Thursday, 28 April 2016

There's a Woman with a Cactus Instead of a Head (1994)

After it had been written, I remember submitting this story to various magazines without success. Every editor claimed to like it but deemed it too weird. It eventually appeared in my limited edition chapbook The Skeleton of Contention. Since then it has only appeared in certain ebooks, such as THE MILLION WORD STORYBOOK. I hope to include it in a future print book.

There’s a woman with a cactus instead of a head. She has no children. She must be barren. Every morning I climb onto the bus and take the seat just behind her. I am forced to stare at the back of her head — her cactus, rather — and this annoys me. I am needled by it. I would like to curl my fingers into a fist and strike out at that woman. But I will do nothing of the kind. I would be pricked by more than just my conscience. My knuckles would sprout spines.
So I sit there and stare and dream of tequila and tortillas and sweat trickles down my brow. It is always too hot on the bus. Great clouds of steam drift down the aisle. It is difficult to perceive why anyone should want to catch such a bus and sometimes my own actions mystify me. But then I remember why I must catch this bus: it is because I must travel to work every morning. And why do I work? It is because I need money for the bus-fare.
My life is mundane and sour; this is true. But the bus-driver has a much harder time of it than I. Unlike his other passengers, he travels to work every day but never arrives. And then the following day he has another attempt. But all his attempts are as futile as each other. I have never seen his face. It is always bathed in steam. Truly this bus is more like a sauna than a bus; and there are too many windows. But pedestrians rarely peer in. So it does not really matter. Nothing matters.
When the bus arrives at my destination, I jump off with a sigh of relief and make my way to my place of work. To be honest, my place of work looks no different from any other place on the bus-route. The same old houses, crowded like starving toads around a lame bluebottle, with the same crumbling chimneys and the same coughing fits of dense black smoke. Even the people are the same: flat caps squashed down on heads as lumpy as a mug of mushy peas; curlers in blue-grey hair; whippets on strings, trailing behind in the air like kites; kitchen-sink dramatists and noir poets, pacing naturalist paving-slabs in a socio-realist manner, hand-rolled cigarettes cupped in grimy hands, with a left-wing nod at all.
The factory where I toil is a large, hollow rusty building, completely deserted save for a few pigeons and a three-legged dog who lives up in the foreman’s office and howls to be let out. How he came to be locked in the foreman’s office is a mystery to me. I can only guess that he fell through the ceiling while pacing the corroded roof in search of cats or the bones of long-dead roofers whose ladders collapsed behind them in the distant past. Possibly he fell out of an aeroplane or was fired from a cannon in some banned circus or other. Perhaps he was generated spontaneously from the piles of rotting reports and chits in the filing-cabinet. Almost certainly he sustains himself on chocolate bars from the automatic vending-machine, which dispenses one bar a day and has enough in reserve to last at least another decade.
In general appearance, the factory is identical to the one near my own house, which is also deserted. I wonder why I have to travel across half a city to work in this factory, when I might as easily stroll down to the one at the bottom of my road. But then again, I am not paid to be curious. I am paid to make chain. Note that I studiously avoid the plural here. I do not make chains, I make chain; a single continuous length that I have been adding to these past thirty years. This chain passes through a small hole in the wall and out into the grey day. Link by link, with my little hammer, I am binding the world.
Where the chain goes to is anyone’s guess. It stretches far away over the horizon; another cord to fool travellers who seek to escape this labyrinth called life. I once took the notion into my head to follow it, but I was perceptive enough to restrain myself. Wherever it leads to will be a place no different to the one from whence it came. A pointless quest. The maze has no real beginning and no real end. There are only the occasional picnic-areas to give the illusion of rest. I would rather hedge my bets. I will stay where I am and make chain.
