Thursday, 2 January 2020

When Pushkin Came to Shovekin (2013)

This story originally appeared in my book of cat stories and poems, More Than a Feline. I have always thought that Pushkin was a superb name for a cat. The man Pushkin was a great writer, no doubt about that, therefore this story concerns a cat with the same name who is a great cat. Not a great cat as in a lion or tiger, but a wonderful house cat. You know what I mean.

They were moving from the town of Small Mercies to the equally small town of Denial and they were in a mighty rush. The reason they were in such a rush was because rushing is more appropriate on the day of a house move than sitting in soft chairs calmly sipping sweet tea.
More appropriate and more stylish, it must be admitted.
Dust and clattering arose everywhere.
Bethan paused for a moment, stood with hands on her hips and her chest heaving in the hallway. Her chest might have been heaving in the hallway but the rest of her was in the lounge, which indicates how generous her bosom was. But this isn’t that kind of story, so forget such details and just be aware that she was angry. “Where is the removal truck?”
“For what time did you order it?” came the meek voice of Tommaso, her mate, who was packing his feather dusters.
“I didn’t order it for any time at all. You were the one who was supposed to order it. That was your task, not mine.”
“Ah, I see. You’ll have to forgive me but—”
“Forgive you?” Bethan extended her long and powerful arms and began rotating them at high speed from the elbows, as if they were mechanical flails on a collectivised farm. She always did this when she was exasperated but she didn’t know why. Nobody would ever know.
“I will order one now.”
“Better late than never, I suppose?”
“Yes, that’s a good attitude. I will just finish with this pile of red dusters before moving onto the blue ones and—”
“Save yourself the trouble!” snarled Bethan.
She turned and strode to the telephone on the little table, picked it up and dialled the number of a reliable removal company that she had used before. An impressively deep voice answered her.
“How may we assist you? You wish to hire one of our trucks? State your name and town of residence clearly.”
“Bethan K. Fullfor, Small Mercies.”
“Well, I generally am.”
Bethan winced, having heard that joke too often.
More information was exchanged.
“We will be there as soon as humanly possible.”
“Only humanly?” said Bethan.
The voice didn’t bother answering that one. It had a busy day ahead of it, that voice, and could indulge banter only in short bursts. Bethan replaced the receiver and turned to confront Tommaso. She snatched one of the red dusters out of his hands and slapped him with it.
“You worthless dolt! Take this and that and this again!”
Ten minutes later she desisted.
He was bruised but there wasn’t a speck of dust on him.
The truck arrived one hour later.
Bethan threw open the door and allowed the two muscular men standing on the threshold to enter and begin carrying the stuff in relays out of the house and into the back of the truck. Tommaso was the last item to be packed. One of the men lifted him up, held him horizontally under an arm and stowed him with the furniture, ornaments and carpet rolls.
Bethan rode in the front of the truck between the two men, one hand on the left thigh of the right one and the other on the right thigh of the wrong one. The vehicle bounced down the potholed road and her hands sometimes slipped up the legs they rested on. But nobody complained.
Tommaso could be heard somewhere far away in the back of the truck. It seemed he was singing or whimpering.
“He doesn’t like the dark,” explained Bethan.
“Maybe he should ride up here then?” the driver suggested.
“Oh no,” she said. “The fact he doesn’t like the dark is the reason I put him in the back in the first place. I’m not a nice person, but that doesn’t much matter because I have wonderful hair.”
“You do indeed. It’s very curly,” said the men.
“Yes and auburn,” agreed Bethan.
That settled the matter. They trundled out of Small Mercies and into the country and down numerous lanes that were only just wide enough for them. It was lucky that nothing came the other way.
The sun was setting when they finally arrived in Denial.
The new house greeted them and it was an empty shell but the men soon filled it with the objects in the back of the truck, including Tommaso, who was shaken but not fatally, and who helped with the rest of the unloading to the best of his limited ability. Then the task was done.
Bethan ostentatiously kissed both of the men farewell.
