Saturday, 31 October 2015

Three Friends (1993)

This simple little story was dashed off very quickly in an idle hour but has since been published in many different places and several languages. It now forms one of the sixty linked stories to be found in my book TALLEST STORIES and it was turned into a play in Finland.

The three friends were mountain climbers who had trekked to the roof of the world. They had encountered many dangers on the way and each had taken it in turns to plunge down a crevasse. Bound together by ropes as well as friendship, it seemed they had all escaped death by the narrowest of margins. One by one, they had praised their luck and had agreed that teamwork was wonderful.
     After the end of one particularly difficult day, as the crimson sun impaled itself on the needle peaks of the horizon, the three friends set up their tent on a narrow ledge. The first friend, who had survived the first crevasse, boiled tea on his portable stove and lit his pipe. Stretching his legs out as far as the ledge would allow, he blew a smoke ring and said:
     “The wind whistles past this mountain like the voice of a ghost, shrill as dead leaves. The icy rock feels like the hand of a very aged corpse. Those lonely clouds far away have taken the form of winged demons. Everything reminds me of the region beyond the grave. I suggest that we all tell ghost stories, to pass the time. I’ll go first, if you like.”
     Huddling closer to the stove, the first friend peered at the other two with eyes like black sequins. “This happened to me a long time ago. I was climbing in Austria and had rented a small hunting lodge high in the mountains. Unfortunately, I managed to break my leg on my very first climb and had to rest in the lodge until a doctor could be summoned. Because of a freak snowstorm that same evening, it turned out that I was stuck there for a whole week. The lodge had only one bed. My guide, a local climber, slept on the floor.
     “Every night, as my fever grew worse, I would ask my guide to fetch me a drink of water from the well outside the lodge. He always seemed reluctant to do this, but would eventually return with a jug of red wine. I was far too delirious to wonder at this and always drank the contents right down. At the end of the week, when my fever broke, I asked him why he gave me wine rather than water from the well. Shuddering, he replied that the ‘wine’ had come from the well. I afterwards learned that the original owner of the lodge had cut his wife’s throat and had disposed of her body in the obvious way…”
     The first friend shrugged and admitted that his was a very inconclusive sort of ghost tale, but insisted that it was true nonetheless. He sucked on his pipe and poured three mugs of tea. Far below, the last avalanche of the day rumbled through the twilight. The second friend, who had survived the second crevasse, accepted a mug and nodded solemnly to himself. He seemed completely wrapped up in his own thoughts. Finally, he said:
     “I too have a ghost story, and mine is true as well. It happened when I was a student in London. I lived in a house where another student had bled to death after cutting off his fingers in his heroic attempt to make his first cucumber sandwich. I kept finding the fingers in the most unlikely places. They turned up in the fridge, in the bed, even in the pockets of my trousers. One evening, my girlfriend started giggling. We were sitting on the sofa listening to music and I asked her what was wrong. She replied that I ought to stop tickling her. Needless to say, my hands were on my lap.
     “I consulted all sorts of people to help me with the problem. One kindly old priest came to exorcise the house. I set up mousetraps in the kitchen. But nothing seemed to work. The fingers kept appearing on the carpet, behind books on the bookshelf, in my soup. I grew more and more despondent and reluctantly considered moving. Suddenly, in a dream, the solution came to me! It was a neat solution, and it worked. It was very simple, actually. I bought a cat…”
     The second friend smiled and sipped his tea. Both he and the first friend gazed across at the third friend. The third friend seemed remote and abstracted. He stared out into the limitless dark. In the light from the stove, he appeared pale and unhealthy. He refused the mug that the first friend offered him.
     The first two friends urged him to tell a tale, but he shook his head. “Come on,” they said, “you must have at least one ghost story to tell. Everybody has at least one.” With a deep, heavy sigh, the third friend finally confessed that he did. The first two friends rubbed their hands in delight. They insisted, however, that it had to be true.
     “Oh, it’s true all right,” replied the third friend, “and it’s easily told. But you might regret hearing it. Especially when you consider that we are stuck on this ledge together for the rest of the night.” When the first two friends laughed at this, he raised a hand for silence and began to speak. His words should have been as cold as a glacier and as ponderous, but instead they were casual and tinged with a trace of irony. He said simply:
     “I didn’t survive the third crevasse.”

