarb Yar. Sounds foreign to me.
         It just remains to explain the significance of the Martian empathy for bathyspheres. They think that bathyspheres are the true dominant form of life on Earth because of their shape, so when they implode under the sea and a perfectly round bubble of gas escapes and breaks the surface, the Martians believe they are observing a soul leaving its physical body and ascending to the realm of eyeball ghosts.


Transmigrating the Bishop (2011)

Several years ago the genius writer Michael Bishop postmodernly, jestingly and excellently wrote my 612th story for me, to save me the trouble. The result was a piece that formed the introduction to my novella The Crystal Cosmos and was entitled 'The Orchid Forest: a Metafactual Narrative Introduction to THE CRYSTAL COSMOS by Rhys Hughes, by Miguel Obispo'. The number 612 was plucked at random. Back then it seemed that I would never actually reach that number myself, or anywhere near it...

But in November 2011, I finished writing my 612th story. Not really wanting to skip from 611 to 613, I made sure that the 612th was about Michael Bishop, the same way his story is about me. In his tale explorers set off in search of me; so in my tale explorers set off in search of him. His story is 4467 words long; as a mark of respect I made my story 4466 words long, one less.

“I wish I was a real bishop,” said the chess piece.
         “That’s a bit arch,” I replied.
         “No, not an archbishop, that’s not what I want to be. Just an ordinary bishop with a delightful diocese.”
         “Not so long ago you were only a pawn.”

We went in search of the author Michael Bishop, the award winner, the elusive dreamer, the chronicler of the multiple migraines of Time. First we tramped along the Bible Belt, for that is where we had been informed he lived. We scaled the giant brass buckle with difficulty. The Bible Belt drives the Lathe of Heaven, but today was its day off. By early afternoon we knew our informant was wrong.
         “Our journey has been wasted,” I sighed.
         “He must live somewhere, even if not here,” opined Watson. But I was mildly dubious about this statement.
         We asked various pedestrians we encountered. One stooped old timer who was collecting dew from the insides of the belt loops stood when we approached, listened patiently to our query, frowned deeply, scratched his immense beard, each stiff hair tuned to a different zither note, and told us, above the awful plucked discord, “Doesn’t he reside somewhere in Upper Zelazny? I’m sure that’s the location.”
         “Might well be,” I conceded.
         “It certainly sounds plausible,” Watson said.
         “Indeed so,” added Crowther.
         So we set off for that land, which is justly famous for its vast reserves of amber, but it was a long way to go. The sun set as we approached the border, so we stopped at the Sign of the Unicorn and paid for a room. It was an extremely historic inn with a thatched roof, warped beams, a log fire, antique tables and chairs and a landlord named Jack who kept mainly to the shadows. The quaintest place.
         We weren’t the only guests. There were a few hooded pilgrims staying the night. They sat in the far corner.
         “Are you a soldier?” Jack asked me quietly.
         “Lieutenant Hugs of the Speculative Fiction Militia,” I cried, saluting him with the peculiar gesture we favour.
         “Used to be in uniform myself. I still have the power to promote other soldiers if I feel like it. So now you’re a Captain. How about that? I enjoy being altruistic every now and then.”
         I was delighted. “An ale please, landlord.”
         “Light or heavy, sir?”
         “A light ale, as it happens,” I said.
         “What kind?” he asked. “There are several local breweries who supply my cellars with pale nectar.” He lowered his voice. “I can recommend the Lordof for its crisp taste and purity.”
         He seemed genuine enough. So I ordered a Lordof light ale. A tankard of the stuff. I carried it back to my companions, who were still indecisive about their own choice of beverage. Then the pilgrims shouted over some suggestions. They ignored me, of course, which was a relief, for I always have trouble knowing how to treat such people, but Watson and Crowther seemed eager to engage them in debate.
         The conversation passed from the merits of beers to the finer points of theology and philosophy. Arguments and refutations were shuttled back and forth between our respective tables, good naturedly enough, but I still felt very uncomfortable. I generally do.
         The pilgrims belonged to the Cult of Sapp, the tree-juice deity, and it seemed they were lost, for they were supposed to be attending a festival on Happenstance, which is a planet that collided so gently with the Earth last year that it didn’t smash itself to bits but got stuck to ours, making a double world like two vast toffees in the paper bag of space. The pilgrims were on the wrong side, the wrong sweet.
         After quaffing the final mouthfuls of my ale, I felt confident enough to speak up and explain this to the hooded strangers. They pursed their lips, tongues clicking behind like coins, frowned and then sighed. It seemed I had poisoned the atmosphere. Watson and Crowther were also infected with the sour mood and glowered at me. At last I decided to go out for a breath of air and some peace of mind.
         I opened the front door and stepped into the night.
         And standing right before me was—
         A massive sentient pawn.

“Are you quite sure that’s how we first met?”
         “Yes indeed.” I nod vigorously. “How could I ever forget something like that? You blocked the entrance.”
         “It was a full moon and the buttery light was spread thickly over your toasted expression as you emerged.”
         “Toasted? No, I didn’t clink my tankard with anyone.”

