Friday, April 27, 2012

Art Pact 159


We drifted apart in a hotel in Moscow, insulating ourselves by room service from the world outside and by stubborn sullen refusal to communicate from each other. It could have been more dramatic if we'd been looking out over Red Square or some other photogenic relic of the old days, but our window looked over nothing more interesting than the back of another hotel, built under bad advice from some American marketing guru in order to capture the massive influx of tourists. There were plenty of tourists, of course, but no in that area of town. It was almost a suburb, the streets around us packed with soviet-era apartment blocks, almost the least attractive building style in the world - beaten only by english schools built in the style of sixties brutalism.

We tag-teamed the depressing truth, that we were no longer the starry-eyed lovers that we had been in Rome. Each of us in turn would try to dig at the problem, to interrogate the other about what had gone wrong. When it was me asking questions I found Rosalind moody and uncooperative, unwilling it seemed to stretch the slightest sinew in the interest of saving our relationship. Conversely, when she launched her own search for truth I discovered that I had no answers to give her. As she grew more and more earnest in her attempts to divine my mood I reflexively withdrew further and further into my shell, until I realised in one moment that I had spent the previous two hours in rocky silence while her questions battered at me like gusts of wind.

"I think," I said, my voice cracking through under-use. "That we should go for a walk."

"We?"

"We," I repeated. "Or I. Or you. One of us, at least, but perhaps better the two of us. We could both do with some fresh air."

"The air's not fresh out there," she said.

"You know what I mean. Clear the mind. Expand the senses. Allow our eyes to focus on infinity instead of these bloody walls."

She shrugged.

We struggled into our cold-weather clothes, bulky quilted things that we'd bought together in a happier mood. We looked like astronauts, or as if we were dressing for some year-long mission to walk to the poles rather than just two travellers going for a perfectly ordinary stroll in a city in the civilised world. The staff behind the desk tried to draw my attention as we left - no doubt to attempt to warn me that we were probably over-dressed for the prevailing conditions - but I steadfastly avoided their eyes, putting some of the evasion techniques I appeared to have developed over the last few days to an alternative use.

Out on the streets we wandered silently between great apartment blocks and modern-looking office buildings, making our way towards the small park we'd seen when we arrived. We held hands - I don't know if I could say who it was made the first tentative approach. Perhaps neither of us, perhaps it was a simple matter of fortune. At any rate, our hands bumped, or maybe I touched the base of her palm with a finger, maybe she pressed her fingers against mine, and neither of us refused the touch. It was something, but it was not enough. Like two children clasping at each other, desperation rather than any real emotion, but it kept us tethered together as we drifted through the near-empty streets.

In the park, more separation. The streets had kept us together, perhaps, confined, their imperial pressure preventing schism between our two warring powers. We released our hand hold and wandered through the park under the clear skies. It would have been nicer if there were clouds, I suppose, but the weather did not wish to play the third party in our slow-motion train crash, so it remained bright and reasonable - if not exactly warm.

"Where should we go?" Rosalind asked.

"I don't know. Over there?" I pointed to a forlorn bandstand, inhabited by a bundle of rags in the shape of a person - some ancient babushka, no doubt. It looked like the sort of place that was the ideal backdrop for a slow breakup. I wasn't sure whether that attracted me to the idea or put me off. "We could sit down."

Rosalind just looked at me, a strange look. We walked towards the edifice solemnly, not looking at each other. When we reached the bandstand the old woman looked up at us with an irritated expression, said something in Russian which - although I didn't understand the words, clearly contained some sort of unfriendly intent. I wavered, unsure whether to press on in the face of such native resistance or to collapse and leave the surly ancient to her soverign territory.

"Let's go," Rosalind said, tipping the balance. I shook my head, sitting down on the opposite side of the bench. The old woman glared at us again. "Really?"

"Come on," I told her. "We've got just as much right to be here as she has."

"We don't," she pointed out. "I mean, really not."

"Why not?"

"What did you think I meant, when I asked where we should go?" she asked.

