Friday, September 30, 2011

Art Pact 33


Robert had always been corralled in the area of Mrs. Kenley's brain that was reserved for harmless lunatics, but with his the current activity had finally jumped over the boundary fence and scampered off into the much larger open area in which she stored the names and details of those she considered dangerous nutters. His need to prove that his obsession was not an obsession, but merely a wise precaution taken in the face of stark reality, had become so overwhelming that he had done something unforgivable in her eyes - he had endangered a child.

The child, of course, was Robert's son, for whom Mrs. Kenley had no particular love. Indeed, among children Daniel Priest had the (undoubtedly dubious) distinction of being perhaps the one whom she loved least. It was difficult, big-hearted as she was, to suggest that Mrs. Kenley might actively dislike anyone, let alone a child, but in contrast to her normal attitude of universal benevolence her lukewarm attitude towards Daniel could almost be interpreted as hatred.

It hadn't always been so - when she had first moved in beside the Priests Daniel had been a polite four-year old child, rosy-cheeked and full of beans and generally topped off with all the cliches appropriate to the description of story-book infants. Then, of course, Robert's wife (and Daniel's mother) had still been alive, and the combination of the mother (small and unattractive, but always neat and polite) and child had been quite pleasing. Mrs. Kenley had spoken to them over the garden fence, nodded politely to them in town, and fussed over Daniel at resident's group meetings, being (as a next-door-neighbour) the rank equivalent of an aunt in such gatherings.

But Daniel had grown, as children are generally wont to, and not in a way that would have (so Mrs. Kenley thought) brought a proud swelling to the breast of his deceased parent. Now just at the beginning of puberty, he had sprouted up into a oddly-angled creature, like a clothes-horse erected by a drunkard, who spoke only in incomprehensible mumbles and squawks that alternated in timbre and pitch between the mating call of a macaw and the angry rumble of an African elephant with nothing in between, as though his vocal chords had been fitted with a two-way switch marked INFRASOUND on one pole and ULTRASOUND on the other.

He had also discovered the soothing balm that inclusion in a group offers for those that have lost an important part of their birth group, and this discovery had been at the hands of the local ne'er-do-wells, a group of post-school adolescents who seemed to take a particular delight in mentoring their young disciple in all the various categories of petty crime and nuisance, every one of which Daniel took to as an albatross to flight, being on track for not only a passing grade by a distinction with honours in vandalism, graffito, scrumping, jostling, shop-lifting, and both underage drinking and underage smoking, the latter of which he pursued with such gusto that in another world it might easily have become the sort of life-long passion which successful careers area forged from.

It was Mrs. Kenley who seemed to be the most constant recipient of this behaviour. Perhaps she was spared the most egregious individual examples of theft and anti-social behaviour, but never a day went by without cigarette butts or empty lager cans appearing over the wall into her garden, never a week without some bush or other wilting from the over-enthusiastic application of urine, never a month without her having to whitewash some wall or fence or other to remove the assertion that she had (quote) "a dried-up cooch", or that Mr. Kenley "loved sailor's cocks".

She would gladly have seen Daniel deported to the new world or imprisoned, but she was of the firm belief that disciplining a child was the job of a stern parent and not the state, so despite quite legitimate claims on the services of the local police service she instead addressed her complaints to Robert, who was sympathetic (he, after all, also suffered from the petty crimes of his son), but ultimately so busy with his own bizarre compulsions and so brow-beaten by his rogue child that he was unable to effect any change on the boy.

The father and son did still have one thing in common, however - their belief in the subterranean world and the conspiracy, reaching all forms of government, that had so effectively covered it up. After years of fruitless digging in the archives, Robert finally decided that it was time to start digging in the soil - to tunnel down to the underground cities and prove their existence by simply breaking into them from above. Miraculously, Daniel's own belief in the cities - instilled at a young age - had somehow survived his conversion into a disaffected youth. He was therefore quite easily recruited into his father's mad schemes, and the two of them began digging their tunnels in secret. The full extent of their work was only revealed two years later, when the house on the other side of the street suddenly lost its carport into a freshly-cut cave in which the Priests were working.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Art Pact 32


We've got to run now, we know that. We have to go, but we keep staying because there's no incentive right now, right now this second to get up, get out of the cupboard, and get running. When we came in here we knew that it was for a short time only, that there was really no reason even for us to be here, but the fact is that the cupboard was there, the cupboard was a payoff that we got immediately at a cost that we'd only have to pay in the future. We knew at the time that the future us-es would be here sooner than we knew, but we hid in the cupboard anyway.

Now the future us-es are here. They're coming at us at a rate of knots, but no matter how fast they come, they can't dislodge us until they get here. So we sit in the cupboard and we fiddle with things, putting off moving by excusing ourselves to take care of "vital" tasks. The tasks are so vital, we tell ourselves, that we literally cannot set foot outside the cupboard until they're complete. For instance - my shoelaces are untied, and every time I try to tie them up I get the shakes so bad that the laces get worse and worse. Like in a dream, where you can't do something although you want to, you're putting all your effort into it. It's the same with Tilly and her coat, she keeps trying to do it up so that it's tucked in, but each time she does she ends up with one stray button at the neck end and one stray button-hole at the hem, and then of course she can't help but undo it all again, pull the back of the coat out from where it's tucked into the belt of her waistband, and try again. And again.

What we know of ourselves (that we have to run, and soon), we somehow manage to blame on others. If only Tilly hadn't tried to bring this ridiculous coat with her, or if only Oscar didn't insist on carrying his walking stick anywhere (we all know deep down that his leg really is as bad as it's always been, but we tell ourselves that he isn't fooling anyone, that we could just as easily act out a limp ourselves and expect all the special treatment that he gets). I'm sure that they're judging me for my laces, even though properly tied-up laces is a legitimate concern when you've got to run, and I'd like to see them tying up shoelaces in a nice neat knot with the shakes I've got, the bone-deep shakes that are so cold and violent it's like I'm being manipulated by marionette wires from on high. I'd like to see them do a double-hitch or try to remember which way round is the good knot and which way round is the granny knot and think about tripping over and watching their uncaring legs disappearing into the nice safe distance while I'm over-run by...

...and anyway, I wanted to buy Velcro trainers, the ones with the Velcro straps that just come open and closed perfectly in an instant, but Oscar said that a man of my age should really be able to tie laces without thinking anyway, and when we were in the shop Tilly said come on, what are we living in the eighties? Are you going to be jogging in those trainers or popping-and-locking in them? So I didn't get the Velcro trainers and now I know how important it is to listen to your - I guess to your heart, and not let yourself be swayed by the opinions of people whose taste in clothing is so ill-informed that they have to tuck up their coat into their waistband in order not to trip over it and get dissolved by...

..but yes, those future us-es are running at us now, just like we should be running, but we're doing our best to ignore the fact that they're coming. I'm sure that with one more twist of the fingers I'll have this knot tied, and Oscar has finished putting the rubber stop back on the end of his walking stick, but he just has to test it one more time, just - he has to make sure that there's no chance that it will come off, because if he's put it on wrong it could be disastrous for him. So he takes it off so that he can put it back on again and be sure this time, and at that point the future us-es slam into outside of the cupboard door like a million gallons of...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Art Pact 31

Naturally, in response to this slight I took the perfectly reasonable position that, as the first person on board the vessel, I was by primogeniture (to stretch an analogy) the obvious inheritor of the mantle of command. Had I stepped foot upon it seconds after he, I told the drudge, I should cede the position to him, assuming the rank of second-in-command, or lieutenant, or sub-altern, or some other undistinguished post which the vagaries of fate and the keenness of his stride might have laid upon my shoulders. However, as it was the simple nature of my having been first to lay boot-leather upon the deck of the conveyance rendered me the captain and he my inferior in this way (as well as - although I did not say this at the time, wishing to spare at least some of the feelings of the poor wretch - in all the other ways in which nature and the almighty had made him my inferior).

"Now see here," he spluttered, failing to remove his hand from the steering stick. "I have as much right to direct the beast as you do. I know your type, never content to simply do things, always grasping for a little more control. Well this, my lord, is not the old world. This is the new world, and here we do things somewhat differently. This is a meritocracy."

I did not scruple to tell him immediately what I thought of that idea, of course. The mere implication that the hereditary system is no meritocracy in itself was insult enough to rouse my ire, and I let go at him with both barrels, explaining that if he thought that God Himself had not done a good enough job in deciding who was fit to lead and whose broad shoulders the yoke of obedience best fit, then he should by all means take up his argument with the nearest priest. Since the nearest priest to us was lying in a shallow grave a mere five-hundred yards from the point at which the docile vehicle of our deliverance was moored, I also suggested that he might like to go directly to hell, that way to more quickly discover the deceased cleric and enter into the conversation.

"Now we see you true colours," the vile drone spat. "You're happy enough to pal around with us when it's the only way you'll see your next meal, or to try to worm your way inside the unmentionables of one of the ladies, but give you a whiff of power and you're all bile and entitlement. Well, Mister Leversleigh, I say this ends now. I have been a driver and a ship's captain-"

I reminded him that a merchant's ship's captain was hardly an accomplishment to be proud of, and that furthermore his navigational and leadership skills could hardly have been impeccable if they had somehow been instrumental in bringing him to his current predicament. At the same time I took my cane and, placing the silvered end below his wrist, gently lifted it away from the steer-stick and let it rest again on the navigator's compass. Freed of the pressure against its guiding instrument, the vessel shifted uneasily on its massive legs and let out a sonorous but melancholy lowing noise.

"You've upset it," he accused.

Since it was not I but he, I reminded him, who had been trying to hold the vehicle in place, I thought it most likely that the creature had been disturbed by him up until this point, but - like a good Christian beast - too polite to display its displeasure openly. Thus released from the heavy hand of a glorified farmer and thus the psychic implication that the magnificent vessel might be nothing more than an overgrown tractor or plough-horse, I implied that it might have the opportunity to relax for a moment and put itself in the proper state of mind to receive the subtle guiding hand of a true gentleman, leading it like a dance partner in the slow waltz instead of tugging at it like a dray-steersman.

