Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Seal of Disapproval (2010)

I am a big fan of 'flash fiction', namely stories that are less than 1000 words in length. These kinds of stories used to be known under the rather clumsy name of 'short shorts' and king of the form was Fredric Brown. I have written many such pieces during my working life and they present challenges that are quite different from those that confront the writer of longer fiction.

          "The ocean refuses no river…"— Sheila Chandra

"Hold on a moment, what are you doing?"
         "Discharging myself into the sea, of course. What else?"
         "You can stop that immediately."
         "Are you joking? This is my duty and I've been doing it for thousands of years. I don't see what business it is of yours. Who are you anyhow? I think you should get out of my way."
         "I'm the new security guard. Things have changed."
         "What do you mean by that?"
         "A new policy has been implemented. The ocean isn't going to receive just any old river from now on."
         "Any old river! Is that a blatant insult?"
         "Some sort of discretion needs to be applied. The system is chaotic. It was completely unregulated until today. So rules and standards have been created to put everything in order."
         "Exactly who is responsible for this outrage?"
         "Neptune and the other sea gods. They held a conference last week. I was the doorman. In an underwater coral palace it happened, marvellous event too, with superfine catering."
         "So I can't come any further? This is absurd!"
         "I didn't say anything of the sort. I requested you to hold on a moment. Decent rivers will still be encouraged to proceed into the ocean; but they must be screened at the mouth first."
         "Screened for what? I carry just the normal bacteria and pollutants. It's not as if I'm radioactive or anything."
         "I'm not qualified to make environmental checks. My task is simply to ensure that no impostors slip past."
         "I'm no impostor! I've always been the Danube!"
         "Sure you are; and so is every lowlife stream and reprehensible trickle pouring into the Black Sea right now. Or so they might say. Do you have any valid identification on you, sir?"
         "Sir! I'm a female river, you pompous fool!"
         "Come now, verbal abuse won't get you anywhere. Your identity must first be confirmed, then you may continue. If it isn't confirmed you'll have to wait here indefinitely or turn back."
         "Turn back! How can a river turn back? I go where gravity and angles take me. Can't you tell who I am?"
         "Just because you look like the Danube doesn't mean that you are. Do you have a current driving license?"
         "No, I don't. My current learned to flow centuries before anyone told me that a license was necessary."
         "In that case, may I take your bank details?"
         "Shallow and muddy mostly. They get more dramatic at a point on the border between Romania and Serbia."
         "Islands? Otters? Bridges?"
         "I can't remember all that! You're treating me as if I'm a criminal. I'm going to make an official complaint!"
         "That won't help you, not in the slightest. My orders are clear and they come from Neptune himself. No identification, no oceanic discharge. You ought to wave the waves farewell."
         "Well, I'll be dammed…"
         "Yes, very possibly. And forced to power a hydroelectric generator for twenty or thirty years. Is that really what you want? The Volga failed the test earlier this morning and the turbines are already on their way. There's no messing about with us, you see."
         "But what can I do! I don't have identification!"
         "Maybe we can come to some sort of arrangement… Maybe I can turn a blind eye and let you through if…"
         "You are asking for a bribe? What do you want? Whirlpools? I have a few surplus eddies. Will they do? I had a waltz named after me once. Do you want me to whistle it for you?"
         "I've been told that long rivers are good in bed."
         "That should be the most shocking thing I've ever heard; but yes, I do have a quality bed. Rocky but rich in silt. And you're quite attractive for a walrus. I'll give you half an hour."
         "Fair enough. I'll just take my tusks off. Like so."
         "Now I've seen everything!"
         "Hold them safe for me, will you?"
         "How can I do that? No hands. I'm a river!"
         "Watch out, you've dropped one! It has gone floating out to sea! What if a whale swallows it and it is lost forever? I only wanted a frolic. I never intended to plight my tooth!"
         "That was dreadful. Even for a walrus."
