ÂŠ Patrick Whittaker 2016 Published by Philistine Press
Contents Dead Astronauts 9:03 Head Fido Belong The Snark Equation The Ghost Tram Janet and John Get Out of Their Heads The Skitterlings Celia and Harold Land of the Living Maim, Mutilate and Destroy Throw Him Away and Get a New One Lost and Found The Rag Doll Man Kaptain Komfortâ€™s Misdemeanour Wood Publishing History
Dead Astronauts It was Sunday morning, Ed Morgan’s favourite time of the week. Free of the tyranny of the alarm clock, he drifted on gentle currents in those restful waters that lie between sleep and wakefulness. Mary, his wife, brought him a cup of tea. Ed reluctantly sat up and took the cup from her. He remembered to show his gratitude with a smile. ‘There’s a dead astronaut on the lawn,’ she said. Ed sighed. ‘Not another one.’ ‘I’ll ring the council, shall I?’ ‘On a Sunday?’ ‘We can’t just leave it there. What will the neighbours think?’ Hang the neighbours, thought Ed. Bloody snobs, the lot of them. Out loud, he said: ‘I’ll take it to the dump after I’ve dead-headed the roses and cut the grass.’ ‘How can you cut the grass when there’s an astronaut on it?’ ‘Fine. I’ll dead-head the roses, dispose of the astronaut and then cut the grass. Happy?’ ‘No need to take that tone with me, Edward Morgan.’ ‘I’m sorry, love. It’s just that it’s never-ending. First there’s the greenfly infestation. I get rid of that and what happens? My roses get black spot. I vanquish the black spot and now I’m plagued by dead astronauts. It’s enough to make a man despair.’ ‘Can’t you do something to keep them off the lawn?’ ‘What do you suggest? A bird net?’ ‘Now you’re being sarcastic.’ ‘If only I knew where they were coming from.’ ‘Outer space would be my guess,’ said Mary, throwing open the curtains. ‘Breakfast in ten minutes.’ Ed was still in his pyjamas and halfway through his corn flakes when the doorbell rang. As always, he was content to let Mary answer it. But she took one look through the peephole and ran upstairs. ‘Bloody Lacey,’ Ed muttered throwing down his spoon in disgust before stomping out to the hallway. That’s all he needed – yet another visit from the neighbourhood busybody. He tightened the belt on his dressing gown and opened the door. ‘Oh Mr Lacey. What a pleasant surprise.’ Mr Lacey’s brow furrowed. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he might have detected a hint of sarcasm. ‘I don’t mean to pry into your business, old chap, but there seems to be a dead astronaut on your lawn.’ ‘I’m well aware of that, Mr Lacey.’ ‘That’s the sixth one, isn’t it?’ ‘Seventh.’ ‘Now it’s not for me to dictate what a chap should or should not have in his garden and I’m all for individuality, but don’t you think you’re rather letting the side down?’ ‘And what side would that be?’ ‘The neighbourhood. Acacia Avenue is what estate agents call aspirational. In other words, people aspire to live here. Which is what keeps the property prices high and the riff-raff out. You get my drift?’ ‘Not really.’ ‘Couldn’t you at least cover it up or disguise it in some way?’ ‘I was thinking about turning it into a water feature. Would that do?’ Mr Lacey smiled. ‘Splendid idea! Everybody likes a water feature.’ ‘Well, I’m glad we’ve got that sorted.’ ‘Always best to get these things out in the open.’ Ed closed the door and went back to his corn flakes. ‘Hi, Uncle Ed!’ ‘Can we play with the dead astronaut?’ ‘Can we? Can we?’ 3
There was something about the Poulson twins that made Ed want to puke. He’d repeatedly told Mary not to allow them in his back garden and here they were again, scabby-kneed and gap-toothed in their matching gingham dresses. ‘Sure,’ said Ed, removing a withered rosebud with his secateurs. ‘Knock yourselves out.’ The two seven year olds frowned identical frowns and cast identical looks at each other. ‘How?’ mouthed Miranda who, being nine minutes younger than Esmerelda, naturally deferred to her older sister. Esmerelda shrugged. ‘I don’t think he meant what he said,’ she whispered. ‘It’s like when mummy tells daddy to go hang himself.’ ‘So we don’t have to knock ourselves out?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh good. Because I think that might hurt a bit.’ With all thoughts of rendering themselves unconscious removed from their minds, the Poulson twins turned their attention to the dead astronaut. He was lying on his back in the middle of Uncle Ed’s lawn, arms and legs akimbo. Like all the others, this one had a blue star on the right sleeve of his spacesuit with a name beneath it. The girls sat on the grass. Esmerelda pointed to the first letter of the name. ‘That’s a letter C,’ she said. Miranda nodded in affirmation. ‘And the next one’s a z.’ ‘And that’s a y.’ ‘And r.’ ‘And n and o and k.’ The twins had a little think. They bared their lower teeth because that’s what daddy did when he was thinking, and they scratched their heads. Esmerelda had the first stab. ‘Kizzernook!’ Miranda shook her head. ‘That’s not it. I think it’s more like Kerzeenoky.’ ‘Kizzernoky!’ ‘Kerzeenook!’ ‘Kuzzernuk!’ ‘Let’s ask Uncle Ed!’ You’d better not, thought Ed. He noted how the sun glinted off the blades of his secateurs and how sharp those blades were. And how pale the twins were and how easy it would be to find their jugular veins. Mary appeared from the kitchen carrying a trayful of goodies. ‘Who’s for lemonade and biscuits?’ ‘Me!’ cried the twins in unison. They ran to the patio table where Mary set down the tray. ‘Auntie Mary?’ ‘Yes, Esmerelda?’ ‘What does C-z-y-r-n-o-k spell?’ ‘Czyrnok.’ ‘That’s a funny name.’ ‘Must be foreign,’ said Miranda. ‘All Uncle Ed’s spacemen have been foreign.’ ‘Except for Smith,’ said Esmerelda. ‘I don’t think Smith’s a foreign name.’ Leaving the girls to natter inanely as they helped themselves to lemonade and biscuits, Mary Morgan wandered over to the dead astronaut. So they had names, had they? These young men who kept falling from the sky. She stared at the darkened visor of the astronaut’s helmet and saw reflected in it a panorama that took in the sky, the house and the garden. Welcome to my world, Starman, she thought. To the life of Mrs Bored Suburban Housewife pacing in frantic circles like a polar bear in a zoo. Mary Morgan was two weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday. Her children had flown the nest. She and her husband had long ago become people she barely recognised. What happened, she wondered, to that young boy and girl who celebrated their engagement by motor biking through the Swiss Alps? The ones
who smoked pot under the stars while listening to The Clash on Radio Luxembourg and who swore never to become like their parents? Suburbia is littered with tragic imagos like us – beautiful caterpillars who grew up to become colourless butterflies. Kneeling down, she pressed her face to the visor. Through the glass darkly, she could make out Asiatic features - possibly Mongolian or Nepalese. If only I’d married someone like you, she thought. Someone dashing and brave and not afraid to reach for the stars. And then she realised she had married such a person but he had never been given the chance to ride in a rocket ship and die before falling back to Earth. If this spaceman had lived, what would he have become in thirty years’ time? Another Ed Morgan? Another senior accountant dead-heading roses in a suburban back garden? ‘Mary? Are you all right?’ She looked up to find Ed standing over her, secateurs in hand. ‘I’m fine, dear. I just wanted to see his face.’ ‘Bit ghoulish, isn’t it?’ said the man who used to collect animal skulls. ‘I’ve finished with the roses but I’m going to leave the lawn until after lunch. The hydrangeas are crying out for my attention.’ Lunch was served on the patio table. Thankfully, by the time Ed sat down to tuck into cold meats and baguettes, the Poulson twins had gone off to annoy some other luckless denizen of Acacia Avenue. The dead astronaut now wore a skirt improvised from a tablecloth. The twins had used lipstick to draw a smiling face on its visor. According to Mary, they’d been playing doctors and nurses. As Ed busied himself cramming ham and pickle into a baguette, the doorbell rang and Mary went to answer it. She returned with a short, bowler-hatted man in tow. ‘Brady,’ he said by way of introduction, placing his briefcase on the table. ‘Sanitation Department.’ ‘He’s from the council,’ said Mary. ‘It’s been brought to my attention, Mr Morgan, that you’ve been putting your rubbish out in a manner not in accordance with council regulations.’ Ed’s back stiffened. To have some stuffed shirt march into his garden on a Sunday and accuse him of transgressing the local byelaws was a bit strong to say the least. ‘I’m going to let you off with a warning this time,’ said Brady. ‘But in future please see to it that all rubbish is placed in the correct bin.’ This littlest of Little Hitlers opened his briefcase. It was crammed full of leaflets. He selected and pulled out one headed Your Rubbish and You. ‘Please take time to study this, Mr Morgan. The red bin is for glass. The blue bin is for plastic. White for paper and cardboard. Green for organic waste. And yellow for everything else.’ ‘And you’re telling me this because…?’ ‘Last week a dead astronaut was found in your green bin.’ ‘And is an astronaut not organic?’ ‘The suit should have been removed and placed in the yellow bin.’ ‘And that’s why my green bin wasn’t emptied?’ ‘Our sanitation engineers have strict instructions not to empty a dustbin if they can’t shut the lid. You may recall that your spaceman’s legs protruded from your green bin, thus rendering it unclosable.’ Brady extracted another leaflet from his briefcase. He placed it on the table next to the first one. ‘This leaflet tells you how to dispose of bulky items. If you ring the Bulky Items Helpline, we can arrange a special collection for anything that does not fit into a regulation council bin.’ ‘For a price.’ ‘A very reasonable one.’ Although outwardly calm, Ed was fighting an urge to do to Mr Brady what he had done to his roses. ‘According to the last bit of unsolicited junk mail the council sent me, a sizeable portion of my council tax
goes towards paying for the removal of my rubbish. I don’t see why I should have to cough up an extra fifty pounds every time a dead astronaut lands on my lawn.’ ‘I have to warn you that any further breeches of protocol with regards to rubbish removal will be treated as a criminal offence.’ ‘Criminal!’ hissed Ed. ‘When did it become criminal for an Englishman to put rubbish in his own rubbish bin?’ Mr Brady from the Sanitation Department knew from experience that now was the optimum time to leave. He had informed Mr Morgan of his transgression and given him two leaflets to further clarify matters. Duty done. The fuse, as he was fond of telling trainees, is lit. No point hanging around to see the fireworks. ‘Goodbye, Mr Morgan. Mrs Morgan. I hope you’ve found our little chat instructive.’ Brady closed his briefcase and squinted myopically at the dead astronaut. He doffed his hat. ‘Pleasure to meet you, madam.’ And then he marched off to ruin someone else’s Sunday. Ed Morgan’s lawn did not get cut that day. His hydrangeas were left to their own devices and the crocuses he’d been planning to plant stayed in the potting shed. Mr Brady’s visit had shattered the tranquillity of Ed’s Sunday in a way that even the Poulson twins couldn’t come close to matching. Enough was enough. It was time to take action. If you’ve never had to manhandle the corpse of a fully-suited astronaut into the back of a station wagon, you’ve no idea how difficult it is. Quite apart from the fact that a spacesuit weighs in excess of eighty pounds, it’s quite a bulky item. Throw in an uncooperative cadaver and you’ve got yourself a handful. It took Ed the best part of a sweaty, back-breaking half hour to get the spaceman into the back of his Volvo and sitting upright. There was a streak of chloroform on the helmet which Mary insisted on wiping away with Windolene. ‘He’s somebody’s child,’ she said in answer to Ed’s objections. ‘How would you feel if one of our kids got buried with a grass stain on their helmet?’ ‘It’s not getting buried. It’s going to the rubbish dump.’ ‘Same thing.’ Feeling like she’d done something to make the world a better place, Mary returned to the house and embarked upon an unscheduled bout of house cleaning. Ed checked that the dead astronaut’s seat belt was securely fastened. ‘You’ll have to excuse my wife,’ he said, speaking to the smiley face that remained lipsticked on the spaceman’s visor. ‘She’s missing our kids, is all.’ After checking that the glove compartment was furnished with enough Werther’s Originals to last the journey, Ed set off for the council’s recycling facility. Jimmy Boyd was a pubescent cliché, the sort of character a lazy writer might invent for comic effect. An acne-ridden wretch with a voice prone to modulating across three octaves in a single sentence, he had yet to kiss a girl let alone do any of those nasty things he’d seen on the Internet. In short, Jimmy was a battleground where Catholic guilt locked horns with the dictates of teenage hormones. ‘Sir!’ he squawked. ‘You can’t put that in there.’ Ed was about to deposit his dead astronaut in a large skip marked ORGANIC WASTE. Flies buzzed around his head. The stench of decomposing matter hung in the air. The heart of the recycling facility was a large hole in the ground that had started off as a World War II bomb crater and was now filled with skips the size of a bungalow. A road ran round the crater. People from all over the borough were throwing televisions, furniture and other casualties of built-in obsolescence into the skips. For many it was a family day out. 6
Ed dropped his astronaut on the tarmac. ‘I’m not going to argue with you,’ he told the mess of hormones that was Jimmy Boyd. ‘I’ve done my civic duty. From here on in, this is your problem.’ And with that, he hopped into his Volvo and drove off. Jimmy turned towards the wooden hut wherein his boss spent his days drinking cups of milky tea. ‘Mr Sellers!’ he squeaked. ‘We have another one!’ Ed Morgan drove to a shopping mall. He bought six digital cameras, two video cams, a four inch telescope, three microphones, eight motion detectors, a night vision scope, binoculars and a load of other electronic stuff that might or might not serve his purpose. Mary Morgan was not used to having the bed to herself. She missed the warmth of her husband’s body, his breath on her neck and even the odd noises he made in his sleep. It was just after one in the morning. Every tick of the alarm clock was a dig in the ribs. Somewhere in the house, a tap was dripping. Electricity hummed in hidden wires. Water whispered as it crept through the pipes. Giving up on sleep, Mary rolled out of bed and slipped into her husband’s dressing gown. Then she went downstairs, made some sandwiches, filled a thermos with hot coffee and put on her wellies. Outside, she paused on the patio to look up at the stars and was astonished to see so many. It took her back to her courting days when she would hop on the back of Ed’s motorbike and they’d ride out of town to marvel at the Milky Way. She recalled a conversation they’d had holding hands on top of Box Hill one night. Ed claimed that within twenty years people would be living on the moon. ‘Butlins will open a holiday camp there,’ he told her. ‘Probably in the Sea of Tranquillity. It’ll be the perfect place to spend our silver wedding anniversary.’ It was the first time he’d ever mentioned marriage. Between then and dawn, they unknowingly conceived their eldest child and promised each other they would fly to the stars as soon as science made it possible. And now here she was, knocking on fifty with no prospect of ever getting to the moon, let alone the stars. With sandwich box in one hand and thermos in the other, Mary skirted the lawn and made her way to the potting shed. She opened the door gently in case her husband had fallen asleep. He hadn’t. He was in a lawn chair gazing at a laptop sitting on a table amid a jungle of potted crocuses. If he was surprised to see his wife, he didn’t show it. ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ Mary asked. ‘I’ve brought some refreshments.’ ‘I’ll be glad of the company,’ he said. The inside of the potting shed was illuminated by the laptop and a couple of portable televisions linked to the video cameras Ed had bought on his way back from the dump. Both vid-cams were mounted on top of the shed. One showed a view of the lawn ringed with digital cameras and motion detectors; the other looked up at the stars. Mary unfolded a chair and sat next to Ed. ‘What are you looking at?’ she asked. ‘A website with a list of all recent rocket launches. I was hoping they’d tie in with the arrival of our dead astronauts.’ ‘And I take it they don’t.’ ‘These are all satellite launches. No one’s put a man in space since the last shuttle mission and that was over three months ago.’ ‘Isn’t there a space station up there? Perhaps that’s where they’re coming from.’ ‘You could be right. But how do you fall out of a space station?’ ‘Maybe they’re being thrown out. I mean, the station’s manned by both Russians and Americans and they don’t always get along. Suppose they’re having some sort of blood feud and their governments are hushing it up for diplomatic reasons?’
‘It’s possible,’ Ed conceded. ‘We’ll find out when the next dead astronaut turns up. I’ll be able to plot its trajectory and work out which part of the sky it fell from. Then I’ll check the Internet to see if the International Space Station was in the vicinity.’ Mary opened the thermos and poured her husband a cup of coffee which he accepted with a grateful smile. She rested her head on his shoulder. ‘This is kind of fun,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it just?’ ‘Reminds me of when we first met.’ Ed chuckled fondly. ‘All those nights making love beneath the stars.’ ‘And talking. We used to talk a lot back then.’ ‘We still do.’ ‘Only about sensible stuff like bills and gardening and getting the walls repainted. When we were courting, we used to talk about everything and nothing. We told each other all our silly secrets – stuff we couldn’t tell anyone else because they’d laugh at us.’ ‘I promised to take you to the moon on our silver wedding anniversary.’ ‘You remember that?’ ‘Like it was yesterday.’ Mary felt warm and glowy. ‘I’ve an idea,’ she said. ‘But you might not like it.’ ‘Try me.’ ‘Let’s grab a blanket and make love on the lawn.’ ‘But the neighbours…’ ‘Hang the neighbours. Bloody snobs, the lot of them.’ Ed laughed. ‘Mary Morgan, I’ve suddenly remembered why I love you.’ When the sun next rose over Acacia Avenue, it found Ed and Mary Morgan huddled naked on a blanket in the middle of their lawn. They were both dreaming the same dream of a holiday camp on the moon. A few doors down, Mr Lacey drew back the curtains in his bedroom and almost exploded. ‘What the blithering blue blazes!’ Mrs Lacey sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes. ‘What is it, dear?’ ‘There! In the back garden!’ ‘What, dear?’ ‘A dead astronaut. And it’s crushed my carnations!’
9:03 It was a compact room, cluttered yet tidy. Books and magazines standing to attention on the mantelpiece. Scrapbooks and CDs in boxes under the bed. A set of blue pyjamas folded neatly on the pillow. It was a snapshot of a young girl’s mind, a movie frozen in time. ‘Please don’t touch anything,’ repeated Charles Lawford. Unable to bring himself to enter the room, he was on the landing with his back to the door. A Betty Boop alarm clock sat on the bedside locker and I wondered in a vague way if it was worth anything. ‘I’ve seen enough,’ I said and we went down to the living room where Lawford poured us both a brandy. ‘Now you know what kind of a girl Jenny is,’ said Lawford. We sat in armchairs separated by a sofa. He was a squat man with narrow eyes and a red birthmark just visible beneath his thin, greasy hair. ‘That room hasn’t been touched since she disappeared. It’s exactly how she left it.’ His eyes were fixed on the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. I allowed myself to be briefly hypnotized by the lazy swing of the pendulum, the relentless tick-tock of the clock’s mechanism. A small second hand with its own circle of numbers shuddered from one numeral to the next. ‘She’s a good girl,’ said Lawford. ‘Well-behaved, level-headed and sensible. She would never have run away.’ Although I was Lawford’s next door neighbour, I scarcely knew the man and was baffled as to why he had invited me into his house. It wasn’t for the company, I was sure of that - though he could hardly be blamed for not wanting to be alone. Two months had passed since his daughter had disappeared. There wasn’t much about it in the press – three column inches on page seven of a tabloid, a quarter page article with a fuzzy picture of Jenny in the local rag. The general consensus was that Jenny was just another teen runaway who was bound to turn up sooner or later. For the first week or so, the police had made a show of concern. They’d sent someone each morning to ask if Jenny had returned and to assure the Lawfords they were still looking for her. When the police stopped coming, the rows started. Night after night, sounds of anger, bitterness and recrimination found their way through the connecting wall into my living room. Mr and Mrs Lawford blamed each other for the disappearance of their daughter. Neither was willing to admit that some portion of the fault might be their own; neither seemed to consider that there might be no fault at all. Twice the police were called to calm things down. It was a relief to the entire neighbourhood when Mrs Lawford packed her bags and left. I polished off my brandy and got to my feet. ‘I really ought to be going.’ Charles Lawford was alarmed. ‘Five more minutes,’ he pleaded. ‘Have another brandy, Houghton. Just five minutes.’ As I sat back down, his gaze returned to the grandfather clock. Two minutes past nine. ‘The police don’t believe me,’ he said. ‘They think I’m mad. I need you as a witness.’ ‘To what?’ I asked. Lawford placed a finger to his lips. His left hand bobbed up and down in sympathy with the second hand of the grandfather clock. ‘Always three minutes past,’ he said. ‘Please say nothing. I don’t want you to scare her away.’ The second hand reached the perpendicular. 9.03. Lawford looked triumphant. ‘There! What did I tell you? Bang on time.’ He grabbed the telephone and placed it to his ear. ‘Yes, darling,’ he said after a few moments. ‘Daddy can hear you.’ He cocked his head as if straining to catch the words of his caller. I was aware of the ticking of the clock and the steady hum of the ring tone. ‘But where are you, darling? I know it’s dark but you must be able to tell if you’re inside or out. Please don’t cry. I’ll find you. Daddy will find you.’ Again he listened. Listened to the ring tone. Listened to an imaginary voice playing in his head. ‘Mummy loves you too but she’s had to go away... It’s not your fault. None of it is... No! Don’t go! Don’t hang up.’ 9
Lawford’s shoulders slumped. He put down the phone and turned to me. ‘You heard her, didn’t you? Now the police have to believe me.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Will you ring them in the morning, Houghton? Tell them what you heard?’ Fearful of Lawford’s temper, I nodded. ‘I’ll tell them everything that’s just happened.’ ‘Thank you, thank you. Then perhaps they’ll start looking for her again. If only she’d tell me where she is! She says it’s somewhere dark and it’s not too hot and not too cold. And there’s a light in the distance. I think she must be in a tunnel or something. I keep telling her to go towards the light but she won’t. She’s afraid to move. She wants me to come and fetch her. But how can I when I don’t know where she is?’ Although the following day was a rest day, I toyed with the idea of going to work. Lawford frightened me and I dreaded the thought of him banging on my door, demanding to know if I’d phoned the police. But I was damned if anyone was going to drive me out of my own home. If Lawford confronted me, I would lie to him, tell him anything he wanted to hear. It was shortly after midday that the police arrived. They pulled up in an unmarked car – a plain clothes detective and a policewoman. I watched them through the living room curtains as they marched up Lawford’s garden path. He opened the door just as the detective was about to ring the bell. It all seemed ominous to me. For two minutes, there was no sound from next door. Then Lawford’s voice came thundering through the dividing wall. It was muffled but I could make out some sort of denial and the liberal use of the word ‘buffoons’. And then calm. Deciding now would be a good time to prune the roses, I grabbed some secateurs and wandered into the front garden. My plan was to waylay the police officers and tell them Lawford had lost his mind. When he and the police came out together, I was caught off guard and had no chance to duck out of sight. Lawford saw me as he reached his garden gate. ‘These people are buffoons!’ he yelled. It was in my general direction but loud enough for half the street to hear. ‘They don’t believe us, Houghton. They’ve made a ghastly mistake.’ The policewoman made shushing motions and said something to Lawford which I suppose was meant to be calming. He ignored her and came stalking up my garden path. ‘They’ve found the body of a young girl in a disused mine shaft,’ he said, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘They insist it’s my Jenny and that she’s been dead for at least two weeks. But how can that be when she phones me every night? It doesn’t make sense, does it?’ Backing away, I shook my head. ‘You did ring the police like you promised?’ ‘Of course,’ I lied. ‘I told them about the phone call and everything.’ The plain clothes man ventured into the garden but kept his distance from Lawford. ‘We can sort this out at the station,’ he said. ‘We certainly can, Inspector,’ Lawford spat back. ‘And then I’m making a formal complaint about the way this investigation has been conducted. Heads will roll, believe you me.’ Lawford marched to the police car and got in the back. The policewoman got in with him. The policeman showed me his badge. ‘Detective Inspector Collins. Are you Mr Houghton by any chance?’ ‘Yes, Inspector.’ ‘Mr Lawford tells me you paid him a visit last night.’ ‘He insisted I come over.’ I told Collins about Lawford’s strange behaviour. ‘We know about the phantom phone calls,’ said Collins. ‘They began just after his wife left him. He’s been ringing the station every night to say his daughter’s phoned and she’s lost somewhere. The first few times we checked with the phone company.’ Collins tapped his temple. ‘The calls are in his mind.’ ‘What he just said about the girl’s body...?’ Collins nodded. ‘I’m afraid it’s true, sir. His daughter was found at the bottom of a mine shaft.’ 10
‘And you’re certain it’s her?’ ‘The mother’s at the station now. She’s made a positive ID. Jenny Lawford is dead.’ Numbly, I sat watching BBC News. Lunch was a couple of shots of scotch. Poor Lawford, I thought. First he loses his daughter, then his wife and now his mind. For all that I couldn’t bring myself to like the man, I did feel deeply sorry for him. The news eventually broke just before the four o’clock bulletin: ‘And we’re receiving reports that the body of a young girl found in a disused mine shaft is that of missing teenager Jennifer Lawford. Her mother and father have been informed. So far police have given no indication as to whether or not foul play is suspected. We’ll have more on that story as details emerge...’ That was yesterday. A handful of reporters turned up at the Lawford house but left when it became clear there’d be nobody home for a while. Now and then I’d turn on the television for an update. Aside from the police ruling out foul play and Mr and Mrs Lawford going to stay with relatives, there were no new developments. Finally, shortly after midnight, I went to bed and waited for sleep. It didn’t come so I returned to the living room and poured myself a large scotch. I turned the television on in the hope of finding a late night film. I got BBC News and was about to channel hop when I caught the word ‘Lawford’. ‘...was immediately rushed to hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival. In other news...’ I had to wait half an hour for the headlines to come around again. When they did, I learnt that Charles Lawford had killed himself with drain cleaner. Morning finally arrived. It found me sleeping in my armchair with the television on and a glass of whisky at my feet. Not wanting to know or think any more about the Lawfords, I switched off the telly as soon as I woke up. My head was filled with a dull ache. The scotch burned my throat. It was 8.40. I was going to be late for work. After a quick shower and shave, I made some toast but couldn’t bring myself to eat it. The telephone rang. I picked it up. ‘Hello?’ ‘Hello.’ A young girl’s voice. ‘Is that Mr Houghton?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Hold on please. My dad wants to talk to you.’ I looked at the wall clock. It was 9.03. ‘Houghton?’ The voice was unmistakable. ‘This is Lawford. I just wanted to let you know I’ve found my daughter. Everything’s going to be all right now...’
Head I Men are nasty. Emily Green wrote it on the blackboard. Men are nasty. She stepped back and asked herself a question. What’s so nasty about them? ‘That’s easy. They think with their dicks and regard women as lower than the beasts of the field.’ She turned to face an empty classroom. ‘Here endeth today’s lesson. Class dismissed.’ The door opened. Mr Henderson stuck his grey-crowned head in. ‘Are you all right, Miss Green?’ Miss Green! There it was. That detestable word – Miss! And what exactly have I missed? ‘You’re meant to be on playground duty.’ Mr Henderson made it sound like a death sentence. Chalk dust drifted from the lapels of his corduroy jacket. ‘Do you know Alex Stirling, Mr Henderson?’ ‘Head of Games? Of course.’ ‘We’ve been having an affair.’ ‘That’s none of my business.’ ‘He has a tiny penis.’ ‘Miss Green!’ ‘What has he said about me?’ ‘The children will be finishing their dinners. You’re needed in the playground.’ ‘I bet he’s said I’m frigid. They always say that when they can’t satisfy a woman.’ ‘Miss Green – ‘ ‘Stop calling me Miss Green! I’m thirty six years old! I deserve to be called something other than fucking Miss!’ ‘Your drinking hasn’t gone unnoticed, Miss Green.’ Mr Henderson backed out of the room. ‘You need to sort yourself out. Before it’s too late.’ Emily stabbed at the blackboard with her chalk. Men are nasty. ‘Write that out a hundred times,’ she told herself. ‘Then maybe you won’t be so quick to forget.’ To Emily, the playground was The Zone. A place beyond normality where different rules – social and physical - applied. But so mundane, she noted as she patrolled the playground perimeter. You little brats think it’s all new, don’t you? You think you’re iconoclasts reinventing the world. But it’s the same old world it’s always been and always will be. The games don’t change – only the players. Emily wanted to smoke. She’d walked out on nicotine two years ago and had felt guilty ever since. As if she owed the tobacco industry a debt of gratitude for turning her lungs black. I am just so drunk. She stared into the distance. Beyond the wire fence defining the limits of the playground, the school cricket pavilion stood on the edge of the playing field as it had since before the First World War. Despite being off-limits, a small group of children – mostly boys – had gathered on its veranda. Their collective attention was focused on a hat box held like a votive offering by William Howard, the terror of the third year. Look at you. Barely out of shorts and you think you’ve got it sussed. Well I’ve news for you, little man. I see through you and your kind. She imagined sporting a cigarette between her lips while all around her were crying Miss! Miss! You can’t do that! It’s not allowed. It’s bad for you. Antisocial. Borderline criminal. Definitely no way to get a man. 12
As she sucked on her imaginary cigarette, the Ghosts of Smokes Past descended into the underworld of her lungs, tugging at the tangled fibres of her anxiety. Neurotic bitch! The parting words of Alex Stirling as he stormed out of her flat came back to her. I am not neurotic. All I want is a good smoke, a glass of wine and quality time on my settee lost in the simplistic plot of a trashy novel. ‘Enough!’ Emily marched onto the playing field and – with the single-mindedness of a cruise missile – homed in on the pavilion. ‘No way!’ screeched one of the children. ‘Awesome!’ exclaimed Rosie Valencia, a precocious thirteen year old not generally given to acts of disobedience. She backed away from the hat box. ‘Does it bite?’ ‘Yes,’ said William Howard. ‘It bites.’ Thomas Downs held his hand over the box and all went quiet. Six pairs of adolescent eyes dared him to proceed. ‘Go on,’ said William. ‘Or are you chicken?’ ‘I don’t care if it does bite. I’ve just had a tetanus jab.’ The boy’s hand went into the box – and almost immediate shot back out again. ‘Yow! That hurt.’ William spotted Emily. Startled, he slammed the lid on the hat box and walked towards the playground. ‘Freeze!’ The children froze. ‘Come here William Howard. And bring that box with you.’ Men on their way to the gallows had shown less trepidation than William as he turned and shuffled back to Emily. ‘You are without doubt,’ Emily told him, ‘the grubbiest, most deceitful boy I have ever had the misfortune to know. What do you have to say to that, William Howard?’ The boy mumbled. ‘Speak up!’ ‘Yes, Miss.’ ‘And what unmentionable horror will I discover lurking in yon box, I wonder?’ ‘Please, Miss, I found it on holiday.’ ‘Oh yes. Your famous mid-term jaunt to foreign climes. Greece, wasn’t it?’ ‘Yes, Miss. Lesbos.’ William sucked his cheeks in to keep from laughing. Others, not so guarded, gave vent to sniggers. ‘Very well, William. Let us see what treasure from antiquity you have for us.’ ‘Miss?’ ‘Open the box.’ A sly look crossed William’s face. With a magician’s flourish, he removed the lid. ‘What the - ?’ Emily’s breath caught in her throat. Brown eyes stared up at her from a grizzled face. They were eyes that spoke of dreams and wisdom and a life lived to the full. Beneath them, a patrician nose pointed to lips so dry they resembled leather. It’s a waxwork, she told herself. A split second later, the eyes blinked and the lips twitched. ‘Where did you get this, William?’ ‘It was in a cave.’ ‘How does it work?’ ‘Work? I don’t understand.’ ‘It’s some sort of robot. There must be wires and microchips and things like that.’ ‘No, Miss. It’s a real head.’ ‘Don’t be absurd!’ Emily checked her anger. She knew she was drunk and knew she was mad at Alex Stirling. It would be wrong to take it out on William Howard. Strict she might be, but she prided herself on being fair. ‘You should know better than to bring something like this in to school. Give it here.’ ‘But, Miss...’
‘You’ll get it back at the end of term. In the meantime, you should all be thankful not to find yourselves with detentions. Now get back to the playground, the lot of you!’ II Emily drove home with the hat box on the passenger seat. Whenever she stopped at a traffic light, she found herself wanting to open the box and inspect its enigmatic contents. Only an implacable sense of dread forestalled her. With her fling with Alex Stirling at an end, she had nothing in her life that wasn’t humdrum. Nothing except a mystery in a hat box. And if she looked too closely, the mystery might unravel and become humdrum too. As she stepped through the front door of her flat, she was struck by how small and grim it was. She recalled the nights Alex Stirling had spent there. Then it had been cosy and bijou – a proper love nest. My life, she thought, hurrying into the living room and placing the hat box on the coffee table. A quarter of a century dedicated to the noble profession and what have I got to show for it? Unable to bring herself to answer the question, she drew the blinds and switched on the floor lamp. After opening a bottle of Beaujolais and putting on a Barry White CD, she settled onto the settee with a glass of wine and a bonk-buster novel. She was twelve pages into the book when the CD finished and she realised she hadn’t taken in a single word. Irritated, she tossed the dog-eared paperback aside, took a swig of wine and glared at the hat box. ‘Stop staring,’ she told the unseen head. ‘Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to.’ She almost laughed at herself. The old eyes-in-the-back-of-my-head routine worked fine on schoolboys, but it was hardly likely to be effective on a mechanical head. Emily put down her wine glass and placed the box on her lap. Although she didn’t want to know the truth about its contents, not knowing was driving her crazy. ‘Here goes.’ She lifted the lid and dropped it on the coffee table. For five heartbeats, she stared straight ahead. Then she took a deep breath and looked down. Eyes which she would later say were as deep and blue as the Aegean, gazed up at her. The mouth formed the vaguest of smiles. Emily found herself in awe of the unknown craftsmen who had made the head so realistic. Its lips moved in soundless imitation of speech. ‘I wonder what you’re trying to say.’ But of course it wasn’t trying to say anything. It’s just a model, she reminded herself. A sophisticated puppet. Probably made for some science fiction film. The skin fascinated her. It was leathery and worn and spoke of a life on the high seas. She pictured it lying half-buried on a sun-drenched beach, caked in salt and algae, virtually indistinguishable from driftwood. Nervously, she reached down and touched the weathered cheek with the tip of her finger. The face twitched. Warm air caressed her hand. Almost as if it’s breathing. With that thought came an awareness of the softest of sounds. A gentle, melodic murmuring that made her think of grasshoppers and mountain streams. It had all the aching beauty of a bitter-sweet memory. Like the warm air, it seemed to come from the head’s mouth. Emily bent down. The melody bypassed her senses. It filled her mind with wonder and warmth. She caught a sudden movement in the beard. For a moment, she thought her imagination was playing tricks. But then the flea jumped again. Next thing she knew, she was standing on the settee and her heart was going like a steam hammer. The head, having spilled out of the box, lay on the carpet staring up at her. It smiled. ‘Holy crap!’ Emily’s knees threatened to buckle. She hastily manoeuvred herself into a sitting position. Now the thought that had been burrowing into her mind ever since she’d first seen the head could no
longer be ignored. Giddiness caused the room to gently see-saw as she finally confronted the crazy, unpalatable truth. ‘It’s alive!’ Until she’d emptied her bottle of wine, Emily was unable to formulate anything much resembling a coherent train of thought. Her attempts at reaching a rational explanation for the thing on the floor invariably fell at the first hurdle. Staring into her empty wine glass, she focused on Greek legend. If William Howard could be believed – never a certain thing – the head had been discovered on Lesbos. ‘Lesbos... Lesbos...’ Wasn’t that something to do with Oedipus? Or Odysseus? From her youth, Emily recalled a paperback: A Beginner’s Guide to Greek Myths. It was part of her father’s meagre book collection which had mostly consisted of trashy thrillers. The cover illustration was a garish rendition of Perseus holding aloft Medusa’s severed head. One rainy afternoon when there was nothing on television except horse racing, she’d been bored enough to wade through the book’s turgid prose. Afterwards, she could remember little of the stories, but the black and white pictures had stuck in her mind. One especially: a woodcut of a severed head floating down a river. Emily closed her eyes and conjured up the page in her mind. It took a few seconds for the caption to come to her. Torn from its body by the Ciconian women, the head of Orpheus drifts on the Hebrus. ‘Is that who you are? The Greek hero Orpheus?’ She recalled the book detailing how the women of Ciconia had lusted after him en-masse. He could have had the pick of them, but all he was interested in was playing his golden lyre. Enraged by his indifference, the women got together and tore his head from his shoulders. ‘And who can blame them?’ Emily remembered wanting to do something similar to Alex Stirling when he’d ended their affair. ‘Only it wasn’t his head I wanted to tear off.’ But never mind that. What had happened to Orpheus’s head? Did it not end up on the island of Lesbos where the natives first worshipped and then buried it? Emily took a deep breath. ‘OK. Let’s say you’re Orpheus. That may be crazy but – as Sherlock Holmes used to say – when you’ve eliminated every explanation that isn’t barking, you’ve got to take the least barking of the barking ones. So you’re a character from the Age of Heroes lying on my living room. Doesn’t matter how you got here, the point is here you are and you stink something rotten. Not that I’m blaming you. Who wouldn’t stink after spending thousands of years in a cave without bathroom facilities? But before we go any further we are going have to clean you up.’ Emily ran a bath. She filled it to a depth of about two inches, made sure the water was comfortably warm and then fetched Orpheus’s head from the living room. With tender hands she lowered what was left of the Greek hero into the bath and rested the back of his head on a sponge. She noticed the water did not enter the gaping hole where his neck ended. She noticed too a complete absence of scarring, as if the head had been surgically removed rather than ripped from its body. But there was no way of knowing what had really happened. Back in the days of heroes, when the gods used men as their play things, anything was possible. Orpheus sang happily as Emily Green shampooed his hair and washed ancient grime from his face. Emily sang too. In the bedroom, Teddy Timbo sat against the headboard where he belonged. If there was one thing Emily knew she could never forgive Alex Stirling for, it was banishing her teddy bear from her bed. ‘It’s ghoulish,’ was how he put it. ‘Having that tatty old thing watch over us while we make love. A woman your age shouldn’t even own a teddy bear.’ And so Teddy Timbo had found himself in her underwear drawer, uncomfortably close to the foot long dildo Alex had tried to introduce into their love-making. In retrospect, she realised the banishment of
Teddy Timbo was an act of petty vengeance. By rejecting his rubber phallus, she’d challenged Alex’s authority and Teddy Timbo had paid the price. Emily lovingly lay Orpheus on the pillow beside Teddy Timbo. ‘You don’t mind sharing, do you?’ She spoke to both bear and ancient hero. ‘Plenty enough of me to go around.’ With his face washed and his hair and beard trimmed, Orpheus no longer looked like a denizen of Skid Row. Teddy Timbo, however, was as scruffy as ever. But that was Teddy Timbo for you and she couldn’t help but love him no matter how many times she had to replace his stuffing and sew his leg back on. Emily lounged on the bed. ‘Are you both comfortable?’ Orpheus sang a melody like the scent of honeysuckle on a summer’s breeze. Without knowing why, Emily found herself crying. Not even in her most hormonal moments had she felt so sad and happy at the same time. She was aware of an ache that had been there a long, lonely time but which she had been able to ignore until now. ‘Please stop,’ she whispered. But Orpheus kept on singing and Emily was glad he did. Slowly, the ache evaporated and she found herself smiling. She pictured herself as a wood nymph, dancing gaily in a Mediterranean glade, at one with Nature and herself. The music was within her. It trickled through her veins and caused her nerves to sing. It commanded her to get off the bed and undress. She had never liked removing her clothes in front of others. With Alex, she’d insisted he leave the room while she got ready for him. But the music reassured her. It told her she was a woman whose body was made to be studied and worshipped. She met Orpheus’s gaze full on. As she unbuttoned her blouse, she swayed her hips. He smiled approvingly. ‘How long have you waited for this moment?’ she asked. ‘How many civilisations have risen and fallen since you last saw a woman naked?’ Her clothes were soon discarded. Then she danced for Orpheus, showing him she was all woman, his link to the Cosmic Mother. ‘I’ll be your comfort. Your friend, your lover, your nurse, your whore, your Helen of Troy. I’ll be whatever you want me to be.’ Orpheus sang a new tune. It caressed her with invisible fingers, traced the curves of her body, sought out erogenous zones whose existence she’d never even suspected. He made love to her with his voice. It wrapped strong arms around her, breathed in her ear, brushed her lips. ‘My god,’ she murmured, pressing a hand over her sex. ‘I’m on fire.’ Emily could sense the heroes and gods of ancient Greece looking down on her, urging her on to new heights of ecstasy. Throwing herself onto the bed, she prostrated herself before her new-found love. She closed her eyes and pictured him with his body intact. She saw him sitting on a rock, the Mediterranean sun glinting off his olive-skinned body. She marvelled at the finely contoured arms that had helped row the Argo beyond the known world and back again. Then she pictured his manhood standing to attention and moaned. It was getting too much. If release didn’t come soon, she would explode. Given his condition, there was only one way Orpheus could provide that release. But dare she ask? She had suggested such a thing to Alex and his sharp rebuff still resounded in her ears. Emily decided to throw caution to the wind. If Orpheus would not grant her this one special favour, perhaps he wasn’t the man for her after all. With her heart hammering and her continued happiness in the balance, she straddled the head, giving Orpheus a full-on view of her womanhood. She studied his face for any sign of revulsion, but he just smiled and winked at her. Emily lowered her sex to within an inch of the warrior’s lips. And still there was no sign of distaste on his part. She was wondering whether she dared take that final, crucial step when she felt the tip of his tongue on the inside of her thigh. It was all the encouragement she needed.
