Sunday, 24 August 2014

Fighting Back (2005)

This time travel story was inspired by something said during an online conversation, namely that "a nuclear war could set civilisation back five thousand years". Although the comment was meant metaphorically, I rather enjoy deliberately taking things literally and seeing what can be made of them. Conversely I also enjoy pretending that things meant literally are metaphors. Both are valid comic techniques when it comes to writing absurdist fiction.

There was a tangible air of anticipation and worry in the Star Chamber of the Universal Bank as the Twelve Supreme Presidents took their seats and waited for the proceedings to begin. This special council had been summoned by President #5, Ramon Asquith, whose speciality was financial history. Every time Ramon called a meeting something curious happened. The others were acutely aware of this.
The Star Chamber was not star shaped, nor was the table at which the Presidents sat, but the ceiling was adorned with silver stars, many of them peeling and tarnished. The ceiling was too high to make regular maintenance of these objects worthwhile. Nobody ever looked up anyway. There were more important things to consider. The Presidents were about to be forcefully reminded of this fact.
Ramon Asquith wasted little time. He stood and greeted his comrades with a curt nod. Then he said:
“To outside observers the Universal Bank might appear to be one of the greatest success stories in the history of business. All banks have merged into one gigantic financial house. We are the controllers of that house. And yet we are suffering from a deep malaise. We have expanded as far as possible, covering the entire earth, absorbing all economies. All the money in existence belongs to us.”
The other Presidents began to applaud, but Ramon silenced them with a scowl. “This is not a good thing,” he snapped. “It means there are no more profits to be made anywhere.”
He slammed his fist down on the table. “There is no space left for us to grow. Gentlemen, we are stuck.”
There was an uneasy muttering at these words.
After a suitable pause, Ramon continued with a smile: “My latest research into financial history leads me to conclude there was only one person who might have had a solution to this problem — Jakob Fugger, the greatest banker of all time.”
Livia Turandot, President #2, rubbed her long chin angrily. “That’s all very well, but it’s not much use to us. Fugger died in 1526. We can hardly dig him up for a consultation.”
Ramon did not alter his expression. “Time travel.”
“It hasn’t been developed yet,” objected Vikram Brown, President #9, glancing at his watch for confirmation.
“Exactly!” cried Ramon. “But within a few centuries it will be. Our successors can travel back to the 16th Century and ask Fugger for his advice. Then they can return to their own time and start implementing his suggestions. All we are required to do here is hold tight until time travel is invented.”
“Can we last that long? There are already groups of rebels in every city attempting to sabotage the Universal Bank’s transactions and intimidate or confuse our staff.”
“They are becoming bolder,” agreed President #7, Anzolo Galen.
“Technological progress is inevitable,” said Ramon calmly. “It may even happen that time travel is invented much sooner than we anticipate, perhaps in the next few decades.”
Boris Ageyev, President #11, shook his head. “Nothing is inevitable, I’m afraid. Some of those rebel groups are even trying to build nuclear weapons in private laboratories.”
“The irresponsible little fools!” snorted Livia.
Vikram licked his lips. “A major nuclear war could set civilisation back five thousand years.”
Ramon frowned thoughtfully. “Five thousand years? That’s too far.” His frown remained but his eyes sparkled until they resembled two stars that had fallen from the ceiling and settled onto his face. “A major nuclear war, you said?”

