Thursday, 19 December 2019

Six Characters in Search of an Executioner (1994)

This story was an attempt to create a linked series of vignettes, some of which are highly compressed reworkings of other stories I have written, in order to see if I could devise a sum greater than its parts. The end result pleased the publisher of my collection AT THE MOLEHILLS OF MADNESS, where it appears. I too have a fondness for the portmanteau story. The fourth of the six vignettes is actually my earliest surviving story idea. I wrote a first version of the tale when I was perhaps ten years old. The expanded rewritten version is called 'Learning to Fall' and can be found in my NOWHERE NEAR MILKWOOD book.

(1)
The first death involves a gallows that operates upside down. The rope is one of those lengths of mystic hemp and human hair that jumps erect in the old Indian trick. So the executioner will have to be a fakir of sorts; probably a toothless ascetic with ribs like the bars of a cage and a matted beard. When he claps his hands together, the rope will spring into the air. But this is too barbaric for our purpose, so there will have to be modifications. Now the fakir pulls a lever and a series of weights are set in motion, wheels turn and fan belts whirr. A mechanical set of hands comes together with the required clap and tradition and progress are both satisfied.
As for the condemned prisoner, he is doubtless an insurgent or political rebel. Petty criminals are separated from their limbs and left for the crows in the barley fields. Religious dissenters are quartered in the circus. Republicans alone (and their anarchist brethren) are preserved for the noose. The affair is an outdoor event; all good spectacles are available these days for public consumption. It is the old excuse for a knees-up; songs and dancing and ribaldry. This fellow, our present doomed specimen, makes a noble speech about justice and morality. He has obviously never been to Cwmbran.
The drum rolls, the trumpets fanfare, the crowd throws rotten fruit and cruel jokes. The executioner pulls the lever, but nothing happens. One of the mechanical hands has been stolen. The other hand flaps aimlessly: the sound of one hand clapping is finally revealed to be that of near-death. It begins to rain. An engineer is called. Later, in the puddle left by the downpour in front of the gallows, you can see a man who hangs the right way up, towards the stars.

(2)
In the second instance, there is a cannibal family somewhere (picture the wilds beyond Carmarthen) who, for some unspecified and patently ludicrous reason, do not yet realise that cannibalism is not the norm. So they continue in ignorant bliss in their old crumbling mansion, snaring hapless travellers in nets laid across the road and eating them, boots and all, in a stew (invariably a stew) washed down with Adam’s apple cider, a godawful pun and a godawful drink. They are an odd family; one of them is certainly a vampire (the grandfather?) while the others are assorted horrors and cranks. They sleep during the day and, once again, believe it normal to dream in individual coffins, the lids screwed down tight.
One time, they receive a letter from Cousin Stefan, who says that he is coming to visit. There is gaping panic. Cousin Stefan is a vegetarian. How can they possibly serve him person broth? No, it will not do! They will have to make a special effort; Cousin Stefan is a respected relative they have not seen for more than a decade. After leaving the old country, he became a successful funeral director out East. So he has found his niche; and they must do their best to satisfy such an esteemed guest. Traveller soup is out of the window; or down the sink rather, and Pa and Ma must put their heads together (not difficult considering they are unseparated Siamese twins) to find an alternative.
When Cousin Stefan arrives in a turbocharged hearse, Pa and Ma and Vampiric Gramps and the little but horrible ‘uns and the mythical pet (a cockatrice perhaps, whose look can kill) and Purdy Absurdy are standing on the dilapidated steps of the porch. They greet Cousin Stefan with a smile and mumble a few words in Hungarian to remind themselves of their origins. Cousin Stefan follows them into the house and, before long, dinner is served. Connected to a life support unit by a score of wires and tubes, a suitable vegetable dish, in this case a crash victim, waits for grace and the sprouts and salt and pepper.