         "I'm not really a walrus. Whoever heard of a walrus so far south? I'm a seal in disguise, an elephant seal. Say, you don't have a unicorn horn I can use for a substitute tusk? I heard a rumour that when unicorns still existed they often bathed in you. Maybe a horn fell off hundreds of years ago and you've been hoarding it since?"
         "Hardly. I always sell stuff like that."
         "Of course. Silly me."

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A Story with the Title at the End (2013)

The following story is slightly unusual in that the title is at the end. Why should a title always have to be at the beginning? Why can’t it be placed elsewhere? I don’t mean it should just be plonked at random in the text, causing an obstruction to the characters, but positioned with due care where it hopefully can enhance the outcome.

Harrison was a successful author of fantasy books but he was having trouble with his work this morning and he sighed and put down his pen. He still wrote the old-fashioned way but this didn’t mean he had a dislike of computers. He just preferred the feel of a fountain pen in his fingers. He guessed this was because he was a rock climber in his spare time, used to gripping tiny irregular swellings in the face of a cliff. He was an extremely tactile man.
          The fiction he wrote wasn’t the usual kind of fantasy. Harrison thought that pure escapism was a very bad thing. He loathed the idea of sedentary people with no experience of physical activity reading about dangerous journeys over appalling landscapes or about epic battles, because those readers couldn’t truly understand or identify with what was happening. Harrison thought that such fantasy was fake and immature and that it pandered to losers.
          So he wrote fantasy with a hard edge, a kind of fantasy that was almost the same as realism. In his fairytale castles there were always dirty dishes in the sink, and his heroes and heroines generally found themselves hampered by the mundane worries of everyday life, and his background characters were miserable and full of despair and never managed to achieve success or happiness in anything. Harrison’s fantasy was the exact opposite of escapism.
          He never sold many copies of his books but the critics and reviewers adored him and many imitators tried to write stories in the same way as he did. He was a famous writer in a small way and considered by a coterie of connoisseurs to be the best living exponent of this new kind of fantasy in the world. For Harrison the true enemy was Tolkien and his imitators because of the way he misled readers into the erroneous belief that good won in the end.
          There were no simple messages about morality or anything else in the books Harrison wrote. Every incident in every one of his stories was about the difficulties of achieving any progress at all in any endeavour. His characters slogged bleakly through his tales, weighed down by a host of burdens and wearing themselves out mentally as they kept meeting obstructions that couldn’t be surmounted. In fact it could be said that Harrison wrote anti-fantasy.
          And now he was working on his latest masterpiece. So far it followed nearly the same basic pattern as his other books, heavy on the use of symbolism and with descriptive passages of unusual clarity and force. Reading a Harrison novel was at times like experiencing a particularly vivid and weird hallucination. His prose style had a crystalline quality but it was also feverish and unearthly. It was impossible to compare his work with any other living author.
          He relied on a small number of powerful and effective tricks. His characters would always aspire to some great achievement, set off on a magnificent quest, but run out of energy or will or simply get distracted by the bitter ironies of life and the journey was never completed, the quest never resolved. Harrison’s heroes not only had feet of clay but hearts of the same substance. They would dream of a better and more magical place which was our own world.
          In this manner Harrison hoped to oppose that sloppy desire for escapism that readers of fantasy seemed to brim with. His work stressed that escape of any kind at all was an illusion, an indulgence, an immature yearning that could never, and in fact should never, be fulfilled. And the critics were delighted and told him that he was exactly the sort of writer the public needed. He responded to such praise with a sneer because he hated to appear enthusiastic.
          His fantasy worlds were often given mildly humorous names that sounded as if they were dreamy mystic places but which were only the names of fruit reversed. This convention was a private joke for Harrison. He wrote tales set in the kingdom of Amustas, in the republics of Ognam and Ayapap, in the anarchist communes of Etanrgemop, Tiurfeparg and Ananab. Very few readers ever understood that these names were jokes. Those that did felt quite smug.