Alice the maid wiped sweat from her brow with a cloth as she waited for the kettle to boil on the fire. Not all her sweat was produced by the heat of the burning logs. Some of it was due to anxiety. The future had suddenly become more uncertain.
She was distracted by a sudden noise from the courtyard. She tried to peer through the kitchen window but it was too grimy with grease and soot to afford any clear view. Somebody was stamping about on the frosty cobbles outside. Then the door was thrown open and a man staggered into the kitchen. Alice stifled a gasp.
He was a leper or the carrier of some other awful disease. His body was almost shapeless and his clothes hung in rags. How had he managed to get into the courtyard past the guards? She recoiled but he clutched her arms and started babbling at her.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m from the future. I don’t expect you to believe that but I don’t have the energy to invent a plausible lie. I’m here on urgent business.”
Alice frowned. He spoke very bad German in a very strange accent. She pulled away from him but he followed her towards the stove, trapping her in a corner. Then he added:
“I’m here to see Jakob Fugger. I don’t have an appointment but when he hears what I have to say I think he’ll forgive the intrusion. You are one of his servants? My name is Ramon Asquith and I have travelled from the year 2110. I know what you’re thinking, nobody can move backwards in time, and in fact we weren’t able to until very recently, recently in my time that is. I had a great idea, you see. It was inspired by something a colleague said, an offhand remark.”
Alice fought to keep calm. “What did he say?”
“It won’t mean much to you, but he said that ‘a major nuclear war could set civilisation back five thousand years’. I realised that I only had to travel back 584 years, so it occurred to me that perhaps a minor nuclear war would do the trick. My organisation arranged a small nuclear conflict with Luxembourg. It set civilisation back exactly five hundred and fifty years. Then I used ordinary explosives, a great deal of the stuff, to travel back another thirty years. But I still had four years to cross. I managed that with a machine gun.”
“I think you are a madman,” said Alice defiantly.
“To set civilisation back smaller and smaller lengths of time, such as months, weeks and days, I had to employ smaller and smaller weapons, for instance pistols, knives and knuckledusters. After making these adjustments I finally arrived at the right moment, the day of Jakob Fugger’s death. I need to ask him a question before he expires. Please take me to him as quickly as possible. I don’t have much time left myself. The radiation poisoning is starting to kill me.”
Alice glared at him triumphantly. “You are too late. My master died exactly one hour ago. I am making tea for the physician who attended him during his last moments.”
Ramon sighed deeply. “In that case I still need to make one final adjustment. My open palm should be enough to set civilisation back one more hour. I’m sorry about this Alice, but I’m going to have to slap you to complete my journey properly.”
While he was speaking, Alice reached for the kettle on the stove and swung it at his head with all her strength. The hot metal cracked against his skull. He collapsed to his knees, boiling water streaming down his bruised, shredded face.
“Just like that,” he gasped as he keeled over. Alice had set him back forever. She wasn’t dismayed in the slightest. Madmen had no right entering the houses of their superiors.

There was a tangible air of depression and weariness in the Star Chamber of the Universal Bank as the other Supreme Presidents squatted on the dirt floor and fanned away the flies. The ceiling was open to the sky and the walls were made of papyrus reeds but it was more pleasant here than outside in the baking sun.
“How were we to know that a minor nuclear war with Luxembourg would escalate into a major nuclear war with all the other countries?” asked Livia Turandot somewhat rhetorically.
“Now civilisation really has been set back five thousand years!” muttered Vikram Brown ruefully.
“4720 years to be precise,” corrected Boris Ageyev.
“We have to start our business again from the beginning!” grumbled Livia. “It hardly seems fair.”
“At least it gives us a sense of purpose,” pointed out Vikram.
“Well I have a really good idea,” said Boris. “Instead of buying goods with other goods, such as exchanging a cow for a sack of corn, why don’t we have a system whereby the goods can be represented by a small token? We could call this system ‘money’ and use pieces of metal called ‘coins’ as the medium of exchange.”
“It’s certainly worth thinking about,” the others agreed.
A man entered the Star Chamber. It was Ollie Natty, President #1, Supreme President of the Supreme Presidents. He was very old and very withered and he squinted in the relative gloom of the building.
“I’ve been sent to fetch you back to work,” he announced gloomily. “Break time is over.”
They followed him out into the bright day. Ahead loomed the rising profile of the pyramid they were building.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Undeniable Grin (2000)

I wrote this brief tale in one session while lying in bed just after completing my first novel. I felt a great deal of relief when my novel was finished, as it had taken an intense six or seven months of constant work, and I wanted to write many short simple pieces as a counterbalance. I rarely write in bed, and these days I hardly ever read in bed either, I don't know why; but possibly The Undeniable Grin is responsible...