“Go on, it’s your turn!” she said.
“But really, I don’t know if I should,” spluttered Tommaso.
“You’d better!” she rumbled.
So Tommaso stood on tiptoes and kissed the men too.
“On the lips, you idiot!” cried Bethan.
He didn’t dare disobey. The men got back into the truck and drove off in low gear, wiping their mouths with their grubby sleeves and feeling grateful for the dirt that coats the cotton shirts of working men. Not that Tommaso was the worst kisser in the world, just that his tongue had been fluffy, as if he’d bitten a feather duster to mad pieces in captivity.
Bethan watched them depart, then she explored her new home. “Exactly the same size as our last house and the view through the windows is similar. It almost feels as if we haven’t moved at all.”
“Something’s missing,” ventured Tommaso.
Bethan narrowed her eyes and her eyebrows stood erect, each hair like a poisoned quill on the back of a specially prepared porcupine. “Oh yes? So you don’t like it? Think it lacks character?”
“Not that, not that at all! I meant it literally. Something is missing. It’s not the telescope or the gramophone or the pianola, nor is it the spittoon or drest of chaws (I’ll be perfectly honest and confess that I still don’t know what a drest of chaws is) or the solar-powered kettle or the hatstand that can hold hats from any period in history, or the clothes horse.”
Bethan rubbed her chin. “So what can it be?”
“Don’t you have a hunch?”
“No, but I will.”

It was the cat. These things are easily done. Cats get left behind just as often, or more frequently perhaps, than dogs, rabbits, canaries and goldfish. Pushkin had been sleeping in the garden during the move.
When he awoke, he stretched his paws and body, yawned wider than the cave of a mouse, padded to the back door and pushed through the cat-flap that always swung open with an astonished squeak.
The house was empty. Pushkin blinked and went wandering through the rooms. As far as he was concerned some disaster must have forced Bethan and Tommaso to flee. He couldn’t imagine that anyone would move for such feeble reasons as a new job, which actually is why Bethan had changed towns. No, it had to be for something more visceral than that.
Maybe a bear had entered the house and chased them out.
But if so, where was the bear now?
And what was a bear anyway? Pushkin had never seen one.
He searched for food, found none.
“The bear, whatever one is, must have eaten it all,” he decided, “and also taken all the furniture, so there’s no option for me left but to find my owners. I will have to embark on a hazardous journey. I had better prepare myself for such an epic voyage in the traditional way.”
And he licked himself six times in six ritual places.
“I’m ready now,” he told himself.
It was getting dark, which was the perfect time to be setting off, so with scarcely a glance behind him, Pushkin returned to the garden through the noisy cat-flap and weaved silently between clumps of long grass on the badly tended lawn all the way to the crumbling brick wall that formed the garden’s boundary and then he leaped onto this and over it.
He landed in a foreign garden and was instantly on the alert, for cats that weren’t him, namely other cats, owned this territory, or rather they claimed it as part of their own kingdoms, whereas it fact it overlapped with his own and with others. It was on the margins of the civilised world and needed regular patrolling to prevent incursions from rivals, but he didn’t have time for that now. He had to keep going in a highly unnatural straight line.
Pushkin distrusted straight lines. They seemed awkward.
Sometimes straight lines were necessary and useful and even essential, as in the top of a garden wall that one wished to use as a path. But Pushkin’s quest now would take him over such walls, not along them. He felt an insistent pull in one direction only and decided to keep going that way. His whiskers twitched in rhythm to the undulations of his agile body.
He crossed a dozen gardens and then cleared the last wall into an alley. It was extremely dark here and the way was obstructed with abandoned objects of inconceivable function and it was not an easy matter even for an experienced cat to negotiate the full length of the way. But Pushkin managed it. It disgorged him into a meadow on the edge of Small Mercies.
He had escaped the town. But how far did he have to go?
The countryside was a place that was both enthralling and frightening. He heard the bark of foxes in a nearby wood, the flap of wings that might have been those of hungry owls, the slither of snakes.