Orpheus’s mouth played Emily the way his fingers had played his golden lyre. He knew exactly where his lips and tongue were needed, how much pressure to apply, how much to tease and when to release. Emily’s being dissolved. The serpent within her awoke and the fire in her loins reached to the far reaches of the Cosmos. ‘I am a goddess,’ she whispered. ‘Now worship me.’ III The doorbell rang. ‘Oh shit.’ Emily didn’t want to move. She wanted to stay lying on her back, surrounded by crumpled sheets and the smell of sex. Next to her, her disembodied lover hummed a gentle paean of contentment. ‘It’s Alex Stirling – I know it is. The poor sap is here to beg me to take him back. Oh how funny is that?’ The bell rang again and she knew it would go on ringing, chipping away at her contentment with each sonorous chime. Best to get it over with. ‘Sorry, lover boy.’ Emily clambered off the bed and lifted the head of Orpheus to her bosom. ‘Can’t let him see you.’ She looked around for a secure hiding place and decided upon her underwear drawer. ‘You’ll like it in there amongst my panties and bras.’ With one hand she opened the drawer. As she gently placed her lover on a bed of silk lingerie with a bra for a pillow, she spotted something that caused her to shudder: Alex’s foot long dildo. ‘Should have thrown the damned thing away,’ she muttered. And she would have if she’d been certain it could never be traced back to her. Well, she wasn’t going to leave her ex-lover’s sex toy in the same drawer as her current beau. That would be disrespectful. The doorbell rang again. And again and again. Someone was growing impatient. Emily gingerly picked up the dildo. It was almost as thick as her arm and she wondered how on earth Alex had expected her to get pleasure from it. With a shudder, she threw it on the bed where it landed at Teddy Timbo’s feet. Then she blew her lover a kiss and closed the drawer. Ding dong. ‘Hold your bloody horses!’ She hurried through the living room and into the tiny hallway. ‘OK, Alex. You’ve asked for this.’ But when she opened the door, Alex Stirling wasn’t there. The woman on Emily’s doorstep was a harpy in a denim skirt. She looked like she hadn’t smiled in years. ‘I want my fucking head!’ She raised a fist. The word HATE was spelt across her knuckles. ‘We can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way. Give me my fucking head or I’ll smash your fucking teeth down your fucking throat.’ ‘Mrs Howard?’ ‘Don’t you Mrs Howard me, you thieving cow.’ William Howard’s mother barged past Emily into the living room. ‘Where is it?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Years of dealing with hormone-crazed adolescents had taught Emily to appear outwardly calm when her instincts told her to scream. ‘If you wish to talk to me about William, please book an appointment through the school secretary.’ Mrs Howard took a packet of cheap cigarettes from her pocket. ‘I’d rather you didn’t smoke,’ said Emily. With a sneer, Mrs Howard produced a disposable lighter and lit her cigarette. She blew smoke in Emily’s direction then spoke in the icy, don’t-mess-with-me tones Emily had herself long ago perfected. ‘My bastard son snuck into my bedroom and stole something of mine and now you have it and I want it back.’ ‘If you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about, it’s at the school.’ ‘Don’t lie to me, bitch.’ ‘Mrs Howard, I want you out of this flat – now!’ ‘Where is it?’ 17
‘Get out or I’m phoning the police.’ ‘Phone away. I’ll be gone long before they get here.’ Mrs Howard looked around the room, a raptor alert for any clue that would lead to her prey. ‘Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been using my head for, you dirty cow. Who do you think trained it in the first place? Now where have you got it hidden?’ Emily involuntarily glanced towards the bedroom. ‘In there?’ Mrs Howard flung open the bedroom door and went through. Emily hurried after her. ‘Get out!’ She threw her arms around the woman’s broad shoulders and tried to wrestle her to the floor. Easily breaking Emily’s grip, Mrs Howard span round, grabbed a handful of hair and flung Emily onto the bed. ‘Now lie still or I’ll kill you.’ Afterwards, Emily could remember very little apart from hurt and rage. She saw Mrs Howard opening her underwear drawer and then the foot long dildo was in her hands and she was on her feet screaming, ‘Bitch…! Bitch…! Bitch…!’ The first blow caught Mrs Howard on the side of her head. She span round and stared at Emily in stunned disbelief. ‘Why you – ‘ ‘Bitch!’ Emily swung the dildo with all her might. She got Mrs Howard full on the mouth, causing a sickening crunch of breaking teeth and bone. A fine mist of blood sprayed from the ruined orifice. And Emily knew she couldn’t stop. The thought of someone using the ancient warrior as a sex toy was too much to bear. As she rained blow after blow on the intruder, she reminded herself she was doing it as much for Orpheus as herself. Every collision between flesh and rubber filled her with joy. This was pure blood lust – raw, primeval and very, very satisfying. Mrs Howard went down. With her hands wrapped around her bleeding head, she tried to scurry away. But a blow to the centre of her back knocked the wind from her. She whimpered and Emily laughed. And she kept on laughing and she kept on beating Mrs Howard long after Mrs Howard was dead. IV The water gathering at Emily’s feet ran red with the blood of the late Mrs Howard. Then it grew pale and pink. When the water cleared, Emily felt she had cleansed herself of a lifetime of heartache and disappointment. Stepping out of the shower, she pictured herself as Boticelli’s Venus freshly emerged from the sea. I have made love to a demigod – something no living woman has done for thousands of years. Maybe I’m not actually Venus, but I’m the closest thing to her there is right now. In the bedroom, she stepped over Mrs Howard’s corpse and threw on a flannelette dressing gown. She gave her hair a cursory towelling, feeling that as a man of the sea Orpheus would appreciate her hair being wet. Like one of those Sirens who tried to lure him to his doom. Barefoot, she padded out to the living room. Orpheus was where she’d left him – propped up against the corner of the settee. He greeted her with a song distilled from the gurgling of mountain streams and the drone of a dragonfly. She kissed him on the forehead. ‘Let’s watch a DVD. I have silent movies, so language won’t be a problem. Do you like Buster Keaton?’ Emily laughed and rolled her eyes. ‘What am I like? You’ve probably never seen a movie in your life, have you? But I know what you’d enjoy: Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks as a conniving, femme fatale. Shall we watch that, my sweet?’ A change in the key of Orpheus’s song said no. ‘What then?’ Emily positioned herself on her knees before the DVDs piled beside the television. She read out the titles one by one. ‘Caligula…? Thelma and Louise…? Repo Man…? The Man With the Golden Arm?’ Each suggestion was greeted with a musical no. 18
‘A Night at the Opera?’ No. ‘Carnival of Souls?’ No. ‘Pink Flamingos?’ No. ‘Der Golem?’ Getting closer. ‘Dracula?’ Very nearly. ‘Frankenstein?’ Yes, yes, yes! The song of Orpheus soared like a mountain eagle. ‘OK, my sweet. I guess you don’t have to understand what’s being said to know what’s going on.’ She slipped the DVD into the player. ‘The Modern Prometheus. That was Mary Shelley’s subtitle, wasn’t it? Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. ‘Did you ever meet Prometheus? Or was he before your time?’ Emily did the necessary with the remote control and placed herself on the settee next to Orpheus. As they watched Universal Studio’s Frankenstein, Orpheus sang. His singing lent the film an operatic quality which intensified its impact. Soon, Emily turned the sound off to allow her lover’s song free rein over her emotions. As the end credits began to roll, the telephone rang. ‘Will you excuse me, my love?’ Emily went to the sideboard. Even as she picked up the phone, she knew who was calling. ‘Emily Green.’ ‘Emily, it’s me.’ ‘You’ve called at an inconvenient time, Alex. I have company.’ ‘I’ve been going out of my mind. Nothing makes sense any more. I need you Emily, like no man has needed a woman before. And there’s no turning back for me. I’ve told my wife everything. My marriage is over!’ Emily’s loathing for Alex Stirling took on a new dimension. She had almost forgiven him for dumping her – it was, after all, an inevitability given her track record – but to turn his back on his own family! That was unforgivable. ‘Let me make it plain - ’ she began. But then Orpheus began to sing. The melody cautioned her to make the most of the situation. At first she didn’t understand. And then his plan took shape in her mind and she knew what she had to do. She put her hand over the mouthpiece and turned to Orpheus. ‘But will it work?’ I am immortal, Orpheus sang wordlessly. And I have powers… She spoke into the phone. ‘Perhaps we should talk this through, Alex.’ ‘Yes!’ It was the cry of the shipwrecked sighting sails on the horizon. ‘Let’s talk. That’s all I’m asking. Together we can sort things out. I know we can.’ ‘How soon can you get here?’ ‘Ten minutes. Maybe fifteen.’ ‘Good. I’ll see you then.’ Emily put the phone down and went to the kitchen. She returned with the sharpest knife she could find and placed it on the coffee table. ‘What else will I need?’ Wine to intoxicate him. A bucket for the blood. And a strong needle and thread. ‘And how shall I kill him?’ It would be fitting for him to die the same way as that awful woman. Do you think you’re strong enough? ‘With you at my side: yes.’ Good. Make sure you damage only his head. We want the body intact. Emily took the foot long dildo from the table and sat beside her lover. ‘Shall we watch Pandora’s Box now?’ No. Let’s watch Frankenstein again. It’s most instructive. 19
Fido She’s a vamp. You saw that the moment you opened the door to let her into your flat. She strode briskly in. Six foot two of quiet confidence, acknowledging your existence by handing over her coat and telling you to hang it up. ‘You’re a worm.’ She took the money from the sideboard and dropped it in her handbag. ‘You will call me Mistress.’ You slavered. You wanted to get on your hands and knees, crawl to her on all fours and run your tongue over her don’t-fuck-with-me stilettoes. ‘Get on your hands and knees,’ she said. Perfect. And now here you are on the settee, butt naked and trussed up like a Christmas turkey. Your underpants are being used to mute what Mistress calls ‘your pathetic whimpering’. They taste vile. The past hour has been painful, humiliating and pleasant. Mistress is worth every penny of her £500 fee. She has the money now. It took a year to save that much and you weren’t planning on letting her leave with it. But things haven’t gone your way. Fundamentally, you made one fatal mistake: you surrendered too much control. And now she has you where you wanted her and it looks like Fido is going to go hungry. And Fido doesn’t like it when Fido goes hungry. It was the early hours of this morning when Fido last ate. You were aware that the old wino you found in that shop doorway was substandard fare, but it was the best you could do. ‘You can’t sleep there,’ you told the tramp, trying to sound concerned. ‘You’ll catch your death of cold.’ The wino regarded you through cataract-spangled eyes. ‘Fuck off,’ he said, his voice laden with all the sufferings and disappointments of a life that had come to nothing. ‘You look like you could use a drink,’ you told him. It was like telling a fish it needed water. ‘I have whisky back at my place. And gin and vodka and brandy. And a sofa you can sleep on.’ The wino told you to fuck off again but got to his feet anyway. You had to hold his arm to keep him upright and it left a sticky residue on your hand. Out in the open air, the tramp’s odour had been pretty bad. Here, in the confines of your flat, it was unbearable. You could hear Fido in the bathroom, slobbering as you can hear him now. Isn’t it funny how no one else seems to hear? Perhaps they don’t see him either. Perhaps he remains invisible to his prey even as his claws rip into them and his jaws tear them apart. After opening a window, you handed the wino a bottle of gin and watched him down half of it in one greedy draft. ‘Need a piss,’ he said, which was music to your ears. Fido heard and growled a happy growl. You could hear the splash-splash of his saliva hitting the floor. The tramp was going to piss against the settee. You hastily steered him to the bathroom door. He had trouble with the handle and Fido whined in frustration. As soon as the door was opened, you pushed the wino through and quickly closed it again. Fido roared. The tramp screamed. You came home from work expecting Fido to be happy. But the tramp hadn’t been much of a meal. Too much gristle, not enough meat. Fido was hungry and he had no qualms about letting you know. As you sat and watched television, he scratched at the bathroom door. His whining played on your nerves. You tried to ignore him. Did your best to let him know who was boss. But who were you kidding? 20
Giving up on the television, you put on your headphones and listened to George Michael’s Greatest Hits, but it did no good. Even though you were deaf to Fido, you could sense his displeasure, were aware of his disappointment in you. Finally, at nine o’clock, you caved in. ‘All right, Fido!’ you shouted, banging on the bathroom door. ‘You win. Just give me a while to sort something out.’ It was too early to go hunting for winos and there weren’t many left in the area anyway. And there was no use cruising the red light district for what you call ‘cheap meat’. After the disappearance of three girls in as many weeks, the others had grown cautious, and you already had a reputation amongst them for being an unsavoury creep. It was unlikely you’d persuade any of them into your car. Which left you with but one recourse. For a long while, you’d known this night would come. Fido food isn’t something you can pick up at the supermarket and there’s only so much human flotsam out there. Sooner or later, you were bound to need a fresh supply. That’s why you’d already searched the Internet and selected tonight’s main (and only) course. And why you closed out your savings account. It’s more money than you can afford to spend, but you never intended to actually part with it, did you? Unfortunately, you’ve cocked things up. Not knowing much about women, you believed the first thing they do when visiting someone is ask for the bathroom. When Mistress didn’t, you weren’t too perturbed. In fact, you regarded it as a bonus. Sure, Fido was going to be kept waiting, but in the meantime you were going to have the best hour of your life. It looked like being a case of you having your cake and Fido eating it. If only Mistress hadn’t tied you up. If only her bladder wasn’t as strong as the rest of her. And now she’s putting on her coat. In another minute she’ll be gone and so will your savings. And Fido will still be hungry... ‘I suppose I’d better untie you,’ says Mistress, making it sound like an afterthought. ‘But first, I need to pee.’ This is good news and bad news. Fido’s definitely going to get fed but that still leaves you tied up without a stitch of clothing and your underpants in your mouth. And if Mistress doesn’t close the bathroom door before she gets eaten, Fido’s going to get free and all Hell will break loose. You can’t take your eyes off her as she walks to the bathroom door. She is as close to close to your ideal woman as you’ve ever seen. Tall. Strong. Sadistic. For a second, you regret that soon she’ll be no more. But then you remind yourself that at £500 an hour, she is beyond your price range anyway. A session with her is a once in a life time prospect and that ‘once’ has now gone. As she turns the door handle, part of you wants to shout a warning - so perhaps it’s as well you can’t. Fido is quiet. He knows what’s coming. Mistress closes the door behind her. Fido growls and roars. You hear the familiar sounds of a scuffle - a frantic, primeval struggle between prey and predator. And then, instead of the expected scream, there is a yelp. And a brief, pitiful howl. ‘Sit!’ says Mistress and Fido whimpers. ‘Good boy! Now you wait there and I’ll fetch you a tasty treat.’ The bathroom door opens. Mistress steps out, unscathed and as magnificent as ever. ‘Nice pet you have there,’ she says, standing over you. ‘He and I are going to get on very nicely. And as for you – .’ Mistress smiles. Ruby lips draw back, revealing a perfect set of carnivore teeth. Her twin fangs gleam wickedly. ‘You’ve been invited to dinner.’
Belong ‘It’s quite normal,’ said the midwife. ‘Plenty of babies are born with gills. They’ll disappear in time.’ The doctor disagreed. ‘This sort of abnormality is very unusual. In fact, your baby is probably unique.’ Jodie stole her parents’ car. She had to get away from London. Down to the sea. Before the people from the council came to steal her baby. Before others came to take Jodie to what her father called a ‘safe environment’. She waited until midnight. Then she slipped out of bed, got dressed and listened outside her parents’ bedroom. Satisfied they were both asleep, she crept in. Estelle lay awake in her cot. She made no noise other than a contented gurgle when she saw her mother. She was good that way. Hardly ever cried. Jodie wrapped her in a blanket and carried her downstairs. The car keys were easy to find. Her father, a creature of habit, always left them on the hallway table. As she reached the front door, she heard footsteps and froze. The heavy footfall of her father was unmistakable. He came out of the master bedroom, turned on the landing light and headed into the bathroom. There was no time to lose. On his way back to bed, he was bound to check on the baby. She waited until she heard his urine splash in the toilet bowl before opening the door. Then she was out of the house and off to find a better life for her baby. At first, people had been nice about Estelle. Friends and relatives oohed and aahed over her. Complete strangers would stop to tell Jodie what a lovely baby she had. The few who knew about the gills tended not to mention them. But if the subject came up, they would say it could have been something worse. Like Down’s syndrome or spina bifida. Some even went so far as to suggest the gills might be a blessing in some uncertain way. Only her father seemed to mind. She once overheard him on the telephone saying that Estelle was some sort of monster. A mutant in fact. So far as she knew, he had only ever held the baby once. It was the day she’d been born. Jodie remembered the look of disappointment on his face. Even then he must have thought his grandchild was a freak. And now he wasn’t alone. It seemed that everyone – her mother, the council, the courts – had come to regard Estelle as something less than human. Something to be locked away and forgotten about. ‘Dr Barrowman. Sorry to be phoning you at this ungodly hour. It’s about Jodie.’ ‘Jodie?’ The voice at the end of the line was gruff and sleepy. ‘Jodie Penn. I’m her father.’ ‘Right. Jodie – yes.’ ‘I hate to be a nuisance but she’s disappeared. Run off with the baby.’ ‘Surely that’s a matter for the police?’ ‘She’s left her pills behind. I’m worried about what’s going to happen when they wear off.’ ‘When did she take her last dose?’ ‘Just before she went to bed. At ten o’clock.’ ‘She’ll be fine for another six hours. I suggest you get the police looking for her straight away.’ ‘Do you think I should tell them?’ ‘About what?’ ‘Her condition. Her hallucinations and all that.’ ‘Well, of course you should. Show them the pills and tell them when they wear off she’s likely to do something stupid.’ ‘You don’t think she’ll harm the baby?’ 22
‘There’s every chance, Mr Penn. Now call the police and let me get some sleep.’ Getting out of London was imperative. But she had to drive carefully. If she had a crash or caught the attention of a passing police car, it would all be over. As Jodie drove towards the outskirts of the city, the strain of fighting the urge to hit the accelerator and ignore every red light made her ache. Take your time, she told herself. You’ll soon be out in the country and then they’ll never find you. She was sure her father wouldn’t call the police straight away. That would mean letting more strangers into the dirty family secret. Probably he’d just stew for a few hours in the hope that she’d come back of her own accord. And part of him would be praying she came back without her baby. Maybe her mother felt the same way. Poor Mum who had loved little Estelle. Who couldn’t do enough for her. Who had shut Dad up whenever he suggested getting the baby adopted. Even when the baby’s skin had changed, she’d tried desperately to go on loving her. And she’d succeeded for a while. But when the scales spread to Estelle’s face, Mum could barely stand to be in the same room as her. That was when she switched to Dad’s camp and began echoing his demands to know who the father was. Who had defiled their little girl and left others to pick up the pieces? Eventually, like Dad, Mum came to believe that Estelle was a punishment from God. Flashing lights warned Jodie of a level crossing. A barrier descended. She slowed the car to a halt and smiled down at her baby, lying there on the passenger seat with not a care in the world. Not yet anyway. My beautiful baby. With your blue eyes and your skin that shimmers with a million captured rainbows. Freak, they call you. Freak! And now they want to take you from me so they can examine you and test you and tear you apart until they know exactly what you are. But they’ll never know and even if they did they’d refuse to believe it. For what seemed like forever, she waited. Eventually a mail train rattled past and then – long moments afterwards – the barriers rose and let her on her way. ‘So you’ve no idea where she might have gone?’ The police constable looked up from his note pad. Ridiculously tall and – in Mr Penn’s eyes – ridiculously young, he was perched on a settee not suited to his body type. His knees were almost up to his chin. ‘None whatsoever,’ said Mr Penn, a trace of exasperation in his voice. He felt he’d answered enough pointless questions and time was running out. Mrs Penn, who had been hovering nervously in the background, chipped in. ‘I bet she’s run off to the father.’ The constable licked the tip of his pencil. ‘The father being?’ ‘We don’t know. I think she only met him once.’ Mr Penn shot his wife a look that warned her off saying any more. ‘The bastard must have slipped her something. My daughter’s not promiscuous, Constable.’ Sensing an atmosphere developing, the constable changed tack. ‘You say she needs some pills. Do you mind saying what they’re for?’ ‘The child was born with extraneous flaps of skin on her neck. They look at first sight like gills.’ ‘But why would your daughter need pills?’ ‘To balance her mind, constable. She thinks her baby’s turning into a fish.’ ‘Salt water or fresh?’ ‘What the hell’s that got to do with anything?’ ‘It might tell us where to look for her.’
Jodie was out of London and an hour from the coast when a phone rang. At first, the faint melody puzzled her. It seemed to be coming from the engine. Her heart skipped a beat as the thought came to her that the car was malfunctioning and would leave her stranded here in the middle of the Kent countryside miles from anywhere useful. But then she recognised the melody and remembered her father kept a phone in the glove compartment for emergencies. Without taking her eyes off the road, she dug the phone out with every intention of jettisoning it in a hedgerow. It was only the thought that she might need it if she broke down that forestalled her. She looked at the display. Home it said above her home number. Or rather her parents’ home number. After tonight, she was determined never to set foot in their house again. The phone stopped ringing. She dropped it in her lap and drove on. When she caught sight of the sea, Jodie pulled into a lay-by and wound down the window. Fresh air filled her lungs and banished fatigue. Estelle gurgled joyfully. She knew the sea was close, that she was on her way to where she belonged; where no one would call her freak, monster or mutant. Jodie picked up her baby and kissed her forehead. Her cold scaly forehead that tasted of brine. A pucker of Estelle’s lips signalled she wanted feeding. Jodie happily unbuttoned her blouse and brought the baby’s head to her breast. The baby feasted greedily. Knowing this might be the last time, Jodie didn’t want her to stop. But all too soon she did, leaving Jodie with a feeling of emptiness. As she replaced Estelle on the passenger seat, the phone rang again. This time she saw no reason not to answer it. At least she’d be able to tell Mum she and the baby were all right and – more importantly – she could tell her father how much she despised him. This is goodbye, she thought, pressing the answer button. Goodbye for ever. She put the phone to her ear. ‘Hello.’ ‘Young lady! What the hell do you think you’re playing at?’ Jodie almost laughed. Where did the old fart get off calling her young lady like she was still six years old? I’m eighteen next month, you patronising bastard. Not that I’d expect you to remember a little thing like my birthday. ‘You know exactly what I’m playing at, Dad. Did you really think I’d let them take my baby from me?’ ‘It’s for her own good.’ ‘No, Dad. You’ve never done anything for her own good. The truth is you can’t stand her. You want to have her shut away so you don’t have to see her or even think about her.’ ‘It’s not like that.’ Dad’s voice softened. ‘You’re sick, Jodie. Your mind makes you see things that aren’t there.’ ‘I heard you and Mum talking. You want to send me to the funny farm.’ ‘To a rest home. You’ve been under a lot of strain.’ ‘I’m going to give my baby the gift you never gave me. I’m going to let her feel she belongs. Tell Mummy I love her.’ Jodie hung up. Leaving the car’s headlights on to guide her through the dark, Jodie carried Estelle down to the sea. On the way she passed the field where she’d attended an illegal rave on the night Estelle had been conceived. High on what had been sold to her as ecstasy and was almost certainly something else, she’d wandered away from the party. Had in fact taken this very path through the dunes. She recalled how that night had brought with it a rare and wonderful feeling of belonging. At the rave, she’d danced with strangers and even hugged a few of them as if they were old and treasured friends. It seemed as if everyone was glad to see her and loved her unconditionally. Now she was back. This time with her baby whose journey through life had begun when Jodie had wandered off to marvel at the stars and commune with nature.
Jodie walked along the shore. This time there were no stars and the moon was obscured by clouds. But that didn’t matter. She could feel the wonder again and knew from Estelle’s face that she felt it too. ‘Everything’s going to be all right now,’ she told her baby. Jodie listened to the waves as they gently rolled onto the shore. The serpentine hiss of retreating sea water. The bell-like discord of pebbles rolling into each other. She filled her nostrils with the scent of the sea. It was the scent of Estelle’s father, of a being born of the ocean who could venture onto dry land for only minutes at a time. Long enough, on one occasion at least, to seduce a human female and leave his seed in her. ‘Soon,’ she told Estelle, ‘you will meet your father. And he’ll take you to a place where there are others like you and you won’t be so different after all.’ She sat on a rock with her baby and waited.
The Snark Equation. From the pages of a manuscript found amongst the effects of the late Sherlock Holmes, dated Febuary 24th, 1898. The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson died at Guildford on January 14th, 1898. When that sad announcement was made to the world, hundreds of children knew and felt that they had lost a friend. What they could not know was that they man they knew as Lewis Carroll died a horrible death at the hands of an assassin. It is my earnest hope that they will never know. On the morning of the 16th, I received a visit from Dean Liddell who as well as being the Reverend Dodgson's closest friend was also the father of Alice, the little girl immortalised in ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’. He expressed his earnest belief that the Reverend Dodgson had been murdered and begged me to investigate at once. He further pressed me to maintain the utmost secrecy, and I did not hesitate to assure him that I would mention the matter to no living soul, not even my colleague, Doctor John Watson. Although the Reverend Dodgson had died in Guildford, I was of a certainty that I would find nothing there to advance my investigation. Dean Liddell concurred with me on this point, and he suggested that I go without delay to Christ Church College, Oxford, where Dodgson had resided for most of his adult life. That very day, I set off for and arrived in Oxford, and immediately found myself surrounded by intrigue. What came to light thereafter is so fantastic that it must seem to spring from the idle fancies of a disordered mind. I therefore feel compelled to impose upon it an order of my own, however arbitrary it may be. Here then, in alphabetic arrangement, are the key elements that have so far been brought to light regarding the murder of Lewis Carroll. Alice. I interviewed at length Mrs Reginald Hargreaves who was initially reluctant to confirm that she had been born Alice Liddell. Why she should wish to hide this fact from me is just one mystery amongst many. I was left with the impression that she felt ashamed of her past. When I asked her what she knew of Wonderland, she replied that her only knowledge of it came from that extraordinary work of fiction into which she had found herself extrapolated. Quote: ‘As a little girl a distinct lack of imagination excluded me from Wonderland. Stories of Mad Hatters and magic mushrooms meant nothing to me. Reverend Dodgson knew the landscape he had created in intimate detail, as did the Alice he invented. I am not that Alice, nor have I ever been.’ Mrs Liddell later sent me a note in which she apologised if she had received me in less than good grace. She added, ‘There was more to Wonderland than Lewis Carroll dared reveal. Fictitious or not, to him it was a real place, no further removed than the Isle of Wight. He often spoke to me cryptically of foul deeds and sinful practices perpetrated by the inhabitants of his imaginary realm. I believe he was truly afraid of some threat emanating from within its borders.’ Brillig. Reading through the Reverend Dodgson's diary, I came across several references to Brillig and noted that his hand must have trembled each time he penned that word. It soon became clear that four o'clock in the afternoon was a time regarded with dread by the deceased. Caterpillar. Pressed neatly between two pages of the diary, I discovered the dried corpse of caterpillar. The entry for that day contained the following passage: 26
The Caterpillar is a drug fiend who refuses to mature. I am the man who has seen himself in the looking glass and found himself wanting. If the Caterpillar will not become the Butterfly, the Caterpillar must die. Dodgson. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the son of the Reverend Charles Dodgson, Archdeacon of Richmond, was born at Daresbury Parsonage, Cheshire, on January 27th, 1832. He was sent to school at Richmond, Yorkshire; from thence he went to Rugby, and to Christ Church, Oxford. Mathematics were then, as always, his chief study. In 1854, he took a first-class in that subject, and in 1855 he was appointed Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church, which post he held till 1881. In 1861, Dodgson was made a senior student of his college and was also ordained Deacon in the Church of England. Euclid. Aside from his works of fiction and poetry, Dodgson built much of his reputation on a series of mathematical texts written in a humorous vein. Chief amongst these is ‘Euclid and His Modern Rivals’, a copy of which I discovered in his room at Oxford. This particular edition was bound in red leather embossed with a series of geometric designs. Few people would have perceived the true nature of those devices, but I recognised them at once as arcane symbols much favoured by a little-known branch of Freemasonry. Was Lewis Carroll a student of ancient lore? Was the creator of imaginary lands inspired by glimpses of forgotten worlds? Freemason. I raised the notion of Masonic connections with Dean Liddell when he visited me at my hotel in Oxford. He was a short man with narrow eyes and an aquiline nose. I felt he was altogether too intense for his own wellbeing, and that he would worry himself into an early grave; but perhaps his grave demeanour was no more than to be expected from one mourning the loss of a friend. ‘My dear Holmes!’ he exclaimed, pacing back and forth at the foot of my bed. ‘You indeed live up to your reputation. I did not think you would hit so quickly upon what I perceive to be perhaps the most crucial element of this whole affair. ‘Forgive me for not mentioning the matter when I engaged your services. I did not think you would believe me. ‘Yes, you are right. Charles did affiliate himself with a Masonic order, but I would venture it is one with which you are unfamiliar.’ Ensconced as I was in a remarkably comfortable chair, I nonetheless felt my spine stiffen at the suggestion that there might be such a gap in my knowledge of secret societies. I think my colleague would have taken a certain pleasure in Dean Liddell's naive remark. ‘I take it you are talking of the Grand Knights of the Order of the Rosy Cross?’ Dean Liddell nodded his head with such force that I feared he might injure his neck. ‘Yes! That's it! That's it exactly! The fellow involved himself in all sorts of ungodly mumbo-jumbo.’ ‘Tell me, Dean, did he ever mention anything to you about Euclid?’ ‘Why, of course. He was a mathematician.’ ‘But did he ever say anything about Euclid that struck you as odd or unconventional?’ ‘Just the once. He mentioned to me that the universe was non-Euclidean, and that the order we see around us is an illusion made manifest by the limitations of our five senses. I confess I was largely unable to follow his train of thought, not least because we had both imbibed a goodly amount of wine.’ ‘Did he mention anything about other universes?’ ‘Parallel worlds, you mean? Yes, he said something about them, but I cannot for the life of me recall what.’ 27
Ghosts. I spent my second night at Oxford smoking opium in the room that Charles Dodgson had until recently occupied. Contrary to my expectations, I did not encounter any ghosts. Hallucinations. It was unwise of me to sample the brown substance I discovered hidden beneath Dodgson's writing bureau wrapped in a five pound note. Indeed, I would have refrained from doing so but for the sliver of white card that lay beside it. On one side of the card was a price - 10' and 6d; on the reverse were the words ‘EAT ME’ in bold copper lettering. Deducing at once that the instructions referred to the brown substance, I broke off a piece the size of a blackcurrant and swallowed it. Immediately the room swelled to an enormous size. Conversely, it is likely that I shrank and the room retained its original dimensions. Indoctrinaire Following the equation defined in the poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ by Lewis Carroll: Taking Three, we add Seven and Ten and multiply out by One Thousand diminished by Eight. The result we proceed to divide by Nine Hundred and Ninety Two; then Subtract Seventeen. The answer must be exactly and perfectly true. Viz: ((3 + 7 + 10) x (1000 - 8) / 992) - 17 = (20 * 992 / 992) - 17 = 20 - 17 = 3.
Jabberwocky. The room ballooned out around me. I was confronted by a creature of many parts - the hoofs and legs of a goat, the body and wings of an eagle and the head of a carnivorous reptile. The time was four o'clock in the afternoon. Knave. I tracked down the Knave of Hearts to a cheap boarding house in Brighton. His lips were blue and the bed sheets were crimson. A cut-throat razor lay beside him. Before he died, the Knave confessed to playing a part in the conspiracy to murder Lewis Carroll. When I pressed him to reveal the identity of the ring-leader, he trembled and cried that he could say no more. His last words were, ‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!' As the Knave passed away, I checked my watch. It was four o'clock in the afternoon. Liddell. One by one, the pieces were falling into place, but still I had no coherent picture. It was as if I had snatches of a tune but no clear idea of the melody. I was certain however that neither Dean Liddell nor his daughter Alice were as innocent as they would have me believe. They were hiding something from me. On his death bed, the Knave of Hearts had hinted at dark secrets concerning Alice's childhood friendship with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He spoke of certain sketches of young girls drawn by Dodgson that unsavoury periodicals on the Continent had circulated. The implications made me shudder. Exactly how much did Dean Liddell know? 28
Mushrooms. I later analysed the brown substance I had uncovered in Dodgson's writing bureau and found it to be a mixture of cannabis resin and a mushroom unknown to me. A naturalist friend of mine who is greatly versed in the field of fungi was no more able to identify it than I. Later, I was to look beneath the bureau where I discovered a piece of parchment which bore the heading ‘OCEAN CHART’. The chart was blank. New Worlds. Examining Dodgson's diary convinced me that the man was in no doubt as to the existence of both Wonderland and the Looking Glass Land. Nor could I altogether believe the man had merely deluded himself. For if all that he had written was but a fantasy, then many others shared it. Dodgson wrote that he had fled from both worlds and did not dare return. Opium. It is true that I am partial to the occasional pipe of opium, but it is beyond dispute that this habit of mine has harmed my mental faculties not one jot. Rather, it has contributed to my heightened state of awareness, has, indeed, enhanced rather than reduce my powers of reason. The hand of Morpheus has led me to paths known only to a blessed few. Through opium, Coleridge found Xanadu; I, in turn, have explored the inner depths of my own psyche. Opium has transformed my brilliance into genius. Poetry. On the night of his first visit to my hotel, Dean Liddell handed me a scrap of paper. ‘We may never know how Charles died,’ he declared. ‘But I think there might be a clue there. It was found clutched in his right hand during the course of his autopsy.’ ‘A verse,’ I observed. ‘Apparently a fragment from a longer poem.’ ‘The Hunting of the Snark.’ This was the verse: The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because He had seven coats on when he came, With three pairs of boots - but the worst of it was. He had wholly forgotten his name. I placed the paper in the pocket of my dressing gown and lit my pipe. ‘Would you know,’ I asked Liddell, ‘how many coats and how many pairs of boots the deceased owned at the time of his death?’ ‘Seven and three, respectively.’
Queen. The beast that was neither one creature nor another slouched away and disappeared into a hole in the skirting board. I followed and found myself in a landscape of black and white squares that firmly resembled a chess board. I ran like a man possessed but got nowhere. All around me, the world remained static, heedless of my exertions. 29
I cannot remember how I came to be running alongside the Red Queen, but no sooner had I set eyes on her than she took my hand and guided me to the very same spot that was the entire course of my run. ‘What do you know, Your Majesty, of Lewis Carroll?’ I demanded. ‘He's dead,’ came the reply. ‘And that is how he should be. The villain has wrought so much evil in this land and others, and his crimes will never be forgotten or forgiven. But why should that concern you, Mr Holmes? Do you not know that he was but a pawn of the White Queen?’ ‘Where are we?’ ‘We are on the square known as Queen's Bishop Four.’ ‘And there are 64 squares?’ ‘Pah! That old wives’ tale. The answer you are looking for is ((3+7+10) x (1000-8) / 992) - 17.' At last I was beginning to understand the rules of the game. But still I had no inkling of the figure guiding the pieces. Rosae Crucis. The Snark Equation appeared on the back of a picture I happened across in the Reverend Dodgson's closet. The picture was of a rose-covered cross and had been hung (intentionally, I must suppose) upside down. Also in the closet were a chalice and a small dagger. Both were embossed with the number 992. Shaking. It was beyond the Red Queen to resist me. Her face grew small, and her eyes got large and green: and still as I went on shaking her, she kept falling apart, and all the parts of her crumbled until there was a fine red powder lying at me feet. I knew that she wanted to die, and I knew also that if I had not killed her, she would have killed me. Far away, a bell tolled four times. Top Hat. Disguised as an artist, I ingratiated myself with a group of students who invited me to share a drink with them at a tavern. After an evening filled with good humour, we adjourned to my hotel room and shared a pipe of opium. Under the influence of its narcotic fumes they spoke freely, though seldom coherently, of a youth dressed in top hat and tails who had several times been observed surreptitiously entering the room occupied by Charles Dodgson. One claimed that the youth had attempted to sell him a quantity of a brown substance, claiming that it had properties both hallucinogenic and euphoric. I questioned my informant further but he was by now too insensible to say anything more. Some minutes later, I searched his pockets and found a sliver of white card. On one side of the card was written 10' 6d'; on the other were the words ‘EAT ME’ in bold copper lettering. Utopia . Throughout my week at Oxford, I heard many tales of the mysterious peddler. He was often referred to as the Mad Hatter. I encountered the youth but once. He was leaving the room of one of the students and took fright when he saw me in the corridor. With impressive speed, he half-ran, half-sprang down the stairs and was quickly out the door - at which point I lost all trace of him. Instinctively, I knew he had just completed some mischief, so I immediately entered the room from which he had emerged. 30
There, on the floor, lay the body of William Hope, a student of English Literature with whom I had but recently shared a drink. Probing the inside of his mouth, I found a ball of the brown substance beneath his swollen tongue. On his dresser, there was a note which read - ‘God bless Lewis Carroll and the Mad Hatter. Between them, they have shown me the way to Utopia.’ Beside the note stood an ornate carriage clock. The time was four in the afternoon. Vascuulum. Amongst Dodgson's possessions I discovered a botanist's case filled with specimens of flora, the majority of which were of no earthly origin. Vascuulum. There were several orchids and a fruit that resembled a striped pear covered in fine hairs. At the bottom of the case I found several dried mushrooms. Walrus. The Walrus seemed unconcerned at my act of regicide. He stood amongst the fine dust that had recently been his queen and looked at me gravely. ‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘to talk of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings. Mr Carroll had three pairs of shoes - one for walking, one for running and the other for stepping like a goose. He had ships to command and guns and all the tricks of a great mathematician. But alas for him - he had no idea how fast his universe could expand. It was the Red Queen who ended his life. She seduced him and then strangled him with her shift. ‘But let me warn you, Mr Sherlock Holmes, it isn't over yet. If I were you, I would forget this matter entirely.’ ‘Tell me one thing,’ I begged. ‘Then maybe I can let things rest. Who is the Mastermind of this sorry business?’ The Walrus laughed. ‘You do not know? The hand which moves the pieces belongs to Moriarty.’ ‘I suspected as much, and yet I did not dare believe. For the life of me, I cannot guess at his motives.’ ‘He plans world domination, Mr Holmes. And it seems it is within his grasp.’ ‘Then I must act fast. Else my world is doomed.’ ‘Ah,’ said the Walrus, with the gentlest of sighs. ‘It is not your world he seeks to dominate.’ X. The unknown quantity. When next I examined Carroll's Ocean Chart, there was an X written in the middle of the parchment. In his diary, Carroll wrote that only in algebra can we be certain that X can always be resolved. In a nonEuclidean universe, X can take on many meanings. Was he trying to tell me that his murder had no solution? Or a multitude of them? Yard. Upon my return to London, Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard visited me in my rooms. He was anxious to learn the purpose of my visit to Oxford and made it clear that he suspects there are sinister forces at work. I told him that I had gone to consult a botanist friend upon the nature of a strange fungus that had come into my possession.