"Well, we came here didn't we?"

She sighed.

The old woman made another sally in her native tongue, less vehement than before - perhaps by defying her we had shown a sufficiently Russian attitude towards territorial concerns, and she was softening her stance towards us.

"I meant where next. In the world. Or in"--Rosalind gestured from me to her and back again--"in us. Where, or what. What are we doing here?"

"I don't.." know, I thought. "..understand."

She shook her head, looked away. The old woman, apparently gauging the situation better than I was capable of, stood up and shuffled over to us. She just looked serious now, stiff and awkward, prim and in control of her emotions. Her raw anger of a few minutes ago was hidden again.  She patted me on the hand. Then Rosalind (who jumped in surprise), then finally she shuffled down the cracked wooden steps and left us alone.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Art Pact 158

"Oh, that is - ugh, god!"

Mother wrinkled her nose, holding up her arm in a vain attempt to shield herself from the miasma that rolled our of the room. I was further out in the corridor, still wrapped in the melange scent of cleaning fluid and patchouli, but I could see under her arm that the room might as well have been the scene of devastation left after an earthquake.

Simon was always a fan of the First Available Flat Surface filing system, but he appeared to have taken it to a new and frightening extreme. There was literally not an inch of floor to be seen, nor an inch of bed, nor any of the desktop. Neither was the windowsill clear, nor any of the shelves - although they were covered in their own special way, covered sideways so that although each individual shelf was technically used to capacity in its horizontal plane, there were great gaps in the vertical that could easily have been filled. Some of those spaces were fill, of course, but not with books - instead jumpers and shoes and other items of clothing had been tossed into the voids lazily so that arms and laces draped out over the sides of the wooden shelves like lianas from jungle trees. Other spaces were taken up by half-crushed cans, empty red plastic cups, and boxes of fast food from which enough had been eaten no doubt to sate the appetite of the consumer, but enough left to sate the appetite of the moulds, fungi, and six-legged vermin which I was sure were lodging here.

"It's, uh.. I suppose he isn't wasting valuable study time on excessive cleanliness," I offered.

"How can he live like this?" Mother asked, turning away. It was as if the atmosphere within the room were clawing at her, and she taking up a defensive posture to negate the attacks. I gently urged her away with a hand on her hip and stepped forward, my first great mistake of the day. I came within reach of the nauseating stench of my brother's room, and instantly regretted it.

If anything, Mother had been relatively restrained in her reaction to the smell. I felt as though I had been punched in both of my nostrils at once, the scent so overpowering that it forced itself in through any available entrance - the nose, the mouth, the tear ducts, even my ears seemed to be fair game for it. I have never quite understood the word "noisome" before - since it of course has nothing to do with noise under normal circumstances - but I developed a new appreciation for it along with a sort of synasthesic sense in which the odour which assaulted me manifested itself in my brain as a hideous screeching sound, the sound a dog might make if being brutally murdered by being forced to inhale the contents of my brother's dorm room.

"Christ on a stick!" I choked, stepping back rapidly. The scent, though, was both tenable and tenacious, clinging onto my face like a sort of mephitic napalm. I staggered against the far wall of the corridor and attempted to dilute the reek with a rapid panting. It was a hard battle, but I finally managed to gain enough breath to speak without fear of vomiting, although in the back of my head I knew that the smell would now forever occupy a space in the back of my mind. It would wait their patiently, ready to spring forth into the mind's nose whenever I was lax enough to let my mind stray back to this moment. I would never be truly rid of the stench.

"How could he let himself get to this stage?" Mother asked.