It was the first and last time I visited a theatre. I’ve never been a cultured man, because I’m still a boy at heart. If I went to see a play now, it’s certain I would be ejected from the premises for disruptive behaviour. The temptation to cause mischief is too strong, and that’s entirely due to what happened to me in that original audience, when I sat near the back with my girlfriend.
Natasha was seventeen, a year younger than me. She didn’t care for the amusement arcades and rickety rides of the funfair, so I was forced to think of a more sophisticated venue for our introductory date. Uncle Max suggested the local playhouse. A roving company had established itself there for a single evening with a new romantic drama. I hadn’t read any reviews, but it seemed ideal. I was at the age when I believed poetry could soften up any woman.
A big mistake, for the production in question was an experimental piece. I don’t remember the name of the author, but he wasn’t famous. I reckon he was that tall fellow who was flapping around the lobby when we entered. Natasha had her arm linked in mine and I felt very much like a genuine grown-up lover. We were the youngest there, but I don’t think we looked out of place. Uncle Max had lent me his smartest suit in exchange for several of my best comic books.
I bought the tickets with money earned from my Saturday job in the newsagents, and we passed into the auditorium. The usher showed us our seats and luckily our row was as distant from the stage as possible. I didn’t want too many people sitting behind me when I chanced a kiss. We sat down on the squeaky seats and waited for the theatre to fill. The interior was grand but faded, with chipped plaster cherubim clinging to the ceiling and frayed velvet drapes.
The cheap sculptures which occupied every nook and recess in the sidewalls reminded me of the background characters in my comics. They were poor representations of people and animals, hidden by potted plants but obtrusive enough to trouble the eye. When I directed my gaze at the stage, they poked themselves into the corners of my vision. Strange to say, it actually hurt. Tears hatched like eggs under my lids. I decided to save all my sly glances for Natasha.
But something new caught my attention. If you’ve ever wondered who pays for a private box in a crumbling regional theatre, then you’re on your own. I already know. It’s no mystery to me because I saw him enter with his wife. It was Mr Lucas, the newsagent who employed me. He stood for a full minute before taking his seat, which was a real chair rather than a folding contraption like ours, fiddling with the creases on his trousers. Either he was embarrassed or else he hoped to give everyone a reasonable chance to notice him.
An unfortunate incident, as it turned out. It reminded me again of comics. Apart from Natasha, they were my main passion. I liked the ones full of superheroes best. Mr Lucas allowed me to read them fresh off the shelves while I waited to serve customers in his shop. I wasn’t ashamed to be still under their spell. Uncle Max was also an enthusiast and had convinced me they were good fun at any age. Not that I planned to reveal my hobby to Natasha. She was too perfect, with her long tumbling hair, to tolerate such a simple pleasure.
Anyway, I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind and prepared for the beginning of the play. The audience wasn’t vast but adequate for this place at that time. We settled as the lights dimmed. Somewhere, in the bowels of the building, there must have been a man whose task was to dim. I took that responsibility later, in respect of Natasha’s view of me. But her love, if there was any, went out abruptly, and this swelling gloom was gradual and less alarming.
The ragged curtains parted to mild applause. No scenery, no props. A man on a bare stage. Frankly I felt let down. Just a single character, muttering. This was supposed to be daring theatre, a minimalist romance, but it came over as mean. I was constantly expecting other actors to run on, to liven up the drudge. But they didn’t. A monotone speech and jerky postures. A glut of meaningful pauses.
I began to sweat. Was I really going to have to sit through another three hours of this? The very concept was appalling. Then the spotlights died, one at a time. I assume the author wanted to manipulate atmosphere directly, as well as through the words of his character. But the process didn’t work for me. Soon the entire stage was black except for the man, wrapped in his unearned halo. Then his feet disappeared and the darkness crawled up his legs to his knees.
The beam of the remaining spotlight was being narrowed to achieve an unspecified psychological effect. The man was talking about love, but in an unbearably cryptic fashion. I’m sure he made important points, but I don’t know what. Ask the author yourself, if you can find him. Now all that was left of the character was his mouth. Two pink lips and a set of bright teeth, hovering in the void.
This seemed to be an echo of many of my favourite superheroes. They tended to wear sealed costumes and masks that covered their faces apart from the mouth. They had names like Antman, The Phantom Joker, Dr Squid, Captain Superb, The Green Clown, The Red Herring, The Excessive Clump, Buttertalons, The Dull Gleam, Nadir the Octaroon. They were all loners, individualists, mavericks. Generally, but not always, they fought on the side of good. They never recommended their tailors.
I was falling into a trap set by boredom. I willed myself to ponder on something, anything else. I had recourse to a last desperate measure. I turned in my seat without warning and kissed Natasha on the lips. She slapped me. A loud slap. In the almost total darkness it wasn’t obvious to our neighbours what she had done. They would have worked it out, of course, but I couldn’t bear the dishonour. Call it reflex or immaturity, but I smothered the truth with a shout:
“The Undeniable Grin has struck his enemy!”
There was a selection of giggles, then someone added: “He must have very long arms to reach you from there!”
I nodded, although the gesture was lost in the murk. “They are made of elastic and can stretch halfway around the world!”
To my astonishment, nobody objected to this absurdity. Not a single complaint reached my ears. Instead, the audience supported me. There was a squeal and a sudden cry of rage:
“The Undeniable Grin has pinched my thigh!”
A voice asked: “Why? What did you do to him?”
The actor on stage fell silent. Maybe he had forgotten his lines in the excitement, or perhaps he was simply waiting for us to finish before returning to his monologue. He fell silent, yes, but he kept grinning, a wide floating smile in the dusk, and this was his fatal error. It seemed an admission of guilt. In our minds now, he was this farcical superhero, this implausible mutant, and for an unknown reason he was opposed to us, radiating harm from his hub of power.
The pause was brief. Invisible and nonexistent arms snaked out from the stage and violated us. We screamed.
“The Undeniable Grin has poked me in the eye!”
“The rascal has stolen my wallet!”
“He groped my wife without permission!”
“The bugger has filled my mouth with obscenities!”
“He’s forcing me to have unnatural thoughts!”
“About me, probably! And stop tickling me there!”
“It’s not me. It’s The Undeniable Grin!”
“He persuaded me yesterday to declare myself bankrupt!”
“He made me gamble away my salary on the horses!”
“Everything I’ve ever done wrong in my life was really the fault of The Undeniable Grin!”
“That’s true for all of us!”
And so on and so forth. I can’t imagine where all this nonsense was leading to. Perhaps it would have ended in a party. But it went beyond a joke before the management could react properly. There was a loud thud, the tipping of a heavy object out of a soft one and over a low edge into a vertical distance that ended on a hard tiled floor. One of the tiles cracked. When the house lights came on all at once, we were no wiser. It took long minutes for our eyes to adjust to the glare, but when they did we saw how simple the answers were.
The low edge was the wall of the private box, the soft object was a chair and the heavy one was Mr Lucas. His wife was standing and looking down at his broken body. Her hand was held to her mouth and she tried to appear shocked as she groaned:
“The Undeniable Grin has murdered my boring husband!”
All eyes turned to the stage, blinking guiltily as they accused. The poor actor was a man after all. He must have changed back. Having had so many amazing feats attributed to him, it seemed unlikely he was capable of trumping any of them. But he did. As his body came back into sharp focus, his grin utterly vanished.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Blue Dwarf (1995)