Funnily enough, I am never at a loss for materials to make this chain. Through a hole in the opposite wall, a length of redundant chain trails into the factory. This chain stretches over the other horizon. I reel this chain in and remove the links and then add these links to the new chain. When I tug at the old chain, the new chain moves out into the world. This is a phenomenon I have yet to question. Indeed I will not question it. At lunchtime I sit and gnaw at my sandwiches. Every day my sandwiches are the same: anchovy and egg. I loathe anchovy and egg. Every day I make the same vow: if today’s sandwiches are anchovy and egg I will kill myself. This, I believe, will teach my wife a lesson. When I prise open the lid of my sandwich-box and spy the inevitable, I sigh and climb a nearby gantry. I am fully prepared to hurl myself into the rusty void below. But then I remember that it is I who make my sandwiches.
My wife, who does not speak to me, has never made anything for me in all the years of our marriage. And I have never made anything for her. We have what you might call a modern relationship. The reason that my wife does not speak to me is because she does not know how. She is an immigrant whose country of origin I have as yet been unable to ascertain. Her language is comprised entirely of the use of violent gestures and impulsive actions. Despite many hours spent at the local lending library I have not yet found a phrasebook that will enable me to communicate with her. Sometimes when I lie on the bed and watch her climbing the walls and ceiling, I wonder whether we are really right for each other. But she has nice legs.
I once contemplated having an affair with the woman who hands out my pay-packet every Friday. I have never actually seen this woman, but I know that she must exist. Otherwise who is it that leaves my pay-packet on my desk? Admittedly I never touch the thing; I have just enough money left in the bank to keep me going. My needs are simple. No, I leave the pay-packet where it is, in the hope that this woman will seek me out and demand to know why I have not picked it up. But she never does. It does not seem to concern her very much. Nonetheless, a new one is waiting for me every Friday, so she must worry about me to some extent at least. She is so considerate in this respect that she even tries to make the new pay-packet look identical to the old one, right down to the grimy thumbprint on one corner.
Something happened three decades ago, when I took that summer holiday in Luton. I cannot put my finger on what exactly, but I know that before that holiday I seemed to be happier. I had friends, colleagues, hobbies. When I returned, everything seemed subtly different. My house had shrunk to the size of a shed and was full of spades and other rusting garden tools. Also work had became a lonely place; completely deserted save for me, the pigeons and the three-legged dog. Even the journey to work had altered in some almost imperceptible way. Instead of boisterous workers and clamouring children, the bus seemed full of women with the heads of exotic plants. And suddenly I discovered that I had a wife.
I do not dwell on these matters too closely. I know my station in life. It is one of those small rural stops without so much as a waiting-room or a place to buy a cup of tea. But I am content. I work hard, eat a frugal tea of lettuce — there seems to be a great deal of wild lettuce in the vicinity of my house — and listen to the news on my portable radio. Sometimes a thought creeps into my head totally unlike any other that I have ever had. It whispers that my whole life has been founded on a mistake, a misunderstanding that occurred shortly after I returned from that fateful vacation.
That first morning back — always a disorienting experience — I had somehow forgotten the way to the nearest bus-stop. So I asked a passerby for directions. He smiled back at me and said: “Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left!” I duly thanked him for this and set off. He must have been a very friendly man indeed, for as I walked away I could hear him laughing merrily behind me, obviously pleased that he had been able to assist another human being. I found the bus waiting for me, boarded it and sat down. And that was the very first time that I saw the woman with the cactus instead of a head.
But what if he had given me the wrong directions? This is the thought that occasionally troubles me. What if he had misheard me and had directed me not to the bus-stop but to the local greenhouse? This would explain why the bus is usually bathed in steam. I know that it is an absurd idea, but at least it proves that I have a vivid imagination. I wish there was someone I could share the joke with. My wife is always too busy spinning webs or eating flies. No matter. I will savour the jest alone. I will retire to bed and dream of tequila and tortillas. I will turn the thought over in my mind more slowly. It is too far-fetched to be worthy of serious consideration, but it continues to obsess me. At the very least, it would also explain why the real greenhouse is always full of shopping-bags and gossiping old ladies.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Degrees of Separation (2006)

This is another Borges-influenced story, very brief and another attempt at writing a tale in which the geometric shape of the plot absolutely determines the content. The shape is a loop but more than that, for the dimensions of the loop are reduced to zero through a series of consequences that contract the whole as they increase in number. As I have said many times before, I am an avid devotee of paradoxes. It appeared in my collection Bone Idle in the Charnel House, published by Hippocampus Press.

