Saturday, 25 June 2016

The Furious Walnuts (1995)

This story seems particularly relevant now (June 2016)  in the wake of the Brexit victory in the recent referendum on EU membership. It is a story that originally appeared in my collection NOWHERE NEAR MILKWOOD. It is also the very first of my tales that I turned into an audio file that is available on YouTube. A sequel called 'The Smutty Tamarinds' appeared in my book TALLEST STORIES. It's highly likely I will write a third tale in this sequence one day.

For more than a week, Walter had been feeling a trifle Scottish. It didn’t help that his house was the colour of salmon. Nor that his wife was named Heather. He’d wanted a magnolia house and a wife named Patsy, but you can’t have everything. A primeval force was moving within him, an urge to plunge through moor, lake and glen.
Over breakfast, a meal of sheep’s stomach stuffed with lungs, he mentioned his condition. He wondered if turning into a Highlander would affect his career. He was, after all, paid to sell a chemical which removed ice-cream stains from trousers.
His wife glowered at him. Being a gentle soul, her glower was not hugely effective. If looks could kill, he’d be complaining of slight abdominal cramps and asking his pharmacist for aspirin. Fortunately, he felt sick enough already.
“You’ll have to adjust,” she told him. “My brother, Desmond, had a dose of Burma. Took to wearing rubies in his nose and making fish-bone curry. But he kept his job in the Civil Service. And cousin Joseph was a train spotter who became an Eskimo. Never needed to change his anorak, just noted down kayaks instead.”
Rather than feeling reassured, Walter finished his food in anxious silence, wiped his knife on his beard and stuffed it into his sock. He wanted to hold forth on bridges and pneumatic tyres. But his wife hated lofty or inflated topics. So he dressed for work, shook the last drops from the bottle of woad and mounted his bicycle.
Around him, men and women were changing, shells of identity falling off and rattling on the pavement. Walter blinked. It seemed to him that whenever an identity clattered to the ground, a horde of imps rushed out of shop doorways and storm drains and lifted it up. Then they fitted it onto the shoulders of some other pedestrian. They moved so fast, it was difficult to register their presence at all.
Walter felt he ought to investigate this phenomenon more closely, but at that moment he passed the bus station. Lately, the bus station had exerted a strange fascination for him. He spent the next hour or so hanging around the ticket office, threatening commuters and demanding the fare back to Glasgow.
When he reached work, his boss was waiting for him. Mr Jhabvala was a yogi and astrologer who had invented Caste Away, the ultimate frozen dessert stain eradicator, in Bombay. His prototype was so successful that jealous rivals had pursued him all over the subcontinent. Years in the Kashmiri mountains had taken their toll. His skin was pitted with cobra bites and his eyes glittered like opals.
He invited Walter to sit down, leant back in his swivel chair and stroked his chin. A run-in with brigands had left him with only three fingers on his left hand. The missing digits on his right hand, however, were testimony to frostbite in the Hindu Kush.
“Listen, old boy,” he began, toying with his cravat, “I’ve paid a lot of thought to this and I’ve decided to let you go. Awfully sorry, but you know how it is. Be a good chap and don’t cry. Stiff upper lip and all that. Thing is, old bean, we can’t allow a Scotsman to peddle our goods. Customers would take fright. Kindly accept this Cheddar as a parting gift and run along. Toodle pip.”
Sighing languidly, Mr Jhabvala pasted his kiss-curl back onto his brow and inserted a cigarette into a long holder. Walter ignored the gift and stomped out, cursing into his beard. On the street, he caught his new reflection in a tailor’s window. His Scottishness was growing worse by the minute. The claymore in his belt interfered with the back wheel of his bicycle, the tam-o’-shanter keep slipping over his eyes. He’d have to visit his doctor.
Dr Walnut was a family practitioner. He greeted Walter cordially, offering him a hookah and rolling out a carpet for his benefit. Walter felt uncomfortable in the surgery, possibly because he’d never seen Dr Walnut in a fez before. Foregoing the hashish, he outlined his problem. Dr Walnut nodded, poured himself a glass of raki and clapped his hands. The receptionist, Miss White, came in and undulated her bare midriff on the desk between them.