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Golden Fleas (1995)

This story was written on the island of Corfu, a rather idyllic summertime mostly spent walking on the beaches at sunset, hiking in the hills, puttering around on a moped, visiting the house of Lawrence Durell, reading books, drinking Retsina and taking the occasional boat trip to Paxos, Antipaxos and Albania.

The girl in the wood is playing her pipes. I want to chase her down the hill to the sea. My nature compels me to run after any woman who places lips to reed. But there is a haunting quality to her music, a spirit I have not heard for a long time. So I watch in mute appreciation, peeping at her from the depths of the olive grove.
     My fleas are troubling me again. "Hurry up, old fool!" they snarl. They make me dance; not to melody which would be welcome, but to pain. "Hurry up, looks like rain!" Sometimes they call me names. Their satire is always biting. "Somebody got your goat?"
     Once, like Marsyas, I challenged Apollo to a music-contest and lost. Rather than flaying me alive  the usual punishment for defeat  the archer-king cursed me with sentient fleas. I have to consult them on all topics. A condition of the curse is that I am not allowed to rid myself of the pests. I have to avoid water and take shelter in a cave when clouds knock together.
     Rain is sweet on Kérkira, as infrequent as the willing kiss of another man's wife. But I have to huddle under rock and wait. No dew must splash my legs, no juice dribble down my chin. Created by the god of light, my parasites are burnished gold. Water would wash the colour out of them. If this happened, Apollo would be displeased. My skin would make a rug for his burning feet.
     Yet I know I will be rescued one day. In dreams I see my saviour. He comes from a distant land on a fast ship. He combs the fleas from my fur and takes them back with him. Not even Apollo can oppose him. But his actions are founded on a misunderstanding. This life of ours is a harmony of mistakes, each blunder a note on the stave of reality. What my saviour does for me is not what he ought to do.
     I will say nothing, I will not betray my luck. On the slopes of my islands's highest peak, I gaze at Illyria's distant shore. The city of Butrint, full of cool stone and heated baths, nestles just beyond the range of my slitted eyes. There are only villages on Kérkira, the rude dwellings of a pastoral people. But we do have shrines where shepherds leave offerings to the nymphs and satyrs. The gods are given wine and honey, but we are content with milk and flowers.
     Apart from my fleas, I am plagued by another entity. A bronze man called Gnathon shares my domain. He tells me he was forged on Crete by Daedalus. Unsatisfied with the result, the great inventor cast him into the sea. For nine years his hollow body was buffeted by the waves before being washed onto one of our beaches. A crack in his mould means all the truth has leaked out of him. He can only tell lies. I am suspicious of his true origins. He talks to my fleas. "What a generous host you have!" And they, knowing his condition, appreciate the sarcasm.
     Gnathon insists that the girl in the wood, the lithe musician, is named Chloe. This means she is not. However, I have nothing else to go on, so I also decide to call her Chloe. Gnathon is as bewitched as I am. He is too ugly for her, I tell him. In return he praises my mild odour. Coming from a bronze liar this is a deadly insult. We wrestle in the dust, near a stream. My fleas warn me not to fall in. We are equals in strength and our struggles come to nothing. Exhausted, we lie back and pant our mutual hatred.
     Where does Chloe come from? She is too dark to be a native of this island. I think Egypt, where men worship cats and herons. Gnathon says from under the sea. He is a liar of little imagination. I want to burst into tears with the force of my emotion. I have never shed a tear, it is difficult with my eyes. But I hope one day to defy nature and drown my cheeks with the globules of feeling. Only after my saviour has removed my fleas will this be possible.
     It is difficult to follow Chloe after she has finished her music. She vanishes between the trees, slippery as olive-oil. I try to keep up with her. Always she stays ahead. It is like chasing your shadow. I fear I will never know anything about her. She is destined to be an enigma. I believe she has no home at all; perhaps she circulates around the isle like a cool breeze, never settling.
