Thursday, August 27, 2009

Random Writing 10

We first noticed the auditors walking the corridors late at night. Caroline Bates was the first to report them - shadowy grey figures strolling through the building, silent and ominous as she viewed them through the frosted glass between the general administration office and the corridor outside. She told Louisa and Chaz that "there was something wrong with the way they moved, like they were walking with crutches", although Caroline's fertile imagination and gullible nature was well known throughout the office, and it was put down to a mere excess of nervousness while having to work late to deal with the anomaly in the 1994-1995 accounts. In addition to that, the film "Auditor" had just finished its run in the local arthouse cinema - and although none of us had seen it, we had all seen clips on Film 95 and heard radio interviews with the director, so it was possible that we were even more susceptible to being given the creeps by it, having no real idea of the content of the film.

Chaz herself was working late the following Thursday, and as far as she knew alone on the third floor. She was sitting on the toilet reading Cosmo and scribbling Hitler moustaches on the pictures of models in the fashion review pages when the door to the ladies opened. Thinking it might be the cleaners, who no-one but security have ever in fact seen, she called out "Hello?", but there was no answer. Instead she heard the clack-clack of two women in high-heel shoes walking into the room. Thinking it unlikely to be cleaners, she stopped talking; not wanting to be thought of as some jumpy fool, and hoping that the one simple word hadn't been enough to identify her.

"Correct, but in the wrong place," said a voice somewhere over one of the pairs of shoes. Chaz shivered, and the shiver went down her arms and flipped the pages of the magazine. It was an odd voice, but Chaz could not think why and would be unable (when later reciting the story to Louisa and me) to explain why. The two pairs of high heels clacked and clacked again, and the toilet door swung shut with a clunk.

Chaz cleaned up and emerged carefully from the cubicle. There was no-one there, of course, but she wondered what the voice had meant. In other circumstances, perhaps said in another voice, Chaz (who was notoriously filthy-minded) would have thought that she was unwitting witness to some kind of private anatomical examination. But the tone of voice of the speaker had put all such thoughts out of her head. She walked over to the sink and noticed that there was a big red X of lipstick about the size of her hand drawn on the mirror. It had not been there when she came in, since she had detoured to the mirror to examine her blouse. She carefully scraped at one of the legs of the X. It would not come off. She washed her hands and left, picking up her things and heading home. Although not superstitious or easily spooked (indeed, she struck most of us as preternaturally cool-headed), Chaz had a well-practised policy of leaving anywhere that she didn't feel comfortable as soon as she could.

When she told us the story the following Monday (Louisa was on an accountancy ethics course on the Friday, and without Louisa's intermediacy I did not generally drop in on Chaz), we immediately went to the ladies to check on the mystery mark, Louisa going in while I waited outside.

"Gone," she reported, "nothing there at all."

Chaz shrugged, and accepted the news with equanimity.

"I suppose the cleaners must have had more powerful detergents than your thumb does," I suggested.

Louisa didn't see them herself for another three weeks, although someone from the fourth floor must have, because a grammatically dubious email from human resources warned us that "inappropriate persons have been seen wandering free the upper floors", and exhorting us to report any unauthorised visitors - a job most of us felt was not ours. Since we ourselves could not usually get into the building without our passes, we assumed that anyone else wandering the corridors must have had authorisation, and we just took care of our own offices. The email also contained several confusing or incorrect descriptions of the offices affected (it mentioned unknown people spotted near the router cupboard on the north corridor, when in fact it is on the east corridor), although when I later went through my email to show that to Louisa it had been recalled. I had never seen an email successfully recalled from the system before (not even the one in which the previous CFO referred to someone as a "mong"), and sent a congratulatory email to Brian for managing to finally get the system working. I obviously didn't pack enough flattery into the email, because when I later asked him to give me a copy of the recalled one he refused, saying that it would be an abuse of his position as email administrator - a position I knew he abused frequently for his own benefit, of course, but I decided it wasn't worth making a thing of it. I would save that information in case it came in handy later.

Louisa (so far as I know) was the first person to see them up close. She was returning from delivering a pile of documents to the legal department on sixth when she heard a low hubbub of voices coming around the corner. Although, again, she was slightly spooked to realise she was not alone on the floor, she kept going, buoyed up by the realisation that some of the voices were female, and therefore she was unlikely to be starring in some tragic news story on the morning show.

The noises grew louder and louder as she neared the corner, and when she was about three meters away herself a man in a suit suddenly appeared. She jumped, but although he stared at her, his eyes barely flickered. It was as though I wasn't there, she told Chaz later, or worse - it was as though I didn't matter.

Random Writing 9

The air was hot and thick, and full of the shrill cries of a thousand insects; full, indeed, in every way and therefore somehow more solid, more dense, than the air of home. Water hung there in ambush, waiting to coalesce on Susan's arms, legs, face as she walked through it. She had forgotten what it was like to be fully dry, for every surface of the forest was either dark with damp or bright with drops of liquid.

She pushed on through the trees, following the line of saplings that marked the path of the refugees. It seemed hard to believe that Jonathan had once come the opposite way along this track - it was barely anything, how could it possibly have disgorged an entire nation onto the world? His footsteps could lie underneath this covering of the scrubby vines that grew criss-cross over the path, but were they buried beneath the footsteps of tens of thousands of others? There would be no way to tell, of course, since even the last to come had presumably had their trails covered by now, the actions of the huge earthworms, the vines, the seedlings in their constant fruitless race up to the sun, all contributing to the anonymity of the trail. In a few decades - perhaps, she thought, even a few years - the path would be almost invisible. Even now it was hard to follow.

In places the vines that grew everywhere on the ground had managed to creep into the trees and drape themselves across the path, looking like an unappealing green curtain but actually tight enough to form a barrier. Their woody stems took multiple blows from her machete to cut, and the various strands grew together so tightly that they almost seemed woven. To cut one just release tension to another, and when she came upon such a cloth of vegetation blocking her path she was forced to chop almost the whole thing out, hacking a shape for her body to pass through and taking her pack off her back to get that through the gap too.

What had the path looked like before, she wondered. Had it been here from older times, used enough by the locals to keep it clear, so that when the refugees found it it had been easier going for them than it was for her? She discarded the idea after some thought, realising that if the locals had been using the path they would be using it still, that she might have been able to get a guide to come with her.

A scarlet dragonfly buzzed past her face. She jumped back, startled and unwilling to touch it, and the creature flew on and then hovered a few feet away, almost as though it were observing her. A few seconds it hung there, sparking red in a sunbeam that had managed to break through the canopy overhead, and then it was gone. Susan had not seen a dragonfly since she arrived in Africa, and something tickled in the back of her mind. A pond? Back home dragonflies always seemed to hunt over ponds and rivers, was it the same in the rainforest? There was a lot more water, and it might be that the dragonflies here specialised somehow, perhaps laying their eggs in trapped leaf pools higher up, but then again...

She unslung her pack and delved around in it for a few moments, feeling the odd sensation of her hand drying against the odd fresh clothes inside. Her fingers touched the cool screen of her GPS receiver and she pulled it out, crossed her fingers and pushed the on button. After a few agonising seconds the screen burst into white life, then cleared to black again, then displayed its welcome message. She rested against a tree branch and waited while it searched for satellites - slowly and painfully, but eventually it had found four and gave her a location she was happy with. She recorded it, tucked the unit into her pocket, and began to cast around to the south.