(3)
The third case is similar except that here we have Karl and Julia, who live on an abandoned farm after some global disaster has wiped out most of civilisation (or so they believe.)  Nature is reclaiming the land. So Karl goes out hunting while Julia turns what he captures into sausage. They are not fussy, of course, so Karl brings back in his sack such delicacies as Robin, Panda, Rhino and Beetle. One day he says: “Jaguar in the hills. Heard it last night.” Language too has decayed and Karl was always terse at the best of times. He loads his rifle and adjusts his necklace of fish bones and scratches his greasy louse ridden hair.
Julia gnaws on an old skull and snarls, her broken face writhing and contorting in a savage attempt to formulate an opinion. She snorts and throws the skull away with a menacing gesture and bares her rotting teeth. “Jaguar too noble to destroy. Karl leave it alone.” But Karl shakes his head. “Karl kill. Jaguar die. We eat.” Julia snatches up a femur from the rubbish strewn floor and lunges at Karl, who grunts and moves out of range. Julia throws the bone at him. Karl disappears through the door.
Julia struggles with strange ideas. Why should anything be too noble to destroy? As she ponders, she hears a shot. Ten minutes later, Karl is back, holding up a sack. “Jaguar,” he says, beaming. He moves into the corridor and then into the room where he keeps his trophies. Meanwhile, Julia sighs and takes out her knives. There is a knock on the door. Two people are standing there, on the threshold. One says: “You must help us! There’s a madman out there, a madman with a gun.” And Julia nods sympathetically and invites them in. At the same time in the other room, Karl reaches into his sack and pulls out his latest trophy, which he nails to the wall next to the others: a gleaming chrome hubcap.

(4)
The fourth example concerns a rather depressed young man, Billy, who takes himself to the edge of a sea cliff and throws himself over. What he is really trying to achieve is anyone’s guess, though the obvious should not be overlooked. He spins through space and loses consciousness; so relaxed is he now that somehow, miraculously, he survives the landing with no more than a dozen plum bruises on his legs and torso. Billy is not to know this, however, and when he awakes he assumes he is dead. But he is aware of his surroundings, so he finally decides that he must be a ghost. There is no other explanation. He stands up and brushes himself down and flexes his ghostly muscles.
It is necessary, he thinks, for him to adopt his role completely. He will become an evil spirit. He will do his best to harm people. So he makes his way back towards the nearest village and waits for his first victim. An elderly man, with a false leg, totters out of the post office, unsteady on a gnarled stick. Billy kicks away the stick and, once the man is on the ground, removes his false leg and proceeds to batter him to death with it. Next he wanders into YE OLDE TEA SHOPPE and forces a dozen stale scones into the maws of the entire cast of the local Amateur Dramatics Society’s production of Blithe Spirit. They choke slowly, spitting crumbs and turning blue in real deaths as corny as any they have ever acted.
Several outrages later, as he is in the not entirely unwarranted process of forcing the vicar to eat Mrs Featherstonehaugh’s pink poodle, collar, leash and Mrs Featherstonehaugh included, he is apprehended by a vengeful mob of cribbage players, retired shopkeepers and ex-servicemen (medals all affixed to jackets at the shortest notice) who chase him out of the village and scream indigo murder. Billy is surprised that they can see him, but is not concerned in the least. They hound him towards the very cliff he earlier had leapt off and this time he does not hesitate: he is a ghost and ghosts can fly. It is a pity that he is now so tense, with anticipation, with triumph.

(5)
The fifth item is both rather more sombre and perverse. We have a loner who lives in a garret, or a bedsit, and who never speaks to any of the other tenants in the building. He has no close family (they have all died in mysterious, and truly grisly, circumstances) but he is deluged with aunts. There is Aunt Emily and Aunt Theresa and Aunt Hilda and Aunt Eva. At the funerals of his mother or father or brothers or sisters, they each take it in turns to mumble such platitudes as “you have your father’s eyes” or “you have your mother’s nose” or “you have your sister’s ears” or some such thing. The loner merely nods and purses his lips. Once back in his tiny room, he digs up the floorboards and removes the plastic bags concealed there. He is all despair. “How do they know?” he wails.