     I wonder what would happen if I caught her. Would she be repelled by my form? Every morning, Gnathon makes a new statement about her. He never tires of speculation. "She is celibate," he ventures. "She is a woman-lover." I am able to dismiss such possibilities as he raises them. If Gnathon claims she is celibate, she is not. I have made a list of her non-qualities; I lack only the truth.
     One afternoon, sitting on the long beach in the south-west of the island, I spy a distant sail. I jump up and dance on my hooves. It is my saviour! He is coming at last! I watch as the ship grows larger. Soon it is anchored in the shallows. My saviour leaps from the deck and wades towards me. I throw myself at his feet. He is wearing only one sandal. His limbs are the colour of bronze.
     "My name is Jason," he cries, "and I seek the golden fleas." There is a nobility about his bearing. For some reason I do not answer. What is wrong with me? Why do I not show him my parasites? He will comb them from my body and take them away. But I find it difficult to deceive him. His face is too trusting. Quite against my better judgment, I clasp him around the shoulder and whisper in his ear.
     I tell him he has made an error. I give him directions to his real destination. He is grateful. "What can I do for you in return?" he asks. I whistle the music of Chloe, a melody which burns my lips. Jason nods and strokes his beard. "That is not a real melody, but a ghost made of echoes. Someone has been playing music for too long. The new notes have entangled themselves in the old. Now they seek to escape each other and their struggles are poignant."
     I bow my head in shame at this. He is right; Chloe is no more than the phantom of my lost talent. This is why I will never be able to hold her in my hairy arms. Jason returns to his ship and disappears back over the lip of the world. I am left with nothing. I have missed my chance to rid myself of my fleas. They are relieved. "Blood is thicker than wine," they sneer. While I sit on the sand, arranging patterns of despair with driftwood, Gnathon comes up from behind.
     "You smell sweeter than ever," he says. "Chloe is sure to find your odour appealing." This is the final reed. Suddenly I am up and running. The howl at the back of my throat struggles to keep up. A woodsman's hut lies close. The fellow is enjoying an afternoon nap; his double-headed axe is left unattended. Before he can open his eyes, I have snatched it up and am racing back to the beach.
     Gnathon has followed me a little way into the wood. We meet in a glade. He lifts his bronze eyebrows in creaking bewilderment. "What are you doing?" He has little concept of anger. Bronze men are more familiar with disappointment. In his own dashed dreams Gnathon can dance all over the island. He is too heavy to pirouette. This impossible yearning is his one genuine desire.
     My first blow smashes a hole in his chest. Salty water sprays out into the scented undergrowth. I realise at once what has happened. I have already mentioned his crack. That nine year buffeting filled him with ocean. As I raise the axe a second time, he holds up a hand. "Do not do this. Your fur will be drenched with brine. Apollo remembers your sin." At this, my fears fall away. Then the archer-king has forgotten! I am free. At last, I burst into tears. This is the long-awaited prelude to real refreshment.
     My second blow widens the hole and the cold water washes away the grime of years. Even though this is a world of misery, things sometimes work out for the best. Gnathon is made lighter by my actions. Now he is no longer clumsy; his bronze legs have less weight to bear. He can skip and dance in the way he has always wished. And I am consoled by a rare metaphysical thought. If Chloe is just an echo of my talent, then I am a pre-echo of hers. Our minims can entwine, if not our limbs. Remember too that I have learned to cry.
     More importantly, at the instant of my dousing, the fleas jumped from my body onto Gnathon's. Because he is bronze and they are gold, they suit him more than me. And he is untroubled by their presence; he is too tough to bite. Indeed he welcomes their company, the sardonic conversations. As for the fleas, the situation is less pleasant. They know hunger and the loss of power.
     Out of the crying Pan and onto the liar.