For two hours she cut, hacking her way off the path and into the jungle, hunting for the side path that she knew must have been created if the stories were true. It was hard work, and her shoulder ached with the constant impact of the machete on vine wood, her muscles hot with lactic acid as she lifted her right arm over and over, and swept again and again with her left arm. Each proto-path she found ended a mere meter or two in, though, just a blind alley formed by chance arrangement of the giant trees.

Eventually, though, one path grew without stopping as she cut - two hundred meters down from the point she had started her search, a narrow track that was (once she was past the initial meter or two) actually in better condition than the main path. The narrower track had perhaps concentrated the feet traversing it, she thought, focusing the damage on the ground below. She cut forward faster now, the excitement of the discovery giving her tired shoulders a second strength, and she imagined the young Jonathan, who must have been perhaps twenty years old?, travelling the same path. He would have been tired, hungry, thirsty - perhaps afraid? It was hard to tell. Had their been enemies on their trail, or was it something else that had caused them to leave, caused all of them to abandon that place that seemed to the outside world as though it must have been something of a paradise? Her thoughts took her further, imagining the empress as a young child, tiny brown hand clutched in that of a parent, a handmaid - perhaps another guard, one of Jonathan's troops? She shook her head, annoyed. The whole thing was ridiculous.

Then with a final sweep of the machete she stepped through, and her chest froze, locking her breath inside her, a cold and hot confusing gas that her body was suddenly unsure what to do with. Before her was a wide expanse of water, edged with huge bullrushes in which scarlet dragonflies chased smaller fare. This at least was true. Here was the watering post, the little lake that had saved the refugees.

Random Writing 8

The cardinal stood motionless at the top of the stairs, carefully examining the couple below him in the concourse. Had they but looked up once they would surely have spotted him, but it seemed that God's will was that his misstep should go without remark. He narrowed his eyes, wishing that he had an eyeglass with which he could see their mouths more clearly. Over the last ten years he had quietly practised lip-reading for just such a purpose. Every Tuesday morning he had a selection of different choristers and monks sent to the stairwell onto which his antechamber opened to recite verses from the bible as an act of piety and education for travellers upon those great stairs. The exact verses were picked at random by a process involving lots (he would have preferred dice, but the impious nature of their involvement in gambling stayed his hand - it would probably not be best to put temptation so close at hand for his assistants). The various worshippers stood on the ground floor, from where they could be heard both up and down the stairs (and in the case of some of the more lusty-voiced choristers, in the garden outside and the antechamber to the royal court itself). The verses recited, he had specified carefully, should last one full hour - after which time they should be repeated six further times, ensuring that during the hours that the regent's court was officially in session any visitor or supplicant was sure to be expose to God's message.

The cardinal's predecessor had (during his time of service) shown him a curious feature of the offices. When the palace had been built it had included a private corridor from the room which then served as the cardinal's study along the front length of the house to a set of rooms in the east wing. The third cardinal to inhabit the palace had decided (for whatever reason) to have the passages at each end bricked up (perhaps for reasons of privacy - at that time the east wing had been entirely given over to military interests). Some subsequent occupant of the post, however, had quietly had the nearby wall removed and covered over with a bookcase on an elaborate hinge that rendered it subject to the will with only a slight pressure, even when fully loaded with volumes. A hidden hook and catch near the top left side of the bookcase prevented it from swinging open when it was not required, and indeed a matching catch on the inside could be used to secure it from the inside to decrease further the chance for discovery (under normal circumstances no-one was allowed to enter the cardinal's study without permission, and two loyal guardsmen manned the door during the hours of day, but such precautions or taboos had not always existed, nor was everyone bound by them as strongly as a civilised man would hope to expect).

The cardinal himself, through the use of a pair of devout carpenters who were (on completion of the work) awarded a much desired passage with generous allowance to the remote colonies where they were to act as both construction foremen and missionaries, had had the private gallery thus created modified still further. It had formed a length of corridor 30 rods long, traversing the front of the palace at a height on a par with the second floor. Small windows allowed light in from the south wall, windows which could be spotted from the front of the palace but which lay between the larger windows which illuminated the stairway and the hall below. On the inside of the hall the position of the passage was marked by a large dado rail upon which were hung large portraits of the king-in-waiting's ancestors.

Halfway along the hallway the cardinal had caused to be constructed a pair of shutters which could be pulled across to cover the window, a desk and chair, and a small circular hole in the wall which could be plugged with a glass bung with a rubber washer to hold it in place. This hole had been the most difficult part of the construction, entailing as it did a visible burrowing through the existing wall. The carpenters had stayed in the corridor overnight to accomplish the task, while at the same time the cardinal's personal secretary had secreted himself in the hall with a brush and bag with which on the completion of the work he could quickly sweep up any detritus or dust that had fallen outwards from the bore-hole.

On Tuesday mornings at precisely eleven o'clock the cardinal would sit himself at the desk, from which he could easily press his eye to the spy-hole - the plug being made of a specially clarified glass that lacked the distortions that might otherwise hinder him, and imparted a slight magnification with which he could see the mouths of the worshippers more easily. With the plug in place and two leather pads bound over his ears with a woollen scarf, the cardinal was able to see the choristers perfectly clearly in the hall below, but was unable to hear them in the slightest. Lending his fullest attention to the mouths of his servants he then dipped quill in ink and carefully recorded what he could make out of each verse. The texts in question being somewhat known to him in the due course of his profession he was of course at some slight advantage, but it was to his reckoning only enough to act as a starting point that he might not be completely confounded initially. The randomisation of the verses therefore acted against that, ensuring that although after a few initial words he could decipher a whole verse, the next one declaimed would be a mystery to him again.

Later in the day, safely back in his study, the cardinal could compare his list with the list of verses prepared by his assistants and find out how accurate he had been. He had improved rapidly over the course of the decade's practise, and was now confident of being able to read the lips of anyone but the most disfigured misfortunate, should he come within viewing range of their speech.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Random Writing 7

We looked in the cage, keeping our distance. The big body of the thing was sure to prevent it from getting between the bars, but the tentacles looked like the could have reached out pretty easily, and in the twilight it was almost impossible to make out where it was. In the full light of day it had been easy to spot once you knew what to look for, but I think if we'd stumbled into someone else's camp and found the cage we'd have walked up to it as confident as anything and no doubt we'd have been grabbed immediately and ended up in bits. Milo had the smart idea of gathering twigs (well, we called them twigs, but of course that wasn't what they really were at all) and using them to make a circumference on the ground around the cage that would show us roughly where we were safe. It was risky guesswork, of course, since we had no idea whether the tentacles could shoot out like a squid's, but it was better than nothing, and I figured a pretty good use of our effort even if it only reduced my chances of being horribly mangled to death by 20%. I'd pay that price for that payoff - who wouldn't?

"Do you think it sleeps?" Milo asked.

I shrugged.

"How would we tell?"

"Yeah," Serge agreed. "I watched it for an hour, it didn't move at all. I guess it doesn't breath or whatever. I could have sworn it was dead."

"Nah," Milo said. |"It was breathing. Everything here's got to breath, it's no different from back home."

Milo was our biologist - or the closest thing we had, anyway. He didn't have any more qualifications that Serge or me, or even any of the people back at the sales pens, but he read a lot of the science dispatches, which he referred to as "keeping up with the enemy". I'd never really thought of the scientists as our enemies, just as kind of an annoyance. The thing about the scientists was that their strength was also their weakness. They had to announce everything they'd found. The provisionals could use that to work out where they needed to put their resources and what they particularly had to protect. But the provisionals were slow, of course, and in the meantime we were reading the same scientific papers and when something important came up we could get there, snag a few specimens and get out before the guards got there.

