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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

1 comment:

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