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.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

The End of the Road (1992)

This story began life in the mid 1980s as a radio play that I never completed. My main influence was Chekhov's story 'Romance with Double Bass'. The early Chekhov was a big influence on me back then. A few years later, I turned it into a short story just to get the idea off my back. It was eventually published in The Third Alternative #4 in 1994.

This is a long dark road for a weary music student to be trudging up. And this is a heavy instrument to be balancing on thin shoulders. If only I played the piccolo instead of the double bass! But now I am frozen in my tracks by a groan. A man is lying in a ditch by the side of the road. I am always polite, so I lower my burden to the ground and sit down to talk to him.
         His name, he tells me, is Marcel; and he is in love. When I point out that love is scant reason for lying in a ditch, he replies that he was knocked there by a Porsche, a Porsche, furthermore, driven by the greatest beauty ever to swerve across a road. It was love at first strike. His bones are all broken, but it is his heart that aches. I am sympathetic. I offer him a cigarette. He declines on the grounds they are bad for your health.
         What am I to make of this last statement? As a poor student, tobacco is frequently an alternative to a meal rather than an adjunct. I remark that suppertime in my draughty garret is often a damp cigarette in front of my faulty paraffin heater, with the single red head of a broken match to ignite both. At this, he adopts a dreamy tone. Redhead, yes, and her hair flowed out behind her like molten copper…
         I have never seen copper, molten or otherwise, though once I had a brass monkey, so I ask if he managed to have a good look at her. Oh no! A glimpse is all he had; but it was enough. It seems to me that he is burning up with fancies. Love, of course, is an illusion. I decide to play him something to calm him down. I stand up, open my instrument case, take out my double bass and proceed to play a few notes of a dismal melody.
         My hands are too cold to extract much worth. I apologise. Perhaps a cigarette will help to warm me? I fumble in my pockets. Five left: one every mile till my destination. My destination? The end of the road. I am to play my double bass there at a soirĂ©e attended by various aesthetes. Yes, perhaps the Porsche was repairing thither when it knocked you head over heels into love and this ditch. She wore a silk scarf of the palest pink? Then she certainly sounds like an aesthete.
         Naturally, I do not envy him. He is in love, it is true, but it is unrequited. His girl ditched him, in a manner of speaking. If I feel anything at all, then it is pity; but he does not want to be pitied. He insists that, for the first time in his life, he is happy. I am astonished. For only the first time? Yes, he has had a loveless existence. Like some grey and sad whale he has always wallowed in the seven seas of depression. But all that has changed now. It changed when the Porsche struck him down.
         I am contemptuous. How could it? The woman he loves was a bad driver and a glimpse of red hair and pink scarf. Nothing more. But he insists that there is always more. Seeing is not always believing. We have already worked out that she is an aesthete and can be found at the end of the road. Surely, with a little more effort, we should be capable of deducing exactly what she looks like, how the facets of her personality glitter, even what her name is? This is his argument.
         As I said before, I am always polite. I wish to help him. I cannot turn back to summon help, nor can I carry him forwards to the end of the road. In the first case, I would lose sight of my destination; in the second, I would have to arrive without my double bass. Yet there is one thing I can do.
         I tell him that philosophy, like bad poetry, should be reserved for the college paper, and not declaimed aloud from a ditch. I tell him that ideals exist only in the mind or the liver, and very possibly do not exist at all. I tell him that, fantasy aside, he can name not a single one of her attributes and therefore cannot possibly be in love with her.
         As a musician, I am used to developing themes. I dismantle his picture for him, piece by piece. He is a poor deluded fool, and I wish to bring him to his senses. I hammer the final nail into her coffin. I tell him that she must have been exceptionally vacuous not to have realised that she had been the cause of an accident…
         At this, he begins to laugh. I have obviously misunderstood. It was no accident. She drove into him deliberately. There can be no doubt about it. She altered her course as soon as she spotted him in the glare of her headlights!
         I am astounded. I shake my head in bewilderment. I can do no more for him. How can I reason with such? My conscience is clear. I return my double bass to my long-suffering shoulders, bid him farewell and resume my journey towards the end of the road. As I walk, his final words ring in my ears. Deliberately?
         My step is not so heavy now. I am eager to reach my destination. I begin to increase my pace. Although this is a long dark road for a weary music student to be trudging up, I am content. Although this is a heavy instrument to be balancing on thin shoulders, I am happy. My heart flutters like a trapped butterfly. His final words have had a profound effect on me. At the end of the road, if he has spoken truly, she will be waiting with pink scarf and molten copper hair. At the end of the road, I will find the woman I love.