"Here's a thought," he said, and Serge and I knew that he'd had some idea about the specimen, because that was always what he said when he'd got an idea that was going to put one of us in danger. "We could stick a recorder in there, maybe get an audio of it breathing. Perhaps it'll make some more of those - those squeaks it was making earlier?"

"What?"

"You know, that squeaking noise. Sounded like a rusty ceiling fan."

We stared blankly at Milo.

"I didn't hear nothing," Serge said. I nodded.

"It was doing it when we brought it in," Milo insisted.

"It was completely silent," I told him.

"No no no. Wait, where were we all?"

I thought back - we'd got it against the cliff with two rounds in it, but the tranquilisers hadn't had as much of an effect as we were expecting, and it had managed to wrap a tentacle around Milo's leg. We'd rushed in, and Serge had hit the thing with the butt of his rifle. That made it let go, and then we'd managed to force it back until it was up to where we'd put the cage. Luckily the cage capture mechanism had worked nicely, and Milo triggered the lock from his PDA.

"You were in front of the mouth," I said cautiously, "and Serge and me over to the side."

"It's directional."

"Eh?"

"It's got some kind of directional sound it can produce. Look, normally sound comes out all around the source, like a speaker or someone's mouth. But it's possible to make soundwaves that travel sort of like lasers, they just go in one direction so unless they hit something or you get right in the way of them you can't hear them. Like a maser communicator rather than a radio, right?"

I had no idea what he was talking about, but Serge was nodding as if he understood and I was damned if I was going to look stupider than Serge, so I nodded too. Hopefully it wouldn't make any difference anyway, Milo would just do something or tell us what to do. That was how things usually worked out.

"Where's the mouth now?" He said. Of course none of us had the slightest idea. "Here, give me that torch."

Serge handed over his torch, the purple chromed one that he'd won in the casino at Camp Hera. Milo flicked on the switch and the quarter-of-a-million candlepower beam Serge was so proud of jabbed into the cage. We could see the thing more clearly now, and we walked up to the boundary that Milo had laid out and examined it carefully. There was one of the tentacles, follow that back towards the body, and...

"There!" Milo said, pointing. "And it's going that way." He stepped round the body, then nodded and gestured Serge over to him.

"Oh yeah," said Serge. I stepped in myself, and it was as though the thing had started squealing just for my benefit. I stepped back. Nothing. In again, and there was the sound, like a mouse caught in clockwork. I listened for a few moments. It seemed familiar.

"You know what that sounds like?" The others looked at me blankly. "It sounds like that distress cry, you know, the one those little squirrel-bird things made. You said they were mimics, right Milo? Maybe this is what they were mimicking."

We looked at each other for a moment, then as if by telepathy we all got it at once.

"Oh shit," Milo said, fumbling with the torch to turn it off. "It thinks there's another one out there."

Serge spun around nervously, looking out of the camp. We were against the cliff on one side, but apart form a few man-sized rocks there was nothing protecting us the rest of the way.

"Uh," I said. "Yes. Uh.. what if it's right?"

Friday, August 14, 2009

Random Writing 6

I staggered into the bar, hoping against hope that no-one I knew would be in there. It was a crowded Friday evening, though, the place packed with regulars and student pub-crawlers, and much to my annoyance I bumped into Meg almost immediately. Meg works in the same office as my girlfriend - they get on well, despite something of a personality clash. My girlfriend (Hannah) is an old-school protestant work ethic type of girl, turns up early and leaves late, and doesn't stop for breaks. Yes, thanks for asking, she is starting to develop ulcers. I once caught her replying to an email while I was going down on her (she'd surreptitiously swiped her blackberry from the nightstand), which I can assure you is not an entirely ego-boosting commentary on my oral skills.

Meg, meanwhile - or rather, "Meg in contrast", since although I say meanwhile in real life, I notice in print it makes it look as though I'm aware of what Meg was doing at that moment that the little click of buttons reached my ears and I peered through the little thicket of Hannah's pubic topiary to see her holding up the glossy black of the PDA and mouthing to herself the exact line she was going to take when replying to an accusation that she'd put the wrong figures into a sales spreadsheet - Meg in contrast was the kind of person who you could meet in a bar and chat for a few moments about facial injuries and not suspect in the slightest that she was the sort of person who would take five cigarette breaks before lunchtime and that even when she wasn't sitting outside the fire door (alarm disabled by the supervisor who wanted to be able to sneak off early to see his mistress) with a cigarette in one hand and a copy of Heat in the other, she would be rearranging the tiny china houses which covered her desk, trying and failing to chat up the security guard behind reception, or sitting in the spare chair behind Hannah telling her all the gory details of her last night's date.

In retrospect, given that last item, it is entirely possible that I know (or knew) what Meg was doing while I was making a sort of coughing noise to attract Hannah's attention, because Hannah is the kind of woman who extends her love life vicariously through her friends' anecdotes, and will tell me (whether I want to hear them or not) all the gory details over dinner.

So, Meg is there on her own - well, not quite on her own, but her date wasn't due to turn up for another hour, and she had arrived straight from work in order to spend an hour and a half drinking up courage (or to put it another way, removing an hour and a half's worth of drinking from the time between her date turning up and the two of them adjourning to somewhere that I would no doubt hear about from Hannah in the course of a meal next week).

I'd fortuitously arrived on her right, so I had the duration of her explanation in which I was able to buy a shot, down it, buy a pint and then make my way halfway to the bottom before I accidentally turned enough for her to be able to see the shiner I was sporting.

"Jesus, what happened to your eye?"

I reached up nonchalantly, which I don't need to tell you is exactly the wrong thing to do if you're still shaky from being on the losing side of a fight and have some drinks inside you. Instead of gently touching the swelling around my eye I poked myself in the eyebrow.

"Ah, ow, ow, ow!"

"Christ, don't jab it," Meg told me. "Did someone hit you?"

I nodded.

"Yep. At length. You should see the other guy, though." She raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Completely untouched. But you should see him anyway, he was some looker."

Meg folded up a napkin, dipped it into her drink, then reached it out towards my forehead. I leant back quickly.

"Woah, woah. What are you doing?"

"I'm cleaning it," she said.

"Did you learn your medicine from How Clean Is Your House or something? That's for cuts." I batted her hand away gently, and she pursed her lips and stared at me for a few seconds, then dropped the napkin back onto the bar.

"Does Hannah know?" She asked.

"Well of course, she was there holding my coa- No of course she doesn't know!"

"Oooeeeooo! I was just asking."

I waved the barmaid over and bought myself another drink and one for Meg too as sort of a peace offering. Although she can be profoundly stupid at times, it's obvious that she meant well. I explained to her the details of the fight - why Anderson had punched me in the face to start with, and then how I learnt that I was completely unable to hold my own in a fist fight while Anderson could not only hold his own, but those of several others.

"Damn," she said. "Sounds like I ought to meet this guy."

"Well he's handsome enough," I conceded, "but then on the other hand I'm pretty sure the story I just told might clue you in that he's not for you."

"Huh? Oh, the gay thing. Right." She made a faux-resigned face, then her eyes went glassy and she ducked her head down towards the bar. "Move to your left slightly," she hissed.

"What?" I went to turn around, but she grabbed my right arm and pinned me in place.

"Don't turn around. Move to your left slightly."

I did so.

"What's going on?"

"He's here early," she told me.

"Who?"

"My date. Robert Close. He's her early, and I am not nearly drunk enough yet."

I laughed a little, unable to help myself.

"Your date is Robert Close? The Robert Close?"

"Yes, goddamn it. Keep your voice down!"