But at the end of the day, and the day really was over, he was Pushkin, an indefatigable sort of feline, not one to be cowed by cows, made to feel sheepish by rams, unresistingly badgered by badgers.
“Am I a man or a mouse?” he asked himself, and his reply comforted and encouraged him. “I am neither. I am a cat!”
Yes, he was Pushkin and no more need be said.
He walked all night and went into a trance so that the distance became the detritus of a dream, the miles dispersed behind him like smoke, and even though his exhaustion was acute he kept going, following a particular star, following the point of celestial light, that distant sun, even when the clouds came together like spoilsport curtains and covered it from prying slitted eyes. He still knew where it was and was determined to use it as a guide.
But it wasn’t the North Star and it moved gradually across the sky like all other stars, so the route of Pushkin’s voyage was actually a gentle curve over the landscape that only felt like a straight line.
Then the stars began to lose force as if they were suffering from twinkle fatigue and they dimmed and the sky grew lighter in the east, which was the east because the sky grew lighter there, and Pushkin found himself standing on a hill, more of a grassy knoll really, looking down at a town, a town that wasn’t Small Mercies. He hadn’t gone in a giant circle.
But it wasn’t Denial either and he didn’t yet know that.
It was Shovekin, a strange place.
No roads led into this town, only mud paths that were baked hard or slimy and treacherous depending on what the weather did. At the moment they were a bit soft but not like linear quagmires. It had rained in the past week but it hadn’t poured. No clouds had burst. Most of the water had been absorbed, drunk deep into the earth and only a few bubbles had been hiccupped back out, where they swirled around each other in the very narrow ditches on either side of the paths like liberated cuckoo spit, dancing waltzes.
As he walked down the hill, refreshed by the sight of the town despite the rigours of his journey, his tail held high, Pushkin heard the solitary whining of a dog rising like sonic smoke above the chimneys of the houses, and he felt a little fear but decided to suppress it and continue.
The dog in question was standing at the end of the path and he was clearly guarding the space between the town and the rest of the world on this side of the compass, not that he really knew what a compass was. Pushkin stopped when he caught sight of the big brute, but the dog’s nose twitched a few times and his tail began wagging and then he said jovially:
“Good morning! Have you come to live here too?”
“You can speak!” gasped Pushkin.
The dog rolled his eyes in mock alarm. “So can you!”
Pushkin relaxed and purred.
“I am looking for my owners,” he explained.
“Your owners?” said the dog.
“They vanished yesterday. I think they ran away from an acquisitive bear. I am searching for them. Are they here?”
“Your owners, you say?”
“My owners are Bethan K. Fullfor and Tommaso.”
“Your owners! Ha ha!”
“Why are you laughing at me?” asked Pushkin.
“I’m not laughing at you but at your naivety. Don’t you know that you are their owner, not the other way around?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” admitted Pushkin.
The dog continued, “Human beings are the rightful pets of animals. That’s the way nature intended it to be, that’s how it works, but this truth seems to have been forgotten in most parts of the world.”
“How do you remember it?” Pushkin wanted to know.
“Because this town is Shovekin.”
“What difference does that make?” persisted Pushkin.
“A big difference, believe me.”
“Won’t you reveal what I ought to know?”
The dog took a deep breath and said, “It often happens that human beings move house and forget to take the animals that share their homes with them. The animals are forced to set off on long voyages in order to find those humans. It is not uncommon for them to find this place instead, Shovekin, the town where the rightful order of things is preserved. For example, you have found it. Here, dogs and cats and all other animals are in charge and men and women are their pets. I am glad you have found your way here.”
“You are inviting me to join your community?”
The dog bowed, bending its front legs until its noble head nearly touched the ground, then it straightened. “Yes.”
Pushkin licked his lips. “May I look around first?”
“You may indeed. Follow me.”