"If you touch me again," he warned, bunching his meaty hand into one gigantic fist, "I will betray all my politeness and lay you on the deck. Don't doubt that I can."

I did not doubt it, but there are times in one's life when it is best to call the bluff of one's opponent even when the result might be a woeful reduction in the clarity of one's features. I rested my hand on the steering stick and awaited his response.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Art Pact 30


In the falling light of the moon, the landscape suddenly lit up with a silver sheen. Like the ghost of countryside, there were no colours, just shades of grey that shimmered and flickered as fickle wisps of cloud leapt into the lunar rays. The sky was a dark blue, like the depths of the sea, speckled with twinkling plankton. Trees were seen but not heard, masses that rustled as they steered the winds, so that the feel of the night weather was unpredictable on their muzzles. The smaller ones clustered under the legs of their elders, and they pack progressed across their territory in fits and starts, pulling each other this way and that with their short barks.

The two alphas at the head of the group stayed silent, showing up only as moving blackness limned by white lines. They were the most cautious of all, moving in such a way that only one of them was exposed at any time. First the larger one, her thick coat almost hiding her shape, darting from tree-trunk to tree-trunk, then the smaller one, creeping delicately on her long legs, eyes flashing, alert and tense. Every few minutes they stopped as if to confer, crouched down with their heads together. The rest crouched down in mimicry at this point, so that the whole herd of them could have been nothing more than rocks or tufts of foliage in the black undergrowth of the midnight forest. Even the smaller ones, tucked away between their parents or elder brothers, stayed as quiet as statues, just the occasional little whimper betraying their position to the watchers.

From their position on the rock, watching through their monoculars, the two hunters were only able to make out the pack because they had followed them while they moved. Every time their subjects stopped, one of the hunters carefully screwed the stage on his tripod into a fixed position so that they would not accidentally lose the pack. They were tense - they had been following the group for over a week local, and with every night that went by they felt themselves closer and closer to losing their quarry. By the day they baked themselves on hot mats that they lay beneath them while they were still, but at night the light given off by the edges of the heaters would be clearly visible to the sensitive eyes of the pack. All they could do was to wrap themselves in as much wool and fur as they could gather and sit in their hideout, feeling the strength slowly leeching out of their arms and legs as they got colder and colder. They'd discussed what would happen if one of them fell to hypothermia, and the conversation had not gone well. The elder of the two was protected - should he fail now, there would be other opportunities. But the younger was too new to have any of his contacts. If she came back without some token of success she might not be offered the chance to leave the town again. Worse, possibly, if the council decided that the food problem had become too severe.

Down in the forest the alphas, as if synchronised by some unknown signal, both began to move forward. They stalked through the undergrowth, and when they had reached a sufficient distance the rest of the pack began to follow them, slowly straightening up and shepherding the young ones into the centre of the group. They were obviously alert to something, because a handful of the larger specimens started to spread out around the mass of the pack, hanging back to protect the stragglers and forming a line either side. In the lead, the alphas moved like birds, stepping forward in alternating smooth rushes then stopping to look around. The hunters unlocked the tripods of their monoculars and began to track them to the north, one following the moving pack while the other tried to make sense of the terrain ahead to pick a spot where they might move unseen to continue their observation on the following morning. He saw a bluff, part of the same cliff-sided discontinuity in the landscape that they were perched on now, and flicked his tail in irritation. It was a perfect spot to watch from, but it would be cold. He did not think he could bear another day at this temperature.

Down in the forest the larger alpha adjusted her coat, zipping it up against the chill wind that was now reaching her through the thinning trees.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Art Pact 29


Aloysius Nektar examined his clipboard carefully and made a small note in the box at the bottom of the form. When he had finished the addendum: NO DISCERNABLE CHARISMA, he firmly clicked the top of the pen, then tapped it twice against his lips.

"This is the correct room, isn't it?" Dorne asked him. "I mean, I followed the arrows. I'm going to be recompensed for my travel time, aren't I? It cost me a lot to get here. The cost of petrol these days - I blame the Russians."

"Our secretary will take care of those details, Mister Dorne," said Nektar. "Now then, on your CV it says that you have extensive experience with dogs."

"It does? I mean, it does! I do!" said Dorne. "I've worked with dogs for five years." He stared up at the ceiling, pursing his lips. "I love dogs, and they love me."

"It's not really necessary to love dogs," said Renata, the first time she had spoken since she sat down next to Nektar three hours before. Dorne turned towards her. She gently placed one hand over her cleavage and waited for his eyes to make the slow ascent up to meet her own. "The job involves handling them, but also preparing them for - uh, surgical procedures. Cleaning them, shaving them, holding them while they are sedated, that sort of thing. Do you have any experience in that?"

"I've c-cleaned dogs," Dorne stammered. "I can do that."

"But can you remain detached?" she pressed. "Can you clean and prepare a dog knowing that the creature might go to its death within the hour? Some of these surgical procedures can be a bit hit and miss. That's science, after all," she added.

"I can do that," Dorne nodded. He sat up straight, sucking in his stomach. "After all, they're just animals, right?"

Renata turned to Nektar, who returned her nod. A GOOD START, he wrote in the box at the bottom of the form, then held it up at an angle so that she could read it.

"That's right, mister Dorne, they're just animals. You have a very reasonable attitude, that will be useful to help you fit in. Now, that will just be a part of your job, of course. You will have to be flexible, would you say you're a flexible man?"--Dorne looked down at himself, and Renata allowed herself a brief smile--"I don't mean physically flexible."

"Oh, aha!" Dorne laughed, and gestured to his stomach with one hand. "I thought you meant. I mean, I do try to keep fit, but I have this metabolism."

"I'm sure you do."

"I.. anyway, yes, to answer your question, yes, of course I'm flexible. I'm quick, a quick learner. Smart, too, I was the best in my class - no matter what that teacher said."

"Oh? What was it that teacher said?" Nektar asked, looking down at his clipboard. He flicked over the first page, looked at something, and nodded.

"Um, well, uh, it's not really that important. A long time ago, you understand. I just got into trouble once for insisting on a rechecking of an exam. There was no - it's nothing."

"Rechecking of an exam," Nektar repeated, still looking at his clipboard and nodding. "Which exam?"

"Uh, Math."

Nektar nodded again, then flipped the top sheet of paper back into place.

"What's on that piece of paper?" Dorne asked.

"Notes, mister Dorne. Just notes about the interview, your CV, and miscellaneous documents. Please, continue."

"You were saying how flexible you were," Renata prompted. "How smart."

"Well, I don't like to blow my own trumpet."

"There's no harm in that."

"If anything," said Brockman, with a sly smile, "it's proof of flexibility." He flashed an eyebrow at Dorne, who stared at him for a few seconds before laughing weakly.

"This is an interview," Nektar chided. "Please, Daniel, restrain your impulse to increase our budget for sexual harassment hearings. At least until lunchtime."

Brockman shrugged, then flashed his palms in surrender and sat back in his chair.

"Flexi..intelligence," Renata said. "Go, mister Dorne, impress us."

"Well, I've always been cleverer than my peers, of course. I was top in all my classes, or almost top, depending on whether the teacher felt threatened by me."

"And that happened often, I assume. Teachers often feel.. threatened, as you say, by those children with a more challenging intellect. You must have felt quite confined, constricted."

"That's it," he nodded. "That's it exactly."

Nektar made another note: EASILY MANIPULATED. VERY GOOD.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Art Pact 28


"And you think that's a good idea, do you?"

"I don't know," I said. "I suppose so."

"But what will the - your neighbours think?"

I shrugged.

"What do I care? There's no law against it." I frowned. "There's no law against it, is there?"

"There's no law against it." She confirmed. "It's just... well, I suppose there's no law against it. You're going to go ahead then? You don't want to wait for her?"

"What's she going to say? No, she burnt her bridges."

"Fine. Fine." She peered over the blueprints again, tracing the outline of the work with her finger. When she reached the north-east edge, the most complicated part of the structure, the finger lingered, rolling around in quizzical little circles. "What about this bit? Isn't it a bit..."

"A bit what?"

"A bit.. baroque? Rococo? I'm not sure what I mean," she admitted. "I didn't pay attention to those bits. Look, what's that? That spire? Is that bit really necessary?"

"..."

"Ok, ok. It's really necessary. Does it do something, though? At least tell me that it does something. Tell me it's not just another art thing."

"It's another art thing," I said, leaning forwards to obscure the calculations on my notepad. She sighed, shaking her head, then let her finger slide on to the south-east corner. That I knew she could understand, the vanes and rods and the flat mounting plates on which the solar collectors would finally be fixed. Sure enough:

"So this for powering the whole wing, I take it. And then the collectors go here, and down in the basement you have all the batteries. I suppose at least I should commend you for making it zero emission. Look, have you ever thought about consulting?"

"I have, of course," I said. Not for them, though.

"It's just you could make a-"

"-fortune, yes, in the-"

"-green industrial complex area," she finished.

"Not what I want to do. No point making more industrial estates, more malls, more office blocks. They can be as green as they want, but they're still - still Capital. Do you understand? They need growth, they need sales, and the only way they can do that is by consuming and selling, consuming and selling. Better not to do any of that, then you save on all the energy for the whole rotten cycle."

She's tried to convince me otherwise before, pointing out that the industrial estates and shopping centres of this world will get built with or without me, and that all I'm doing by denying them my services is to guarantee that they will be built in the most energy-inefficient way possible. I remain unconvinced - not least by my conviction that there is a great difference between allowing an injustice to continue and actively contributing to it. I let my right hand slide back, pushing the notepad (along with the pile of permission notes on which it rested) to topple onto the floor.

"Butterfingers. Here, let me get that."

"No, no! I can do it."

"Nonsense," she said. I held her back, though, a firm hand on her shoulder, then stretched out my crippled leg behind me to act as a counterbalance, pivoting around my hip on the other leg so that, like a tower crane, I could reach down with my right hand and scoop up the papers, putting them back on the table upside-down so that she would not be able to see the tower notes. She'll see them eventually, Marie's voice sounded in my head. Always reasonable. But eventually is not now, I told her. "You'll not heal that way, you know. You'll end up with a broken back as well as a gammy leg."