This tale appeared in my collection, The Smell of Telescopes, together with its three sequels, all of which combine to form a story sequence called 'The Monmouth Wheel'. It was one of those stories I began writing without having any clue as to what would happen until I got to the end. When I compose fiction I usually have at least a vague idea of a potential conclusion, but not always; and on those occasions when I don't I feel I am reading the story at the same time I am writing it.

“All I require” the blue dwarf cried, as he placed his hand on my knee, “are your trousers and your soul.”
“Oh, little man,” said I, “this is a foolish request! They are both too large for you. They would flap in the wind and set up a commotion. Who would want to be your friend then? You would have to shout above the noise: ‘Blueberry pie at my house.’ Even so, no-one would come to visit. You would have to sit alone, absurdly attired.
“But let me tell you of the time I bartered both. The world was a younger place then; we did not value so highly such things as trousers and souls. The former were objects merely to be worn; the latter were baubles brought out over dinner to amuse guests. Neither had pride of place in the wardrobe, as they do now.”
“I do not wish to hear this,” replied the blue dwarf, and he turned to go. But I soon had him by the scruff and he was forced to amend his statement: “Perhaps I will listen after all.”
“Very good,” I agreed. “It is possible you will learn a truth here, though I doubt it. The amoral fable suits my tongue rather better than the moral kind. Attend then, unclouded fellow.
“The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Gwent, by the borders of the river Severn. And there is no quiet there, nor silence. The waters have a saffron and sickly hue; and they do a fair bit of palpitating beneath the red eye of the sun...”
The blue dwarf sighed: “Bugger!”