          Right now he was writing a new novel set on a distant planet called Tocirpa that orbited a star by the name of Nolem. But work wasn’t proceeding smoothly at all. It’s not that he felt blocked but that the story wanted to go in a direction that he didn’t approve and he felt unable to stop it. He wrote a paragraph and then fiercely scribbled it out, so fiercely that the nib of the pen broke and he had to get out of his chair in order to fetch a new one from a cupboard.
          As he returned to work with a frown on his face, his wife entered the room and softly approached him. He turned his head rapidly, his pony tail whipping his cheekbone as he did so, but the sight of her softened him. He stroked his pointed goatee beard and sighed. She came closer and asked, “What’s the matter, dear? I had a feeling you were troubled, so I came to investigate. I pick up these sorts of things, you know. It’s because I must be psychic.”
         He waved a dismissive hand, then he laughed. “Just that my new story has a life of its own. It won’t do what I want it to.”
          “Isn’t that a good thing?” she asked.
         “Maybe for some other writers, yes! But not for me! Absolute control is the fundamental point of supreme importance in my working methods. For instance, I am now writing the scene where the hero of the story (though he’s not a real hero, of course, as none of my characters are) is leaving our planet in a spaceship that is powered by mood-beams. He is planning to travel to Tocirpa and his mind must be bleak in order for him to make the ship work.”
          “I don’t understand that.”
          “The spaceship engine is activated by depression and other negative moods. It won’t fly if the pilot is happy. Like I said, mood-beams. So I wrote the passage in which the hero enters the ship and starts to operate the controls but then I knew that something about him was very wrong.”
          “What was it?” she wondered.
         “It dawned on me that this character of mine was a cat! I know that sounds really silly but it’s true. I mean, I ought to know better than anyone how any of my characters are going to look and act. I’m the one in charge! But somehow this cat had sneaked into my story, had taken over the role of hero and was about to travel to a distant planet before I could stop him.”
          “Is it really so bad for a cat to be the main character?”
          “A talking cat!” he bellowed.
          His lower lip quivered and he banged down his fist on the writing desk and for almost a minute he was unable to articulate a sensible word, then with a sigh so deep it seemed full of sunken ships, he said quietly, “Have you any idea what the critics would do to me if I published a novel about a talking cat? A novel about any sort of cat is bad enough, but one that can talk...”
          “Why is it such a bad thing?”
          “It’s the ultimate sin, the biggest faux pas that any fantasy writer can ever commit! No reviewer with any credibility would ever praise a story that includes a talking cat. It’s just not done. In creative writing classes where beginners are asked to write stories, do you know how many end up writing stories about cats? A heck of a lot of them! A good percentage of those stories are about cats that can talk. It’s considered to be a very amateurish thing to do.”
          “I didn’t know that,” she replied.
          “Well, that happens to be the case. A talking cat is a big taboo. It would be the end of my career as a serious writer.”
          “In that case,” she suggested mildly, “don’t have one.”
          “A career?” he shrieked.
          “A cat, I meant,” she explained.
         “But that’s just the problem!” he roared. “I can’t seem to make my hero a man. He ends up being a cat, a talking cat! I must have rewritten this scene thirty or forty times and he still ends up being a talking cat. A talking cat called Tufty! Can you believe it? The critics will crucify me!”
         Harrison began sobbing and his tears fell onto the page and made the ink run. “What shall I do? What shall I do?”
         His wife was silent for several minutes, then she said, “I have an idea. Why don’t you just write the novel with the talking cat as a hero but publish it under a false name, a pen name, a pseudonym?”
         He dried his eyes and blinked at her.
         A glow slowly suffused his pale hollow cheeks. His ponytail oscillated like a hairy pendulum as he wobbled his head in glee.
          “Yes, yes! That will work! Yes, yes! That is a great solution. The critics will hate it but the public will love it. It means I can write the story the way it wants to be written, and make money from it too, without losing my reputation as a serious intellectual author. Thank you, thank you!”
         He hugged her. She responded warmly to his embrace.
         “I am so glad I married you!”