“A little thin, no?” he chuckled, exhaling noxious fumes through flared nostrils. Noticing Walter’s scowl, he held up his hands in a mollifying gesture. “You can’t get the staff these days. Now what can I do for you? You are turning Scottish? Well there’s a bug about. Rampant Internationalism. It’s the rains we’ve been having.”
Walter nodded. Dr Walnut stood up and moved to a filing cabinet in the corner of his surgery. He opened the drawers and a scruffy child popped out of each. In their features, they were miniature replicas of Dr Walnut. They leapt to the floor and began riding hobbyhorses in tight circles on the gaudy central rug. Walter caught the flash of silk, the creak of leather, the acrid odour of mare’s milk.
“My sons succumbed last week. Mongolianism, a severe outbreak. All my silver scalpels have been looted. Keep erecting tents in the kitchen. What can one do?” He inhaled deeply on his hookah and his eyes sparkled. “The little heathens! They’re absolutely furious, no?” One at a time, he lifted them and deposited them back into the filing cabinet, forcing the drawers shut with the toe of his curly slipper.
Walter wasn’t interested in other people’s children. He paced the room in dismay, his sporran swinging. “That’s all very well. But what can ye do for me?” He scratched at the lice in his plaid. Dr Walnut gave a mysterious smirk and reached into the folds of his robes. He removed a murky phial and held it up.
“It is most fortunate you came to see me at this time. I have just finished distilling this liquid from my sons. It is poison to the imps who cause the ailment. I call it Tartar Source.” He winked slyly. “It is expensive, but for you there is special price.”
“Och, give it here!” Walter snatched the bottle and swallowed the contents. For a moment he reeled and clutched at his head. Then he made his way gingerly out of the surgery. Dr Walnut followed, calling him the offspring of a dog and various unnatural partners. He brushed past Miss White, who had returned to Reception and was sugaring her body, and fell down the steps onto the street.
Over the next fortnight, a second transformation took place. Walter was at a complete loss to explain this one. He found his head was still eager to cycle everywhere but his abdomen wanted a bus. His arms had an urge to paddle a coracle. Most disconcertingly, his toes began to smell of fish and his neck of sausage. When he woke one morning to find that Heather had drawn isobars over his body with a felt tip pen, he guessed he’d also have to swallow his pride.
Dr Walnut was very forgiving. He studied Walter carefully, tapped parts of his attire with a tiny hammer and grunted. “The cure was only partially successful. Your head seems to have remained Scottish while the rest of you has altered. You have become a walking analogue of the British Isles. Your body is England, your arms are Wales and your legs reach all the way down to Cornwall.”
“That explains it!” cried Walter. “Yesterday, I was passing a cake shop and my feet were attracted by the cream. They went one way, my body went another and I slipped and landed on my Kent. But if I’m the mainland, where does Ireland fit in?” He saw the answer in Dr Walnut’s pout. “My wife! What do you mean! Oppressed?”
Dr Walnut shook his head. “No, no. Green and gently rolling.” He took Walter’s pulse. “Any pain in your Lancashire?” Walter had to admit there wasn’t. His Cleveland itched and his Herefordshire rumbled, but these were minor concerns. Something of much more fundamental importance had just occurred to him.
“What will happen if the Union dissolves? I’ve heard that Scotland stands a good chance of winning independence. If that happens will my head fall off?” he demanded.
“I think I know what your problem is,” Dr Walnut replied. “You’re a character in a short story. Some amateur hack is writing this down even as we speak. At the end, to entertain the reader, he’ll make the Union dissolve and your head will indeed fall off.”
“Isn’t there anything I can do?” Walter was in tears.
“If the reader doesn’t reach the end, you’ll be okay. You’d better try to be boring from now on, in the hope they won’t go any further. If you try really hard, they might throw the short story away in disgust and do something else.”
It was suddenly very clear to Walter. His fate lay in the hands of some non-accountable reader. But what was the best way of being boring? He thought about it. Whatever happened, the reader mustn’t be allowed to reach the end of the story. He thought about it some more. He appealed to the reader to stop at this point.
His head fell off.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