(6)
Now we are back in some grim cold city, ramshackle and asthmatic, during the depths of winter. A hunched figure moves out of the blizzard, wrapped tight in a threadbare cloak, complete with hood. He takes a tiny key out of his pocket and opens a door onto muted warmth and light. Surely this is the interior of a toy shop? There are puppets and automatons, wondrous animals suspended on cords from the ceiling, jack-in-the-boxes and life-sized dummies. With a contented sigh, the hunched figure throws off his cloak and rubs his hands together (fingerless gloves naturally) in glee. He has a parcel under his arm. Lovingly, he places it down on a chair and unwraps it. There is a mechanical arm, gleaming and strange in the faint illumination. The hunched figure takes it over to a puppet sitting quietly in the corner and fits it on carefully. Now the puppet is complete. Now it has two arms. The hunched figure winds this puppet up and, after this one, all the others. Soon the shop is full of dancing animals and people.
There is a sequence of savage blows on the door. The hunched figure pauses in his own dance and rushes to unbolt it. It is pushed open and three sinister men in heavy overcoats and pork pie hats force entry. “Dr Coppelius?” they cry, “we have a warrant for your arrest.” They thrust a crumpled piece of paper under his nose. “We have reason to believe that you did today wilfully steal part of the execution apparatus erected by the city council for the punishment of lawbreakers. Namely, one mechanical arm. Because of this action, the sentence on an agitator had to be delayed by nearly two hours!”
Dr Coppelius allows himself to be led away in chains. His trial is brief and to the point in every respect. As an acknowledgement of his standing in the academic world, it is judged that to slice off his limbs and abandon him in a barley field would be inappropriate. So too the quartering in the circus and the public noose. He is given the rare honour of facing a firing squad. On the appointed day, shots cry out and ten bullets strike his heart all at once. Springs sprout and not a little oil trickles out of his mouth.




Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Moth in a Daydream (2019)

This story appears in the paperback edition of my book Arms Against a Sea (but not in the deluxe limited edition published by Raphus Press in Brazil). I have long been fascinated by the variant dowry arrangements of different cultures. The African and Indian traditions are opposites. Along the Swahili Coast of East Africa these two cultures overlap. The following story therefore tries to imagine a possible outcome of a specific romance in that region.