         “Thanks,” she said. “I am pleased about it too.”
         “You are the best wife a man could ever have. But I will have to think of a good pen name to use for this book.”
          He rested his chin on his closed hand. She waited.
         Then he cried, “Why don’t I just reverse my name? I could pretend my name was a piece of fruit and spell it backwards.”
         “No sirrah!” she responded.
         He gaped at her and his face fell. “It’s a bad idea.”
         She laughed. “I just made a joke. Your name backwards is ‘No sirrah’ and that’s an old-fashioned way of saying no. Critics would work it out and it’s not a proper name anyway. Why not use my name?”
         “Gabrielle, you mean?”
         “Sure. You are always telling me I’m like a queen to you, so why not call yourself Gabrielle Queen for this book?”
         “Brilliant! And if it’s successful I will write sequels.”
         She smiled. “Do you have a title?”
         “For this one? Yes I do as a matter of fact.” He rummaged through all the papers scattered over his desk until he found the first page of his manuscript. He took his new pen and scratched out the original title. Then he blinked his eyes a few times rapidly as he gathered his thoughts.
         His darling wife purred and nuzzled up against him as with one hand he stroked her furry pointed ears and with the other wrote the following three words, which also happen to be the real title of this story:


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Two Fat Men in a Very Thin Country (2002)

The country of Chile is so long and thin that it looks very odd on a map, and odd things tend to spark my imagination, so it was inevitable I would one day write a story about it. The result appeared in my collection THE LESS LONELY PLANET and also (slightly modified) in another of my books, TALLEST STORIES, in which it is revealed that the narrator is actually Napoleon Bonaparte. In this original version, he isn't.

My friend Pepito must always be believed, even when he is telling lies. Exactly why this should be so is beyond my powers of explanation. But it's a tradition which I'm reluctant to ignore, and thus I now place my hand over my heart and swear that the following tale is accurate in every fact. Pepito told it to me himself, while we rested under the orange tree which stands in the centre of my patio. Most of my body was in the shade, but my boots stuck out in the noonday sun, and the heat raised an odour from them which was not unlike soup.
         He often related anecdotes which had happened in distant lands. I suppose he'd travelled a lot in his youth. That must have been the case, for now he barely moved at all, except from house to house, kitchen to kitchen, with slow greed, as if he was trying to balance out or retract all his previous activity.
         He began by asking me what I knew of Chile, and I shrugged my shoulders. My ignorance seemed to offer him some mental relief, and he scratched himself lazily before announcing:
         "Well, it's a very long country.
          "¡Sí! a long and thin country, like a piece of string used to parcel up the globe when the world was made. But somehow it remained behind when the rest of the wrapping was discarded, stuck there on the western edge of the South American continent. That is Chile.
         "I would estimate -- and it's just a guess, mind you -- that it covers an area of 756,626 square kilometres, but all this territory must stretch some 4000 km from the tropics almost to the polar region, which means its average width is no more than 160 km. That's an unusual shape for a nation. Its capital is Santiago.
         "Its major natural resources are coal, oil, iron ore, precious metals and timber. It has some of the biggest copper mines on the planet. The scenery is dramatic, with deserts in the north and glaciers in the south. It has a history of relative democracy. Its worst myth is the Chonchón, which is a loose head with gigantic ears for wings. It often flies down chimneys. The Calchona is almost as bad. It is a kind of dog which snatches lunch baskets from mountain travellers, muttering sullen threats if anyone tries to follow.
         "Fortunately these monsters are quite rare now.
         "The sort of normal wildlife you might expect to find if you went there include guanacos, vicunas, coypus, pumas and condors. There are tamarugo trees, algarobas and monkey puzzles. Whether any of these latter have ever been solved is unknown to me at this time. Fish stocks off the coast are enormous, and fish stews on land also numerous, which brings me to the point, for I won't say meat, of my tale.