Actually, I exchanged my trousers for a clock and a carrot, and lost my soul as I was doing so. Do you know Monmouth?
The market there is notorious for pickpockets; I knew this before I set out, yet took no precautions. I was intent on driving a hard bargain for my trousers. The imps who run the stalls are good at offering low prices for items that come their way. They can talk the meanest miser into parting with his silver for a length of old rope. It is essential to be on your guard at all times.
Nor are they too particular about where their goods come from. I suspect the clock I received fell off the back of a steeple, and the carrot had been uprooted from an allotment. But I was desperate; and the imps and their customers are protected by the market-overt law. This states that goods sold at such markets, whether stolen or not, cannot be returned to the original owner (with the clock came an irate pastor).
Anyway, after I had spent an hour or so talking one stall-owner into giving me the clock and carrot, and had divested myself of my baggy britches, I made my way back to my house. Halfway home, I realised my soul was missing. Nimble fingers had filched it. Doubtless it could now be found on a soul stall. But I had nothing on me with which to barter it back. I decided it would keep until the following morning, when I would return with an umbrella and a parrot.
In my kitchen, I made a thin soup with the carrot and set the clock above my hearth (the pastor grumbled about the fire and claimed it was singeing his heels.) At last there was a knock on the door and Myfanwy stood on the threshold. I invited her in, showed her the clock, poured the soup and gazed into her large brown eyes. The combination of broth and timepiece so impressed her she consented to marry me at once — the effect I had been aiming for. “Hurrah!” cried I.
We finished the meal and listened to the clock striking the hour. She suggested we go out for a walk. I declined, of course — I had no trousers. I made some excuse about wishing to stay at the table to hear the clock strike another hour. She thought this an excellent idea and suggested we pass the time by playing dice with our souls. Again I made my excuses; I told her my soul had caught a cold and had to be kept inside. She saw through this deception at once.
“And to think I nearly kissed a man without a soul!” she growled. She stood up to leave and I rushed to restrain her. She glanced down at my bare legs. “What’s more, without trousers too!” she added. It was all I could do not to fall on the floor and burst into tears. I fell into an easy chair and burst into tears instead.
Myfanwy had left me, and my efforts at seducing her with pendulum and root vegetable had come to nothing. She was the greatest baker of blueberry pie in the region and men of all kinds came flocking to her oven; she could afford to be choosy. She had picked off the crust of my amorous overtures to expose the lack of filling beneath. I had lost her for good. Let this be a lesson to all young lovers, especially in these days, when inflation and curry has pushed up the price of both trousers and souls. Wear the former and ‘ware the latter.
The following morning, I took my umbrella and parrot to the market in an effort to retrieve my soul. But it had been sold. I was much put out by this. The imp who owned the stall offered to do me a very nice soul in maroon-and-black, but there is nothing quite like having your own soul; it fits you like a favourite overcoat, or like an idea in a single word. The imp would not reveal to whom he had sold it. I decided to cut my losses and buy back my trousers.
Incredibly, my trousers had also been purchased. I was so stupefied that I relaxed my guard and ended up exchanging my umbrella and parrot for a pair of tinted spectacles. I wore the spectacles — they turned everything as blue as my funk — as a reminder to myself never to be so foolish again. Indeed, I have never taken them off.
I sat on the side of Monnow bridge (if you do not know Monmouth, this is quite close to Agincourt Square, behind the giant waterwheel) and dangled my legs above the fetid river. As I was grumbling there to myself, Owain ap Iorwerth came up to me. “What’s the matter, Gruffydd?” he chortled, pleased to find me in a state of despair. I told him. “Oh well!” he grinned and slapped me on the back. I think he meant for me to fall into the ravine, but I merely coughed loose a tooth.
Owain ap Iorwerth, you see, was my greatest rival for the hand of fair Myfanwy. I made my way home and, too depressed even to finish off the soup I had so lovingly prepared the day before, took to my bed. I was startled by a knock on the door. When I opened it, I was overjoyed to find Myfanwy there, holding my trousers and soul.
It seemed I had misjudged her. She loved me, to be sure, and after storming out of my house had made her way to the market. There she had searched for the items and bought them for me. My clock and carrot, she quickly confessed, were so utterly remarkable, both as singular objects and also as a sum greater than the parts, that she had seen the error of her ways. She begged my forgiveness.
Naturally, I told her it was I who needed to apologise. After some thought she agreed; I did so and we fell into each other’s arms. But, unfortunately, this is the real world; life is a sour cream poured on stones. It soon became apparent she had sold her own trousers and soul to purchase mine. A hatstand and three harpoons had been thrown in.
I was in a quandary. How could I marry a woman without trousers or soul? Neighbours would gossip; I should be ashamed to show myself in public. I did not mention this to her, of course; I am a sensitive sort of man. The sort of man who does not despise pink socks because of their colour, but because of their hue.
In the days that followed, I did my best to act as if nothing was amiss. But her blueberry pie lost its flavour, and her lithe limbs lost their ability to slide against mine without friction. More to the point, when we went out with each other, people stared at us. They suspected she was lacking trousers and a soul; you could see it in their eyebrows, which jumped alarmingly whenever we approached. Some even made jokes in our presence. “That’s the spirit!” they would cry, or, “What a turn up for the books!” Pedestrians can be very cruel.
Owain ap Iorwerth noticed as well, because one day she left me for him. He had done the noble thing, buying back her trousers and soul and returning them to her. This showed me up as a thoughtless lover. The irony was that he bartered his own soul and trousers to obtain hers. I gritted my teeth and, in order to impress Myfanwy with my sacrifice, re-exchanged my trousers and soul for Owain’s. This had the desired effect, but only for a while.
The long and the inside leg of it is that all three of us ended up exchanging and re-exchanging our trousers and souls a great many times. It was a ludicrous and vain episode of my life. Eventually, after a year of this fabric-and-phantom farce, the trousers and souls were jumbled up and we did not know which was which. It is an unbearable sensation, not knowing if your trousers and your soul are the ones you were born with, and we all rushed off in opposite directions, taking up residence in the three corners of the scalene world.
Before I left Monmouth, I made sure I took a blueberry pie with me, to remember Myfanwy by. And it still remains uneaten in my pocket. The day I meet her again will be the day I take a bite; the day I encounter Owain ap Iorwerth will be the day I beat him to death with it. It is tasty and solid enough for either eventuality.