Monday, 27 July 2015

The Salsa Raft (2015)

I started salsa dancing in the spring of the year 2014. Having left it rather late to life to indulge such an activity, I am never going to be truly proficient. However I am slowly getting better and it's certainly one of the most enjoyable forms of exercise I have ever attempted.

Hector was a teacher of the dance style known as salsa. Four times a week he would give a class to beginners and always he would call out the timings of the steps, “One, two, three... five, six, seven...” and he did this to stress the fact that there was a pause on the fourth beat in which the dancers weren’t really expected to do anything.
For so many years did he call out the numbers in this way that he finally forgot four existed at all. And so he went through life unable to cope with anything related to that particular integer. Thus he had to increase the frequency of his lessons to five nights a week. This made him richer and more popular but worsened his problem with fours.
His four-blindness or fourophobia intensified and deepened to the extent that even the words ‘for’ and ‘fore’ were affected. Hector never did anything for any reason now, but only because he felt like it. He refused to acknowledge his forebears and gave up the art of foreplay, much to the dismay of his wife. He no longer had any fortitude.
Aware that he had changed in a way that put him at a disadvantage when compared with other men, Hector decided to do something remarkable in order to regain his feelings of self-worth. Dance instructors were nothing unusual and even those who put on big parties and spectacular events weren’t uncommon. His approach had to be devastatingly original.
It occurred to him that maybe he could find a way to harness the energy expended by salseros and salseras. All those movements were an outpouring of physical force and it was a pity this force couldn’t be captured and used to do positive work rather than be wasted through dispersal. His first thought was to modify the dancefloor in order to generate electricity.
This might be accomplished by connecting the sprung wooden floor to levers and gears below that turned a dynamo. The electricity produced could power the sound system, so the dancing would enable the music that accompanied the dancing, a perfect loop. But after giving the matter a little more thought, Hector realised that this arrangement wasn’t really so unique.
Something more ambitious was required. One night the idea came to him as he lay awake in bed. Because the time 4am was one he was unable to accept as real, the night was always one hour shorter for him than for a normal person. To compensate for these missing sixty minutes, he went to bed an hour early, before he was properly ready for sleep.
Thus he often tossed and turned not only his wakeful body but ideas in his lucid mind. And now he constructed in his imagination a curious vessel, a huge raft that was actually a floating dancefloor, with a rudder and a propeller that could move it along on still waters and without obtrusive sails that would flap in the faces of the crew and passengers, who would all be dancers.
The more he pondered this peculiar marvel of maritime engineering, the more excited Hector became, to the point that he leaped out of bed and ran about the house on a quest for a pen that worked and paper that hadn’t already been written on. When he found what he was seeking, he sketched the design with a few bold and deft strokes. The salsa raft!
A vessel powered by the vibrations of the feet of those who danced on its deck, these vibrations being converted into electricity that powered a motor driving the propeller. And he, Hector, would be the captain and navigator with his hand on the tiller, steering a course to their destination, for a destination was another essential component in his glorious vision.
What more appropriate destination than Havana? That steamy tropical hive of vibrancy that forms the ultimate pilgrimage for all serious salsa dancers was the only viable option. The end result of such an amazing voyage wouldn’t merely be to bolster Hector’s somewhat battered confidence but to also provide a solution to a riddle that had long bothered him.
This riddle concerned the haunt of the best salsa dancers in the world. A fine teacher, Hector had nonetheless on his travels to clubs in other cities often been awestruck and intimidated by the quality of the dancers who thronged the dancefloor. Some of them were truly astounding. The spins they did were more complicated and elegant, the styling more stylish.
Yet these dancers, when he went to praise them after the music ended, always insisted they weren’t as good as the dancers in some other club. So Hector had gone seeking and had found and entered those other clubs, but the dancers who frequented them also insisted the best could be found elsewhere. Always there was a better club with better dancers.
But the process had to end eventually. Somewhere in this wide world of ours there must be the best club of all and in that club must logically cavort the most stupefying dancers that had ever moved or could move to salsa rhythms. And he, Hector, naturally nurtured a dream of locating that club one day. His best guess was that it was probably in Havana.
It might not be there, of course, but it was worth finding out. The raft would take him together with his regular class of learners and once they reached Havana he could begin his explorations and investigations. Even if he was unsuccessful in finding the ultimate salsa club, the remarkable and unusual journey itself would make him famous.
He shared his scheme with his pupils at the earliest opportunity and they were enthusiastic. They even contributed donations to the building of the raft, which he had expected to fund entirely from his own savings. The vessel was constructed in a couple of months and its launching was attended by television reporters and journalists from many newspapers.
The raft set off from England one morning in summer and Hector pointed the rudder towards Cuba. For the first few days everything went well. The dancers danced and their dancing made electricity that kept the music playing and also turned the propeller. It was going to be a long voyage but that was part of its appeal. “One, two, three... five, six, seven...”
Unfortunately, the island of Cuba lies just south of the Tropic of Cancer and to get there the raft had to cross the latitude line 44ºN. The two fours in that number were like the double barrels of a shotgun to Hector and his frenzied attempts to avoid them led to him capsizing the raft. It is not easy to capsize a vessel as stable as a raft but he managed it.
Or maybe huge waves were responsible and no effort was made to avoid the storm because he was unable to check the weather forecast. It was an insane mission from the start and the authorities should have prevented it, but how could anyone forbid anything to Hector? All the same, he lacked tremendous foresight and it is time now to forget all about him.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

