Sunday, 2 July 2017

No Fury (2015)

This story is the first in a linked series that play games with 'wise' sayings. The entire series was published as one story called 'Wise Man' in my book Brutal Pantomimes but originally I had no intention of writing a series. This often happens with me. I will write a tale with no thoughts of writing a sequel, but the sequel comes in due course, and then more sequels, and before long a new story-cycle has been created.

A wise man once said, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and he wasn’t only a wise man but a wise man who knew what he was talking about. It really is important to be aware of the difference.
There are hundreds, thousands, possibly millions, of wise men, even very wise men, in this world of ours, but the majority of them don’t know what they are talking about. This doesn’t make them any less wise, but it does make them wrong. Yes, you can be wise and wrong.
Being wrong often has repercussions, but those repercussions might take a long time to catch up with the person they are intended for. On the other hand, they frequently manifest themselves without delay, so don’t be too nonchalant if you are wrong and hope to get away with it.
As a wise man said, “If you go into the forest with a walking stick, don’t be surprised if one day a tree walks into your town carrying a human leg.” The wise man who said that was me. Yes it was.
I am also a wise man, one of the wise men who are right as well as wise. I nearly always know what I’m talking about; and on those rare occasions when I don’t know, I am aware that I don’t know.
Because I am a wise man, one of the best of all wise men, I’m able to act on the wisdom of other wise men in an effective and noble manner. Thus I once decided to do something remarkably wise.
Just to be wise to an ordinary degree wasn’t enough. Even to be very wise was insufficient. I wanted to be so wise that my wisdom would reach new levels and set standards of unsurpassable sagacity.
I decided, no less, to save the endangered souls of multitudes of people. I decided to do this without thought of any recompense. I decided to do it for the sake of being a good as well as a wise man.
By employing the word ‘people’ I am being disingenuous. It was only the souls of women that I planned to save. I would have attempted to save the souls of men too, but I simply didn’t know how. Just because I am wise doesn’t mean I’m a genius. I am as fallible as anyone else.
But how does one go about saving women’s souls?
Well, there’s a big clue in the saying of the wise man I quoted above, not the saying that I said, but the saying of the other wise man, the first wise man I mentioned in this document. A very big clue.
Some clues are so big that they stop us seeing them in total, in the same way that a mountain can’t be appreciated in full when we are too close to it; so these clues are baffling rather than enlightening. This is absolutely the case with what the wise man said about Hell and fury...
I mean that people are familiar with this saying and they often quote it to each other, nodding their heads in understanding and agreement; but they don’t actually understand it and therefore can’t really agree with it. The truth within this saying is too immense to absorb correctly.
But I was wise enough to be able to ponder on it for a long time, and from a moral distance, a distance great enough to show me the outline entire, and for my ponderings to be fruitful, insightful and unique. And that’s what I did; and it suddenly occurred to me that here was a sure method of protecting women from the eternal torments and despair of the fiery pit.
For it is logical that if Hell has no fury like a woman scorned, then there are no scorned women in Hell, otherwise Hell would have a fury comparable to a woman scorned, and not just comparable but identical, namely the fury of any or all of the scorned women massed down there.
So if I went about scorning women, I would be saving them from future damnation. I would be saving their divine souls. Imagine that! No more Hell for uncountable numbers of women who would surely end up there if it wasn’t for my utterly astounding and very wise generosity.
First, I had to find out what constituted the act of scorning. I consulted a number of books, including dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and learned that to scorn someone requires a measure of contempt for them; and to have contempt necessitates that one feels they are beneath you.
Contempt isn’t the same as hatred, for if you hate a person it means you fear them. When you feel contempt, there is an inherent aspect of superiority in your attitude. They can’t hurt you, only irritate you by the mere fact they dwell on the same planet as you, that you share reality.
We express our hate with schemes, tricks, violent actions; but contempt is expressed with words and expressions, perhaps even only the angle of a nose or chin, the arch of a single eyebrow, a slight sneer.
Accordingly, I mounted my bicycle and proceeded to pass women with a look of absolute derision on my face. I know they noticed this. If there was any doubt in my mind, I would turn and pedal back towards them, still carrying the same look. My nostrils were flared, my lips tight.
Thus did I scorn women, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of them, over a period of many long years, in winter and summer, day and night, in rain and shine. Eventually I would have been the salvation of millions, but our lives are fragile things and so are bicycles. I grew old.
My bicycle rusted, my joints stiffened. Yet I could retire with pride, for I had prevented uncountable numbers of females from going to Hell when they die. They still remain unaware of what I did for them; and consequently I have acquired a reputation as crank instead of saviour.
I am writing this document in order to put the record straight. I am a wise and good fellow. If you are a woman and reading this right now, remember that I may have saved you from a horrible afterlife. If you are a man, then you must save yourself, there’s little I can do for you. Sorry.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Love Keys (2013)