There Was a Ghoul Dwelt by a Mosque (1996)

In the mid 1990s I was a regular contributor to Ghosts & Scholars, a journal of ghost stories that took the writer M.R. James as its chief inspiration and motivation. I wrote many stories that had a connection to his work. At the same time I did not wish to produce straightforward ghost tales. My more outré efforts in this regard tended not to make it into the journal (although some did) and ended up being published elsewhere, the following story, for example, which was inspired not only by M.R. James but also by William Beckford. It is, in fact, a continuation-of-sorts of Beckford's VATHEK. It was published in my book THE SMELL OF TELESCOPES.

This is the story about ungodly deeds which Vathek, the mad caliph in Beckford’s novel, was hearing from one of the new arrivals in Hell, when his mother flew in on the back of an afrit to chide him for not enjoying the pleasures on offer. The tale is not given; Vathek’s acquaintance was damned soon after without having a chance of resuming it. Now what was it going to have been? Beckford knew, no doubt, but I am not bold enough to say that I do. I will offer a new story: one you will think made from scraps of other fables. Everybody should sew a patchwork coat from the materials he likes best. This is mine:
There was a ghoul dwelt by a mosque. His name was Omar and he was a potter with a shop built from broken vases. His doorway looked out on the Kizilirmak, the longest river in Asia Minor, and from his roof he could lean over and touch the mosque with his elongated arms. His wheel and oven had belonged to a human craftsman who died without heirs and was buried with his tools, but (this was in Haroun al Raschid’s day) ghouls were allowed to keep any items they dug up. The creature filed his teeth to stubs to reassure his neighbours — but never mind what they thought of him; he was skilled enough at his trade to make a living from the travellers who passed through Avanos. He rarely overcharged for his products and this frightened people most of all.
Omar lacked humanity in other ways: he kept an attic full of hair clipped from the heads of his female visitors. There were women pilgrims and merchants even then and they were politely requested to give up a lock or two for his archive. The monster labelled them and secured them to the ceiling on hooks, where they exuded a musty odour and shivered in the shifting air currents. Omar liked to imagine his attic was a cave beneath a garden — a garden of vegetable girls whose roots were pushing through into his subterranean kingdom. This unusual custom has persisted through the centuries; next time you are in Avanos, ask for the house of Master Galip and you will see what I mean. His modern collection is also illuminated by a single lamp.
The ghoul had a mother no less grotesque in her habits. She helped him collect the red clay from the river-bank, bringing him a supply each morning. Instead of cutting the clay into blocks, she would roll it in her hands and present it to him like a freshly-exhumed intestine. Then he would divide it with a pair of shears and they would gather round the wheel with excited giggles, as if they were grilling sausages instead of preparing to throw another plate or saucer.
The attic was also the place where the ghoul kept all his rejects, the warped and flawed work. Heavy urns, twisted over like slaves; cups with no handles, or too many; pitchers with clamped mouths or leaking sides; shapeless mounds as tall as men which should have been coffins but were unusable, save for lepers; pipes with stems which curled back into the bowl; teapots without spouts, or spouts which poured tea into the lap of the drinker. All these, Omar packed into his attic, loathe to discard them. With the hair above and the failures below, the room became a sort of museum of imperfection — the former lacking complete substance; the latter lacking complete form.
One day, a cowled traveller called at the shop. Veiled from head to foot, she betrayed her femininity by her poise and sibilant voice. She had come far and was taking her first holiday in many years. Her sisters were keen on stone figures for their garden and she had promised to take some back as gifts. But sculptors were rare in Asia Minor, the prophet had forbidden such art, and so, to make the best of a bad thing, she had decided to purchase pottery as a substitute. She wondered if she might view Omar’s most decorative examples.
“Well, my work is functional, not fine art,” said the ghoul. “But you’re free to look round. I’m self-trained and you mustn’t expect too much in the way of aesthetic gratification.”
“Come, these pots betray a certain flair,” cried the visitor. “Lead me through your shop and I will choose something.”