The dog led Pushkin into the town. It looked similar to Small Mercies and the streets and buildings were almost identical. Cats and dogs walked along the pavements and many were leading humans on a leash. Sometimes those animals were in a hurry, perhaps on their way to an important meeting, but their humans would stop to greet other humans, shaking hands and discussing the weather for ages, until the exasperated animals would jerk the leash and pull them apart and set off again at an even more rapid pace.
They passed a garden in which swung a cage from a tall pole and in the cage was a man. He was unable to stand up or stretch himself and he seemed to be very unhappy imprisoned like that. He was dressed in an expensive business suit that was frayed and creased, but a parrot was perched on the top of the cage and was calling down through the bars:
“Johnny wants a salad? Who’s a clever adult then? Pretty Johnny, pretty Johnny. Can you say that? Pretty Johnny.”
The man in the cage mumbled something unintelligible.
“What was that, Johnny? What are you going to offer me for a salad? Do you want to make me an offer, Johnny?”
“Stocks and shares,” croaked the helpless prisoner.
“Good businessman,” said the parrot.
“It might seem cruel, but apparently humans don’t have souls, so it’s not at all cruel really,” explained the dog.
Pushkin was very impressed by the fact there was no motorised traffic on any of the roads. Humans that had been let off the leash frolicked in the middle of the street, brewing tea right there and reading newspapers, all the silly games they enjoy so much. “Amazing,” he said.
Further along, two hedgehogs were nailing a human into a box. This was because it was that person’s hibernation time. Then they passed a man who was wearing a uniform and cap and was standing to attention behind a gate. “Do you have an appointment?” he snapped at them.
“What did he ask me that?” said Pushkin.
“Oh, he’s just a guard human. Some animals keep them to deter intruders and burglars. Do you like this place?”
“It’s like paradise,” replied Pushkin.
“We will give you a house and you can choose a pet from the abandoned humans’ shelter if you feel the need for one.”
“Assuming I’m accepted into the community?”
“I feel confident you will be.”
“I think I adore this place already.”
The dog nodded. “Good. All that remains is for me to introduce you to the ruling committee of the town. All of us found our way here after our pet humans moved house and left us behind.”
“Humans really are rather stupid,” said Pushkin.
“That’s why we love them so!”
“Yes, yes, I suppose it is. But there’s one thing.”
“What is it?” asked the dog.
“I do miss Bethan and Tommaso. It wouldn’t feel right having any other pets. The substitution would be inadequate.”
“You never know. You might still get them back.”
“How is that possible?”
The dog flung a paw around Pushkin’s shoulders and in a conspiratorial voice said, “Where do you think all the humans who live here come from? They dwell in their distant towns for only a short time before they wake up to the fact that their ‘pets’ are missing, that they forgot to take them along in the move. So they get frantic and start searching for them and frequently they end up here, in Shovekin, reunited with their beloved animals but with the proper relationship restored between them. In your case—”
“No,” said Pushkin sadly, “I don’t think my humans will do that. There is something a bit peculiar about them.”
“Humans can be incomprehensible. Ah well! You can only wait and see. Incidentally, I haven’t introduced myself formally yet. I am Shako. Follow me and I’ll present you to the committee.”
And he trotted down a narrow alley and through a hole in a fence. With a spring in his step, Pushkin kept close behind.

Bethan finally had her hunch but it didn’t help her to work out what was missing and to be honest the hunch didn’t suit her. So she removed her cardigan and the hunch fell out. It was a large purple pillow and it landed on the floorboards with a satisfyingly plump and comfy sound.
Bethan bent forward and stared down intently but she wasn’t scrutinising the pillow. It was the varnished floorboards she was more interested in. Why did they seem wrong? They were smooth and shiny and unscratched. Was there any clue in the fact of their pristine condition to help her decide why this new house had an inferior atmosphere to the old?
“Tommaso!” she bellowed. “Tommaso!”
He came running, slipping on the polished wood in his pink slippers and struggling to untie the knot in his apron.
“Yes,” he panted anxiously.
She knitted her brows, the only thing she ever cared to knit. The task of darning socks in this domestic setup was done by him. “Do you still think we might have left something behind us?”