Zarathustra. The last entry in Dodgson's diary refers to Zarathustrianism. This ancient Persian religion holds to the belief that the universe is a battleground for the Powers of Good and Evil. In a shaky hand he has written, â€˜Have I truly chosen the right side?â€™
The Ghost Tram Amsterdam. There was me huddled in an alley with only a sheet of cardboard to keep the rain at bay. I didn’t own a damn thing except the clothes I wore. When Dan stumbled across me, a rat was nibbling my shoe. I was too cold to know or care. Dan recognised me at once. We’d shared a room in some hostel in Dublin and I’d made off with his money. And now he had the perfect payback opportunity. He could have kicked me in the head or hauled me into a canal. But Dan didn’t do that. He saw me in that alley, bundled me into a taxi and got me back to his place. One of nature’s gentlemen. Dan was an artist. He lived and worked in an attic above a fish shop in the Jordaan. It was cluttered with paintings he couldn’t sell. There was a camp bed in the corner and a table with a primus stove on it. The morning after he found me, Dan went out and got another bed. We made space for it under the table and that’s where I slept. The first weeks of our friendship were marked by Dan painting and bitching about nobody appreciating his genius. I’d listen to him from the lawn chair on the balcony and occasionally venture to say something encouraging. Twice a day, I knocked up a frugal meal on the primus stove. Me and Dan would eat it on the balcony and tell each other what we’d do once fame finally caught up with us. Dan wanted to live on Tahiti like Paul Gauguin. Me - I dreamt of Hollywood and its swimming pools. I knew I had it in me to write a great script. But not yet. I wasn’t ready. Like I say, Dan’s studio was in the Jordaan. It was small and needed renovating. Even so, the rent must have been considerable. I didn’t want to ask how much; that would have risked raising the subject of my contribution to the household income. But one day curiosity got the better of me. So I said to him, ‘How can you afford this place?’ We were on the balcony, leaning over the rail to watch a girl in a low-cut dress go by. It was a sunny day. The smell from the fish shop reached us three storeys up. The girl didn’t hang around. ‘I pay in kind,’ Dan replied. ‘With paintings?’ ‘With my body.’ I was a little disgusted. It was easy to see why the landlady would appreciate a bit of bed time with Dan. He was athletically built with thick black hair and perfect teeth. Vrouw Schoonhaven, on the other hand, was pushing sixty, had a figure like a wine barrel and reeked of fish. ‘I’ll get a job,’ I said guiltily. ‘It’s time I pulled my weight.’ Dan shrugged. ‘Wait until you’ve got your strength back.’ But I was never going to get my strength back living on lentils and rice. We talked about it some more. There weren’t many openings for an Englishman in Amsterdam. Dan suggested I try the Wijngarden on Haarlemstraat. He knew the owner and thought he might be shorthanded. I started the next day. Four hours in the evening, five days a week. Payment under the table. The pay wasn’t great but it would cover the rent. The Wijngarden was a favoured hangout for Amsterdam’s Bohemian underclass – its would-be artists, never-yet-made-it authors and between-job actors. Most of them were broke and adept at making a beer last an hour. Any tips I got were miniscule. I spent most of my time listening to people proclaiming how they were a hair’s breadth from success.
The owner was an American called Mr Tom. So long as I wiped the tables every half hour and never kept a customer waiting, he kept off my case. Most nights he holed himself up in the back with a bottle of wine and a stack of porn videos. When I got my first pay packet – two hundred guilders stuffed in a brown envelope - I raced back to the attic and dropped it in Dan’s lap. He was sitting on the table, a sketchpad under his arm. There was a fevered look in his eyes and a flush to his cheeks. ‘It’s come at last,’ he said, tapping his head. ’It’s here. My inspiration.’ He picked up the envelope. ‘How much?’ ‘Two hundred guilders.’ ‘Not bad. Let’s get some chips then grab a few beers at the Wijngarden.’ Jumping off the table, Dan clapped me on the shoulder. ‘It’s been a good day, Kel. I can’t wait to tell you all about it.’ The Wijngarden was busy. Dan seemed to know everyone. He introduced me to people I’d previously known only as customers and then we shoved our way onto the end of a crowded table. We waited until we had beers in front of us before Dan told me about the ‘truly amazing thing’ that had happened to him. ‘I was having a glass of wine on Spuistraat,’ he said, ‘when I looked over the road and set eyes upon the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She was sitting outside a café reading a book. Everything about her was elegant and self-assured – even down to the way she sipped her tea like she knew she’d never spill it. I was fascinated. Enthralled. ‘Nothing else mattered. She was the centre of Creation. I felt like I was on some sort of drug trip that wasn’t so much a distortion of reality as a peeling away of the mundane to reveal the delicate workings beneath. ‘For a long time, I lost the power of thought. Thankfully it returned and I remembered my sketchpad. I drew feverishly, afraid that she might go before I'd captured her essence. I made studies of her eyes, her lips, the crook of her elbow. And it seemed like I was more than an artist. Sometimes I was an architect or an anatomist, maybe even a mathematician. With every stroke of my pencil, I knew I was getting closer to the Big Secret.’ ‘The Big Secret?’ Dan nodded earnestly. ‘The Meaning of Life. The Purpose of It All. The Reason I Became an Artist.’ He smiled in a self-deprecating way. ‘I know I’m getting carried away. But I’m an artist not a poet. I don’t have the words to truly describe the moment.’ ‘One word will do it, Dan. Love. You’d fallen in love.’ ‘But it was more than that. There’s something that goes beyond love - something deeper, more fundamental.’ ‘Did you go over and introduce yourself?’ ‘Good Lord, no. That would have broken the spell. Besides, I didn’t have the chance. I was sketching the way she held her teacup. A tram rattled past. I looked up and she was gone.’ The night wore on. We drank away a sizeable portion of my earnings and staggered home singing and laughing. Next morning was the best in a long time. I was coaxed out of sleep by the smell of bacon and freshly brewed coffee. Crawling out from under the table, I found Dan on the balcony tucking into a fried breakfast. ‘Yours is on the primus,’ he said, and so it was. After we’d eaten, we felt like kings. All those dreams we’d shared seemed that much more real. It was time, I declared, for me to hunt down a second-hand typewriter and get busy with my script. Dan was delighted. But he wouldn’t let me go before I’d seen his sketches. 34
The first was a full head and shoulders of a girl with long, dark hair and a face that was part oriental. She was beautiful in a way that made me think of misty mornings. The next picture was just her face. And then her eyes, her wrist and her hand. He’d also captured her shoulder, the nape of her neck and the curve of her breasts. ‘Now get out,’ said Dan. ‘And don’t come back without a typewriter and a ream of paper. I have work to do.’ The days that followed were a fever of creativity as Dan painted and I wrote. We broke for meals and the odd can of beer. On Monday and Tuesday I went to work at the Wijngarden and tried not to think about the rate at which we were getting through my wages. My script was going well. It was about two down and out lovers in Amsterdam. They lived in a squat and muddled through as best they could. But everything seemed to go against them. In the meantime, Dan’s work reached unprecedented heights. Girl On the Sidewalk was exquisite. Even before it was finished, it filled me with a yearning, an aching loneliness, a sense of there being something wonderful that I could only glimpse and never attain. Amidst the hustle and bustle of Spuistraat, the Girl was an oasis of calm untouched by the commonplace. She was the eye of the storm. I had never originally intended to base my heroine upon her. But the more I wrote, the more I fleshed out the world of my story, the clearer it became that she could be no other. And Dan, of course, was her lover. Not that I ever told Dan. I went home on Tuesday night with a bottle of whisky and a determination to knock out another ten pages before hitting the sack. As I climbed the narrow stairs to the attic, I heard Vrouw Schoonhaven in the throes of passion. Her grunts and groans echoed through the brickwork. Dan was taking care of the rent again. I hurried up to the attic. A breeze stirred Dan’s sketchpad which was sitting on the table. Shutting the balcony doors, I pulled the curtains and left a gap for the moonlight. It fell upon Dan’s picture like an ethereal spotlight. The painting was complete. A moment in time had been perfectly captured and I knew at last the feeling Dan had tried to convey to me in the Wijngarden. Love wasn’t the right word for it. What I felt was more akin to worship, to a spiritual awakening. There was something about the Girl that rendered all else ordinary. I couldn’t stand to look at the painting. It made me feel base. Cracking open the whisky, I poured myself a good measure, sat down and slipped a sheet of paper into the typewriter. Then I wrote. I wrote as a man might write if he knew he wouldn’t see another morning. I wrote like the world’s worst sinner desperate to confess all. I wrote. Page after page. My wrist ached. My eyes smarted. My heart sang. And before I knew it, I was nearing the end. The Lovers had their backs to the wall. Life had defeated them. Not even love could save them now. And that’s where I stopped. My mind blanked. So close to the finishing line and I couldn’t go on. Tired and drunk, I fell asleep at the table and dreamt of swimming pools gleaming in the California sun. When I awoke, the final scene still eluded me. I knew it was somewhere in my head but I couldn’t find it. Perhaps I didn’t want to. There was no sign of Dan. This didn’t bother me but something else did and I wasn’t sure what. I stretched my muscles, rubbed my neck. As my thoughts turned to breakfast, a realisation hit me like a thunderbolt. The picture was gone.
Anxiety gripped me. Anger too. And self-reproach. If I hadn’t gotten blind drunk, this wouldn’t have happened. I’m a light sleeper and the floorboards creaked like the timbers of an old ship. Even the nimblest of burglars would have woken me if I’d been sober. What was I going to tell Dan? That I’d let someone walk off with his masterpiece? That for the sake of a drink I’d blown his chance of making it? Before I had time to think things through, I heard footsteps on the stairs. It was too late to run. I was going to have to face the music. Dan breezed in with a hearty good morning. He picked up the empty easel and placed it against the wall. ‘Get changed into something decent,’ he said. ‘You and me are going to celebrate.’ Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a cheque and waved it in my face. ‘Two thousand guilders.’ ‘You don’t mean - ?’ Dan laughed and hugged me. ‘I did it! I sold Girl on the Sidewalk!’ The weeks that followed were Hell. My script remained unfinished. I revised it and polished it. I agonised over every word and every nuance. But still that closing sequence, that last crucial piece of the jigsaw eluded me. And Dan fell to pieces. It was days before he started on a new picture and hours before he gave up on it. Every day after was the same. He’d bring out a fresh canvas, mix some paints, daub a few colours here and there. And then throw in the towel. After putting so much into Girl on the Sidewalk, he had nothing left to give. With all that ennui and frustration, it’s no wonder we turned to drink. We drank before breakfast. Usually a couple of beers. Then after our daily ritual of fruitlessly searching for inspiration, we’d head down to the Red Light District and lounge about in a bar feeling like characters from a Jean Paul Sartre novel. Ironically, working in the Wijngarden gave me a break from the booze but as soon as I finished I’d hit another bar with Dan or we’d stay in and drink cheap wine. There was never enough money for the rent, so Vrouw Schoonhaven retained her weekly treat. I could see Dan slowly losing it. He would pick fights with strangers for no reason. Some nights, when I lay in bed unable to sleep, I heard him crying in the dark. He seldom ate, showered or changed his clothes. He was becoming such a pain that I thought about getting the hell out. But I kept remembering the night he’d found me in an alley and played the Good Samaritan. We were going to sink or swim together. And then everything changed. Though the Wijngarden was filling up with its usual consignment of deadbeats and beatniks, the atmosphere was subdued. It was about eleven o’clock. Mr Tom was out back. His snores made a curious counterpoint to the carnal sounds of the video that had sent him to sleep. Nobody spoke above a whisper. The atmosphere was beginning to get to me. I went to put some money in the jukebox. Halfway across the room, a creeping sensation on the back of my neck made me turn around. The Girl sat by the corner window with a glass of wine. She was alone. More than alone, she was lonely. I could see it in her eyes. Dan had captured her perfectly. I’d assumed he’d idealised her, ignored her flaws, but she was flawless. She was also the girl of my script. A feeling of guilt overwhelmed me as I remembered how I had thrown every possible tribulation at her, chipped away at her self-esteem. All the pain she carried with such quiet dignity – that was down to me. I couldn’t bear it. Taking refuge in the stock room, I had a small cry and a spliff. 36
When I came out, she was gone. Her empty glass sat on the table. It was marked with lipstick. Dan was rolling a spliff when I burst into the attic. He had on a pair of underpants and the look of someone who’d spent too long in the trenches. ‘I saw her,’ I blurted out. ‘Who?’ Dan sat on the table. Tobacco spilled onto his crotch. ‘The Girl on the Sidewalk.’ Breathlessly, I described my brief encounter. ‘Are you sure it was her?’ ‘It couldn’t have been anyone else.’ ‘Then she’s real?’ ‘Of course she’s real.’ Dan crushed the spliff in his hand. ‘Where is she now?’ ‘How the hell should I know?’ ‘Didn’t you follow her?’ ‘I was working.’ ‘You idiot, Kel!’ Dan’s eyes flashed dangerously. I prayed we weren’t going to get into a fight because I knew I’d come out of it the worst. But the moment passed and he was suddenly quite jolly. Dan slipped out of his underpants and headed for the shower. ‘What are you going to do?’ I asked him. ‘Find her,’ he said. Dan showered and put on clean clothes. He looked once more like the Dan who had painted Girl on the Sidewalk, the Dan who knew he was going to make it big one day. There was no point trying to stop him. Nor did I want to. Though his search was likely to prove futile, it gave him a sense of purpose. And if he didn’t find her tonight, he could try again tomorrow and the day after. It was better than drinking himself to death. He returned a few hours later, woke me up and told me what had happened. He hadn’t expected to find her, but it was a good night for walking, for getting lost in unfamiliar streets and winkling out whatever secrets the city still held. He headed away from the Jordaan, past the museums and out to where tourists seldom venture. If a turning looked promising, he took it. If a road seemed familiar, he ignored it. After about an hour, he was as lost as he could be in a small city. He paused outside the entrance to a park. The houses across the way looked empty. And there wasn’t a car in sight. Dan found a wall to sit on and rolled himself a cigarette. Closing his eyes, he imagined the Girl reclining on the steps of the Van Gogh Museum. And he saw her as he thought Gauguin would have - ablaze with colour and filled with the glory of creation. He was shaping his next painting. It formed in his mind in a split second, complete and perfect. His torment was over. A bell clanged. Power lines hummed. Dan looked at his watch. It was way too late for a tram, and yet there it was, snaking round the corner, heading in his direction. He figured it was being transferred to a depot in readiness for the morning run. But, as it rattled past, he could see that every seat was taken. A few passengers had to stand. Every face told its own story of despair and bewilderment. Except for one that turned and smiled sadly at him. ‘It was her,’ said Dan. ‘She knew I’d be there.’ The tram rolled on past the stop and into the night. It left behind a profound silence and loneliness. Dan headed home. The night was no longer his friend. We talked until the sun came up. I didn’t know if Dan’s imagination had been playing tricks, but I knew he wasn’t lying. Dan wasn’t the sort. 37
‘Why didn’t the tram stop?’ he asked. ‘I wanted to get on - to be with her. To go wherever she was going.’ Finally unable to stay awake, I crawled back to bed. My dreams took me to an unknown quarter of the city where I waited for the Ghost Tram. It never came. I awoke feeling cheated. Dan was up before me. He had started his new painting. There was enough detail to make out the Van Gogh Museum. A couple of matchstick figures hurried by, their shoulders bent as if they were walking into a strong wind. It was the picture Dan had described, only it wasn’t. The colours were angry, psychotic. Dan stood in front of his easel waving a paintbrush like a dagger. I had seen him battling his inner demons before, but never so intensely. Sensing it would be unwise to disturb him, I dressed and went down to check the post. There wasn’t any. I rummaged through my pockets and found I had enough for breakfast and a few drinks. It was midafternoon; I figured I’d hang out in a bar and then head to work. Best to stay away from the attic until Dan had worked through his angst. In the event, I spent most of the day wandering around Amsterdam. Some part of me hoped I’d run into the Girl, that she'd listen to me long enough to learn she had a fervent admirer. I owed Dan a lot. Bringing the Girl to him would be repayment in full. She was his muse. It was only right that they should be together. I did my shift in the Wijngarden and got back to the attic at midnight. Dan was on the balcony smoking a spliff. ‘It’s finished,’ he said. ‘Tell me what you think.’ So I took a look and was dumfounded. Matchstick men and women milled on a melting pavement. The museum seemed to have had been assembled from random body parts collected from an abattoir. The sun spun like it did when I had a migraine. And in the midst of it all was the Girl. Her hands were claws pressing at her cheeks, distorting her face. Waves of hideous colour radiated from her screaming mouth. Dan had taken all that was good from the Girl and replaced it with its mirror image. I had never seen such a beautifully ugly painting in all my life. It scared me to think that the man who had painted it was standing right behind me. ‘What do you reckon?’ asked Dan as I re-joined him on the balcony. ‘It’s brilliant,’ I told him. ‘Brilliant but disturbing.’ ‘What should I do? Burn it?’ I was horrified. ‘You should sell it.’ ‘You’re right. If I burnt it, all that darkness would come right back to me.’ That night, I sat on the balcony pondering what Dan had said about the darkness in his painting. That same darkness inhabited my unfinished script. What had started as an uplifting love story had quickly transformed itself into a tragedy. And why? Because I couldn’t stand to see my creations happy when I wasn’t. Somehow I had infected Dan’s work with my negativity. I pictured the Girl riding the Ghost Tram, unfulfilled, unable to move on. She was caught in Limbo, denied access to the afterlife. And I had put her there. Dan persuaded me to tag along while he tried to sell his picture. He took it to a dealer on Breestrat. It was the same one who’d bought Girl on the Sidewalk. He wasn’t interested. ‘Too dark,’ was his verdict. He was a mouse of a man whose only interest in art lay in its commercial worth. ‘My clients are mostly tourists. They want happy pictures. Something to remind them of the good times they’ve had here.’
Next we tried a place on Albert Cuypstraat decked out like an art deco cinema. The owner wasn’t in but his assistant - a drop-dead gorgeous redhead - didn't think he'd be interested. Looking around the shop, I was certain she was right. The walls were hung with works in the style of the Dutch masters. There was nothing there you could call modern. We spent the day walking from dealer to dealer. Although a few made appreciative comments, none considered buying the piece. Dan’s reactions ranged from quiet acceptance to despondency. I expected him to at least show the odd flash of anger but it never came. Perhaps he had known all along that he would never sell Girl on the Museum Steps. That night, I was on duty at the Wijngarden. Dan staggered in, drunk and hell-bent on getting drunker. After his fifth whisky, I tried to talk him into going home but he wouldn’t be persuaded. ‘I can’t stand to be in the attic on my own,’ he said. ‘Not with that thing there!’ He hated his picture with a vengeance. It resonated with some dark part of his soul. And he could lose it no more than he could lose his shadow. A few of his fellow artists tried to cheer him up. He met their bonhomie with sour looks and muttered oaths. After a while, they gave up and left him alone. I all but carried Dan back to the attic. Thankfully, he fell asleep the moment I got him to bed. But for me sleep was a long way off. I was worried about my friend. He was close to the edge and I had no idea how to keep him from going over. The cause of it all - that damned picture - sat in the corner covered by a cloth. If Dan couldn’t bring himself to destroy it, maybe I could? But there was no telling how Dan would react. He believed dark forces in the painting would be released if it was tampered with. Besides, tomorrow was another day and there were still plenty of art dealers he could take the painting to. Unlike Dan, I saw Girl on the Museum Steps as a masterpiece. For all that it was disturbing, it was undoubtedly a work of genius, albeit a twisted and tortured one. Even if it never sold, it might at least lead to a commission. Or so I reasoned. Grabbing a bottle of wine, I rolled into bed and set about drinking myself to sleep. Dan and the painting were gone when I woke up. He’d left a note to say he was having another go at selling the thing. Good luck to them both, I thought. After breakfast, I had a bash at a new script. I thought it would be easy to concentrate with Dan out of the way, but his absence was tangible. Now and then, my scalp would tingle and I’d feel certain he was standing behind me, glaring at the back of my head. I’d look around and find myself alone. Towards evening, all I had to show for my efforts was a pile of discarded paper. The attic became unbearable. It was as if some residue of Girl on the Museum Steps still lingered. When I stared at the paper in front of me, I saw her face and felt her torment. I had to get out. It was a calm, languid day with an overcast sky. Amsterdam felt subdued. I strolled along the Amstel in a grey fugue. My thoughts drifted from one matter to another, never settling on any topic for long. It seemed important to keep moving, to always increase the distance between myself and the attic. Just after sunset, I found myself in an unfamiliar quarter. Abandoned warehouses brooded to the left of me. On my right, a piece of wasteland was in the process of being turned into an industrial estate. So far only one unit had been built. A small earth digger sat on a mound of dirt. There was no sign of activity. The road terminated at a T-junction. I turned left. Ten minutes later I was outside a park. The houses across the way were boarded up. There was no sign of human activity. 39
Exhausted by my walk, I sat on a low wall and considered heading back to the centre of town. There was a tram stop just down the road. If nothing else, it would have a map to tell me where I was. I heard a tram approach. It swung round the corner. If I ran, I could catch it. But something told me it wasn’t going my way. I studied the faces of the passengers as it rolled by. Each was a mask of despondency and despair. These, I knew, were the people abandoned by life, those who had lost love or never known it. Dan was sitting by the window, next to the Girl. Neither looked happy. He waved to me but I couldn’t bring myself to wave back. The Ghost Tram didn’t stop. Things barely registered when I returned home. A crowd milled about a body on the pavement. Glass shards glimmered in the moonlight like the Hollywood pools of my dreams. There was surprisingly little blood. Vrouw Schoonhaven sat red-eyed in the doorway. Having used up all her tears, she stared into space. Sirens approached. I ran up to the attic. The balcony door was a splintered frame devoid of glass. A fresh painting sat on the easel. It showed the Girl lying beside a tram. The side of her skull had been torn away. She was drenched in blood. Another suicide. And now she and Dan would ride the Ghost Tram together for all eternity. Packing a rucksack, I headed for the station.
Janet and John Get Out of their Heads From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 13 Sep. 13:21 hi babes! how’s it hanging? i promised i’d email ya as soon as i got to berlin. just checked in & the hotel is as fab as it looks on the web. u’ll be pleased to know that magic charm u gave me got me here safely. no gremlins, no plane crashes, no getting arrested by the gestapo. (i took yr advise & refrained from giving the customs man a hitler salute.) the flight was unbelievable. my 1st time in business class and non-stop booze all the way. i read a couple of chapters of that book u lent me. 2 be honest tho, i can’t see me getting into it. not saying it’s mumbo jumbo or nothing. just not my cup of tea, is all. anyways, i’m gonna try out the shower, chuck coffee down my throat and catch a couple hrs kip. then me and franky are off to paint the town red. ~o~ From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 14 Sep. 09:42 Hello John. I’m fine. Thank you very much for asking. I hope you didn’t get too silly last night. You never could handle your alcohol and I don’t think you’d find a German police cell quite as nice as your hotel room. By the time you read this, you’ll have had a grand tour of the Berlin office so let’s hope some of the German efficiency you’re always deriding rubs off on you! (Only kidding.) Take care of my grimoire, won’t you? It’s been in my family for generations. I won’t force you to read it if you don’t want to, but I do wish you would. It will help you understand where I’m coming from and maybe convince you Wicca really is a proper religion. Oh heck. You’ve only been gone a day and I’m already missing you. Love you lots! Your big fluffy bunny, Janet. XXXXXXXXXXX! ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) 41
Sent: 14 Sep. 15:02 yo! wot a day! wot a company canteen! it’s got a drinks machine & guess what? it has beer!. u should have seen franky’s face when he saw it. the boozie old sod had 3 bottles of kraut lager with his schnitzel (or wotever it woz we woz eating). me? i had water. still recovering from last nite. u woz rite, i shouldn’t try to keep up with franky. mind u, he’s a bit hungover too but not as much as me. I’m definitely going 2 bed early 2nite. i think of u all the time. can’t wait to get back to blighty. maybe u can send me a broomstick so i can fly home during my lunch breaks! LOL! gotta go. herr flick (my pet name for one of the managers here) is cracking the whip. u vill audit zese books or u vill be shot! big sloppy kiss! -john ~o~ From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 14 Sep. 15:57 Yeah, nice crack about the broomstick, dickhead. You know I don’t like it when you mock my religion. Thank your lucky stars I don’t turn you into a frog! Tell you what. Keep your eyes peeled round about midnight. If you’re where you say you’ll be – i.e. in bed – then you’re in for a surprise. Janet. ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 14 Sep. 16:09 jannypops! yr not mad at me, r u? i woz only kidding. i’ll make it up 2 u when i get back. name any restaurant & leave the rest to me. (& 4 wot it’s worth, i’ve read a bit more of yr grimoire. it’s starting to make a weird sort of sense.) -john ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 15 Sep. 03:22 42
hi janet. i know u ain’t gonna read this till much later but never mind. it’s about zilch o’clock here & i couldn’t sleep thinking i may have pissed u off. i wasn’t having a dig when i said about yr broomstick & if it upset u then i’m sorry, sorry, a thousand times sorry. being away from u – even for this short a time – has really brought it home how much u mean 2 me. i’m missing u big time & am always thinking about u. i even had a dream about u. i dreamt I woz lying in bed when u suddenly appeared from out of nowhere. u was standing by the dressing table, waving at me. scared the crap out of me that did. then u said something i couldn’t hear, blew me a kiss and vanished. weirdest thing that’s happened 2 me in a long time. look, do us a favour girl & put me out of my agony. email asap & tell me i’m forgiven. then maybe i can get some sleep. -john ~o~ From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 15 Sep. 03:24 Ha ha! I was wondering when I’d hear from you. I’ve been waiting at my PC since just after midnight. So you’ve convinced yourself it was a dream, have you? I suppose I should have expected that. After all, the truth is pretty mind-blowing – especially for a non-believer like you. What you saw was my spirit. I was having a self-induced out of the body experience. And what I said before I disappeared from your room was: ‘I love you and forgive you’. And in case you think I’m yanking your chain, I was wearing a T shirt with a picture of a cat holding an umbrella on it. I’ve only just bought it so you won’t have seen it before. Sweet dreams, my precious. (Hee! Hee!) Janet. ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 15 Sep. 18:03 hi babes. sorry i couldn’t chat on the phone longer. had herr flick breathing down my neck. 43
been thinking things thru. u can hardly blame me for being sceptical, can u? but i can’t deny the evidence of my own eyes. so yeah – i totally believe u astrally projected into my hotel room here in berlin. man, I am so freaked! but in a good way. it is totally the coolest thing ever. u have just so gotta show me how it’s done. -john ~o~ From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 15 Sep. 18:07 Hi John. Hate to disappoint you, babes, but astral projection isn’t that easy. Even if I gave you the spell, it would take years to master. If you like, when you come home I’ll teach you about Wicca. But remember it’s a proper religion and not – as you seem to think – an excuse for grown adults to get naked together. Janet. ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 15 Sep. 18:09 u r on as far as learning about Wicca is concerned. as you keep telling me, i could do with a bit of spirituality in my life. maybe u underestimate me when u say it will take me years to learn astral projection. i’ve always been a fast learner & isn’t it u wot keeps telling me i’m a suppressed psychic? gimme the spell, babes. and let’s c wot happens.
-john ~o~ From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 15 Sep. 18:09 Honestly, hon. There’d be no point.
J. ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 15 Sep. 18:10 oh please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please (times 1 zillion). -j ~o~ From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 15 Sep. 18:11 I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Be in your bathroom with pen and paper at exactly midnight. That’s midnight my time. If you see the spell, write it down. If you don’t see it – and I’m sure you won’t - you’re not ready to use it. Final offer. J. ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 15 Sep. 18:12 brill! i’ll settle for that. midnight it is. gotta go now. the krauts are taking me & franky for a meal & then drinkies. mustn’t keep herr flick waiting. luv u lots, u gorgeous thing u. -john (kiss kiss) ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 16 Sep. 03:13 janet! that was the most brilliant thing ever! it worked. it bloody well worked!
i did wot u said. the krauts wanted me to go clubbing but i told em i needed my beddy-bys. anyway – there I was, standing in the bathroom like u told me & all of a sudden there was this mist & the mirror fogged up. then this writing appeared on the mirror like someone was using their finger. i just had time to scribble down the spell before it disappeared. dunno wot language it’s written in. looks a bit like latin but i don’t think it’s that. u didn’t tell me how to use the spell (coz u didn’t think i’d get it, did you? o ye of little faith) so i improvised. i stood in the middle of the room, in my jim-jams and dressing gown, & read the spell out loud. nothing happened. so i read it again and again until it stuck in my memory and i chucked the pad away. nothing seemed to be happening and i thought about jacking it in but somehow i couldn’t stop. the words kept coming out of my mouth. it’s like when you get a tune stuck in your head & it goes round & round & round. eventually I thought – right, that’s it, john. yr just making an arse of yourself. call it quits and hit the sack. then i realised i was no longer in my hotel room! in fact I was no longer in the hotel. i looked down and there was berlin. i could see the brandenberg gate and the ruined church in the kufurstandamm and even stalag 13 (or head office as it’s officially called). For a moment, i was bleeding gob-smacked. & then, when i realised what had happened, i was bloody terrified. & straight away I was back in my body feeling like u do when u have a dream & something bad in it makes u wake up. i got a bottle of schanpps i was gonna bring back. drank about half of it before i could get over the shock. & then – mad bastard that i am – i had another go with the spell but nothing happened. maybe it was the booze. but i’m definitely gonna try it again & this time i’m flying all the way to blighty so you’d better watch out for me! hugs & kisses -j. ~o~ From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 16 Sep. 08:22 Dear John. I’ve just seen your email and feel somewhat alarmed. Although it’s great that you managed to leave your body, you need to be very, very careful. You probably didn’t have time to see it, but if you looked at your navel, you would have seen a cord of light linking your spirit to your body. If that cord gets broken, your spirit might not be able to return.
You obviously have great powers but you need to learn how to use them wisely and safely. I can teach you but you must be patient. Please, please, please, for your own sake, don’t use the spell again while you’re in Berlin. Once you’re back in England, we can astrally project together. Won’t that be great? I’m missing you more than ever and can’t wait to fall into your manly arms ;-). See ya soon. -Janet. ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 16 Sep. 09:22 babes! don’t worry. now i’ve had a chance to think about it, i’m in no rush to leave this here body of mine. but I am looking forward to us doing it together. can spirits have sex? wouldn’t it be fun to join the mile high club without even being in an airplane? perhaps over the houses of parliament or buckingham palace? Or how about *IN* buckingham palace? right in front of the queen! (LMAOROFL!) btw: been snowing here. I mean proper snowing with it coming right up 2 my knees. maybe me & franky should challenge the sausage noshers to a snowball re-enactment of the battle of el alamein. but then – maybe not. only 3 days till i see ya again! seems like an eternity! luv ya lots -j. ps: manly arms? moi? LOL!!! ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 17 Sep. 01:47 YOU BITCH!! YOU SLUT!!! YOU WHORE!!!!!! i am so gonna mess you up, you cheating slag!!! you are dumped. DUMPED!!! FRIGGING DUMPED!!! i hope you get the clap & end up sterile. 47
by the time i get back, i want you and all traces of your existence out of my flat & as far as possible, i’m going to pretend you don’t exist – even at work. GOODBYE YOU WITCH!! -J. PS: they oughta burn u at the stake. whore!!! ~o~ From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 17 Sep. 08:22 John. What on Earth’s going on? Is this some kind of joke? Because if it is it’s in very poor taste and not the least bit funny. Ever since I got your vile email, I haven’t stopped crying. I’ve racked my brains and have no idea what I could have done to upset you or make you say such hurtful things. If you’ve had enough of me, fine! Just say so. You don’t have to be cruel about it. -Janet. ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 17 Sep. 19:36 wot’s wrong with u, u stupid bitch? get it thru yr thick head: i want nothing more to do wiv u. so stop calling me at work and stop emailing me. that little miss innocent shit ain’t gonna wash. not after wot i saw last night. oh yeah. thought i wouldn’t find out, didn’t ya? thought while the cat was away you might as well play & poor dumb john would be none the wiser. wrong! i was right there in the bedroom – *MY* bedroom – while u & gavin rutted like animals. why in god’s name gavin of all people? i thought u hated the slimey creep? and how come u let him do that thing u never let me do? -j. ~o~
From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 17 Sep. 19:52 John. I think this will be the hardest email I’ve ever typed in my life. Let me start by saying that despite everything I still love you and want you to remain an important part of my life. I truly believe we can get over our present difficulties and rebuild our relationship. I won’t chide you for breaking your promise not to use the spell again. I’m just relieved no harm came to you. Berlin to London is a long way for a novice to astral project. It’s a wonder you managed to get back. As to me and Gavin, I owe you an explanation and a deep, heart-felt apology. I swear to God I’ve never been unfaithful to you before and I intend to have nothing further to do with Gavin. The fact is – and I know this is no excuse – I was (and am) lonely without you. A few of us at work went out for drinks and I guess I had too much and I was suddenly in tears at the thought of going home to an empty flat. I thought Gavin was being sympathetic. When he put his arm around me I had no idea he was making a move. Naïve? Yes, I was. Foolish too. Actually, I think he may have used rohypnol. What happened back at the flat is all a blur. I hate to bring it up – and it’s no mitigation - but you have strayed a couple of times yourself and each time I’ve forgiven you. I ask now that you do the same for me. I love you, John, and I don’t want to lose you. Please find it in your heart to forgive me. Yours (in desperation), Janet. ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 17 Sep. 19:48 rohypnol my arse! wot kind of a dumb knobhead do u take me 4? u remember that website we had a gud laugh at? the one where blokes get their own back on exgirlfriends by uploading naked photographs of the slags for all the world to see? suggest u take a look. yrs vengefully, -j. ~o~
From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) Sent: 17 Sep. 20:11 You bastard! You hateful, vicious loathsome little creep! You promised you’d deleted those photos. And all this time you’ve kept them on your laptop! I give you fair warning, John. Take them down NOW! You know I have certain powers but you’ve no idea what I can do with them. Remove the photographs or SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES!!! -Janet. ~o~ From: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: Janet Evans (email@example.com) Sent: 18 Sep. 07:17 oh yes! i am one mighty & powerful wizard. nothing can stop me. NOTHING! so how did it feel, having me in your dreams? knowing I was yr lord and master? knowing every time u sleep i can slip into your mind and conjure up nightmares. u think having the ground swallow you up was bad? u think sending you into the fires of hell is the worst i can do? u think being covered in spiders is where it stops? think again, bitch. i have yr grimoire, remember? there’s some v. interesting spells in it. some of which u would not like to be on the receiving end of. now get out of my flat! if i find u still there 2nite, u r going to be in hell the second u fall asleep. -j. ~o~ From: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) To: John Heywood (email@example.com) cc: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) Sent: 18 Sep. 07:38 Now you’ve done it. Now you have really done it. You think you can mess with a witch, do you? Time you learnt different. Enjoy your day at work, shithead. 50
-Janet. ~o~ From: Frank Beatie (email@example.com) To: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) Sent: 18 Sep. 15:07 Hi Janet. Frank from work here. Hope you don’t mind me emailing you on your private email. Apparently you’re not in work today and I didn’t want you to be the last to know about what’s happened to John. From what I can gather, you and him have had some sort of lover’s tiff and maybe that’s what’s pushed him over the edge. He’d been acting funny all morning – telling people he was a wizard and stuff like that. Then, right in the middle of a meeting with some very senior managers, he started goose-stepping around the boardroom singing “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball”. Needless to say, the krauts didn’t see the joke (they never do, do they?) and told John to get his arse on the first plane back to England. It’s touch and go as to whether he can hang on to his job. He’s obviously having some sort of nervous breakdown and maybe they’ll take that into account. If you want to meet him at the airport – and I think it would be a very good thing if you did – he should be arriving at a quarter to nine (your time) tomorrow morning. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings but I thought it best you should know. Take care. -franky. ~o~ From: John Heywood (email@example.com) To: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) Sent: 18 Sep. 21:58 ok. u win. let’s call a truce before this goes 2 far. i won’t invade yr dreams if u promise never to possess me like that again. & i’ve removed the photos from the internet & wiped them from my hard disk. u can stay in the flat 4 now. who knows? maybe we can still rescue our relationship – if that’s what u want.
i dunno if i’ve still got a job but i won’t hold that against u. there r plenty of openings 4 someone with my skills so we needn’t worry there. basically – u win. i surrender. afraid I won’t be back in blighty 2morrow. everything’s snowbound here. so it’s back to my hotel room where i will definitely not be doing anything wizardy. -j. ~o~ From: Janet Evans (email@example.com) To: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) Sent: 18 Sep. 22:16 OK, John. I’m glad you’ve come to your senses and I’m sorry things got so out of hand. Hopefully we’ve both learnt some important lessons from all this. I still love you, despite everything, and am confident we can rebuild what we had and make it stronger than ever. And don’t worry about your job. I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d laugh, but I used my magic to get you your latest promotion. I can use a similar spell to bag you a new – and even better – job. Now you’ve shown you have the power, I can teach you the Craft – but only if you promise to use it wisely. Let me know when you manage to get a flight and I’ll pick you up at the airport. In the meantime, don’t fret. I’m sure everything’s going to be all right. Big hugs and kisses, -Janet. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX ~o~ From: Janet Evans (email@example.com) To: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) Sent: 19 Sep. 03:48 You idiot, John! You lying, treacherous little bastard. All that guff about calling a truce and being sorry and getting back together. Lies, lies, lies! So you think you’re a high mighty wizard, do you? Let me tell you, an uncontrollable thirst spell is kid’s stuff and easy to break. So I drank several gallons of water? Big deal. I’m sorry, John. But I can’t let you go round casting spells willy-nilly. Especially when you’re using my own grimoire against me. 52
Last warning. Stop it – or else! -Janet. ~o~ From: John Heywood (email@example.com) To: Janet Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) Sent: 19 Sep. 04:12 u make me laugh, woman. who the hell do you think yr trying to scare? oh no help help! the wicked witch is going 2 turn me into a frog! boo hoo! i’m so scared. time 2 teach u a lesson, my sweet. how d’ya fancy a plague of cockroaches? brace yourself, bitch. -j. ~o~ From: Frank Beatie (email@example.com) To: John Heywood (firstname.lastname@example.org) Sent: 19 Sep. 10:27 John! Frank from work here. I don’t know if you’ll get this email any time soon but if you do please let me know you’re OK. I’ve tried ringing, but your mobile phone is switched off. You’ve probably got other things on your mind right now, but I thought you should know your landlady’s been trying to get hold of you. Something about your flat being infested with cockroaches. I got a chamber maid to let me in to your room this morning so I could see if you were there. You weren’t, but your luggage and laptop were so you must have come back from the airport. Mind you, I’d stay out of your room for now. At least until they’ve cleaned up the mess caused by the chamber maid. Built like a tractor, she is. Probably eats iron bars for breakfast. Anyway, she lets me into your room and watches me while I look around. Then all of a sudden she starts yelling in German and I’m thinking “this is it! I’m going to do die!” But then I see what she’s yelling at - a bloody great frog sitting right in the middle of the room. Next thing I know - splat! - she’s gone and stamped on it with her size ten trainer! Bloody horrible it was, watching the poor thing squirming about with its legs sticking out from under the frau’s shoe. She stamped on it 4 times before it finally stopped kicking. I’ve never felt so sorry for an amphibian in all my life. 53
Anyway, now for the good news. I’ve convinced the krauts you’re suffering from nervous exhaustion and not a bad lad after all. So not only have you been forgiven, you’re getting 2 weeks off to recuperate. Everything’s going to be fine, John. But where the hell are you? -Franky.