So he guided her along racks of ceramic utensils, which she studied with a slight wave, as if to indicate they were not quite suitable. When the conventional rooms were exhausted, they reached the attic. “The work in here is not really for sale,” apologised Omar, “but if you will enter and allow me to snip a strand of your hair...”
The visitor seemed about to refuse, but the door was swinging open and when she caught a glimpse of the mutated wares she forgot to voice an objection. Stepping forward in joy, she squealed: “Perfect! They are so delightfully strange. And this one is the oddest of the lot! I must have it at any price!” And she moved to the end of the attic and seized the ghoul’s mother, who was sleeping on a stool.
At this point, several things happened at once. The ghoul mistook his visitor’s cry for compliance with his request, and he reached across the room with his elongated arms to sever a lock with his shears. But the mother had jumped up in alarm, knocking over and smashing the single lamp. In pitch darkness, Omar felt under his visitor’s veil and detached it with clumsy fingers, whereupon he snipped the lock. While he groped his way to a hook to hang it up, his mother struck a flint in an attempt to relight the lamp; the attempt was unsuccessful, but the long spark which winked in the gloom was enough to illuminate the visitor, who was still bending over the mother. Then darkness came again, more intense for the momentary light: there was a groan, something brushed past the ghoul and clattered out through the shop.
When Omar’s slitted eyes had adjusted, he saw he was alone in the attic. No: his mother was there as well, but she was changed. Her arms flung up as if to cover her face, her body twisted away as if from some dreadful apparition, she was literally petrified. She had always had a stony expression; now it was real. Omar looked at the ceiling and his hearts raced madly; in place of a lock of hair was a very angry snake, hissing and writhing on its hook.
Well, he gnashed his filed teeth for many a moon, I can assure you. Without a mother, a ghoul is lost, like a bridge without a river or a pot without a price. Luckily, he dwelt by a mosque and the local muezzin was a sorcerer who made no secret of his skills. Standing on his roof at night, just after the evening call to prayer, Omar hailed the muezzin on his minaret and made a pact. He would sell part of his soul, the human part, to Eblis — the devil — in exchange for the return of his mother. So the muezzin lowered a glass tablet inscribed with arcane symbols on a gold thread and told Omar to place it between his mother’s granite lips, whereupon she would spring to life.
As he stumbled through the attic with this talisman, Omar happened to brush the snake, which bit him on the shoulder. He growled in pain and his great hands came together, crushing the glass tablet to powder. The sparkling shards flew up and settled on the warped and twisted pots. With a hideous scraping sound, they came alive — the urns, the pitchers, the cups, the coffins — tumbling awkwardly, snapping their lids, grating against each other, whistling, crowding round the ghoul like dogs round a master, or jackals round a corpse. With his fists and feet, he smashed them to pieces, then he went down and returned with the potter’s wheel, which he rolled among the wounded ceramics, reducing them to fine dust. The one place the magic glass had missed was the mother, who remained as motionless and igneous as before.
Unable to bear the loss of his soul for naught, Omar left his shop disguised as a minor prince and went searching for his visitor. But he succeeded only in passing into the domain of Hell. By now, his fears had altered. He was more frightened that another sorcerer would manage to reanimate his mother: she would be furious at being kept so long in such a condition and would berate him. Better to be damned, he decided, than to suffer the ill-will of a ghoul’s mother, who would be certain to bend him over her knee and smack......
At this juncture, Vathek’s acquaintance slapped off his turban to reveal the horns of a ghoul. His forked tongue poked out over his filed teeth. Vathek fell back with a cry of pity and alarm, but recovered soon enough and, tapping his nose, asserted that he knew another mother quite three times as dreadful as that one, but lacked enough horrid words to describe her. Indeed, at that very moment she was trying to dethrone one of the pre-Adamite sultans. More tangibly, in Avanos there is a curious statue standing in the square, waiting for something, a backward glance from an earlier tourist, I do not know; but it is a fact that Gorgons no longer go to Asia Minor for their holidays.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Spanish Cyclops (1999)

