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.

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