"That's your highly-trained medical opinion, is it?"

"Oh, whatever. You do what you want, build what you want, sprain every joint in your body and get lynched by the villagers. I won't stop you!"

"Good, that's settled then."

Her patronising smile turned to a grimace for a moment, then back to the smile.

"Well I mustn't keep you. I'm sure there's a lot of work you have to take care of to get all this dealt with."

"There is."

"I'm sure you'll do what's best for yourself, as you always do."

She scooped up her bag from the chair, strolled out into the hallway. One hand on the doorknob, she turned back to me.

"Marie says hello, by the way. I forgot to tell you, she said she'd drop in tomorrow."

Then she left. I stared at the door for a full minute, slack-jawed.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Art Pact 27


A drumroll for the performer, and then he is on stage. Not what the audience expected, of course. He shuffles on, bathed in the bright blue light of a follow spot that tracks him from ahead, causing his already pained expression to be contorted further by a squint that creases up his face into a thousand black valleys. His back is bent, his trousers tatty, his coat is poorly patched at the back, threadbare on the left elbow, open in a ragged wound on the right. After the effusive volume of the drums the theatre is hushed - all breath bated, the only noise the shuffling of the two shoes as they are dragged across the polished wood of the stage.

He stops, turns. The audience can see that his right eye is swollen. Livid, unthinkably grotesque, it weeps a fluid that is only visible as a shining reflection of the harsh spotlight. He looks around, although blinded by the blue halo that marks him out, peering desperately into the dark masses in their plush chairs. As his unseeing gaze sweeps over them, each member of the audience thinks for a moment that he is looking at them personally. They shift uncomfortably in their plush velvet seats, wondering how much that infected eye must hurt, wondering if they should stand, offer their seat to the poor man. But to their left and right no-one is moving (although they too are thinking the same thing), and the inertia of the crowd and of doubt keeps them in their place. It's all part of it, they remind themselves. He's fine, he's fine.

"I was a rich man," croaks the performer. His voice is raspy, as though his vocal chords were rusted and jammed and are now tearing themselves apart in order to form those few words. The audience waits, but he says nothing else for a minute. Someone coughs, up in the gods, and from the boxes on the right side of the stage a sudden nervous giggling, just as quickly muted. Neighbours look at each other uncertainly, not sure what to think. Then: "I was a rich man, so rich that I might have bought this theatre and everyone in it a dozen times over."

The audience are confused.

"You may not think it now," he says, "but these clothes were made by hand by the most prestigious Italian tailors. This patch"--he indicates the ragged piece of cloth covering some hidden failure in the jacket fabric over his left hip--"was part of a nine-thousand dollar suit. Imagine that - this suit cost more than many men were paid in a year. Now nothing - just an ugly swatch that doesn't even match the rest of my clothes. I glued it on, and fixed the rest with staples. With staples!" He laughs, although the audience do not recognise the single ugly bark as laughter, but recoil from it as they might step back from the grinning scream of a chimpanzee. "The stitching on the original - so exquisite. Staples, ha!"

He looks around for somewhere to sit, but the stage is bare. At the front of the audience, one young woman is so stricken with guilt that she almost gets out of her chair, but her companion, seeing her slender manicured hand begin to press into the armrest, puts his own hand over it to restrain her. She sits back again, blushing, and plays with the diamond cascade dripping from her earlobe. She thinks about her own clothes - a dress that is a silk sheath extruded from a machine in the boutique this morning, shoes she made herself from plastic-steel and painted with red gloss from a can. On stage, as if guessing her thoughts, the performer hitches up one leg to show the ruins of his own footwear. The sole flaps freely beneath the toes, like a loose tongue letting slip the secret terrible state of the ruined sock within.

"I never walked," the performer says. "Cars everywhere. I had a driver. A human driver, not..."--he waves his hand, airily dismissing autopilots and robots--"who waited for me during my business meetings, my trysts and lunches and whatever it was I did. I forget now - it was something to do with money. Making it, or perhaps destroying it. I don't remember the numbers, you never do, but I remember the people. The men I stepped on have no faces, not anymore. The ones who stepped on me, they're carved in here like stone"--he stabs at the side of his head viciously with a rigid index finger--"I'll get them. I will."

"I will," he repeats softly.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Art Pact 26


Outside the bus, neon smears of blue and red glided past, bumped into wiggly waveforms by the terrible state of the road. I let my head rest against the window, which leapt away from it every few seconds so that it could jump back and slam into my forehead. After a few minutes the constant banging started to give me a headache, so I turned to look around the inside of the cab.

Directly ahead of me, spilling out over the edge of his chair, was a middle-aged man in a grey cagoule who had taken up the traditional posture of the tall bus-bound man, knees splayed so that he could fit in without having to stand up or snap his legs in half. He scratched behind his right ear, then his left, then again behind his right.

To my left, in the seat beside me, the middle-aged woman made her way laboriously down the page of her book. By my calculation she had re-read the same paragraph five times, which must have been a terrible burden on Ignatius J. Reilly, since it was the fifth time that he fallen into a glass door, breaking it. She read by carefully scanning each line with her finger, peering over the top of her glasses. Perhaps sensing my gaze following the motion of her delicately painted fingernail she looked round at me, forcing me to look away.

The girl I'd noticed getting onto the bus was still resting against the wheelchair locking bar, nodding gently to the music from her white earbuds. As I watched she shifted the long plait from her right shoulder to her left, finally making sense of the unusual slant of the rest of the hairstyle. The right of her head had been partly shaved, the plait stretching down at forty-five degrees from there. Her face was tanned, her nose gently hooked, and there was something about her lips that was marvelously cruel, a sort of built-in sneer that if it had been a forced expression would have looked aggressive, but as a simple fact of the construction of her face was so compelling that I could hardly look away.

The bus lurched to a stop on the edge of Hackney, and the two young men on the sideways seats behind the bus got up. I saw the closest one, followed his eyeline to the girl, knew that he was thinking something similar to me. He turned to his friend, nodded with his head, and the two of them stared at her until the queue of people in front of them in the aisle had emptied. I caught the first guy's eye as he walked to the exit in the middle of the bus. I think he knew what I was thinking, but perhaps I was just another middle-class white person staring disapprovingly. I glanced away, felt as angry at myself for breaking eye contact as for making it, and looked back just in time to see him step off the bus and vanish into the night along with all the other passengers. The doors beeped, then clunked shut again.

As the bus rolled off from the curb it cut in front of a badly-muffled bike carrying two helmet-less teens who sped up to zoom around it and banged on the windows as they passed. I didn't recognise either of them, but they looked just like my brother's friends, the ones that had come to the funeral, zits and Brillcream and ill at ease in black suits that used to belong to their fathers before they got old and fat.

My phone beeped in my pocket, but I ignored it. A skinny professional had got on the bus, carrying a red Brompton folded up into a neat cuboid of pipes and wheels, but for some reason he had decided to unfold it again in the space in front of the exit doors, directly ahead of the girl. As he backed around, lifting this, twisting that, tightening the other, his arse stuck out and the girl had to move around, taking constant evasive action to avoid the rogue derriere.

Another beep. I tried to get at my pocket, but I was pressed up too close to the window. On the other side of me the middle-aged woman was taking her seventh run at the same page. I twisted a bit towards her (another glare as I distracted her, no doubt prompting an eighth attempt), and managed to maneuvre my hip up into a position where I could get at my phone. As I expected, Tom: WHERE R U?

TEN MINUTES AWAY, I replied, thinking that might be enough to keep him hopeful and occupied while I got another ten minutes away.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Art Pact 25

I was sitting in the conservatory, staring out at the foggy patches of grey-blue through the plastic roof, when my father rang.

"I'm still having trouble with the Dyson."

"Hello Dad." I said for the benefit of the cameras.

"It keeps pushing out this kind of sludge," he continued. "I've got the notes you left here last time, and before you ask I've read the manual again."

He hadn't read the manual again, I knew this. Particularly because he kept calling it the Dyson. They didn't have a Dyson, that was the food generator in my old flat. They had a Philips KT20, which was the model with the simplest user interface that I could find.

"Hello Phil," I said archly, "I hope you're well, I was sorry to hear about you and Sarah."

"Yes yes," he said testily. "You've made your point."

"Fine, just - would it kill you to start off with some small-talk? Ease into things before you ask me to come over there and show you how to use the thing for the twentieth time? Why don't you ever ask about Sarah?"

"No point now, is there?"

"Oh, thanks."

He sighed.

"You know your mother liked Sarah, and I was - I didn't disapprove. Now come over here and show me how set this damn thing so that it doesn't push out all this sludge all the damn time."

"I don't know," I lied, "I'm pretty busy.."

"No you're not," he said. I reluctantly agreed.

-

"Your mother says hi," he told me, when I got there. Their flat was on the seventy-first floor, but despite that they'd managed to get an internal so that the light in the kitchen was all the weird washed-out white stuff. I didn't know how they could stand it, but every time my mother came to visit me near the ground she always complained about how sad being in the conservatory made her, so I supposed it was just what they'd been used to all their lives. "She sends her best wishes to Sarah, you'd better let her know that you've been given the old heave-ho, you know how embarrassed she gets if she gets things wrong."

"Oh, when was that?" I asked. I'd seen my mother the day before, when she'd tried to set me up with the daughter of one of her ex-colleagues, since (in her words): it's been two months now, you need to get dating again before you forget how.

Dad must have sensed that I was setting him up a trap. He waved his hand vaguely and walked away into the kitchen.

"Come on."

It looked even more ruined than the last time I was there, which seemed improbable. There were dirty skyscrapers of crockery piled on the counter above the dishwasher, which was cracked open and probably the source of the delightful smell of rotting food and stagnant water which filled the room. Every surface was covered in delivery boxes, tea rings, or empty bottles of designer beer, and my feet resisted ever so slightly every time I tried to lift one off the floor, peeling away with a sticky sensation.