In Paris there is a bridge covered in padlocks. Lovers write their names on the locks and then fasten them to the bridge and throw the keys into the river. It's a symbol that love will keep them together. The bridge is covered with thousands of them and there is almost no room for any more. I first encountered the concept in London a few years ago but the Parisians have taken it further. I wrote the following story based on the premise and it has just been published in my new book, SALTY KISS ISLAND, which is a collection of my fantastical love stories.

In a northern city or perhaps a southern one there was a footbridge made of metal that spanned a wide grey river in a low and not ungraceful arch. One end of this bridge was located near an art gallery and the other wasn’t too far from a mighty cathedral with an impressive dome. It was extremely pleasant to cross this bridge in either direction and many people took advantage of it, sometimes just for the delight of making the crossing rather than because they really wanted to reach the far side of the water. It was a perfect place for a stroll, which is why strollers were attracted to it from every part of the city.
         Over time this bridge acquired the reputation of being a romantic structure and lovers adopted it as their own, though it could be true that the lovers arrived first and the reputation later. Nobody really knows. At any rate, these lovers took with them little padlocks inscribed with their initials, often surrounded by hearts, and they secured the locks to the railings and cast the keys over the side. It was a tradition that spontaneously arose, as such customs often do, and the idea was to dramatically symbolize how the couple in question were locked together forever and that the only means of escape was lost.
         The authorities didn’t dare put a stop to this practice, despite the fact that the weight of so many locks on the footbridge was a cause for concern among the engineers who designed it, because for most citizens adding a lock was a wistful, charming, beautiful, funny, touching, sweet gesture, the very epitome of youthful optimism expressed in a simple act of commitment to another human being. Nor did the manufacturers of padlocks complain much. In fact the practice is what the bridge became most famous for, despite its excellent location and the tremendous views from various points along its length.
Photo by Marie Ferandji
         Eventually the locks accumulated to such an extent that no railing had one spare place for another to be added, so new lovers began securing their own locks to locks already in position. The bridge did sag a little but still no one came with a hacksaw to cut the locks off. And then one morning it was noticed that when a key was thrown into the river it no longer made a splash but a tinkling sound and that the mass of discarded keys was forming an island that had been rising out of the water for years and was now breaking the surface. But lovers still came to put padlocks on the span and jettison the keys.
         And so this island grew to maturity and became established as an unofficial but important geographical feature of the city. A brand new custom arose for men and women who were no longer in love to swim or row out to the isle and search for the key that would open their own particular lock. It was nearly impossible to identify the right key by sight alone, so they would simply select a key at random and return to shore and cross the bridge and try it in their own lock, which rarely opened. Standing there, unable to open the symbol of their enjoinment to another person, they would be filled with frustration.
         Instead of flipping the useless key over the side, vindictiveness or curiosity would get the better of them and they would systematically try it in every lock until one of them sprang open. To complete this malign act, they generally threw the open padlock over the railings and onto the isle of keys; and over a period of time the locks began to outnumber the keys, as if some bizarre geological process was at work. Couples would split up when they discovered their locks were gone, each blaming the other and venting their anger by visiting the island to take a key and spoil the relationship of some other pair.
         Thus the locks vanished from the bridge one by one until none remained at all. But this is the truly odd thing: unbeknownst to anyone, the bridge had already decayed away. Only the locks had remained intact and their complex interlinking had formed a substitute structure, a chain of love that spanned the water, so when they were removed the bridge ceased to exist. It was dismantled by the power and ingenuity of sadness until the river flowed just as it had done before the building of the footbridge, and the two halves of the city, once in love but no longer, were separated by the oily currents of circumstance.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Wood for the Trees (2009)

This story is set in India but the style owes more to the early stories of RyĆ«nosuke Akutagawa, the Japanese writer I was reading at the time I wrote the tale. It was published in my TALLEST STORIES collection in 2013. The idea that people marry trees is not an invention, however, but something that does actually happen in certain circumstances. I have hugged many trees in my life but never married any of them...