333⅓ (2004)

This story was my 334th story. As I plan to write exactly 1000 stories that will form a gargantuan story cycle, this tale marks the stage where the project was one-third of the way towards completion, or rather one third of the way through the story is the precise point where this happens. Hence the title. The number 334 also suggested Thomas Disch's brilliant novel by that name, so the main character in this tale is called Boz, the name of one of Disch's characters. Numbers are inexplicably important to me. Incidentally, my story cycle is now more than three-quarters done.

“There are no spare rooms left.”
It was a familiar reply and Boz turned on his heels but the landlord reached out and clasped his shoulder with an enormous hand.
“You can have the cupboard under the stairs.”
Boz hesitated a moment and then followed the landlord over the threshold of the door into the lobby of the building. It was the best offer of the past month, a month of walking the streets and ringing doorbells. Space was at a premium in this city right now and available rooms were scarcer than unicorns. The landlord turned on the lights in the stairwell and pointed upwards.
“It’s near the top. I shouldn’t really rent it out, but I feel sorry for young men in your position. There are three hundred and thirty three apartments in this block, so I guess we can just call yours number 333.”
“I’m not expecting visitors or mail,” said Boz.
The landlord shrugged and they ascended the flights of steps together, puffing hard by the time they reached their destination. Boz peered at the door of the cupboard. It was low and small and he would be required to crouch to pass through it, but he was grateful for any form of accommodation, however cramped. Everything in his life had worked out fine apart from not having a home. He had money in his wallet and a full belly but no place to stay. This one problem soured all the good things.
“I’ll draw up a contract and you can sign it tomorrow. Here’s the key.”
Boz accepted the tiny metal object and inserted it into the lock. The landlord had already wheezed off down the stairs and was gone before he opened the door. The cupboard contained a few blankets and a pillow. At the rear were an old vacuum cleaner, a dozen plastic bags and two large cardboard boxes. With a heavy sigh he squeezed into this space and fell asleep. The deep exhaustion of more than four weeks living rough, cold and damp and an easy target for violent drunkards, had caught up with him.
He woke slowly. It was pitch dark and his muscles were aching. He thought about the city and the new building regulations which made it impossible to construct new housing. The authorities were determined to stop the metropolis sprawling outwards any further, nor did they want the skyline encroached upon more than it already was, so building higher was no solution. Boz understood this desire to preserve the city the way it was. It was a beautiful city, as cities go, with courtyards and patios and balconies and roof gardens.
Not having enough space in the cupboard to stretch out at full length, he had curled up in a foetal position, legs hugged to his chest. Now he had terrible cramps. He decided to move the vacuum cleaner, bags and boxes out into the corridor for the remainder of the night. He could always replace them in the morning before his landlord returned. As he moved these objects, he was astonished to discover that they concealed an opening to a tunnel. A faint glow came from its depths and he felt a light breeze on his face.
“How far back does it go?” he wondered.
There was only one way to find out. Crawling on his hands and knees he proceeded down the tunnel. The glow broke apart into a number of individual specks of light like stars and the tunnel itself grew wider and taller. Soon he was able to stand and walk. Wherever he was headed, it was not into the building. This was not a service duct that wove between clusters of water and gas pipes, bundles of insulating fibre and electrical fuse boxes. He savoured the distant scents of honeysuckle, cooking and wine.
The sides of the tunnel were no longer bricks but mossy stones and worn railings. The ceiling had vanished. Somehow he was in a street, the street of a city not his own, a city equally as beautiful, with a castle on a crag and tall houses clustered below it. The stars were lamps on poles. He passed under an archway and impulsively resolved to remain here, not to go back, not that he could ever retrace his steps because he had already forgotten the way he had come. This city was no worse than the one he had left and his wallet was bulging. First he would find a proper place to live.