"Wow, you've really kept the place spotless. It's like she left yesterday."

My mother's decision to separate from my father for half a year so that she could go on a grand tour of old friends and relatives around the ziggurat while he stewed in his own juices and learned to appreciate her had gone almost exactly the way I (and I suppose she) thought it would. What I hadn't expected was that I would be expected to fill in for her in her role of household technician and dogsbody. I wondered if there were some way that I could tour the ziggurat, or failing that at least find some way of disabling my phone so that it wouldn't receive calls but wouldn't trigger the maintenance staff to come round and replace it.

"Yes yes. Look, you try keeping a tidy house with your Dyson going crazy."

"First off it's not a... never mind. Show me what you've been doing. No, wait, get me the manual first."

He started to dig around in one of the cupboards, then the next one.

"I must have put it down somewhere."

"..after you read it," I prompted. "Because you did of course read it."

"Of course I did! Stop making a big deal of this, just fix the thing."

I pressed a few buttons on the generator, which hummed for a second and then began to spin up a loaf of bread. I watched it working in silence, then reached in and took out the loaf - warm, smelling of delicious carbohydrates which I was forbidden.

"I don't think the thing is what needs fixing," I told him.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Art Pact 24

In our defence, we had been at the festival for seven hours, marshalling the dervishes and E-heads non-stop as the ring parade orbited the town centre. We were dead on our feet, flicking up our legs with every five or six steps in obeisance to some muscle spasm or cramp, all dreaming of soft fabric sofas and beds, but too hungry to sleep. So we sat back and let Alun do all the cooking, which meant that we got South Mars cuisine whether we liked it or not.

I sat in the kitchen, slumped on the chair in the bay with my head pillowed in my arms while Victory lay across the two chairs on the open side of the breakfast bar, her long red hair spilling onto the floor at one end, a worn flip-flop dangling precariously from a single painted toe at the other. Alun bustled around us, using the table as a staging point for his various pots and pans so that every few minutes I would feel a clunk of something heavy hitting the surface I was resting on, and I would wearily raise my head to see what had been left with me. At first it was all his mise-en-place bowls, measures of spices and ghee and the chopped asparagus and potato mixes that's a characteristic (so Victory tells me) of the town Alun comes from in Argyre Planitia. Those were okay - I lifted my head high enough to reassure myself, then let it lower again, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn't have to avoid anything that spilled out.

When I closed my eyes the after-images of camera flashes played on my eyelids, thick violet and magenta blotches that slowly slid to one side or the other, just evading my attempts to follow them. There were fewer this year than last, so the ban must have been having some effect, but I was still certain that I would wake up in two morning's time with the dry scratchy eye feel of too much exposure. I let my free leg reach up under the table until my bare right foot touched the underside of the opposite chair. Then, walking my big and next toe towards me to the edge of the chair I slid over the fabric, stretching out until I reached the warmth of Victory's thigh. She flinched, jerking her leg away, then rose up on one elbow to hiss at me.

"Dude!"

She rolled her eyes towards Alun, then jerked her knee forward to knock my foot back onto the floor. I suppose my feet were probably freezing.

"What's that?" Alun said.

"Nothing, honey."

He nodded, reaching out to grab a wooden spoon without looking. Victory glared at me, then let her head drop again. I went back to my forearm pillow, and drew my feet back under the chair, skimming through the dust-balls. Oh yes, I thought, it was my turn on the rota.

Another thud on the table, and this time when I looked up I stayed up. This was what I had been watching out for - the pot full of fresh breath-worms, wriggling in their pot. They were a delicate crimson, the fancy sort that Alun had imported rather than the bland ones they grew in that giant warehouse in Britain. The pot was uncovered, the careless way Alun always did it, trusting too much in the gravity, still convinced that it was an oppressive unbeatable force. No matter how many times I tried to warn him, he would not believe that it couldn't hold a simple worm in place the way it crushed him to mother Earth, so he left the pot of still live creatures wriggling on the breakfast table only a few inches from my resting head, and I had to look up to make sure that nothing would creep up on me, reaching out every so often to gingerly flick a particularly adventurous worm back into the boiling mass of the pot.

I find the process of cooking breath-worms fascinating, because of the quick-slow-quick nature of it, so I perked up a bit anyway, and even got up to follow Alun to the hob and look over his shoulder. To start with, the heaving crowd of little creatures. Then he added the oil, and in an instant they were immobile as the liquid plugged their spiracles and mouths. Onto the heat next, and within a couple of minutes they were jumping again, as the oil bubbled and simmered and churned them until they were crisp. I plucked one out with a fork and tried it. Perfect as always, a bit like a french-fry with a hint of chicken.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"What for?" Alun asked. I shook my head.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Art Pact 23

They'd been cycling downhill for about three or four hours, occasionally braking onto the slow lane in order to rest their hands. The old steel bikes worked without modification with the ship's mag-field generator, but the stiff flat handlebars wreaked havoc with their arms, and every half an hour it was necessary to release one hand or the other and shake out the numbness. The slow lane was also slightly warmer, and Karen took the opportunity to heat up her fingers by tucking each hand in turn between her pressed together knees as she freewheeled. When they pulled into the slow lane after the forward generator spires, she braked a little and swerved to let Joe slot in beside her.

"How much further?"

"Not sure," he said, "not much further, but... well, we're over half-way I suppose."

He crouched down to try to reach into the under-saddle pack, but the reach was too awkward and he wobbled right, causing Karen to veer away from him, briefly clipping over into the fast lane. By the time she could safely steer back in again she was fifty meters ahead of him, and she had to brake hard to give him time to catch up. Up ahead was a viewpoint, and she pointed it out to the others, coasting gently off the slow lane and up the ramp onto a little raised area about three meters square, edged by three bench seats facing outwards. She set the bike down on the ground and waited for the others to skim in behind her.

"Sorry about that," Joe apologised. He propped his own bike against the back of one of the benches, as did Jenna and Alice after they rolled in. "OK, so..."

While he and Jenna consulted the map and argued over legends and distances, Alice and Karen sat looking out over the vista. The inside of the ship began to curl up away from them about a kilometre away, and just above eye level in the far distance they could see tube 4, running parallel to them. Alice claimed to be able to see one of the other teams up there.

"We're in the lead, then?"

"Yeah, by - I don't know, ten minutes?"

Karen squinted, trying to make out the little dots of their rivals, but without Alice's enhanced vision there was no chance of seeing anything. She couldn't even remember which of the teams was supposed to be in tube four.

"Red. Ben's team."

"Oh god, yes. We have to get there before them."

"Should be okay unless the flip comes early," Alice said, looking up at the sun.

"I thought you said you couldn't predict it from the sun."

"You can't," Alice said. The lenses on her eyes rotated, clicking into place and then rolling in and out to focus adjust. The vents on the side of her head were still open, and Karen could see the glowing vanes at the side of her brain. "I was just trying to see the team in tube 1."

"..can you?"

"No, the sun's in the way. Anyway, there's no chance they'll be ahead of us, the fields are flatter there. They're probably half an hour back at least, probably three quarters. If the flip comes in the next few minutes they'll beat us, otherwise no chance."

"Well that's something, I suppose. That's Tom's team, right?"

"That's right, yes."

"Tom's no threat, but Mahmoud's clever. Who's their machine?"

"Lucy."

"Lucy...?"

"Lucy Pepper Seven. You remember, she got totally wasted at that party last year, snapped her head off diving into that pool."

"Oh god, yes! With the..." Karen mimed a beehive hairdo, and the two of them burst into laughter. When they'd recovered, Alice fetched a fruit bar out of her jacket pocket, snapped it in half, and offered one chunk to Karen.

"Actually, you'd better take both halves. My battery's still half full, it'll all go into my auxiliaries"--she patted her hips, making a clanking noise.

Karen shrugged, ate half of the bar, and pointed up to a giant mirror-plated skyscraper hanging over the countryside near tube 5. Her shoulder twinged, and she wheeled it around in a gentle arc to work out the pain. Finally she pointed up at it again, tapping Alice on the shoulder.

"Is that New Bristol?" she asked. "Or is it-"

"Yes, it's Bristol."

"Isn't that where-"

"Yes," Alice cut her off sharply. "Yes, it is." Her voice had a high grating buzz in it, the noise she made when she did not want to talk about something. Karen let her hand drop down, and popped the other half of the bar into her mouth.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Art Pact 22


We moved into the corridor. Further away, safer, although I wanted to rush back to the kitchen door, throw the bolt. I glanced into the living room, then up the stair. Clear. Should we go up, or was there a risk we'd get trapped up there? It's only the first floor. I told myself, you'd be able to jump.

"So anyway," Marsha continued, "I've been going to this club for - I don't know, six or seven months? I suppose they know me there, or well most people do, all the other regulars. You know, it's strange, because you never get introduced to anyone, but you sort of overhear names at a tangent, odd isn't it? So if no-one else knows the name of someone you never hear it either, and when you've met someone three or four times and had conversations with them suddenly it becomes very awkward to admit that, 'hello, yes, we know each other but I was just wondering what exactly is your name?'"

I decided on the living room - more connectivity, there was the other door that led into the conservatory, better than the bottleneck of the staircase. Marsha followed me, and nodded hello to the other couple that were hiding in there - John and Kate, who were sitting on the far end of the sofa and perching on the sofa arm respectively. I wondered if any of the things on the mantelpiece were heavy enough to defend ourselves with, but I knew that most of my trophies were hollow plastic painted gold - not a lot of mass there, even if I had the guts to stand up and fight back. I felt in the pit of my stomach that that wasn't the case. If we saw them, we would have to run. Run madly, without any thought but escape. I halted just shy of the other door, considering my options. Marsha, seeing that I had paused, went on with her story.