The monsters of Ancient Greek myths have always appealed to me. I first encountered the old legends retold in Nathaniel Hawthorne's WONDER BOOK and I have been enthralled by them ever since. When I was older I read the ODYSSEY and encountered the Cyclops as Homer envisaged him. The following tale is another example of 'flash fiction' that appeared in my collection FLASH IN THE PANTHEON, still one of my favourites among my own books.

There was a lens grinder who had fallen on hard times and who decided to revive his fortunes by exceeding the limits of his profession. Accordingly, he saved his remaining materials and set to work on the grandest project he could imagine.
The citizens of Valencia were perturbed at the noises that emanated from his workshop during the days and nights of a whole week.
At last he threw open his doors and rolled out into the town square the largest monocle in the world. It glittered below the green lamps that hung from the taverns and theatres. And soon a crowd gathered.
“What is the purpose of this object?” they wondered.
They walked around it, touching it lightly. It was too big to fit a king or bishop or even the statue of El Cid that loomed on the battlements of the palace. No eye in history might wear it comfortably in a squint. It was clear the lens grinder had lost his sanity.
The soldiers came to lock him up in a madhouse, but he stalled them with an explanation. They rattled their pikes uneasily.
He said, “The entity for whom this monocle was made will seek it out when he learns of its existence, and he will pay me handsomely, because he has waited to see properly again for centuries.”
There was much speculation as to the nature of this customer. People mounted the city walls to look out for him, but they saw nothing when they gazed inland. Once they called out that he was coming, yet it was only an elephant being led to a circus in Barcelona. Excitement and fear surged together.
While they watched, a ship from Cathay sailed into the bay and the citizens turned their attention out to sea. Even from this distance, the cargo of spices could be smelled. But as the vessel entered the harbour, a gigantic whirlpool opened up and sucked it down. The crew and all the pepper were destroyed.
A cry of horror filled the streets and bells were tolled in a hundred churches. Then someone remembered the great circular eyepiece and called out for help in rolling it down to the quayside. Within a minute, a crowd of volunteers was pushing at the rim of the monocle, bouncing it over the cobbles like a burning wheel.
The lens grinder followed helplessly, tearing at his hair as his marvellous creation gathered speed. Soon it slipped out of the grasp of the thousand hands and trundled along a jetty and over the edge.
There was no splash. The monocle landed in the eye of the whirlpool, fitting it perfectly. Men and women rushed onto the jetty and peered over the side, gasping in wonder at what they beheld.
The ocean was no longer blind. As the whirlpool moved across the bay, it revealed the gardens of the deep. Through the sparkling lens it was possible to discern the seabed in astonishing clarity. And now all the wrecks of ages past were focused on the surface, the gold and gems and casks of wine.
A few citizens jumped into boats and chased the roving eye to the horizon and beyond. They made maps as they did so, noting the position of each trove, planning for a future time when the treasures might be hauled up and distributed equally among the population, or perhaps they were just enjoying the spectacle.
There was general rejoicing, but the lens grinder went home in some trepidation and awaited a very big knock on his door.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Gone with the Wind in the Willows (1995)

I have always enjoyed 'flash fiction', those ultra brief tales that used to be called short-shorts. The most famous exponent of the form was Fredric Brown. although later I discovered Daniil Kharms, who to my mind was even better at it. Notoriously tricky, this type of fiction seems a perfect fit for the extremely busy and rapid modern world. The following is one of my fairly early attempts. Most of my flash fiction has subsequently been collected in the book FLASH IN THE PANTHEON.