“There are no spare rooms left.”
Although he expected this reply, Boz did not turn away immediately. He asked the same question he had asked all the other landlords.
“Don’t you have a cupboard under the stairs?”
The landlord licked his lips and hesitated before nodding and leading the way up the flights of steps to the designated space. Boz heaved a sigh of relief. He had found his escape route after another month of rough living. This city was as pleasurable as the one before it, but its charms and opportunities could not be fully appreciated by one who had no place to rest his head at night. Once again homelessness was the fly in the ointment, or something larger than a fly, a crow or vulture.
“I shouldn’t really rent this out, it’s against regulations, but I know how hard it is for young people these days. I sympathise, really I do.”
Boz accepted the key and opened the door. Now his search was over, he was able to relax and enjoy his memories of his brief stay in this unknown metropolis. The first thing to delight him was the discovery that the inhabitants spoke the same language as he did, though with an alluring accent. In return he appeared exotic to them. This city was identical in size to the one he had known but the layout was changed, as if the buildings and streets had been shuffled and replaced on the landscape in a different order.
Boz had a special fondness for the districts nearest the river, the stone bridges and restaurants festooned with coloured bulbs, the steep cobbled lanes and little squares full of musicians and dancers. And that girl on the scooter. But always the fact he lived nowhere spoiled everything. He had even tried to get a job where he might be allowed to sleep safely on the premises, in a kitchen or warehouse, but that was not acceptable behaviour here. Without a place to return to, he was nowhere. His life was on hold, romances had to be abandoned, all his future was suspended until he found a room.
No rooms were to be had. Now he had been given a cupboard instead, but he could hardly be expected to bring a girl back to a cupboard. It was not a home at all, but it represented another chance elsewhere. His wallet was still mostly full, he had spent only a fraction of his savings, and he still had hope. As soon as the landlord was out of sight, he moved the vacuum cleaner, bags and boxes into the corridor.
The opening was there, complete with the faint glow, the glow of the merged streetlights of a third city. He crawled into the tunnel, stood when the ceiling was high enough and began running. Soon he was running down a street, biting scented air. A song emerged from an open window above him, a girl brushing her hair in the moonlight. He slowed his pace, sauntering along with his hands in his pockets, whistling her melody.
A man clutching a newspaper came the other way. Boz stopped him and asked, “Where might I find a place to live in this city?”
“You’ll be lucky,” replied the man. “There’s nothing much here.”
To confirm this assertion he showed the newspaper to Boz, opening it to the section where landlords advertised properties. The page was blank. Boz sighed and the man tried to cheer him up by saying, “You have an interesting accent. The girls will love that.”
“Not if I have no place to go.”
The man shrugged and moved on and Boz went the other way, appreciating the sights and magic of the city, even while another part of him was downcast. Could he meet a girl and move in with her? That option seemed dishonourable and was probably impractical. Better for him simply to start searching now, ringing the doorbells of apartment blocks. If he did not find a room he might still find a cupboard under the stairs, an escape route to the next city. And this process could continue until he ran out of money and cast his empty wallet into the gutter.
The night passed uneasily. The days that followed it passed in the same manner. He grew to know and love this new city but he was never established here. There was wine and food, music also, and a girl. But nothing stable. During daylight hours he enjoyed living, being in the city, but in the evenings he searched for a room. He was always on the move, tense, without a base, aimless, unable to relax.
“No spare rooms? What about a cupboard under the stairs?”
At last he found one and he said goodbye to this city, another month of his life, as he tramped up the steps. The vacuum cleaner was there and the other items too and he moved them out of the way and plunged into the tunnel. The tunnel became a street, the street of a city with yet another reshuffling of buildings and squares. Already he knew it was as full as the previous two. He could hear the city breathe, a breathing composed of the flexing of the floorboards in every room, all occupied. He knew that another month of searching lay in wait, the growing of more stubble in shadows while he waited for morning and the warming rays of the rising sun.
He called to a girl on a street corner, “Excuse me, Miss, but do you know...”
Of course she did not. Suddenly he was overwhelmed by a vision of his destiny. He saw himself passing through city after city without settling in any of them, searching for and finding cupboard after cupboard under a sequence of nearly identical stairways. A future of crawling into tunnels, hurrying down them until they became streets, and then a snatched form of life, taking pleasure between slabs of anxiety, closed doors and rejection. He checked his wallet.
“I have enough money to last another forty or fifty cities. I won’t stop yet, I’ll keep going as long as I can. If I don’t find a place to live, I’ll just keep looking for the tunnel to the next city. When I have only enough money left to pay for my funeral, I’ll climb the highest tower of the city I’m in, wherever that tower might be located, and I’ll throw myself off. That way I’ll have rest and respectability in death if not in life!”