“And that tale is absolutely true,” I told the blue dwarf, “which is why you shall never succeed in removing my trousers or my soul. I suggest you run along and torment someone your own size. I spy a woodlouse down there; it has a waist more your size.”
“You fool!” The blue dwarf wriggled out of my grasp. I saw now he was not really a dwarf; he was standing on his knees. When he arose, he was almost my own height. He pulled off his wig and his coat and stood there before me with a wide blue grin.
“Myfanwy!” cried I.
“Yes, you fool!” she returned. She reached into her pocket and took out a blueberry pie. “At last we meet again! I have been searching for so many years. Our trousers and souls were indeed jumbled; you have mine and I have yours. That is why I asked you to remove them. Now we can be married and live in near bliss for months!”
I shook my head. “A disguise, eh? I suspected this all along.” I pulled off my own wig and removed my own coat. “I am not Gruffydd after all; I am Owain ap Iorwerth. And I have come to take you away with me, to claim your love and your baking talents!”
Myfanwy threw back her head and laughed. “Exactly as I planned! You have fallen into my trap!” She removed her new wig and took off her new coat and it was Gruffydd himself who now glared at me. He shifted the blueberry pie in his hand and prepared to lunge. “At last I shall be avenged! I have waited long ages for this.”
“Ha!” I screamed. I followed his example; I pulled off my new wig and discarded my new coat. And then I jumped off my stilts and snatched the blueberry pie from his trembling fingers. “A blue dwarf!” he cried. “What is the meaning of this?”
I reached forward and pulled the tinted spectacles from his nose. At once he understood. He bellowed: “You are not a blue dwarf at all. You are a yellow imp!” I nodded and raced back to the market.
The bottom has dropped out of the trouser market; there is no longer life in souls. Blueberry pie is the new thing. Sometimes we resort to devious tactics to get it.