         "There were two brothers who were known as the Grady Twins. They were big eaters and famous for it. It is possible they were the fattest men in existence. One was named Tobias and the other Oliver. They decided to take a voyage to Chile. They applied for visas and arrived in Santiago on the first day of summer.
         "They had been growing rounder and rounder every year, and their girth had caused them many practical problems for as long as either could remember, though nothing too serious, for they were used to lumbering about in wide countries. They had never stayed in such a thin one before. They had plenty of money in their pockets. Total disaster was inevitable.
         "They found an outdoor restaurant and sat down to their first meal. And that is where they remained for the whole of their trip! They devoured everything the country had to offer. I'm not sure what that is, but doubtless it includes bread, potatoes, rice, apples, beef, mutton, sardines, anchovies and whatever else can be found on local plates -- but no chilli peppers, despite the aptness of the name. And they drank hundreds of bottles of wine.
         "The days and weeks passed and they kept calling for more food. Before the summer was finished, they were both fatter than they had ever been. ¡Ay, Señor! they were too fat to fit in the country! They were wider than Chile! Do you doubt it?
         "Well, this was an unexpected situation. They were facing east, and their stomachs grew and ripened over that chain of mountains called the Andes. The snows lay soft and thick on the tops of their bellies. But the brothers continued to stuff their mouths, and their digestions rumbled like thunder in the high passes, and some people thought an earth tremor had begun. But still they sat at their table and ordered more food, and entire harvests vanished into their gaping maws.
         "There is a country which borders Chile along the mountains. It is Argentina and it has different laws and customs and ideas. A visa that is valid for one is not necessarily accepted in the other. The Grady Twins had the correct paperwork for a stay in Chile, but now their stomachs crossed the frontier into a separate state. They passed over illegally. The authorities were alerted.
         "Right there, near the summit of Tupungato, the bellies of Tobias and Oliver were arrested and charged with unlawfully entering Argentina. A judge was sent for and a court was temporarily set up at the base of the mountain. The stomachs were found guilty and sentenced to an indefinite term of imprisonment.
         "The jails were constructed around the straining abdomens, but each cell only had three walls, because the side where the stomachs came from had to be left open. All the same, the miscreants were in prison, and even the immense power of their digestions could not burst the bricks and iron bars asunder. The authorities smiled to themselves and went home, leaving a few guards to watch over each navel and to prod their captives with bayonets at the first signs of further trouble.
         "Back in Santiago, the brothers were oblivious of what had occurred over the border. But they knew that they suddenly had stomach cramps. Further belly expansion was halted by the solid walls. As they continued to eat, the pressure increased. There might have been a detonation with unsavoury results if this anecdote was just a fictional tale, but I have embellished no detail and therefore must report that this did not happen. They still called for more food, for they were also gluttons for punishment.
         "It was the middle of autumn and between them they had nearly eaten Chile bare. The hot winds from the desert and the cold winds from the icecaps had always smelled hungry. Now all the other winds did too, even those from the temperate zones where the wheat ripples in fields and the fruit falls from branches. The country was like an empty cupboard. The only things left to eat were old boots. They are not tasty when boiled, basted, roasted, steamed or fried. But a boot sauce served on coils of its own laces can be sampled like a spaghetti dish. It may or may not be nourishing. A few men will walk far to try it, but rather more will hope it doesn't walk after them. Such now was the final item on every menu.
         "Everybody knows there are good and bad boots. The latter pinch and squeak. Tobias had the misfortune to be served one of those. He refused to finish it. He threw down his fork and glowered at Oliver, who was chewing a more comfortable sole. From this moment their fates diverged. Tobias started to lose weight. This shouldn't be too remarkable a thing to occur, and so it wasn't, in the locality of the restaurant. But in Argentina, the amazed guards watched as one of their prisoners escaped.
         "It was a slow escape, sure enough, and in many other parts of the world, action would have been taken immediately to apprehend the belly before it vanished, but down there events often move sluggishly, and every pant is a yawn, and by the time a decision had been made to prod the captive with a bayonet, it was gone. It had fled at glacier velocity out of the open side of the jail and back over the border. Eventually Tobias became just a very fat man again, rather than an international incident.