The Confederate Army was shelling Toad Hall. Down in the bunker, Toad and Ratty were cowering under a table, drinking bourbon. Plaster fell from the ceiling and filled the room with fine dust. “Where the hell is General Badger?” Toad wailed.
Just at that moment, Mole erupted from the floor, a message clamped between his jaws. Toad snatched the communiqué and devoured the spidery words with his rheumy eyes. “Badger's forces have been eliminated on the outskirts of Atlanta.”
“Oh my, we're doomed!” avowed Ratty.
Toad drained his glass of bourbon and puffed on a cigar. “Time for the cyanide and petrol, boys.”
Screams of terror reached them from outside. It seemed the entire Confederate Army was on the run. The door to the bunker flew open and a svelte figure stood framed by licking flames.
“I came as quickly as I could,” it said.
“Who the hell are you?” Toad cried.
“Bambi,” it replied. It trotted into the room. “I know I'm not in your story, but I couldn't sit and watch you be annihilated. I've brought the Hollywood Infantry with me.”
“Well I'll be darned, a goddamn postmodernist.”
“Not quite. What's that you're drinking? Bourbon? May I have some? I've got a tankard with me. Will you fill it up?”
“You are joking. This is vintage stuff.”
“I'll settle for just a wine glass of the liquor in that case.”
“No way. This is expensive 108 proof Wild Turkey Rare Breed with a kick like an electrocuted whore.”
“Well how about filling a whisky glass? I only want a taste.”
Toad climbed from under the table and sneered. “Frankly, my deer, I don't give a dram.”

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Telegram Ma'am (1998)

There is a tradition in Britain that the Queen sends a congratulatory telegram to every citizen who attains the age of 100. I have been told that the process is not automatic but must be requested and that the message now arrives by letter rather than telegram. However, the general belief persists that the Queen does actually send a telegram to every centenarian whether the centenarian wants it or not. From this premise the following tale was created. It appeared in my collection The Smell of Telescopes back in the year 2000.

The Queen sits on her throne, writing telegrams. There is a knock on the door. It is Perry, the inventor. “What do you have for me this time, Mr Perry?” He holds up a slim object, dripping like a snake fang. The Queen frowns. “Well what is it?”
“A fountain-pen, your majesty.”
“Is it faster than a quill, Mr Perry?”
“Much faster, ma’am.”
The Queen discards the quill, which tickles the floor.

Many more things have just reached their hundredth birthday. There is a frayed glove in the second drawer of a maple desk in a forgotten room in a cheap hotel in Brighton. There is an octahedral ruby cut from a flawed stone by a myopic jeweller with a blunt chisel in Winchester. There is a saying among the folk of Bideford, Devon, which declares, “Better to dip an organ in cider than a piano in rum,” and another in Folkestone, Kent, not recorded — they have both turned one hundred. And a vast telescope in the roof-garden of Sir William Herschel. And the silver ring used by Prince Albert to restrain his erections, hidden in a rococo box when not in use, and the box itself, or rather its lock, and in the pocket of the locksmith’s grandson, a farthing. There is a bicycle lying under a gorse bush on the North York Moors, where Joan Bailey lost it after her lover struck her on the head with a mallet, and she went wandering without her memory to Coventry, eventually becoming the manager of a puppet theatre, while the bush grew to help the lover avoid suspicion. There is a plough nailed to a wall in an Oxford tavern.
These have existed for exactly a century, and telegrams must be sent out to all of them.

The Queen is still sitting on her throne. Throughout the palace, the clocks are striking midnight. She covers a yawn with a hand. “Oh why must I congratulate everything?