I carefully looked round to my right, looking in the mirror and trying to find him in among the bottles of booze. Sure enough, there he was - Robert Close in the flesh, clearly trying not to be noticed himself. I was amazed that he hadn't asked for somewhere a bit less crowded to meet up, given everything.

"How do you know Robert Close?" I asked.

"We were at secondary school together, he had a crush on me. I was just interested in being friends, you know. We've got mutual acquaintances still."

I stared into the mirror. Robert Close, well well.

"Shit," said Meg. "I need more booze." She gestured the barmaid over with one of those tight little waves that you see people doing in farces. "Two triple vodkas," she told the girl, then pointed to me. "And whatever this guy is having."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Joe Harper's Fridge and what came out of it (Random Writing 5)

Three days before halloween 1995 was the day that we found out that Billy Sykes was one of them, the day that Lissa let me take off her bra for the first time, and I guess the day that I did what I'd always wanted to do - fuck up the town of Shiphook for good. Although no-body knew that till later, of course.

I wanted to do more with Lissa, of course I did, but she was all churched up, so I took what I could get and when she said she had to get back in time for dinner with her folks I just let her go - I wasn't going to go pleading or any crap like that, you get a reputation that way, and fuck if I was going to be with Lissa for the rest of my life, you know? I knew that the little town of Shitpoke was too small for me, too small for anyone really, but some folks like to feel shoehorned into a place, and Lissa's family was like that. She was the hottest girl in school, no doubt, but - you know, a town of three thousand people has got what, a hundred teenagers, fifty of them are girls? Someone's got to be hottest, forty-nine other girls from some nowhere hole on the edge of the schism aren't exactly going to provide the stiffest competition, right?

I used to think, back at the time, that I'd look back on her - I was going to say fondly, but that's just some cliche phrase they crapped into our heads in English lessons. No, I thought I'd look back someday and think about her with some little Shiphook husband who worked in the mine office, two goofy children, some craphole apartment in a block with picket fences around it to fool people into thinking they were living their dreams out. I could imagine her greeting him back from work with a peck on the cheek and helping him to dinner on some laminate-top table, and I'd just laugh and laugh and think about whether he knew that I'd been there first, that she'd given me a blow-job in my brother's car with the roof down while I threw cans and bottles and whatever other shit was in the back seat into the schism.

Not happening now, of course. We used to say that if you didn't get out of Shiphook by the time you were 20, you were never getting out. I left when I was nineteen, and then - well, six months later there was no-one getting out, and by the time I was twenty there was nothing left to get out of, just breach 184 and them.

So anyway - I didn't much fancy spending the evening with Dad and Janet, so I thought I'd head down to the local night-spot for any self-respecting Shiphook rebel. This was before my brother had his car, so I took my bike - about twenty minutes it used to take at that time. Two minutes to the end of the road (which is pushing it a bit) our house was on, then the main road through town for five minutes, then five minutes up mine road and the rest to make it through the forest and the brush to our meeting spot, away from where the scientists and the odd mad tourists came to look at the schism. I got there just in time to catch the argument between Billy Sykes and Joe Harper, the argument that would end - well, the argument that would end Shiphook, I suppose.

"You stupid fucker!" Harper was shouting, over and over while Sykes was trying to tell him that he hadn't done it on purpose, that it was an accident, all kinds of stuff like that - his dad would fix it, he'd find a replacement, whatever.

As I got out into the little clearing I could see that something was up, and took a good guess at what had happened. Sykes was always a clumsy bastard, a skinny kid a little bit taller than me but no muscles, always stooping like he was ashamed of being tall or some crazy thing. He'd rode his bike into my dad's car once and earned the both of us (because my dad was nothing if not unfair) a smack in the head. This time, it was the fridge.

Harper (plus me, my brother, and Wop Karl) had dragged it in here two years ago, after Harper found it in a dump and convinced his dad to help him fix it up somehow. It was a little fridge with an old-style locking door handle rather than a magnetic strip and powered (thanks to Mr. Harper) by a car battery that Harper used to bring to the clearing on the back of his bike. Turned up full, it would drain the battery over a couple of hours and cool down enough to give us some reasonably cold beers or cokes, or whatever. It stank like crap because someone had once left food in there for a month with no power, but - well, the beer was inside the bottle, it wasn't like we were drinking the slime on the bottom.

Except it was pretty obvious to me that there wasn't going to be any more problem with smell, but sadly no cold beers for a while either. The fridge was laying on its side, the pipes at the back that made it work busted all to shit. I guess the gas in them was long gone, way up high fucking up the atmosphere like it had always dreamt of, no doubt.

"Hey, dumbasses," said Joe Creeks, who was looking through his telescope. "Shut the fuck up."

"The fridge," Harper screamed, "the fridge! Don't tell me to shut the fuck up, you shut the fuck up!"

"Shut the fuck up," I told him, emerging from the forest. Harper, for all his stupid-ass redneck pride, knew his place. I'd punched it into him a couple times before - I forget what about, it's not important.

"Hey Roberts," Creeks said.

"Hey. What's up with the fridge?"

Creeks looked back from the telescope and stared at the broken refrigerator as if it had always been like that.

"I guess this dumbass knocked it over," he said carefully, "then this dumbass started getting louder and louder, and now it's like - I dunno, they must be looking over the schism and wondering why we hang out with screechy bitch and whiney bitch."

I walked over to him, ditching my bike onto the broken fridge. Joe Creeks was the oldest of us, a full year older than me, but too strange to be the boss. He drank with us, he joked with us, but the two things he wouldn't do were one: tell people what to do, and two: shoot over the schism. He brought down his telescope, which if it had belonged to anyone else would probably have got kicked over the edge of the valley long ago, and he just stared out over the river valley, over the schism that was where the river should have been, and to the other side where they gathered to do their thing, whatever the fuck that was.

"What are they up to?" I asked as if I didn't care - which, guess what? But you had to humour the guy.

He looked back into the eyepiece, fiddled with the focus a bit, then hummed.

"Hmmm. Well, we got the usual looky-looes, then there's one of the big things, then we got a couple of them fiddling with some sort of machine."

That got my interest (OK, so I did care a little).

"They got machines?" I asked. He stood up and gestured for me to take a look.

Joe Creeks' telescope was an old naval one rather than some astronomical model, not much better than a good pair of binoculars or the rifle scope, but it had an L-shaped eyepiece and a good tripod with a stiff mount that meant he could set it up to watch something and then turn it over to one or other of us to look at without us having to adjust it or find the target again. I leant over and peered over at the other side of the schism.

I don't know what it was really, but I could see that there wasn't any other good way to describe the thing. It was a machine, alright. It was made of the same weird grey stuff that they were made of, so maybe - I don't know - maybe it was a creature more than a thing, but it was sat there just like a generator, and two of them were working on it, two of the ones that look mainly like us except grey and except for the mouth thing. They had funny baskets and they were taking things out and attaching them to the bigger thing. Sometimes it looked like they were glueing them on, sometimes it looked more like they were feeding it - but I couldn't make out much detail, you can't see much unless they're standing right on the edge of the cliff above the schism, not with that fog stuff.

"Here," Joe Creeks said, and gently pushed me aside. He looked down into the eyepiece and swung the telescope around, refocused, and stood up again. With a nod of the head he invited me to look again, and I did. "That one looks like it's making measurements or something," he said, and sure enough it was holding a stick up in the air, running it's hand (or whatever they have) along it and then mimed like it was writing something in a book. Except there was no book. "I can't for the life of me see what it's measuring, though," Joe complained. "Is it measuring the air?"

"Fuck if I know," I said. Behind us, Joe Harper and Billy were still bickering quietly, and I saw Harper punch his opponent at the top of his arm. "Hey, I got an idea," I called out. "Get the gun."