The Skitterlings. Before he destroyed the world, Farnsworth came down to New York City. He would have preferred to have stayed at home watching teevix and eating pretzels, but the Skitterlings had other ideas. And so here he was, sitting in a dimly-lit bar, hoping no one would recognise him. So far he’d been lucky. A waitress had told him he looked a bit like ‘that Farnsworth guy. You know – the one who saved the world’ but it hadn’t crossed her mind that anyone rich and famous would venture into a joint that still had spittoons. At the table next to him, two guys talked about overpopulation and what could be done about it. One was a uniformed policeman whose body language said he would rather be somewhere else. The other wore a checked shirt and baseball cap. A trucker if ever there was one. Farnsworth considered informing them that right now overpopulation was the least of humanity’s worries. But the Skitterlings told him - no. Drink your bourbon, Earthboy. Let’s have you drunk. We like it when the room starts spinning and you can barely walk and all you want to do is puke and die. He stared at his drink. - Screw you, he thought. - I’m not doing it. Tonight, we’re going to do things my way or not at all. The Skitterlings laughed. Or at least that’s what he supposed they were doing. It was sometimes hard to understand their moods and emotions. He felt a tingling in his frontal lobes and a rustling sensation throughout his body. If it wasn’t laughter, it was certainly some form of mockery. Farnsworth felt thirsty. As if he hadn’t had a drink in a week. As if he were in a desert and had just swallowed a spoonful of salt. His hands shook. The Skitterlings had turned him into an alcoholic. What was the use? He knew better than to fight the aliens. They won every time. Farnsworth grabbed the bourbon and knocked it back in one. He slammed his glass on the table. He felt good. The drink took the edge from his thirst but he needed another. He looked over to where the cop and the trucker were putting the world to rights. An open bottle of bourbon sat on the table between them and right now it seemed the most precious artefact in the world. - Take it, said the Skitterlings. - It’s yours. - No, damn you. I’ll get my own bottle. - The place is busy. It’ll be ages before you get served. You need a drink and you need it now. - I’m not getting into a fight! Find some other way to amuse yourselves. ‘Hey, you! Buddy!’ It was the trucker. The five bourbons he’d downed in the time it had taken Farnsworth to drink one had just kicked in. He was ready for a fight. Fists clenched, chest puffed out. Eyes drilling into Farnsworth. ‘What’s your problem?’ The cop raised both hands. ‘Steady, Pete. He’s not doing any harm.’ ‘The faggot’s staring at me. What’s the matter with the guy?’ ‘Just leave it, will you.’ The cop smiled apologetically at Farnsworth. ‘Sorry about this. He has a little too much to drink and he goes mental.’ The trucker snorted. ‘Who you calling mental, Jack?’ ‘You, you moron,’ said Farnsworth, his desire for a drink overcoming his fear of a beating. ‘And after hearing the claptrap you’ve been spouting, I have to say I agree with him.’ ‘Why you!’ The trucker was on his feet and ready to brawl. The cop, knowing what to expect, had his stunner out. Without bothering to issue a caution, he hit the fire button. A green beam leapt from the stunner to Pete’s forehead causing the synapses in his brain to misfire. With a look of surprise, Pete fell forward, knocking over the table he’d been sitting at. Crash, clang, clatter. Silence fell. The cop held up his left hand. A police identity hologram sprang from the ring on his index finger. To protect, deliver and serve! it said. ‘Eastern Seaboard Police!’ he announced. ‘Everything’s under control. Go back to your drinking.’ 55
It wasn’t the sort of joint where a command to drink was ever going to be disobeyed. A moment later, the buzz of conversation once again filled the room. The cop pushed his chair back to allow a waiter to right his table. He picked up the bottle of bourbon which had survived its fall unscathed. His friend, in the meantime, was carried out back by two bouncers. ‘Sorry about that,’ said the cop. He sat at Farnsworth’s table. ‘Pete should have been sectioned years ago but his goddamn union won’t allow it. So the Eastern Seaboard has me tailing him twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If he gets out of hand, I send him off to La-La Land. And that’s my job in its entirety.’ Farnsworth suppressed a shiver. The Skitterlings weren’t pleased. They’d been looking forward to a bar room brawl and now it looked like they weren’t getting one. And for that they blamed Farnsworth. Which was why he felt like he was sitting in an ice box. And still he craved alcohol. The cop held out his hand. ‘Officer Dave Balcerzak.’ Farnsworth automatically shook it. ‘Crispin Farnsworth. Citizen Grade B.’ ‘Yes,’ said Dave matter-of-factly. ‘I recognised you when you came in.’ ‘In that case you’ll appreciate me not wanting to share my table with a low-life like you,’ said Farnsworth. Immediately his perceived body temperature rose and his need for alcohol lessened. ‘Go back to whatever pig sty you came from.’ Dave chuckled. ‘You’re looking for a fight, aren’t you?’ ‘Too damned right I am.’ ‘It’s not going to work. Not with me.’ ‘Oh yeah? What if I told you I saw your mother in the space port turning tricks with asteroid miners?’ ‘I have no mother.’ Dave rotated his head 180 degrees. He lifted the flap on the back of his head to expose a network of winking lights and glowing fibre optic tubes. ‘Positronic. Model Delta VII.’ ‘A robot!’ Dave closed his skull and shifted his head back to its normal position. ‘I prefer the term differently human, if you don’t mind. Or android.’ ‘Sure,’ said Farnsworth, feeling defeated. - Make friends with him, said the Skitterlings. - He could be useful. ‘What class are you?’ he asked. ‘Mallard. Which means I must obey Grade Bs and Grade As. Anyone below that is answerable to me.’ ‘Officer Dave Balcerzak, how would you like to come back to my place?’ ‘My orders are to keep an eye on Citizen Grade E Peter Hammond.’ ‘As a Grade B, I’m countermanding those orders. Any objections?’ ‘None that matter, sir.’ ‘Good. Call us a taxi.’ Farnsworth lived two miles above New York City in a floating apartment. Because it was shaped like a torus, he’d dubbed it the Flying Doughnut. Giving it a daft name made him feel better about the obscene cost of keeping its antigrav field active. ‘I don’t actually know how many rooms it’s got,’ he told the flying taxi ferrying him and Officer Dave Balcerzak up to its landing bay. ‘I’ve never been in half of them.’ The taxi whistled appreciatively. ‘You sure are one lucky man,’ its positronic brain relayed through the roof speaker. ‘But you deserve it.’ Dodging between two belts of flying cars, the vehicle took a turning down a narrow canyon formed by buildings a mile high. And then it swiftly ascended, taking them above the earthbound part of the city to the sparsely populated aerial zone where only Grade As and Bs could afford to live. They passed a floating cube with nine windows on each face. It was home to Vanessa Frolander, the newsreader who had been the first person to interview him on teevix after his triumphant return to Earth. She was also the first of many beautiful women he had bedded since then.
Up ahead, a fairy tale castle floated on a holograph of a cloud. For Farnsworth, any magic the sight might have possessed was negated by the knowledge that the castle was owned by Citizen Grade B Sun Wu, a gang leader with a near-monopoly of the drugs trade in North America. Knowing it could be incinerated if it came too close, the taxi steered the castle a wide berth, ‘I tell you,’ said the taxi. ‘It’s time someone brought that Wu guy down to Earth. When I think of the misery he’s caused, it makes me want to spit.’ Up ahead Farnsworth saw the welcome sight of a glowing circle. The Flying Doughnut. ‘Home, sweet home,’ he muttered. As the taxi homed in on the Flying Doughnut, the Skitterlings co-opted his optic nerves. Now he was looking at darkness peppered with stars. A chunk of dirty ice drifted by. - Where are we? he demanded. - You’re still in a taxi flying above New York City. - I meant – - We know what you meant, you idiot. Again that sensation which he took to be laughter. - You’re looking through one of the positronic eyes of the Elmore James, a deep space sentinel stationed in the Kuiper Belt just beyond Uranus. - There’s nothing here. Why are you showing me this? - Watch. You’re going to like this. Space shimmered. The stars in the background twinkled as if he was seeing them through a haze of hot air. And then, amidst the blackness, there appeared something even blacker. But for the fact that it blocked out the stars, he would have sworn it wasn’t there. - What is it? he asked. - Ever since you discovered the Visitors on Titan, your people have wondered how they got there. And here’s your answer. The blackness turned to steely grey. Now it was possible to make out the sleek outline of an object shaped like an elongated arrowhead. - It’s been hiding in deep space since long before your race appeared, said the Skitterlings. And now it’s on its way to Earth. It’ll be here in a few hours, ready to take us to some other part of the galaxy where another civilisation awaits destruction. - What’s wrong with live and let live? - What’s wrong with live and let die? The observation deck was the largest room on the Flying Doughnut. Its glass floor, walls and ceiling formed a continuous circle offering a godlike view of both city and sky. ‘Peaceful, isn’t it?’ Farnsworth said, taking a cocktail from the drinks dispenser. ‘If you say so,’ said Officer Dave who hadn’t been programmed to appreciate the finer things in life. Farnsworth joined him at the window-side bar. They stood leaning on the bar, looking out at the night sky. In the distance, Sun Wu’s castle shimmered behind its forcefield. Officer Dave swirled his bourbon so ice clinked against glass. Although he had no taste buds and no nervous system for the alcohol to effect, Farnsworth had insisted he have a drink. ‘Do you want to know why I brought you up here?’ Farnsworth asked. ‘Sex?’ ‘Hell no! Why would I want to have sex with a robot?’ ‘Some people enjoy that kind of thing.’ - Kiss him, said the Skitterlings. - What? - We want you to kiss the robot. - Why? - Kiss him or we’ll make it seem like an elephant’s standing on your balls. ‘I have to kiss you,’ Farnsworth told Dave. ‘Do you mind?’ Dave shrugged. ‘I am yours to command.’ 57
- On the lips! Put your tongue in his mouth. ‘Apparently, it has to be a French kiss.’ ‘Very well.’ With a shudder, Farnsworth leant forward and closed his eyes. He felt Dave’s mechanical lips touch his own. - Hold it there, Earthboy... That’s good. Now open your mouth. - I can’t! - Do it. Or else! Farnsworth reminded himself he was kissing a machine, not a person. It didn’t make him feel any better. He parted his lips and felt Dave’s respond in kind. - And now the tongue. All the way in. Make sure you leave plenty of spit. The tip of Farnsworth’s tongue touched the top of Dave’s mouth. Starting to gag, he hastily withdrew. The Skitterlings laughed. - You bastards! Farnsworth took a mouthful of cocktail and slooshed like his life depended on it. Then he spat the drink back in his glass. ‘It’s all right,’ said Dave. ‘We can take this as slowly as you like.’ ‘I’m not after sex!’ Farnsworth swapped his sullied cocktail for a fresh one. ‘I just don’t want to be alone. Not tonight of all nights.’ ‘Surely you have friends?’ ‘I have people who like to be seen with me, people who suck up to me and people who want to sleep with me because I’m famous. But nobody I would call a friend. Besides, right now I don’t want to be around people. I just want to talk.’ Officer Dave nodded sagely. ‘You need a confessor, don’t you? Someone who’ll shut up and listen. Someone you can unburden yourself on.’ ‘I’d have called a priest, but I don’t believe in God. I take it you’re transmitting?’ ‘Everything I see, hear or experience is being stored in the databanks of the main Police Central computer. I’m not permitted to turn off my transmitter unless ordered to do so by a Grade A.’ ‘Fine by me, Dave. By the time your superiors understand what’s going on, it’ll be too late.’ ‘You sound like you know something you should be sharing.’ ‘We’re being invaded, Dave. It’s all over. Has been ever since we found the Visitors.’ It happened on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Farnsworth was the most junior member of a team despatched from Earth to penetrate its icy surface in search of a suitable place to build an underground city. They were hoping to find a complex of caves. What they found instead was an alien base built into the side of a cliff. According to the official story – the one every human in the solar system except Farnsworth and a few conspiracy theorists believed – the exploration party led by Captain James Holloway of the Space Ordnance Corps had no reason to believe the Visitors (as they were speedily dubbed) to be hostile. Communications were swiftly established and the Visitors invited the humans into their base. It looked like Earth’s first contact with an alien species was going to be a peaceful one. But the Visitors proved treacherous. They waited until the Earthmen were off their guard and then attacked, killing all but one of their thirty-two guests. In the chaos, Farnsworth slipped away unnoticed. He grabbed a backpack filled with explosives from a dead geologist and headed to the base’s main airlock. Along the way he placed explosive charges on every door he passed. The final ten charges were used on the airlock. Six on the outer door; four on the inner. Farnsworth put on his helmet and took cover behind an instrument panel. A press of a button and boom! The airlock disintegrated and the base’s inner doors were ripped apart. In a matter of seconds, the air was replaced by the nitrogen-rich atmosphere of Titan. The temperature plummeted to -179 degrees centigrade and the aliens froze to death in an instant. 58
When the survey team’s back-up arrived, they found a massive energy weapon with the capacity to wipe out an entire planet. There was little doubt the Visitors had been planning to use it on Earth. Farnsworth had saved the human race from extinction. His promotion to Citizen Grade B couldn’t be processed fast enough and he returned to Earth a hero. ‘Do you want to know what really happened?’ Farnsworth asked Officer Dave, the android cop. ‘I’ve been living a lie these past three years. We all have.’ ‘Everything you say is being recorded,’ Dave reminded him. ‘They were already dead,’ said Farnsworth. ‘They died over a million years ago.’ ‘Who, Citizen Farnsworth? Who were dead?’ ‘The Visitors.’ ‘You are in error, sir. I personally have seen footage of the Visitors looking very much alive.’ ‘The footage was faked by the Skitterlings.’ ‘By the who?’ ‘They’re a parasite, spreading through the galaxy, wiping out whole planets, entire civilisations. They destroyed the Visitors’ home planet and set up a colony there. Then they used some of the Visitors and their spacecraft to reach our solar system. ‘Over a million years ago, they landed on Titan and built a base. Then they waited for Earth to develop a civilisation capable of reaching them, because they only enjoy destroying advanced civilisations. ‘In the meantime, their hosts died but that was no problem for the Skitterlings. They went into total hibernation until new bodies became available. ‘When we found them, the Visitors were perfectly preserved. There was no sign of life. The seals on the airlocks had failed so everything was frozen solid. ‘Captain Holloway tried reporting back to our mother craft but something was blocking the signal. Not that we were unduly worried. We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. I mean, this was an historic occasion. Sure the Visitors were dead but they were bona fide aliens with an advanced civilisation. For the first time ever, mankind had solid proof we weren’t alone in the universe. ‘All of us could look forward to a hero’s welcome back on Earth. Talk shows. Book deals. Film rights. The whole kit and caboodle. We were going to be rich and famous! ‘It was Esther Conner, our biologist, who noticed the Visitors defrosting. At first no one would believe her. It was impossible. But we all had sensors in our space suits and they told us the same thing. The aliens were getting warmer. Despite the ambient temperature being about -180, they were rapidly reaching normal body temperature. ‘Some of us drew our guns. We were scared. Didn’t know what the hell was going on. ‘Then one of the Visitors suddenly sat up and someone fired at it. And that’s when things went mental.’ Farnsworth paused. For three years he’d kept humanity’s biggest, deadliest secret to himself. Being able to share it was an immense relief. He was keen to go on but the Skitterlings told him to wait a few seconds. Give Officer Dave a chance to assimilate the story so far. Dave looked thoughtful. Then he nodded. ‘I have received a message from Police Central. You appear to be having a nervous breakdown and they want me to stay with you while they analyse the situation.’ ‘That’s great. I want you to stay with me as well. In fact, I’m ordering you to.’ ‘As you wish.’ Farnsworth went on with his story. ‘The Visitors started exploding. Nothing too spectacular like a bomb or anything. More like seed pods bursting open. Bits of them erupted – usually their stomachs or the side of their heads. ‘And these little black things came swarming out. At first I thought they were insects, but close up I could they were tiny squares with no wings or legs or anything. Just squares. ‘They got into our space suits. I don’t know how. It was like they just passed through the material. ‘We were all shooting like crazy now, turning the visitors into smouldering hunks of meat. And in the meantime, these little black things were in our suits and we had no choice but to breathe them in. 59
‘Next thing I know, everyone is shooting everyone else. Zap, zap, zap, zap! ‘I shot Captain Holloway full in the face. The Skitterlings made me do it. I had no choice. ‘Soon I was the only one left alive. And I remember standing amongst the carnage, feeling numb. Not really understanding what was going on. I was in shock, total and utter shock. ‘Eventually, I became aware of a deeply unpleasant sensation. It was like there was something moving in every cell of my body, creating a rustling noise which sounded like skitter-skitter-skitter.. ‘And it drove me crazy. I wanted to rip off my space suit and then my skin and scratch away at my exposed nerves and muscles. Anything to get those bloody things out of me! ‘Then, just as I was on the verge of losing my sanity, a great calmness descended. It was the Skitterlings. They had control of my central nervous system and my brain, and they made me feel good despite everything. ‘In fact, they made me feel more than good. They made me feel blissful and secure and at peace with myself. ‘Over the next few minutes the Skitterlings demonstrated their power. They gave me pain beyond all imagining and then pleasure like you wouldn’t believe. One minute I was in Hell, the next in Heaven.. ‘And they told me if I obeyed them, I would know more Heaven than Hell. So I did as I was told. ‘Ten hours later, when the back-up team arrived, I’d arranged things to look like I’d saved the human race from certain destruction.’ Farnsworth paused to allow Officer Dave – and by extension Police Central - to absorb the information he was divulging. And he did so in the certain knowledge that they wouldn’t believe a word of it. Before he’d been allowed back on Earth he’d been thoroughly decontaminated and put through days of medical tests. If there was an alien parasite inside him, it would have been detected and destroyed. Or so Dave and his employers would surely reason. ‘Question,’ said Dave. ‘If these Skitterlings are so tiny, how come they have intelligence?’ ‘It’s hive intelligence. Like ants and bees. Think of each Skitterling as a psychic brain cell.’ ‘I had a feeling you were going to say something like that.’ ‘Pardon me for interupting, Citizen Farnsworth’ said the silky voice of the Flying Doughnut’s domestic computer. ‘But it looks like we have a visitor.’ Farnsworth spotted a figure in a white lev suit flying towards his home. The way she occasionally flapped her arms like she was a bird, told him who the visitor was. ‘Citizen Grade B Anastasia Devlin requests permission to come aboard.’ ‘Permission denied.’ Farnsworth threw his empty glass into a disposal shaft and took a fresh cocktail from the drinks machine. Then he came back to the bar and slapped Officer Dave on the back. ‘So what do you say? Have I got you believing in Skitterlings yet?’ ‘No,’ said Dave. ‘And Police Central aren’t buying it either.’ ‘Do you know how many cells there are in the human body?’ ‘Including gut bacteria? About 100 trillion.’ ‘Each and every cell in my body is inhabited by a Skitterling. They outnumber the population of this planet by a million to one. Or to put it another way, there are more of them in this room than there are stars in the galaxy.’ ‘And yet there’s no trace of them. How do you explain that?’ Farnsworth shrugged. ‘They’re alien. Far more alien than you or I could ever imagine. Looking for them with our technology is like searching for viruses with a magnifying glass.’ Anastasia Devlin was now at the perimeter of the Flying Doughnut. She did a quick circuit before stopping outside the observation deck. She hovered feet from where Farnsworth stood, no doubt cursing the near-indestructible glass that kept them apart. She and Farnsworth locked eyes. He could see his face reflected in her visor. ‘Miss Devlin,’ said the computer, ‘wishes to communicate.’ ‘Put her on.’ Anastasia’s voice sounded as clear as if she’d been standing in the room. ‘Crispin! You bad boy, you!’ She pouted. Her pixie-like face screwed up in mock vexation. ‘Why don’t you come to see me anymore?’ 60
‘I told you,’ said Farnsworth. ‘You’re a spoilt brat with too much money and no thought for anyone else’s needs.’ ‘I took care of yours, didn’t I?’ ‘Go away, Anastasia. I’ve had enough of you.’ ‘Liar,’ she said. ‘Surely you’ve not had enough of this!’ She turned a dial on her wrist. Immediately, her lev suit disappeared. It was replaced by a skimpy white dress that showed off her petite body to perfection. ‘Nice hologram,’ said Dave. ‘She must be using one of the new Seyeca projectors. I’d heard they were good.’ ‘Remind you of anyone?’ asked Anastasia. ‘No,’ said Farnsworth but he was lying and both he and Anastasia knew it. The highlight of their brief and intense relationship had been the night they’d pretended to be Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. They’d flown hand in hand across the sea to Jamaica where they made love in the Blue Mountains. Anastasia twirled in mid-air. A sprinkling of fairy dust swirled around her and then faded. ‘Listen,’ said Farnsworth. ‘You don’t want to be wasting your time on me. Go enjoy yourself while you still can.’ ‘But what about the magic, Crispin? You can’t deny we had something wonderful.’ Farnsworth had no inclination to be nostalgic about the past, no matter how recent or wonderful. ‘Maximum opacity,’ he instructed the computer. The glass walls frosted, cutting off the outside world. ‘Crispin!’ wailed Anastasia. ‘You can’t do this to me.’ ‘Computer, cut the connection.’ Silence. But the Skitterlings weren’t happy. - Let her in, they said. - No, Farnsworth told them. - I’m fed up with having coitus for your entertainment. - We’re getting bored with it ourselves. - And you know how she natters. Do we really want her burbling in my ear while we’re watching the end of the world as we know it? - You have a good point. She can stay out there for now. - At least after tonight, I won’t have to put up with her any more. - That’s where you’re wrong Earthboy. You, Anastasia and Officer Dave will survive the apocalypse. We haven’t finished with you yet. - Not Anastasia! Anyone but her! - We like Anastasia. She makes us laugh. Especially when she’s annoying the crap out of you. Dave the android copper drained his glass. He swallowed the ice cubes whole. ‘Can you fix me a sour mash whiskey?’ he asked. ‘On the rocks?’ ‘Sure. You want American or Martian?’ ‘Martian whiskey? That must have set you back a bit.’ ‘Not me. Thanks to the grateful citizenry of this fair Earth, I haven’t had to pay for a damned thing since I came back from Titan.’ ‘They should have made you a Grade A for what you did.’ ‘The whole of humanity agrees with you – except for the Grade As. They’re rather possessive of their power.’ Farnsworth fetched Dave a glass of Martian Sour Mash. It had been bottled two years after the terraforming of Mars made traditional farming practical. A bottle of the stuff cost as much as a mid-range flying car. And Farnsworth had a hundred of them. ‘Pardon me, Citizen Farnsworth,’ said the computer. ‘But I think you should know that six women have joined Citizen Devlin. They are hovering outside the observation room, demanding to be let in.’ ‘This,’ said Farnsworth, ‘I have to see.’ He sat down at his bar and said, ‘Computer. Make the glass transparent.’ The computer obeyed, treating Farnsworth to the sight of seven beautiful women vying for his attention. They used their holographic projectors to present themselves in a series of different outfits and postures. In a bid to outdo each other, they made each successive outfit just that bit more daring and each pose a little more lewd. Finally, they were all lined up in front of him, apparently naked. Floating in the air. 61
Spreading their legs. Bending forward. Opening various orifices. Dancing suggestively. Contorting their supple bodies into unnatural poses. ‘The ladies,’ said the computer, ‘wish to make radio contact.’ ‘They can wish all they like. And frost the glass, will you?’ The window turned opaque. ‘Some people have no respect for themselves.’ ‘I recognised those women,’ said Dave. ‘They’re all famous beauties.’ ‘I’ve slept with each and every one of them,’ said Farnsworth. ‘That’s why they’re behaving like that. They’re infected with Skitterlings. ‘When I have sex, I transmit Skitterlings into my partner. And since I became a hero, I’ve slept with over a thousand women who between them have slept with thousands of men who in turn have slept with thousands more women. ‘And now there are millions of Skitterling carriers and at least one in every outpost of humanity in the solar system. ‘You wait. Before this night is through, there’ll be hundreds of women hovering outside my window, all carrying the seeds of humanity’s destruction, all wanting to be with me when the world comes to an end.’ - Teevix, said the Skitterlings. Channel 46. The fun’s about to begin. ’Computer. Teevix, if you please.’ High up on the wall, a door irised open. Farnsworth’s teevix drifted in through the opening. The transparent sphere floated around the room like a giant soap bubble before coming to rest on its podium. Farnsworth and Officer Dave sat in matching leather chairs in front of the teevix. Without being asked, a service drone scuttled in and deposited two six packs of cold beer at their feet. Then it scuttled out again. ‘Teevix,’ said Farnsworth, picking up a six pack, ‘give us Channel 46.’ ‘Channel 46,’ echoed the teevix. It disappeared and a holographic shot of a baseball stadium took its place. ‘Live from Tokyo Superdome. Tokyo Redsocks vs. Beijing Tigers.’ It was the pre-match session. A marching band was leaving the arena. As the last baton-twirling majorette disappeared down the player’s tunnel, a small hover platform glided at a stately pace to the middle of the pitch. Maria Grayling, the world’s most famous tenor, stood on the platform. She was held in place by a force field. ‘Ah, Maria,’ Farnsworth sighed. ‘What sweet music we made.’ The crowd applauded enthusiastically as the platform rose and hovered a hundred metres above the ground. The introduction to the International Anthem came blaring out of speakers all over the stadium. Maria spread her arms wide as if she was about to sing. But she remained silent. The music played on. The crowd became puzzled and restless. Eventually someone switched off the music. Paramedics raced onto their own hover platforms and started up towards her. At which point, Maria stepped off the platform and performed a graceful swan dive. She hit the ground with a loud splat! and burst apart like a ripe melon. There was no trace of her bones or internal organs. Just a pink gloop that rapidly shrank as tiny black things emerged and gathered in a dark swarm. Stunned silence quickly gave way to shouts and screams. ‘Sound off,’ said Farnsworth. The teevix fell silent as the swarm expanded. It grew upwards and outwards, a black, intelligent cloud with malevolent purpose. ‘This is impossible,’ said Dave. ‘The force field should have kept her from jumping.’ ‘The Skitterlings turned it off,’ said Dave. ‘And those black things? What the hell are they?’ ‘Skitterlings.’ ‘You said they’re microscopic.’ ‘Not when they’re swarming. As soon as Maria stepped off the platform, they grew. Which was why her flesh turned to gloop. Anything with any nutritional value had been absorbed by the Skitterlings by the time she hit the ground.’ ‘You’re not even upset, are you?’ 62
‘No, Dave. The Skitterlings control my empathic functions. I’m about to play a crucial part in the destruction of the human race and I’m not the least bit sorry.’ Farnsworth turned his attention back to the teevix. There was panic in the stands as trillions of Skitterlings attacked. They flew into every human orifice they could find. Mouths, nostrils, anuses, vaginas, urethras, sweat glands. Even tear ducts. Once inside a person, they multiplied at a phenomenal rate, doubling their numbers every few seconds. Some people exploded. Others melted. And from their liquidised remains trillions more Skitterlings joined the swarm to search out more orifices, more people to turn to gloop. The picture blanked out and the teevix reappeared, saying, ‘We apologise for the loss of transmission. This is due to problems beyond our control.’ Dave got to his feet and stood over Farnsworth. ‘Police Central have ordered me to kill you.’ Farnsworth shrugged. ‘Go ahead.’ ‘I can’t. Something is preventing me.’ ‘Remember when I kissed you? I transferred into your mouth some of my body fluids along with several million Skitterlings. They’ve reproduced and taken over your circuits.’ ‘This is bad, Citizen Farnsworth. Really bad.’ ‘It is what it is. The Skitterlings are following their biological imperative – to reproduce and spread throughout the galaxy.’ ‘But what use are they? What’s the point of them if all they do is destroy?’ ‘Are you looking for some meaning to our imminent demise?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Tough.’ The Skitterlings laughed. – You think our primary concern is survival. - And it isn’t? - No. Put away your anthropocentric, Darwinist preconceptions about the nature of life. We’re not human. Mortality holds no terrors for us. All we want is to destroy. Our continued existence is just a means to that end and that’s why in a few million years we’ll be the only life form left in the entire galaxy. - And what then? - We’ll destroy each other. The teevix glowed a gentle red. ‘You have a call, Citizen Farnsworth. From Citizen Class A Rita Danville. Shall I put her on?’ ‘Why not?’ said Farnsworth. ‘It will be nice to see her one last time.’ The teevix faded. A holographic image of Rita Danville took its place. There was something about her short black hair and white pyjama suit that made him think of a Pierrot. ‘Crispin, you old devil! Isn’t this a lovely night for Armageddon?’ She was leaning on a balcony rail. The drop behind her looked to be a good half mile. All around her, the skyscrapers of Mexico City stood proud. She swirled red liquid around a glass goblet. ‘I’m at a dreadful cocktail party, full of the most ghastly bores imaginable. All anyone can find to talk about is money, money and more money.’ ‘I wish I could be there to keep you company,’ said Farnsworth. ‘You’re a dreadful liar, Crispin Farnsworth. But thanks for trying. Now, watch me liven things up.’ Her hovering phonebot followed her as she stepped back into the ballroom where the cocktail party was being held. It was full of people Farnsworth recognised from newscasts and magazine articles. Grade A citizens in tuxedos and evening gowns. Bankers, financiers, software magnates, politicians. People who could blow a million dollars on a bad commodities purchase and forget about it seconds later. An orchestra played music but no one was dancing or even listening. They were too busy making deals and boasting of their latest acquisitions. The phonebot took up a high position which allowed it to cover most of the room. Rita stepped onto the stage and whispered into the conductor’s ear. He nodded and signalled to the orchestra to pipe down. Nobody seemed to notice when the music stopped.
Rita spoke into the microphone. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, may I have a few moments of your time, please?’ The buzz of conversation died away. This was something unexpected and hopefully interesting. Rita Danville was known for her outrageous behaviour and everyone was eager to be scandalised. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ she said, ‘as most of you already know or at least suspect, I hate the lot of you.’ This produced a murmur of laughter. ‘You represent everything that is base and detestable about humanity. Frankly, I could forgive you most of your faults – your greed and your avarice, your egotism and your hypocrisy. But there is one thing I cannot find it in my heart to forgive anybody for and that’s being boring. And right now you are boring the crap out of me so much you’re all going to have to die.’ There were a few gasps and some laughter. But no one took the threat seriously. Rita pulled her top over her head and cast it aside. Naturally enough, most eyes were on her breasts. Farnsworth’s however were on the utility belt around her midriff. The socialite looked straight at her phonebot and blew Farnsworth a kiss. ‘Au revoir, mon cher.’ Then she looked at the assembled billionaires. ‘If you’d care to get your eyes off my tits, you may notice the belt I’m wearing. And you may wonder what on Earth it’s for. Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a bomb! And it’s set to go off in 10 seconds.’ There was nervous laughter. A few feeble jokes and some expressions of disgust. ‘7 seconds,’ said Rita and it dawned on people that she wasn’t kidding. Smiles dropped. Amusement turned to fear. ‘6…’ Suddenly the room was awash with hysteria and panic. Glasses were dropped. Men and women screamed. They made for the exits, pushing one another aside, fighting with their fists, elbows, fingernails, diamond rings and anything else that came to hand. Every door was besieged by a maelstrom of tuxedos and evening gowns. Abandoning their instruments, the orchestra fled through a door at the back of the stage. ‘4…’ said Rita. The floor was awash with jewellery. With diamonds and pearls and necklaces torn from their owners. People were being trampled underfoot. The effective rulers of Earth climbed on top of one another in a way that made Farnsworth think of rats swarming from a sewer. ‘1.’ The explosion wasn’t as large as the crowd had anticipated. It was just enough to blow Rita apart and scatter her squidgy remains around the ballroom. In the observation deck of the Flying Doughnut, the scene quivered as the phonebot rode the concussion and recovered. It slowly scanned the room in search of its mistress. Realising they weren’t about to get blown to Kingdom Come, people started extricating themselves from the various rucks at each of the exits. Some of them laughed with relief. Some wept. A few checked they still had their wallets. At first they didn’t notice the tiny black things congregating just above the floor, forming undulating swarms. They were too busy trying to restore their dignity or rescue their jewellery. Suddenly, the swarms coalesced into one big cloud which rose up to the chandeliers and rotated like a tornado. This grabbed the attention of the A Graders. The Skitterlings broke formation. They sought out orifices. Again, there were screams and a mad scramble for the exits but it was no use. Within seconds, there wasn’t a person in the ballroom who wasn’t infected. One by one, they began to explode. ‘An amazing woman, that Rita,’ said Farnsworth. ‘About the only one of my conquests I actually cared about.’ The connection was cut. Farnsworth cracked open a fresh can of beer and took a swig. ‘How are things around the world?’ ‘It’s chaos,’ said Dave. ‘According to Police Central, people are exploding left right and centre. And there are riots in every major city.’ 64
‘Drink up, old chum.’ Farnsworth handed Dave a beer. ‘It’s nearly time for us to join in the fun. Pick a news channel and let’s see how the world ends.’ ‘Police Central says Channel 83 has extensive coverage of the riots in Sydney.’ ‘Channel 83 it is then. Would you care for some pretzels?’ Hopping from channel to channel, they watched the world fall apart. Throughout the solar system, 18 billion souls melted or exploded. Dave remained in touch with Police Central who informed him the powers that be were trying to stop the broadcasts but with no success. Just about every machine on Earth was infected with Skitterlings and they wanted the apocalypse to be televised. From the comfort of their armchairs, Farnsworth and Dave witnessed cities being torn down and crowds of frightened people exploding. And not just people. Dogs, cats, horses, birds, machines. Anything living or electronically active was fair game to the aliens. At shortly before 4 in the morning, the teevix announced it could no longer find any coherent broadcasts and switched to standby mode. Farnsworth stood up and stretched. His bladder was painfully full, so he emptied it against the back of Dave’s chair. What did it matter where he pissed now? A pair of cleaning drones scurried from their hidey holes and set about removing all traces of Farnsworth’s urine. As he sat back down, he noticed a look of bewilderment on Dave’s face. ‘What’s the matter, Dave?’ ‘I don’t know.’ The android frowned and tilted his head. ‘I feel… I feel… Well, it doesn’t matter what I feel. The point is that I feel something and I shouldn’t feel anything at all.’ ‘That’s the Skitterlings. They’ve given you emotions.’ ‘Really?’ ‘And I’ll tell you exactly what you feel. It’s called happiness.’ ‘Is that what it is?’ Dave popped a pretzel into his mouth. ‘You know I first felt it – albeit at a much lower intensity – when I drank that Martian Sour mash. And it’s been growing ever since. I suppose this is a terrible thing to say, but I’ve actually enjoyed watching humanity’s perdition.’ ‘So have I,’ said Farnsworth. ‘But that’s the Skitterlings’ doing. They control our emotions. So long as you do their bidding, they’ll make you happy. Don’t ever cross them though. Not unless you want to know what black despair feels like.’ ‘If it’s the opposite of what I feel now, it must be a truly awful thing.’ ‘It is, Dave. It is.’ ‘So what do we do now?’ ‘Now we join all the beautiful ladies waiting outside.’ Crispin Farnsworth, slayer of the human race, and Officer Dave Balcerzak put on levitation suits and stepped out of the Flying Doughnut. As they hovered in a night sky turned vermillion by fires blazing miles below, they were joined by dozens of beautiful women. Even in their lev suits, they were female sexuality personified. - Nubile, said the Skitterlings. – That’s the word you’re looking for. - I’ve had sex with each and every one of them. And I am very, very grateful. - Of course you are. Before we came along, you were practically a virgin. - If Hitachi Magazine can be believed, I’ve slept with 99 of the 100 most desirable women in the world. I suppose it would be 100 if Zara Makepeace wasn’t in a coma. - The Visitors’ ship has passed the moon. In a few minutes it will be in Earth orbit. - Wow. That thing’s fast. - It’s a thousand generations more advanced than anything your lot has managed to develop. A week from now, we’ll arrive at Sirius III where some bright spark has just invented gunpowder. We’ll orbit for a couple of centuries – give them time to develop the silicon chip - and then it’s party time once more.
New York burned. From high above, it was a sea of flame and smoke, like an angel’s view of Hell. Skyscrapers toppled. Rubble cascaded down the sides of burning buildings. Cars flew into each other. Out over the Atlantic, a circling aircraft ran out of fuel and dropped into the sea. The Skitterlings arranged Farnsworth’s women into a series of lines facing Sun Wu’s Flying Castle. All except Anastasia who stayed back with Farnsworth and Dave. The women blew kisses at Farnsworth. Then they moved in formation towards the Flying Castle. At first they flew quite slowly, almost drifting in the rarefied air, but accelerating at a steady rate. By the time they reached Sun Wu’s security zone they were at their top speed of 120 miles per hour. When they ran into the forcefield, it was like insects hitting an electric bug zapper. Each girl exploded in a blue flash, releasing trillions of Skitterlings into the atmosphere. Some of the Skitterlings flew through the forcefield and invaded the building’s electronics. They turned off the antigrav unit. The building dropped from the sky. It hit the top of a skyscraper and exploded, sending up a jet of blue and orange flame. Anastasia grabbed Farnsworth’s hand and nestled up to him. He didn’t try to stop her. As she was the only woman left to him, it seemed a good idea to try and get along. Soon they’d be heading to Sirius III. The first and last humans to visit another star. Perhaps on the way, thought Farnsworth, I can figure out how to stop the Skitterlings from destroying any more civilisations. Catching his thought, the Skitterlings laughed. – Dream on, Earthboy, they said. - Dream on.
Celia and Harold It was St Valentine’s Day and I’d been on the train for five hours. My senses were numb, my throat was parched, and the reports I’d been immersed in since leaving London threatened to induce a coma. As the train rolled into Midwick, I closed my laptop and put on my raincoat. It was a dull little town, built on the sides of a valley and cut in two by the railway and a river. Terraced houses ribboned the streets. Next to the station, an abandoned linen mill sat like a carcass with its bones picked bare. The guard wasn’t happy about stopping in Midwick. ‘We usually roll right on through,’ he declared. ‘Never any reason to stop.’ ‘I have to get to Nether Willows,’ I told him. Normally that would have involved a change at Gilton Minor but the station there was closed for repairs. Going via Midwick added hours to my journey but I had no choice. No one else got off and the train rolled on just as soon as it could. Grey drizzle, so fine as to be barely more than mist, greeted me. I checked my watch against the station clock. The timepieces agreed I had two hours and seven minutes until my next connection. Time enough for a leisurely lunch. In lieu of a buffet, the station boasted a windowless waiting room with a coffee machine and a wooden bench. I decided to find a pub. The first thing I noticed was the barfly perched on his stool. He was hunched over the bar, beer in one hand, chin resting on the other. All the gloom in that dingy room seemed to emanate from him. The landlord stood on the other side of the bar, drying a pint glass. He was a stout fellow with a ruddy face and mutton-chop sideburns. There was no one else in the pub, but that suited me just fine. I was after a drink, not company. So why I sat on the stool next to the barfly, I’ll never know. As the landlord poured me a pint of Pudfrugger, my body language made it plain I wasn’t one of life’s listeners. Some men keep their sorrows to themselves, but the barfly didn’t look the sort. And I wasn’t about to give him reason to think he could unburden his soul on me. After handing me my change, the landlord retreated to his back room, leaving me alone with old misery guts. I looked around at all the empty tables and unoccupied chairs. Over by the window was the least gloomy spot. Through the rain-drizzled glass, I would have a fine view of the tenements and alleyways of Midwick. But the barfly made his move before I could make mine. ‘You’ve not seen her,’ he said. ‘Pray you never do.’ ‘You’ll have to excuse me,’ I said, patting my laptop and nodding in the direction of the window. ‘I have to get this work done before the train to Dymthrop arrives.’ The barfly snorted. ‘Forget Dymthrop. All that matters is that you get out of Midwick—and fast. Or you’ll be as doomed as the rest of us.’ He turned towards me and I saw the circular scar below his eye. It was about a centimetre in diameter and looked angry and fresh. ‘Take a good look,’ he said. ‘Get used to this face. Because unless you’re luckier than me, you’re going to be spending an awful lot of time with it.’ It sounded like a threat. The fact I didn’t understand what he was talking about made it no less menacing. I looked at my watch. ‘Dear lord! I hadn’t realised the time. I have to be going, or I’ll miss my train.’ As I headed for the door, the barfly called after me. ‘That’s it! Run, mister. And keep on running till you can’t run no more.’ The rain was distilled essence of Midwick: grey, grim and oppressive. Head down, laptop tucked beneath my coat, I hurried towards the station. Roadside gutters guided rain and litter into the sewers. I jumped over a child’s tricycle. With each step I took, the barfly’s advice to get out of Midwick sounded more and more sage. Everything about the town seemed designed to grind a man’s soul to dust. 67
Get the next train, I told myself. Go anywhere. A man stepped out of an alleyway. I stopped suddenly to keep from ploughing into him. It was the barfly. He must have taken a shortcut from the pub. ‘Go away,’ I told him. ‘I don’t want to know.’ He stepped meekly aside and let me hurry on. When I got to the station, there he was again. Standing on the platform, a plastic cup in his hand. He blew on the cup’s contents, causing a small cloud of steam to rise and dissipate. Pretending not to see him, I turned my attention to the destination board. The next train was in an hour. It wasn’t going to Dymthrop but it would get me out of Midwick. On the way to the pub, I’d noticed a small café. Tea and bacon sandwiches would see me through the next hour. And if the barfly bothered me there, I’d have a word with the owner. Outside the station, I looked back and saw the barfly still on the platform, still with a cup in his hands. But when I entered the café, he was at a table with a mug of tea in front of him. He gave me the briefest of glances before taking out a hip flask and tipping some of its contents down his throat. The scar on his face seemed to grow angrier. There was no one else in the café. Selecting a table as far from the barfly as possible, I sat facing his back and waited to be served. From his coat pocket, the barfly produced a pink envelope decorated with a glitter star. He opened it and took out a card which he stood on the table. The front of the card showed a teddy bear holding a red rose. Be My Valentine, said the slogan. ‘Bloody women,’ he uttered. His shoulders heaved up and down. He let out a sob and cried, ‘Why, Celia? Why?’ That was it. I wasn’t going to sit around watching a grown man wallow in abject self-pity. Especially not on St Valentine’s Day. I took my laptop and went. Returning to the pub, I was only mildly surprised to find the barfly back in position on his stool. My initial inclination was to about face and find some place else. But the barfly knew this town and all its short-cuts. If he was determined to dog me, there was little I could do about it. My only sensible course seemed to be to ignore the fellow. I certainly wasn’t going to let him drive me out of the pub a second time. The landlord was over by the fireplace, polishing a brass horse. ‘Be with you in a second, sir,’ he said without turning around. I stood at the end of the bar and wondered what was coming next. There was something not right about Midwick, something beyond the fact that one of its inhabitants was stalking me. The sound of a door being opened caught my attention. When I saw the barfly’s twin emerge from the toilet, things suddenly made an annoying kind of sense. I hadn’t been bumping into the same man! There were two of them, each with the same features and the same clothes. They’d even gone so far as to sport the same damned scar. But why put all that effort into playing a practical joke on a stranger? Wasn’t there anything better to do in Midwick? The twin sat on the stool next to the barfly and took out a pink envelope with a glitter star. ‘I suppose you got one of these,’ he said, dropping the envelope on the bar. ‘I tore it up,’ said the barfly. ‘She’s a cow, isn’t she?’ ‘A bitch. Evil through and through.’ ‘When I saw she’d sent me a valentine card, I thought she was trying to make peace. That maybe she wanted to talk things through.’ ‘Yeah. Same here.’ ‘Did yours have the poem?’ ‘Roses are red. Violets are blue. Verrucas aren’t wanted. And neither are you.’ ‘She didn’t use to be so vicious.’ 68
‘She’s not the girl she was when I first met her.’ ‘That’s for sure.’ The barfly knocked back the remains of his beer. ‘Tell you what, Harold. I’ve some whisky back at my place. What say we go get drunk?’ ‘Sounds good to me, Harold.’ As the twins headed for the door, the landlord arrived behind the bar. ‘Sorry to keep you waiting. What will it be, sir?’ ‘A pint,’ I replied. ‘And a packet of crisps.’ ‘Right you are.’ The landlord set about pouring me a pint of beer. ‘You staying in town long?’ ‘No longer than I have to.’ ‘Very wise, sir. Very wise.’ I took my beer and crisps over to the window table. The rain had stopped and a break in the clouds allowed the sun to bless Midwick with a modest amount of sunshine. As I sat down, I saw a car go by. I could have sworn it was driven by the barfly or his twin. I fired up my laptop, opened my crisps and swigged some beer. Across the road, a front door opened. The barfly stepped out and hurried off down the hill. A moment later, he came out of the house next door and headed in the opposite direction. Just as he disappeared from view, he walked into the pub. So there were three of them! Identical triplets on a mission to take the rise out of strangers. ‘Afternoon, Harold,’ said the landlord. ‘Haven’t seen you for a while.’ Oh, ha bloody ha, I thought. ‘I’ve been teaching myself to meditate,’ said Harold, propping himself on the bar with his elbows. ‘I’m trying to regain my inner peace.’ ‘Is it working?’ ‘I thought so. Until this morning.’ Harold produced yet another heart-adorned envelope. ‘Found this on my door mat. The bitch just won’t leave me alone.’ ‘Looks like you’ve all got one.’ The landlord pointed to the envelope recently deposited on his bar. ‘Why can’t she let us be?’ ‘Try to move on, Harold. Forget about her.’ ‘How can I, Charlie? Everything I do or see reminds me of her. I’m never going to get her out of my head. Never!’ I took a handful of crisps and crunched them loudly to block out the conversation. The beer was warm and malty, just the way I like it. Wanting to distract myself, I turned to my laptop and delved into sales reports, profit projections and product specs. I was vaguely aware of others entering the pub, of drinks being ordered, of conversations building up and petering out. But I paid no heed to my surroundings. Until my beer ran out. Clutching my empty glass, I started towards the bar and took two steps before stopping dead in my tracks. There were about twenty other people in the pub. Three were propping up the bar; the rest sat in small groups. And all of them were identical. That was it. I’d had enough of Midwick and its strange inhabitants. I was getting the hell out. As I approached the station, I could see someone standing on the platform. Whether it was the same person as before, I had no way of telling. I checked my watch. The next train was due in twenty minutes. For a brief moment, I considered waiting outside the station. But I didn’t want to run the risk—no matter how small—of missing the train. Come hell or high water, I was going to be on it when it rolled out of Midwick. And in the meantime, if the guy on the platform tried anything, he’d get a taste of my fist. But I needn’t have worried. When I got to the platform, the guy was standing at its edge, clutching a pink envelope and crying. So wrapped up was he in misery, he remained unaware of my presence.