The people are growing agitated, politely. Agents ride out beyond them, disdaining the clamour. “Our monarch has abandoned us!” The agents say nothing, except the younger ones, who reply, “No she hasn’t!” But the people will not listen. There is discontent in Dover. There is a hubbub in Huddersfield. There are murmurings in Manchester. The agents gallop faster. There is a gnashing in Grantham, not of teeth, which are rare there, but of groceries, pears gnashed against plums. “The monarch is neglecting us!” “No she isn’t!”
An agitator mounts a soap-box in Leeds. He has a speech prepared. A republican agenda. He opens his mouth, but an agent rides up to him and delivers a slip of paper.
“What’s this? A telegram?”
The lowest button on his shirt must celebrate.

Prince Albert sits with the Queen in the bedchamber, holding hands. There is an aspidistra in a vase. The vase has recently received its telegram, the aspidistra has not.
“I can’t take much more of this!”
She strokes his moustache. “Our duties must be fulfilled, dear. It’s the constitution, you know. A secret part of modern government, vital to the integrity of the state.”
“I am a man. I have desires. You are never being here, in my arms, like a wife. What shall happen when my erection restraint wears out? It was forged over ten decades ago.”
“We will order another, from the Sheffield Kama Sutra Co.”
“I am sure to die of frustration!”

The Queen sits on her throne, writing telegrams. The fountain-pen is faster than the quill, but the workload does not lessen. There are more things in the world now, more objects to grow old. And as the Empire continues to expand, it gets worse. A gold-mine in Natal. A brewery in Australia. A religion in Rajasthan. There is a knock on the door. It is Stephenson, the inventor.
“What do you have for me this time, Mr Stephenson?”
“A locomotive, your majesty.”
“Is it faster than a horse?”
“Much faster, ma’am.”
“Kindly demonstrate, Mr Stephenson.”
“It is too large to bring indoors.”
The Queen cocks an ear and hears a distant whistle and the scrape of a shovel on coal. The years chug past.

The Prime Minister is arguing with the Lord Chancellor.
“But the tradition is doing wonders for our economy. Think of the technological offshoots it has created!”
“The Queen is exhausted. Remember what happened to George III. He went mad. And William IV took to drink.”
“Nonetheless, the tradition must continue. Too much time and effort has been invested to cancel it now. I have personally meddled with the archives of the Patent Office, altering dates and names, so that future historians will not perceive a link between progress and the tradition. You know which tradition I mean.”
“The tradition which is kept secret from the people?”
“Yes, precisely that tradition.”
“The tradition which has been indirectly responsible for numerous inventions, including the cantilever bridge, tarmac, the dynamo, sewing machines, the gyroscope, the compression refrigerator, corrugated iron, dirigibles, and the first-class stamp?”
“That’s the one! Strike this from the record!”

Agents sit in the buffet-cars of locomotives. Behind them, they tow nine carriages full of telegrams. At various points along the route, they open the doors and leap into the night, clutching a message. One has a trowel concealed under his hat. He lands awkwardly, shuffling toward a nameless village. The locomotive turns a bend and leaves him alone. He enters a churchyard, searching mossy headstones for the correct name. Here it is! He crouches and hacks at the fog-drenched earth with the trowel. At last the coffin is revealed. Pausing for breath, he glances around. An owl in a blasted yew returns his look. The agent jumps onto the coffin and inserts the edge of his tool under the lid. Rusty nails yawn from crumbling wood. Spiders flee. He throws back the lid like the cover of a Penny Dreadful and gags as a moonbeam, challenging a cloud to a duel and running it through, impales a madly grinning skeleton, bones jutting from mouldy suit! Hurriedly, the agent pins the telegram to the collar of the skeleton’s shirt, replaces the lid and soil and dances the plot flat, with a lame leg.

Prince Albert has sickened and died, of frustration, or typhoid, it is not clear which, possibly both. “Now I will have more time to devote to the writing of telegrams!” sobs the Queen.

The agitator squats in the hold of a prison-ship. A warder approaches, checking cells with a lantern. Something is wrapped around the glass, casting a stream of words over beams and bulwarks. At regular intervals, for no discernible reason, the warder lashes at his captives with a cat o’ nine tails. The agitator counts ten stripes on his legs when it is his turn. He notes that the extra tail is a length of paper, dangling from the handle of the antique whip.