I stopped in my tracks, partly because there really wasn’t anywhere else to stop, and said, “A massive pawn!”
         “Sentient too,” came the reply. There was a pause.
         “Aren’t you going to move?”
         “Can’t you squeeze around me instead?”
         “Yes, but with difficulty.”
         The pawn didn’t have a face, so I can’t be sure it grimaced as it waited on its invisible square on the improvised chessboard known as Reality. I pushed beyond it, but now I felt silly, with my back to that anomaly, so I turned and remarked as casually as possible, “I’m on my way with some friends to seek out Michael Bishop, the writer. I don’t suppose you might confirm that he’s in Upper Zelazny?”
         “I know for sure he’s no longer there. You stand a better chance if you take the road to Middle Delany at the next fork, but don’t get your hopes up too high. He’s elusive, very.”
         “And what’s your destination, perchance?”
         “I don’t have one. I lost my chessboard last night. I was being used in a game by two absolute beginners. The one whose side I was on moved me to the last rank, to the fabled place of promotion. Beginner’s luck, I guess. But he forgot to turn me into anything. He just kept me going, off the board. He didn’t realise the edge of the board was a boundary and so I ended up here. Then he went away.”
         “Can’t you move under your own power?”
         “Yes, but I can’t reverse. I’m just a pawn. If I was a queen or a rook I would be utterly free, but unfortunately I’m not. I guess I’ll have to enter this inn and spend the rest of my life getting drunk at a table. Nice talking to you. Have a successful journey.”
         “Thanks. My name is Captain Hugs. And yours?”
         “Mister Pawn. Call me Pawny.”
         “I think there’s a back door too. Maybe you can pass right through the building and emerge the other side?”
         “Sure.” He just stood there, blocking the entrance. I moved off into the rustling, cool night, stubbing toes on stones. The stars above were big and bright, boom, boom, boom, deep in the heart of wherever I was, deep not only in the heart but also in the liver and brain, but I don’t know why they emitted that dreadful noise. Stars don’t usually rumble like that, do they? Probably it was a sign, omen or portent.
         I wandered into the trees and soon I was lost.
         The paths were narrow and complicated and my sense of direction had decided to go off on its own somewhere.
         Risking embarrassment, I finally decided to call for help.
         “Watson! Crowther! I’m lost!”
         There was no answer. They were drunk, too involved with the pilgrims or possibly they just didn’t care. “Help me Jack! Assist me Pawny!” Still no reply. Then I realised I had wandered off the beaten track, further than that in fact, off the unbeaten track, and that was bad news, unless it meant I was back on the beaten track, which it probably didn’t. To safely walk a track it’s essential to have a tracksuit.
         And I was dressed in a smock and long pants.
         It surely seemed I was done for.
         I huddled at the base of a tree. I thought a friendly owl or ghost might alight and give me reliable directions. But they didn’t. So I got up again, kept my legs moving, pushed through bramble and thorn. Exhausted and scared, I kept going. The night passed. The sky grew light. I passed out of the forest and found the highway. Now it was just a case of walking back to the inn and explaining my long absence.
         With a weary step but jaunty hips I digested distance.
         Then I came to a fork in the road. It was silver with three prongs and lay in the dust between a knife and spoon.
         The detour to Middle Delany! There was no longer any point looking for the Sign of the Unicorn and my friends. I might as well continue the quest without them. If I found Michael Bishop, then I could take him to meet them, if he was willing to come. Assuming my friends could really be found. Having said that, they may already have ‘found themselves’ in the company of the pilgrims. Who knew?

“There was a back door to that inn.”
         “I told you so. And did you pass through and continue on your way? I somehow suspect you probably didn’t.”
         The chess piece chuckled. “I stopped and ordered a drink first, but I didn’t have any money to pay for it. Jack the landlord wasn’t very happy about that, so I had to work off my debt to him. He used me for a pump handle. Pawns look a lot like them.”

Middle Delany was a vibrant and energetic place, bewildering at first and too garish, but rich beyond belief. Some of the tall buildings in the capital city were unstable and I narrowly avoided being crushed by the fall of the towers. I leaped to one side and lost one of my sandals. No matter. Along the broad boulevard I strolled until I came to a booth selling Gold Flower Nectar. A man with a metal eyebrow was sitting on a stool sipping a glass of the stuff. “Excuse me,” I ventured.
         He licked his lips. “Yes?”
         “Do you know if Michael Bishop lives here?”
         “Are you referring to the author of And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees? That’s a novel I adore. It’s about genetic engineering and the morality of control and species management.”
         I clutched his arm. “I am!”
         He shook his head. “He left a few days ago. He was going to Tiptree, he told me. If you want to follow, perambulate to the end of this highway and turn right at the Einstein Intersection. You’ll know you’re in Tiptree when you finally reach the Cold Hill.”
         I was frustrated but grateful. “Thanks, mister.”
         “Call me Bron. I’m from Mars originally. Spent a lot of time on Triton and then wandered about for a few years. I feel like visiting the Valley of the Nest of Spiders next. It always seems to me it’s time to move on.” He paid for his drink with silver stars instead of coins. His pocket was full of stars, like grains of sand, not beach sand but some more lyrical kind. “Are you a soldier? Your haircut is severe.”
         “Captain Hugs at your service. And I belong to the Speculative Fiction Militia. I’m on an important mission.”
         “Well,” he said, as he hooked a thumb into a shirt buttonhole, “I have the power to promote you to Major. What do you think of that? I’m in the government now and my position means I’m able to make such decisions without consultation. Don’t refuse.”
         I walked away with a stiff stride, pride locking both knee joints rigid. My elevation in rank was extremely pleasing to me. Quite soon I reached the junction he had mentioned, but the journey to Tiptree was exhausting, emotionally and thematically. I felt sure that Michael Bishop wouldn’t be there when I arrived anyway. I needed to dine and sleep but there were no inns in sight. I lay down on heather.
         That angered her a lot. “How dare you!”
         “Sorry. I didn’t realise you were a proper noun. Honest! Please take a look at the paragraph preceding your protest and you will see your name spelled with a lowercase first letter. I assumed you were vegetation. All I want to do is sleep with an easy conscience, so permit me to apologise yet again and I’ll find another bivouac.”
         Heather was appeased a little. “Where are you going?”
         “Tiptree. In search of a writer.”
         “But you’re already at your destination! Sleep next to me and I swear you’ll be satisfied in the morning.”
         I did as she suggested. When I awoke I was surprised to find me here, on the Cold Hill’s side. I must have accidentally climbed halfway up it in the dark without realising there was an incline. Heather yawned, rubbed her eyes and brewed a cup of coffee for me on a portable stove. I gulped it down and stared at the landscape below. It was full of strange and very seductive figures that weren’t human.
         “Which writer are you looking for?” she asked.
         “Michael Bishop,” I answered.
         “He wrote No Enemy but Time, didn’t he? About a man who uses his powers of dreaming to return to the Pleistocene Era and falls in love with a female he meets there. It’s a thoroughly engaging, clever, original and intricate novel and the author’s speculations on anthropology are among the most interesting and comprehensive in the entire field of imaginative literature. Is that who you mean?”
         I was pleased by her casual erudition. “Yes.”
         “I’m sorry to inform you,” she said, “that he doesn’t reside in Tiptree anymore. He left very early yesterday morning. I can’t be sure where he was headed for, but if I were you I would make my way to Filkdik, which is a land where electric sheep dream.”
         I finished my coffee. “What do they dream of?”
         She shrugged. “Maybe you.”

The chess piece said anxiously, “You don’t intend to describe every place you visited during your quest, do you?”
         “Why shouldn’t I?” I responded rather defensively.
         “Because it will take weeks!”
         “How do you think I should proceed, then?
         “Skim over the details. The same way I skim over squares I don’t want to land on. Just give the big picture.”

