Tuesday, 4 December 2018

His Unstable Shape (2017)

Christmas is coming, so I thought it would be nice to put up here a Christmas story that I wrote last year. I wrote it for a book called Yule Do Nicely which is entirely devoted to my Christmas stories, even though most of them don't really mention Christmas. The following story features that excellent fellow Humpty Dumpty, who logically should perhaps be more associated with Easter but for some reason isn't. Ah well!

Most of us know that Humpty Dumpty was a large sentient egg who liked to sit on walls despite his unstable shape. He fell off and was broken and that is all that is certain about his life. Various apocryphal stories have become associated with him since his accident. Some people insist he was a philosopher as well as an egg. Others claim he invented a new emotion quite unlike any other emotion in the history of the world, but they are unable to describe what it might feel like. One professor has insisted that he was not an egg but the hull of an alien spacecraft from a distant star or a time machine from the future.
My aim today is not to add to this unhappy catalogue of fictions. I have no tales to tell about the kinds of antics he performed, nor can I offer insights into his character, beliefs or aspirations. Instead I wish to ponder something that is talked about too seldom. If Humpty Dumpty was an egg, what thing would have hatched out of him? Had his shell not been shattered by an external force, we may assume it would have been broken by an inner one, for the ovoid stage of his existence could only be brief and something within must have emerged to escort his identity further along the path of natural development.
No forensic evidence was collected in the wake of his death and our speculations remain purely notional. Yet I think it is possible to construct a plausible scenario using inductive logic alone. First we must attempt to establish what kind of egg he was, reptilian, amphibian or avian. One clue is his propensity for sitting on the tops of walls. It is true that lizards are accomplished wall climbers but they tend to cling to the sides rather than dominate the summits. Amphibians have no interest in walls that are not made of water and while they might congregate at waterfall tops they are disinclined to balance on narrow brick ledges.
There is always the possibility that he was the egg of some organism hitherto unknown on the surface of our world, that he might have come from outer space, from subterranean realms or an alternative dimension. But there is no need to multiply entities beyond necessity and without evidence to point us in that direction, it is safer to continue to assume that he was the egg of a phylum familiar to our zoologists. Personally I favour the avian origin as the most realistic. Birds are constantly perching on our walls and sometimes they fall off too, when icy winds howl or rascals in the neighbourhood acquire new catapults.
Most of us are familiar with impetuosity and impatience. We might be reckless individuals ourselves or have friends and relations who embody the blurred spirits of haste and risk. Humpty was eager to become the bird he was destined to be, whatever kind it was, so keen in fact that he acted prematurely. Instead of remaining in the nest, wherever that was located, he left it and engaged in activities that were too old for him. He perched on walls, yes indeed, but perching high safely is the prerogative of those with wings. He was an egg and probably ignorant of the laws of physics. His fall was almost a foregone conclusion.
Now it is appropriate to turn our attention to the kind of bird he would have become if circumstances had been different. He was a large egg, one sizeable enough to hold audible conversations with human interlocutors, so we may immediately dismiss the vast majority of our feathered friends as candidates. This leaves us with the ostrich, the rhea, the moa, and that extraordinary bird from the island of Madagascar, Aepyornis maximus, so enormous that it inspired the fable of the roc, the bird that swooped down to seize elephants in its talons. No sentient examples of these birds’ eggs have been found, however, which is a pity.
All those birds are based in remote countries, and we are compelled to wonder how an individual egg might cross the oceans that separate these species’ homelands from our own, for it was in England that Humpty had his crisis and those birds are flightless. The ostrich and rhea are too small anyway, and the others went extinct before Humpty existed. The more we consider the matter, the less likely it appears that he was the egg of a bird known to science. Thus we draw the conclusion that he was the egg of an undiscovered bird. What might the bird have been like? Because there are no clues there is no reliable answer to this.
But there is one solution that has an elegant absurdity about it and for that reason alone I am inclined to favour it. Some years ago I happened to be strolling through the city of Cologne. I stopped in order to check the time on my wristwatch, for I am one of those unfortunate fellows who are unable to read numbers and dials while on the move. As I lifted my wrist to my face, a dull but loud creaking above my head made me fear that an object was about to fall on me. I looked up. It was a cuckoo clock fixed to the exterior wall of an old clock shop, one of the largest cuckoo clocks in the world. And it was striking the hour.
The hatch doors were opening, ponderously and painfully, and when they were fully agape the monstrous cuckoo came out. It emerged with a great deal of mechanical effort on an extendable trellis that sagged at its furthest reach. Then the cuckoo widened its beak and after an unsettling pause gave forth a cry of astonishingly dismal cadence. It repeated this sound three times to indicate that the local time was three o’clock in the afternoon and then, as exhausted as a senescent gran, it withdrew into its sanctuary, the hatch doors slamming behind it and the whirring of internal cogs ceasing as abruptly as they had begun.
I was astonished and affronted. I felt an outrage had been committed against my consciousness, that this clock was an insult to public decency, and I found myself wishing some other bird occupied the clock instead of an unmusical cuckoo. And it occurred to me that a different bird had once done so. Certainly it must. We all know the cuckoo’s life cycle. It hatches in a nest not its own and destroys the other eggs in order to be the solitary recipient of all the attention from the bereaved parents. If cuckoos occupy clocks then it logically follows that some other bird once lived in them. A bird of magic. But probably not a phoenix.
What bird lived in the clock before the cuckoo? This question is the key to understanding Humpty Dumpty’s true identity. That is what I now believe, at any rate. Somewhere in this peculiar world of ours the decayed remains of a cuckoo clock may be found, a cuckoo clock vaster by many orders of magnitude than the one I saw in Cologne. The bird that was its original occupant was the one who laid Humpty Dumpty and eggs similar to him. A cuckoo invaded the nest and left an egg that hatched first and rolled out the others. Humpty Dumpty did not break on that occasion. The start of his life was a rehearsal for his death.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