Now what you should know is that the gun is a hunting rifle that belonged to my mother's father, so of course I didn't want my dumb crap of a father to get his hands on it, much less Janet who'd probably melt it down to make a statue of a deer or whatever. So I kept it in the clearing, where late in the evening we used it to take potshots at the other side. It's not a very good rifle, though, so we never hit any of them, even the big ones. But the machine - that was much bigger.

"Take a look," I told Joe Harper, pointing at the telescope. "Hey, show him the machine."

Joe Creeks obliged.

"About 200 meters," Joe Harper said. He was good at estimating distance, which didn't usually make any difference on account of the crappy rifle, but it made us feel a bit more badass, like we were those assholes who went hunting in stupid orange jackets but could shoot the nuts off a sparrow half a mile away.

"What are you doing?" Sykes asked me. He looked over the schism as I lay down, resting the rifle on the bottom of an old beer bottle that I'd pushed top-down into the ground to act as a jerry-rig monopod. I adjusted the sight, and carefully lined up on the machine. The view through the sight wasn't as good as through the telescope - the magnification was pretty much as good, but the field of view much worse, so it took me a minute to scan around until I got pointed in the right direction. There were still the two of them fussing around it, and I aimed at the top middle of the machine, assuming that the drop would counter out any inaccuracy that would send the bullet up over the top.

It was different from usual. I normally felt bigger, like I imagined a sniper would feel, kind of like a god looking through a scope and deciding another person's life for them. Except they weren't people of course, and there was no chance of me hitting them. Still, it was good to just be screwing with someone. But this time, shooting at the machine, maybe, I knew. I wasn't just taking a pop at some thing, I was starting something. I started to slowly squeeze the trigger.

"No!"

The sound alone would have saved the machine - I jerked like someone with a cow-prod jabbed in them, and my finger clamped onto the trigger. The rifle fired, and I heard a yell from my left and some motion caught my eye - the motion of Joe Creeks' tripod tipping forwards, slowly at first, but then toppling forwards over the edge.

"No no no!" Joe Creeks yelled, diving forwards - but too late. The telescope and tripod rolled over and over three times, coming to rest in a bush about four meters down the slope. "What did you do that for?" He demanded, and I wondered the same thing as I rolled over to look at Sykes. He was crouched over me, arm outstretched, frozen in the pose he'd dived into to push the rifle barrel away.

"You can't do it," he said, panicked.

I rolled over onto my side and kicked him in the back of the right knee before he could react. His leg bent, and he collapsed sideways, his arm out so that his hand hit me on the hip and he fell over my legs. I kicked him off, and scrambled up to my feet.

"My telescope."

"I know," I said. I don't know what inspiration hit me, but I grabbed Sykes - one hand on his shoulder, one in the middle of his back, and bundled him to the fridge, half dragging him, half carrying him, while he struggled and thrashed, arms and legs going everywhere.

"Put me down! What the.. what are you?"

Joe Harper saw immediately what I was about, and rushed in front of me, pulling open the fridge door and yanking out the shelves from within. Sykes knew then too, and yelled even louder, but I pushed him out and then punched him in the stomach with all the force I could manage, driving the air out of him in one explosive scream. He went limp, gasping for air as if he were being strangled, and Joe Harper and I thrust him into the empty cavity. He fit handily once we bent his legs so that his knees supported his head. I swung the door closed and heard it latch shut.

"That's right," Joe Harper shouted, and kicked at the side of the fridge.

I turned back to Joe Creeks, who was staring forlornly down the hill. I suppose it would have happened eventually. You can't just bring something out like that and hope that it doesn't get broken. I walked over to him and punched him gently on the arm.

"I reckon I could get down there," he said quietly.

Now I am all for fucked-up stupidity, and I'd be lying to you if I said for a second that I did not want to see Joe Creeks climb down that slope. It was like two in one, and the chance of him losing his footing and rolling down into the schism - well, I don't think anyone would want to miss that. I liked him, you know - well, I mean he was alright, but who'd ever seen anyone go into the schism? Maybe some old-timey folks, or a scientist or something, but no-one for twenty years at least. I wanted to know whether it would burn up a person the same way it did a brick, or if he'd evaporate like the beer bottle I threw in that one time or whatever it was happened to that nerd's bicycle (it's hard to explain, it was like it folded in all directions at once).

Joe Harper was a bit more of a pansy, though. Not so as to stop Joe Creeks, but enough to remember that there was a length of rope that we'd used when we brought the fridge into the clearing, and that it was nylon so there was every chance it might still be OK to hold Joe Creeks' weight.

"It's here somewhere, I keep seeing it on the way in." The three of us stumbled around in the undergrowth until finally I spotted a length wrapped round a tree (it was bright blue, pretty easy to see in hindsight), and between us we managed to extract the whole length of it. We tied a brick around it and threw that down the slope to check that it would go far enough (it did - probably twice as far as necessary), then Joe Creeks tied it round his belt buckle at one end and a nearby tree stump at the other end and began to lower himself down.

I felt cheated by how easy it was - he let himself down from scrubby bush to scrubby bush, carefully handling the line behind him to make sure that it wouldn't get snagged on anything on the way back up. About halfway there the ground crumbled out from under his feet and he slid down a couple of feet, but he caught himself. I found myself eyeing the rope and my hand went to my pocket-knife - but no. If Joe Creeks went into the schism of his own accord that was one thing, but if I did it there was no way it wouldn't be murder, and there was no way I was getting out of here just to get stuck in juvie.

Joe Creeks pulled himself back up to the top of slope and untied himself, then set up his tripod again and brushed the dust off the telescope. He looked down into the eyepiece, fiddled with focus, then panned it around.

"It's OK," he said. "Uhh..."

I didn't care, though. I was looking from the edge to the fridge, and thinking how much the fridge had weighed. Not that much. Not enough to snap the rope - not back then, and not now I would guess.

I picked up the end, looped it around the fridge - through the handle, behind the coolant pipes, and around the motor, which I figured would do it. Joe Harper was watching me, and as he realised what I was doing he started to laugh.

"Shut up, idiot," I hissed. grabbing the bottom edge, I strained and managed to tip it up onto its top. It was quite a way to the edge - too far for just me, really. I could have done it, no doubt, but why keep a dumbass and bark yourself? I gestured to Joe Harper to come over and join me.

"Hey, hey!" A muffled shouting from within the fridge, and a banging. I imagined Sykes thumping weakly at the slimy walls of the fridge, barely able to move his hands enough to make an impact in the cramped space. "Hey, what's going on? Guys? Guys?"

Bam, the fridge flipped onto its back. Then upright, the front, the top, the back, and with every flip it got closer and closer to the edge. Joe Creeks was watching us - I caught his eye, but he gave me that look, the I'm-not-getting-involved look, then went back to his telescope.

We came to the edge.

"Here we are, at the edge!" I said loudly. "One more flip and over he goes. Think he's going to fizzle?"

Joe laughed, and kicked at the fridge door.

"Guys? Guys, I'm sorry. What are you doing? Don't, please..."

"Not good enough!" I yelled at the door. "Not good enough, motherfucker!"

"They're looking," Joe Creeks said quietly. I turned. There was no need for a telescope. On the other side of the schism I could clearly see them, lined up expectantly at the edge of the cliff. It was like they were waiting for something.

"Caught your attention, you fucks!" I yelled over to them. I'd wanted to string it out a bit longer, but the sudden audience made me impulsive. Putting my shoulder against the side of the fringe I lunged forward sharply, and the fridge toppled over, smacking into the ground.