"I suppose he's been stricken with some sort of disorder of the nasal passages," I said. "Perhaps anosmia of some kind, either somatic or psychological. A sudden blow to the head might cause any number of such effects." I thought back carefully to the last time Simon was home. We'd fought - as we always did, being siblings - had I dealt him a rap to the skull and unwittingly caused him a species of brain dysfunction? It was possible. He had been less aggressive than usual, a reserve I'd put down to some discomfort with my burgeoning womanhood (if I might be so indelicate). Having been thrust into this place in which the ready availability of young women (at least to view, if not to court more actively) might well have awoken some more subtle sensibilities in my brother, it was not unthinkable that he might be less comfortable around me, understanding that I was, in my own way, one of the mysterious creatures on which he found his attentions focused. It was ineluctable, I supposed, and under other circumstances perhaps to be celebrated, but if it had led to an injury of the brain and from there to this sorry state of affairs, then the whole incident could not be marked down as entirely successful.

While I was wrapped up in this guilty self-examination, Mother must have been considering his options. She dug through her bag for anything that might act as a posy - or, I might say, as a totem against the foul spirit that inhabited the room - finding eventually a small bottle of perfume which she kept on hand at all times. Spritzing it liberally into a cloth handkerchief, she pressed the undoubtedly cloying fabric to her mouth in the manner of someone engaged in chloroforming themself, and dashed bravely into the heart of the room. I reached after her, but was too slow to grab at her, and in truth it was probably for the best, since Mother has always been strong enough to drag me in her wake like a dinghy behind an ocean liner, even now. I watched, rooted to the spot, as she dashed through the room to the window and, flinging it wide open, took a desperate gasp of fresh air.

I was not so lucky. The wind outside, gusty as it had been when we came in, leapt at the chance to invade the room, flushing the poisonous gas before it - directly towards me. I barely had time to clamp my mouth shut before it was washing over me, dragging every filthy molecule across my skin.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Art Pact 157


On Earth the job would have been nothing but oversight - watching the bots popping rivets onto the inside of the warehouse. But there was no room for dead weight on the colony, so I was one of the machines I was supervising. It was hot work, the suit's cooling system was designed to take account of the thin Martian wind and the stagnant air trapped within the enclosure kept the heat of the three robots uncomfortably close.

We'd got to the half-way stage ahead of schedule, so I left the machines to their task while I popped open my suit's bubble-front and made myself comfortable on the stack of shelving parts that were to go up next. Poor food, as always, the dried crap we'd brought with us on the ship mixed with the tasteless mush that the greenfingers were growing in their hydroponic tubes. Still, it's all good with mustard. I was halfway through a sandwich when I got a call on the network. Blue indicator - someone on the orbiting ship, which meant an actual conversation rather than an hour-long stutter of words interspersed with three minute silences.

"Mmm-hmm?" I mumbled through a mouthful.

"Dana, this is Gleeson."

I knew that. It said on the inside of my glasses. It had always said that on the inside of everyone's glasses ever since mission training, but Gleeson still insisted on announcing himself as though my eyes didn't work.

"Mmm-huhum," I tried to tell him. I refused to chew faster just so I could get into some bullshit conversation more quickly. Lack of chewing is what promotes obesity, I'm sure of it, and despite the near-perfect nutritional balance of our food rations, there was no sense getting into bad habits. One day the colony would have sweets, beefburgers, everything - well, maybe not strictly "beef" burgers, but something equivalent - and if I just started wolfing food down now I was going to have trouble fitting into a worksuit shortly after that day came.

"I'm just checking in on progress, as you know the warehouse is vitally important for the expansion into the northern regions of the crate." That little new information barely warranted acknowledgement of any kind, so I just nodded briefly at the screen. "I wanted to make sure that things were going according to plan. I see you're on your break."

I swallowed.

"I'm on a break, yes."

"Is there a problem?"

"No problem. I'm ahead of schedule, so I took a break."

"OK, well just so that you know that it's vital we get that warehouse commissioned by the end of the week, so it would make us up here all feel a lot better if you were able to report that you'd pushed through and got things finished early on your side."

"I don't know what to tell you, Gleeson," I said. "I'm ahead of schedule, so I'm taking a break. If you want to come down here and push some rivets in yourself, you're quite welcome. I'll get one of the bots to give you a gun."

"Haha." He didn't laugh - he actually said the words, mirthless as ever. "But seriously, Dana, you're just kidding, right, you understand how important this work is?"