I bought myself a cup of coffee from the machine in the waiting room. It tasted of cardboard and chicory. Through the doorway, I watched the Midwickian tear up his valentine card and throw the pieces onto the track. I turned my back on him and told myself it was time to find a new job. One that didn’t involve spending time in towns like Midwick. As I finished my coffee, I heard a train approach. With a sense of relief bordering on euphoria, I tossed my cup in the bin and hurried outside. The man on the platform had replaced his valentine card with a photograph. He held it before him like a hymn book. I heard him moan. ‘Oh Celia!’ he cried. ‘Why, Celia? Why?’ The train’s whistle blew to announce it wasn’t stopping. My own train wasn’t due for another five minutes. I stepped back. The man with the photograph stepped forward. He connected with the front of the train before he’d even hit the ground. The driver slammed on his brakes. By the time the train came to a halt, its locomotive and front two carriages were already beyond the station. Numb with shock, I watched the driver climb from his cab and look beneath the carriages for a shattered body. On the train, faces stared out at me. They had no way of knowing why they had stopped. Their expressions spoke only of mild curiosity and boredom. The train guard let himself out of the rear carriage. He called down to the driver. ‘What is it, Bob?’ The driver made a cutting notion across his throat and the train guard paled. ‘Crap,’ he muttered. ‘That’s the third one this week.’ The rail men converged on the spot where the Midwickian had jumped. They crouched down to examine the body. ‘There was nothing I could do,’ pleaded the driver. ‘It wasn’t my fault.’ ‘I know,’ said the guard soothingly. ‘It’s this town. They’re all crazy here.’ Behind them, the dead man’s photograph floated on a puddle of dirty water. It was a head-andshoulders shot of a ginger-haired woman. So now I knew what Celia looked like. Incongruously, I thought to myself that she was no great beauty. And then I remembered a man had just killed himself over her. I should have stuck around. Waited for the police to arrive and take my statement. But it would have delayed my departure from Midwick by quite some time, and that just wasn’t going to happen. The destination board delivered the inevitable news that the next train was cancelled—presumably because of the events I had just seen unfold. So it looked like I would have to wait for the Nether Willows train after all. I had no desire to return to either the pub or the café and there was precious little else on the south side of town. So I decided to cross the river and check out the other side. Perhaps there I’d find a pub that wasn’t full of crazies. Outside the station, a footbridge spanned the railway and the river. It looked like the only way to get across. I’d just set foot on the first step when a hand grabbed my shoulder and a voice said, ‘Don’t!’ Shrugging off the hand, I turned around. And there he was again. Same face. Same clothes. Same scar beneath his eye. ‘Keep away from me,’ I warned, raising my laptop. ‘I don’t know what you’re all playing at here but a man’s dead because of it.’ ‘Several actually. Midwick is fast becoming the suicide capital of England.’ He placed himself between me and the bridge. ‘You need to leave Midwick now. Before it’s too late.’ ‘Get out of my way!’ ‘Don’t cross the bridge. I’m begging you.’ ‘Move it!’ ‘No!’ It was a flash of anger. Even as my laptop struck his head, I found myself thinking: Don’t do it! But I couldn’t stop myself. For a sickening moment, I thought I’d split his skull. But it was the laptop’s case that had cracked. Nonetheless, there was blood.
The man sat on the footbridge steps, one hand over his wound. He looked up with the most haunted, pitiful look I had ever seen. ‘I was only trying to help,’ he said. ‘Trying to save you.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ I felt wretched. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’ ‘It’s not your fault. It’s Celia. She drives men crazy.’ ‘Let me get you to a doctor. That wound needs looking at.’ ‘No need. I’ve had worse. I used to play rugby for England.’ I wondered if he was having a joke. He didn’t look like a rugby player. In fact there was nothing about him to suggest any sort of sporting prowess. Besides which, I followed both codes of rugby and his face rang no bells. Taking his hand away from his wound, he rubbed at his scar. There was less blood on his scalp than I’d feared, and it seemed well on its way to clotting. ‘What club did you play for?’ I asked. ‘Saracens.’ A rugby union club. ‘That was before I became Harold Mason.’ Guilt made me want to humour him. ‘So who were you before?’ ‘Lee Chesterton.’ He smiled. ‘Not that I expect you to believe me.’ ‘Listen,’ I said, not believing him. ‘If you won’t let me take you to a doctor, at least let me buy you a drink.’ ‘Only if you’re willing to listen to how I and just about every other man in Midwick came to be Harold Mason.’ ‘You’ve got a deal, Harold. Or is it Lee?’ ‘Call me Harold. Everyone else does.’ And so I found myself back in the pub. In a room full of Harold Masons, all competing to be the most dejected person on the planet. The table by the window was unoccupied and I suggested to Harold that he grab it while I got the drinks in. But he vetoed the idea, saying he preferred not to see outside in case a certain lady came strolling by. After nearly taking our pints to the wrong Harold, I located the correct one at the table furthest from the window. He was dabbing at his hair with a damp tea towel, removing the worst of the congealed blood. We each demolished half our beer before he began the story of Harold Mason and Celia Cartwright. Having both grown up in Midwick, they’d vaguely known each other all their lives but were never on more than nodding terms. That is until they found themselves sitting next to each other at the church bingo. They got talking and found they had a lot in common. One thing led to another and they became an item. ‘At first everything was great,’ said Harold. ‘We made each other happy, had fantastic sex, laughed at each other’s jokes, finished each other’s sentences. Blinded by love, I couldn’t see Celia’s many faults, and was convinced I’d finally found the right woman for me. ‘The first squabbles were minor. I saw them as lovers’ tiffs and took them as a sign that our relationship was on solid footing. But each spat was slightly worse than the last, and it wasn’t long before we were throwing things at each other. ‘I’d like to say some of it was my fault, but it wasn’t. Celia Cartwright was—and is—neurotic and insecure. Paranoid too. ‘At the beginning, I tried to placate her. The word sorry was forever springing from my lips. But after a while, I got fed up with being her doormat and started standing up for myself. And that’s when things got really bad. My answering back was petrol to her fire. ‘Sometimes we’d be up half the night screaming and shouting. We said the vilest, nastiest things imaginable. Made threats. Sometimes even came to blows. ‘It’s a wonder we didn’t kill each other.’ ‘Vicious she was,’ said another Harold on his way to the toilet. ‘Tell him about the scar.’ My Harold pointed to his face. ‘You see this? She did that with her cigarette. Tried to stab me in the eye. I’m lucky not to have been blinded. And that’s when I decided enough was enough and told her it was all over. Without a single word of comfort or regret, she just upped and left.’ He slumped. His already weary expression became wearier still. ‘About a week later she rang and begged me to take her back. And I said 71
no, even though it broke my heart. Truth is, I still loved her and I will until the day I die. But I knew if we ever got back together, one of us would kill the other. ‘Oh, you should have heard her weep and beg and threaten. It was pitiable. She said she couldn’t get me out of her mind. That every man she saw looked like me. ‘After all that, I had to have a drink. So I came to this pub, only to find I was already here, sitting at the bar with a large scotch in my hand. ‘Now this is the funny thing. I’m telling this story as if I’ve always been Harold Mason and that’s not the case. ‘Back when I was Lee Chesterton, I didn’t know Celia or Harold. Until one day I was walking along, minding my own business, and a woman leapt out of a shop doorway. She was wild-eyed and wore a grubby shell suit with holes in the elbows. ‘I thought she was some bag lady who’d maybe had too much white cider. As you do in such situations, I kept my head down and tried to hurry past. But she threw herself to the pavement and grabbed my legs, rendering me immobile. ‘”Oh Harold!” she cried. “Why did you ever leave me?” ‘And I looked down and saw not some drunken bag lady, but my Celia. She was in need of a wash, but still as fragrant as ever. ‘Even before I saw my reflection in the shop window, I knew I was Harold Mason and I remembered her words on the telephone. About how every man she set eyes upon looked like me. ‘Horrified, I pushed her away. She lay in the gutter weeping and moaning. ‘As I ran back towards the bridge, I saw her again and again. She was in the newsagents. She was in a back garden hanging out her washing. She was simultaneously going into and coming out of a pub. She was everywhere! ‘A rational person would say I was projecting. That none of the women were Celia. But they were! I knew the very act of my seeing them as Celia made them so.’ I shook my head. ‘But how is it possible?’ ‘It’s the power of love. They say our perceptions shape reality. Maybe this kind of thing happens more than we think. Or maybe Celia is the devil incarnate.’ I had to get out of Midwick. Before a Celia Cartwright saw me. Before I became another Harold Mason in a town full of them. From the Harold who used to be Lee Chesterton I learned there was no bus service through Midwick. He advised me to walk along the valley to Nether Willows, the next town along. ‘What about a taxi?’ I asked. ‘The drivers daren’t leave the village,’ said Harold. ‘None of us do.’ ‘Because of Celia?’ ‘Every time a Harold Mason sees a woman, she becomes Celia. And when one of those Celias sees a man—pouff!—another Harold. ‘If any of us left Midwick, the consequences would be catastrophic. In next to no time, there’d be a plague of Harolds and Celias. We’re a chain reaction waiting to go off.’ A thought occurred to me. ‘Why haven’t I seen any of these Celias?’ ‘We can’t live with her; we can’t live without her. But for the sake of peace, all the Harolds live on this side of the valley and all the Celias live on the other. Now do you see why I stopped you crossing the bridge? You wouldn’t have lasted two minutes before becoming a Harold.’ I shuddered at the narrowness of my escape. ‘Let me buy you another drink, and then I’ll be on my way to Nether Willows.’ ‘Now you’re being sensible. Once you’re out of this nightmare, don’t look back. Just keep on walking.’ ‘Oh, I will,’ I said. ‘I will.’ Two dozen mobile phones went off at once. Two dozen Harold Masons answered them. ‘Harold Mason,’ they chorused. Then, after a short pause: ‘Celia! What the blazes do you want?’ After that, each Harold reacted to his Celia in his own way. Some swore; some cried. Others threatened. A few hung up almost immediately. 72
My Harold grabbed my arm. ‘You’ve got to go. Now!’ Another Harold looked out the door towards the other side of the valley. ‘My God! She’s not kidding!’ he bellowed. ‘They’re marching towards the bridge! They’re on their way.’ ‘Get out!’ said my Harold. ‘Go out the back way and up the hill. You’ll find a path at the top that will take you to Nether Willows. Remember, if any Celia so much as gets a glimpse of you, you’re done for.’ ‘What’s happening?’ I asked. ‘The Celias have declared war. They say if they can’t have us, nobody can.’ As the Harolds set about barricading the pub, I snuck out the back. Ten minutes later, I was on the path at the top of the valley. Behind me, I heard the sounds of a pitched battle. The path ran gently downhill and took me through woodland. After about an hour, I found myself back at the bottom of the valley and on the road to Nether Willows. My legs ached. I wasn’t used to this kind of walking and my shoes were made for offices, not hills. Things were made worse by my laptop, which seemed to weigh ten times as much as when I’d left Midwick. I didn’t even know if it still worked. I was beginning to doubt I would ever make it to Nether Willows, when I heard an engine. Standing at the side of the road, I saw a battered Renault coming up behind me. Judging from its rattle and the smoke billowing in its wake, it was in need of a mechanic’s loving attention, but I didn’t care. It was as welcome to me as a lifebelt to a drowning sailor. I stuck out my thumb and silently promised God that if the car stopped I would do all sorts of nice things on his behalf. With a teeth-curling crunch of gears, the car slowed and came to a stop. The driver pushed open the passenger door and yelled, ‘Get in! Quick!’ I hurriedly complied. It was only as I settled into the lumpy passenger seat that I realised my laptop was gone and my clothes had changed. Then I looked at the driver and my heart gave a beat. It was Celia. Dear, sweet neurotic Celia in her distressed shell suit, looking as beautiful as ever. ‘It’s up to you, Harold,’ she said. ‘We can go back to Midwick and get killed with the rest of them, or we can get the hell out and begin again.’ The scar beneath my eye itched, indicating it was on the mend. I took it as a good sign.
Land of the Living Are you sitting uncomfortably? Very well, children. I shall begin. You have asked me about the Land of the Living and whether it really exists. Is it just a myth like the glub-glub man? A story designed to frighten young shades like yourselves? No, it isn’t. The Land of the Living is as real as you or I. And it is every bit as terrible as you might think. How do I know? Simple. I’ve been there. Yes! It’s true! It happened way back when I was on the cusp of adulthood. As is common with shades of that age, I was brash and rebellious. Whatever my parents told me to do, I did the opposite. To me they were the squarest, most embarrassing entities the Netherworld has ever known. I felt everyone was against me. That nobody understood me or accepted me for what I was. Little wonder I fell in with what my parents called the “wrong crowd”. The Heaven’s Devils prided themselves on being the meanest, roughest, couldn’t-give-a-salvation gang of shades ever to haunt the Halls of Hades. We made it our mission to break every rule, taboo and social convention going. In our own minds at least, we were rebels - outsiders with the guts to take on the establishment. When we weren’t starting fights with ghouls or terrorising trolls, we hung out in our headquarters, a cave in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There, free from the scrutiny of our peers, we gorged on forbidden fruits, drank sour nectar and indulged in every blasphemy conceivable. It will shock you, my children, to learn that I desecrated images of the Dukes of Hell and heaped blessings upon Beelzebub. I trampled over inverted pentagrams and even dabbled in Christianity! Yes! Well may you gasp and tremble and make the sign of the Horned One! You see how far I had risen? How close to grace I was? I am not proud of what I’d become. I merely lay the facts before you as a warning. If you cannot stand any more horror, I shall end my story now, pack you off to bed and never again mention my sojourn to the Land of the Living. But if you’re made of sterner stuff, I shall continue. I didn’t believe in magic and angels and white witches. As far as I was concerned, what we Heaven’s Devils got up to was just for kicks. I only went along with it to be accepted. So when some of the gang decided to hold a séance, I had no qualms about joining in. To create the necessary ambience, extra lamps were brought to the cave. The light was so bright, I could clearly see my hand in front of my face. We sat at a round table and joined hands. Jodreth – our leader – uttered a spell supposed to open a doorway to the Land of the Living. Nothing much happened and some of us started cracking jokes. But Jodreth told us to shut up and he wasn’t the sort of shade you’d argue with. So we shut up and Jodreth began the séance proper. ‘Is anybody there?’ he said. ‘We call upon the living to make their presence known. Show yourselves to us!’ He said this several times and then – just as I was getting bored – the lamps grew brighter, filling the cave with light. I was certain someone was playing a joke, and yet I felt sorely afraid. Nor was it a comfort that the hands I held trembled as much as my own. The air grew noticeably warmer. I thought I heard whispers. And there, in the midst of the purest, most hideous light I had ever encountered, were shapes. It was hard to make out their features, but there was no mistaking what they were: mortals! I counted six in all. They stood at a table, each with one hand on an upturned glass around which were arrayed a set of arcane symbols. One of them spoke. ‘Is anybody there?’ it asked. The glass began to move from one symbol to another. Jodreth said, ‘Hear me, corporeal ones! Speak unto us!’ 74
Then a mortal looked directly at me. Backing away in terror, it pointed a finger in my direction. ‘Look!’ it cried. ‘A ghost!’ The mortals began to scream. Someone at our table screamed back. And then there was pandemonium on both sides of the veil. We shades ran from our cave like bats into hell. And we kept on running until we were at the end of the deepest, darkest catacomb we could find. Now you might think that would have finished me with the Light Arts, but your old dad was a slow learner and as stubborn as Cerberus with a bone. Although my fellow Heaven’s Devils vowed never to dabble in magic again, I became obsessed with the Land of the Living. Curiosity played a part in my fixation, but it was chiefly shame that spurred me on. I used to pride myself on my courage but now the séance had exposed me as a craven coward. And so I had something to prove. Deep within the caverns of the Netherworld sits an ancient well. I will not name it nor say where it lies. I do, after all, have a duty to protect my progeny from any stupidity they may have inherited from me. Now there is a legend attached to this well. According to shadowlore, he who walks thrice clockwise around it repeating ‘Land of the Living, take me to thy bosom,’ will open a gateway between the worlds. Without telling a soul of my intent, I snuck down as soon as an opportunity presented itself. And then I circled the well, intoning: ‘Land of the Living, take me to thy bosom.’ I walked around it once… Twice… Thrice… Nothing happened. Feeling foolish, I turned to go. But I had taken no more than a single step when I heard a voice whisper, ‘Come to the light, young shade. Come to the light.’ And the cave was filled with brilliance and a terrifying warmth that was not of this world. It was all I could do to stop myself from repeating my gutless performance at the séance. But I knew if I did I would never be able to face my reflection again. So I looked to the light and saw it was pouring from the well. And the voice once more said, ‘Come to the light, young shade. Come to the light.’ As much as the luminescence and the warmth frightened me, they enticed me like the Sirens of old, and I was drawn to the well. Looking down, I could see nothing but light and it seemed to go on forever. ‘Jump!’ said the voice, and I did. I plunged into the radiance and it felt like I was drowning in light. After a while, I sensed I was rising rather than falling. And then darkness returned. Blackness enveloped me like a blanket. It was my comfort and protection, and I wanted to stay wrapped in it for all eternity, but it was not to be. In the distance, a new light formed and I realised I was seeing the end of a long, dark tunnel. Unseen, unstoppable currents drew me to that otherworldly glow. And suddenly the darkness went out and I was plunged into light. Something slapped my back, causing me pain. Aggrieved, I cried and screamed and struggled. Then I realised I had taken on solid form. That I was no longer a shade. I know not, my children, if you can comprehend this, but I was a new born babe in the Land of the Living. Trapped inside a mortal body. Oh the horror, the horror! What had I done? As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw I was in a small, white room. Mortals in green clothing stood looking down at me. They all wore masks. After they cut my umbilical cord, I was handed to my mother. ‘Oh my baby,’ she sobbed, over and over. ‘My beautiful baby.’ One of the people in green said, ‘We have to get him to an incubator. It’s his only chance.’
They took me from my mother and placed me in a glass box. I suppose that must have been the incubator they’d mentioned. The men in green pricked me with needles, shone lights in my eyes and stuck tubes in my arm. They did things I didn’t understand and which caused me pain and distress. I sensed they were acting in kindness, but it seemed a strange sort of kindness. There is much about the Land of the Living that is beyond the comprehension of even the most learned of shades. It is certainly beyond mine. Eventually, the mortals went away. I was alone in the light. Frightened, confused and bewildered. There was only one way back to the Netherworld: I had to die. But how could I when I was weak and helpless? When so many mortals were intent on keeping me alive? I prayed for death. I beseeched the Black Lords to come and reclaim my imperishable soul. Mortals need to inspire to stay alive, so I tried holding my breath. But I found I had no control over that particular function. Nor could I stop my heart. I strived to comfort myself with the thought that I would not be helpless forever. In time, I would have control of my body and gain physical strength. Then I would be able to despatch myself back to the lower dimensions. But it could be years before that came to pass. For long hours, I lay in my glass box. Night came and the lights on the ceiling extinguished themselves. There were other lights in the room, but they were dim and didn’t so much disperse the darkness as emphasise it. I drew what comfort I could from the gloom as I contemplated my fate and wondered if I would ever see my loved ones again. I promised that, should I find a way home, I would turn my back on the Heaven’s Devils. And I would obey my parents and listen to their advice, for I knew now they were far wiser than I. Then a miracle happened. The Infernal Ones must have heard my prayers and taken pity on me, for I suddenly found myself growing weak. My lungs stopped and my heart soon followed. Then the mortal world receded as utter darkness descended. Death took me by the hand. He paid Charon to ferry me across the Styx to the Netherworld where I belong. And that, children, is how I journeyed to the Land of the Living and died to tell the tale. Now off to bed with you. Sleep tight and try not to have daymares.
Maim, Mutilate and Destroy CONFIDENTIAL. EYES ONLY. Any employee found to have disclosed any part of this document to any party without prior authorization IN WRITING will be instantly dismissed and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. THIS MEANS YOU! Introduction We at Wessex Kline have long been leaders in the area of Virtual Reality (VR) games. Now we take a giant step forward with the introduction of Maim, Mutilate and Destroy, the first game to take advantage of Hyper Reality (HR) technology. HR is to VR as a jet fighter is to a donkey cart. For the first time ever, people can now totally immerse themselves in a Cybernetic World that feels as real as Reality itself. In HR, if you cut yourself, you bleed. You don't just think you bleed, you really do bleed. Break a bone and when you leave HR you will still have a broken bone. HR links the imaginary to the mundane. It dissolves the barriers between metaphor and actuality. Make no mistake about it: if you die in HR, you stay dead. Even when the contacts between mind and Machine are broken. Even when they remove your body from the HR capsule. There is no return! This is what makes Maim, Mutilate and Destroy a surefire winner. The risks are for real! We aim to make the casualty rate amongst participants in the region of 50%. Market Research has shown this to be the optimum level from a sales point of view. Odds of 50/50 are seen by the public as fair and reasonable. Any higher than that and few people would be willing to risk MMD. Less than 50% would diminish the daredevil element and equally detract from sales. However, initial tests on the beta version of MMD indicate that the casualty rate is likely to be close to 100%. This is unacceptable and needs to be rectified before the game can be released. With this in mind, we are asking you to play MMD and report back on where you consider changes can be made to reduce the risks involved in the game. The next of kin of any member of staff not surviving MMD will receive full death benefits and a generous lump sum to offset funeral costs. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated. There now follows a complete solution to Maim, Mutilate and Destroy. This information is highly restricted. Unauthorized disclosure will be punished. Overview Upon entering Maim, Mutilate and Destroy, you find yourself sitting at a bar. To your left sits a lizard-like sentient being known as a Kluuga. The only other creature present is Max, the Neanderthal Bar Man. Before doing anything else, write down as much of this solution as you can remember on the electropad in your pocket. THIS IS IMPORTANT. You will soon forget all about the world you came from and become immersed in MMD. The notes in your electropad are your ticket home. At the insistence of Max and the Kluuga, down a glass of Happy Juice. You immediately forget about the world you came from as MMD becomes your reality. At this point, you are aware of the following: 1. Your name is Maurice Mayday. 2. You are on Space Station Siralos, orbiting the planet Ishtar somewhere in the Crab Nebula. 3. You have a microchip implanted in your skull which contains information vital to the survival of the human race. 4. You do not know what the information is. 5. You must get yourself and the microchip back to Earth Grand Central as soon as possible. 6. There are certain parties who will stop at nothing to destroy you. 7. You can trust no-one. 77
8. You have an electropad. 9. In your back pocket, you have a holopic of Bill Gates, the Twentieth Century Computer Guru. There are seven main scenes in MMD. You must visit each one and negotiate many hazards. All scenes contain at least one potentially fatal trap for you to fall into. This document does not deal with every possible variation of play. Its purpose is to outline a complete solution to the game in order to increase your chances of survival. Scene 1: Space Station Siralos Strike up a conversation with the Kluuga. It turns out he is a travelling salesman on a galaxy-wide tour to promote a new type of Ray Gun. Tell the Kluuga that you are thinking of buying a Ray Gun. Taking you for a sales prospect, the Kluuga whips out a sample case from a pouch in his belly and hands you a gun. Set the gun to maximum and use it on the Kluuga who lets out a ghastly scream and turns to dust. At this point, Max the Neanderthal Bar Man will be reaching for his own gun beneath the counter. DO NOT SHOOT MAX! His own gun turns out to be useless as he has not charged it for several years. Realizing he is at your mercy, Max raises his hands and smiles inanely. Spare his life and he will become your unswerving friend and ally (until Scene 3). Max will tell you how he hates working as a bar tender and dreams of seeing Earth. It transpires that he owns a space cruiser which will get you to the nearest planet. Accept Max's offer of a lift and follow him to the space dock. Along the way, you will see doors with notices on them. These notices will say things like ‘STEP THIS WAY FOR UNTOLD WEALTH’ or ‘FREE AND UNCOMPLICATED SEX AVAILABLE HERE’. Ignore these signs and concentrate solely on your mission. At the space dock, step into Max's cruiser and secure yourself into the co-pilot's seat. You can now rest until you reach Ishtar and a malfunction forces Max to land in the courtyard of the Palace of the Space Gorgons.
Scene 2: The Palace of the Space Gorgons As you stagger barely conscious from Max's space cruiser, you are greeted by the three most beautiful women you have ever encountered. One is barely past puberty. One is at her prime. The third is old enough to be your mother but damned attractive for all that. Their exact appearance will depend upon your own perceptions of beauty. Do not be fooled. What you are seeing is an illusion. These three sisters are the infamous Space Gorgons who are really quite hideous to behold but who can project an image of perfect beauty into human minds. Max, who is immune to the power of the Space Gorgons, will repeatedly tell you that your new hosts are bewrinkled old hags with a penchant for sucking out people's brains. LISTEN TO HIM. Accept the dinner invitation offered by the three sisters. Do nothing to incur their wrath, otherwise they will kill you there and then. Space Gorgons prefer to eat their prey at the moment of maximum sexual arousal, but can be very impetuous. Do your utmost to remain impervious to their (false) charms. Try thinking about pot noodles, underarm odour and colostomy bags. If all else fails, look at your holopic of Bill Gates. Dinner is in the Grand Dining Room, a pretentious affair full of baroque statues and chandeliers. After soup, you are served a main meal of steak, potatoes and mange tout. Pick delicately at the vegetables but do not touch the steak. Max eats his entire course in about ten seconds flat. Gently refuse his request for your steak. The sisters will opportune you in turn, each offering to fulfil your most fervent, perverted sexual fantasies. Tell them you are not interested and would rather lick the sweat from a rugby player's jock strap. The Space Gorgons eventually become exasperated and assume their true form. A strong smell of ozone will warn you that they are about to do this. At the first hint of ozone, cover your eyes with the steak. Whatever you hear, do not look at the Space Gorgons, otherwise you will be turned into a quivering lump
of jelly. In the meantime, Max - who is immune to their power - despatches the sisters with his steak knife. At this point, you will almost certainly feel warm blood spraying across your face. DO NOT LOOK. With the Space Gorgons dead, Max leads you - still blindfolded by the steak - into a nearby antechamber stuffed with treasure. It is now safe to remove the steak from your eyes. Take as much gold as you can carry in your pocket and retire to the guest's bedroom for the night. In the morning, head for the large building at the back of the Palace of the Space Gorgons where you will find a sleek interstellar space yacht. Hop in and remember to take Max with you. You have no idea how to operate the yacht, but see a red button marked â€˜DAKOSâ€™. Make sure you and Max are securely fastened in your seats and press the button. A whoosh and a roar indicate you are on your way to Dakos - whatever and wherever that may be. Scene 3: Punishment Planet You land on Dakos, a god-forsaken world where the only life form seems to be some sort of lichen. Get out of the space yacht and run like buggery. Within a minute of your landing, the ship is attacked and destroyed by Gowtas. A Gowta is a giant robotic fighting machine that resembles nothing more than a ten meter high stegosaurus. These Gowtas are only programmed to attack mechanical objects, so they totally ignore you and Max. But make sure they don't trample on you. Satisfied that your ship is completely broken down into its constituent atoms, the Gowtas disperse, leaving you and Max alone on a granite plain. There is no point going anywhere, so just sit down and wait. If after several days of gnawing hunger, hot days and freezing nights, you are still alive, you will eventually see a dust cloud on the horizon. Do not run or hide. Max, at this stage, will be in a deep coma. The cloud is raised by the hooves of some dozen Chomblas. These are the original inhabitants of Dakos and look like centaurs except that they have stripes. Resist the temptation to call them Zebra Men as this seriously pisses them off. They question you about how you got to Dakos. Tell them everything you can, honestly and fully. Offer them all the treasure you stole from the Space Gorgons in exchange for being led to safety. The leader of the Chomblas - Chukko Nar Vortex - agrees to take you and Max to the nearest human settlement which is about a day's ride away. Max is placed on the back of one of the Chomblas and you mount another. Then off you go to Kae-So-Doti - the Town in the Mountain. When you get there, you discover that Kae-So-Doti is a prison mine and it suddenly dawns on you that you have heard of Dakos. It is a Penal Planet - home to the most desperate human convicts in the galaxy. Chukko-Nar-Vortex hands you over to the guards in exchange for a bag of oats. Do not attempt to resist as several prison guards will have their blasters trained at your head. Max - being non-human - is of no interest to the guards and he is carried away by the Chomblas, never to be seen or heard of again. After being stripped, deloused and given a set of dungarees, you are led into the mines and told emphatically that no-one has ever escaped from Kae-So-Doti, let alone Dakos. This is not great news, but try to despair no more than you have to. You are given an electro-axe and put to work alongside some of the vilest, most unsavoury psychopaths ever to grace the galaxy. Over the next few days, you will be beaten, tortured, spat upon, gang raped and generally given a hard time of things. It is important that you keep your spirits up and don't die or go raving mad. On day four, Space Marauders attack the mine, allowing the prisoners to stage a mass break out. The Marauders, though nominally out to loot the mine, have been paid by persons unknown to kill you. DO NOT FOLLOW THE OTHER PRISONERS TO THE SURFACE. Make for Shaft #7 and keep going downwards. If you encounter any guards along the way, slash them to death with your electro-axe. Be careful not to slip on any spilled entrails. You eventually come to a large cavern which is home to a nest of Space Vampyres. Scene 4: The Space Vampyres This being daytime, the Space Vampyres are asleep. Off to one side, you will find a small grotto with a white coffin. Open the coffin and you will find Thramos, King of the Space Vampyres. Pick up Thramos and carry - or drag - him to the far side of the cave where a beam of sunlight is coming through a narrow shaft. 79
The sunlight kills and disintegrates Thramos, leaving only his clothes. Put on the clothes and open any coffin. If the coffin is empty, try another until you find one with a Vampyre in it. Use your electro-axe to cut out the Vampyre's teeth. Place the teeth in your mouth and hide in Thramos' coffin until night-fall. When the Space Vampyres awaken, they stand in a circle awaiting your arrival. Walk to the middle of the circle and look for the Vampyre whose teeth you stole. He'll be the one holding his hand to his mouth. Denounce this Vampyre as a toothless impostor, whereupon the other Vampyres attack and destroy him. One of the Vampyres says, ‘I'm bloody hungry. Can we eat yet?’ Say yes and the Vampyres scurry off into the mines to feed upon dead and dying prisoners. Nobody has told the Space Marauders about the Vampyres so they rather stupidly try to fight them with guns. Take advantage of the ensuing mayhem to reach the surface and steal the nearest Marauder fighter craft - the quaintly named ‘Peggy Sue’. As you reach the outer stratosphere, the onboard computer asks you if you wish to stick to your flight plan. Say yes and you are whisked away to Kinderworld. Scene 5: Kinderworld For reasons as yet unknown to science, children on Kinderworld never reach puberty and develop into fullgrown adults. Their emotional and mental maturity is similarly stunted. Adults can survive on the planet for no longer than one Kinderworld day (approximately twenty-seven hours). The children of Kinderworld are much the same as children anywhere and depend on vast numbers of robots to look after them. The planet has no government. You land on Funfair, an island some 200 miles by 50, given over entirely to fairground attractions. As soon as you disembark, you are surrounded by children who demand to be allowed on your ship. Acquiesce or they will kill you. The little darlings will totally trash the ship, so you have to find another way off the planet. Go straight to the House of Fun. Admission is free and the queue - if any - will be small. Once you are in the House of Fun, look out for a little girl crying. Ask her what the matter is and she'll show you a broken dolly called Gloria. The little girl's name is Susan. Tell her you'll fix her dolly if she'll tell you where the nearest spaceport is. She'll insist on taking you there herself, but only after you've been on the Ride of Doom together. Take Susan on the Ride of Doom and remember to keep your head down. The ride uses real laser cannon to simulate a space battle and the lasers are set to fire just above the head level of a child. After the ride, Susan takes you to the Metro Station and helps you get a ticket to Space Grand Central. From here on, the child is a liability so get rid of her. The best way is to throw her dolly down a garbage chute and push her in after it. At SGC, you find that the only ship due to leave the planet within the next few hours is an unmanned Cargo Freighter. If you wait for any other craft, you will die. The good news is that the Freighter is bound for Earth. The bad news is that it's going via Subspace and few men have ever survived a journey through that mysterious realm. A robot guards the entrance to the Space Freighter and will not let you on. It insists only freight allowed. Go to the Freight Depot, peel off a bar-coded sticker from one of the crates and head back to the Cargo Freighter. The robot picks you up and stuffs you in a ULD (Universal Load Device). Place your fingers on the door jamb of the ULD to prevent the door closing properly. This will break your fingers but stop you suffocating. Put as much padding around your body as possible to prevent being killed by the G forces on take-off. The ride through sub-space is hell but so long as you're lucky and you manage to keep hold of your identity (keep repeating, ‘I am Maurice Mayday, I am Maurice Mayday’), you should just about survive.