I am flying over East Africa with a sack of letters in the seat directly behind me. My engine is working smoothly, there’s no turbulence, it is a delightful day and a luxury to be aloft, a pleasure to be so high over the world. Yet my business is official. I must deliver the mail on time. The sun has started to decline in the west. The light is softer. I seem to be gliding rather than powering my way towards the mountains. I will cross them soon and adjust my course as necessary. Before midnight I’ll be in Lamu and the mechanics will be swarming over my craft. Then I will stroll along the waterfront to my home, to a bed as deep as a cloudbank.
I set off from Kampala in a light rain shower. My goggles misted over and before wiping them clean I drew an asymmetrical heart in the condensation of each lens with my gloved finger. One for you, one for me. I knew I would be with you again before the next dawn, unless mischance interfered. I take nothing for granted. There is a ring in my pocket. At last I have decided to ask you to marry me. The time is right, it has probably been right for months but it is even more right now. The clarity of the view is extraordinary. My mind is clear too. My clothes have dried fully, the rain is only a memory. Now I must pull back on the stick.
Climbing gently, I nonetheless rapidly rise above the altitude of the highest peak. For the first time the engine splutters a little. The air’s thin up here, but I remain calm, breathing deeply and slowly. The DH.60M is certainly an improvement on the earlier Gipsy Moth model I flew last year. The fuselage is metal, heavier than plywood, but more sturdy and easier to maintain. It cools rapidly at this altitude, true, but I never stay very high longer than is absolutely essential. And here on the equator it is simple to warm oneself back up by losing a few hundred feet or even just by banking toward the sun. African sunbeams are molten gold.
Now I have levelled out. A small amount of vibration as I pass over the range but I am tempted to take my hands off the controls so I can turn in my seat and peer down at Batian, that magnificent tower of rock and ice, and Nelion, almost as high. As they glitter, I am reminded of your smile, then I remember that I am a pilot, not a poet, and I return my attention to the flight, my mission. Letters and parcels must be delivered. This is always of vital importance! Words scrawled in ink on paper are worth the rush and risk, it appears. Who am I to disagree?
When I arrive in Lamu, the mail will be transferred to another plane and flown to Aden. The pilot for that flight is already waiting, sitting in the mess, looking out onto the airfield. The waterfront of Lamu is across a narrow channel from the island where the runway is located. The dhows catch the soft breeze in their lateen sails, the sailors work the rudders, and spices in sacks are conveyed up and down the coast, across the ocean, part of the vast trading networks that radiate from this part of the world. Then I will be able to relax for a few blissful days.
The hours pass in a haze of anticipation mixed with nostalgia. It is rather idyllic. I picture the magical times of the past and project them into the future and observe how they are transformed. Now the sun is very low. I am far past the mountains, they have receded over the horizon behind me, and I note something intriguing below. A sparkle and shimmer on the edge of a village. I am near a point where the culture of the coast, which is quite different from the cultures inland, has finally spread like spilled coffee to overlap this thinly populated region. As my altitude decreases and my speed slows, I understand that I am witnessing a wedding.
The white canopy of the marquee ripples and the celebrants flow out around it. At last the drone of my engine attracts their attention. I am in a position to make a noble and chivalrous gesture. I move the stick from side to side, dipping my wings as I pass in order to acknowledge them, to wish them health and prosperity. I’m low enough to observe many details of the occasion, and I am surprised, just a little, when I see that the bride and her family are African while the groom and his family are Indian. There are more mixed marriages these days and that is a good thing. They wave up at me. I salute them as I pass and then I smile fondly.
It has occurred to me that in one respect at least there will be a clash of traditions down there. It is the African custom for the groom’s side to provide the dowry and the Indian custom for the bride’s family to do so. What will happen when the time comes for the transaction to take place? The woman will expect the man to pay but the man will be waiting for the woman to provide the gold, silver, bronze or whatever is used for money in the village. The end result? Nobody will pay anything and maybe they’ll be all the happier for it, as they will be on equal terms, neither obligated to the other. My fond smile turns into a boisterous laugh.