“I have learned not to attempt to think.”
“Idiot! I am ordering you to do so now. Tell me, did we forget something when we moved from Small Mercies?”
He visibly seemed to shrink, but his mind was working; his ears glowed as they always did when cogitating. “Could it be,” he ventured mildly, “that we didn’t bring the cat along with us?”
“Pushkin, you mean? Don’t be absurd!”
“It’s just that I haven’t seen him around lately and in fact I don’t think I have seen him since we arrived here.”
Bethan folded her arms under her bosom, threw back her head, laughed at the ceiling until the ceiling started to get paranoid. “You are most amusing, dear, like a mediaeval clown or jester. Like a fool. You are a fool, aren’t you? A silly and pointless buffoon. But that’s why I value you. I would have sold you years ago to the slaughterhouses or into slavery if you weren’t so darned entertaining. Annoying, certainly, but in a good way.”
“Thank you.” He curtsied somewhat clumsily.
“However,” she continued, and her tone became icy, “there’s a time and a place for everything; and right now isn’t the time for humour. So be sensible and answer my question properly or you will be horribly mutilated by these hands of mine. Look very close.” And she lifted them up like solid yeti footprints in front of his pale face with its quivering muscles.
“I can’t think of anything that might be missing,” he said.
“Good.” She nodded vigorously.
Tommaso noticed the pillow on the floor and he squatted to retrieve it. He was in this position when Bethan suddenly rested her hands on the crown on his head, preventing him from rising again.
“It couldn’t be the cat. How could it be? We still put out cat food and it is eaten. That proves Pushkin is still around. Or are you going to suggest that other cats come in at night illegally to devour it?”
“You know best,” he said.
“Yes dear, I do. I see you have found my hunch. It’s your turn to wear it. If you take it off without permission I will have you sent to the recycling depot. I want you to shout ‘the bells, the bells’ at intermittent intervals until I tell you to stop. Do you understand? Do you?”
“Yes, yes, anything you say, anything at all!”
She removed her hands from his head and strolled over to the window and gazed into the garden. They would never go in search of Pushkin because as far as she was concerned there was no need and Tommaso wouldn’t dare disagree with her. In fact he was now equally convinced that Pushkin still resided with them. Unlike many other couples they would never set off on the quest to locate their absent cat and they would never stumble across the town where he was. He simply wasn’t missing in the first place.
There was a logical reason why they had this attitude.
They were living in Denial.

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.

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.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

On the Deck (1992)

In the mid 1980s, long before any of my stories had been published, I went through a phase of trying to write tales that had a particular tone, perhaps that of Noel Coward or Ronald Firbank, certainly that of the very early stories of Katherine Mansfield. They were light-hearted, droll and concerned with upper class or upper middle class life, but although I wanted satire to be present, at this stage they also had a certain affection. They were a form of escapism, of course, for at that time my situation was penurious and unsuccessful. By the time my work began to be published I had moved on from this phase, but occasionally it resurfaced.

After dinner, they went out on deck.
"Money is the root of all revel," said Laura, as she sipped the last of the champagne and tossed her glass casually over the side. "Don't you think so?"
"Absolutely." Jerry felt sick. He grasped the rails and bent his head forward. The Beef Chasseur in his stomach began to churn.
"And how delicious the moon is!" Laura added, leaning back and pouting, her fingers idly worrying the beads that looped around her swan's neck. "Big and round."
"Enormous." Jerry clutched his sides and gasped. His cravat had come askew, his cufflinks glittered in the 'delicious' light. He was enjoying himself but little.
"And the swell of the sea, the splash of the fish..."
Laura sighed and lit a cigarette. There were, in fact, no fish to speak of, nor swell of the sea. But there was a moon, so massive and heavy that the proverbial lunar man must surely have filled his cheeks with apples...
Jerry turned his sallow face towards Laura and said, in a voice not unlike a croak:
"I will be happy when we reach land."