The Queen sits on her throne, writing telegrams. There is a knock on the door. It is Littledale, the inventor.
“What do you call that thing, Mr Littledale?”
“A typewriter, your majesty.”
“Is it quieter than a locomotive, Mr Littledale?”
“Slightly, ma’am. It is powered by ribbons.”
“Can it do the writing for me?”
“Not at this stage. In a century or two.”
“It must write a telegram to itself when that happens.”

The French President is worrying his Chief of Police.
“What are the English playing at, mon cher?”
“I don’t know, Monsieur President.”
“They are cutting down trees at a furious rate. Obviously to make paper. But paper for what?”
“English novels, perhaps?”
“Ah yes! Do you like English novels, mon cher? I ordered one from London last week. A Defoe. The seventh word in the twelfth line of the sixty-third paragraph of the ninety-fifth chapter had a telegram glued to it. With noxious fish glue!”
“An extraordinary coincidence, Monsieur President! I also ordered a Defoe from London last week. At the centre was a compressed oak leaf and stapled to the leaf was a telegram.”
“Rosbif! Barbarians! Louts! We must consider forging an alliance, mon cher, to discover the meaning.”

A gold tooth under a pillow in a Padstow cottage, still waiting, without an owner, for a fairy. A wig in a box at the rear of a kennel in Durham, guarded by a dog with the morals of a cat. The belief that some cherries contain real stones, probably flints, held by the farmers of Thetford. A picture of a summer day in the Cotswolds, painted with clotted cream and magenta jam, in an unhygienic bakery in Winchcombe. A pistol in the hand of the very last man to fight a legal duel in Breckland, eating cherries to ignite the charge. A rotten hymn.

The Queen sits on her throne. Telegrams, knock on the door. A figure who wears his sideburns like camshafts.
“Who are you? I have no inventor called Babbage!”
“With respect, ma’am, I have been seeking an audience with you for thirty years. Allow me to demonstrate this analytical engine here. It is an early type of computer and can be programmed to perform a large body of functions, such as writing telegrams.”
“How dare you talk of body functions in my presence?”
“No ruler can afford to be without one.”
“I am busy! Take it away!”

Tears in the palace. A silver ring taken from a box, lovingly pressed to lips. “Once I was your barrel of sauerkraut. You whispered to me, ‘Liebe Kleine. Ich habe dich so lieb, ich kann nicht sagen wie’, and I presumed you were asking to visit the bathroom. But now you are gone. And my life has become a telegram without news.”

“You sent for me, your majesty?”
“Yes, Prime Minister. We have a problem. The tradition of sending telegrams to everything is one hundred years old.”
“Then you must send a telegram to the tradition.”
“But how? How can one send a telegram to a tradition? Who can carry it? Where will they go? I am bewildered.”
“You must try, ma’am! You must try!”
The Queen tries:

Dear Tradition,
Congratulations on reaching the centenary of being yourself.
Best wishes,
The Queen.

No, it is too absurd. Something must be done. The law will have to be altered, so that only old people receive telegrams, not everything. A secret bill must be passed.
The Prime Minister weeps at the thought of change.

A dream: a world where inanimate objects can rest in peace. Unemployed agents race nowhere in automobiles. Paradise! But a cloud looms on the horizon, cooling the idyll. There will still be much work to do. Wines, books, spoons, piers, guitars, floods, hearths, stables, gutters, pots, vendettas, crotchets, cuffs, doors, accidents, comets — these and many other items have been set free, but the population is increasing at an exponential rate. What if people come to outnumber things? How can this be avoided? Only a war, the like of which has never been imagined. That will stall the trend. But with whom?
On nights when the silver ring was kept in its box, Prince Albert gave her children. And these children have also produced children. One is named Wilhelm. Machine-guns, gas.

We are not amused.