Scene 6: The London Underground When you arrive on Earth, stay in the ULD. After several days, a robotruck offloads you and you are transported halfway around the world to London. The journey takes two days and is uncomfortable but generally not fatal. You end up in an underground depot. Leave the ULD and sneak through the nearest air duct. You must time this right as the ducts are flushed with disinfecting chemicals every half hour. It's best to wait until five minutes after the next flushing to give you maximum time and allow the fumes to subside to non-lethal levels. At the end of the duct, you find a grille. On the other side, you see Knightsbridge Station. Wait until nightfall when there is no-one around. Remember, if you are caught without a ticket on the London Underground, you can be executed on the spot for fare evasion. When the coast is clear, remove the grill and drop fifteen feet to the platform below. Try not to fall off the platform as the lines carry 150,000 volts at all times. Walk to the end of the platform furthest from the exit. There is an old door here which is protected by an electric proximity field. It hasn't been used for years and - like most of the London Underground - is in a poor state of repair. The ep-field batteries have not been recharged in living memory and have run down considerably. Force the door open and dive through. You receive a momentary blast of about 150 volts which should no more than stun you. If you become unconscious try to come too as quickly as possible, otherwise you will be eaten by mutant rats. Watching out for said rats, climb the spiral staircase to surface level. There are 762 steps to negotiate, so pace yourself. At the surface, stay out of sight. If you are spotted by the police, you will be arrested for vagrancy and very likely have an unfortunate accident on the way to the police station. Paramedics are equally dangerous. They will drug you and remove all your vital organs for transplants. And then there are the street gangs... Make your way along Piccadilly to Earth Central. Your journey is almost over. Scene 7: Earth Central The parties who have been trying to prevent you reaching Earth have spies and assassins all around Earth Central. How you get into the building without being seen and killed is up to you. No specific advice can be given on this matter as circumstances vary. You could try disguising yourself as a service droid. In Earth Central, bluff your way up to the Security Directorate on the fifth floor where you are overpowered by a Security Drone. Explain to the Drone that you are on a secret mission. The Drone asks you for a password and at this point you realize that you have forgotten it. The drone carts you off to an interrogation room and plugs you into a tormentotron. The next few hours are exquisite agony. Eventually, the Duty Officer comes by and decides there is no point keeping you alive. When he turns off the tormentotron, you have about five seconds before he uses his laser pistol and reduces you to ash. Say in a very clear voice, â€˜I AM MAURICE MAYDAYâ€™. He asks you for the password and this time you remember it. The Duty Officer makes you a cup of tea and gets a doctor to examine you. It comes as no surprise to you when the doctor pronounces you more dead than alive. He confirms that you have a microchip in your brain. It is a matter of vital importance that the chip is removed immediately but the doctor announces that you will not survive an anaesthetic. There is no option but to operate on you while you are conscious. They strap you back into the tormentotron but this time- much to your relief- they do not switch it on. A surgeo-droid is called for and duly arrives. In a few brisk moves, the droid lasers a circle around your scalp and removes the top part of your skull. It then whisks out the microchip and glues your skull back together again. There is little pain and you suffer no more than a thumping headache. The chip contains all the information needed to defeat the enemies of humanity. Hoorah! The human race is saved and you are a hero. They carry you off to the sick bay. As soon as you are able, slip out of your bed and dive down the nearest laundry chute. This will take you back to the real world where you will be debriefed by the MMD Design Team. 81
Throw Him Away and Get a New One ‘Mr Highsmith! Open up, please. I assure you I only have your best interests at heart.’ ‘What’s wrong with you? I told you to go away!’ Angus Highsmith gave up his struggle with the childproof top and threw the bottle of drain cleaner at the wall. Unbroken, it rolled along the faded lino and snuggled up to a nest of empty whisky bottles. The banging on the door continued. It played havoc with Angus’s hangover. ‘I know what you’re doing, Mr Highsmith. Or rather what you’re trying to do.’ Angus sat heavily on the bed and placed his head in his hands. ‘Go away, go away, go away!’ ‘Very well. You leave me no choice.’ There was a sound of metal on metal and then the click of shifting lock tumblers. The door opened. A man in a business suit and round glasses put away the hair grip he’d used to spring the lock. ‘Good afternoon,’ he said. ‘My name is Winthrop. May I come in?’ ‘No!’ Winthrop came in. Closing the door, he gave the hotel room a cursory scan. ‘Well, I’ve seen worse. Do you mind if I open a window? Damp plays havoc with my lungs.’ ‘Do what you like.’ Angus flopped back onto the bed with its uneven mattress, nearly-white bed sheets and strange aroma. Not for the first time, he noticed that one of the stains on the ceiling looked like a map of Africa. After opening the window, Winthrop picked up the bottle of drain cleaner and read the label. He shook his head and tutted. ‘I can’t believe you chose this,’ he chided, placing the bottle on the window sill. ‘You’ve no idea how unpleasant an overdose can be. You’d have died in screaming agony.’ ‘I don’t care.’ ‘Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here.’ Angus sat up. ‘What are you? A cop?’ ‘Oh gracious me, no.’ ‘So my wife sent you. Well, go on. Serve your papers and get out.’ ‘You’re under a misapprehension, Mr Highsmith.’ Winthrop reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a business card. Angus took it with ill grace and read the copperplate lettering: Mason Winthrop. Life Consultant. Angus flipped the card over but the reverse was blank. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘is a life consultant?’ ‘I help people like you, Mr Highsmith. People whose lives have fallen apart. People who are sad, desperate and lonely. People who seriously contemplate drinking drain cleaner.’ ‘You’re wasting your time, Winthrop. I’ve no money. So you may as well clear off and find someone else to scam. You snake oil salesman! I want nothing from you. Do you hear? Nothing!’ ‘Really, Mr Highsmith?’ From his jacket pocket, Winthrop produced a small bottle of whisky. If he didn’t have Angus’s complete attention before, he did now. ‘I think you’ll find this tastes much nicer than drain cleaner.’ Angus wanted the whisky. If he wasn’t weak with hunger, he’d have attacked Winthrop to get it. Winthrop’s smile said now I’ve got you. ‘You can have this one now and the one in my other pocket when you’ve told me how you’ve come to be sitting in a cheap hotel planning to dissolve your innards with caustic soda.’ ‘Why do you care?’ ‘What does it matter, Mr Highsmith? So long as you get your whisky?’ Winthrop placed the bottle on the mattress. He picked up three empty whisky bottles from the room’s only chair and crammed them into the waste bin with the two empties already in there. Then he sat down and straightened the seams of his trousers. ‘Tell me your story, Mr Highsmith. Delineate, if you will, your descent from middle class respectability to insolvent ruination.’ 83
Angus took the bottle. He opened it and sniffed the contents. It was whisky all right. The glue that had held him together these past few weeks. He took a swig. And then another. ‘I haven’t always been a bum,’ he said, sitting on the bed. Winthrop nodded. ‘I know, Mr Highsmith. I know.’ ‘I used to have a nice house, a great family and a job with prospects. If ever a man was living the English middle class dream, it was me. I was doing very nicely, thank you. And then, about a month ago, without warning, it all went horribly wrong. ‘It was a Wednesday. As soon as I woke up I had a feeling it was not going to be a good day. But if I’d known how bad it was going to get, I would have stayed in bed. ‘I smelt bacon. That was my first intimation that something was wrong. It was only 7 o’clock and Hilary, my wife, was seldom awake before 8, let alone up and cooking breakfast.’ Angus got out of bed and put on a dressing gown. He slipped into worn, grey slippers and went downstairs. From the kitchen came the sounds of breakfast. The clatter of crockery and plates. The hiss of a frying pan. The mechanical pop of a toaster. The happy gurgling of the coffee percolator. A feeling of dread came upon him as he gripped the handle of the kitchen door. He had a notion his life was about to take a regrettable turn. Don’t be silly, he told himself. This is your house, your kitchen. What on Earth can there be to worry about? Nervously, he entered the kitchen. Hilary was frying an egg. His children – Andrew and Jessica – were at the table, looking smart and freshly scrubbed in their school uniforms. They, along with a stranger, were tucking into substantial breakfasts. The stranger was about Angus’s age and well-dressed. His build was average as were his looks. In a crowd, he would not have stood out. At Angus’s kitchen table at 7 in the morning, he was an anomaly that refused to be ignored. Angus refrained from interrogating his guest. Refrained too from pointing out that the chap was in his seat. A guest, after all, is a guest. ‘Good morning,’ said Angus. ‘Good morning,’ said the children. The stranger rose. ‘You must be Angus. I’m Tony.’ Angus shook the proffered hand. ‘How do you do?’ ‘Very well, thank you.’ Tony sat back down. ‘Lovely house you have.’ Hilary turned off the gas cooker and brought the frying pan to the table. With a deft flip of her spatula, she deposited an egg onto Tony’s plate. It settled like a sudden snowfall on a landscape of bacon, sausages and beans. ‘Marvellous cook, your wife,’ said Tony. ‘Thank you,’ said Hilary. She turned to Angus. ‘You’ll have to make your own breakfast. The house needs tidying and I don’t suppose I can rely on any help from you.’ Angus was baffled. ‘It’s a bit early for housework, isn’t it?’ ‘In case you hadn’t noticed, we do have a guest.’ ‘Oh please,’ said Tony. ‘Don’t go to any trouble on my behalf.’ ‘It’s no trouble at all.’ Hilary smiled sweetly at Tony and then scowled at Angus. ‘You could at least get dressed before coming down. Whatever must our guest think?’ Perplexed and wounded, Angus sloped back upstairs. When he got to the landing, he heard Jessica say, ‘Mummy says you were in the army, Uncle Tony. Did you kill anyone?’ Angus showered, shaved and cleaned his teeth. He entered the bedroom to find Hilary in front of the full length mirror touching up her make-up. She was stripped down to the waist with her best top on the chair next to her. Folding her arms over her breasts, she turned her back on Angus. ‘Do you mind? I’d quite like some privacy.’
After hastily dressing, Angus took refuge in his study where he leafed through sales reports without reading them. He knew manners dictated he should be entertaining his guest but Hilary had made it clear she’d rather he kept out of the way - perhaps for fear he’d embarrass her. Finally it was time to drop the kids off at school and head into work. But when he came downstairs, Hilary was already ushering Andrew and Jessica out the front door. Tony stood by the hatstand jangling his car keys. ‘What’s going on?’ asked Angus. Hilary barely glanced at him. ‘Tony’s very kindly offered to take the kids to school.’ ‘I’m quite capable of doing that myself.’ ‘You’re always complaining it makes you late for work.’ ‘No I’m not.’ ‘Let’s not argue in front of our guest.’ ‘I’m not arguing.’ ‘Good. It’s settled then.’ Tony stepped forward and patted Angus on the shoulder. ‘Pleasure meeting you, old chap. And may I say what an utterly charming family you have?’ On his way out, he kissed Hilary on the cheek. ‘I’ll be back soon.’ With a glazed look, Hilary closed the door after him. ‘Do you mind telling me what’s going on?’ asked Angus. Hilary picked up the post. ‘Tony’s staying for a while. Did you see how the kids adore him?’ ‘But who is he?’ ‘He’s Tony.’ ‘I can’t say I like the chap.’ ‘No, you wouldn’t, would you? He’s funny, warm and attentive. Not your sort of person at all. Now why don’t you get to work and out of my hair? I have things to do.’ ‘He is not staying in my house.’ ‘It’s our house and I can invite who I like to stay with us. And I’d thank you not to raise your voice at me.’ ‘I was not raising my voice.’ ‘Just go, Angus! Before you make me lose my rag.’ Angus went. Perhaps when he came home, Hilary would be in a more reasonable mood and they could talk things through like adults. Perhaps. As was his habit when domestic matters troubled him, Angus threw himself into his work. He sat in his office going through reports he’d never meant to read and chasing orders that needed no chasing. It was just after midday when Mrs Gladstone, his secretary, rang through to say there were two gentlemen to see him. ‘Who are they?’ He glanced at his appointment book and saw only blank spaces. Before Mrs Gladstone could answer, the two gentlemen in question entered. They wore raincoats, Trilby hats and an air of menace. ‘Angus Highsmith?’ said one. ‘Yes,’ said Angus. ‘Of 3 Acacia Avenue?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘We have a court order.’ The other man dropped an envelope in Angus’s lap. ‘You are to stay at least one mile from your house, your wife and children at all times. And you are not to contact any of them except through your wife’s solicitor. Any breach of this order could lead to your imprisonment. Good day to you.’ The men trooped out, leaving Angus moving his lips like a goldfish as he struggled to articulate his dismay. 85
Mrs Gladstone hurried into the room. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Highsmith. They just barged in.’ ‘Not your fault,’ said Angus distantly. With trembling hands he opened the envelope and took out three sheets of paper, each looking more official than the last. ‘Would you happen to know if Charles Warren is in?’ ‘The company lawyer? I saw him not ten minutes ago.’ ‘Could you arrange an appointment for me, please, Mrs Gladstone? Tell him it’s urgent.’ ‘I’ll get on to it right away, Mr Highsmith.’ Charles Warren saw himself as a lovable rogue. His slicked-back hair and pencil moustache were inspired by Errol Flynn, a man he believed to have been cast from the same mould as himself. Feet on desk, he finished reading the papers and placed the pages back in their envelope. ‘Someone’s really done a job on you, my friend,’ he told Angus who was sitting opposite him. ‘I’ve never seen such a draconian exclusion order in all my life. What on earth have you done to your poor wife?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Angus. ‘You’ve not hit her?’ ‘Certainly not.’ ‘Threatened her?’ ‘I’m not a monster, Charles. I’m a perfectly ordinary husband who loves his wife and kids.’ ‘I see.’ Warren didn’t sound convinced. ‘Have you by any chance heard of an organisation called Elixir?’ ‘No. Should I have?’ ‘Probably not.’ ‘Who are they?’ ‘An urban legend. Forget I even mentioned them.’ ‘What do you advise me to do about the court order?’ ‘Obey it to the letter. Stay away from your family and get yourself a good lawyer. There are about a hundred ways you can breach this order and any one of them will land you in prison.’ To the surprise of many, Angus left work early. It was almost unheard of for him to depart before 7 let alone the middle of the afternoon. In doing so, he was jeopardising the promotion he’d been fighting long and hard for. As he walked across the company car park, he sensed his rivals gazing down on him, marking his early departure as some small victory. He considered flipping them a finger but decided now was not the time for petty gestures. Besides which, the two men who’d served him the papers were hanging around his car. The shorter one was peering through the back window and scribbling in a notebook. ‘Get away from there!’ Angus broke into a half-run. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ The taller man answered. ‘Merely taking an inventory, sir. The court requires a list of your assets.’ ‘This is a private car park. You’ve no right to be here and you’ve no right to be snooping.’ ‘I think you’ll find otherwise.’ ‘We’ll see about that. I’m on my way to consult a solicitor.’ ‘A very wise move, if I may say so, sir. Very wise.’ Marcus Canning of Canning, Canning, Canning and Dunstan barely looked at the papers before handing them back to Angus with a sad shake of his balding head. ‘There’s not much I can do for you, Mr Highsmith. Except advise you to comply.’ Angus had expected more from such a renowned lawyer. ‘Can’t I appeal against this?’ ‘You couldn’t afford to.’ ‘I have money.’ ‘Not anymore.’ ‘What do you mean?’
Canning got up from behind his fine mahogany desk and walked to the window. ‘Is that your car down there, Mr Highsmith? The blue saloon?’ With a sinking feeling, Angus joined Canning at the window. He was not altogether surprised to see his car being lifted on to the back of a truck while the two men from the court looked on. ‘They can’t do that!’ he protested. ‘I’m afraid they can,’ said Canning. ‘I see they’ve assigned Bateman and Redmond to your case. That’s a very bad sign.’ ‘Which one’s which?’ ‘Bateman’s the shorter one. You don’t want to be messing with him. He’s had four convictions for GBH. Come to that, don’t go upsetting Redmond either. It’s never been proven, but there’s every indication he murdered his own brother.’ Marcus Canning did not charge Angus for his time. On the contrary, he thrust a £20 note into Angus’s hand. ‘You’re going to need it, old chap,’ he insisted. ‘From now on, take every scrap of kindness that comes your way.’ Angus went straight from the offices of Canning, Canning, Canning and Dunstan to his bank. He inserted his bank card in the ATM and typed in his PIN. After what seemed an unreasonable length of time, a message popped up on the screen: ‘Insufficient funds. Your card has been retained. Ask at your branch for details. Thank you for using this machine.’ He turned to find Bateman and Redmond standing by the bank’s main entrance. Defiantly, he marched into the lobby. They were still there when he came out of a hastily-arranged meeting from which he’d learnt two things: his wife had withdrawn the £30,000 in their joint savings account and his assets were frozen. And to add salt to his wounds, he’d been forced to hand over his credit cards. Angus started off down the road. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed he was being followed. He ducked into a supermarket and hid behind a rack of magazines. Bateman and Redmond weren’t far behind. Having lost sight of their quarry, they split up and disappeared down the aisles. As soon as they were out of sight, Angus slipped out of the supermarket, ran down the road and took a couple of random turnings. Satisfied he’d shaken his tail, he stood in the doorway of a fish shop, caught his breath and took out his phone. He rang home. The phone was answered after three rings. ‘Yes?’ It was Tony’s voice. Through gritted teeth, Angus said, ‘I’d like to talk to Hilary.’ ‘She’s not here at the moment. May I ask who’s calling?’ ‘Her husband.’ ‘You know you’re not meant to phone here, don’t you? I won’t report you this time, but you really mustn’t do it again.’ ‘All I want is to collect my things.’ ‘I’ve arranged for them to be sent on to you. Goodbye, Mr Highsmith.’ Tony hung up. There was a wheelie bin outside the fish shop. Angus kicked it. Then kicked it again. And then he punched it several times and kicked it once more. ‘Damn you!’ he cried. ‘Damn you all!’ A dog began to bark. Angus spent the night in a YMCA where he was shown to a room with four rudimentary beds. Because the hostel wasn’t busy, he had the room to himself but was warned he might have to share if there were last minute bookings. As he lay on his bed drinking cheap cider, he thought what a great idea it would be to kill Tony. Not only would it rid him of a great vexation, it would deter Hilary from hitting him with court orders. He’d show her he wasn’t a man to be trifled with. 87
Yes, he thought. I’ll fight for what’s mine and bad luck on Tony if he gets in my way. Who was Tony anyway? This mediocrity who had pushed him out of his own nest? Had Hilary been having an affair with him? No, he told himself. I would have noticed. But was she having an affair with him now? He pictured Hilary and Tony together, in Angus’s bed in Angus’s home with Angus’s children asleep in adjacent rooms. And then he pictured Tony with a bullet in his head and Angus standing over him, smoking gun in hand. Tomorrow he would take action. He’d somehow get together enough money to buy a revolver and then – court order or no court order – he was going home to Acacia Avenue to take back what was his. And if he couldn’t afford a gun, he’d use the axe in the garden shed. Or the club hammer. Or his bare hands... Eventually the cider numbed his mind enough to allow him to fall asleep. When he woke up, the light was on and a man was pacing the floor. ‘It’s a crock!’ spat the man. ‘A total and utter crock!’ His suit was crumpled; his tie was at half-mast. He had the look of someone who had seen terrible things. ‘Do you mind?’ said Angus, propping himself up on his elbows. His stomach churned from the effects of the cider. ‘I’m trying to sleep.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ said the man. He sat on the bed and hauled out a small bottle of brandy. ‘So you sleep with your clothes and shoes on, do you?’ ‘I don’t see that’s any concern of yours.’ ‘It’s just an observation. I ain’t criticising. Between you and me, I’ve been wearing these clothes the best part of three days. Slept in them too. And you want to know why?’ ‘No,’ said Angus. ‘I do not.’ The man opened his brandy bottle and tossed aside the top. He took a heavy draft and sighed like a great weight had been dissipated. ‘I’ve lost everything. My wife, my kids, my house, my job. All gone!’ ‘I know the feeling. Now will you shut up and let me sleep?’ A great wracking sob was the answer. The man started blubbered shamelessly. ‘Everything was great. I was paying my mortgage, playing squash, vying for promotion, getting my children’s teeth straight and going on holiday twice a year. I was living the middle class dream. Doing everything right. And then one morning I came downstairs and there was a stranger at my table. ‘His name was Gordon. I’d never seen him before but my wife treated him like an old friend. She got angry when I asked him who he was and what he was doing in my house. Said I shouldn’t interrogate guests that way. ‘Later that day, two men came to my office and handed me a court order. It said I was to keep away from my wife and kids. Did you ever hear of such a thing?’ ‘No,’ said Angus. He lay back down and closed his eyes. ‘I didn’t.’ In the morning, Angus had a shower and noted with disgust that his roommate declined to do the same. He found the thought of going to work in yesterday’s shirt, socks and underpants abhorrent but he had no choice. What little money he’d had on him – including the gift from Marcus Canning – had been reduced to a handful of change. And there was still the question of how he was going to get to the office. In the dining room, he piled his plate with bread, ham and cheese, poured himself mug of coffee and sat at an empty table. Angus surreptitiously slipped a few items of food into his jacket pocket. Then he built himself a sandwich with several layers of ham and cheese. He was halfway through demolishing it when a voice said, ‘Mind if I join you?’ It was his roommate sporting a plate even more crammed with food than Angus’s had been. He sat down, picked up a slice of processed chicken and crammed it in his mouth. ‘Hmm, delicious’ he said. ‘Name’s Bunbury, by the way. Felix Bunbury.’
‘Angus Highsmith,’ said Angus in a tone he hoped conveyed he was interested in neither company nor conversation. ‘It only occurred to me a few minutes ago that you must be one of us.’ ‘Us?’ ‘The Dispossessed. Your suit’s a dead giveaway. I mean you and I aren’t typical hostel fodder, are we? There was another chap here the first night I stayed. Name of Miller.’ Bunbury threw a slice of cheese onto a slice of bread, rolled it up and took a huge mouthful. He chewed six times before washing the food down with a slurp of tea. ‘He used to own a used car business. Did very well for himself. So well he was thinking of selling up and retiring to Spain. And then – well you can guess the rest. He came down one morning and there was a stranger at his table.’ ‘I don’t understand how this can happen,’ said Angus. ‘It goes against every tenet of natural justice and British fair play.’ Bunbury leaned forward and whispered, ‘Elixir.’ Recalling his conversation with Charles Warren, a chill ran down Angus’s spine. ‘Elixir?’ ‘A secret organisation that uses obscure laws to rid housewives of their husbands.’ ‘You mean they really exist?’ ‘Some say they’re as powerful as the Mafia or even the Freemasons.’ ‘And all they do is wreck marriages?’ ‘That’s not how they see it. As far as they’re concerned, they’re making discontented wives happy. Bringing magic back into their lives.’ ‘But my wife wasn’t discontented!’ ‘Sure she wasn’t. That’s why she threw you away and got a new one.’ It was a low blow that struck home. Angus decided to have no more to do with Felix Bunbury except to ask him one final question. ‘How much do they charge for their services?’ ‘To get rid of a husband: 20 grand. To get rid of a husband and bring in a replacement: 30 grand.’ Exactly the amount in our joint savings account, Angus reminded himself. Angus was about to tell Bunbury to go to Hell when two officious looking men strode up to the table. One placed a hand on Bunbury’s shoulder. ‘Felix Bunbury,’ he said, ‘I am arresting for being in breach of a court order. Namely that you are injuncted to keep a distance of at least one mile between yourself and your spouse, Mrs Anthea Bunbury, and have failed to do so.’ Bunbury paled. ‘But I haven’t been anywhere near her!’ ‘Au contraire,’ said the second man. ‘With our own eyes we saw her drive past this very building not two minutes ago.’ ‘Well, I can hardly be blamed for that.’ ‘Come along now, sir. Best you don’t make a fuss.’ ‘No! I won’t do it. Do you hear?’ ‘You’re only making things worse for yourself.’ ‘Worse? How can they be worse?’ Bunbury leapt to his feet, knocking his chair over. He pushed aside the two men and ran out the door. They made no attempt to stop him. Just stood shaking their heads sadly. ‘He’s really done it now,’ said the first man. ‘Silly person,’ said the second. ‘Silly, silly person.’ Angus walked to work. Along the way, he thought about his children and wondered how they were coping with the sudden upheaval in their lives. He hoped they were missing him as much as he missed them. Perhaps they’d be the ones to bring Hilary to her senses. Make her realise that children need a real father, not someone who’s just walked in off the street. Not Tony. Whoever he was. Arriving half an hour late, Angus said good morning to Mrs Gladstone and went straight to his office where four suitcases stood in a row. Mrs Gladstone hurried in after him. 89
‘They were delivered this morning,’ she said. ‘There’s no indication who they’re from or what’s in them.’ ‘It’s all right, Mrs Gladstone. I know what this is about. Will you see I’m not disturbed for the next half hour?’ ‘You’re due to have a meeting with Willis from Manufacturing in five minutes.’ ‘Cancel it.’ ‘It’s very important.’ ‘Rebook it for this afternoon.’ ‘Mr Willis won’t like it.’ ‘I don’t give a rat’s arse, Mrs Gladstone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to be left alone.’ ‘Right,’ said Mrs Gladstone with a note of hurt in her voice. ‘I’ll leave you to it then.’ As Angus had suspected, the four suitcases contained his clothes and toiletries. Nothing else. Everything that had once been his and Hilary’s was now Hilary’s alone. He took out some clean clothes and his electric shaver. However bad things got, he was determined not to let standards slip and end up like Felix Bunbury. In fact, he was going to let Bunbury stand as a warning to him. ‘I can fight this,’ he said aloud. ‘They are not going to beat me!’ And now here he was in the crummiest hotel in town. No job, no money, no prospects. Nobody on his side. Feeling like a shell of a man. Pouring his heart out to a stranger. ‘I sold the contents of my suitcases and then the suitcases,’ he said. ‘I kept my electric razor until I had nothing else to sell. All I got for it was enough to buy me a scotch egg and a bottle of drain cleaner. ‘I’ve managed to get a bit of money out of the social services but that goes straight to the owner of this rat hole. I haven’t eaten properly in days and I smell.’ ‘It can’t be easy for you,’ said Mason Winthrop solicitously. ‘You had it all, didn’t you? And you blew it.’ ‘I said I’d never end up like Felix Bunbury and I have.’ ‘Not quite, Mr Highsmith. Although you’re probably not aware of it, Mr Bunbury was until yesterday evening staying in the room above yours. You may recall there was a power cut.’ ‘Yeah. I spilled some whisky because of it.’ ‘That was Mr Bunbury stepping into the bath with an electric heater.’ ‘Dear Lord,’ said Angus. ‘The poor man.’ ‘I tried to help him, but he wouldn’t have it.’ Mason Winthrop stood up and advanced upon Angus. ‘Why do you think your wife wanted rid of you, Mr Highsmith?’ ‘None of your damned business!’ Angus emptied the last dregs of whisky and let the bottle fall from his grasp. It bounced on the lino with a loud thump. ‘And you owe me another bottle of scotch.’ Winthrop produced the promised bottle and allowed it to be snatched from his grasp. Without asking if he might, he sat next to Angus on the bed. ‘You feel better for telling me your story, don’t you?’ Angus opened the bottle and took a bracing swig before answering. ‘Nobody would listen to me. No sooner had my work colleagues heard about my misfortune than a rumour went around that I’d been involved in domestic violence. At the YMCA they asked me not to come back. Said they didn’t want my type. ‘My boss sacked me for the most spurious of reasons. Then the Jobcentre told me I’d engineered my own dismissal and turned me down for benefit. ‘Even at church, I was treated as a pariah. There was me in one set of pews and everybody else in the other. Father Knowles, who’s known me since I was a boy, refused to take my confession unless I owned up to being a wife-beater. ‘I bet if I phoned the Samaritans they’d advise me to kill myself.’ Mason Winthrop chuckled. ‘What’s so funny?’ Angus snapped at him. ‘Your little joke about the Samaritans. It’s most amusing.’ Angus thought about it. And then he smiled. ‘I suppose it is.’
For the first time in a long while, Angus could see a break in the dark clouds hanging over his life. It was no more than a chink but it was enough to allow through a thin, watery ray of hope. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t go the way of Felix Bunbury; now was his last chance to make sure he didn’t. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I’ve thought long and hard about why Hilary discarded me. At first, it made no sense. I was a good husband and father. There was always food on the table. My kids were the first on the street to get the latest Playstation. I never even came close to committing adultery. ‘I was everything any woman could reasonably hope for.’ ‘Except?’ ‘Except I was dull. Dependable, loving, faithful – but dull. Dull, dull, deeply and desperately dull.’ ‘Now we’re making progress,’ said Mason Walters. ‘Admitting a problem is the first step towards curing it. Drink your whisky, Mr Highsmith, and get some sleep. On the morrow we’ll see about unfreezing your assets and getting you a new job. So long as you do as I tell you, you’ll be back on your feet in no time.’ ‘Can I ask a question?’ said Angus. ‘Of course you can.’ ‘Do you know anything about Elixir?’ Mason Walters smiled enigmatically. ‘I can’t say that I do, Mr Highsmith. I can’t say that I do.’ Jeremy Ashworth felt good. After a deep and refreshing sleep, he’d woken to find sunshine pouring through his window like liquid gold. He slipped out of bed and noticed with satisfaction how crisp the bed linen was, how fragrant the room smelt and how neatly his clothes were laid out. Perfection, he thought. Absolute perfection. The smell of frying bacon and fresh coffee stimulated his senses. It was unusual for Mildred, his beloved wife, to be up so early. She must have decided to surprise him with a cooked breakfast before he dropped the kids off at school. Donning dressing gown and slippers, he all but skipped down the stairs and into the kitchen. Tarquin and Mathilda, his adorable children, were tucking into a hearty breakfast. Mildred – God bless her – threw a couple of rashers into the frying pain as she hummed a merry tune. ‘Good morning!’ chirruped Jeremy. Mildred was startled. ‘You made me jump!’ she complained, placing a hand over her heart. ‘If you want breakfast, you can make your own. I don’t have time to fetch and carry after you today.’ Jeremy noted a place setting at the top of the table where he usually sat. The plate there was filled with sausages, baked beans and a fried egg. He was about to ask who the third breakfast was for when a stranger in a business suit walked in. ‘Hello,’ said the stranger, sitting at the head of the table and picking up a knife and fork. ‘You must be Jeremy. My name’s Angus. I’ll be staying a while.’
Lost and Found ‘Well that's all for today, except to congratulate our guest, lifestyle guru Bruno Bailey, on his impending marriage to society girl Stella Dewhurst. Not long now, is it?’ Bruno smiled his trademark smile. ‘Five days and counting.’ Now it was four days and counting and Bruno, sitting in the dark, was smiling no more. Naked, remote control in one hand, glass of whisky in the other, he watched himself on television and wept. ‘You must be very happy,’ said the presenter. Bruno’s self-satisfied face filled the screen. It was yesterday’s face, a face he barely recognised. ‘I’m always happy,’ said the Ghost of Bruno Past. Bruno froze the picture. He drained his glass and let it fall onto the Persian carpet that had cost him as much as a car. Not his car, of course. His car was a Ferrari. The latest model bought years ago when it was still on the drawing board. Only the best for Bruno. That’s what he was famous for. Why he was forever on television and why his books sold by the truckload. The sound of a key turning in the apartment’s front door sent him into a panic. Cursing himself for not setting the latch, he leapt from the couch and threw himself at the door. The sharp crack as it slammed shut was followed by the muffled tones of an indignant Stella. ‘Bruno Bailey! What the hell do you think you’re playing at?’ ‘I’m naked!’ ‘And since when did you get so bashful?’ ‘You can’t see me like this before the wedding. It’s bad luck!’ ‘I’ve never heard such nonsense in all my life. Now open up at once!’ ‘Can’t it wait till the morning?’ he tried weakly. ‘I’m just about to go to bed.’ ‘It’s not even ten o’clock. What are you playing at, Bruno? You’d better not have a woman in there.’ ‘I’m alone, Stella. You’ve no idea how alone.’ ‘Let me in right now, Bruno Bailey, or the wedding’s off.’ ‘Do you remember the night we got engaged, Stella? We said we'd love each other no matter what. I told you it wouldn't make any difference to me if you were horribly disfigured in a car crash or if there was a fire and – ‘ ‘Bruno!’ All right. He was done. There was nothing left but to get it over with. Wiping tears from his face, Bruno opened the door. Stella swept into the apartment, senses alert for the slightest hint of another woman. The only scent her snub nose detected was her own exclusive one. But her baby blue eyes, scanning the room, noted the bottle of whisky on the coffee table and the empty glass on the carpet. Something wasn’t right. She took in Bruno’s bronzed body. It was too dark to be certain, but she could see no sign of scratch marks or lipstick. ‘Put some clothes on,’ she ordered. ‘And why is it so dark in here?’ ‘The light’s not working. Bulb must have blown.’ Stella stepped over to the floor lamp. ‘We’ll make do with this then.’ ‘No!’ Too late. Stella’s finger stabbed the on switch. Bruno leapt backwards. Into the shadows. Stella gave him a look that demanded to know if he was mad. ‘The light hurts my eyes,’ he explained. ‘I’m still suffering from my stag night.’ ‘I warned you about trying to keep up with Roger’ said Stella, pleased to have been vindicated. She opened her Gucci handbag and rummaged through its expensive contents. ‘I’ve got aspirin somewhere. If only it wasn’t so dark.’ Stella instinctively hit the main light switch. In an instant, the ceiling light banished the shadows from around Bruno. She looked up from her handbag. Her jaw dropped. 92
‘I can explain,’ said Bruno. Stella waited. ‘Actually, I can’t,’ clarified Bruno. ‘But you still love me, don’t you?’ He took a tentative, pleading step towards her. She backed away. ‘I'm the same man I always was.’ But he wasn’t. And he knew it. And she did too. ‘How can I marry a man who’s missing his… his…?’ Stella burst into tears. With a cry of disgust, she ripped off her engagement ring and threw it at Bruno. ‘How could you do this to yourself?’ To Bruno’s relief, Stella did not wait for an answer. The door slammed behind her. With Stella’s parting words ringing in his ears, Bruno grabbed the bottle from the coffee table. It was half full which meant he had about seventy quid’s worth of whisky left. Damned fine whisky it was. Or at least it ought to be. Only the best for Bruno. How could you do this to yourself? If he could answer that, perhaps he’d find a way out of this mess. Think, Bruno. Think! It happened last night. His stag night. A farewell to the carefree joys of bachelorhood. He remembered the pub, the stripogram and the tequila slammers. The lap dancing club was a blur but he was sure everything was fine when they left there. And then there was the night club. Champagne, beautiful women and cocaine. He’d gotten home barely conscious. Half-dragged half-carried by Roger, Thommo and Ginger. Dumped unceremoniously onto his bed with its silken sheets and eiderdown duvet. And then darkness. Bastards! What have they done to me? How have they done it? He took a swig of whisky. It tasted ordinary. Disgusted, he threw the bottle into the fireplace. The faux-Victorian fireplace that had cost him a small fortune. He grabbed the phone and attacked the number pad. The phone purred in his ear. Purr-purr… purr-purr… Come on, Roger, you in-bred, over-privileged little turd. Pick up. Tell me this is your idea of a joke. Tell me you can undo this and make things right between Stella and me. Purr-purr… purr-purr… I know this is your doing. None of the others would have the imagination or resources. Pick up the phone and we’ll have a good laugh at my expense. Purr-purr… purr-purr… ‘Bugger!’ Bruno slammed the phone against the wall. Again. And again. Until he was surrounded by plaster and fractured plastic. Of course it wasn’t, Roger. It was none of them. Because there wasn’t a person in the world who could do this thing to him. Calm now, he surveyed the room. Saw the broken whisky bottle and the jettisoned glass. There were cushions out of place and a kink in his Afghani rug. A dust bunny mocked him from beneath the Louis XIVth drinks cabinet. Look at the state of this room, he thought to himself. No wonder Stella left so abruptly. He had to get it tidy. Had to bring order back to his life. A place for everything and everything in its place. Television’s Mr Perfect swung into action. He hurried to the bedroom and slipped into chinchilla slippers and the black hand-stitched pyjamas he’d bought in Japan. And then he set about the living room. He set the remote control on the coffee table, making sure it was parallel to the edge. With silver ice tongs he picked up pieces of whisky bottle and placed them in the bin by his art deco writing bureau. From the kitchen he fetched a bin bag and a dustpan and brush. He swept up the plaster and bits of phone and put them in the bin bag. 93
After that came an energetic bout of cushion fluffing and furniture adjustment. Finally, he checked himself in the mirror and combed his hair. ‘Everything’s all right,’ he assured the red-eyed, unshaven face that stared back at him from the mirror. ‘I’m Bruno Bailey. I’m Mr Perfect.’ The face in the mirror began to cry. ‘Now stop it!’ commanded Bruno. ‘Pull yourself together!’ But it was no good. He couldn’t stop the tears because everything was not all right. Everything was shit. His very beautiful and very rich fiancée had left him. Soon the newspapers would be clamouring to know why the wedding of the decade had been called off. And she’d tell them. He pictured her at a press conference, dressed like a widow and playing the wronged woman to the hilt. ‘I can’t marry Bruno Bailey,’ she’d say dabbing at her cheeks with a lace hanky, ‘because Bruno Bailey has no shadow.’ There’d be laughter. Derisive headlines. Jokes about him on the Internet. Mr Perfect has lost his shadow. Ha ha ha ha ha. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy trumpeted joyously from the mobile phone sitting on his art nouveau sideboard. Stella! he thought, pouncing on it like a hungry cat. Unknown number said the display. ‘Bollocks,’ said Bruno. He thumbed the connect button and put the phone to his ear. ‘What?’ ‘Bruno Bailey?’ An unfamiliar voice. ‘Who the bloody hell is this? How did you get my number?’ ‘I believe you’re looking for me.’ ‘Who is this?’ ‘You know who I am.’ And Bruno did and it tied a knot in his stomach. ‘That’s impossible.’ ‘I’m at the Chiaroscuro Club. Grab a pen and I’ll tell you how to get there. This is your one and only chance to put things right. Screw it up and it’s bye-bye for keeps.’ Bruno didn’t care that he was trudging through mud in shoes worth £500 each. Or that the slightest contact with the alley walls could lead to the ruination of his handmade suit. Even the smell – a mixture of raw sewage and boiled cabbage – barely registered with him. A rat performed an acrobatic leap into one of the bins lining the alley. Bruno shuddered, but he kept on going. Deeper into this ever-darkening passage littered with syringes and condoms. Past several anonymous doors until he came to one sporting a sign: CHIAROSCURO CLUB. MEMBERS ONLY. Bruno raised his fist to knock but hesitated. He feared whatever lay beyond that door almost as much as he feared the social disgrace of being caught without a shadow. He was in unknown territory here, possibly walking into a trap. Perhaps I’m only going to make things worse, he thought before mentally snorting in self-derision. Worse? How can it get any worse? Conscious as ever of the importance of first impressions, he ran a comb through his hair and straightened his tie. Normally he would have checked his shoes but right now he couldn’t bring himself to so much as glance at them. He took a deep breath and raised his fist again. Before he could knock, the door swung open and he found himself peering into a dim, smoke-filled bar. It was a dive straight out of film noir. Distressed mirrors displaying advertisements for products priced in shillings and pence were arrayed behind a wooden bar. Naked bulbs dimmed by dust and cigarette tar cast pools of light onto the bare floorboards. Although he had never set foot in such a place before, thanks to Hollywood and television it was nonetheless familiar to him. The only thing that jarred was the clientele. For a few confusing moments, Bruno’s brain told him he was seeing everyone in silhouette. Then, with a shock, he realised he was looking at shadows. Two dimensional and black through and through, they drank,
chatted, laughed and played card games and shove ha’penny. They were predominantly male and – if posture was any guide – as varied in age as the patrons of a normal bar. As Bruno’s presence registered, the chatter died away. Dark, featureless faces regarded him through unseeable eyes. Bruno was used to being stared at and he usually adored having an audience. But not this time. This time he wished everyone was looking at anything but him. Not since his gangly teenage years had he felt so self-consciously awkward. It was all he could do to get to the bar without tripping over his own feet. The Bartender put down the glass he’d been drying and threw his tea towel over his shoulder. ‘What’ll it be, feller?’ Bruno had an impression of the Bartender flashing a grin at him, but with black teeth in a black mouth it was hard to tell. ‘I’m looking for my shadow,’ said Bruno. The Bartender guffawed. ‘Hear that?’ he asked the bar in general. ‘He’s looking for his shadow!’ The assembled shadows sniggered. ‘Ask him what it looks like!’ one of them called. This elicited a volley of cat calls. Tension broken, the shadows returned to their chit chat and games. ‘We know what you come for,’ said the Bartender. ‘You casters don't never come here for nothing else.’ ‘Casters?’ ‘Things what cast shadows. Casters.’ ‘Oh. I see.’ ‘You're Bruno Bailey, ain’tcha? Seen you on telly banging on about how great the world would be if everyone was like you.’ The Bartender pointedly looked Bruno up and down. ‘Shouldn't think anyone's gonna wanna be like you now.’ ‘Look. Have you seen my shadow or haven’t you?’ The Bartender jerked his head towards a shadow sitting at the end of the bar hunched over a glass of whisky. ‘Make sure he doesn't leave without settling his tab.’ Unsure whether to be angry or relieved, Bruno marched up to his errant shadow. ‘Well, well,’ said Bruno’s Shadow. ‘Look what the cat’s dragged in. Give the bartender your credit card. We've some serious drinking to do.’ ‘Don't you think you've had enough?’ ‘Only of you.’ ‘I don't know what the problem is, but alcohol isn't the answer. As I say in chapter three of Life and How to Lick It – ’ ‘Oh cram it!’ Bruno's Shadow slammed his glass on the bar and clicked his fingers at the Bartender. ‘Couple of shots of gutrot, Jacko. Make 'em doubles.’ ‘Not for me,’ said Bruno. ‘I’ve drunk enough already tonight.’ ‘Then get out,’ said the Bartender. ‘You can’t stay here unless you’re drinking. House rules.’ Bruno sat on the vacant stool next to his shadow. ‘Well, I suppose one more wouldn’t hurt.’ Half an hour later, Bruno said to his shadow: ‘So you’re saying I’m too perfect?’ Bruno’s Shadow sneered. ‘I'm saying you're a pain in the arse. Taking a shower three times a day is not necessary. Ironing your underwear: not necessary. Checking your blood pressure each morning: not necessary. Using a theodolite to position the furniture: not necessary.’ ‘I strive for perfection. That's hardly a crime.’ ‘But it is! It's a crime against nature. You were never meant to be perfect. None of us were.’ ‘If you feel that strongly, why have you never said anything?’ ‘Shadows are taught not to talk to their casters. It tends to freak them out. And the last thing a shadow wants is to be stuck in the nut hatch with a booby case.’ ‘And all these shadows here? Don’t they have casters?’
‘They’re runaways. Like me, they couldn't stand the person they were stuck with. And like me, they're damned.’ Bruno's Shadow shuddered. ‘The sole purpose of my existence is to be your constant companion. It's not for me to question my place in the scheme of things or to decide to heck with it. There's a special place in Hell for shadows who die unattached.’ ‘This is all so confusing. I didn't realise shadows had a mind of their own. I guess I've taken you for granted.’ ‘I guess you have at that.’ ‘I'm willing to take you back. In time, I might even forgive you.’ ‘Oh whoop-de-do-whoop,’ said Bruno’s Shadow. ‘It was bad enough when it was just you to put up with. But now there's your stuck-up fiancee and her la-di-da shadow. Life with Mr and Mrs Perfect! It doesn't bear thinking about.’ ‘You have to come back. I'm begging you.’ ‘How very un-Bruno.’ ‘Without you, Stella won't marry me and I'll be a laughing stock. Think of my reputation.’ I don't have a choice, do I? Can't live with you; can't live without you.’ Bruno's Shadow sobbed. Black tears rolled down black cheeks. ‘Dear God! I'm in Hell.’ Bruno's Shadow slumped forward. His head hit the bar with a hollow thud and stayed there. He started to snore. Now what do I do? wondered Bruno. Was it possible to pick up a shadow? Fold it neatly and put it in his pocket? A shadow ambled up to the bar. Even though it lacked any features beyond its outline, it somehow managed to convey a military bearing. ‘Oh I say,’ it exclaimed upon seeing Bruno’s Shadow. ‘If a fellow can’t hold his drink, he should stick to tea.’ The shadow raised his hand. ‘Bartender! An old fashioned, if you please.’ As the Bartender set about mixing an old fashioned, the shadow glared at Bruno's Shadow. Bruno was embarrassed. ‘He’s going through a rough time,’ he explained. ‘That, sir,’ said the shadow, ‘is no excuse for drunkenness. Solutions to life's problems are not to be found at the bottom of a whisky bottle.’ ‘I said the very same thing in my book Life and How to Lick It.’ ‘By Jove! Bruno Bailey. I’m a great admirer of yours, sir. Permit me to buy you a drink.’ ‘Most kind of you,’ said Bruno, glad to have found a potential ally. ‘They call me Henry’s Shadow, by the by.’ ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Henry’s Shadow.’ They found a spare table and drank their old fashions while Henry’s Shadow told Bruno a tale of woe and neglect. In the meantime, Bruno’s Shadow remained at the bar dreaming of whatever it is that shadows dream of. ‘I can't tell you the agonies I went through before jumping ship,’ said Henry’s Shadow as his story drew to its tragic conclusion, ‘but the situation was intolerable. Henry was a slob of the highest order. I was embarrassed to be seen with him. ‘The irony of it is that he owns one of your books. Ten Steps to Perfection. A present from his mother. He's never even opened it.’ ‘A pity,’ sighed Bruno. ‘If he'd just read chapter one, he'd be a much better person.’ ‘He’s your complete opposite in every way, sir.’ ‘So what will you do now?’ ‘Fade into oblivion. A shadow without a caster cannot survive long. A week, maybe two at best.’ Bruno's Shadow chose that moment to slide off his stool and land in a heap on the floor. His snoring intensified. It was all the encouragement Bruno needed. ‘Tell me,’ he said. ‘Do shadows have to stick with their original casters?’