I travelled through many lands on my search. I spoke to many entities and listened to their advice. I had an interview with the fabled sturgeon called Theodore who lives in the deeps of Loneliness Saucer. I shared a pipe of dreams with Lucius the Shepherd, who looks after flocks of electric sheep that have wandered off from Filkdik, but that is only how he lives life in wartime; during peacetime he’s a jaguar hunter and a hunter of other cars, using the bonnets to repair his cottage.
         I met individuals of great charisma and wisdom and power. They tried to help me, most of them. Many were fans of Michael Bishop and wanted to talk about his books. “My favourite is probably Unicorn Mountain, the story of a dying man who finds a new life in a backwater; the depth of the characterization is extraordinary and the intensity of feeling generated by the merging of mythic and realistic literary devices is profound, bold and authentic.” That was a typical reaction…
         This was another: “Ancient of Days is the one that really sends shivers of awe and fear along my spine. The theme of inherent evil depresses me and yet the quality of the prose and sheer power of the empathy invoked in the reader also fills me with hope.”
         I wore out my remaining sandal climbing ragged high mountains and my smock grew holes until it became nothing more than a net draped on my shoulders; but I caught only a cold with it. Yet there was peace in my heart, a curious peace true enough, whenever I met some traveller, a new individual full of warmth and appreciation of the writer I now suspected I would never find during my lifespan. “My favourite is Catacomb Years, a mosaic of subplots that fit neatly together.”
         And I was promoted many times. From Major to Colonel. And shortly after that, from Colonel to Brigadier. And then, while busy exploring the numerous Di Filippo Islands, to General. I’m tempted to say that my rise was meteoric, but meteors don’t fly upwards, not in my experience. But I began to feel like a fraud, for although I was now a personage of note in the Speculative Fiction Militia, I was no closer to finding Michael Bishop than when I had tramped the Bible Belt.
         At no point did I meet Watson and Crowther again. I occasionally did stumble upon their footprints. Clearly they were looking for me. I left as many coherent messages for them as I could manage, pinning notes to old trees, leaving them under rocks. I urged them not to worry on my behalf, but I added the comment that if they resisted my urging in this matter, I would be forced to issue an order to that effect, for now I was a General, and so they had to obey without question.
         I have always wondered what would happen if a General ordered one of his subordinates to ask a question; how could the poor fellow obey that order without question? He would explode.
         Surely he would. Even if it’s biologically impossible.
         General Hugs has specific concerns.
         But that’s not a bad thing. I take my responsibilities seriously. Just like a professional clown. Excuse my mutterings. I am weary and need to rest for a short time. Here is a hammock suspended from a tree. Someone has left a book swinging inside it. A Michael Bishop novel, Stolen Faces. An impressive coincidence or something more sinister? Or less sinister, for I see no reason why things that aren’t coincidences should be distrusted. A finely crafted work, as they all are, examining deceit and the psychology of manipulation in an unbearable setting.
         I pick up the book, stretch myself on the hammock and start to read as I relax. A scented breeze turns the pages on my behalf. I am so engrossed in the wonderful story that I notice nothing when hooded figures sneak up and saw with wavy blades the ropes that secure the hammock to the trees. The rascals carry me away just like that, as if they are servants and I’m in a floppy palanquin, and I still don’t realise what’s happening. Only later I learn the details of my stealthy abduction.
         The hammock is a trap; the book is bait for the unwary.

“You had no fear in your expression at all.”
         “That’s true,” I agreed, “but not because of bravery. I simply had no knowledge of my kidnapping until the bandits reached their lair. Then I looked up and I realised I was in a familiar place; but I had seen so many places in my travels that my memory—”
         “We called to you at the same time, Jack and I.”

Back in the Sign of the Unicorn I found myself. I had wandered in a huge circle, perhaps all the way around the world, around Happenstance too. A long way for a solitary man on his bare soles. The bandits turned out to be the lost pilgrims. Instead of trying to find the festival on Happenstance, it was easier for them to change profession. Now they waylaid wayfarers, a profitable but excessively unholy business.
         I recognised the landlord at once, even though he remained ensconced in his shadows, an inhabitant of his own penumbra; but the other one who knew me was a mystery. A very large chess piece, a bishop, he was. Then I struggled to my blistered feet, the traitorous hammock entangled around my legs, and croaked, “Not Mister Pawn?”
         “What do you think?” came the retort to that.
         “I don’t rightly know. You have his voice but not his shape.” And that was truly the case. He laughed happily.
         The front door creaked open.
         “Customers!” cried Jack. “The first for ages!”
         I rubbed my contrived eyes.
         “Watson!” I babbled. “And Crowther!”
         And yes, it was they, no less, who had also wandered in a circle. It was too much for them to speak right now, before having a refreshing drink, a meal and a nice sit down on cushions; Jack was an attentive host and soon they were looking more robust, healthy enough to speak and recount their adventures, which were quite alarming.
         “We went back to Headquarters, for we had given you up for lost, but they sent us back out. So impressed were they by your dedication that you have been promoted to Field Marshal.”
         I clapped my hands. I had reached the last rank!
         “Here’s the documentation confirming the promotion,” said Watson as he dipped in the pocket of his greatcoat. But he pulled out a book instead, a Michael Bishop novel, Count Geiger’s Blues, a modern satire, blistering and funny and strangely poignant too.
         “I don’t think that’s my promotion,” I remarked.
         Crowther dipped into his own pocket. He too pulled out a work by the great Michael Bishop, Transfigurations, a quest story that explores depths of feeling the subgenre has rarely reached before. “That’s strange! Where can it be? We rolled it up in a scroll…”
         I waved a dismissive hand. “No need to show me. Your word is proof enough. Yes, I am Field Marshal Hugs!”
         “I also was promoted recently,” said the chess piece.
         “So you are Pawny?” I cried.
         “Now I’m Bishy and I can do diagonals!”
         “But how were you promoted?” I persisted. “There is no chess board near here and your original players went away. Did they come back and do the right thing? Why weren’t you promoted to a queen? It’s rare for a pawn to turn into a bishop, isn’t it?”
         “Very, in chess,” agreed the bishop, “but my promotion had nothing to do with that game or my original players.”
         “I’m eager to hear your tale…”
         And he told me. A year or two after I had wandered off into the woods and got lost, two authors entered the inn and ordered cider at the bar. But cider didn’t like taking orders and went sour in a sulk. So they requested ale as an alternative. As Jack operated the pump handle, they admired its unusual girth and sheen in the firelight.
         “It’s actually a giant sentient pawn,” Jack said.
         “Is that so?” the authors chorused.
         “He is working off his debt,” explained Jack.
         Now they became interested and when the landlord served the ale and went away to attend to some other business, one of the authors, who was named Christopher Priest, leaned on the bar and whispered in the ear that didn’t exist of the pawn in question, “Psst!”
         “What’s the matter?” the pump handle hissed back.
         “Why don’t you let us convert you?”
         “What into, I wonder?”
         “Can’t you guess! I’m a Priest.”
         “How does that help?”
         “If you adopt the faith, you can become a bishop and you’ll be able to move to any diagonal you please.”
         “That sounds grand, but an ordinary priest doesn’t have the power to elect a new bishop. I must decline.”
         “I am not the one who will make you into a bishop. It’s my colleague here who’ll do that. Say hello to—”
         His companion tipped his staff to me in greeting.
         For it was Alexander Pope.