"Oh, really!" Laura was exasperated. She inhaled her cigarette in languid disappointment, the curl of the blue smoke rising up to kiss her kiss-curl. "Sometimes I think that you don't really enjoy travelling."
"It's not that," Jerry protested. "It's just that I can't shake off the feeling that something is not quite right. I mean, where are all the other passengers? And why does the Captain keep changing our destination?"
"He's a wonderful man," Laura replied. "All this was his idea. I never thought I would travel. Especially not in such style. We owe him a lot."
Jerry expressed doubt.
"He winked at me tonight," Laura said, realising it for the first time, according it exaggerated significance as a result, and trying to repress a hot flush and a giggle. "He might even touch my knee tomorrow."
"Bah!" Although Jerry was jealous, he did not feel left out. He too had an amorous secret. The Captain had also winked at him...
"I think we're heading for Ceylon," Laura said, "where the girls are lithe and mysterious and their hair smells of sandalwood."
"It's Sri Lanka now," Jerry corrected. "Besides, you're thinking of Burma. They wear little bells around their ankles and they capture little birds in cages just to release them again. Rather odd, don't you think? Just a trifle odd?"
"Not at all. I think it's very beautiful. If only I could find a man strong enough to capture me and then let me go again, I would be happy. To be enticed and then rejected out of love..."
"You're such a decadent!" cried Jerry.
Laura smiled a wry smile and adopted a decadent pose. She had read enough French novels to know that true decadence is affected, and that it is the pose that counts. "Alas!" she said, for no good reason.
Music drifted on the still air, a suitably romantic waltz that washed over them, and over the rails, into the night.
"The band!" Laura squeaked. "How perfect! We must dance immediately! Take me in your arms and spin me around, your sensuous mouth fixed on mine!"
"I'd rather not." Jerry turned green at the prospect. "My stomach is not up to it at present. And you've got to maintain a sense of proportion."
"On the contrary! You've got to dream!" And Laura snatched him by the hand and dragged him close, clasping him savagely and whirling him in a tight spiral. Although he struggled mightily to loosen himself from her clutches, he only managed to free one arm, and this flapped like a flag as she spun him faster and faster.
"How exquisite!" she cried, as they crashed against the rails and rebounded. "How gorgeous! My darling, my swallow, my monstrous orchid!"
Eventually, of course, it was all too much. Jerry threw up.
"I'm sorry," he panted, dejectedly. "It was all too much."
"You wretch, you sombre wretch!" Laura was in tears. She pounded her fists against his chest and wailed. "I'm never coming on another trip with you again! I'm going to seek comfort in the arms of the Captain!"
Jerry had collapsed in a pool of nausea. "I refuse to play any more!" he groaned.
Laura ignored him and left the deck. The Captain was waiting for her in an easy chair. He had seen everything. "Oh Captain!" she hissed. "It's not fair! You've got to dream, haven't you?"
"Indeed." Smiling gently, I tugged at my magnificent beard and stood up. I was feeling in a benevolent mood. I had already cleared away the remnants of the meal and washed the dishes.
"Sometimes it's the only way to cope with life." She fell into my arms and nestled there like a child. "When life seems drab what else is there?"
"What else?" I echoed. "Yes, you have to dream."
"Oh, Captain! You're a sweet darling. My husband doesn't understand me..."
We were interrupted by an angry knock at the door.
"What was it this time?" I asked her.
She gazed up at me with puppy eyes and blushed. "A champagne glass," she said.
I shook my head disapprovingly, but she could see that my fondness for her had not dissipated. I patted her on the head and winked again. "China tomorrow," I said. "And then Japan."
Before answering the door, I doffed my cap, moved over to the gramophone and lifted the needle off the record. I hoped that the unexpected caller would accept a bribe. I inspected my wallet. Maintaining the dream was proving expensive. I cast doubtful eyes out onto the deck and listened for the swell of the sea, the splash of the fish.
Twenty floors below, the London traffic flowed onwards.