In the Margins (1993)

This story is very 'Fortean' in theme. When I was young I distinctly remember being on holiday in an English seaside resort (I think it was Poole or Weymouth) and seeing large clumps of grass raining from a clear sky. The clumps fell very gently, almost like parachutes. Since that time I have believed without question that rains of frogs, fishes and other peculiar objects are perfectly possible. 'In the Margins' was published in a magazine in the late 1990s and also appears in my Tallest Stories book.

At the bottom of our garden lies a pond, ringed by gnarled and ugly trees, and at the bottom of the pond lies a cottage. The waters swirl around the crumbling stones in little spirals, foaming over the ruined chimney as if reluctant to press in too close. In the troubled mirror of this pond, the cottage stands tangled in the reflection of the trees, netted in their twisted branches as if it had been lodged there by an unnatural gust of wind.
How the cottage came to reside under the waters of our pond remains a mystery. Is there any truth in the assertion that a witch caused it to subside by slow degrees for arcane and unfathomable reasons? And if so, who was this witch? There are no records to shed any light on the matter; there is only conjecture and speculation. I, for one, prefer this ingenuous explanation to those suggested by the more prosaic members of our community. I refuse to accept that it was built there, in its present location, as some sort of liquid joke.
Not that this would have presented any problems to the patient trickster. The pond could have been drained easily enough, the cottage constructed and then the water pumped back in. But the sheer obscurity of the joke causes me to frown and make many a harsh grimace when I consider this option.
Instead, I often languish by the side of the pond, peering down into the depths, and repeat the word "subsidence" as if it were a mantra. A slow subsidence, as slow as the growth of a dead man's fingernails or the twisted trees themselves, would have sufficed to preserve the cottage intact in its descent. No beams would have been shaken loose, no thread of thatch unravelled. They rot now, it is true, but such decay is quite a different matter.
One evening, taking some kittens to the side of the pond, to save them from the knife of my brother, I witnessed a peculiar and disturbing sight. No sooner had I tied the little weights around their necks and dropped them one by one, like depth-charges, into the glinting water, than an unusual commotion began far below.
I am not a superstitious being by nature, but my senses are keen, and so, not wishing to waste an opportunity to initiate gossip, I threw myself to the ground and, ducking my head into the icy water, strained my eyes to discern the origin of the turbulence.
A second later, I regretted my decision. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I perceived a tiny man standing at the door of the cottage. He was holding a large net on the end of a pole. Such nets were familiar to me: I had spent many happy hours on the moors with an identical net, collecting moon-moths to be ground into powder in the apothecary's shop. I had developed a certain skill in utilising my net; a skill not shared by my aquatic counterpart far below.
Gasping and wheezing, he aimed the net at the kittens that floated down past him. His frantic motions were the source of the disturbance. He utterly failed in catching a single specimen. The kittens struck the bottom of the pond and disappeared into the sinuous weeds. Bubbles erupted from each mossy collision. The tiny man shook his fists and snapped the pole of the net over his knee. Then he threw the pieces away and pulled his hair in a parody of rage. The pieces floated up towards me and broke the surface tension of the pond inches from my face.