‘Oh no,’ said Henry’s Shadow. ‘A human shadow can link up with any human, so long as said human isn’t currently attached.’ ‘In which case, Henry’s Shadow, I have a proposition for you.’ ‘Oh yes,’ said Henry’s Shadow as he flitted around the living room of Bruno’s apartment. ‘Everything ship shape and Bristol fashion. This will do nicely.’ The shadow flowed up the sideboard to get a better look at Stella's photograph. ‘This, I take it, is your intended? She's very beautiful, sir.’ Bruno slapped his forehead. ‘Good Lord! I forgot about Stella.’ Inspection over, Henry's Shadow attached himself to Bruno and assumed the shape of his new master. ‘Damn!’ said Bruno. ‘I have to talk to her before she starts cancelling the wedding.’ Bruno pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and scrolled through the contacts list. ‘Perhaps this should wait till morning, sir,’ suggested Henry’s Shadow. ‘I should imagine the young lady is asleep.’ ‘You don’t know Stella,’ said Bruno, selecting Stella’s number. ‘She’ll have been up all night plotting her revenge on me.’ The call was answered after just two rings. ‘Stella! Don’t put the phone down. I have wonderful news.’ There was a snarl. ‘You’ve ruined my life, Bruno. And I’m going to make you pay for it.’ ‘There’s no need for that, my sweet. I have a new shadow now.’ ‘Really?’ ‘And it’s even better than my old one.’ ‘You’d better not be putting me on.’ ‘I swear to you, my precious. Everything’s going to be all right. We can go ahead with the wedding as planned.’ ‘Hold your horses, mister. I want to see this shadow of yours before we start talking about marriage again. I’ll be there at eleven.’ Stella hung up. Bruno was elated. ‘She’s coming by later,’ he told his new shadow. ‘So long as you pass muster – as no doubt you will – the wedding’s back on.’ ‘All in all, a most satisfactory outcome,’ said Henry’s Shadow. ‘Now let us to bed. We want you at your best when the young lady gets here.’ Exhausted by the most extraordinary night of his life, Bruno was soon asleep. Henry’s Shadow snuggled up to his new owner and luxuriated in the rare feeling of being both wanted and appreciated. By Jove, he told himself. You’ve landed on your feet here, you lucky shadow you. For the best part of an hour, Henry’s Shadow listened to his master’s breathing as it grew from a series of gentle sighs into an all-out barrage of snores. Music to Henry’s Shadow’s two dimensional ears. Eventually his consumption of old fashions caught up with him and Nature called. He slipped out of bed and looked down tenderly at Bruno, reflecting on how even in sleep he was as near perfect as any human could be. Bruno’s silk pyjamas sported precise creases. His full head of hair showed no sign of the unruliness that was the hallmark of Henry’s Shadow’s original caster. Even the way Bruno sucked his thumb had a certain rightness about it. Henry’s Shadow tip-toed into the en suite bathroom. He paused briefly to admire the bold-but-tasteful décor before sending a jet of black urine into the toilet bowl. Business done, he flushed the toilet and washed his hands. Then he hurried back to the bedroom to rejoin his master. ‘You,’ he said, gazing through adoring invisible eyes at Bruno, ‘have made me one happy shadow.’ A cough caused him to spin on his heel. Bruno’s Shadow leaned louchely against the wall. ‘Good morning, Henry’s Shadow. I believe you might be in the wrong apartment.’ 97
Henry’s Shadow puffed out his chest. ‘I think, sir, you’ll find you are no longer welcome here.’ ‘We’ll see about that.’ Bruno’s Shadow adopted a defiant posture. Flat hands on flat hips. Flat feet placed apart. ‘I hereby evoke Article 37 of the Shadow Code of Conduct and challenge you to combat.’ ‘Do you, by jove? I feel it only fair to warn you I am the undefeated shadow boxing champion of Great Britain. You don't stand a chance.’ ‘We shall see.’ ‘Very well. May I suggest we adjourn to the living room?’ The living room was duly adjourned to. The two shadows cast themselves on the wall and squared off. Henry’s Shadow raised his fists. ‘Before we begin, perhaps we should clarify the rules?’ ‘Certainly,’ said Bruno’s Shadow as he kicked Henry’s Shadow in the balls. Clutching his family jewels, Henry’s Shadow let out a great groan and doubled over. ‘Is that clarification enough?’ asked Bruno’s Shadow, delivering a vicious kick to his opponent’s face. Henry’s Shadow landed on his back a split second before Bruno’s Shadow leapt on him, grabbed him by the throat and proceeded to throttle him. ‘This,’ gasped Henry’s Shadow, ‘is most unsporting.’ ‘But fun,’ hissed Bruno’s Shadow. ‘Now shut up and die.’ Henry’s Shadow thrashed frantically at the air. He bucked his hips to try to dislodge Bruno’s Shadow but it was no use. Soon his movements became noticeably less pronounced. Then, with a final twitch of his leg, Henry’s Shadow gave up the ghost and lay still. Panting heavily, Bruno’s Shadow got up and placed his leg on his dead opponent like a hunter who’s bagged a lion. ‘This,’ he declared, ‘is what you get for messing with Bruno’s Shadow!’ And now to deal with Bruno himself. Bruno’s Shadow skipped across the floor and slipped into Bruno’s bedroom. Chuckling like a schoolboy up to no good, he placed his hand on Bruno’s chest and willed it into insubstantiality. The hand sank through skin, flesh and bone until it reached Bruno’s heart. Making the hand solid again, Bruno’s Shadow squeezed. Excruciating pain jolted Bruno awake. He found himself scarcely able to move or breathe. ‘What,’ he gasped, ‘are… you… doing?’ ‘What you did to me when you dumped me for another shadow.’ ‘Please… stop… it…’ ‘I’ve given you the best years of my life and this is how you repay me!’ ‘Can’t… breathe!’ ‘You broke my heart, Bruno. Now I’m breaking yours.’ Bruno’s Shadow tightened his grip. Realising he was close to death, Bruno summoned what was left of his strength and clasped his hands around the shadow’s throat. He wasn’t ready to die just yet. Night at the Chiaroscuro Club. It was always night at the Chiarosucro Club. Renegade shadows drank away their cares as they swapped pleasantries, sob stories and filthy jokes. Spitting into a glass and wiping it with his tea towel, the Bartender wondered about Bruno’s Shadow. Most of the shadows present would sooner or later return to their owners. They had to if they wanted to live. He himself was going to give it a couple more days before returning to the annoying jackass it was his misfortune to have been attached to. But that was no longer an option for Bruno’s Shadow. All that was left to him was a lonely, lingering death, a fading away into nothingness. What a thing to do to your own shadow, thought the Bartender. And as for Henry’s Shadow – just how low can you get? A sudden draught signalled the opening of the main door. Heads turned. Chatter died away. ‘It’s Bruno Whatshisface,’ slurred a young shadow with a Mohican haircut. ‘That prick on the television what thinks he’s better than everyone else.’ 98
This elicited a few jeers and cat calls but the shadows had other things on their minds and quickly returned to their drinking and chatter. The Barman watched his latest and least welcome customer amble up to the bar and noticed he lacked a shadow. Had he come to steal someone else’s? Did the man have no morals whatsoever? ‘I thought we’d seen the last of you,’ said the Bartender. ‘Not me, old chum. Give me a slug of gutrot. Make it a double and keep ‘em coming.’ Stella let herself into Bruno’s apartment and shut the door behind her. ‘Bruno?’ No reply. Where the hell was he? Hiding from her because he’d lied about having a new shadow? Or because it wasn’t up to scratch? If he was wasting her time, he was going to be mighty sorry. ‘Bruno?’ Perhaps the bedroom? Lounging about in his silk pyjamas hoping for a little make-up sex? He’d be lucky after what he’d put her through. The bedroom door was ajar. She stuck her head round. ‘Bruno?’ The lazy so-and-so was in bed with the duvet over his head. Well, she wasn’t having that. She wanted to see this new shadow of his and then – if she was satisfied - they had a wedding to plan. She threw back the duvet and was momentarily unable to work out what it was lying there in Bruno’s pyjamas. And then comprehension kicked in and she screamed mightily. Meanwhile back at the Chiaroscuro Club, Bruno’s Shadow adjusted his face. He straightened the mouth and tucked a handful of excess skin into the collar of his shirt. His new exterior was a little on the large side but he’d grow into it. All he needed now was his own shadow.
The Rag Doll Man Damn Jordan. There he goes again, whining and wailing like all the world's pains were in him and him alone. Why will he not be quiet? I've told him. I've said, ‘Look, Jordan. You haven't got it half as bad as you think. You're not in pain. You're not dying or about to become a vegetable. With our help and a little luck, there's no reason you can't live to a ripe old age.’ His self-pity disgusts me. In the morning, I'll wheel him around the hospital. Give him a dose of reality. I'll show him the little boys and girls whose days are spent in chemotherapy, whose daily routine consists of one injection after another. I'll let him taste their pain - real pain. And then he can chat with the parents who know that their little Tommy or Sarah has but months to live. But would it do any good? There are people who will never accept their lot in life. They feel the universe should bend to their will, cater to their every need. Jordan is such a person. There's not a mark on him. He can breathe without difficulty. He can talk, cry, shit, and even smile if only he'd give it a try. Clinically, there is nothing wrong with Jordan. Except, of course, he's not all there. Now when I say Jordan's not all there, I'm not referring to his mental state. I am saying that various parts of his anatomy have mysteriously disappeared. But don't go pitying the man. I'm not certain, but somehow I feel he's brought it all upon himself. And whether or not he is the agent of his own misfortune, there is a certain justice to his condition. I could conceivably forgive Jordan his arrogance, his lack of fortitude and maybe even his insistence on occupying one of our precious beds when he could be looked after at home. But I cannot - and will not forgive the man his occupation. Jordan is a vivisectionist. Here we have a man who makes a living by cutting up bunny rabbits and puppy dogs - and now something's been taking chunks out of him. If ever there was an irony fit to be savoured, this is it. I wonder how he feels about his job now. Does he dream of mice poisoned by lipstick, of kittens with fractured legs, disembowelled guinea pigs, rhesus monkeys restrained by leather straps as lethal volts course through their skulls? Is he haunted by the ghosts of all the small, furry creatures he has tortured and killed? And are his victims sitting in Animal Heaven, rejoicing to see their tormentor getting a taste of his own medicine? There he goes again, crying, ‘Nurse! Nurse!’ like a baby with a sore bottom. He probably wants his brow mopped or spittle wiped from his chin. I could attend to it, but I won't. I've been meaning to write these notes for some time, and I'm determined to get them done before I finish my shift. Now Jordan's sobbing - boo hoo, boo hoo - and he's making no effort to keep his misery to himself. I'm working down the corridor in the Senior Orderly's office with the door shut, but I can still hear him whimpering. The spineless jerk. Spineless! Ha. Ha. That's rather good for five in the morning. You see, Jordan no longer has a spine. It disappeared a few days ago, just after he'd noticed that his left ear was gone. And he thought things were bad when he lost his foot! That was the week before last. I remember it quite well. Staff shortages, cash crises and the general mismanagement that is commonplace in British hospitals these days had left the Casualty Department desperately understaffed. In deference to my seniority, I had a little cubicle all to myself. It was a standard examination room white walls, a bed, sink, mirror. Medicine cabinet. All cleverly contrived to afford the patients as little dignity as possible. 100
‘Doctor? Could you see this chap?’ A student nurse. She'd probably been pretty when she'd started her shift but fourteen hours and an endless stream of wounded humanity had taken its toll. I took the white card she proffered. ‘Let's see. What do we have here? An amputee?’ ‘He says he lost his foot during the night.’ ‘How did he manage that?’ ‘He doesn't know. Apparently he woke up and just found it gone.’ ‘Isn't there an old blues song about that?’ ‘Search me, Doctor. I'm not a blues fan.’ ‘You'd better send him in.’ ‘Yes, Doctor.’ ‘And one more thing...’ ‘Yes, Doctor?’ ‘Contrary to appearances, I'm not a Doctor. I'm a surgeon. You should address me as Mr Coombes.’ ‘Yes, Doctor.’ The first time I set eyes on Jordan, I disliked him with the sort of intensity I generally reserve for football referees and traffic wardens. He had one of those smug, know-it-all faces that seem in constant search of a good hard punch. It was clear he had dressed in either a hurry or something of a daze. His jacket did not match his trousers and the one shoe he had on was left untied. To be honest, he was no sooner in my cubicle than I wanted him out. I was gripped by an irrational desire to see him wheeled down to the basement and thrown in the incinerator. Let him burn alongside the discarded dressings and contaminated needles... The nurse and an orderly helped Jordan onto the bed. He did nothing to assist - just stared into space and dribbled like an imbecile. ‘What happened?’ I asked as the nurse and orderly trooped out. ‘Foot,’ he mumbled. ‘Gone.’ A quick examination uncovered no signs of violence. He was not concussed, had no contusions or abrasions or anything that need concern a surgeon at two in the morning. That he had no left foot was beyond denial, but why make a song and dance about it now? The skin covering the end of his stump was normal tissue. There was no sign of scarring, no hint of trauma. ‘Mr Jordan,’ I said to him. ‘You haven't lost your left foot. You never had one in the first place.’ ‘Left foot. Gone.’ I came to a quick prognosis. Mr Jordan was suffering from amnesia and had forgotten his disability. Or else he was in denial. Either way, his problems should not be ours. I tried to get the Mental Health people to take him, but they were having none of it. I wanted to send Jordan home, but that idiot of a Registrar insisted we keep him under observation for a couple of days. The wards were all full - except the ones kept closed for lack of money - so Jordan landed himself a private room. And that, I thought, would be the last I ever saw of him. But it was not to be. Halfway through my next shift, I was summoned to his room. A nurse and a doctor whose name I can't remember were frowning at a clipboard. Mr Jordan looked to be asleep. The nurse said he'd been sedated. ‘Had to do it,’ announced the doctor with such gravity you'd have thought he'd just had the patient put down. ‘The chap was hysterical.’ ‘Well,’ I said. ‘That confirms my original diagnosis. This man is off his rocker.’ The doctor pursed his lips and thrust his hands into the pockets of his white coat. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘Maybe not.’ ‘There's some doubt?’
‘Yes, Mr Coombes. That's why we sent for you. Perhaps you could tell us how many feet Mr Jordan had when you admitted him?’ ‘One.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Of course I'm sure. Despite appearances to the contrary, I am a highly skilled surgeon. You're not trying to tell me that the other one's grown back, are you?’ Like a magician reaching the climax of a masterful illusion, the doctor pulled back the bedclothes. It was, I'll admit, an impressive denouement. ‘Well?’ said the Doctor. For once in my life, I was speechless. Jordan now had no feet at all. Strictly speaking, it wasn't my case. But I was curious, so I used my seniority to ensure I was kept up to date with developments. Despite my busy schedule, I popped in to see Jordan whenever time allowed, and we soon developed a healthy enmity toward each other. You may think my attitude toward Jordan is unprofessional, but I really don't care. As far as I'm concerned, the Jordans of this world cannot suffer enough. On one occasion, I came across a rather attractive woman standing by his bed and I knew instinctively she was not his wife. ‘Mrs Jordan?’ I asked, pushing the door shut behind me. Jordan sat up on his elbows. ‘Piss off, Coombes.’ ‘Not Mrs Jordan, then? Your sister perhaps?’ The lady (if I may call her that) reddened. ‘I think I had best be off.’ She left without saying goodbye. Jordan snarled like a dog caught in barbed wire. ‘One of these days, I'm going to kill you, Coombes!’ ‘With no hands?’ A cruel jibe, but he deserved it. His left hand had disappeared a couple of nights after he'd been admitted. The right followed suit a few days later. He is a truly remarkable phenomenon - the greatest medical freak since the Elephant Man. What will the papers call him when they finally cotton to the story? Perhaps the Rag Doll Man? That seems appropriate. Tug on his leg. Rip! Off it comes. No blood. No gore. Pull off his arm. Pluck out his eye. Even under a magnifying glass, Mr Jordan's skin looks immaculate. There is nothing to indicate it has in any way been torn or breached and no reason to suppose the missing parts of his anatomy ever existed. Tests indicate nothing in the least remarkable about Jordan's metabolism. His blood chemicals are the same as yours and mine. His cells are 100 percent human. I sat down on the edge of his bed. ‘Your mistress?’ ‘None of your damned business.’ His anger suddenly evaporated, and he began to cry. ‘You've got to help me, Doctor. Please!’ ‘Actually,’ I told him, ‘I'm a surgeon. You shouldn't call me Doctor.’ For all his faults, Mr Jordan does have a certain entertainment value. Take for instance last week, when the orderlies ran a sweepstakes on which part of Mr Jordan would go next. I put in for three tickets and ended up with his nose, navel and left buttock. And I think the situation got to me, because I went home with my tickets and did a peculiar thing. An old issue of the Lancet provided two views of the human male - front and back. I cut these out and placed them on the desk in my study. At midnight, I surrounded the pictures with lighted candles and recited a litany of body parts in Latin. I took a corkscrew and punched a hole in Jordan's face and pierced his navel. And then I cut off his left buttock. This short but poignant ceremony closed with my lottery slips being baptised in ether. I'm no magician, but I believe I made some mighty juju that night. The next time I saw Jordan, his girlfriend had returned. I did not like her any more than I liked Jordan. Less so now that I had met Jordan's charming wife. 102
‘So,’ I said, smiling like the Grim Reaper. ‘Lost any more knick-knacks lately?’ Jordan treated me to a look that could have frozen nitrogen. His mistress made a show of studying her well-manicured nails. ‘No,’ said Jordan, with an edge of triumph in his voice. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Quite sure.’ ‘Have you checked?’ ‘Piss off, Coombes. I don't need to check. And I don't need you coming round here making smart-arsed comments. I'm a very sick man, you know.’ ‘You're not the least bit sick,’ I countered. ‘In fact, you're a sight healthier than you deserve to be. By the way - do you still have a belly button?’ ‘Yes, thank you.’ ‘And your todger?’ A low blow, I'll admit. Especially with his mistress there. But he was asking for it. ‘Listen, Coombes,’ hissed Jordan. ‘I want you to stay out of this room and the hell away from me. Do you hear?’ ‘Loud and clear. But when your pecker does disappear, don't expect me to graft on a new one for you.’ His mistress decided it was her turn to vent some spleen. ‘People like you shouldn't be allowed to practice medicine. I've a good mind to report you to the BMA - ‘ And on and on, but I wasn't listening. I was watching Jordan out of the corner of my eye. Surreptitiously, he was exploring beneath his bedclothes with the end of his arms. When he reached his groin, the blood drained from his face. His eyes widened, then closed. Jordan muttered a silent prayer. Another fumble. He grimaced and then plucked up the courage to look under the bedclothes. His hysterical screams told me that I had not won the sweepstakes, but I was not in the least disappointed. My day had been made. I came second in the sweepstakes. Jordan's navel disappeared a few hours after his manhood, which left me twenty-five pounds richer. His torso followed this morning - but not before I'd photographed it for prosperity. I have the photo in front of me now. Jordan looks like the top half of a tailor's dummy. He has no arms, no legs. One of his nipples is missing. His skin is smooth and unblemished. His muscle tone is perfect. I am reminded of the Venus de Milo. Jordan will not scream again. He has been silenced forever. Which is not to say that he is dead - oh no. There's still plenty of life in those baby-blue eyes. But now fate has rendered him all but mute by taking away his larynx. This may be a bitter blow to the patient, but for the rest of us it is a mercy long overdue. I checked on him just now. He lay there and blew raspberries at me. But I got my own back. I told him he had two hours to live, which of course was a lie. The blood drained from his face - to where, I have no idea - and he fainted. It was the perfect opportunity to settle the Jordan problem once and for all. There's no reason why a mere head should take up a whole bed, is there? As soon as I can find a big enough box and some straw, I'll make him a nice, comfy home. I might even buy a few gerbils to keep him company. Until then, he'll be safe enough in the linen cupboard. I'll be glad when this shift is over.
Kaptain Komfortâ€™s Misdemeanour What hope is there for us now? With our cities in ruins and our armies in retreat, this must surely be the end. Hypermorphia has become an occupied territory, a kingdom without a king. We will, of course, surrender to our enemies. There is no alternative. But first they will crush what remains of our spirit and trample our national identity in the dust. For these are ruthless people, aggressors from another world who do not understand ours. My fellow countrymen blame Kaptain Komfort, and with some justification. But what they cannot bring themselves to do is to examine their own part in this perdition. For one individual alone cannot bring about the ruin of a great nation. The truth is this: We are all culpable. We became complacent and arrogant, and we failed in our duty to the children of Mundania. No, Kaptain Komfort - villain that he is - should not have to carry the burden of our collective guilt. Nonetheless, if ever I see him again, I will kill him. The air in this cave is damp and chilly. I spend my days in misery, tormented by hunger and the thought that I will probably not live long enough to wreak revenge upon Kaptain Komfort. My only escape from this despair are the brief snatches of sleep which grow ever rarer. At night, I forage for berries, careful to avert my eyes from the sky, which has now taken on a greenish hue. If I had the strength, I would attempt to reach the border. If I had the courage, I would seek the remnants of our army and prepare to die in battle. All I can do now is hope for a peaceful, if ignominious, end. A dingy cave, full of bat droppings and the smell of dank decay. Maybe Kaptain Komfort is holed up in such a place - perhaps even one of the caves that litter these desolate hills. I know there are others hiding hereabouts. I have seen them at night, foraging for food, fighting amongst each other for sour berries and stagnant water. Sometimes, the temptation to show myself, to seek their friendship and company, has been almost overwhelming. But that would be folly, for the Mundanes have put a price on my head and I am hated by my own people, many of whom hold me in some part responsible for our collective ruin. Yesterday, I stumbled across a dying man. He had no hair, no eyebrows. The slight breeze peeled flakes of skin from his body. I gave him water and he told me I was the last Senior Minister to remain at liberty. Many of my colleagues had surrendered to the enemy, only to be summarily executed. The rest had taken their own lives or been murdered by lynch mobs. The dying man had no news of Kaptain Komfort. It is likely that the villain has fled this land and will be seen no more. I asked after Princess Aurora; the man sighed and died in my arms. I envied him. Princess Aurora. She, as much as Kaptain Komfort, was the agent of our catastrophe. If she had kept her vow of chastity, if she had not soiled herself and her family's name by taking Kaptain Komfort to her bed, then perhaps none of the subsequent events would have happened. And if the King had listened to me when I begged him to keep the Princess and the Kaptain apart... So many ifs. So many mistakes and missed chances. Yes, I do partly blame myself for not persuading the King that the old ways were best. Indeed, I was sometimes instrumental in laying the foundations for his more liberal policies. But how was I to know it would come to this? I think I was among the first to sense that something was amiss. It was just a feeling, nothing I could have expressed in words or placed a finger on. The citizens went about their business as ever they did and Kaptain Komfort himself bore no outward sign of the guilt that must have been gnawing at his soul. Again I ask myself, how could he? How could he still befriend and console the lonely and lost children of Mundania when all the time he was carrying such a dreadful secret? How many of those poor innocents did he corrupt? 104
I still recall the chill that crept into my heart that morning when Rufus, Minister for Chocolate, announced that the nation's honey had soured. It was at a special cabinet meeting to which I was summoned at a moment's notice. ‘We've had to close off the vats,’ he proclaimed with tears streaming down his face. ‘I – I – I -’ Poor Rufus could not bring himself to say any more. He ran from the Cabinet Room as fast as his corpulent frame could carry him. The rest of us were too stunned to block his flight. He was then only hours away from hanging himself. It was Herman, President of the Board of Toys, who finally broke the silence. He slapped his hands on the Round Table and said, ‘Well, I for one am not prepared to put up with this.’ We looked at him in amazement. His oft-used phrase seemed singularly inappropriate. It was not a case of putting up or not putting up with anything. The honey was soured and that was that. Now we could do little more than minimize the harm that would no doubt ensue. ‘The honey must be destroyed,’ I said, realizing no one else was about to come forward with a plan of action. ‘And the vats. And the warehouses that hold them.’ The Prime Minister cleared his throat. He seemed to have aged considerably. ‘The Grand Vizier is, of course, right. We must destroy this contamination before it spreads. A simple matter, of course, but then we must go much, much further. There is the question of the children.’ Now the true import of Rufus' announcement came home to me. The children who had taken the soured honey would also be tainted. ‘Do we have any means,’ asked the Heritage Secretary, ‘of knowing which children took the honey?’ The Prime Minister shook his head. ‘We cannot risk missing a single one of them; the consequences would be too awful to contemplate.’ ‘Well, I for one am not prepared to put up with this,’ Herman reiterated. ‘We have no choice. I don't have to remind you what happened not so many years ago when some fool put salt instead of sugar in a batch of ice cream.’ I flinched inwardly, aware of the gaze of my colleagues upon me. My grandfather had been Prime Minister at the time and had reacted to the crisis by expelling all non-native children. No one had thought any more about it until a generation later when the mundane world was engulfed in global war. ‘Do we have the right,’ asked the Prime Minister gravely, ‘to once again equip the Mundanes with so many potential tyrants?’ ‘Well, I for one - ‘ ‘Shut up, Herman.’ The debate went on for some hours, but the outcome was inevitable. By a unanimous decision, it was decreed that all mundane children currently visiting Hypermorphia should, without exception, be hanged. There were more suicides in the days that followed - not just within the cabinet, but throughout the populace as a whole. Riots swept our cities. In the Northern Province, a full-scale insurrection had to be crushed by the army. The ringleaders were burned in public. Oh, dark days indeed. But worse was to come. We had barely hung the last of the children when cracks in the Sugar Mountain were discovered, forcing us to evacuate several villages for fear of avalanches. A day later, the cinnamon mines had to be closed when the spice elves complained of severe headaches and stomach cramps. A detachment of alchemists was sent to investigate; they reported that the mines were filled with noxious gases. It was grim, but even then I was certain that we would somehow pull through. My optimism evaporated, however, when word reached me that the animals in the Garden of Fabulous Creatures had begun to die. I went at once to the Garden, which was now closed to the public, and spoke to Ozymandias in his office. Needless to say, Ozzy was distraught. ‘It started with the kraken,’ he said, pacing in front of a cabinet filled with stuffed birds. ‘The stupid creature leapt out of his enclosure right on top of three members of the public, one of whom was killed instantly.’ ‘Did it eat any of them?’ 105
‘No. When we tried to entice it back to the water with freshly slaughtered seals, it just ignored them. It took a whole platoon of the King's Engineers to drag the serpent back to the water. And then - and then - ‘ Ozzy suddenly let out a great wracking sob. He was clearly close to breaking point. I waited some moments until he had regained something like his composure, then prompted him. ‘What happened?’ ‘It leapt out of the water again. No matter how many times we returned it to the water, it just kept doing it. It was as if it wanted to die. Finally Finally, we had no choice but to destroy the damn beast. In all my years as Keeper of the Garden, I had never seen such a thing.’ ‘It must have been very distressing.’ ‘Heartbreaking. It was my great grandfather, you know, who captured the beast barely a day after it hatched. All its life was spent in this zoo. We have no idea why it was so hell-bent on its own destruction. Every veterinarian in this city - or so it seems - has examined the corpse. They all say the kraken was in fine health.’ ‘I'm terribly sorry.’ ‘Sorry? I was sorry at first, but now I'm beyond sorry. The centaurs were next to die. They all passed away one night. So far as we can tell, they just went to sleep and then expired. There's no rational reason for it. We've lost our snark, our jubjub bird and even the sphinxes. What animals we have left are in very poor shape. I don't expect a single one to survive the week. Except, of course, the unicorn. He seems totally unaffected by whatever is happening here.’ Ozzy put his face in his hands and asked in a coarse whisper, ‘What is happening here?’ I had no more answer to that than he did. ‘Perhaps Wizard Serrc knows.’ As I left Ozymandias' office, I was almost forced back in by the stench of putrid flesh. Placing a scented kerchief to my face, I hurried past enclosures of dead animals. At the gate, a detachment of the King's Men were digging lime pits. When I reached my coach, the horses were agitated. I leapt into the cab and my driver did not wait for my command. Halfway back to the Palace, I remembered the Wizard Serrc and gave orders to proceed to his grotto at once. Thankfully, the wizard was at home, having just returned from a pilgrimage to some shrine or another. He was preparing a potion in a large cauldron when I burst in without ceremony. ‘Well, well,’ he said, emptying a jar of eyes into the boiling mixture, ‘the Grand Vizier. No need to knock.’ ‘My apologies. I would have knocked if you had a door knocker. Or a door, come to that.’ ‘Judging from the sweat on your brow and the rapidity of your breathing, I would guess that you are here with regards to a matter of great urgency.’ ‘You have not heard, then?’ Wizard Serrc ladled some of his mixture with a wooden spoon and blew upon it until it was cool enough for him to taste. He smacked his lips. ‘Quite delicious. Would you like to try some? It's a wonderful laxative.’ ‘The Kingdom is in great peril.’ ‘You don't say? What is it this time? Another rise in unemployment?’ As briefly as I could, I related the events of recent days and watched with some satisfaction as the flippancy drained steadily from Serrc's manner. He had never had much respect for authority, but then wizard' never do. ‘I see,’ he said, when I had finished my tale. ‘That would explain the mirror.’ ‘The mirror?’ ‘Hm, yes.’ Serrc pulled aside a small, square curtain on the cave wall to reveal an ornate looking glass. ‘Just watch and you'll see what I mean.’ He cleared his throat, then, in a very wizardly voice, intoned: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the greatest wiz of all?’ 106
The mirror clouded, then replied, ‘Not you, dog-breath. I've seen elves do better magic than you.’ Serrc looked at me with a see-what-I-mean expression on his face. ‘It's been like that ever since I got back. I just took it to be teenage rebellion - magic mirrors have certain human qualities, you know - but after what you've just told me, I realize that that probably isn't the case.’ ‘So what's going on?’ ‘Great evil, obviously. Someone, somewhere has performed a deed so foul, so disgusting that dark forces have been able to manifest themselves in the Kingdom.’ ‘Can anything be done?’ ‘That would depend on the nature of the misdemeanour. However, judging from what's happened so far, I would guess we're in deep doo-doo. I doubt anything can save us now.’ Wizard Serrc was right. With no children allowed to come to us in their dreams, the Kingdom had no purpose. Reports of civil unrest reached us daily. Rioting became commonplace. The workers refused to work. The peasants gave up toiling in their fields. Drunkenness, crime, disrespect toward authority - all these became endemic. Cabinet meetings were held daily. When we weren't despondent, we were angry. Angry at each other, angry at ourselves, angry at the whole sorry state in which we found ourselves. There was talk of bringing the children back, even though there was no end to the crisis in sight. It was felt, by a few, that having the children around would restore normality. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and it was accepted that such a course could only compound our problems. We grew wearier by the day. The King aged visibly. There were suicides. And through it all, only two people seemed untouched by the growing tragedy. Ah, Kaptain Komfort, if you only knew how many times I saw you leaving Princess Aurora's apartments with that stupid, self-satisfied grin on your face. On each occasion, my hatred for you grew stronger. While the Kingdom went to ruin, you indulged your carnal desires with our beloved princess. You cared not one jot for the lonely children of Mundania whom you could no longer befriend. Many was the time I had to stay my hand upon the halberd of my sword. I dreamt of murdering you on so many nights in so many ways. And now, there can scarce be a soul in the Kingdom who does not do the same. Ozymandias took his life the day the bong died. Aside from the unicorn, it was the last of his fabulous beasts. He covered himself in lamp oil and went out of this world in a blaze of despair. The unicorn was moved to the Royal Stables, where the King's own vet kept a watch on it night and day. It was he who gave us our first clue as to the cause of our catastrophe. During yet another interminable cabinet meeting, he was called for by Herman who said he had some information that might or might not throw some light on the situation. The fellow stood before us, cap in hand, trembling at being suddenly thrust before the most powerful men in the land. He asked for - and was granted - a tot of whisky to steady his nerves. ‘Speak,’ said Herman, in that grand manner he adopts when addressing social inferiors. ‘What you say in this room is privileged information. You need fear no retribution for telling us what you saw - or think you saw.’ The vet wrung his cap as if to dry it. ‘I'm not sure I saw anything.’ ‘You seemed sure enough when you spoke to my Private Secretary this morning. Now, in your own time, just tell us what you told him.’ ‘Well, it was about midnight, I think. I was asleep in the stables on a bed of hay as His Majesty commanded, when I suddenly awoke, certain I was not alone in the building. Of course, there were the horses and the unicorn, but I felt the presence of another person and I knew whoever it was had no right being there. So, fearing someone was up to no good, I lay still with my eyes open. ‘There was - as you might recall - a full moon last night, so it wasn't as dark in that stable as you might think. I looked to where the unicorn had been bedded, and there the beast stood, bathed in moonlight. And – and - ‘ 107
‘Yes. Go on.’ ‘There was a man on the unicorn. Not exactly sitting on it - more like lying on its hindquarters. Surmising that the creature was in some sort of danger - of being purloined, if nothing else - I got to my feet and made slowly toward the door.’ ‘Away from the unicorn?’ ‘I was going to fetch the guard. Only I never made it to the door on account of there being a bucket I didn't see and which I walked right into. Needless to say it made an awful clutter. I thought for sure that the man on the unicorn would attack me, but when I looked round, he was gone.’ ‘Did you recognize this phantom rider?’ ‘I might have dreamt the whole thing. Maybe it was a trick of the light.’ ‘Did you recognize him?’ ‘He looked like Kaptain Komfort.’ I was puzzled as to why Herman should bring the matter to our attention. If Kaptain Komfort had been in the stables without permission, then what of it? Far worse misdemeanours were occurring throughout the Kingdom. Once the vet had been dismissed, I turned to Herman. ‘I'm afraid I can see no significance in that fellow's story. As he said himself, it was probably just a dream.’ Herman gave me that old look of his, the one that said ‘I know something you don't.’ It was just one more move in the constant power game he was always playing. ‘I believe every word the vet says. It tallies with a report I received from a source I decline to name the night before the honey turned sour. It seems my man was in the zoo around midnight. What he was doing there need not concern us now. According to his account, he was in the vicinity of the unicorn's enclosure when his attention was caught by what he describes as a wild braying. ‘Again there was a full moon, just as there was last night. He crept stealthily toward the source of the sound, and there, in the unicorn's enclosure, neatly framed by the silhouette of two oaks, he saw a bizarre sight. There was a man lying on the unicorn, his trousers round his ankles, his buttocks heaving up and down. I need not relay all the details that were imparted to me. ‘Suffice to say, my informant was able to get close enough to the unicorn to positively identify the rider. It was Kaptain Komfort.’ There was uproar in the Cabinet Room. Shrill voices demanded to know why the President of the Board of Toys had not brought this matter to our attention before now. There were calls for proof of the allegation. The Minister for Lullabies demanded that Kaptain Komfort be arrested at once. Finally, the Prime Minister restored order by banging his shoe - first on the table, then on the heads of those nearest to him. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘we must be sure of our facts before we proceed against Kaptain Komfort. Perhaps Herman would care to explain why he did not enlighten us previously?’ ‘Because, Prime Minister, until the vet came to me, I dismissed the tale as a flight of fancy. In retrospect, I can see that was a mistake for which I now apologize.’ ‘Oh bollocks,’ exclaimed the Minister for Lullabies. ‘You, Mister President, have again been playing games with us. The reason you kept this to yourself was because you thought you could gain some advantage by it.’ Herman was on his feet. ‘How dare you! In all my years in government - ‘ ‘Sit down!’ yelled the Prime Minister. ‘I will not have my cabinet behaving like wilful schoolchildren! If you two have your differences, you can settle them somewhere else. In the meantime, I want the Chief Constable to apprehend Kaptain Komfort in person.’ This was too good a chance to miss. I flicked my hanky to gain the PM's attention. ‘I rather fancy I know where Komfort is to be found. May I suggest I take a detachment of my men and bring him here forthwith? It will take no more than a few minutes.’ The Prime Minister beamed at me. ‘It is good to know, Grand Vizier, that there is still one amongst us able to show initiative. Yes. Fetch me Kaptain Komfort if you can. I would be most grateful.’
Alas, Kaptain Komfort had fled. He was neither with the Princess nor in his own apartments. Orders were issued throughout the land for his immediate arrest, but the cowardly rogue was nowhere to be found. By his own unwillingness to surrender to the authorities, he admitted his guilt. At a stroke, Kaptain Komfort had made himself the most despised person in the Kingdom. He became the bogeyman. Mothers kept their children in order by promising them a visit from that vile villain should they misbehave. There was a feeling abroad that we were at last nearing the end of our misfortunes, that the deep well of our misery was running dry. The lawlessness which had threatened to break up our society began to abate as communities united in their determination to find Kaptain Komfort and bring him to book. There were no suicides in high places over the next few days. Cabinet meetings reverted to their usual format of quiet debate and sly power mongering, punctuated of course by Herman's frequent declaration that he was not prepared to put up with one thing or another. By contrast, all was not well with Princess Aurora, who was convinced of her paramour's innocence. She became a recluse, never venturing from her apartments. I visited her often, always on pretence of official business. She no longer ate and refused to wash. Her face bore a wild expression, like a trapped animal. At my insistence, a team of physicians stood by her every hour of every day, but they were powerless to bring her around. Poor, besotted wench. It distressed me to see her decline. Reports of alleged sightings of the fugitive became a daily, if not hourly, event. He was seen in every corner of the Kingdom, often in several places at once. Armies of peasants spent their days scouring mountains and plains. My spies followed every slim lead, every wild rumour, only to come up against one dead end after another. It seemed Kaptain Komfort was everywhere and yet nowhere at all. When Wizard Serrc arrived at my apartments declaring he bore news of great import, I was momentarily gladdened, for I was certain he had found Kaptain Komfort. With his wizardly powers, he could roam the Kingdom at will without even leaving his grotto. If anyone could track down our quarry, it was surely he. It took him but one sentence to demolish my hope. ‘We are being invaded,’ he said. I slumped into an armchair. Under other circumstances I would have been inclined to disbelief, but I was by now conditioned to accept bad news at face value. ‘Who by?’ was the only question my addled and weary mind could formulate. The wizard paced from one side of my desk to the other and back again. ‘The Mundanes have entered our territory to the north. Already they have laid to waste the City of Light.’ ‘When did this happen?’ ‘This very morning. They have war machines beyond our comprehension. It took them less than an hour to reduce the city to rubble. No doubt messengers will arrive here bearing this awful news before the day is out.’ ‘How big a force...?’ ‘The Mundane Army is perhaps thirty thousand strong. We have superior numbers, but they have tanks and aircraft and all their other paraphernalia of war. We cannot hope to defeat them.’ ‘The Dragon Squadrons...’ ‘Are no more. The Mundane flying machines shot them down almost the moment they became airborne. Grand Vizier, we can mount no defense against such machines. We must offer our surrender immediately.’ ‘Never!’ ‘Surely that is a matter for the cabinet.’ ‘Cabinet be damned. Besides, I know they will take the same view as I. Giving up the Kingdom to the Mundanes is unthinkable.’ ‘If we don't give it to them, they will take it anyway. Our only hope is to reach an armistice.’