When the cigarette and glass of whisky were finished, all that was left was the knife. Clute turned it slowly in his hands as he sat in front of the mirror. Then he studied his reflection carefully. The face of a man planning revenge stared back at him. It was no different from the other faces he pulled on any random day.
He wanted to kill Bradman because of what Bradman had done. But to use this knife against that vague and terrible enemy would not be easy. Bradman was difficult to reach, living in a mansion protected by a high wall, guarded by huge dogs. Clute read the newspapers. Bradman had even posted armed guards on his grounds.
If Clute made a direct attempt on the life of Bradman he certainly would fail. He had no accomplices, no influence, no money or power. His vengeance would amount to nothing tangible. He had to seek some lateral method of scoring a strike against his adversary. Bradman’s family were no less secure than he. What next?
There was Frost, Bradman’s closest friend since childhood. Unlike Bradman, Frost travelled without bodyguards and lived in a house with a low wall and only one dog. But Frost was popular and rarely seen alone. How might Clute get close enough for the plunge? Again he probably would fail, his blade remaining thirsty.
Frost often went to the theatre to watch Cosimo perform. Cosimo was an accomplished singer and actor who was intimate with Frost but hardly aware of the existence of the less cultured Bradman. Ending the life of Cosimo would cause a deep wound in Frost, and if Frost was hurt, Bradman would also feel a measure of pain.
This was the answer! Clute reached for the newspaper on an adjacent table and flicked the pages until he found an advertisement for Cosimo’s latest play. The show began at nine the same evening. If Clute turned up early, he might be able to slip backstage and murderously encounter the actor in his own dressing room.
No, it was unlikely he would get past the doormen. They would grow suspicious and perform a search on him. The knife would be uncovered and the police summoned. Then opportunity for revenge against Bradman would become even less likely. Better to forget Cosimo. Clute remembered that Cosimo was connected to Kingsley.
Clute had read about it in the papers. The two men frequently went to restaurants together. In fact Kingsley taught Cosimo everything there was to know about fine wine and good food. All Clute had to do was book a table in the same place as Kingsley at the same time. Halfway through the meal, the deed could be done.
But what if Clute failed to kill Kingsley outright? Stabbing is not always effective. In a public place such as a restaurant, his time would be limited. If Kingsley recovered from his injuries, Cosimo would not be racked by grief, and so Frost could not be damaged in any way, and thus Bradman would not suffer at all.
Running the fleshy part of his thumb gently along the serrated edge of the blade and smiling slightly, Clute silently listed the restaurants frequented by Kingsley in order of excellence. The best was run by a man called Whitlam. A hole cut in Whitlam’s chest would be no less a hole in Kingsley’s life, an irreparable hole.
Yes, he would seek out Whitlam, perhaps in one of his kitchens, or better still during one of his frequent trips to the market to buy fresh produce. The glint of steel among the vegetables, the crash of trays of fish preserved in ice, and the chain reaction of vengeance would be set in motion, all the way to Bradman.
The problem with tackling Whitlam was that the man was an expert in the use of blades and always wore a knife or cleaver at his belt, even when shopping in public. Whitlam surely knew how to defend himself and strike back. Clute would be the one left dying among the tomatoes, his life blood a sauce on the cobbles.
Whitlam had once taught cooking at the local college. He had taught Malevich for a year and even announced Malevich as his star pupil. After Malevich abandoned the culinary arts and went into finance, Whitlam did not fail to keep in touch with his protege. Malevich was perfect for any sudden death, slow moving, trusting.
The big advantage of killing Malevich was that Clute knew him very well. In fact they were close friends. It would be simplicity itself to invite him back to this room on some pretext and then commit an act of righteous violence on the fat dupe. Clute nodded once. He picked up the telephone and dialled his number.
Malevich agreed to come within the hour. Clute simply told him that something important needed to transpire between them. He mentioned few details, only that it had something to do with Bradman, a person almost unknown to Malevich. Clute chuckled. He imagined the expressions on the sequence of faces, the transmitted pain.