He struggled to open his eyes. Where was he? A gloomy chamber with a pungent odour, some sort of cleaning fluid. Had he found a room at last, a real room, a home? He was naked and stretched out on something hard, not a bed. As his eyes opened fully, the memories settled back slowly in his juddered brain. Many cities, many streets and restaurants and girls. He had been searching for somewhere to live for years. He had explored dozens of cities that were variations of just one city, so many that he had lost count.
There were other people in the chamber with him. An ache throbbed through his bones, fading and then suddenly flaring up, the pain concentrated at a point on his chest. He remembered what he had done, the final moment of despair, the sensation of falling. And yet clearly he had survived. Was he in a hospital? All those wonderful things, his experiences, degraded by the fact he had no roots, and now this? Was he going to be stuck in a hospital for weeks or months? He blinked and waited for his eyes to adjust properly.
The men standing over him did not look like doctors. They wore heavy cloaks and very tall black hats that almost scraped the ceiling. One held his wallet, another was clutching two electrodes in gloved hands, electrodes connected to a machine that hummed and spat in the corner. Boz felt there was an association between this machine and the burning sensation in his chest. The man holding the wallet nodded down at him and said:
“Pleased to meet you, we are your undertakers. You have just enough money to pay for a funeral, we’ve counted it, a single note and a few coins, it comes to 333 crowns altogether, which is exactly our fee. But there’s a slight problem, a minor hitch, and we couldn’t just get on with the burial. So we brought you back to life to discuss something with you, to make a proposal. We all think it’s a neat solution to our difficulty.”
“Tell me,” gasped Boz. His words emerged thin and dry and his efforts to sit up came to nothing. He knew he would never feel more alert than this ever again, but it did not seem to matter. The reply to his question was a murmur but he heard it and managed to roll his eyes in exasperation.
“There are no spare coffins left. But there’s an old tea chest in the attic...”

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Mirror in the Looking Glass (2007)