Of course it didn't roll - we'd been turning it over the hard way, and gravity wasn't as stubborn as me. It lay there on its side, half over the edge, a frantic screaming and hammering coming from inside. I kicked it a few times to turn it around ninety degrees, then another shove to the top side sent it rolling.

"That's weird," said Joe Creeks.

Kicking up dust, the fridge rolled over and over, picking up speed as it bumped and skidded down towards the schism, the sickening solid blackness of the schism that had been there for three hundred years, ever since it rose out of the bottom of the river and devoured it.

I was standing gently on the rope to slow things down a bit (and so that there wasn't a short sharp shock that would snap the rope - again, I didn't think that it would look good to the pigs if the fridge went into the schism, no matter how good it would look when it burnt, or exploded, or imploded). It was almost at full stretch, but it never got there. Sykes had been yelling and screaming but it go worse and worse, and there was something wrong about it, a sound like a jet engine heard a long way away, or a cat yelling at night. I was just beginning to think that something must have gone wrong with his voice when the back of the fridge exploded out, a gunmetal-grey arm smashing through the cooling pipes and grill and punching into the ground. The fridge stopped instantly.

"Holy shit," Joe Harper said. "He - he - he's one of them!"

Dumbfuck that I was, it took me a few seconds to realise what he was saying, then suddenly it was obvious. Bill Sykes was clumsy, he was a clumsy tall stupid bastard, he couldn't control himself like a normal person and the reason was simple - he wasn't a normal person, he was a thing, a thing that should be on the other side of the schism but somehow wasn't.

Below, another arm appeared, and the two of them ripped open the fridge like a plastic bag, the weird grey head that we'd seen through the telescope popped out of it like something in a monster flick. Bill Sykes screamed again, and I guess that was a first too, because me and Joe Harper must have been the first people to see what those screwed-up mouths looked like when they were open.

Then it was panic all round. The thing that had been Bill scrambled out of its prison and started to scramble up the hill. But easy as it was for the fridge to roll down, it was impossible for Bill to climb back up, the ground crumbling under its mad feet. Joe Harper was freaking out, saying it was coming to get him, that it was my idea, that it as going to come up her and kill us, and over to the side Joe Creeks was waving and pointing at something, but all I could look at was the figure below us, desperately trying to get its footing. I knew, you see - I'd looked at the ground around it first of all, the first moment I saw it slide. I knew that it was going to go into the schism. It was all loose rocks, shale and gravel, and if you've ever tried to walk up a steep bank of that you know that there's nothing doing.

It slid backwards and down, ever more desperate now that it could understand what was happening. I couldn't believe my luck. I wasn't going to go to jail, I was going to get a goddamn medal! It screamed again, and now it was just a meter from the schism, and this was it, this was the moment...

Nothing. It was the worst anti-climax moment, just nothing. Bill Sykes vanished instantly - like he vanished in between me blinking and opening my eyes. I couldn't believe he wasn't still there, that's how fast he had gone. Joe Creeks was calling for me, but only with a great effort could I turn my head round to him. He was pointing wildly over the schism.

"...the machine," he was saying. "The machine!"

I looked up, expecting my audience. They had gone, clustered in a great group around the machine, which was now bulging obscenely, pipes or tentacles or something just barely visible flapping around it. I rushed to Joe Creeks and pushed him out of the way, and as I put my eye to the eye-piece I saw it - the bulging birth or expulsion of that thing, the thing I had know for five years as Bill Sykes as the machine that had somehow rescued it from the schism spat it out onto the ground. The others clustered around Bill and pulled it upright. It pushed them aside and walked to the cliff edge where it stood, staring out across at me. I had the uncomfortable feeling of being watched back, as though it were staring into the eyepiece of its own telescope, one pointed into ours.




So there's the story of the day three days before Halloween of 1995. The day that I got to see Lissa Hamilton's tits, the day we found out about Bill Sykes, and the day they learnt that their machine worked, that they could move themselves across the schism.

When I talked to Joe Creeks later he said that he watched them until it was dark, and Bill Sykes just kept looking out over the cliff, staring at the telescope even when I was gone. Joe Creeks kept going back to look, but I found better things to do, especially consoling Lissa when the knews started to spread around town about Bill Sykes disappearing. They said an organised porn ring got him, and neither I nor the Joes troubled to correct them. I think Joe Harper might even have started the rumour.

I guess they never learnt that you can't judge a whole town by the behaviour of just one person, though, because when they finally got round to expanding the schism over Shiphook they did it fast to make sure there was no chance that anyone would escape.

Last laugh's on them, though, because I was six months gone by that time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Random Writing 4

From the moment I saw it, I knew I had never wanted anything so much. My aching knees, my grumbling stomach, the twinges in my back from holding the family candle, all my church-day woes just fell out of me. I stared up, mesmerised.

The altar at the church of the eighth ascension was in the center of a raised section to the north of the congregation. It was a large stone block topped with a carved wooden statue of the god Klarat - in the form of his eighth ascension, of course, with outstretched arms and a wren perched on each shoulder. In his hands rested a hammered bronze bowl, dark brown with light streaks where the candle-light reflected from the edges of each blow. In the bowl were the church treasures, those donations that were small enough to keep and valuable enough to display, but not so valuable that the church was obliged to sell them for upkeep.

Today, unlike church-days before, I could see a handle poking over the edge of the bowl. I don't know (and indeed, I never found out) how long ago it had been donated - had it been there forever, and I was just too distracted by my own problems to notice it? Perhaps it had been donated the week before by some mercenary on his way through town, or perhaps it had been in the bowl longer, but the bowl had been turned somehow, or replaced awkwardly into Klarat's outstretched hands by a new altar assistant. It was irrelevant, for time for me was no longer marked by the days, months, years that would have to be invoked to answer the question. Time for me now was just made of before and after - before I owned it, and after.

I knelt there, gawping at it like a stunned fish. The handle was two hand-widths long, just the right size for a man the size of my father, a man I would hopefully grow to resemble - and although I looked more like my mother's brother at that age, the sight of the handle filled me with a certainty of my destiny - after I had it, I would grow to fit it. There was no other possible outcome.

It was carved of a maple-red wood, bound as a grip with black tanned leather but visible at the pommel, which was in turn studded with an ornate iron loop (which in later years I used to store it on a hook above my bed, but which I realised later might have been the attachment point for a martingale). From my low position in front of the altar I could see no more, but the wood curved out slightly with a graceful protrusion that served in the capacity of a fingerguard or slight hilt. Above that the blade, which I recognised by the of the handle must be of medium length, but which I was not to glimpse for many more weeks.

I was thus transfixed when the priest and the altar assistant suddenly moved before me, blocking the wondrous sight of the knife's handle. The priest was dressed in his fourth churchday robes, the white robes with red trimming that signified the fourth cloud of Klarat's path, the cloud where the god discarded his earthly desires to the winds. I can hardly think of anything that seems less appropriate for the moment, in hindsight, but perhaps it was not so odd at all. The priest, by coming between me and the knife, stole me from that moment of utter desire and made me realise that now I had no others. The knife was to be the only thing for me from that moment on, the considerations of my flesh were as nothing. I would come to the church every day if I must, aching knees and grumbling belly notwithstanding.

The priest leant towards me, reaching out with his left hand to dip it into the bowl of ice-water his assistant carried. Then he used the wetted fingers to pinch out the flame of the family candle I held out before me, and said the words of benediction (which I will not repeat here, for though you may not think it, I who am explaining how I came to steal a sacred treasure from a church, I am a man who thinks often of the gods, and keeps their secrets from outsiders). I replied, as a child past his first initiation would, and he moved on, revealing the knife handle to me again, like a star coming out form behind a cloud.