Shortly before Malevich arrived, Clute suddenly remembered that new neighbours had moved into the apartment directly below him. They were a bothersome couple, extremely sensitive to the slightest noise. Malevich was a bear of a man. He would knock loudly on Clute’s door, roar out his greeting, stamp across the floorboards.
Long before Clute could force his knife into Malevich’s heart, the neighbours would be hurrying up the stairs to complain. There simply was too little time for the operation to be performed efficiently. Scowling, Clute abandoned his plan. His need for revenge must remain unsatisfied. Bradman had escaped without a scratch!
Or had he? Clute pursed his lips. Malevich had a friend that Clute could certainly assault. This friend would not even struggle or make an appreciable vocal fuss. He was the perfect victim! Bradman might shelter behind walls, dogs and bodyguards but here was a chink in his armour, a chink that soon would spurt crimson juice.
Clute almost felt pity for the poor defenceless Bradman as he moved quietly across his room to unlatch the door. Now Malevich would not have to knock before confronting the balancing scene of carnage. Returning to his chair and the wise mirror, Clute raised the knife and savagely drew it across his own unforgiven throat.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Gunfight (2009)

This story was inspired by the ultra-brief tales of Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) which I was devouring at the time. Writers are always influenced by the authors they choose to read, but this influence is often subtle. Kharms' influence on me was forceful. His absurdist fables, violent, peculiar and funny, were supreme acts of aesthetic and political resistance against the totalitarianism of the era and place he lived in. Not having to face the difficulties and dangers he did, my own 'Kharmsic' style is perhaps less urgent and crisp than his, but nonetheless we can all acquire counter-intuitive insights from his methods. This following tale was published in my collection THE JUST NOT SO STORIES.

“The English are coming,” said Hopkins.
“Following us, they are,” confirmed Jones. He frowned and tapped his commander on the shoulder. “I thought you said we won the battle?”
“So I did,” responded Williams, “and so we have.”
“Then why are the English chasing us?”
Bullets zinged into the undergrowth on all sides. The moonlight streamed through holes in perforated leaves. The spores of shredded mushrooms floated.
“And firing at us!” squeaked the other Jones.
“Because we didn’t win the battle in the right way. Instead of winning it in the style of a victory, we won it in the style of a defeat,” explained Williams. “That’s why.”
“Daft, that is,” commented Hopkins.
The first Jones said, “If that’s the way it is, we’re done for. Here’s a bloody ravine with no way across.”
“Doomed, we are,” agreed Hopkins.
“Not at all, boyo. Look here!” cried Price.
“An abandoned cottage is what that seems to be,” said Williams, “and maybe we can knock on the door to see if anyone’s at home?”
“What fool would live in an abandoned cottage,” wondered the first Jones, “on the edge of a ravine?”
More bullets pinged around his head, striking sparks from the stone wall. He was about to speak again but Hopkins interrupted him:
“Maybe we can live there? At least until the English go away. What do you think about that?”
“Perfect place for a redoubt,” said Thomas.
“What’s a redoubt?” asked Price.
“Something that is doubted more than once,” ventured the other Jones, but Williams clucked his tongue and shook his head.
“Don’t be daft. A redoubt is a kind of stronghold or sanctuary.”
“That’s clever,” commented Thomas.
Bullets continued to whiz. Williams tried the front door and realised it was locked, but Hopkins noticed that a window was open. “Someone help me and I’ll climb through,” he said.
“That’s smart,” said the first Jones.
Hopkins stood on Price and clambered inside. “Dark in here. Come and join me. Hurry up!” he hissed. Williams sighed and said:
“Don’t be daft. Pull us through. Give me your hand.”
One at a time they were drawn into the interior of the deserted cottage. Williams groped with outstretched hands but the room was bare. Then he remembered his electric torch and turned it on. There were no furnishings of any sort but a broken lightbulb dangled from a cord in the middle of the ceiling.