"So there I was, dancing with this fellow who I knew, but I didn't know his name. So Salsa is quite a - well I suppose it doesn't have to be intimate, but it can be, and sometimes it depends a bit on whether or not you resist someone's lead. I don't mean resist like refuse to dance the steps they're leading, but you can set up a kind of"--she scooped up my free hand in hers and stepped back, creating an outward tension between us--"wow your hands are really clammy. Sorry, that was rude of me." She looked towards the mantelpiece, hoping to distract me from the surreptitious way she dragged her hand along the hem of her jacket to dry it off. "Uh, so yeah, I-uh where was I? Oh, that's right. This guy whose name I didn't know."

A sharp rapping from the front door. My blood clogged in my veins. Panic. I leant slowly to the left, poked my head around the door to the conservatory. It was open. A knot began to rise in my belly, a strangling fat feverish knot.

"This guy was one of those tight hold guys, I suppose because we'd danced a few times before and we'd had some friendly conversation that he thought we were - you know, I guess more friendly than we really were."

The rapping again. I was stuck, frozen in place by two equally horrible alternatives. Did I rush through to the conservatory, to the open door, hoping to slam it before they got in that way? Or was that jumping into their arms? Perhaps they were all around us, the scratching at the front a ploy to drive me out into their waiting - what? Arms? Maws?

"So we're in a very close position to start with, and he takes me into a cuddle hold - which, well, the name sort of explains it, right? Where you're in front of the guy and - sorry, are you going to get that?" She pointed towards the front door. I stared at her blankly. "Or do you want me to? It's okay, really. It's just, it's probably Dan and Alice back from the off-license. Or Dan, anyway. I suppose he must have taken Alice, I haven't seen her around for a while."

I stared at the conservatory. The garden outside it was pitch black, but I was sure that something was moving out there.

"It's okay, I'll get it," Marsha said, putting her glass of red on middle shelf of the bookcase. She turned back to the front door. I tried to say something, but the lump in my throat stifled my words, and the only way I could speak was to push out and out until out popped a single scream:

"NO!"

Marsha turned and stared at me, shocked. John and Kate too.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Art Pact 21

Let us be perfectly clear - Edge is not a dream, although you can reach Edge through a dream, or even while asleep but not dreaming. You can also get there from a particular place, or through a certain emotional state, or at specific times. I reached Edge through a dream myself, but it makes no difference how you get there, just that you do.

I was sleeping in the Black Archive, having spent twenty-two hours straight researching - well, let's not get into that at the moment. Suffice it to say my research had been fruitless up until that point, plenty of promising leads but all of them sending me on dusty paper paths that ended in cul-de-sacs of information. Ultimately the terrible lighting in the archive, the all-pervading smell of slowly rotting books, the lack of sleep, all conspired to send me into a deep sleep, my head cradled in the valley of an open tome on - let's skip over that.

I don't remember the dream that led me into Edge, not really. I don't usually remember my dreams, to be honest, which made it easy for me to know that I'd come to Edge. But even people with the most vivid dreams can tell the difference - there's something sharp, something definite about Edge that you don't experience in a dream. Edge crept up on me subtly, a sort of cutting sensation, a smell of acetone, and then I was walking through a field of grey corn that scratched at my hands every time they moved. I could feel no wind myself, but the grass shifted and rippled as though a lively breeze was snatching at it.

At the end of the cornfield was a clearing, surrounded by low colourless huts with child-sized doors. In the centre of the clearing a few dogs were lying - Labradors and Alsatians, and a grizzled Doberman who was sitting by the embers of a dying fire. The Doberman looked over at me, barked once. Out of the little doors issued a stream of other dogs, and I realised that the village was a dog village, the whole area bleached of colour because there was no need for it here. I sat in the clearing and held my hand out, palm up, and all of the villagers circled around me and one by one came in to sniff my palm. I thought that it would show that I had no ill intent there, and indeed the Doberman (who I guessed must be the hetman of the village) seemed pleased by the gesture and soon relaxed his (until then vigilant) stance.

They taught me a dance - a dog dance, which I could not perform well because I only have two legs, a thing that was like a staccato waltz in which the dogs progressed unpartnered around the centre of the village in a grand circle broken up into smaller spirals. Each time you traversed one of the smaller spirals the music continued but you held for a whole bar, which meant that you were only dancing for half of the time. To begin with we all started and stopped at the same time, but after the first tune half of the dogs danced two straight bars before stopping again and resuming the pattern, so that when we were stationary they were dancing and vice-versa. The musicians were also dogs - two Alsatians playing on low drums that provided the beat of the music, and a younger Doberman plucking at something that looked like a broad sitar, or perhaps a harp laid on its side. She picked out a strong and lively melody with her claws, the act of her playing looking something like a dance itself because of the way she had to balance on two or three feet depending on how complicated the tune was at any given moment. I saw her perform a particularly tricky double arpeggio with both front paws and one rear one, leaping over the instrument.

I danced as best I could, although the steps for me were nothing more than an approximation of the true ones. I realised when we had begun to dance in the alternating round that the dance was not entirely unpartnered, as I had thought, but that viewed from within the dance one was facing (and seeming to respond to) the dog on the exact opposite side of the circle. My partner in that sense was an elderly Labrador. After the dance (when I had been there for a few hours - long enough for me to begin to understand their language and they mine) I asked her whether other humans had been here.

"At one point or another," she told me, "all of them."

I did not understand at the time.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Art Pact 20

Something weird happened earlier. I was in one of the lower tunnels, cleaning the walls. It's been my main duty for the last several cycles - it's boring but necessary, and some of the others who are doing the same job tell me that it's a staging post. Several of the older wall cleaners, ones who were working here when my current colleagues started, got rotated up to the entrance tunnels when they'd got enough experience wall-cleaning below. It doesn't make much difference where you clean walls, of course - scrubbing is scrubbing - but once you've been moved up to the surface levels you get to see a bit of the world around the city. Lots of people never get that - they work at comfortable jobs in the innards, never have to scratch moss off a tunnel wall for hours on end, but on the other hand they never get to do anything exciting either. Never get to be in a fight, never get to see the sky, all of those things. I'd rather do a bit of hard work and climb the ladder than sit in some nice warm chamber for the rest of my life slowly becoming part of the furniture. Anyway, I was working on my own in one of the old tunnels that run up against the rock. The moss that grows down there grows slowly, but it's such a tenacious species that it takes an age to scrape off. My hands were numb from scratching the stuff off, and the floor behind me was littered with little flakes of green and blue mush that I was leaving behind me to collect in one big batch. I was boiling hot. Partly the work, but mainly the normal heat of the rock. But I started to feel chilly, a sort of sluggishness at first, then a definite feeling of cold, like a breeze. I looked up and down the tunnel for breathers, although normally the wind given off by a breather would be warm. There was nothing, but I saw that the little flecks of colour I'd left on the floor behind me were moving, sliding and occasionally tumbling into little drifts. Just when I was wondering about that, a chapter queen appeared at the end of the corridor. I genuflected immediately, but even as I did so I felt there was something odd about her. She was definitely a queen, but... "No, wait." she said. I heard her footsteps as she hopped towards me. "It's okay." "I'm waiting," I responded. "There's one right in front of me," she said. I walked forwards and swept the moss out of her path. "I apologise." "No need," she told me. "I told you, it's ok. It's working. Hey you, look up." I looked up, then back down. Then I forced the nausea away and looked up again. She was wrong somehow - she was definitely a chapter queen, but her body was wrong - I realised that she had been terribly wounded. Two of her legs had been torn off, and her arms ended in stubby blocks. Her head was small, crushed and rounded like a rock. I tried to look around rather than directly at her, focussing on the comforting normalcy of her voice and scent. "Can I help you, Lady?" I asked. "Yes. Yes, you can." she held one of her stubby hands up to the side of her ugly head. "Yes, it's working. It thinks I'm one of them. I'll move further into the tunnel." I didn't understand most of what she had said, but I understood moving further into the tunnel. I gestured towards the mouth of the access tunnel. "That's the direction to the main colony?" she asked. "Of course." "Good. You can lead me in there. To the nursery.. uh, to the second-stage nursery." "Of course," I agreed, confused. She stepped up beside me - small and twisted, yet amazingly agile on her two remaining legs. She moved one of her ugly stubby hands to my back, and I recoiled in case I accidentally brushed against her - but to my amazement she intercepted me, touching me on my neck. "Oh, I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" I genuflected again, backing away. "What? Oh, right. Never mind. It's okay, stand down. I forgot the taboo. Yes yes," she said testily. "Do you want to come in here and do this?" "I'm already here," I said, even more confused. "Not you," she told me. "Come on, let's get going. The nursery, remember?" I nodded, and began to lead the deformed queen to the heart of the city.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Art Pact 19 - Exposition Time!

"Now is the time for some exposition," she said.

It was true. We'd been walking through the hills for weeks by that point, stopping in small towns and villages where we could, but sometimes camping in whatever shelter we could find from the choppy September wind. The wind in the Corvus valley rolls off the mountains to the west, powered by the combination of sun and shade on the east faces of the range, then gathering speed as it rushes down through the foothills, gathering in the valley to shoot southeast onto the plains like a bow from an arrow. Those villages on the plain at the mouth of the valleys are known as the "knockdown towns" in the local tongue, because of the frequency with which autumn and winter storms (powered perhaps by a similar mechanism, but twice as powerful) destroy the simpler structures. The old families of villagers respond by building a unique form of house - a triangular prism, of which the north-west half is constructed entirely of earth, a thick banked slope that guides the wind over and around the other part of the building, the living quarters which nestle in the lee of the protective embankments.

It was in one of those embankments (or rather, in the soil which was dug up to construct it) that the Colomain Stone was discovered, passing through several hands (by trade or murder) before finally finding its way into the hands of the Northern Dowager. The Dowager of the North was a formidable woman, the widow of both a duke and a king (the one first, before his execution at the hands of the other). She received the Colomain Stone by the method of murder, although not one committed either at her commission or one she knew about. The murder had occurred in a coach house off the Great Southern Road, when during the night an assassin hired by no-one knows who administered poison to a sleeping merchant and then broke into the dead man's room while he was quietly dying in the corner. The coach house, The Grey Swan, was renowned far and wide for such midnight fatalities, being built just south of the border between the South and North kingdoms, and constructed in such a way that it offered a thousand hiding places for any cutpurse, murderer or spy who needed to make an end to an enemy.