I’m stopping at Jitvapur now, so I might as well tell you a story connected with this place. Jitvapur seems no different from any other little village in Bihar, which as I’m sure you know is the poorest and most rural district in India, but appearances can often be deceptive.
Just like certain bridegrooms…
Not long before my arrival, there was a wedding here and everybody took part with the gusto typical of such happy events. Needless to say, Jitvapur is a very traditional community and all the customs were strictly observed to ensure a fruitful and fortunate marriage. Even the most absurd superstitions were carefully heeded, so that destiny would have no compelling reason to cause trouble.
The name of the bride was Amrusha, the groom was called Rakesh, they were healthy young people well suited to each other, and everything seemed in its proper place as far as anyone could tell, so a prosperous life together was warmly anticipated by all. There had been a small problem at the beginning of the arrangement, due to the fact that Rakesh was a manglik, but that was sorted out now.
A manglik is a person born under the astrological condition known as mangal dosha. In other words the planet Mars was in the second, fourth, seventh, eighth or twelfth house of the Vedic lunar chart when the individual entered this world. In India the condition is widely believed to be extremely bad for marriage and if a manglik marries a non-manglik the outcome is certain to be death or even divorce! The government of India has repeatedly attempted to discourage this superstition but in regions as remote as Bihar it persists strongly.
Two mangliks may marry each other safely because the negative energies will cancel themselves out. But Amrusha wasn’t a manglik. On the contrary, her horoscope was impeccable. So her match with Rakesh was dangerously unbalanced.
Nonetheless there exists a solution to remove the difficulties. If the manglik submits to the ceremony of kumbh vivah, in which the manglik marries a banana tree or a peepal tree, all the bad luck will be neutralised. Bizarre as it may sound to our ears, people in India do still marry trees, and in fact a famous actress did so just a few years ago. You have probably seen her photograph in newspapers even if you haven’t sat through any of her films.
Anyway, Rakesh had endured the kumbh vivah rituals and married a tree, so the final obstacle to his union with Amrusha had been removed in the approved fashion. He was first taken to the tree in a baraat accompanied by dancing villagers and hired musicians and many of his cousins sang songs to him along the way. Various rites were performed by purohits and he saw that the tree was already decorated as a bride. After the couple were pronounced man and tree the feasting began and the guests offered shagun to Rakesh, which he gratefully accepted.
A ‘baraat’ is a marriage procession in which the groom rides on a horse to meet his bride, while a ‘purohit’ is a wise scholar with a comprehensive knowledge of rituals, and ‘shagun’ is a unit of good luck usually wrapped up like a parcel in a blessing. But Rakesh already knew all that…
Clearly I am explaining for your benefit alone.
That was how his first wedding went and because of its success Rakesh was ready for his second. His horse was a beautiful and noble steed and the musicians played even more sweetly this time and the singers sang with even greater devotion. There was a pervasive but unspoken feeling that this occasion was more authentic than the other and that Amrusha was somehow a more deserving bride than the tree. She certainly looked radiant when he approached her and dismounted.
Suddenly this touching ceremony was disrupted by an intruder…
“What do you think you are doing?” demanded a voice that was powerful and yet insubstantial, as if it issued not from a mouth powered by lungs but on the surfaces of leaves rustled by the wind. Rakesh glanced up.
“I am getting married to Amrusha,” he answered weakly.
“But I’m your wife!” cried the tree.
There was a lengthy pause and everybody involved in the procession shuffled their feet and looked down at the ground, too surprised to even gasp or jump back, but Amrusha kept her nerve and gazed without flinching at the uninvited guest. She decided to explain the situation as clearly and concisely as possible.
“Yes, you are his wife, but only in a symbolic sense. Rakesh is a manglik, you see, and he had to marry you to make it possible to marry me. It was never intended for his marriage to a peepal tree to be taken seriously…”
“A peepal tree? A peepal!”
And now a large branch dipped down with a handful of twigs at its end bunched into a fist and this fist came to rest under the quivering chin of Rakesh. “Bigamist!”
The bridegroom wasted no time in taking to his heels. He ran towards the horizon, his feet throwing up clouds of dust that failed to hide his escape route. With a furious sigh, the tree set off in warmish pursuit, because anything too hot in a wooden lifeform might start a lethal fire, but Rakesh already had a notable headstart. First the tree tried to mount his horse and ride off after the errant husband, but the horse associated the shade of a tree with a rest period and refused to budge. So the tree had to rely on its own motive power. Instead of using its exposed roots as legs, it fell to the ground and began rolling at high speed like a gigantic pencil across a sloping desk. If it caught up with Rakesh it would probably crush him.
It was only at this point or even a little later that the wedding guests realised the tree was a banana.
Amrusha was shocked. “What a scoundrel he was! It seems I’ve had a lucky escape. Good riddance to his kind!”
Because of the distance and fading light, it soon became impossible to see the two receding figures and nobody got to learn if Rakesh reached the safety of the mountains to the north. Perhaps he is still running and the banana tree still rolling. Amrusha remains upset by the whole affair and is still unmarried, but that’s hardly surprising bearing in mind that these events took place only a week ago…
Yes, when I arrived at Jitvapur the story was extremely fresh, even though one of its elements had gone off. It would be hypocritical of me to apologise for that pun, because I intend to deliver another. Where I come from, when a human couple get married they say ‘I do’ to each other but trees only say ‘I would’. That’s a fact.
I did consider calling this story ‘Would for the Trees’ but that play on words seemed inappropriate because none of the characters speak fluent English in public, not even the tree. I’m fond of literary conceits but I do have limits. Having said that, this text does contain at least one other trick, a deliberate deception.
The truth is that I’m not really stopping over at Jitvapur right now. In fact I’ve never even been there. Which makes leaving in the morning much easier.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