I knelt there as long as I could - too long, a woman behind me who I didn't recognise pulled at my shoulder, eager to take her turn. I rose, sadly, my eyes on the knife handle above us, and carried the darkened candle back to my mother. As I walked away I could feel the knife behind me, and I knew that I would never lose that awareness. Wherever I went without it would be before, and would lead up to that moment of consummation when the handle was in my palm, the zero point that would lead to after.

From my seat on the floor amongst the congregation I could barely make out the shape of the handle in Klarat's bowl, but I sat through the rest of the service entranced. The sounds of the priest's closing chant, something I had previously associated only with the chance of escape and food, became the most melancholy sound I had ever heard, truly the sound of loss, the god leaving behind all of creation as I would have to leave behind (although only for a time) the only thing that meant anything to me any more.

I rose to my feet after my father and mother and began to file out of the church. I knew that I would be back tomorrow, and that people would wonder. I knew that would have to hide my new routine as long as I could. I knew that eventually someone would find out, and I knew that I wanted that to be too late. Because I was going to steal the knife.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Random Writing 3

The moment of thrust-down is like birth. Crushed into your seat it seems like there is nothing before, nothing after, just the endless pressure of acceleration and the shrill roar of the engines, their vibrations penetrating every part of the ship, every part of your body so that it seems the sound is coming from inside your own head, an unbearable sound even with the earphones, the helmets, the noise-cancelers without which you would be deafened before reaching the edge of space. It seems like you will exist forever in that state of chaos where not you but the rocket - which is not a rocket but your entire universe - where the entire universe is letting out its primal scream, a scream that began with the big bang and is still going.

But then, then, thrust-down. Suddenly nothing - a silence that must be big, has to be big to fill the space left by the sound it replaces. And the straps which a minute ago were lead, gold, uranium suddenly are spidersilk, gossamer twists barely detectable, barely resting against your chest. Your ears, free from the combined assault of the engine's noise and force, feel like new, as though every tiny sound you are hearing is the first sound. The click of mechanical safety harnesses disengaging, the beep of the flight computers, the sighs and laughs and triumphant whoops of the other crew members.

Not just the sound, though, but the sights too. Everything around you is bright white, the clinical colours of the inside of the cabin now lit oddly by a light you don't recognise, but which has been with you from the start - the light of the sun, that light that you're seeing directly for the first time, not a blurry thing you can just make out through the atmosphere but a disk, a sharp-edged disk of light, a burning thing hanging there in the middle of nowhere.

Wrestling off your helmet you gasp your first breath - the air inside the cabin warm and sour, but better than the smell of the last thing you ate. It is even easier to breath than normal - you would never have thought that the force of gravity on your chest would make the slightest difference, but you were wrong - and that slightest difference is strangely liberating.

A sudden jolt pushes the seat into your buttocks, and you yell out in surprise. The two nearest crew members burst out laughing.

"Sorry!" calls the pilot. "Auto-correction. There might be a few more like that."

It means nothing to you, but the the others seem happy, so you relax. All around you there is a bustle of activity, but not like the activity before, none of the anxious, nervy energy before take-off, but a calm, happy freedom. Men and women in white clothing glide back and forth in front of you, moving from station to station to confirm what they can already tell by looking, and by the feeling in their stomach - that the launch has gone well, that the last few months of backache and pressure have been worthwhile, that they have made it without problems.

"Fuel mass 800 tons remaining," the auburn-haired engineer says, close to your ear. "Looks healthy. We'll be more than good until the refuel point."

"Move forward from the launch stage," the pilot tells her.

"We're coming up to a ditch point in two," the navigator adds.

You want to know more about what they are saying, but beeps and clicks around you demand the attention of the crew, so you lay back into your chair and just breath, delighting in the gentle touch of the chair, nothing compared to what you are used to, and the almost intangible humming and buzzing that reaches through the ship as the flight engines begin to warm, preparing for their task. The sensations of weightlessness are new, but the ship is old and comforting, a presence that has been with you since the ground.

To your right, you watch the engineer watch two bars as one shrinks and the other grows. When the waning bar has vanished completely, she touches the panel and taps at the hieroglyphs that glow there.

"Launch stage clear," she says. The pilot waves his hand in acknowledgement.

"Ditch point," says the navigator.

"Go?"

"Go," the pilot confirms. The engineer taps at her panels again, and in front of you red lights blink and change in sequence to green.

"Umbilicals free," the engineer calls out. "Separation in three, two, one."

"Launch stage away for landing zone - uh, five."

You feel a sharp jerk, and try to imagine the launch stage falling away from the ship, wings folding out ready to ride the winds back down to earth. You have seen it on films, of course. In the olden days they would be cremated as they fell, but now everything is reused, every bit of he machine too precious to waste. It will glide back down to the landing stage, and from there make its way in sections across the globe back to the starport, ready to become a part of the next ship to come up, vital to the process but never to float among the stars itself, never quite free of Earth's embrace.

For you, though, it's the real thing. You unclip your safety harness and pull yourself out of the chair, pulling yourself hand-over-hand along the ceiling, dodging the other crew members until you come to the starboard nose viewport, the side away from the sun. Down below (or is it below, now?) you can see the arc of the globe, a bright coin, huge, but no bigger at this distance than a small house. How can you have spent your whole life there, you wonder? It seems as though you must have been able to seen everything in such a small place, been able to meet everyone, been able to do anything. That old life must be complete. It is time, out here, for a new one.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Random Writing 2

Andrea collapsed forward slowly, resting her head on the table. Richard imagined her relishing the cool ellipsoid of skin where her forehead pressed against the faded yellow laminate. She let out a deep sigh, a miasma of despair so thick that he could feel his muscles tense up as the sound washed over him.

"Why us," she breathed. "Why us?"

Richard took the straw in his mouth and sucked, drawing out the faintly coke-flavoured meltwater that had escaped from the ice-cubes. The bottom of the straw gurgled, and Andrea raised her head just far enough to stare at him, a baleful, narrow-lidded stare. Richard put down the drink.

A pair of teenage girls sat down at the table next to them - big coats, tiny skirts, so that they must have felt an unbearable temperature gradient in the chilly air outside. Or perhaps, he thought, the fast blood of the young evens it all out.

"You know," he said hopefully, "it's not just us."

Andrea left her head drop down again.

"Very helpful."

Richard balled up his fist, but even as he was doing it he realised that he couldn't tell whether he was genuinely angry enough to hit something or if it was just something he'd seen people do in movies. He took a deep breath and blew it silently out of his mouth, imagining exhaling a picturesque cloud of smoke. It's true, he thought, films do make smoking seem cool. He held his index and middle finger up in a close, curved V, brought them up to his lips, and took an imaginary drag.

Glancing to his right, he saw that one of the girls was staring at him with an incredulous look on her face. He looked away, embarrassed, and dropped his hand to the table. He heard a sharp bark of a laugh, but when he looked up again the two girls were looking at something on a mobile.

"I mean we don't have to feel like we've failed," he said weakly.

Andrea snorted.

"You mean, you don't have to feel like you've failed."

"What?"

"Do you know what I feel like?" She asked. "I feel like I've done everything right, and despite that somehow someone has managed to find a way to mess everything up."

Robert felt cold, and it seemed to him as though he was looking at his wife from a long way away, hearing her over the telephone. His calves ached, and in his chest was the feeling he got when trying to stop himself cry at a sad part of a film, like a choking heave in his lungs.