It had been built that way for a reason - the original architect had intended it to be a rather light and airy summer house for one of the Northern dukes (at a time when the relations between the two kingdoms were so pacific as to make them almost a single domain ruled over by two families). This duke, however, had the misfortune to live through the beginning of the more troubled relations that continued until the present time, and became increasingly obsessed with his own security and that of his family, particularly the idea that armies from the South might march up the Great Road with almost no resistance until they came to his chateau, making it either the ideal first conquest or (should the Northern King decide to field an army quickly enough), the ideal place to billet a resistance force. These respective armies, although bent on different things, would mean only one thing as far as the Duke was concerned: the ruin of his four daughters.

The daughters of the Duke had been brought up in the city, and it was to their immense displeasure that they learned of the new house that had been built for their family in the middle of nowhere just as the eldest among them was entering her most eligible year. They lodged innumerable complaints with their mother, who alas lacked enough influence with her spouse to get him to reconsider (and in fact as well as influence lacked motivation, since however much nagging she received from her daughters and however sympathetically she listened to their complaints she was privately in agreement that there was overmuch in the way of temptation in the city, and that a favourable marriage was very unlikely to result from the kind of dalliances popular amongst the noble party set who made their home there).

These complaints nonetheless continued, and soon enough made their way to the ears of one of the local officials, a silver-tongued rogue who had come into his position of power in the army's logistics operation by virtue of some rather underhanded dealing in examination papers during which he had double-crossed another prospective candidate, causing him to...

"Uh... What was I saying?" I asked her. She looked at me blankly.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Art Pact 18 - Mirrors

To say that during the period between my fourth and twenty-fifth birthdays I was vain would have been wrong, but perhaps understandable if you looked at the evidence. I could not pass a mirror without a thorough examination of the silvery surface, and someone watching through my bedroom window (there was such a person, I later discovered) would have seen the child me sitting in front of her own mirror (a bare thing, silvered glass in a boring steel surround, fixed to the wall with two screws) for hours on end, staring as if rapt at her own face.

When I was in school a mirrored surface could distract me from my lessons with ease, and during the few disastrous times at which I went shopping with friends the mirrors in clothes-shop dressing rooms and the little reflectors behind rings in jewellery stores would draw me to a direct stop - amusing to my friends to begin with, although after I had held them up for the fifth time they began to tire of it and ultimately (on my third trip with these two girls whose names I barely remember - Jackie? Alice?) I was abandoned in a shoe shop. I wandered around the circumference of the shop for hours, staring into the little mirrors that lined the back of each shelf of shoes so that you could see them from all angles. When the shop was about to close I was thrown out, and I spent the rest of the evening eating pizza slices and garlic bread in a restaurant on the lowest floor of the mall. I didn't particularly like the food there, but they had a ceiling to floor mirror along the rear wall that had been put in to make the place seem bigger than it was. I got a table next to it and examined it for hours.

I did not have close friends, so the shallow outward expression of my obsession was not obvious for what it actually was - an all-consuming obsession. My foster-parents were the only people I might have expected to understand, of course, but although they were both kind and thoughtful, they allowed themselves to become wrapped up too easily in the simpler problems of my two siblings (their real child, my brother Daniel, and their other foster-child, my sister Rachel). They might sometimes have suspected something, but there was never any mention of it to me. The only clue I have is that when Rachel joined the same high school as me and began to pick up the rumours about her sister's vanity, my foster-father stepped in once or twice to stop her teasing me about it. They did that whenever we teased each other, of course, but there was something more final about the way he did it, a timbre in his voice or some expression on his face perhaps that I was unable to see. Whatever it was, it was more effective than normal because Rachel never again teased me about my reputation for egotism.

The truth that the others could not see (except the one person I mentioned earlier) was that it was never about me. I was compelled to study every mirror by a mania, a desperate search. It was the background of the reflected image I searched, not my own face. I was looking for someone, someone who I knew did not exist in the solid world but who I knew that I would recognise instantly the moment I saw her. Any mirror could have housed my real mother, so I made sure not to miss any opportunity. I would sweep the shards of wing-mirrors out of the street into canvas bags, carrying them into the garage to examine secretly. I sneaked into the boy's washrooms at the end of the school day and hid in the cubicles until everyone else had left so that I could examine the mirrors there at my leisure. When I went to my dentist I would persuade him to allow me to examine the tools he would be using - impatiently sitting through his demonstrations of drills and polishing brushes so that I could tinker with the little examination mirror on its plastic stick. When I began to work I worked in a department store (on the customer service desk), and at every possible opportunity I would take breaks and travel up to the home and furniture floor to examine the slowly changing assortment of mirrors we sold.

I would like to say that it was exactly twenty-one years to the day between my father telling me that I would find my mother in the mirror and my revelation, but it was actually a week after my birthday that I finally (by accident) looked at the one thing in the mirror that everyone else did. There she was, staring back at me. A woman in her mid-twenties, with brown eyes and a light dash of freckles across her nose. It seemed as though I might have seen the face before, very briefly.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Art Pact 17 - Vital Repairs


"Come on," I said, "he hasn't got much time."

"You can not rush this," the doctor said testily. She prodded at the corpse carefully, watching at its neck for some cryptic signal. She shook her head. "No good. Find me another."

I was way ahead of her - I'd been peering around before her examination began, trying to make out another whole body from the carnage. There was one a little way down, a middle-aged man in a corporal's uniform who had been separated from his left leg. I thought that would probably have killed him without the need for any other wounds, so it looked hopeful.

"Hmm, yes," the doctor said. "He might do."

She did her prod and look trick again, and this time I did see something - a tiny little pulse fluttering at the throat. For a moment I thought it might mean he was alive, but he was blue around the lips and there hadn't been movement on the battlefield for at least an hour, so I knew that wasn't possible.

"Weak, but that's to be expected," she said. "Right, let's get it... hmm.. should I just take it out here? No, no - pick it up, let's get moving back to the ship."

I hoisted the corpse up onto my shoulder. As if holding onto it for precisely this special moment, a torrent of sludgy blood plopped out of the severed end of the man's leg and over my back, soaking my jacket.

"Oh, gross."

"Suck it up," the doctor told me. She hovered along beside, pinching and poking at the corpse's arm as we walked, chattering away to herself and the central brain back on the ship. The dead man's face was swinging gently, banging into my stomach with every other step. I steadied his head with my right hand, then on a whim turned it to see him more clearly. He hadn't been handsome, even before his death, but he had a sort of bizarre dignity about him. He was wrinkled around the edges of his eyes, and there were two streaks of grey hair - one over each temple. His eyes were blue, but the right one was so bloodshot that it was barely possible to see that there had originally been any white.

We went in through the airlock on the lower deck - we couldn't use the cargo ramp due to the piles of earth and body parts fouling the ground. The navigator was waiting for us inside, clicking his fingers together nervously - so fast that it just sounded like a rapid buzzing noise.

"Come on, come on..." he ushered us in.

"Calm down!" the doctor told him. Nevertheless, she hustled me into the airlock in front of her, then buzzed round me and zipped off towards the infirmary. I tried to jog after her, but it made my charge bounce too much, so I dropped back to a quick stroll. Unlike the doctor I couldn't just hover up through the access port in the ceiling. I took the stairs, hauling myself up each step with the strength of my left arm when my knee joints began to complain.

In the infirmary, the captain was laid out on the operating table. His chest was open, the jury-rigged dialysis machine on its frame looming over where his pump should have been.

"Put it down over there," she directed, waving a scalpel at a clear area in the floor.

"On the ground?" I asked.

"Yes, yes, on the ground. It's dead, it won't be lodging any complaints."

"OK, it just seems a bit.." disrespectful, I thought, but I set the body gently in the corner of the room, where it disgorged another little splash of old blood over the floor. "Now what?"

"Open it up, carefully," she said.

"I don't think I can."

"This is a fine time to discover your capacity for emotions. Get out of the way." She buzzed past me brusquely and extruded another collection of fine limbs from her underside, descending onto the corpse. I heard a few sickening crunches and then a sucking noise, and finally she popped up again. Cradled gently in two of the larger arms was the dead man's heart, cut out as neatly as if it had had dotted lines around its veins and arteries. "OK, let's pop it into the captain."

I stepped back into the doorway as she began her work, bumping into the navigator. The little LEDs under his eyes were flashing rapidly.

"He won't like this," he said. "You know what he thought - you remember: 'those filthy bios!'"

"Well he's getting a human heart whether he like it or not," I told him. "Unless you fancy donating your own pump."

"He'll learn to live with it," the navigator said hurriedly.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Art Pact 16 - You've Got A Parasite


You've got a parasite.

You don't know how you got it, you don't know what it looks like (if it even looks like anything), you just know that it's there. It could be a worm, some terrible maggot-thing that's burrowed into you. It could be a virus, just a couple of sugar-molecules wrapped in a geometric package around a coiled wire of RNA. Maybe its some sort of blood thing, like an amoeba. All you know is that you've got it, and it's making you talk about yourself in the second person.

That's not the only side-effect you've noticed, of course. You've noticed other things, like elevated temperature. You're hot - and you don't mean that in a double-entendre vainglorious way, you just are. Boiling hot. It's probably because you ate all those potatoes. You shouldn't have done that.

You went to the restaurant today. That was another bad decision you made. You met Addison, your head waitress and secret mistress, who you'd had a fight with the day before. You were desperate to make up with her, and it seems like she wanted to make up with you too, at first. She rushed up to you at the door and hugged you. You coughed.

"My god," Addison said. "You look awful."

"You feel awful," you said.

"What?" Addison pulled away, suddenly angry. "Christ, Ken, give it a rest with the weight thing. Fine, I'm putting on weight! Fuck you!"

"That's not what you meant!" you said.

"Don't tell me what I mean, arsehole."

"No, you didn't!"

"I didn't what? What, Ken, what?"