“The most unorthodox way a pawn has ever become a bishop,” I laughed gently. The chess piece shrugged.
         “I suppose it is. But maybe the word ‘unorthodox’ is inappropriate in context of that particular situation. There was nothing remotely heretical about Priest or Pope. A fine pair.”
         “And now we are best friends. Isn’t that odd?”

Time passed slowly and pleasantly. Jack the landlord retired and left the running of the inn to me. Watson and Crowther drifted away; the pilgrims grew too feeble to molest travellers on the road. Only Bishy remained as steadfast as a stalwart. One morning something occurred to me and I was shocked that I hadn’t thought of it before.
         I ran to the chess piece and said, “I can promote you!”
         He frowned. “What do you mean?”
         “You’re a chess piece and I am the final rank, for it’s impossible to go higher than Field Marshal. If you come closer and touch me, it will mean you have reached the final rank; and when a chess piece reaches the final rank it gets promoted, doesn’t it?”
         “Generally that only happens to pawns.”
         “Yes, but you’re not a real chess bishop, are you? You’re a pawn that has been ordained a bishop, so really you’re still a pawn. It’s worth a try, don’t you think? Go on: touch me!”
         And he did think it was. And yes, he did touch me.
         All at once he split down the middle.
         I was horrified for a second, a split second, the same kind of split that now sundered him, wide and growing wider. But my apprehension was a misplaced thing, for there was something inside the rent, a solid object, a human being, a man who fell forward.
         I was flabbergasted. “Michael Bishop in person!”
         He was dazed but soon recovered.
         “What I was looking for was under my nose all the time!” I said with a tinge of embarrassment, for the moral seemed a trifle cheesy, and I prefer my trifles made from fresh, not curdled milk; but Michael Bishop put me at my ease by smiling and remarking:
         “Nice tavern you have here, Field Marshal…”
         “Hugs. May I get you anything?”
         “Certainly. Whatever you care to recommend.”
         “I recommend Brittle Innings, which may well be the finest variant of the Frankenstein theme since the original appeared. On the other hand, a reader new to your work might prefer—”
         “Drinks, not books,” he replied. And I blushed.
         I brought him a big refreshing beer.
         He drank it with those special authorial gulps invented decades ago by Dylan Thomas. Then it was finished.
         After a long pause, I ventured the burning question, “Now you are no longer a chess piece, are you still a master of diagonals?” And I indicated the flagstones on the floor, alternating squares of red and white, adequate for a game of chess with vast pieces.
         He studied them briefly, put down his glass.
         And slid along the squares with ease, a man with frictionless heels and a superb sense of fun. “I can also do orthogonal rook moves and jump an obstructing piece just like a knight.”
         “All pieces rolled into one? That’s what I call versatile.”
         And I was absolutely right. He is.


Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Minotaur in Pamplona (2004)

I wrote this story in a hotel room in Toledo during a cloudburst; I had just returned from a hiking expedition in the wild obscurities of the Montes de Toledo, where I had been baked to a crisp by the sun. It was published in 2005 as the title story of a double chapbook project which included an original contribution that I managed to inveigle from Brian Aldiss, one of my literary heroes.

He knew for certain, or imagined he did, how to deal with bends and twists in any maze, and the narrow streets of this city had not been designed to deliberately confuse anyone. He was strong and fast and his courage could not be doubted, nor did he suffer from excessive pride at his qualities. His confidence was justified but his manner was modest.
         Arriving before sunrise on the first day of the Fiesta de San Fermín, he noted that already a band was rehearsing in a public square. The celebrations would begin at midday and continue without pause for more than a week. He waited for a café to open and ordered a coffee, the steam from the cup blending with his own dawn breath as he crouched over it. Finding accommodation here at this time would be impossible, so he planned to sleep on the citadel ramparts with the other lonely, unlucky or romantic visitors. But he was more than a spectator.
         He stood and walked the route from the Plaza Santo Domingo to the bullring, familiarising himself with the peculiarities of the streets. Then he wandered sedately among the parks, conserving his energy for the following morning, performing gentle exercises, stretching his huge muscles, nodding at the people who had started to gather in groups. Mostly he was ignored for his trouble and the few smiles he collected on the way were thin and dismissive.
         A clock somewhere struck noon and music came from ahead, always around the next corner, a phenomenon he regarded as supernatural until he realised he was accidentally following a parade. He increased his pace and caught up with the musicians, who now stood in a circle and played wilder songs at a faster tempo. The first dancers swirled into the soup of notes, followed by others until the whole street was gyrating, he alone a static object, a point of reference. He waited to be asked to dance so that he might decline, for he wanted to be fully fit for tomorrow, but he was never given the chance. And of course this suited his needs perfectly.
         When night fell he decided he had rested enough on his feet and walked to the citadel to sleep. He was the first to bed down but as the hours passed he was joined by others. It was cold under his rough blanket. He drifted from dream to dream and woke often, confused and blinking at the stars, the crescent moon toppled on its side like a pair of disembodied horns above a tide of strangely shaped clouds.
         Once he opened his eyes because a stealthy thief was robbing the sleepers in his vicinity, moving in time with the wind from one prone drunken body to the next, searching through pockets and in the folds of blankets. The thief stepped over him without making any attempt on his possessions. At first he believed the thief had been daunted by his obvious strength and he was pleased, but then it occurred to him he might simply look too poor to steal from, or that he had not really been noticed at all. Far away music still played, softly with laughter.
         The first to stir and rise when the stars dimmed, he walked with considerable grace across the city to the appointed place. Other runners converged from every direction and soon the bustling and jostling of competitors and watchers was intense and oddly relaxing. He inhaled deeply. This was living with passion, dangerously, intoxicatingly, the only way for any sentient being to thrive, heart pounding, sweat sprouting like dew on limbs and torso! He enjoyed the communal fear and excitement, the idea that people were sharing sensations with him.
         He knew what to expect and the sound of the first rocket being launched was not startling but in fact caused him to relax even more. This was proof of his mental strength, a result of his preparations, his research and respect for process and tradition. The long whistle and detonation overhead was a signal the bulls had been released and the more timid or enthusiastic competitors started running, far too early in his view. Better to wait for the second rocket, which signalled that the entire herd of bulls was free. That way it would be easier to run with the animals in the true spirit of the Fiesta, rather than ahead of the dust and danger.
         The second rocket spat into the sky and he tried to tense his muscles, to spring forward, to realise his dream of being an active part of this famous, or notorious, event, but suddenly it was no longer possible to move. Direction and desire were abstractions. Around him men hurried forward, but not one of them even brushed against his arms, which were slack at his sides. There was no bite in his mouth, no swell of blood in his head, nothing meaningful.
         He simply stood and waited to be crushed by the herd, the heavy beasts with frightened eyes and dawn breath just like his, smoky, thick, almost blue in the long early shadows of the Plaza. He waited but he did not watch, for they were behind him and he faced only the sweat soaked backs of runners and a corridor with walls made of spectators and music. He waited and thought about the different types of waiting, uneasy, ignorant, gloomy, resigned, and understood that no variation matched his own particular style of not moving, remaining fixed at this precise instant. He waited and slowly his whole body sagged.
         Nothing touched him, no horn or hoof, not even the erect hairs of each hot flank. The bulls surged around him while he continued to wait, leaving him unscathed with drooping shoulders and hollow stomach, and he watched the living thunder and organised confusion pass on both sides. Ignored again, even by stricken beasts, as if there was something in his very existence which could not be acknowledged by the most primitive physical contact.
         Now he was standing alone and the event had come and gone without him, even though he had inserted himself into the centre of it. He remained for perhaps another hour before walking away, his mind struggling with old memories, seeking a clue as to why he was a permanent outsider in everything. He wondered if the stories were true, if he had really been murdered in his own house in the distant past and could not be here, but it did not feel like that. He suspected the answer was different at every stage of his long life, a life of travelling, waiting to be perceived and recognised. But this particular case was simple.
         If his inner self was not sure who to run with, the bulls or the men, and the people did not know, how could the city care?


Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Folded Page (2006)

My favourite Japanese writer is Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. I can't honestly say he was a direct stylistic influence on this tale, but I did try to inject some of the magical ambience I find in his work into the development of the plot. It first appeared in the first issue of Serendipity in 2007.

"Eight times," said Aguri.
         "Eight times what?" wondered Mikiko. She had adopted the tone of a bored child learning a multiplication table.
         "A piece of paper can only be folded eight times," elaborated Aguri.
         "Nonsense," replied Mikiko firmly.
         "It's true." Aguri creased his brow. "Believe me, no matter how large that piece of paper, eight times is the limit. I'm surprised you don't already know this. It's one of those unexpected facts that people like to share with each other."
         "Not with me," said Mikiko.
         "That's not my fault. The number remains eight."
         "I require proof," announced Mikiko.
         Aguri puffed out his little cheeks and folded his little arms. His expression was a combination of annoyance and resignation. He indicated a sketch pad that lay on the table next to a vase of flowers and said, "Try for yourself."
         Mikiko opened the pad and tore out a blank sheet. She folded it once, then twice. "Easy so far."
         "Keep going," sniffed Aguri.
         A few minutes later Mikiko was scowling. "I'm not strong enough."
         "Only seven times," chuckled Aguri. "If you were fully grown you might manage another fold. But consider the mathematical progression involved in this problem. Every time you fold the paper in half, the thickness of the paper is doubled. After one fold there are two layers, after two folds four layers, then eight, then sixteen, thirty two, sixty four and so on. By folding the paper seven times you created one hundred and twenty eight layers and it's very difficult to fold so many layers all at once."
         "But some people can do it," frowned Mikiko.
         "Yes. It takes a lot of strength. After eight folds there are two hundred and fifty six layers and nobody has ever progressed beyond that point. The ninth fold is an impossibility."
         Mikiko scratched her chin. "I still don't believe it."
         Aguri was exasperated. "Why not?"
         "Because the paper I used was relatively small," she explained. "Next time I might try the experiment with a huge sheet. If the paper is wide enough I'm sure I can beat the limit. Nine, ten or even eleven folds should be possible."
         Aguri nodded slowly. It was clear he wanted to divulge a secret. Mikiko moved her ear closer to his mouth and listened carefully as he told her the following story in breathless whispers. It was the story she had been waiting to hear.
         "There was a powerful lord," he began, "who once shared your opinion on this matter. Almost a thousand years ago he decided to settle the argument with an improbable experiment. He paid for the manufacture of the largest piece of paper in history. No blank page quite like it has ever existed since. How big was it, you might ask? As wide as a misty dawn, as long as a frosty road, that's my answer. The lord saw it and was very pleased.
         "Surveyors in his employ calculated the halfway point and marked it with an inked brush. Then servants and horses pulled on ropes to draw the paper back on itself. That was the first fold. Again the surveyors ventured forth to make a new mark, again the men and beasts struggled in their harnesses. Within a week the second fold was completed. As the apparent surface area of the sheet diminished, so it grew thicker and harder to fold. Servants and horses collapsed from exhaustion.
         "But the lord was resolute. He urged them on with promises and threats. Months passed, the seasons changed. First there was snow on the page, then cherry blossom, all swept away with brooms. Eventually the eighth fold was made, then with great jubilation the ninth. Poets wrote poems on the margins of the paper but their words were smudged and lost when the tenth fold was completed. The sheet was now one thousand and twenty four layers thick.
         "Still the lord was dissatisfied. He grew old and should have watched his children grow up, but his attention was wholly directed at the onerous business of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth folds. Finally he realised the foolishness of his obsession and announced that the fourteenth fold would be the last one. When it was made he wept openly, for he had simultaneously achieved his greatest dream and wasted his life.
         "Despite his age and decrepitude he walked around the excessively folded page to examine it and this circuit did not take long. Let me now reveal that the original sheet of paper was approximately the same size as the Inland Sea, about eighty five kilometres long on each side. Forget what I said earlier about misty dawns and frosty roads. After all that folding it was now less than a third of one kilometre on each side.
         "The fourteenth fold had increased its thickness to sixteen thousand three hundred and eighty four layers. It occurred to the lord that it might be a good idea to build a new castle on the summit of this implausible paper outcrop. It was his way of redeeming those wasted years, of apologising to his servants by demonstrating a more practical result to his whimsical project. And so they laboured for him again and one year later the castle was ready.
         "It towered over the surrounding lands on its paper foundations and the lord felt very proud when he took up residence with his family. He hobbled the ramparts and gazed far in every direction and access to the door of the castle was possible only with a long ladder that was drawn up afterwards. But a serene retirement was not to be his, for a neighbouring lord had viewed this paper citadel with jealous eyes and now decided to attack it with steel and fire.
         "The battle raged all day. Flames licked the lofty walls but a sudden shower extinguished them. Arrows cut notches in the sheer sides, swords slashed them. The old lord repelled the invaders but the strain proved too much for him. He collapsed and died within the week. The castle was abandoned and fell into ruin. Nobody knew what to do with the folded page and so it was left where it was. It sagged in the rains and dried stiffly in the sun.
         "One day an enterprising merchant came to collect it. The descendants of the lord had apparently sold it to him for a trifling sum. He carted it down to the northern shore of the Inland Sea. There he began the task of unfolding it. Suspended on high poles the original page exactly covered the island dotted expanse of water. And now fishermen and other sailors might travel between Shikoku, Kyushu and Honshu in the shade during the hot summer months.
         "But there were unforeseen consequences. When you fold a piece of paper and then cut out little pieces along the crease, what do you get when you unfold it? A pattern of holes! The more folds and the more irregular the cuts, the more complex the pattern. The steel and fire of the attackers all those years earlier had created an amazing pattern in this unfolded sheet. But in fact the fishermen and other sailors were able to use it as an aid to navigation from island to island.
         "During the day, the sun shone through the holes in the paper sky and formed new constellations with distinctive characters. Men on ships have always looked at the stars to determine direction. But these artificial constellations were deceitful and many sailors arrived at the wrong destination or failed to arrive at all. The problem was that the same groups of stars appeared in different parts of the sky. Identical constellations were found in the north, south, east and west!
         "When you fold a page many times, cut into it along the edges and then unfold it, the resulting pattern is a regular whole no matter how irregular it may seem in parts. The individual constellations that a sailor might use to guide him to Shodo or Setoda were mirrored or duplicated in other directions and he often ended up in Omi or Yashiro by mistake. Business suffered as a result and the merchant who bought the folded page was reviled. He had provided a defective sky.
         "Anything can fall into a state of disrepair, even the heavens! Birds pecked at the page, storms lashed it. Within a few generations it hung in tatters and eventually it was gone completely. Not a shred of evidence remains to prove it was ever really there. The names of the lord and the merchant have been forgotten. Yet nobody has ever duplicated the feat of folding a page so many times. Eight has once again become the limit, eight times only. That is the truth."
         Aguri stopped speaking and gazed hopefully at Mikiko.
         Then he added, "What do you think of that?"
         "I don't like it," said Mikiko without hesitation. "I expected something better. It won't do, I'm afraid. You've failed the test."
         Aguri shut his little eyes and trembled quietly.
         Mikiko reached forward and crumpled him up in her fist. Then she threw him at the wastepaper basket. He missed and lay on the floor as a paper ball, one among the others already there. Mikiko selected a new sheet and turned to consult the next chapter of her book, Intelligent Origami, but then she heard the familiar footfalls of one of her human friends coming up the garden path.
         She forgot about the book and hurried outside.