Williams rummaged in the pocket of his jacket for a spare bootlace and used it to suspend his torch from the lightbulb cord. He had to ask for a volunteer to crouch down on all fours so he could stand on his back and reach. It was Thomas who finally agreed to do this. As Williams jumped down he said:
“A fine bloody pickle we’re in! We can’t retreat any further and if we make our last stand here, a few grenades chucked through the window will finish us all off. We’ve only gained a few minutes of safety, so we must counterattack!”
“Why don’t we just surrender?” asked the first Jones.
In the cone of dim light Williams displayed an ugly grin. “Don’t take prisoners, the English. Heard all about it from my dad. He told me what they were like. No quarter is what we can expect from them. Blot us out, they will! We have to go back out and take the fight to them. But we’ll prepare ourselves properly. Make ourselves immune to their bullets. I know a way of doing that!”
“Is it a magic dance?” asked Price.
“Daft, that is,” commented Thomas, but Williams spoke over him:
“Not a dance, no, because there's no such thing as magic. Science is the only way to make things work. My uncle went to college to learn medicine, he did, and he brought back lots of those oblong things called books. I remember them well. I was only a child but I knew how to read because my mam taught me. Uncle Dewi let me read his college books and I learned secrets from them. Such secrets!
“That’s lucky,” said Hopkins.
Williams nodded. “One of the secrets I learned was called vaccination. Sounds like a magic word but it’s not, it’s a scientific word. It means curing a disease in advance by being infected with a weaker version of that disease. The body fights the weaker version and beats it and in the process develops the ability to take on and defeat the bigger disease. We can vaccinate ourselves against the English, see?”
“How will we do that?” blinked the second Jones.
Williams smiled faintly. “Listen carefully and tell me what kind of ammunition the English are using.”
The bullets continued to hiss and clang outside.
“I think it’s .45 calibre,” said Price.
“That’s correct. Fired from semi-automatic pistols. And now tell me what kind of cartridge we use in our own guns,” continued Williams.
“The size is .22, isn’t it?” answered Hopkins.
Williams nodded and reached for his holster. With a deft motion he drew out his pistol and waved it in front of his men. “The English have got the bigger ones. So we can vaccinate ourselves against them, but how can they vaccinate themselves against us? They would be daft to try. One shot of this for all of us and we’ll become immune to their bullets. Then we can go out and kill the lot of them. Easy when you know how…”
“That’s logical,” said Thomas without any conviction.
“Come on, form a queue. Not a request but an order. Want to beat them properly, don’t we? You first, Jones.”
“Not me!” cried the first Jones but Williams shot him anyway.
“Daft!” objected Hopkins but he also got a bullet in the face. So did Price, Thomas and the other Jones. Williams licked his lips. His men sprawled on the floor in ungainly postures. Blood trickled.
“A bit sore, I suppose,” he said sympathetically.
He waited a whole minute, then he frowned. “Come on, get up. We have to go out and face the English. No need to be scared, you’re immune now. What’s the matter? Having a rest first, are you? Fine, but don’t make it too long. Be here soon, the English will.”
His men still didn’t stir. Their eyes held a glazed look.
Williams sighed. “I’m going to vaccinate myself now and the moment I’ve had my shot, the time for resting is over. Serious, I am. You must be ready to leave when I’m done. Supposed to be fighting the English, we are. The bloody English. Do you hear me?”
He jammed the barrel into his open mouth and pulled the trigger. He fell down. His own blood poured out of his head and joined the spreading puddle on the floor. It might have been nice if that puddle had formed a significant Welsh shape, a red dragon perhaps, or a daffodil, or even a fully-grown leek, but it didn’t.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Cats’ Eyes (2012)

The very short story, commonly called a 'flash fiction', is one of the most enjoyable kinds to write. The challenge of creating a coherent narrative with an extremely limited number of words is amply rewarded by the opportunity to try out ideas, styles and approaches that may work better on a small scale than in a longer work. This tale just appeared in my head one day and I quickly wrote it down on a scrap of paper while sitting in a garden. It appears in More Than a Feline along with other cat-themed stories and poems.

We were on the right road. The presence of cats’ eyes told us that nothing had gone amiss, that no errors of navigation had been made. In the darkness of a remote rural region during a moonless night it was a comfort to know that this line of glass studs would reflect our headlights and be a most reliable guide to our ultimate destination.