I am obliquely reminded of a ghost story that I was told a few years ago by a pilot based in Dar es Salaam. He had responsibility for the route between Madagascar and the mainland with a stopover at Comoros on the way. In the town of Moroni he was given a room in a hotel one night and he climbed his way up the creaking stairs of the old building. There were no lights because the electricity had gone off again and even candles were in short supply. He was so weary that he went straight to bed, pulled the one thin sheet up about his neck. A cool wind was blowing from the sea and it wasn’t as warm as it ought to be. Then he fell asleep.
In the middle of the night he felt the sheet slipping down his body. He reached out to grip it but the sheet kept moving. Some force was tugging it off him. It was dark in the room but not quite silent. A faint moaning was audible. With strength boosted by panic, he applied both hands and yanked the sheet back up to his chin. The moaning stopped. But only for a minute. And once again the sheet began slipping down. What followed lasted an hour or two and before long he was moaning too. It was a fight for possession of that sheet and he had the unreasonable feeling that if it came right off his body, something appalling would happen.
His arms were aching, his hands were cramped, and finally the first light of dawn seeped through the windows. The room turned from black to grey and it was possible to see the force he had been battling with. It was another man in the same bed, a man stretched out next to him but aligned in the opposite direction, with his head near the footboard. They were parallel but offset. This is why the sheet wasn’t long enough to cover both of them adequately, hence the tussle. Neither of them had suspected the presence of the other. They had assumed a phantom was responsible for the moaning and sheet pulling. A case of mistaken identity.
The other man turned out to be an airmail pilot heading in the opposite direction, from Dar es Salaam to Madagascar. The room in the hotel had been doubled booked and the management had failed to inform either guest. In the darkness the exhausted men had climbed into bed without checking whether the room was already occupied. Once in bed they had felt cold and the tussle with the bedsheet began. This tale was told to me as a humorous anecdote, a ghost story that isn’t one, but it bears a relation to the wedding below. Listen. This is a short report, the exact same number of words as the year in which those events took place.
Both men had regarded the bedsheet as rightfully theirs. As for the couple I had flown over, both partners had considered the dowry to belong to them. There must have been a similar pulling of expectations during the wedding celebration as in that hotel room in Moroni, as if hopes were sheets too, with a final equilibrium achieved when it had dawned on them, literally or metaphorically, that everything was fine and right. Neither side had relented or relaxed but it worked out well nonetheless. This is a comforting thought as I near the end of my flight, as Lamu island comes into sight like a purple jewel in the slumberous ocean.
I reduce my altitude yet again, turning to orient my plane with the runway of the airfield. I know you are standing now to observe my approach, your wait over. I land with no fuss at all, switch off the engine, unstrap myself and spring out of the cockpit before the mechanics can reach me. Time is short and I desperately want to see you. I enter the administration building, push open the door to the mess, and you are there and you receive me in your arms. I dip my hand into my pocket for the ring and drop to one knee. There is no hesitation. You are my true sweetheart and you are also the next pilot, who must carry the mail to Aden.
But there has been a mistake, you tell me. A clerical error. You have brought mail from Aden. You landed a few hours ago. You were told that it would be transferred to a fresh plane for the journey to Kampala. So both of us have carried cargoes that are going nowhere unless we exchange all the sacks of letters and parcels and I return the way I have come. We both are required to give something to the other, something of equivalent value, for the weight of your airmail sacks and mine are identical. Instead of two people pulling a sheet in opposing directions, we are throwing our own sheets over each other. There is no ghost anywhere.
No one should be surprised that you are a woman. There have been female pilots almost since the dawn of aviation. No one should be surprised that you are Indian and I am African, and when we marry you will attempt to give a dowry to me and I will attempt to give a dowry to you. Our situation will be ultimately the same as that other couple I flew over. Equilibrium. I thought I would only have a few minutes with you before you took off in your own plane. But the error will take a long time to resolve, and it’s no longer our responsibility. Thus we can stroll along the waterfront together, to our home, to a bed as deep as a cloudbank.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