While I was questioning my sanity, and just a moment before I could bear the noxious waters no longer, the angry homunculus chanced to gaze high above and spotted me looking down. The expression on his face must have mirrored my own. We were both paralysed with astonishment. For long moments, our eyes were meshed together by fibres of emotion impossible to understand. And then he darted back into his cottage and returned with an equally tiny woman. I assumed that she was his wife. He pointed up at the sky and together they gaped at me.
Panting, I pulled my head out of the pond and took a long deep gulp of air. I resisted the temptation to take another look at the submerged cottage. I had decided that I was suffering from a form of madness or delirium. I resolved to forget the experience and make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. I left the pond and made my way slowly back up the garden-path to my house.
Yet as I walked, I started wondering again about the peculiar sight I had just witnessed. Supposing that I was not mad? Supposing that the phenomena had been real? I had heard many stories about falls of strange objects from the sky. There had been reports of fish, ice, betel nuts, coins, worms, eels, snails, snakes and frogs. This last item on the list made me shudder. I repressed this shudder and stroked my chin. Such objects were supposed to orbit the world in an eldritch region in the sky before falling. A region that lay in the margins of reality.
If this was true, then it was possible that I was living in such a twilight realm myself and had been the cause of a strange shower in another world. The tiny man had obviously been trying to collect one of the falling kittens as proof of his bizarre experience. Probably he would have as much difficulty convincing his neighbours and friends of my existence as I would have convincing my own neighbours and friends of his. I decided to say nothing and to resume my mundane life without ever mentioning even the submerged cottage again.
As I approached the door of my house, I heard a thud behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw the body of a tiny man slumped in the bushes. I thought at first that my diminutive neighbour had tried to follow me and had drowned in the air. But then another body fell into another clump of bushes and I looked up. The sky was full of little men sliding through the atmosphere with weights tied to their feet. And higher still, to my complete amazement, the face of an enormous kitten gazed down at me with eyes the size of seas.
My first reaction was to rush into my house and return with my wife, so that there would be at least one other witness to this miracle. However, it occurred to me that if I could simply catch one of the tiny men alive it would be evidence enough. I had no nets, but I could use the old-fashioned method. I had a sudden ludicrous image of a host of different dimensions impinging on each other, kittens hurling down men, men hurling down snakes, snakes hurling down frogs and frogs hurling down kittens...
I called out to my wife and then opened my mouth wider. My long sticky tongue snatched the little men from the air before they hit the ground and I stacked them in a little pile by my side. Naturally I swallowed a few. Life in the margins of reality does seem to have its advantages. It is not every day that guests just drop in for dinner.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Heavy Rain on a Slow Train (2017)

The two brief texts that follow can be regarded as chapters that were lost from my novel Cloud Farming in Wales. They weren’t lost from there, of course, but I had to do something for the sake of symmetry. My novel is a tribute to the writer Richard Brautigan and his Trout Fishing in America book. He genuinely misplaced a pair of chapters, which he later rewrote and included in his collection, Revenge of the Lawn. This is precisely why I also require two lost chapters, and why they had to appear in a separate story collection of mine, The Seashell Contract. And here they are:

Escaping the Rain

We had to leave Wales or go mad. We were already crazy perhaps, crazy to escape, to get out of the endless downpour. Our umbrellas were dented canopies on twisted poles. They had endured too much, and so had we. It was time to flee, to hurry into the rain and rush to the train station, and to catch a train, any train, heading east.
The English border is only an hour away. We just had to cross the big river that marks the frontier; and we knew the torrential rain would cease at that point, or at least slacken considerably. Rainfall in Wales is about eighteen times as heavy as it is in England, according to the latest figures released by the meteorological office.
But we all know how they tend to underestimate things. Probably they had received bribes to downplay the downpour. The truth of the matter is that in Wales it never stops raining, not even for one minute, and on those days when it seems not to be raining it simply means that a very big flock of birds is migrating directly overhead.
We headed for the train station and bought tickets to Bristol. The train pulled into the station and we jumped onto it. Then we searched for seats in the crowded carriages. The train was bursting with commuters. Maybe other people had decided to escape from Wales too. At last we found free seats in a carriage at the rear of the train.
One seat faced forwards and the other seat faced backwards; and both of them faced each other across a plastic table. Chloe lowered herself into the seat facing forwards before I had a chance to object. That was the seat I wanted! But no point being childish or churlish about it, so I sat down in the other seat, the one facing backwards.
Travelling backwards in a vehicle often makes me feel nauseous and I much prefer to face forwards and look out of a window to see where I am going. But this seemed to be a trivial detail at this stage. The crucial thing is that we were together, Chloe and I, and escaping the rains of Wales. It was a relief to have finally taken this step.
The guard blew his whistle and the train pulled out of the station. We waved farewell to Cardiff and its dripping relentlessness. We held hands across the table, and this felt nice and romantic and special, but there was a persistent tugging, as if a force was trying to break our grip. I fought it and noted that Chloe was fighting it too.
“Something is yanking at my arms,” I informed her.
“Mine too. Just keep hold of me.”
“I wonder what it is?”
“Probably the inertia of the train’s motion.”
“Pesky laws of mechanics.”
And so we held hands, fingers in gloves intertwined, until an inspector came to check our tickets. He punched a hole in them with a little device, returned them to us and lurched on his way. Then we resumed the holding of our hands, both of mine in both of hers, or both of hers in both of mine, across the table. It felt important to do this.
I wasn’t sure why it felt so important, but it did, and even when a very powerful itch tormented my nose I refused to scratch it. I endured it until it went away, which it eventually did. The time was passing. At long last we were approaching the tunnel that would take us under the river, and on the far side we would be in sunny England.
The train hurled itself into the tunnel mouth and the view beyond the windows went black. My ears popped. I frowned at my reflection in the glass and saw that it was holding hands with Chloe, but I wondered why her reflection was out there, in the window, and I feared I was losing her; that she was on the other side of a barrier.
“What are you doing beyond the window?” I asked her, and I jerked my head to indicate her reflection.
“No, I am here. You are the one in the glass!”
I froze at her words. She knew.
The train emerged from the tunnel. No rain streaked the windows. It was a dry sky that confronted us, blue and speckled with clouds that were white rather than an angry dark grey. This was England, a country where it doesn’t rain every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year.
It was a place where it would be possible to make a fresh start without squelching, without growing mouldy. The train pulled into the station at Bristol. Then Chloe disengaged her fingers from mine and stood up, and smiled at me. “Time to get off. We’ re here,” she said. Then she noticed the tears in my eyes, like substitute rain.
“Yes, you have arrived, but I haven’t,” I said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I was sitting the wrong way,” I explained. “I have been travelling in the other direction all this time. You were facing forwards and that’s the way you have gone; but I was facing backwards and I’ve ended up going west instead of east. I know it doesn’t look that way, but appearances are deceptive. We are further apart than ever!”
“Where are you now?” she asked.
“Almost at Swansea. Should be arriving in a few minutes. That’s what happens when passengers sit opposite each other instead of side by side. I realise we didn’t have a choice. These were the only free seats. It’s a real shame. Don’t forget me, Chloe, please!”
“Take care in the rain, dear,” she begged me.
I promised her I would. She couldn’t linger any longer. The train was about to depart. With a tender look, she broke away and got off the train just in time. She stood on the platform with a raised hand and I raised my own in a melancholy salute. I shut my eyes.
I opened them again. The train was pulling in to Swansea. The heavy rain was beating against the windows. Everything was greyness, mist and blurred lights. At least one of us had managed to escape! That was better than nothing! I listened to the bark of dogfish as the train came to a stop. The flooded city was infested with them.