Monsters of the Victorian Age (2010)

Lecturing Monsters

In 1877 monsters were finally allowed to give public lectures. These talks often generated considerable controversy due to the fact that the electric system of amplification invented by Emile Berliner and his Detectives the previous year rendered subtext audible for the first time. People didn't like what they heard and turned away in droves. Even drovers turned away in droves. The question of whether monsters should have delivered these lectures behind closed doors, in universities and technical institutes, is purely academic.

Making the Beast with Two Backs

Victorian gentlemen greatly enjoyed making the Beast with Two Backs. In their spare time they studied engineering especially for this purpose. It is not clear why the activity was kept secret from their wives, but so it was. Hangars were erected in every major city to house the equipment needed for the regular making of Beasts with Two Backs. In 1883, some of the finished Beasts escaped and had to be legislated against. They were hunted down by Coppers and other steam-powered robotic policemen and sent to operate treadmills in the workhouse, grinding urchins.

Musical Monsters

The vogue for musical monsters began in 1841 when Chumworth Blighter, the progressive impresario, arranged the first season of afternoon concerts in which imaginary beings were the sole performers. Prior to this achievement, common wisdom had decreed that monsters "should be screamed but not heard". Rapidly growing in popularity, recitals by monsters of music composed by monsters soon became the dominant form of acoustical entertainment in concert halls, theatres and outdoor arenas. The fad crumpled just three years later when notes H to Z inclusive, the ones most favoured by monsters, were officially removed from the octave in compliance with wide-ranging austerity measures.

Petrified Monsters

The common assumption that monsters are frightening, and that they frighten human beings, and that the reverse situation never occurs, was conclusively disproved by the opening of the Imperial Monster Museum in 1866, a public facility where unique cryptozoological exhibits could be viewed for a nominal sum. The rooms were filled with monsters that had literally petrified from fright after catching sight of a human face. These stone behemoths, sciapods, harpies, colossi, minotaurs, gorgons, cynocephali, onocentaurs and other mythical beasties were arranged randomly after the directors of the museum disagreed on how best to categorise them. The Imperial Monster Museum was closed in 1899 and the exhibits sold at private auction to statue enthusiasts.

Entangled Monsters

The difficulty of disentangling certain monsters after they had embraced each other led to the passing of a law in 1868 that treated knotted conglomerations of imaginary beings as single units for the purposes of moral and scientific research. Monsters can be sticky and massively elongated, making entanglements almost inevitable and natural; and yet the general public tended to regard monster knots as examples of tragedy. On the lighter side, an Italian chef was inspired to create a new dish called "spaghetti" by the sight of an especially intricate knot of monsters off the coast of Margate. Some people dispute this and claim that the first spaghetto was created in the 12th century, but such arguments are now all in the pasta. It is not entirely unknown for Lecturing Monsters to be included in the set of Entangled Monsters.

Chimney Monsters

Chimney monsters keep the Empire happy. Chimney monsters keep the Empire warm. They dine on chopped wood and black stones and never complain. Without chimney monsters where would we be? Not here, not here! Chimney monsters keep stuck sweeps for pets. Chimney monsters call a spade a shovel. Black, blistered and riveted they cough all day; roaring and hissing they glow all night. Chimney monsters share our air. They jut their horns but not their chins. If chimney monsters went away, the Queen would fall and break. The Empire too. Even the smallest chimney monster is grate. Remember that!

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Paradoxical Pachyderms (2011)

The bulk of this story was written in a single sitting in the window of Waterstones bookshop in the town of Crawley during the first Crawley Wordfest. I managed to finish the tale despite regular intereference from members of the public, one of whom was keen that I write a social realist piece instead. After I returned home I improved the ending. Two of my story cycles meet in this tale: the adventures of Hogwash & Bum Note, and the exploits of Thornton Excelsior.