     But something went wrong anyway. It was hard to explain why this should be so and I suspect I would decline the opportunity to know the reasons even if they were available. We must have taken an unintentional turning somewhere along our route. I said, “The cats’ eyes have gone,” and she nodded in the gloom and answered, “Dogs’ ears.”
     It was true. This new road clearly had different rules to the old. The reflective glass studs had been replaced by flexible triangles that echoed every sound our vehicle made, including the conversations we held inside it, and threw the audio signals back at us, horribly amplified. “Turn off at the next junction,” I advised and she did so.
     But this new road was even stranger and more disturbing and certainly of less practical use. Lips puckered at us and we tasted afresh the meals we had lately eaten. “Weasels’ mouths,” she said, her frown so deep that it changed the outline of her face in profile when I glanced at her. We found another road and became more than hopelessly lost.
     My nostrils were flooded with the bittersweet aromas of nostalgia, the pangs like vanilla, the regrets a new kind of smelling salts. “Aardvarks’ noses! Who builds these roads?” I muttered. Every muscle in my body was tense. She maintained a steady speed but we both knew that morning would never appear in time. We took another detour.
     This road was the most harrowing of all. Have you ever driven along a narrow country lane festooned with lemurs’ fingers? It is a tricky and ticklish challenge. We laugh in despair while the men who invent these things sit alone in uncarpeted mansions, a dead television in every room, counting and recounting their own senses.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Putting Things Off (2011)

This story forms one of a series featuring the character Thornton Excelsior. Most of the tales that comprise his complete adventures appear in the book THE LUNAR TICKLE. Thornton is not a traditional fictive character, and his stories are not bound by empirical logic but by the logic of wordplay and ideas-association. In fact it is better to say that there are many Thornton Excelsiors and they all have their own different paths in the multiverse. What follows is what happens to just one of his avatars, an avatar that comes to learn it is not really a single individual even in its own cosmos.

Suddenly, with one mighty bound, it was a dark and stormy night! Hold on a moment… How did that sentence end up in this story? I always pick clichés out of a text before I publish it with a special fork designed for the task. This one in fact: Ψ. Any isolated cliché that resists forking can be destroyed by reversing its polarity; but that’s easier said than done. More often than not, attempting to reverse the polarity of a cliché is like trying to get magma out of a heart…
Thornton Excelsior finally stabbed himself in the back once too often. Not with a fork but metaphorically. He has absolutely no loyalty to his future self, feels no empathy at all for the Thornton of tomorrow, his chronological successor, in the same way that his previous self, the Thornton of yesterday had no loyalty to the Thornton of today. He regards his future self as a being completely separate from himself, as little more than an unlovable neighbour.
This doesn’t mean that he ever bears him malice: he simply has no particular interest in that fellow’s welfare. “I don’t care about the man I’ll be tomorrow,” he would say, “and why should I? Does he care about me? Of course not!” And so he lived in a manner that might be regarded as reckless or irresponsible but which in truth was perfectly consistent with reason and logic. For we aren’t the same person tomorrow as we are today: this is real philosophy.
Everything about us that makes us what we are is mutable and transient. Our atoms, memories, location in spacetime: all are subject to constant change. Thornton Excelsior was no exception. But he acted in accordance with this insight, rather than simply acknowledging it as an intellectual fact that had nothing to do with his daily routine. Whenever he considered his situation in the world he realised it was the fault of a stranger, an unfriendly individual.
And that individual was his previous self, the Thornton of yesterday, who had unloaded onto him, the innocent Thornton of today, all the worries and responsibilities that he should have dealt with himself. Why should the Thornton of the present accept this burden? It was nothing to do with him. And so he too would pass it on: to the fellow in the following day who shared his name and identity but wasn’t really him, the Thornton of tomorrow, an unsuspecting fool.
In this manner, Thornton kept putting things off.
Unpaid bills, awkward confrontations, relationship problems: they were passed onto him from someone else, his earlier self, even though he never asked for them and didn’t want them. It was only fair that he, in turn, pass them on again, to his later self, also a separate individual. Otherwise he would be taking responsibility for issues that weren’t his. And the moment he did that, he would become a pushover, a fall guy or patsy for all the prior Thorntons.