She put her hands on her hips. You knew it had been a mistake to go there, but you'd thought that she might be able to help. If anyone could have, it would have been her. You felt terrible - nauseous, as though you weren't yourself. You felt like you might vomit.

"You've got to go." You said, putting your hand over your mouth. Too late.

"Oh, I'll go!" Addison said. She hooked a finger at her wrist and then yanked it away sharply, spilling the pearls from her bracelet so that they clattered onto the floor and began to roll under tables and chairs. It was the bracelet you gave her.

"No, no!" you said. But her hand hit your face, and you reeled backwards.


You've got a parasite.

You don't know what will cure it. You don't know whether there are hills that will take away the symptoms, and you can't go back into the pharmacy again because of the confusion. Because of the parasite making you forget the words for rugs.

"You have a..."--you don't want to say the word parasite, too embarrassing --"thing."

The pharmacist looked at you, frowning.

"Sorry?" she said.

"You"--you pointed at yourself--"have a thing. An illness. You need a rug."

"You have a fever?" she asked. You shook your head.

"No, no. You need a rug!"

She looked at the shop door, down at the welcome mat screwed to the floor just inside it, and frowned again.

"We have - I don't understand," she said, shaking her head.

"No, no! Not a rug! A rug!" you insisted. "You know, some hills!"

She looked back anxiously to the other end of the counter, where a middle-aged man was counting hills into a little white bottle.

"Let me get my boss. Uh, Mr. Donner!"

"What is it, Melanie?"

"Could you.."--her eyes flicked back to you for an instant, worried--"could you help this gentleman please? I'm afraid I'm not sure what he's asking for. I'm sorry," she said to you. "Mr. Donner will help you."

"Now then," said Donner in a reassuring voice. "How can I help you?"

"You can help you by getting you some hills. Some hills for a..." You looked from side to side. The younger assistant had backed off to continue the job her boss had abandoned. "parasite. You have a parasite. In your brain."

"I don't follow you."

"You need rugs. Rugs, you know! Hills!"

"I don't need any rugs, sir. Look, I think I'd better call a doctor for you. You seem a little confused, is it possible you've been in an accident?"

"You haven't been in an accident! You don't need a doctor, just give you hills! Or mel! Perhaps there's a mel you could rub on!"

Donner glanced at his assistant, then back at you, his expression suddenly frosty.

"You'll have to leave now, sir. Or I'll call the police."


You've got a parasite.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Art Pact 15


"The thing is," Marsh said carefully. "The thing is... I absolutely can't help noticing that you appear slightly different from your... uh, your profile."

The figure on the other side of the table shifted uncomfortably.

"It might have been a slightly old picture," she admitted.

"I... well..., uh... how to put this?" Marsh fiddled with his cutlery. "It's not so much the age of the photo. I mean, I'll admit my own picture was, that is to say - it's a couple of years old, and it may have been taken from a flattering angle."--he touched his mole self-consciously--"But it's - as I say, it's not so much the age of the photo. It's the fact that you don't appear to be..." he waved his hand.

"There wasn't a space for species on the form," said his date. "I read the terms and conditions quite carefully, there wasn't anything about having to be a human. I am over eighteen!" it insisted.

Marsh ducked his head slightly, realising that everyone at the surrounding tables was now looking at them. How they hadn't been staring all along he had no idea - perhaps this was a regular occurrence at this restaurant. But his date's agitation was starting to wake the other patrons up to the reality that there was some kind of alien robot at the centre table. Marsh let his gaze sweep around over the array of gawping faces that surrounded them, each one fixed in an amazed expression, mouths open and eyes popping.

OK, he thought let's run with this.

"Allysa - would I be right in thinking that that isn't your real name?"

"That's true. I picked it when I first came here, something easier to pronounce, you understand."

"Oh, so what's your real name?"

"Leanne."

"Oh. That doesn't.. Uh, never mind. Where are you from originally?"

Allysa folded up one of its many polished ovoid limbs and made a gesture that Marsh thought was supposed to be a head scratch but which actually made him think of a transformer attempting to eat an ostrich egg.

"Well, our ship came in at Southampton."

"I mean - before that?"

"Oh, well! Bombay!"

"Actually I meant - uh, before that?"

"Oh, I see. You mean..." one of the other ovoid limbs pointed directly upwards. Allysa leaned forwards conspiratorially, and its buzzing voice smoothly diminished in volume as it spoke. "You mean up there? You mean when did I come here."

"Yes, yes. Here, Earth!"

"Oh! Sorry."

Marsh leaned forwards and raised his eyebrows. After a few seconds Allysa made a noise that sounded like a diesel engine coughing.

"Oh, you mean you want me to tell you! I'm sorry, I can't do that."

"It's a secret?"

"Well yes, I suppose so. But I mean I literally can't tell you that. I can't - pronounce the word? Or no, that's not it. I can't hold it in my head. I can't say it, that's the short story version. They won't let me."

"Who?"

"My parents. Sorry, it's such a cliche, talking about your parents on a date. You must think I'm one of those girls with issues."

"No, that's not - I don't think that at all," Marsh reassured it. "At all." He blushed, realising that he had put a little too much emphasis on that. Allysa looked around, and Marsh too the opportunity to study it a bit more carefully. Its head was a larger ovoid, but one that was similar to its limbs - egg-shaped, a sort of dull white colour. Slanted blue slats covered the front of the shape, the pointed end of the egg, so to speak, and were the only signs that distinguished the head from the other limbs apart from its size. Marsh hadn't seen any of them moving, and he'd been looking at them under the assumption that they were some kind of eye. What if they were something else, he suddenly thought. Perhaps he'd been staring at Allysa's ears all this time - or worse, perhaps it had genitals. No, it couldn't have genitals, surely - a robot, even a weird alien robot, wouldn't have genitals, right? Plus, if there were any problem with that, he was sure that Allysa would have told him about it. He'd have mentioned something to a date that spent all evening staring at his groin, certainly.

He briefly wondered again if Allysa were actually not a robot, but an alien person, but another look at the auxiliary ovoid hanging by its head ruled that out. Whatever he thought about aliens, he was sure that their heads needed to be attached to their necks physically, and that they didn't have floating cubes hovering beside their heads.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Art Pact 14

The drones were gaining on us - two types of them now, the old-fashioned hovering things with their quadruple fans, and some chrome-shelled void things that made a disturbing vibrato hum as they flew. We barreled around the corner, capes streaming behind us, dodging around early-morning pedestrians and leaving a wake of confused sightseers behind us. Every so often someone would spot us coming and stand directly in our path, camera out, causing us to swerve violently around them. At least one of them must have got whipped in the face with the edge of my cape, but I had no time for either outrage or sympathy. We reached Bridge Street and accelerated up the straight, Brunch catching up with me when I had to slow down to avoid a half-asleep rickshaw driver.

"They're gaining on us!" he reported pointlessly.

"I know."

"We're not going to escape!"

"I KNOW."

I tried splitting up, veering off down Belham Crescent. The bad news was that there were enough drones to split up as well, so I'd gained nothing in terms of escape. On the bright side, though, it did give me several valuable seconds free from Brunch's inane babble, during which I could catch my thoughts. The drones probably had a limited power supply - the newer ones more so than the old ones, I would guess. That meant that in the long run time was on our side. In the short run, however, it was against us - and so against us that our current run promised to be very short at all. I got a few extra seconds by dodging back down the connecting alley to Bridge Street again (causing the drones to pile up into a tight cloud as they braked to follow), but there was no doubt that they were going to catch one or both of us in the next minute if we didn't come up with a plan.

I shot out of the alley so fast that I almost hit a parked car, leaping over the bonnet to land in the middle of the road - to my alarm, behind not only Brunch but those drones that had chosen to chase him rather than me. Now we were in four groups - Brunch at the lead, his pursuers behind him, me behind them, and finally the remainder of the drones bringing up the rear. I prayed that the drones weren't somehow able to communicate with each other.

My prayer was answered. It wasn't the answer I wanted.

As we came to the river, Brunch was still going strong. But his would-be-captors suddenly wheeled out to the left and right, forming a huge arc in the air ahead of me - or rather, I realised, a set of pincers. They were still travelling forwards, but slowing down so that I gained on them. Perhaps they were hoping that I hadn't noticed, or perhaps they just couldn't stop fast enough to close the net on me instantly. Either way, it gave me a few seconds, a vital few seconds. I veered right, and leapt.

The bridge, the neat mid-point of Bridge Street, was a flat-topped set of arches with a low, easily-vaultable guard rail on either side of it. I figured a short fall, then swim to safety. But there's a problem with bridges. The problem is that they're unpredictable. Most of the time, there's nothing under them but water. But every so often there's a boat.

There was a boat.

I saw on my way down that I was going to hit it. It was one of the Egyptian-Tour boats, a hull made of carbon fibre but molded and woven and painted to make it look like it was Nile reeds. There was a wooden deck on it, extending the whole length of the craft, and a small party of tourists and guides, all of them staring up at the caped figure now descending rapidly towards them. I just had time to make out one of the tour guides saying:

"...and if you look up to the rear of the ship..."

...before I hit the deck at the stern end. The boat, absorbing the impact of my landing, rotated around its mid-point and threw its bow up into the air, catapulting an earnest-looking young woman in a day-glo cagoul in a perfect arc along the length of the ship towards me. I barely had time to put up my arms before gravity and momentum deposited her neatly into them.

"Uh, hello," I said awkwardly.

"Bonjour!" she replied, displaying what I thought to be considerable sang-froid under the circumstances.

I replaced her on her feet.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Art Pact 13

Here is what I like to do in circumstances like these: I like to imagine myself on a desert island somewhere. There is a low sun, a half-circle of flaming red and orange slowing sinking into the sea. The top half of it is a perfect arc, a glowing ember against the sky. The bottom half a rippling crimson and yellow patch of brightness that stretches out into a path across the surface of the sea. It's a still sea, but not so still that there aren't visible wavelets texturing its azure surface. The sun that has fallen into it, the most recent but not the last of many such suns, has imparted its warmth to the sea so that were I to step into it I should feel a soft warmth washing around my ankles, a pleasant temperature that is so balanced with my blood that it renders the water almost intangible.