It Goes Without Saying

Mondaugen has invented many different kinds of vehicle and it was thus inevitable that he would eventually turn his attention to designing a new kind of train. There was nothing special in the way it looked when it was finished; but he insisted that the power source was something quite new and that it would save a lot of money.
He couldn’t interest any of the authorities in investing in it, so he was forced to pay for the construction of a prototype himself. This is normal when it comes to Mondaugen’s creations. He spends all the profits that he earns from his successful inventions on his unsuccessful ones. But at first his new type of train seemed promising.
“Silence is the fuel of the future!” he announced.
We craned forward to catch these words, because he hadn’t made this announcement very loudly. In fact he had merely mouthed words silently and we were expected to lip-read them. Some of us managed to do so. A few of us can’t even read newspapers all the way through, let alone lips, and they remained as confused as ever.
“The engine of this vehicle,” he continued silently, “runs on smooth air, on undisturbed atmospherics. In other words, even the vibrations of the barest whisper will disrupt the fuel that it feeds on and ruin it. That’s why I insist on no talking in its vicinity.”
This was a lot to ask from a crowd of curious Welsh onlookers. Most of us had squeaky or squelchy shoes and dripping noses from the endless rains of Wales, and total silence was an unknown ideal in our damp lives. I thought that Mondaugen was going to be disappointed, but we tried our best not to make a sound, to be inaudible.
How the engine processed silence into motive power is something he never explained in detail. Sometimes I wonder if Mondaugen knows how his own inventions work, but that doesn’t really matter. The main point is that they do work, and work well, although they often go wrong later. But this one seemed to go wrong from the start.
He pulled a lever on the side of the engine but the vehicle just refused to budge. It stood on its metal wheels on the rails and slowly rusted in the rain. Mondaugen waited and we waited with him. Then he placed a finger to his lips. He assumed one of us was rustling or making some other faint noise and polluting the fuel, but we weren’t.
It was a vehicle that ran on absolute silence. Talking would bring it to a dead halt. It was a train that goes without saying; and such an invention is doomed in Wales. Not only is Wales a garrulous country in terms of its inhabitants, but the rain doesn’t just pitter-patter like normal rain in other nations. It makes conversation when it falls.
The raindrops in Wales have tiny mouths that utter a word when these drops bash themselves open against the ground, roofs or umbrellas. They cry out in joy or surprise or fear or just for the hell of it. Although a man with a stethoscope might be able to hear these words clearly if he’s lucky, he won’t understand them. They are inhuman.
And that’s why Mondaugen’s train was doomed to failure. The instant he realised the rain was responsible for sabotaging his project, he made a few half-hearted efforts to fix the problem. Nothing helped. At one point he persuaded us to stand on the roof of the train with umbrellas, shielding it from the rain. But there was too much noise.
Everywhere there was splashing and the utterances of those tiny damp mouths, the background hum and buzz of Wales, wettest land in creation, and silence stood no chance. We dismounted from the roof and cast aside the useless umbrellas and waited for him to acknowledge defeat. But he’s always the most stubborn inventor imaginable.
He kept tinkering to no avail and finally I approached him, tapped him on the shoulder and broke my vow of silence. I said, “A train that runs on silence is a totally unfeasible device here. Why not convert the engine to run on a more practical and plentiful fuel, such as rainwater? Can you try that, do you think? Invent a kind of rain train?”
He could, of course. He was Mondaugen, the most ingenious inventor ever to plod through the puddles of possibility, or wade the waterlogged vales of wonder, in this saturated land of ours. He could take his spanner right now and make the necessary adjustments to the mechanism without delay. Because that’s the kind of genius he was.
He stood back, panting. The rain streamed down his face, but he was happy. He had converted the engine from one that runs on silence to one that was powered by falling rain. It was ready already. He reached out to pull the lever. We watched him in trepidation and leaking shoes. Down went the lever and the train simply disappeared.
It vanished in a blur; and all that remained was an afterimage that was so persistent it is probably still there. There is so much rain in Wales that a train powered by the stuff is going to fly off at the speed or light or even faster than that; and it will vaporise or go backwards in time. No one can guess exactly what happened to it, not even him.
We all turned away and left the scene. We walked without enthusiasm and our knees shone in the rain and our feet squeaked in the rain and our chins dripped in the rain and our ears flapped in the rain and our nostrils quivered in the rain and our souls rotted in the rain. I made an apology to the great inventor. I felt it was my fault and said:
“Wales is simply too rainy.”
“That also goes without saying,” he answered.

Well, there you have the lost chapters of Cloud Farming in Wales. They weren’t really lost, because to get lost you have to go somewhere and in order to go somewhere you have to exist; and these chapters didn’t exist until after I had decided they were already lost, which is the wrong way around. But that doesn’t matter much.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

A Dame Abroad (2013)

I have written many unconventional crime stories over the years. I have written several linked sequences of them, including The Long Chin of the Law and The Sticky Situations of Zwicky Fingers. The following tale was dashed off quickly for an editor who put out a call for unusual crime fiction. Many different private eyes are mentioned in the adventure and I intend to write a story featuring each one as a main character. Heston Furball has already had his moment of glory in a story called 'The French Lieutenant's Gurning'. The others will get their chance in due course.