"I.." he started. Andrea met his eyes, and he saw in her own a sudden nova of emotions - so much anger in them it was almost as though they were exploding, but then with a crest all that was gone, and just a calm sympathy left.

"I didn't mean you," she said quietly. Then she looked away, and - as she had done decades ago, back when they were first married - she kicked him gently under the table. "How much do we have?"

Richard fished the battered leather wallet out of his pocket awkwardly, suddenly aware again of the two girls on the next table, not wanting to look as though he was some kind of pervert. He flipped it open on the table and flicked through the notes. The credit cards were useless, of course, the debit card had maybe a hundred euros in their current account. In hard cash, a twenty, a ten, and a five, plus the pocket of change. He showed them to Andrea.

"What are we going to do?"

Andrea balled up the burger wrappers and stuffed them into the cardboard container their chips had come in.

"Stop eating this rubbish for a start," she told him. "Fifteen euros and I'm hungry again already."

"They put something in it," Richard said. "I think I read that once. Something that makes you feel hungry. I know it's Chinese that, you know, you always want another in ten minutes. But there's really some ingredients in burgers that do that, it's some kind of chemical."

"Greed," she said. "Greed, human greed. They've got a big tank of the stuff in the back, they wring all the ambition out of their staff, that's why they always look like that." She stuck her thumb over her shoulder, gesturing at the two asian boys behind the counter. "A bit of ambition's healthy, but you collect gallons of the stuff from minimum wage secondary school kids, and it all goes rancid. That's greed - ambition that's been left to curdly in a big pot."

"I wouldn't have guessed poverty would make you so poetic," he told her.

"I'll be swearing next," she said grimly. She let her head fall back down to the tabletop, and they were silent for a while. One of the girls on the table next to them plucked a bag from the seats beside her and took out a pair of yellow leather boots, which her companion admired as though they were newborn twins.

"We could stay with your cousin," he suggested.

"John or Caroline?"

"Well John's in Australia, so... Look, I know... well, we couldn't stay for long, but..."

"If I have to stay with her for one night I will go mad."

"Okay," he conceded. "Someone else then."

"How long do you think you can stand up for?"

He looked at the girls, and wondered if showing off yellow leather boots to each other would be an accurate precise of their lives. Perhaps, he thought. I wonder how long they could stand up for in those boots. They don't have much of a heel, I suppose.

"Why do you ask?"

Andrea shrugged.

"There's a twenty-four hour Tesco around the corner," she said. "It'd be warm in there, we'd just have to look like we were doing some shopping. You know, for like eight hours."

He stared at her, dumbfounded.

"We could get a trolley, give us something to lean on."

They looked at each other, then away. What are we going to do, Richard thought to himself. What are we going to do with one hundred and thirty-five euros and no house and too old to have any parents to go home to? He ran his hands through his hair and brushed out the few strands that had come out between his fingers. Andrea dropped her forehead onto the yellow plastic tabletop again, then gently tapped it - once, twice, three times.

"Fuuuuuck," she said slowly, and when she looked up she was smiling. Richard felt the corners of his mouth curl up for what seemed like the first time in week.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Random Writing

We were packed that night into a temporary building thrown up by a forcefield generator, expecting a quiet night at last, a chance for our hearts to slow and our feet to shrink. We were assigned spaces on the upper or lower floor, with sleeping bags for warmth and modesty. But we were not meant to rest yet.

The power couldn't go out - it was impossible, unprecedented to lose power - so of course that was what happened. With a high-pitched bleep that woke up only the dogs asleep around us the generator's capacitors failed and the walls and floors instantly dissolved. Those of us on the ground floor were woken by the protective lead-tantalum blankets falling onto us (if we were lucky) or by our fellow refugees hitting our legs, bodies, faces (if we were unlucky). I was sleeping underneath a boy I'd seen during the escape but hadn't had a chance to talk to, who landed on my outstretched left arm. When I asked him later what it had been like, he described perfectly what I'd expected - the feeling of a falling dream as you are just about to go to sleep, then his body madly, instinctively clutching for something as he fell for real. He told me that for a minute afterwards he did not know where he was, that the pain in his back didn't start until later, his system was so shocked.

The nearby troops (and the dogs roused by the generator failing), rushed in, shocked, to help us. Nine of the big protective blankets had covered the upper floor forcefield to make it safe to sleep on, and they were big enough that some of the people underneath them might smother before they could get out, especially with the weight of the others on top of them. I was fortunately at the edge, and although unable to do anything with my left arm I was well enough to pull myself out from under the blanket and lie on the damp grass, my heart pounding frantically as it did whenever I was woken suddenly. The night air seemed like ice as I gasped it down, and slowly around me I became aware of the moans and screams of the other refugees. I carefully pulled myself to my feet.

People were scattered over the ground, some quiet, some writhing and yelling, a bare few (like myself) pulling themselves up. Three soldiers were walking carefully through the mess, trying to find the corners of the blankets so that they could pull them up, dragging the bodies of those who had been on the top floor out of the way so that they could peel back the heavy material and help those below.

A fourth soldier (an officer, I thought), stood near me, calling to the others. I looked around, then asked him what had happened. He shook his head, and shouted again to the other three soldiers.

At the edge of the field I could see more soldiers running back and forth in the dark, calling out frantically. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I recognised the tone. Not panic, exactly, but frantic activity mixed with fear and surprise.

"Why aren't they helping?" I demanded. The officer barked something at me - incomprehensible gibberish, which I assumed was English. "Why aren't they helping?" I repeated, pointing awkwardly across my chest with my good arm.

"Other.." he said awkwardly, but then he ran out of words and shook his head again. "Help," he ordered me, pointing towards the collapsed building. I angrily stomped towards it, knelt, and began to search the ground for the edge of the nearest blanket. I could see a body shape within a meter of the edge - so well defined under the woven lead-tantalum that I could even tell it was another woman. She wasn't moving.

Peeling back the edge of the material was difficult - would have been difficult even with both arms, indeed, for me it was almost impossible. I was forced to lift up an length and then shuffle my knees under it, rolling it all up from one point. The material resisted, the heavy lengths of it to either side of me wanting it to unroll flat again. I tried sitting back and then unfolding my legs underneath it, then turned over on all fours (well, all threes), and shuffled backwards towards the shape, steering myself by memory. Before the material reached my shoulders my toes touched the body and with a sudden ticklish shock I felt a hand grabbing at my foot.

"Hey, hey!" I laughed, jerking my foot back. The hand came with it, then let go. I reached my foot back again, more carefully this time. Again it was grabbed, this time a tight grip around the ankle. I wondered what to do - there was no way I could pull her out, not with only one arm working. I decided to continue shuffling backwards - at least I could pull the blank up around her and let her move herself into a better position. Following my feet, I moved backwards again until my other foot bumped into something soft (her waist, she told me later).

With some awkwardness I kicked back over her stomach with one leg, and then the other - difficult at first as she would not let go, but after I called to her: relax, relax, she released me and I was able to move into position above her, holding the heavy blanket up away from her so that she could move her pinned limbs again, curling into the space below me, her back brushing against my breasts, her shoulder bumping my numb left arm.

"Wait," I told her. "I can't hold myself up like this." My right arm was hot and trembly with the strain, and when she was under me I carefully let my chest collapse onto her hips. "Are you okay?"

She gasped something that I couldn't make out. Her breath and mine filled up the space below me, metallic and garlicky from the military rations. I was just preparing to move again when a gust of cold air rushed in over us. In the pale light I could see the officer and another soldier holding up the edge of the blanket and gesturing to us.

"Can you move?" I asked. She nodded.