And yet he knew that one day it would be impossible to pass the buck further. The very last Thornton in the sequence, the Thornton who was living through the final day of his life, wouldn’t have anyone else to unload the accumulated burden onto. He would be forced to sort it all out himself. Poor fellow! But why should the Thornton of today care about that? The Thornton of that final day didn’t care about him. Unreciprocated sympathy is degrading.
But something had gone wrong. It turned out that the Thornton of today was the last one after all: this was the final day of his life. He was dying rapidly. Extreme old age was the cause, and the stress of worrying about dealing with all the problems that had been put off until now made a tangible pain in his chest, a clenched fist that throbbed and burned inside him, a displaced hand of doom. Those other Thorntons were traitors, ganging up on him!
He considered his predicament frantically but carefully.
There was only one way for him to avoid the accumulated responsibility and that was to stay alive until the next day. It was almost eleven o’clock, one hour to midnight. If he could only survive those sixty odd minutes, his present self would be safe and free: the Thornton of tomorrow would have to deal with the crisis, not him. With grasping fingers he picked up the telephone and dialled the local hospital. “I need a doctor! Send him immediately to my sickbed!”
“No doctors are available at such short notice, unless…”
“I am a man of great wealth and dubious taste. I can pay millions, do you hear? Millions! But he must be an ethical doctor. Ethical. This is very important. Your best ethical doctor!”
“Very well. We will send him by powerful motorbike.”
And so they did, bless them.
The doctor arrived five minutes later; he pulled off his goggles and hastened to Thornton’s side, checking the dying man’s pulse, respiration, blood pressure and bank account. “Are you an ethical doctor?” mumbled Thornton during this process. “I once had dealings with two members of the medical profession, a pair of rogues, Vaughan and Frazer they were called, and they were most unethical. I don’t need the kind of attention doctors like that can offer me. What are you?”
The newcomer stood erect and saluted smartly. “I am Dr Heelsnap Pinktoes, the most ethical doctor this side of bashful modesty. No doctor in history has been quite so ethical.”
Thornton was satisfied. He explained his predicament and bewailed the landslide of tasks and responsibilities that had crashed down onto him from the past. Then he indicated the clock on the bedside table, uttered the words, “Until midnight!” and fell back exhausted on the pillows. Dr Pinktoes clucked his tongue, opened his medical bag and pulled out a contraption that resembled the collision of a thousand giant metal spiders. “Will that thing really prolong my life?” rasped Thornton.
“Prolong your life?” Dr Pinktoes was bewildered. “I don’t know anything about such matters. I don’t deal with health but with ethics. I’m an ethical doctor, which is what you asked for.”
“Yes, but…” Thornton was too weak to protest properly.
Dr Pinktoes lowered the contraption onto his patient’s bare chest. It adhered there, held firm by some strong electromagnetic or gravitational field. The multiple mechanical arms uncurled: they were extendable tentacles. A control was adjusted and the device hummed.
“The circuitry has been attuned to the frequency of your soul. These arms are operated by thought alone. Use them wisely.”
“But my health…” wheezed Thornton.
Dr Pinktoes answered primly, “I am not here to fix your health but to cure your ethics. I am an ethical doctor. There is no time to lose: you know what needs to be done. I suggest you do it.”
Thornton grimaced. Then he made a decision. The arms waved like the legs of an inverted beetle. Suddenly they speared through the open window, diverged out into the world, reached over houses, snaked out of the city and over the moors and oceans to other cities, entered rooms and offices. They paid unpaid bills, soothed mistreated girlfriends, cleaned dirty dishes in sinks, picked up dropped litter, wrote letters to neglected friends. An entire lifetime of deferred tasks. And then—
The clock struck midnight. Thornton Excelsior was dead.
Thirty thousand previous Thorntons, one for each day of his life, stared hard from the past at this moment. Then they pointed at the corpse and laughed, billowing the mists of time.
“I can’t believe he fell for it. What a loser!”