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."

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