The greatest explorers in the world regard the entire planet as home, so it logically follows that when they get lost they get lost in their own homes. Mediocre explorers also get lost in their own homes; I know of one case, Plucky Ruckus by name, who took three years to locate the source of the leak that had flooded his living room; he followed the banks of the stream and finally discovered that it came from his bathroom, but on the stairs he was kidnapped by a tribe of cannibals and eaten for supper. Fortunately for him, there were plenty of leftovers, so in the morning he was able to stagger the remainder of the journey.
         As for the very worst explorers, they don't know how to get lost. They haven't even discovered that knowledge yet. They wander aimlessly over various kinds of landscapes, between the peaks of spitting volcanoes and through shopping malls, into the houses of other people and out the other side, shouting, “Are we not there yet?”
         Nobody ever gives an answer to that question.
         My name is Thornton Excelsior and I am one of the administrators of the Eldritch Explorers' Club, which is a society dedicated to totally weird adventure and utterly implausible travel. My official task is to accurately document the exploits of our active members. It's not a full-time post but only one of my many posts. I have so many posts I may be described as a fence; however, that appellation seems to attract the interest of the police, I can't guess why, so I tend not to use it.

Every year, at our annual general meeting, I am required to read aloud the reports I have made of the most notable journeys of our members. In the expectant hush of our hallowed trophy-cluttered Anecdote Chamber, I stand on the podium and regale my worthy colleagues with ludicrous but factual accounts of voyages undertaken; and in many cases of explorers undertaken too, for not everyone who embarks alive comes back that way. In fact they often don't come back at all and there isn't a skeleton to measure for a coffin, or even a loose ribcage or foot for the undertakers to dress tastefully in a waistcoat or nice shoe before proper burial. But those are the risks associated with exploration.
         Last year I had to recite aloud the obituary of Whymper Bowman, an explorer renowned for climbing mountains in reverse. His technique was ingenious and silly: he would jump out of an aircraft and parachute onto the summit of a peak, and from there he would climb down to the bottom headfirst. He called this method 'unconquering' and claimed it was less patronising and imperialistic than making a normal ascent. In this manner he unconquered Ben Nevis on his eighteenth birthday, Mont Blanc when he was twenty and Aconcagua when he was thirty, progressing to higher and higher altitudes. On his fortieth birthday he successfully unconquered Mount Everest. After that, there was only Rum Doodle, which at 40,000½ feet should be better known than it is.
         When he finally reached the base of Rum Doodle, touching the ground with the crown of his head, Whymper Bowman formally announced his retirement; but destiny had other plans for him. A local porter, who later turned out to be a yeti in disguise, casually mentioned that in the legends of his own people there was an even higher mountain to the north; known only as Madness Mountain, it was higher than Rum Doodle some of the time, because it kept changing its height according to its moods. It was a completely insane geographical feature.
         Mr Bowman soon became obsessed with it and made preparations to add it to his impressive list of unconquests. Every time he was asked why he wanted to 'climb' an insane mountain upside-down, he gave the same answer, “Because it's not all there.”
         That was his last adventure. True, he successfully parachuted onto the summit of Madness Mountain; but at that moment it chose to quadruple its altitude and it rose out of the atmosphere, suffocating Mr Bowman in the freezing vacuum of space. The yeti chuckled at this, rubbed his hairy palms in cryptozoological glee and carved another notch into the handle of his walking stick, which was the tusk of a mammoth. Yetis don't like explorers very much because they often smell of mint cake, which is the most loathsome odour to mythical beasts.
         So much for Whymper Bowman! He was daft but brave.
         That's worth something, isn't it?

The same can't be said for a pair of fellows who almost certainly are the worst explorers I have ever encountered. Sometimes I suspect they have been sent by a higher supernatural agency to mock the pretensions of the Eldritch Explorers' Club. Yet they are likeable enough and there's never any question of revoking their membership.
         Hogwash and Bum Note are their names. Maybe you are familiar with their exploits in the dense jungles of Yuckystan? One of them fell into a giant piggybank that had been erected centuries earlier by a previously unknown civilisation; it was a long fall and there was no escape from the inside, but once you fall into a piggybank you are 'saved', so everything turned out fine in the end. It has been rumoured that interest was earned on the saving; but I don't believe that.
         On another occasion, they declared their intention to climb the most notable 'peak' in England; that doesn't sound like so fine an achievement until you realise that they were very bad at spelling and were referring to Mervyn Peake. I gather the attempt annoyed that great writer and he kept brushing them off. What a Gormenghastly pun that was! It made me Titus Groan! All the same, it really happened.

Not long ago, last week in fact, Hogwash turned to Bum Note. “We have explored much of the physical world together, so don't you think it's time we explored a figure of speech instead?”
         “What do you have in mind?” wondered Bum Note.
         “Our sexuality. We haven't explored that properly yet, have we?” said Hogwash. Bum Note considered this.
         “I explored my own once, in a Soho nightclub.”
         “Indisputable, but we didn't explore it together. That was merely your sexuality. What about our sexuality?”
         “Fair enough. There's a bus to Brighton in half an hour.”
         “Let's get on it!” cried Hogwash.
         “Going to Brighton is exactly what we need.”
         “Yes. Brighton's just the ticket!”
         “Really? That's a big ticket,” said Bum Note.
         “It's another figure of speech,” explained Hogwash patiently. “We'd hardly pay for a trip to Brighton with Brighton itself, would we? For one thing, we'd never get it on the bus.”
         “We wouldn't need a bus if we already had it.”
         “True, true,” conceded Hogwash.
         “Let's go to Brighton! To Brighton!” chortled Bum Note.
         “Ready when you are, chum!”
         And that's what they did. When they reached Brighton they wandered the quaint streets at random; they visited the Royal Pavilion and went to stand on the pier. Finally they sat on a bench in the light of the setting sun and Bum Note sighed with dismay.
         “We haven't even located our sexuality yet, let alone explored it. I bet we're overlooking something obvious.”
         “I'm overlooking the beach,” said Hogwash blithely.
         “Yes, but there's no merit in just exploring a beach. We must be doing something wrong. I wonder what?”
         “Maybe we need to find our sexuality before we can explore it? If we don't have it at our fingertips, we won't be able to plant our flag in it. By the way, did you bring the flag?”
         “Of course I did,” replied Bum Note. “I've got a nice pole to run it up. But how can we find our sexuality?”
         “By hunting for it,” suggested Hogwash.
         “But we don't have a hunting license,” said Bum Note. “Also, I regard hunting as an immoral activity.”
         “So do I, as it happens.”
         “Why don't we trap it instead, humanely?”
         “Good idea. Let's do that!”
         “But how?” pondered Bum Note.
         “Maybe we should hire an exotic dancer as bait?”
         “It's worth a try, I guess…”
         The task of finding an exotic dancer for hire in Brighton was easy, too easy perhaps; but anyway, she stood in front of them and undulated in the moonlight. Hogwash and Bum Note sat rigid on their bench, side-by-side, knees touching, like statues. They stared without comment. Hours passed, but they knew that trapping figures of speech could be a tricky business. At last, just before dawn, it happened…
         “There it is. Our sexuality!” squealed Hogwash.
         “Plant the flag!” cried Bum Note.
         “You've got it. Hurry!” blurted Hogwash.
         “Watch out! Here goes!”
         With a wild primeval howl, Bum Note thrust the point of the flagpole into the very centre of their sexuality. The exotic dancer ceased her sultry gyrations and covered her mouth with a hand. It was the most shocking thing she had seen in her career.
         “Ouch!” screamed Hogwash and Bum Note.
         It took an entire troupe of dedicated doctors to get the flagpole out and eighty metres of cotton to bandage the wounded sexuality. Hogwash and Bum Note walked with a synchronised limp for a decade afterwards. That kind of injury heals very slowly. If you don't believe me, try planting a flag in your own sexuality sometime.