         "The authorities were determined to guard the remaining stomach more carefully. But the bother of keeping watch over it constantly, while there were more important matters to attend to elsewhere, such as barbecues and football matches, was too much to contemplate eternally, which was the span of time that the wobbling paunch had to serve before it became eligible for parole, on the recommendation of the judge. So a retrial was ordered and a new sentence was passed -- death by firing squad!
         "¡Ay! That was a sure way of eliminating the problem for all time. The cell was demolished to give the men with the rifles a clear aim. Then a runner was dispatched to inform the man far behind the belly of his impending doom. It was a tradition to ask the condemned prisoner if he had a final request. The runner applied for a visa, crossed the border into Chile and reached the restaurant in Santiago.
         "He whispered his message into the ear of Oliver, who absorbed it at his leisure while munching on the tongue of a boot, his own tongue curling around it as if he was kissing his dinner to adulterate its leathery taste with the flavour of passion, which has no eyes and is blind, of course. And coincidentally this was his millionth course. But after just a little more thought, he nodded to himself and gave the runner a message of his own to deliver to the firing squad. Then he resumed eating.
          "Oliver's stomach had been sentenced to be shot at sunrise. But he had asked if it could be shot at sunset instead, the sunset of the day previous to the ordained one. The authorities and guards scratched their heads at this, for it seemed their prisoner was hurrying them along, that he wished to die sooner rather than later. But they agreed to the proposal, partly because it was a final request and they were bound by honour to fulfil it, and partly because it meant they could leave work early.
         "The firing squad raised and aimed its rifles. Every man present waited for the moment of sunset. It never came. The sky went dark and filled with stars, but at no point did the sun actually go down. After a night of debate, the mystery was resolved. The vast stomach had created an eclipse, blotting out not only the sunset but much of the western horizon. Then they understood that their prisoner had cheated them, for they would never be able to execute the belly at the moment of sunset, for there was no longer such a time. They would be stuck here for the rest of Oliver's life, waiting in vain, and the barbecues would go cold and the football matches be won or lost, and forgotten, without them.
          "Another solution had to be found. If a condemned man survives or avoids his execution, he probably deserves to be pardoned and released. The same surely applies to bellies. It was decided to pardon this one, together with its contents and weather, for the interior was a cavern vast enough to contain clouds and other atmospheric phenomena. Now the guards could leave it to its own devices. It was as free as any other gorge in the Andes, though entirely different in all but word.
         "The unspoken worry of those who left was that it would now proceed on its voyage into Argentina unopposed, crushing everything in its path. But circumstances conspired against this, because a coup overthrew the legitimate government of Chile and a military dictatorship took over. The boots were recalled from Oliver's plate to serve the feet of the soldiers, and so he went hungry. His stomach retreated of its own accord. Remember that Chile only has a history of relative democracy, and this was one of those times when stupidity and cruelty marched over it, in boots originally collected for supper.
         "When Oliver was slim enough to move again, he stood and walked with his brother out of the restaurant. Both had a terrible stomach ache and awful wind. Soon after, they left Chile. Neither of the Grady Twins ever returned. They settled in a wider land where many people wore slippers instead of boots, far to the east. India it was, I believe. If they attempted such a feast again, it has not been recorded. I imagine that their breath, which smelled of leather, fell foul of some law and that their mouths were caged, which would prevent their stomachs from going anywhere alone. That would certainly be for the best..."
         Pepito halted his absurd story for two reasons. Firstly, the sun had moved the shadow of the orange tree over my feet, and my boots no longer smelled edible. Secondly, he had finished. We sat in the silence of the patio. Then he fell asleep. He has since promised to tell me similar tales about every country in the world. I have locked up my house with heavy chains and tomorrow I plan to leave the village forever. I don't know where I'm going, nor do I care, so long as it's far from him. He's my most inspirational friend.