She was a dame. She talked like a dame, moved like a dame, smelled like a dame, breathed like a dame, slept like a dame, yawned like a dame, coughed like a dame, dusted like a dame, cooked like a dame, had the metabolism of a dame, knew about as much astrophysics as a dame would, had a selection of hats typical of a dame. She was a dame.
No doubt about it. A dame through and through. Her hips were as wide and curvy as a concert piano and her feet were like pedals, so if you stood on one while she was talking her voice would become a swelling overlapping echo and if you stood on the other her voice would be muted and soft. But no man could play her well. She was out of tune.
Her lipstick was a dame’s lipstick and it was the colour of the edges of a bullet wound or some sort of massive head trauma. It could even be said that it was the shade of blood that gushes from a busted lip. It wasn’t the lipstick of a homunculus or panda. She left her apartment and swayed down the length of this sentence to the end of the paragraph.
Her hips kept getting stuck between the margins of the story, that’s how wide they were, but she finally arrived on the street and headed downtown, a part of town under uptown. She was going there because the plot told her to and she had no choice. She was without choice, without even a dame’s choice, but she had everything else a dame should.
Yes, she was a dame. She was also a broad. A broad is a certain kind of dame and in fact I don’t think there’s any difference between them, but I’m not really an expert. Maybe there is a miniscule arcane difference, something to do with the atoms of the ankles. Who knows? I don’t. Maybe you do. Maybe you are a dame or broad who knows. Well done.
I am a private eye. That’s who I am. I used to be a public eye, but people got upset and complained to the authorities about my appearance. They didn’t like to see a gigantic eye rolling along the pavement towards them. It disturbed them that the rest of my head was missing, that I had no body or limbs, that I was just an eye with the diameter of a cottage.
So the authorities forced me to go private and encased me inside a brick pyramid and now I blink out near the summit of the structure and you can find me on the hill overlooking the town. I don’t solve many cases these days, to be honest, but that’s because I’m too busy living a fantasy life. In my fantasy life I’m a man with all my parts fully functional.
These daydreams are starting to occupy all my waking hours. I imagine that my name is Sergio Surges and I have a moustache so big that a policeman can conceal himself inside it. This is helpful when confronting lethal criminals with their deeds. For example, at this precise instant I’m about to enter a bar where a notorious gangster is playing pool.
I watch him splashing about with the rubber ducks and toy boats but it’s rude and dangerous to stare so I turn away and order a drink from the barman, who happens to be a midget pygmy.“Rum.”
Pygmies are quite small already, but the midgets amongst them are really tiny, no higher than the knees of a freak spider.
“What kind?” he asks.
“The kind that begins with the letter B,” I reply.
“Brandy, you mean?”
“Sure! Make it a double on the rocks.”
He places a selection of pebbles on the bar and slowly pours the alcohol over them. I nod and pay him. I also tip him. Over the edge of the tall stool on which he stands. He plummets through an open trapdoor that leads to a very long passage that passes through the world all the way back to where he came from, which is the Pygmalion Republic.
That passage is so long it goes on for umpteen hundred thousand pages. This is the highly condensed version.
“What did you do that for?” cries the notorious gangster.
“He was corrupt,” I answer coolly.
“And what the hell do you think you are?”
“I am Sergio Surges, the private eye who is more than just an eye, and I am not corrupt at all, partly because this is just a daydream, but I know for an unchecked fact that he, the barman, was taking bribes from you in order to let wicked things happen on the premises.”
“Oh yeah? What sort of wicked things, buddy?”
“No idea. I don’t bother with little details like that. It’s too much effort. Maybe he allowed you to fight the shadows of gibbons on that wall over there. Or maybe he let you to use a freshly baked pizza as an indoor Frisbee and the toppings were pineapple and chocolate.”
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“Do I look like an Englishman and Scotsman and Irishman? Of course it’s no joke. You are under arrest.”
“I’m going to kill ya with my heater!”