I've already mentioned that my name is Thornton Excelsior. A few days ago I was woken by my pet ghost. I didn't mention that I had a pet ghost, did I? Well, I do; and it woke me up.
         “But the sun hasn't risen yet,” I protested.
         The ghost floated higher above my bed and said, “There are strange sounds coming from the garden. I think you should go and investigate. I don't want to go. I'm frightened.”
         Grumbling, I dressed and went out in my slippers.
         And I saw a remarkable sight.
         Miniature elephants, a herd of them, were grazing on my lawn. There were also some tiny rhinos and hippos. Emboldened by my presence, my ghost came up behind me and peered timidly over my shoulder. “Maybe they aren't really miniature elephants, rhinos and hippos; perhaps they are normal-sized but far away,” it said.
         “My lawn isn't that big,” I pointed out reasonably.
         “Good point,” murmured my ghost.
         I kneeled down for a closer look. One of the elephants clambered onto the open palm of my right hand.
         I lifted it higher and smiled. “These must be the fabled Paradoxical Pachyderms hitherto only spotted in the Bunlands,” I remarked. But as I leaned forward, the little beast launched itself at me and stabbed my neck deeply with one of its sharp tusks.
         “Yow!” I exclaimed.
         “What's the matter?” asked my ghost. “Did somebody plant a flag in your sexuality?” His tone was ironic.
         “Nope,” I said simply.
         I went back inside the house. The entry point of the miniature tusk was already swelling into a large boil.
         Frowning, I regarded the potato that had been sitting in a saucepan on my stove for the past week. The problem was that the stove wasn't real; it was just a model made from matchsticks; and those matchsticks were all burned out; so there was no way of generating any heat from the device. I found cooking meals therefore difficult, impossible in fact. I hadn't tasted a cooked potato for many years.
         Now I had an idea. I picked up the saucepan by its handle and moved it next to the swelling on my neck.
         “What do you think you're doing?” asked my ghost.
         “Bringing the potato to the boil,” I said.
         Before it was quite ready to eat, there was a knock at the door. So I put down the saucepan and went to answer it. Two figures stood there; one of them was a mirror image of the other, but I don't know which. Therefore it's impossible for me to describe them.
         “I'm about to have my breakfast,” I said.
         “We won't keep you for long,” they said. “We are the characters you have recently libelled most awfully.”
         “If my libel was substandard, I'll try again.”
         “We would prefer it if you didn't bother. I'm Hogwash and this is Bum Note and you depicted us as imbeciles. But we aren't like that at all; we're serious explorers and so we demand that you write a new piece about our particular brand of original heroism.”
         “What brand is that?” I asked tolerantly.
         “Please don't play games with us. It's hard enough being fictional even when we are treated with respect; but when an author creates us just as a focus for puns and silly jokes… It's irresponsible, that's what it is, and we want a better story to appear in than this; or if you can't do that, then you should rewrite our parts in this tale.”
         “You must have confused me with someone else,” I said. “My name is Thornton Excelsior and I only write factual reports on what daft explorers get up to. I never handle fiction.”
         They asked, “Who does the ghost belong to?”
         “To me. He's my pet,” I said.
         “No, we mean who was he when he was alive…”
         “I don't know,” I admitted.
         “Well, why don't you ask him?” they said.
         I turned to my ghost and cried, “Who were you when you were alive? I assume this is just a formality…”
         And the ghost replied, “My name is Hector Gloopbunny, and I was an explorer before I fell off the edge of the map. The impact killed me. The problem was that I unfolded the map on top of a magic carpet. Such a bad place to spread it out! The carpet was flying high at the time; so when I fell off, it was a very long way down. I was famous in my day but never a member of the Eldritch Explorers' Club.”
         “Did you land on something hard, Mr Gloopbunny?”
         My pet ghost answered with a sigh, “Two rotten explorers who looked exactly like these two fellows here.”
         “Maybe they are the same pair?” I wondered.
         “If so, they are ghosts like me. I killed them with the force of my fall. I recommend you try poking them with a finger. If the finger goes through, it'll be proof they are indeed spooks.”
         I didn't have the nerve to extend my own finger and do what my ghost recommended. I picked up a dictionary from a bookshelf and threw that at them instead, because it contained the word 'finger', as well as many other words, not all of them suitable for poking things with. The flesh of my visitors provided no resistance at all.
         The dictionary went straight through and hit the wall.
         They were spectres, both of them; explorers of the other side, the outer limits, the spirit worlds, and bad at it too.

Later, I went back into the garden and collected some of the miniature elephants and other creatures. I thought it might be nice to bring them indoors and play with them for a short period, to take my mind off the stress occasioned by life in general.
         I had imprisoned Hogwash and Bum Note in bottles after compressing them first in ghost-proof bags. I thought it might be fun to introduce the elephants, rhinos and hippos into the same bottles. I'm not an especially nice person, in case you're wondering.
         Then I noticed that among the pachyderms there was a miniature yeti. He was stalking a miniature mammoth. I reached out to snatch him up, but it turned out I had misjudged distance. Thanks to odd perspective, he was actually a full-sized yeti far away.
         “My garden still isn't that big!” I protested.
         My pet ghost floated onto my shoulder and perched there. “Clearly it is. You must have ordered an extension on credit when you realised you had two rare ghosts to sell as pets…”
         He has a sharp business mind, that Hector Gloopbunny. I didn't miss the hint and I went back into the house to fetch the bottles. Then I set out on the long trek towards the yeti. One day I'll write up the account of this expedition for my own organisation.
         After an hour of hard bargaining, I got a very good price for Hogwash and Bum Note. And the yeti was pleased by the transaction. He chuckled, rubbed hairy palms in cryptozoological glee and carved two extra notches into the handle of his walking stick.
         I had already forcefed them on mint cake.