All the Waiting (2017)

The modern Western world is designed around road traffic; and the humble pedestrian is at a disadvantage in cities and towns. Despite a growing awareness of this disadvantage, and various small urban schemes to restore a proper balance, the pedestrian is still at the bottom of the social heap. He has no power over traffic but must give way before cars and lorries like a second-class citizen. This story first appeared in YULE DO NICELY, a Christmas themed book, though there is little about it that might seem festive and appropriate to the season.

The man is a pedestrian and waiting is a fundamental part of his daily life. He does not drive or ride a bicycle or take giant leaps on spring-loaded legs over rooftops. He walks everywhere and the rain knows his shoulders well. He does not own an umbrella and why should he? The wind that is a typical feature of his city likes to turn them inside out and snatch the fabric canopy off the struts, leaving only a stick sprouting spines. He trudges and waits and crosses the road and the puddles lap over his eroded shoes. Through the holes in these shoes his socks drink the water, quenching their fabric thirst.
If he had the money he would relocate to somewhere warmer, drier, calmer, to a place where waiting is a pleasure and not an imposition. But success is required for money and he has none of that. He is a pedestrian by necessity rather than choice, and for so many years has this been true that he often forgets the fact, forgets that he would exist in a different manner if he could, and when he remembers he stops and frowns, and this pause is an addition to the waiting. He waits for the frown to disperse on his face and then he proceeds to the next kerbside.
The cars hurry past him, metal boxes in which people sit with frowns of their own, velocity grimaces, eyebrows speeding with their attendant faces to some temporary destination. The road is a river of huge bullets that will knock him high or flat with the same result. He must wait. The lights will change, if not this minute then the next, or the next after that, and these minutes slowly accumulate, pile up, add to the pressure of the raindrops on those shoulders of his, hunched a little more every year. The traffic will stop, drivers will scowl as he crosses before them, some will enjoy revving their engines to make him anxious.
Walking in a city is quite a different experience from walking through a rural landscape. The rhythm here is staccato, the ambler must constantly interrupt his flow, his measure, his tempo, because of the numerous and unavoidable streets full of moving traffic that must be crossed. The cars and lorries and motorcycles themselves care not about his cadence, about the pace of a pedestrian, and the drivers and riders and passengers of the vehicles give not the slightest hoot for the dislocations in the joints of the one who must constantly stop moving and start again. City perambulation is not walking in the purest sense. It is striving, not striding, striving for a harmony that never arrives. Its music is dissonant and atonal. It is a pain in the frame, a jerking of souls in their vessels.
Our pedestrian knows all this and resents the waiting at each kerbside. He wonders how many hours, days, weeks, even months, have amassed in this manner over his lifetime, not only in rain but all kinds of weather, and he dearly wishes that he could obtain a refund, have the waiting given back to him, all of it, every moment, perhaps at the end of his life. And he wishes this so fervently that it becomes a prayer that actually works. The pedestrian dies, an old man at last, worn out by his attritional wanderings through the city, demolished by age, alone in his bedroom one night with the beams from the headlights of passing vehicles moving across the wall, for he has forgotten to close the curtains, and an antique clock ticking on the bedside table, no need to give further details.
And his soul passes to the afterlife, which is an unspecified place, and he finds himself arguing with a nebulous authority there, an administrator of some sort, an officious angel, and he requests repayment of the wasted time, the hours and hours used up in waiting to cross streets and roads, in waiting for cars to take their turn first, as if they are superior to him, those metal, glass and rubber aristocrats that he must submit his human flesh to, and the angel negotiates with him, but he finds himself unable to settle for anything less than every single instant of the time wasted, and remarkably this boon is granted to him. Who knows why?
Perhaps he is so favoured because there is supposed to be some sort of lesson for him in the outcome? He decides to be satisfied with his victory no matter what else transpires. The angel has added up all the time wasted on kerbsides waiting and the final sum stands at exactly four months, two weeks, six days, eighteen hours, twelve minutes and thirty-eight seconds. These will now be returned to the pedestrian. The walls of paradise gleam in the distance of the cloudy plain, but with the tip of a wing the strange angel points away from them. “You must go the other way, my friend, for the world and life are back in that direction.”
The pedestrian nods, because this angel has no hands to shake, and he sets off across the featureless landscape and his walking has an unbroken rhythm, the beat he has yearned for, and he is using it to return himself to a second life where he will reclaim the time stolen from him and cheat the traffic that cheated him. His step is joyous. The clouds swirl around him and then they begin to part like shredded drapes and he understands that he is approaching the frontier between the afterlife and the mortal world. He breaks through the final wisps of mist and at last finds himself facing the border and it is not at all what he expected.
It is a road, an immensely wide road, and on the other side is the world but he is stuck on this side and the road is so busy it is fatal to pedestrians and the traffic that speeds down it in both directions is moving so fast that it is a blur, a scream. There is a central reservation but it is so far away he will never reach it. This road has hundreds or even a thousand lanes, each one an awful roar, yet he can see the remote world beckoning to him, the smiles, the spires, the caf├ęs, the flavours and sensations he never properly enjoyed while he was there, and they are all out of reach. With a sigh and a shrug, he resigns himself to waiting at the kerbside until all his refunded time is exhausted. A cross man unable to cross.