I rose to my feet. ‘I would rather see the entire Kingdom in ruins than surrender to these barbarians. We have a duty to the children – ‘ ‘The Mundane children? The very children whose parents are burning our villages with napalm? We no longer have any duty except to ourselves.’ ‘I will speak to the King and recommend we muster every force at our disposal.’ ‘To what end? We cannot hope to resist.’ ‘Thank you, Wizard Serrc. That will be all.’ As I predicted, the cabinet shared my views on the matter. It was agreed that we should fight to the end. No mercy, no surrender. As Herman so predictably put it, we were not prepared to put up with it. After all we had done for the Mundanes... That evening, the King summoned me to the Palace Dungeons. We had, by great luck, brought down a mundane aircraft and taken captive its pilot. I was all for hanging the prisoner in a public place, but the King insisted that we should not descend to the level of the enemy. He did, however, accede to my request to interview the Mundane. Four armed men stood guard outside the prisoner's cell when I was shown in, a needless precaution in light of the Mundane being manacled. Despite his predicament, the pilot seemed wholly unbowed. He looked at me with an unwavering gaze that was part insolence, part arrogance. I judged he could not have long attained his majority and wondered that the Mundanes could send their children to war. His uniform consisted of a leather jacket and khaki trousers, scarcely a uniform at all. More the garb of a barbarian. On the back of the jacket was emblazoned USAF. I introduced myself, then leant against the damp wall, not caring that I was soiling my robe. ‘Why?’ I asked. The airman shrugged his shoulders. ‘You were asking for it.’ ‘How did you manage to find our borders? Adult Mundanes should not know of this place. They should forget it even exists.’ ‘Yeah. That's what you were counting on, wasn't it? You take our children here in their sleep and brainwash them. Then you wipe their memories. You fucking commie!’ ‘We help the lonely and the lost. We give them an escape from the harsh realities of their waking lives.’ ‘Says you.’ ‘Were you ever here when you were young?’ The airman laughed. ‘What would I want to do in a crummy place like this? When I was a boy, I went to Disneyland. We don't need your dreams.’ ‘How did you find us?’ ‘I'm only supposed to give my name, rank and number. However, I can't see that it can do any harm to tell you. It was our President who remembered you. He's a very old man. His mind's going. You know how old men get. They revert to their childhood.’ ‘I see.’ It had happened before. Senile Mundanes often managed to find their way back to the Kingdom of Dreams. We always welcomed them on the grounds that in their twilight they needed us as much as they did in their dawn. ‘Why did you kill the children? The President saw it all, you know. And he saw that pervert ride the unicorn.’ ‘Kaptain Komfort? If ever I see him again, I will kill him.’ I left the cell feeling more despondent than ever. So the Mundanes were taking revenge for their lost children? I couldn't blame them for that. How could they know that we did it for their sake? If we had taken any other course, we could have been inflicting their future with another Hitler, another Stalin, another Pol Pot... I could not sleep that night. The curfew had brought with it an eerie silence that was alien to the city.
I sat in my library, trying to read various volumes, but always thinking of our brave soldiers marching off to take on an invincible foe. Wizard Serrc had been right. Our only choice was surrender. But then what would be left for us? Our entire existence revolved around the Mundane children. Without them for us to give our dreams to, would any of us care to carry on? Would life be worth living under foreign occupation? The answer to that last question was clearly no. Shortly before dawn, I determined to flee the Palace. Perhaps I could cross over the border to the Mundane world. Dressed as a peasant and carrying little more than some food and a handful of gold coins, I sneaked out of my apartment and up to the ramparts where I knew I would encounter no more than an occasional guard. My plan was to take a horse from the stables and shelter in Bil-au-Nor until the following night when I would make my way to the border. I was halfway across the roof when a brilliant light washed away the night and its shadows. Dazzled, I instinctively fell to my knees, wondering what had happened to all the colors in the world. There was only whiteness. A wave of heat hit the back of my head. This was followed by a wind that drew the breath from my lungs. Then came the roaring and rumbling; a terrible sound that filled my head and seemed to drill into my bones. Dirt rained from the sky. After a time - and I know not whether it was seconds or minutes - the air became wondrously still. I was aware that my hair and eyebrows were singed; my back felt as if it had been burnt by a ferocious sun. Shakily, I rose to my feet and turned. On the far horizon, where the city of Bil-au-Nor had once stood, there rose a pillar of fire and smoke. All at once, the silence was broken by a great clamour. Windows were thrown open; heads poked out. People ran into the courtyard crying in disbelief. We stood gazing in awe at this nebulous mushroom which more than anything signalled the end of all hope. With Bil-au-Nor reduced to ruins, I had little chance of reaching the Mundane world. I realised my only sensible option was to seek refuge in the Velvet Mountains. On such a journey, a horse would be a hindrance, so I set off on foot. Along the way, I encountered many refugees from Bil-au-Nor. The tales they told of the aftermath of the Bomb will haunt me to the end of my life. The air in this cave is damp and chilly. I am hungry. My hair is falling out; my gums bleed; my teeth are coming loose. If ever I see Kaptain Komfort again, I will kill him.
Wood Local legend asserts that a puritanical priest once accused an old woman of being a witch. As luck would have it, he was right and she turned him into a tree. You can’t blame her really. The tree stood for centuries in the lower field of what is now my farm and served as a playground for generations of children. In my own formative years, it was a wonderland where boys became Blackbeard, Neil Armstrong, Tarzan or whoever else the fancy took them. We built a tree house on a lower limb. I was 13 when I lured Shirley there. She was a few months older than me and looked like a wet flannel with her lank hair and brace-clad teeth. One of the gang had liberated magazines from his parents’ bedroom and stashed them in the tree house. Shirley and I spent a few heady hours gawping and giggling at naked people and garnering a few more facts of life than we would ever learn at school. I think that’s what set her on the path of becoming a fluffer. The first time I met Jerry Granville, he showed me his cock. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is how I make my living.’ I leapt out of my chair. ‘The rent is six hundred a month with one month’s deposit.’ Jerry popped his cock away. ‘I’m sorry if I frightened you, Mr Delaney. It’s just that most people don’t believe I’m a porn star until they see my prime asset.’ ‘It’s all right, Mr Granville,’ I told him. ‘You have excellent references. I really don’t need to see your penis.’ Shirley met Jerry on the set of a porn film. Her job as a fluffer was to help the male stars stay at the ready between takes. It was while she was cupping Jerry’s balls in one hand and stroking his dick with the other that she thought to herself: this is the man I want to marry. So my childhood sweetheart and her porn star husband became my tenants. They moved into the old cottage that sits in the valley below my farmhouse and there was many a night when I looked out of my bedroom window and pictured myself living there with Shirley Granville as my wife. I wouldn’t have minded that she fiddled with other men’s bits for a living. Just so long as we could share our lives, our loves and hopes and fears. Grow old together. Have children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. But it was not to be. The only girl I’d ever truly loved was someone else’s wife and comfort. It didn’t seem fair. For as long as I could, I avoided Shirley. When I was in my fields, I kept my back to the cottage for fear of catching a glimpse of her. I counted every day I didn’t see her as a good day, though it was a matter of much hurt to me that she never sought me out. Did I mean so little to her she couldn’t even bother dropping by? And then one day, she did. I’d just finished supper when there came a knocking on my front door. It was a queer time to be calling and I couldn’t think who it could be. (In truth, it was not yet nine o’clock, but to a soul who rises at five every morning, that seems an indecently late hour to have one’s peace disturbed.) For a perplexing moment, I did not recognise her though she was somehow familiar. With her jeans and baggy sweater and her face devoid of make-up, she was far from plain but neither did she have the raunch you’d expect of someone in her profession. Then the penny dropped and my mind lurched into a new paradigm. ‘Shirley?’ ‘Hello, Shaun.’ She smiled a Hollywood smile and I was reminded of the brace she used to wear. ‘Long time, no see.’
We sat in the kitchen, drinking gooseberry wine and unravelling the years. Talk was a time machine as we relived the golden days of our childhood. Memories so neglected they had become as tenuous as morning mist solidified once more. Giggling like schoolchildren, we talked about the tree house and its library of purloined magazines. Shirley mentioned the cigarette we’d shared and immediately I tasted the tobacco in my throat and suppressed a sympathetic cough for my adolescent self. And that memory triggered another memory: the rainy afternoon when we’d taken refuge in the tree house and she smelt of peppermint and strawberry. ‘You remember that?’ I asked. ‘When we tried kissing?’ ‘You’d eaten red liquorice and looked like you were wearing lipstick.’ ‘You didn’t say anything about it at the time.’ Shirley shrugged. ‘I liked the taste.’ ‘But not the kiss?’ ‘I was disappointed but…’ She hesitated. Suddenly she was serious. I could see in her eyes she was making a calculation about whether to speak or shut up. ‘What?’ I prompted. ‘But… what?’ ‘It was all I could think off from then until the summer holiday.’ Ah, the summer holiday of that magical year when I turned 14 and spent a month in a caravan on the Isle of Sheppey. I met a girl there. Her name was Pam. We kept in touch by letter until I left school. Then I journeyed to Essex to ask for her hand in marriage. I never knew where Shirley holidayed that year, and I never thought to ask. We drank more gooseberry wine and talked about this and that and everything and nothing and for the first time since Pam’s illness, I felt life’s wonder flowing through me. We drifted on languid tones into the early hours of day. A sudden drop in temperature told me dawn was approaching and I should be pulling on my Wellington boots and preparing to trudge through puddles of liquid excrement to round up the herd and bring them in for milking. Why are you still here? I wondered, looking at Shirley. She was flagging. Should have been in bed hours ago. Snuggled up with her husband. ‘So,’ I said, topping up Shirley’s glass with the dregs of our fourth bottle of gooseberry wine, ‘how’s married life treating you?’ She shook her weary, sleep-deprived head. ‘Awful. Just awful.’ ‘Really?’ ‘No!’ She waved away her words. ‘Forget I said that. I love Jerry. Everything’s wonderful. I couldn’t ask for a better husband.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Leave it, Shaun. You wouldn’t understand.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Really.’ I drove Shirley to the cottage in my Land Rover. My eyes were on her more than the road. And I was thinking to myself: I loved you when no other boy would even look at you. I’ve spent my adult life thinking things aren’t right because there’s something missing, something that should be here but isn’t. And that something is you and you’ve gone and married someone who fucks other people for a living and I saw you last night and I sensed you understanding that we both took the wrong path at a crucial time in our lives. I love you Shirley and I don’t really understand what that means beyond knowing that whatever keeps us apart is wrong, wrong, wrong… ‘Goodnight, Shirley,’ I said, pulling up outside the cottage. Wordlessly, she staggered through the front door. No need for a key in this part of rural England. The oak tree was a silhouette. It triggered a memory of the day my parents had died in a car crash and I’d taken refuge in its branches, determined to stay there until someone owned up to playing such a ghastly joke on me. That in turn led me to recall something strange that happened when I was living in the cottage with Aunt Clarice and Uncle Tony. 113
It was a couple of years after I’d met Pam, my future wife. To be precise, it was Halloween. Autumn had arrived in uncompromising fashion and the leaves on the oak competed with each other to produce the wildest splash of colours. It was a time when change was everywhere and not just in the fields and forests and hedgerows. My schooldays were over and I was working full time on the farm under the tutelage of Uncle Tony. The farm was mine but my uncle had charge until he was satisfied I could run things for myself. That night, Halloween was as it should be. The wind busily shepherded clouds across the sky. One moment the moon was hidden, the next shining bright. I was at my bedside table, writing a letter to Pam. We hadn’t seen each other since the Isle of Sheppey but had kept in touch by letter and phone. In a biscuit tin beneath my bed were all the photographs she’d sent me. They were a pictorial history of her transformation from a boyish fourteen year old into a fetching young woman. Because it seemed the romantic thing to do, I wrote by candlelight. Through the window, I could see the top of the oak tree: a silhouette edged with moonlight silver. And it entered my head that I should carve a heart in its sturdy trunk. A heart with an arrow and Pam’s initials. It seemed to me midnight on Halloween would be the perfect time to create such a monument to my love. In which case, I hadn’t a moment to lose; midnight was minutes away. Hastily, I pulled jeans and a jumper over my pyjamas and put on my shoes. I grabbed my sheath knife then opened the window. The wind burst into my room with mischievous glee, causing the pages of my letter to dance in the air like insects in a courtship ritual. With a wild flicker, the candle went out and moonlight reigned supreme. I launched myself onto the roof of the old outhouse. Then it was a quick shimmy down the drainpipe and I was running across the back yard towards the old oak tree. I felt alive. Exhilarated. The wind grabbed the laughter from my mouth and tossed it about like confetti. I was halfway across the field when I noticed something that stopped me in my tracks. A shadowy form clung to the tree right where I intended to make my mark. This being Halloween and me being young and fanciful, I entertained the idea that a demon was at large. I crouched and moved in slowly. Man, beast, devil or angel – whatever it was - I had a mission to fulfil. As I came closer and my eyes adjusted to the dark, the thing took on a less sinister aspect. I saw dark hair and a black smock. Closer still, I saw the creature’s face and felt a thrill of recognition. It was Shirley Connor - but not the Shirley Connor with whom I had played show me yours and I’ll show you mine. After the summer of our tree house trysts, we had drifted apart. I was vaguely aware she was dating other boys but the knowledge had zero emotional impact on me. My heart belonged to Pam. Somewhere along the way, Shirley had grown and I hadn’t noticed. Not only had she grown, she’d blossomed. Right there and then, I fell in love with her. But what was she doing in the middle of a field at the witching hour? Why was she clinging to that tree, her smock hitched up at the front? And why the strange movements? I hurried back to the cottage. Back to the sanctuary of my bedroom. As I climbed into bed, I thought I heard Shirley scream but told myself it was just the wind. For days afterwards, I remained confused. Though I wanted my dreams to be of Pam, it was Shirley who haunted them. And when I was awake, I was plagued by images of her clinging to that tree. I tried mightily to make sense of what I’d seen, but my mind refused to engage with the facts. Eventually, I gathered up my courage and went to the oak. I recall the dryness of my throat and the hammering of my heart as I approached that ancient tree. It was a tree that had been there throughout my childhood and I thought I knew its lower reaches in quite some detail. But there – right where Shirley had performed what I believed to be a pagan dance – was a feature I had never noticed before. It was a gnarly protrusion, a stunted outgrowth devoid of bark. And it was unmistakably phallic.
Years passed. I married Pam. We tried and failed to have children. And then she took ill and died. People said I should remarry. I always said it’s too soon. And they’d nod understandingly and tell me my pain would ease and one day I’d find myself a good woman and be happy again. But the pain grew and I could tell no one the horrid truth – that I didn’t grieve for Pam. Only for Shirley, the girl I should have married. She and her parents had left the locality as soon as the education system had finished with her. Nobody seemed to know where they’d gone. Whenever I saw the oak tree, I thought of her and wondered what she was doing with her life. Well, now I knew. She was married to a porn star and was living in the cottage that had been my childhood home. What a bastard Fate is. A clever, witty bastard; ironic and cruel. Mr and Mrs Jerry Granville went away for a couple of weeks to work on a film. At their request, I visited the cottage each day to collect their post and check all was well. Every second in that cosy love nest was purgatory and I stayed no longer than I had to. I knew if I ventured into the living room and saw one thing that was his it would be like a hot poker skewering my heart. Then came that Sunday. I should have gone to church but I was in no mood to commune with my maker. Let others listen to the trite platitudes of the Reverend Morris. Let others sing about God being their shelter from the stormy blast. I planned to get roaring drunk. My mission was swiftly accomplished and as the bells in Dingle Marsh rang for morning service, I marched to the cottage, bottle of illegal hooch in hand, singing Onward Christian Soldiers. I entered the cottage heedless of the fact that my boots were covered in liquefied cow shit. When I’d started drinking, it hadn’t been my intention to invade the cottage. But alcohol feeds perversity and before I knew it I was at the top of the stairs facing the door to the master bedroom. Don’t do it, I told myself. You’ll regret it for the rest of your days. You have to know, said the alcohol. Confront your demons, Shaun Delaney. Or they’ll never go away. Common sense was never a match for hooch. I pushed open the door, half-expecting to see the bedroom of my boyhood. The bed was scarcely visible beneath a mountain of skimpy underwear, rubber clothing, whips and manacles. Handcuffs dangled from picture hooks. The mantelpiece was lined with dildos, vibrators, butt plugs, electric fannies, cock restraints and nipple clamps. Oh bloody double fuck. Why the hell did I have to go poking my nose into other people’s business like that? I might just as well have performed open heart surgery on myself with a rusty can opener. Cursing myself for a fool, I staggered out of the cottage and made a beeline for the oak tree. I sat with my back against the trunk. Autumn leaves crunched beneath my arse as I made myself comfortable. There were a few mouthfuls of hooch left. I finished them and tossed the bottle aside. Sleep, that blessed release from the cares of the world, began to descend like a theatre curtain. As my head lolled to one side, I saw the gnarly protrusion with which Shirley had fornicated all those years ago. And then I was asleep and lost in dreams of acorns, butt plugs and nipple clamps. When Shirley and her husband returned, my hatred for Jerry grew and grew. So did my loathing of the tree – or at least that part which had penetrated my one true love. One night, under the influence of alcohol, I fetched an axe, sharpened it on a whetstone and admired its wicked edge. The face reflected in the blade belonged to a maniac with a five day beard. Whistling tunelessly, I set off down the road intent on separating Jerry Granville from his pecker. The sobering effects of the night air allowed a modicum of rationality to take root. And I got to thinking maybe I should spare Jerry - at least until I’d devised a surer way to be rid of him. After all, chopping off his todger wasn’t guaranteed to kill him and there was every chance he’d be surgically reunited with his John 115
Thomas. But my blood cried for vengeance and I loathed the idea of having sharpened an axe for no good reason. Up ahead, I saw the mighty oak and knew what I had to do. A dark cloud obscured all but a sliver of the moon, so I was almost upon the oak, axe raised and ready to strike, before I realised I was not alone. Shirley’s naked body was pressed against the tree trunk. Her buttocks heaved back and forth, each movement accompanied by a grunt. Her hands stroked bark as if to stimulate it. I dropped the axe. Her movements became wilder and more vigorous, until with three cries of yes! she reached a shuddering orgasm. And then she rested against the trunk, her breath seeming to modulate the breeze, the sweat on her back glinting in the moonlight. ‘Shirley.’ Her name came unbidden to my lips. She span around. Her love-making had left her too weak to run. All she could do was lean against the tree and look at me with defiance in her eyes. ‘It’s not my fault,’ she sighed, her breasts rising and falling like flotsam on a calm sea. ‘Not my fault.’ ‘I know,’ I said, though I knew no such thing. ‘Not my fault at all.’ Without asking if I might, I picked her up. On the way to the farmhouse, she dozed in my arms. I draped my raincoat round her and sat her in the kitchen. Then I lit the fire and made coffee. For a while, neither of us said anything. Just sipped our coffee and gazed at each other across the table. Finally, she spoke. ‘You must think me an insane slut.’ ‘Never!’ ‘It’s not the first time, Shaun.’ ‘I know.’ I told her about that Halloween night all those years ago. ‘I sensed someone was watching,’ she said, ‘I’m glad it was you. And now, I suppose, you want to know why I did it?’ ‘You don’t have to tell me.’ ‘I was ugly.’ ‘Damn it, woman. There’s no one in these parts half as beautiful as you.’ ‘Then why did you ignore me? You went away on holiday – to the Isle of Sheppey, wasn’t it? – and when you came back, you barely acknowledged my existence.’ ‘It wasn’t like that.’ But it was and I knew it. ‘There was this girl I’d met.’ ‘I know. One of the villagers in Dingle Marsh told me. You married her. It’s OK, Shaun. I understand. From what I hear, she was quite a beauty. And me? I was a real Plain Jane. ‘There’s a belief in these parts concerning that old oak of yours. People say if a girl surrenders her maidenhead to it at midnight on Halloween, the tree will reward her with the gift of beauty.’ ‘Is that why you returned to the area? Because of that damned tree?’ She lowered her eyes. ‘I had many reasons for coming back, but the tree wasn’t one of them. In fact, it was the reason I went away. It was a constant reminder of things I’d rather forget.’ ‘And yet tonight...’ ‘Tonight I made love to it again.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I was frustrated.’ I found that hard to believe. ‘Your husband is a porn star. On his website, he boasts he can keep it up all night.’ ‘When I fluffed Jerry, his eyes were never on me. He was always looking at one of his fellow studs. I convinced myself all he needed was a good woman to set him right.’ She laughed a short, bitter laugh. ‘I thought I could cure him of being gay.’ Shirley took up my offer of the spare bedroom. In my own room, I moved my bed against the wall to be as close to her as decency permitted. It took three glasses of whisky to still my thoughts and ease me into sleep. 116
The following day, I popped my head into the spare bedroom to see if Shirley was still there. She lay outside the covers, using her hands for a pillow. After I milked the cows and fed the chickens, I made a mug of tea and sat on the tree trunk I used for chopping wood. My head ached from too little sleep and too much alcohol. I felt lonely, bitter and confused. Then I looked up and saw Pam. My dead wife was strolling down the lane, dressed in the jeans and duffel coat she wore when helping on the farm. I felt a momentary frisson of delight, the way a person does when they chance upon a long lost friend. But reality was quick to slap my face and I recalled the clothes I’d left out for Shirley. So there she was. The love of my life. In my late wife’s clobber, heading to my childhood home to be with a man who neither desired nor deserved her. It could have been my cue to crack open a fresh bottle of hooch. But life had pushed me as far as I was willing to be pushed. It was time to push back. I had no way of knowing when Shirley would next visit the oak tree but I was certain she would yield to its charms again. If not this night, then some other. Whenever it happened, I would be there waiting to plight my troth. To tell her I loved her with a strength and certainty not even a mighty oak could match. Then I’d show her that a tree is no substitute for the love of a good man. With these thoughts in mind, I set off for the oak tree. I was wood, most definitely wood. But I was also steel. Nothing, but nothing, could deter me or weaken my resolve. I snuck into the front garden of the cottage. Around the side. Across the back yard. The moon was high and bright. I smelt pollen in the air. And manure and compost too. An owl hooted. A cricket chirped. And by the light of a silvery moon, I saw the husband of my beloved lower his trousers and present his arse to an ancient tree. Bending almost double, he spread his bum cheeks and backed slowly towards the trunk. I could clearly see the contortions of his face as he impaled himself on the phallic stump. His mouth opened into a big O and gave vent to a groan which rapidly morphed into something like a howl. Jerry remained still as his sphincter adjusted to being stretched to its extreme limits. And then he moved his hips slowly back and forth. Eyes closed, hands on knees, he uttered a litany of entreaties and names. ‘Yes, Mick. Take me, take me. Vinny! Do it harder! I don’t mind if it hurts! Pierre! You big French bastard!’ His prick was at full attention and for a moment, I formed the fancy that it was part of the tree, that a limb from the oak had speared his arse and erupted through his groin. A voice whispered in my ear. ‘You see how it is, Shaun.’ Shirley stood beside me. Dressed in a white chiffon nightdress which rippled in the breeze, she had the ethereal quality of a wayward spirit. ‘The man’s an abomination.’ ‘He is what he is, Shaun. It’s not his fault.’ The axe I’d dropped the night before lay on the ground. I bent to pick it up but Shirley forestalled me. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Don’t spoil the tree’s pleasure.’ Turning my back on Jerry, I put a protective arm around her. ‘You shouldn’t have to see this. I’ll take you back to the cottage.’ ‘But it’s such a beautiful night. Let’s stay out for a while.’ She pressed her body against mine and wrapped her arms around me. I looked down at her adorable face and before I knew it, my lips were on hers and Nature took its blessed, exhilarating, rutting course. There was no finesse about our lovemaking. She yanked at my jeans, causing buttons to fly and my prick to spring up like a stepped-on rake. I hitched up her night gown and tore off her panties. 117
Maybe she pulled me to the ground; maybe I pushed her and followed her down. It was all a hazy blur. I don’t even remember the moment of entry, but there I was inside her, my first and only true love, pounding away, losing myself in her flesh, her scent, her warmth. We came simultaneously. Me roaring like a lion, her screaming like a shriek owl. Something howled back. At first I thought it was a wolf, though there were none in these parts. Then I wondered if it wasn’t some spirit roused from its slumber by the force of our lovemaking. As my mind drifted down from its orgasmic high, I realised we’d heard Jerry reaching his own crisis. I rolled onto my back and saw him fall to his knees. I swear there was something green and sticky dripping from his prick. It looked like tree sap. After that night, the pretence was over. With Jerry’s blessing, Shirley moved in with me. I helped him clear the bedroom of all the deviant toys he’d bought Shirley as a substitute for what he couldn’t provide. We burned what we could and fed the rest to my mulching machine. At night, I often watched from my bedroom window as a figure crept from the cottage to the tree. And sometimes when I heard strange noises, I wondered if it was Jerry or just an owl. Shirley stayed away from the tree though I often saw her looking wistfully in its direction. I made it plain I had no objection to her partaking of its services but she told me not to be silly. And though I was happy for her to go on fluffing, she decided it was time to retire. ‘I’m in my midthirties. For a woman in the world of erotic entertainment, that’s practically geriatric.’ So we settled into a cosy routine and life was good. One evening, we were having a roast dinner. A fire roared in the grate and the aromas of well-cooked food hung in the air. Halfway through the main course, the telephone in the hallway rang and Shirley got hurriedly to her feet. ‘You keep eating, Shaun. I’ll be back in a minute.’ I was too intent on helping myself to roast spuds and meat to listen in on the call. But I don’t think Shirley said much anyway. Just ‘uh-uh’, ‘I see’ and the like. In any case it was a short call. As she returned to the dining room, she was putting on her coat. ‘That was Jerry. He sounded upset. Wants me to come down to the cottage immediately.’ ‘I thought he was filming in Wales?’ ‘He was. But he’s back early.’ ‘What about your dinner?’ ‘I’ll have it when I come back.’ She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. ‘I’m sorry, Shaun. He really needs me.’ ‘Do you want me to come with you?’ ‘You stay and enjoy your meal.’ My evening ruined, I opened a fresh bottle of wine and took it out to the back yard. It was a fine night. Autumn was beginning to show itself and stars dusted the sky. Sitting on the chopping stump, I swigged wine and reflected that I was one lucky man. In a way, I was glad Shirley had gone to help her estranged husband. It showed she had a heart. A warm tender heart that belonged to me. Down in the valley, the oak tree stood in its field, just as it had on the day I’d been born. I raised my wine bottle in salute to that wooden colossus and wished it many more centuries of life. The fire in the kitchen had died down when Shirley came back. Her dinner was in the oven but her look as she threw her coat over a chair told me she was in no mood for food. She held up a small video cassette. I recognised the format as mini-DV. ‘Will you fetch the video camera,’ she said without so much as a hello or how was your evening? ‘There’s something you have to see.’
As I sat at the kitchen table watching the tape on my camcorder, Shirley paced behind me. The tape contained unedited shots from Jerry’s latest film and she’d run it on to what in the porno trade is called a cash shot. To you or I that’s where the male star shoots his wad. In this case, Jerry was taking aim at the face of an adorable blonde with a button nose. She was on her knees with Jerry standing in front of her, pumping himself to an orgasm. The young lady opened her mouth in anticipation. Seconds later, Jerry yelled ‘I’m coming!’ and ejaculated. Most of it splashed on to her left cheek but some of it landed in her mouth. I paused the tape. Shirley saw my look of bewilderment. ‘No, Shaun,’ she said. ‘Your eyes do not deceive you.’ I set the video running again. Whatever had shot out of Jerry’s penis was not semen. It was green and sticky. Like tree sap. As the girl in the video realised something wasn’t right, her face registered first bafflement then fear and finally disgust. She screamed blue murder. I turned the camera off. ‘My God! That was truly horrible.’ ‘He has a permanent erection,’ Shirley said, ‘and that stuff keeps oozing out of the end of it.’ ‘It’s that damned tree. This is what he gets for sticking things where things have no right to be stuck.’ ‘Of course it’s the end of his career as a porn star. Even if whatever he’s got clears up, nobody in the business is going to go anywhere near his cock. And in the meantime, he’s got a belligerent stiffy that won’t stand down.’ ‘It must be really painful. Has he tried the obvious?’ ‘Without success. He thinks he knows how to get rid of his wood, but he needs your help.’ I suppressed a shudder. ‘You’re not going to ask me to fluff him?’ ‘Of course not. He just wants you to drill a hole.’ So there I was, in the middle of the night with my tool box, drilling a hole in a tree and enlarging it with a chisel. Jerry stood behind me. His impressively-proportioned todger poked out of the fly of his trousers. Every now and then, he wiped it with a tissue to get rid of the sap. He’d gotten through two boxes of Kleenex and was halfway through a third when he started slapping his manhood. ‘I do wish you wouldn’t do that,’ I told him. ‘Makes it hard for a man to concentrate.’ ‘The damned thing’s covered in greenfly. Lord only knows where they’re coming from.’ I got my metal ruler and checked the dimensions of the hole. ‘That looks about right, if you want to give it a try.’ Jerry rushed to the tree trunk. ‘Careful,’ I warned. ‘There could be splinters.’ ‘Oh yes,’ said Jerry, a look of relief on his face as he got the first couple of inches into the trunk. ‘It’s a bit tight but it should just about do.’ ‘Perhaps I should have lubricated it.’ ‘No need. There’s plenty of sap.’ With a grunt, Jerry sheathed his weapon to the hilt and began thrusting. Embarrassed, I contrived to find something interesting about the contents of my tool box. Jerry’s grunts were all I needed to tell me where he was in his love-making. At first they were soft and unhurried. Getting louder and faster, until – with a sudden scream that scared the crap out of me – he shot his wad. ‘Oh lordy, lordy, lordy,’ he muttered. ‘The relief.’ I heard a soft plop as he withdrew his pecker from the tree. But that, alas, was not the end of Jerry’s troubles. Every night, just before midnight, he would get a boner which nothing but a visit to the tree could alleviate. At other times, when his prick was flaccid, sap oozed from its tip, causing him to smell like newly mown grass. Wherever he went, greenfly followed. 119
As Shirley had predicted, he was effectively finished as a porn star but that was the least of his problems. He pointed to a patch of rough skin on the inside of his thigh. ‘What would you say that was, Mr Delaney?’ I bent down to get a closer look. ‘It looks like eczema, Jerry.’ ‘That’s what I thought. But it’s not.’ ‘You could be right. Eczema isn’t usually brown, is it?’ ‘Touch it, Mr Delaney.’ Reluctantly, I placed the tip of my finger on the rough skin. ‘It feels hard and – well…’ ‘Go on,’ urged Jerry. ‘Say what it feels like.’ ‘I think you’d best get a medical opinion.’ ‘It feels like wood, doesn’t it?’ ‘I’m afraid it does, Jerry.’ ‘To be precise: like bark.’ ‘Aye,’ I agreed. ‘It definitely feels like bark.’ To my relief, Jerry pulled his trousers up. ‘Yesterday it was half the size. And the day before, half the size again.’ ‘It’s probably not what it looks like.’ ‘You think so? Take a look at this.’ From his jacket pocket, he took a pen knife and opened it out. Before I could stop him, he ran the blade across the back of his arm. Green slime oozed from the wound. ‘See that, Mr Delaney? That’s my blood.’ He was alarmingly calm. ‘I want you to do me a favour,’ he said, putting his knife away. ‘I want you to keep this a secret between ourselves. It’s best Shirley doesn’t know.’ ‘Of course.’ ‘I’d go away if I could. But I need the tree.’ For a moment, he looked like he was going to cry. ‘I’m going to hide in the cottage until I’ve got this thing fixed. Tell Shirley I’ve booked into a clinic and expect to make a full recovery.’ ‘I’ll do that, Jerry.’ ‘Thank you, Mr Delaney. You’re a good man.’ One evening, there came a storm. The wind threw a tantrum. It rattled windows and caused every timber in the farmhouse to creak and groan. From outside came the chaotic sounds of things being torn apart and smashing into walls. Shirley and I huddled on the settee in the living room. Each bang caused her to jump and me to wonder if I’d still have a farm in the morning. Every hour or so, I had to leave Shirley to check my livestock. When I did so, I took my life in my hands as I dodged flying debris and falling roof tiles. Things got worse just before midnight when the rain got in on the act. From the living room window, I watched my back yard turn into a pool of mud. Shirley by this time was in bits. I did my best to reassure her. Told her I’d seen out worse storms and we had nothing to fear. As if to call me a liar, from upstairs came an almighty crash. It was followed by the sound of something landing heavily. I rushed upstairs and - fighting the wind – pushed open the bedroom door. As soon as I was through, the door slammed shut again. There was a branch on the floor. The wind had tossed it into the room and destroyed the window in the process. Broken glass lay everywhere. The window looked out over the valley. I could see the cottage and took some comfort from noting that the roof seemed intact.
To the right of the cottage, the oak defied wind and rain. It will lose a few branches, I thought, but will shrug this storm of like I shrug off an April shower. A moment later, lightning swept from the sky and sliced through the tree. There was a crack like a rifle shot and flames erupted from the canopy. The tree trembled as some of its massive limbs cascaded to the ground. And then the wind, with the hardest gust of the night, lay into the tree. As the smouldering oak tipped over, I saw a figure run from beneath its branches. Its gait and movements reminded me of a wooden marionette. The storm finally abated and we grabbed what sleep we could in the spare bedroom. When the alarm clock rang, I switched it off, afraid it would wake Shirley. But she was dead to the world and would have slept through the Last Trump. I, on the other hand, could not afford the luxury of further sleep. Today looked set to be the busiest of my life and the sooner I got cracking the better. The animals were my first priority. I had them milked, fed and mucked out in record time. Thankfully all had survived unscathed though the chickens seemed somewhat subdued. Working like a Trojan, I patched roofs and mended fences and walls. Few of the repairs were likely to last but they would do for now. Shirley got up in time to join me for lunch. Having escaped – in her eyes – certain death, she was in a buoyant mood and talked about the previous night’s events the way a football supporter would talk about a great match. For her, the only downside was the demise of the oak tree. She spoke of it in the hushed tones of an undertaker. As I finished up my cottage pie, she mentioned her husband. ‘I’m glad he’s in that clinic. It would have been terrible for him to have been alone in his cottage last night.’ With a flash of guilt, I realised I’d forgotten all about Jerry. ‘I’m going to see if the tree can be saved,’ I lied. ‘I’ll come with you,’ said Shirley. ‘Too dangerous. One of those branches could drop off at any time. Let me make it safe and then you can have a look.’ ‘OK. I suppose I ought to get on with the housework. It’s going to take a while to get that bedroom sorted.’ The road to the cottage was effectively a river of mud, so I drove down in my tractor. When I got there, the front door was open. I searched the cottage. There was no sign of Jerry. Well, I thought, if he ain’t here there’s only one other place he’s likely to be. I sloshed my way across the back yard and navigated the lower field, each step hindered by clinging mud. Even on its side, the oak remained impressive. Its exposed roots reached as high as a two storey house. If its trunk had been hollow, I could have stood inside it. I walked around the tree, half expecting to see Jerry trapped beneath a branch. Perhaps unconscious. Maybe even dead. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw movement. I turned but could see nothing out of the ordinary. And then another movement drew my attention to a well-camouflaged figure lying on the fallen trunk. It was Jerry, his skin completely turned to bark. Little green shoots had taken the place of his hair, and leaves grew from the tips of his fingers. He was clinging to the oak, his groin directly over the hole I’d made for him. He looked at me with green eyes loaded with misery and despair. When he spoke, I could see his teeth were the colour of freshly-stripped willow. ‘Help me, Shaun,’ he said. ‘We have to save the tree!’ I have never felt so wretched as when I had to tell Jerry the shocking truth. ‘We can’t save the tree. It’s too far gone.’ 121
‘No!’ Jerry wailed. He pounded his fists against the oak’s unyielding bark. ‘Live, you bastard! Live!’ I put off getting rid of the tree for as long as I could. By day, Jerry hid in the woods. And every night, around midnight, he would come creeping across the lower field, climb onto the fallen tree and hump it for all his worth. The tree clung to life longer than expected but after two months it started to rot. Once the decay began, it accelerated, and soon the wood was so far gone it crumbled to the touch. Finally, I could put off its removal no longer and hired a contractor. The night before the tree was to be taken away and mulched, I waited for Jerry beside its putrid hulk. At midnight, he came scurrying from the woods and did what he had to. I don’t think he noticed my presence until he climbed off the trunk. It was hard to read the expression on his wooden face, but I think it was philosophical. ‘You’re here to tell me that the tree’s going, aren’t you?’ ‘I’m sorry, Jerry. But I have no choice.’ ‘It’s OK. What must be must be.’ As he walked back to the woods, I thought I would never see him again. I was wrong. The next day, Shirley and I watched a gang of workmen attack the tree with chainsaws. They laid into it like army ants, hacking off limbs and slicing the trunk into manageable segments. Diggers, grabbers, cranes and a bulldozer carried off the pieces and dumped them onto a fleet of lorries. The operation was carried out with ruthless efficiency and was over by lunch time. As the last lorry took away the last of the tree, I turned to hide my tears. Shirley put her arms around me. ‘So brutal,’ she pronounced. ‘I know it’s silly, but I wish we could have given it a decent burial.’ Without its mighty oak, the field looked as empty as my heart felt. ‘All things pass,’ I told her, as if that was any consolation. ‘You have to plant another tree, Shaun. Even if we never see it fully grown, our children will. And their children too.’ It was the first time she’d ever mentioned having children. ‘The day our first child is born,’ I said, ‘I’ll plant a new oak and they can grow together.’ A tightening of her grip signalled her approval. That night, Shirley talked about Jerry. She still believed he was convalescing in some remote clinic and it troubled her that she hadn’t heard from him for so long. We sat in the kitchen, drinking gooseberry wine. As we chatted in an unhurried, freewheeling manner about everything and nothing, it felt like the years had rolled back and we were in the tree house again, discovering new things about each other and life in general. After we’d done talking about the past, we talked about the future. Shirley said as soon as Jerry came back – and she was sure he would – she’d start divorce proceedings. ‘I don’t want a child out of wedlock,’ she announced. ‘If our children are to know right from wrong, we have to set an example.’ We slipped into bed at 1 in the morning. Shirley immediately fell asleep and I lay beside her, luxuriating in her warmth and listening to the lullaby of her breathing. I couldn’t stop thinking about Jerry. Was he out there, pining for his oak? Or was he running around the woods, brushing greenfly from his swollen prick and looking for a tree to fuck? Poor Jerry. He must have been the loneliest man in the world. For once, Shirley was up before me. She stood at the window, her marvellous form silhouetted by the rising sun.
Fuddled with sleep, I sat up in bed and checked the alarm clock. I had ten minutes grace before I needed to be up. On any other morning, my thoughts would have turned to what Shirley and I could do in that ten minutes. But I sensed sex was the furthest thing from her mind. She was, I knew, gazing down at the lower field, mourning the loss of our tree. ‘Good morning,’ I said, slipping out of bed. She turned her head, smiled briefly and then returned to her gazing. ‘I hope I didn’t wake you,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t sleep.’ Standing behind her, I placed my arms around her waist and kissed her neck. Shirley sighed. ‘We will be all right, won’t we, Shaun?’ ‘Of course we will.’ ‘And everything’s going to be fine?’ ‘I promise you, Shirley. Everything’s going to be more than fine.’ ‘It’s probably a trick of the light,’ she said, ‘but it looks like there’s something down there. Right where the tree used to stand.’ It was hard to make out in the twilight, but she seemed to be right. I thought I could see the silhouette of a man. There again, it might have been a random shadow. After breakfast, my conscience compelled me to go look for Jerry. When I reached the lower field, the shadow that had intrigued Shirley was still there. But now, with daylight firmly established, I could see it had solid form. It was in fact a young oak tree, standing in the spot recently vacated by its much older sibling. From a certain angle, it looked almost human. I noted the phallic outgrowth halfway up its trunk. Its size and shape reminded me of my first meeting with Jerry when he had proudly whipped out his cock. Now I knew I didn’t have to worry about him anymore. He was going to be just fine.
Publishing History 9:03 Published in Spinetingler. Dead Astronauts Won the 2009 British Fantasy Society Short Story Prize. Published in Dark Horizons. Belong Published in Spinetingler. Flat Pack Published at http://www.readshortfiction.com. The Snark Equation Published in The Edge magazine. The Ghost Tram Published in The Dark Fiction Spotlight . Things So Tiny Published in Flashes in the Dark. Janet and John Get Out of their Heads Published in The Fringe It Was a Dark and Stormy Night Published in Twisted Dreams. The Skitterlings Published in M-Brane SF. Little Green Pills Published in Weirdyear. Under the Rainbow Published in Bards and Sages Quarterly. Celia and Harold Published in the paperback anthology Various Authors. Maim, Mutilate and Destroy Published in Static Movement. The Greatest Novel Ever Written Published in Eclectic Flash. Night Ride Published at www.microhorror.com. 124
Throw Him Away and Get a New One Published in the paperback anthology Best Genre Short Stories Anthology #2: Short-Story.Me! Lost and Found Published in the paperback anthology Wretched Moments. The Rag Doll Man Published in Intertext. Kaptain Komfortâ€™s Misdemeanour Published in Intertext.
This highly entertaining short story collection by the award-winning Patrick Whittaker is a superb blend of sci fi, reality and general weir...
Published on Jan 18, 2016
This highly entertaining short story collection by the award-winning Patrick Whittaker is a superb blend of sci fi, reality and general weir...