This story idea just came to me out of the blue in one quick burst when I was living with my friend Hannah in Waunarlwydd, a village near Swansea, just before I left to travel through Spain for a year. It is a product of pure inspiration and that inspiration needed no prompting from me. This is an unusual thing.
Mad inventors are plentiful in this world of ours but only one sits on a genuine throne and rules his own city like an ancient king. Frabjal Troose of Moonville has many dubious talents, including the ability to flap his ears. They squeak. But his cybernetics expertise is considerable and his contributions to the design and manufacture of artificial nervous systems are almost unparalleled. Only his perversity prevents him from becoming the saviour of the human race.
Perhaps I am overstating the case, but his monumental achievements are singularly unhelpful to his own subjects and the citizens of every other realm. What amuses Frabjal Troose is to install human intelligence in inanimate objects. With the aid of extremely small but excessively clever devices, part electronic and part mechanical, he can bestow the gift of consciousness with all its attendant emotions on chairs, crockery, table lamps, shoes, clocks, flutes.
He can and he does. Frequently.
His other hobby is to worship the moon…
One morning Frabjal Troose awoke with the urge to give thoughts and feelings to a mirror. He foresaw all manner of comic and tragic potential in the reality of a self-aware looking glass. To make the joke even more piquant he decided to equip his victim with prosthetic legs and allow it to roam freely around the city. He left his enormous bed and went to the bathroom and there he saw an appropriate mirror hanging on the wall above the moon shaped sink.
The operation took several days. Frabjal Troose is a perfectionist and he wanted the circuits and cogs to be tastefully integrated into the frame of the mirror. In the end the workings ran over the surface of the wooden frame like complex ornamentation. By this time, the mirror could already think for itself and was slowly coming to terms with its sudden awareness and the need to develop an identity. It was no longer a mere object but a precious sentient being.
It even had a name. Guildo Glimmer.
Guildo learned to walk within his first hour. Wandering the palace of Frabjal Troose, little more than a large house stuffed with components for new gadgets, he came into contact with the occasional servant. At each encounter the same thing happened: the servant bent down and made a face at Guildo. Sometimes the servant picked him up and held him at arm’s length while plucking a nose hair or squeezing a pimple. What did this mean? Guildo was bewildered.
He continued his explorations and discovered that the front door of the palace was open and unguarded. Through it he hurried, into the lunar themed spaces of the city. Moon buggies rolled past on the roads and the public squares were craters filled with people dressed in silver and yellow clothes. I know that Frabjal Troose once issued an edict forbidding any grins that were not perfect crescents. He also forbade any cakes that were not perfect croissants.
Guildo proceeded down the street. He desperately needed time for reflection, but citizens just would not leave him in peace and they treated him in precisely the same way as the palace servants had, making blatant faces at him, grimacing and yawning and even frowning in disgust. Guildo began to experience the state of mind known as ‘paranoia’. What was wrong with his appearance? What was it about him that provoked such reactions in strangers?
He must be ugly, a horrible freak, a grotesque mutant: there was no other explanation. He was overwhelmed with a desire to view his own face, to confront his visage, to learn the foul truth for himself. But he could think of no way to accomplish this. Are you stupid, Guildo Glimmer? he asked himself. There must be a method of seeing one’s own face, but what? Because he was so new to the conventions of society, he always spoke his thoughts aloud.
“I know a reliable way,” declared a passerby.
This passerby was a droll fellow, a practical joker. He told Guildo that when men and women wanted to look at their own faces they made use of a ‘reflection’. What was one of those? Well, reflections existed in a variety of natural settings, in quiet lakes and slow rivers and the lids of clean saucepans, but only in the depths of mirrors did they realise their full potential. That is where the highest quality reflections dwelled, untroubled by ripples or cooking stains.
“You must look into a mirror!” he announced.
Guildo was astonished but grateful and he decided to follow this advice. The passerby chuckled and passed on. He was later arrested for not chuckling in the shape of a crescent, but that is another story. No, it is this story! No matter, I will ignore it in favour of what happened to poor Guildo. His little metallic legs carried him to the market, a bustling place where anything one desired might be bought, provided one’s desires were modest or at least plausible.
Guildo’s were. He approached a stall selling mirrors.
The man who owned the stall was talking to another customer and so Guildo was free to hop onto a table and examine the mirrors on display. He chose a circular mirror that was nearly the same circumference as his own head and he stepped in front of it. What he saw was totally unexpected and utterly profound. He saw an immensely long tunnel, a tunnel that stretched perhaps as far as the moon or infinity.
It must be pointed out once again that Guildo Glimmer was a living mirror. A mirror is simply unable to view its own reflection. The moment a mirror gazes into another mirror, its image will be endlessly bounced back and forth between the two reflecting surfaces. Hence the illusion of a tunnel. This is a law of geometry and a rule of physics, but Guildo knew nothing of such disciplines. His education had not covered the sciences.
As far as he was concerned, the illusory tunnel was an accurate representation of his form. This meant that he really was a tunnel! Now he understood why people kept frowning at him and why he was so dissatisfied. It was because he was not fulfilling his correct role. He was a tunnel and ought to do what tunnels do, act like tunnels act, think what tunnels think. He rushed out of the market to embrace his true destiny.
Later that afternoon, the splinters of a smashed mirror were picked up from the tracks of the main railway line leading into Moonville. When pieced together they could be identified as the remains of Guildo Glimmer. There was no way of resurrecting him. Frabjal Troose came to pay his hypocritical respects but he quickly lost interest and returned to his palace in a land-boat powered by moonbeams. By this time the sun had gone down and the moon was up.
People said that Guildo committed suicide, that he was too full of despair to continue his existence. Why else would he stand in the path of a moving train? But as I watched the billowing sails of the receding land-boat, I realised that I knew better. Guildo was simply serving a mistaken function. Tunnels are there for trains to pass through, after all. I was the driver of that train: in fact I am the train itself, an earlier example of the unnatural quest to give intelligence to inanimate objects.