An Inconvenient Fruit (2010)

This very brief story is the first in a sequence of absurdist tales featuring a protean character by the name of 'Thornton Excelsior'. The stories were collected in a volume called The Lunar Tickle, one of my personal favourites of my books. The stories tend not to be based on empirical logic but on the logic of word and ideas association. As I have said elsewhere, this is quite a common technique with me.

It is unknown how Thornton Excelsior obtained the peach that destroyed the world by flooding it with juice. He simply doesn’t remember; the catastrophe was so immensely unexpected that it wiped his memory clean. He sat on his porch on a rocking chair and bit into the flesh of the fruit. And that was that.
Once the restraining skin of the peach was broached, the juice inside exploded outwards. The pressure of the spurting liquid jettisoned the fruit out of his grasp and it soared over the horizon and into the sea. The waves lapped themselves like cats made of milk. If he hadn’t been sitting on a rocking chair the recoil would have killed him.
The juice spread across the surface of the ocean. Already the slick was larger than a province, a state, a federation. Thornton was aghast; it’s not something that I recommend, being aghast, but you are welcome to try for yourselves. Sweet sticky juice rising inexorably, pouring over dykes and into flood plains. Inundation!
Presidents, kings and generals pointed the finger at him. They made an extra long finger by welding iron tubes together and poked him with it. He recoiled and hid under a table; but the steadily rising liquid forced him up the stairs and finally into his attic. The hollow finger followed him. Then it spoke; a voice vibrated out of it.
“Thornton, old son, don’t worry about a thing. Those presidents, kings and generals are superfluous and will come to a sticky end. But I have taken a fancy to you; and I will save you. I command you to build an ark, a vessel that can sail the tide of juice and keep you alive until the crisis is over; but this ark mustn’t be made of wood or fibreglass or other conventional shipbuilding materials. To surf a global juice surge, only one substance is proper: planks of frozen clotted cream! Do you hearken to me, Thornton Excelsior?”
“Yes, yes! But who are you?”
“I am Zesto, the God of Fruit. Do what I command and all will be well. After forty days, give or take a month, the juice will recede and the ark will settle on solid ground. Then you may rebuild civilisation from scratch, or if not from scratch from itch. You may also found a religion in my name.”
“Must I take one pair of every beast?”
“Animals on a ship made of clotted cream… Don’t be silly!”
Thornton constructed his ark and it floated on the juice without sinking. The voice that lived in the tube never came back, not even when there was a violent storm. But Rosie O’Gassy said, “What the hell am I doing in this paragraph? I’ve never even existed as a character before.” And Thornton Excelsior answered with a smile:
“You don’t expect me to save humanity on my own?”
He was the first of the dessert fathers. His ark went rancid a long time ago, so there’s no point looking for it; but I won’t stop you if you insist. And Zesto put a giant banana in the sky to symbolise his promise that the world would never again be drowned in juice. There’s a pot of yoghurt at the end of it, supposedly.
As for the presidents, kings and generals: they were impeached.