There in the shallows, were I to wade that far, I imagine that I would find brightly coloured fish, clowns and cichlids flitting back and forth, diving at some invisible plankton and rushing through the rainbow fronds of anemones and corals that had colonised the beach edge. Further in, skulking red crabs and varicoloured shrimps, and iridescent squid that flash their gaudy signs at me and jet away to find some more appropriate prey. In the far distance, the blue gliding shapes of sharks beneath the surface, and in the far distance a pod of dolphins breaching the surface in clouds of joyous spray.

I imagine that I return to the littoral zone, my wet feet soon clad in socks made of the brilliant white sand, finer than icing sugar, which surrounds the island. Here are trinkets washed up by the tides - cowries polished clean by the relentless action of the ocean, shinier and more rich than any varnished specimen in a souvenir vendor's booth, the bleached bones of a whale, the purse-shaped eggs of some unfortunate would-be-mother-shark. Albatrosses and Petrels watch my perambulation warily, but this is a place where they can imagine no harm coming to them, an island free of upstart mammals and unsullied by human waste or appetite. I watch one of the gigantic wanderers flap its wings, stretching them for some long journey around the globe. Grey and white feathers flash in the low evening sun. If this were another dream I might wish that I could go with him - perhaps, in my dreams, I even could. But in these circumstances the island is not somewhere to escape from, but to.

In my imagination I would walk back up the beach, to the border between the green and white. There the huge fronds of unidentifiable plants, the rough-ringed trunks of archaic trees. The beach is the no-man's land separating two bounties - the rich cornucopia of the sea and the limitless fruit-basket of the jungle. I would choose a fruit - perhaps a mango, perhaps some jungle orange, the size of a man's fist (no, the size of something more peaceful) and bite into it. The fresh air and constant sun would have made the flavour of the fruit so intense that it would feel almost as though it were a sound, a sight, a feeling at once. I would take another, walk slowly to the middle of the beach, and lay myself down gently on my back. There I imagine myself staying for the night. That is what I like to do in circumstances like these.

So that is what I did, while the blows rained down on me. I walked on an island beach, watching the setting sun and feeling life and tranquility all around me. I ate fruits so fresh and full of taste that if I were to eat one in real life I suspect I should hunger for nothing else for all of my days. I lay in warm sand and looked up into the gathering darkness at the rich white drift of the milky way, and smiled at the moon that hung above me. When I am asked in the future to recall the events of the day, that is what I will be able to describe. The other thing, the punches, the kicks, all remains a mystery to me. I know they happened - perhaps I could even tell you how many of them I took, and who they were provided by. But these are dry details, unimportant bean counting and the withered husks of prose. Something to put into a spreadsheet, not something to remember. The island I remember.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Art Pact 12


We stood in the living room and scratched our heads.

"That bucket's not going to last forever," Joe said after a few minutes of silent hem-ing and haw-ing. "Should I - I mean, could I get another bucket?"

"That bucket will run out too, you know."

"Yes," Joe said slowly. "I do understand that none of the buckets in this house are bottomless. Shall I get another one or shan't I?"

"What are we going to do with this one?" I asked. The thick black oil was a few centimetres from the top of the metal pail. "Yeah, you might want to get a new one. Uh, quickly."

While Joe hustled around in the kitchen, banging and clattering underneath the sink, I tried again to plug the hole. The pressure of the oil wasn't particularly high, but it was enough to make it impossible to simply hold a finger over the hole. When I tried, the oil spluttered and jetted around the end of my pointer, splattering the pristine white surface of the freshly-painted wall. When I took my hand back it was covered in gunk, which I wiped on the flysheet. The little black arc of liquid popped back into shape, just in time for Joe to come back with another container, intercepting the stream in mid-air. It was a washing-up bowl.

"Only thing I could find," he said. Between us we lowered it to the floor and swapped it out with the now full bucket, which after a little debate and hand-waving we emptied into the drain. We knew that was probably not the best thing to do, but needs must when the devil drives, after all, as I told Joe. "Thanks for that," he said, rolling his eyes.


We continued this routine for another half an hour, swapping between the bucket and the washing-up-bowl while hoping that Mrs. Green wouldn't come home early. Our only progress in that time was to clean up the patches of oil on the wall and carpet, so that the only sign that anything odd was up was the constant flow of crude coming out of an otherwise perfectly normal living room wall. We made some attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery - Joe went outside, upstairs, and finally up in the loft to try to trace the "pipe we'd obviously drilled into". I did the same, but looking under the floorboards for the elusive conduit - easier said than done, since we couldn't take up the floorboards closest to the wall because of the flow of oil raining there.

The problem was, I clearly hadn't drilled into a pipe. Don't get me wrong, I'm no building savant. I've drilled into pipes before - I've drilled into water pipes by the handful, and once I drilled into a gas pipe. But there's a feeling you get, a bit of feedback from the end of your drill suddenly cutting into a metal shell. I hadn't got that at all, just the feeling of drilling into plaster and brick, then the weird sensation of the drill losing grip as oil suddenly flooded out of the hole.

So it wasn't a surprise when Joe finally descended from the loft and said:

"Nothing."

"Told you so."

I checked the bucket. Only half-full, so we had another few minutes. We sat on the sofa, careful to keep our still slightly oily hands clear of the cream-coloured fabric.

"Now what?"

"Hmmm... well..." he scratched his chin. "We could fix a seal over it. O-ring around the hole, then a metal plate over the O-ring, screw that in place. Not perfect, but it should work out."

"But we have to fix it permanently. She's not going to want a metal plate stuck in the middle of her room, is she?"

"I don't know." He checked his watch. "How long do you think it's been since we put this bucket it?"

"Five minutes?"

"Right. And let's say it's full in another three. That's twenty-five litres of oil in eight minutes. Call it twenty-four, that's three litres a minute. She could have a barrel of oil in under an hour."

"And?"

"And what? Don't you get it? Crude oil is £60 a barrel. She'd be able to sell it. That's over a grand a day, right there in that wall. A metal plate will do for the moment, but you know what she'll be wanting to put in eventually? A tap!"

We considered the wall.

"I wonder," he said thoughtfully. "It's just... it's a shame she'd be getting the money."

In his eyes I saw the ugly shape of a scheme beginning to form.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Art Pact 11


"The whole idea is absurd," Christian complained from the end of the table. The tiny cuboid of lamb on the end of his fork, which had come dangerously close to its toothy nemesis, waved back and forth like the tip of a conductor's baton. Tiny droplets of juice dripped off it in either direction, falling onto the checked tablecloth. "The whole idea, I say." Christian let the morsel get closer, so close, but just as he was about to bite it off the tines he interrupted himself again. "Whoever thought of it should be fired. Fired or shot. Fired /then/ shot!" he concluded happily. He let his arm fall back down to the table, and his fork onto the plate, nodding to himself in satisfaction.

"I don't think we can ask them to kill a man-"

"-or woman!"

"...or woman," Allison said, "for the crime of a bad suggestion."

The lamb, which had once again soared up towards Christian's mouth, again halted.

"I'm not talking about the original moron," Christian told them. "I'm talking about the person who thought that it would be a good idea to commission it! People come up with bad ideas all the time, I understand that. But there are bad ideas and bad ideas. Most of us"--he looked pointedly at Rufus--"most of us are able to suppress our instinctual creativity and channel it into productive areas. And even when we can't, when we absolutely must speak aloud whatever drivel has leapt into our minds at the behest of some crazed muse, even then, we rely on the good sense of our peers and the community at large to drown out such nonsense with reasoned thought."

"I thought you meant-"

"Yes, I know, that is exactly my point. Having come to a misconception, you rely on others - on me, in this case - to point it out. You are of course grateful for the correction, and our dialogue continues."

"She doesn't look too grateful," Rufus pointed out. Indeed, Allison was frowning furiously at Christian and a more sensitive man might have shuffled his chair sideways in order to put himself out of striking distance. But Christian waved away Rufus's objection and pointed his fork - plus the now-cold titbit of meat still impaled on it - at the younger man.

"And you, I lay some of the blame at your feet."

"My feet?"

"Wasn't it you that told us to get involved with these charlatans in the first place?" Christian demanded. "I seem to remember some assurances, some fervent arguing in their favour by a young man not a million miles away from this very table."

"I introduced you to them," Rufus admitted. "But it's a bit harsh to say I argued for them."

"Well then I apologise for my harshness. But wait - perhaps... do I recall your exact words upon introduction? I do, Rufus, I do!"

"You do?" Allison said. "Why don't you ever remember anything I say?"

"I remember it," Christian muttered. "But you - you came to us with your two little friends in suits. Your good friends, that was how you introduced them to us: 'these are my good friends Brian and Karen', you said, your words exactly."

"That's not arguing," Rufus said. "That's an introduction."

"Any introduction is an argument!" On the words /any/ and /argument/ the older man stabbed at the air with his fork, as though trying to feed a recalcitrant baby of which he was not particularly fond. "You described them as good friends, and the implication was clear that you trusted them. That you had history, that they were, in short, people with whom I should conduct my own friendship. People who were trustworthy in the personal and business realm!"

"Perhaps Rufus should have had a disclaimer ready when he introduced them," Allison suggested.

"That would not have been a terrible idea, although I do recognise that you made it sarcastically and I am therefore unwilling to back its adoption with fifty thousand of my personal dollars," Christian said pointedly.

"Look," said Rufus, "I know plenty of people who I trust personally. That doesn't mean I'd give them my money."

"And suffering such a painful diversity of acquaintances, you thought that the experience was so enjoyable that Allison and I would like to be included, was that your motive?"

"I'm sorry," Rufus said, sticking up his hands in surrender. "I didn't know it was going to turn out this way. You know, I didn't think that they'd-"

"You can stop there," Christian said triumphantly. "That's the crux of it. You didn't think."

He smiled smugly, then opened his mouth for an instant to pop the end of the fork in.

When it emerged again, it was clean.