He gets out of the pool and plugs a portable electric heater into a socket on the wall, taking care not to drip on the wires, and waits for the filaments to start glowing. But he is far too slow. The policeman in my moustache instantly reveals himself and blasts him with a truncheon that is actually a mini-bazooka and I watch him burst like applause.
A round of. Very satisfying.
The door swings open and the dame walks in like a baby grand. My jaw drops open. What is she doing here?
“This is my daydream. Get out!” I bellow.
Her lipsticked lips curl in a sneer that is half smile. “A daydream? Fine. I am a day-dame, so I belong here.”
I despise it when confusions arise and unplanned things happen in what is supposed to be my personal fantasy. I usually escape them by going into the next level of daydream, by closing my eyes and imagining I am Hugo Lobes, a private eye with ears so large that a couple of pygmy midgets can hide behind each one, both armed with blowpipes.
I am sitting on the top deck of a tram and reading the newspaper and the front page headline screams at me that a terrible gangster is sitting downstairs on the same tram at this very moment, so I get up to make my way down the curving set of metal steps, but my way is blocked by a woman who is coming up. To my dismay I recognise her...
The dame! She followed me into this fantasy!
“This is most unfair!” I roar.
“I go wherever I please,” she retorts.
“But I thought you didn’t have a choice. It said earlier in this story that you were a dame without choice.”
“Precisely. I have no choice but to go where I please.”
“You mean that your free will is—”
“Predetermined,” she says.
So I vanish into the third level of daydream, the level where I am Bogie Clubs, a private eye with such a big mouth that gibbons could bake pizzas in there without anyone getting suspicious, and I am on the deck of a cruise ship that is heading to the Bermuda Shorts, a pair of islands where a gangster has taken refuge in one of the deep pockets.
A steward approaches. “Would monsieur care for a drink?””
“Gin,” I answer languidly.
“What kind?” he asks in a high voice.
“The kind that begins with the letter V,” I reply.
“Vodka, you mean?”
“No thanks. Vermouth please.”
But he doesn’t go to fetch me my beverage. Instead he pulls off his cap and unbuttons his jacket to reveal—
The dame! It’s the dame again! That damned dame!
I vanish into the next level.
Now I am Griswald Jerkins, the private eye with a chin dimple so deep that a tram driver with a halberd could conceal himself and pop out and swing it most effectively at the drop of a hat, especially one of those very heavy hats that make a clanging noise when it lands. I am furiously pedalling a unicycle up a mountain path in pursuit of a gangster.
Another unicycle catches up with me, draws level.
The rider is the dame again!
I escape into the next level. I am Morton Punchbowl and—
The dame, the dame, the dame!
Through all the daydreams she follows me and each subsequent fantasy has slightly less detail in it, is less fleshed out, sparser, bleaker, less real then the one that preceded it, and each private eye is less convincing, because I’ve spent less time working on their identities and environments than I might have done. But fleeing this way is my only hope.
Here’s a short list of some of the private eyes I become:
Mickey Stains.
Hercule Pompbustus.
Heston Furball.
Flippy Masters.
Duckbreath Chumptaster.
Ratleg Smashy.
Occidental Brushtooth.
Ajax van Scruba.
Chickpea Bunkerlove.
Zippy Buttons.
Gusty Nuts.
Lemontoe Thumbrag.
And then I run out of daydreams and run out of names and run out of big body parts and run out of time, energy and space, and I find myself, as I’m sure you have already anticipated, completing the circle, closing the loop and becoming myself again, a colossal eyeball inside a pyramid and I glance down and see her climbing the hill towards me.
“Leave me alone!” I scream.
“I will now,” she says. “I just wanted to go on a journey, that’s all, out of this story and around the world. I wanted to go abroad. I was a dame but a stay-at-home dame. And now I’ve been abroad, so I’m a dame abroad and a broad at home, and it feels just fine. I climbed up here to thank you but also to ask your advice. I really need to know.”
“What is it?” I am frantic to get rid of her. I’ll say anything to make her go away, answer any question. And then it comes, she hits me with it, and I’m more acutely aware than ever before that she’s a dame, that she has the soul of a dame, the heart of a dame, the plot of a dame, the metaphors of a dame, the grammar of a dame, the power of a dame.
“How do you curl your lashes?”

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Billie Holiday on Vacation (2016)

This is a brief strange story that began with the title alone; and the title just entered my head one day, for no other reason than that it's a symmetrical and absurdist phrase. The title was the seed and the rest of the story grew naturally and rapidly from it. Jazz songs sometimes evolve this way too. The story is included in my book The Seashell Contract which was published in 2017 in aid of charity.

Billie Holiday on vacation, it is said, once happened to meet Billy Vacation, who was on holiday. It took place in a place that mended shoes and cut keys. One of her heels must have come off or something. Mr Vacation was leaning on his counter and licking his lips as if they were located in another country. He said:
I adore all your songs.”
Many of them haven’t been recorded or even written yet,” she replied with one shoulder hunched higher than the other. It was the right one. But there is no right or wrong when it comes to shoulders.
He nodded in sympathy. “Future events. That’s nice.”
She knew what he was probably thinking, which was that she had a deformed shoulder, whereas in fact her posture was entirely due to the fact that the heel had snapped off her left shoe. Mr Vacation, for his part, was thinking that she was guessing what he was thinking and was correct in this guess, but for the wrong reason.
Mr Vacation had seen too many people totter into his place with lopsided shoulders and they always had the heel of one shoe missing. But he understood that one day this would not be the case, that someone would approach his counter with a shoulder that was biologically higher, or lower, than the other shoulder, a person with asymmetrical shrugs. Do the laws of chance make this event inevitable?
Well, yes they do. And when he took his first look at Billie Holiday in the flesh, even though he was aware that her shoulders were normal, he decided that today was the day for the prediction to come true. So he said in his most soothing voice:
There’s a hospital just up the street.”
Billie had already stooped to remove her damaged shoe and now she held it up and placed it down on the counter. “They don’t fix shoes there. I already asked.” Her shoulders were no longer lopsided, which meant she was standing on only one leg. He couldn’t be sure, because the counter was in the way, but even when there was no counter in the way he was unsure of so many things in life. How to make soup, for example.
His soups were terrible. They were solid.
He had once been able to use one of his soups as a doorstop to stop a heavy door, but he couldn’t recall what he had stopped it from doing, and that’s another story and another suppertime anyway.
Mr Vacation examined the broken shoe. It was a fairly easy job but he made faces and made noises with the mouth of those faces, just one mouth for all the faces, because it is good to economise in these days of fiscal fretting, when old shoes are mended more often than bought brand new, not that it’s possible to buy old shoes brand new…
But you know what I mean,” he said to himself.
Why does this place mend shoes and cut keys?” she asked. “I’ve always wondered why places that do the one also do the other. That’s like a bread shop that also sells guns. I don’t see the connection.”
Just to be clear,” he replied, “this place doesn’t mend shoes and cut keys. I never have and never will mend a cut key. I cut new keys and that’s what this place does and why I’m in it.”
An undertaker’s that is also a hat shop…” she was musing.
Mr Vacation continued to lick his lips but now it felt as if they were on their way home, tanned from the sun, still sleepy from lazy days on the beach and dancing at night. They tasted of coconut and exchange rates. His tongue was like shoe leather, the saliva that coated it like melted keys but cooler. It turned in the locks of his mouth, causing it to open wide, and then he said, “The machinery is the same.”
I beg your pardon?”
The machinery used to mend shoes and cut keys.”
Now I comprehend.”
They looked at each other. “What brought you to Florida, if you don’t mind me asking?” he asked mindfully.
I am on vacation. And you?”
I’m on holiday. It’s a working holiday. I mend shoes and cut keys in Oregon. I traded places with the guy who mends shoes and cuts keys here. It’s just for one month.”
A little trip to the Florida Keys, you could say?”
He laughed. It had been the only joke a customer had told him since he arrived. He gestured behind him at a wall festooned with keys. He indicated the key furthest on her left. “That one must be Key West,” he said, as he took it down and held it under his nose like a robot’s moustache. Did it smell of marlin and cocktails? In his imagination, yes, but undercut with a tang of shotgun powder.
Is it true there’s a lock for every key?” she asked.
I’m certain that there is.”
In that case, why not attach a large key to the bottom of my shoe rather than a heel?”
Mr Vacation considered the unusual idea. He knew what she was hoping would happen if he did this. There are doors everywhere, doors of perception, doors of fate and opportunity, invisible doors locked fast against our blunderings and gropings. Some of these doors are like trapdoors, on the underside of the ceiling of the sky, and others are like manholes, embedded in the ground.
She might walk directly over the door labelled ‘musical history’ and unlock it with her new heel. It would spring open and she would plummet through into the safest of all safe spaces for reputations. She didn’t yet realise she had already passed through that door.
Yes,” she said when he explained all that, “but maybe I didn’t lock it behind me. So I still need that key.”
If the machinery is the same, why not? He cut the key for her and fixed it to the bottom of her shoe. She tried it on and now her shoulders were straight even when she stood on both legs at the same time. She paid him and walked out of his sight and he never saw her again. She must have trodden on that lock and made that door secure against being opened by a casual talent such as his own. And thus she vanished from the gigantic room of this world into another.
When his month was completed, Mr Vacation returned home and an effort was later made to track him down by historians of the great singer, but his trail, his Oregon Trail, like hot soup left unattended on a doorstop too long, had gone cold.