Of course I understood. I understood that our yields weren't what they should be, that there was no point building a warehouse out here when we had nothing to store in it, that while we were eating the hydroponic food faster than it was growing there was no sense in building anything other than greenhouses. I understood that much, and yet for some reason I was still sitting in this carbon-dioxide soup banging in rivets alongside the three robots would could easily have been retasked for agricultural work. But I also understood that the pictures being taken from the orbiter were the official record of the colony growth, and that no-one back on Earth was going to be looking at the raw figures because the news-sites would only be interested in photos. I didn't say any of that, though.

"I understand," I said. "It'll get done by the deadline. Probably before, but definitely by the deadline. Your plan won't be affected."

"And it has to be done right," he said. I stopped mid-bite, put my sandwich back into its container.

"Right." I said. My tone of voice must have been pitched perfectly, because Gleeson backpedaled like a unicyclist heading onto a freeway.

"I know you'll do a good job, of course, it's just important to the expansion plan."

"How about you don't tell me how to build warehouses and I don't tell you how to-" to pull the wool over people's eyes. "Never mind. I'll do the job right."

I cut the link before my anger got the better of me again. Fucking management, always the same. You can come to a completely new world, but the arseholes who come along with you are the ones you've always known. Just because you're a builder and not one of the scientists they treat you like a brainless drone.

The fact of it was, there was a tiny grain of truth in it all. I was not quite as smart as some of the people on the base. But you come last in the hundred meters at the Olympics, that doesn't make you slow, right? I wasn't just some navvy, for god's sake, I was a fucking astronaut!

I finished my meal deliberately slowly, chewing each mouthful a good fifty times so that I spent at least quarter of an hour just shuffling tasteless mush from one area of my tongue to another. I let my mind go blank, but when I finally got up I discovered that I'd made a decision. This was a new world - a red world, I told myself, smiling smugly at my own pun - and it was time that I did things a new way. I examined the warehouse carefully. From the outside it could easily keep its looks without affecting how it would work as a greenhouse.

"New plan, boys," I told the bots, bringing up their programmes.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Art Pact 156


The animals are supposed to be talking animals, but this one just blabs at me, a sort of stream of consciousness gibberish that reminds me of reading William Burroughs:

"Counter in the woods, the autocathartic end of the idiot which we were saying no to the end of grass and towering over him in a blue vest we blue vest you blue vest can in the ineffable time we drop dark sea to the end of place.."

Its little squirrel hands rub furiously one over the other in Fagin movements, but its gaze is unrelenting, always up at me expectantly, begging for something - perhaps understanding, but understanding that I am powerless to partake of.

"What is that?" Nina's voice buzzes in my ear. It's the first time she's spoken since the fight, and the volume on my earbud is uncomfortably loud, causing me to flinch. I fiddle with the volume clumsily, first blotting her out then bringing her in again even louder.

"I can't ..... OUT OF THE FRame... is telling me we HAVE TO ... go."

"Sorry, say again?"

"I can't see any others," she says. "Are there others out of the frame?"

"No, just this one. I think." I look around. "Yeah, just this one. What was that about having to go?"

"Oh, nothing. Can you get a little closer? I can't quite make out what it's saying on the audio feed."

"It's just talking gibberish," I tell her, leaning closer. "Uh, is there something - I mean, should I be going? Are you going?"

"Forget about that. Get closer."

I reluctantly lean closer to the squirrel, who flicks his brush in annoyance, chatters at me in actual squirrel noise, and backs out of arms length. He starts to talk again, the same gibberish as before.

"It's glossolalia," says Nina.

"What, this squirrel is possessed by the holy spirit? That seems unlikely."

"Why not a squirrel?" she asks, indignantly, and I remember too late that she is a Christ Reformed pantheist. It is a nightmare trying to keep track of the tangled web of religious loyalties aboard the ship.

"I mean, unlikely at all."

"Well we shall have to agree to disagree on that. But that's not what I mean, anyway. The squirrel's talking in tongues because it's malfunctioning. It's just generating streams of phonemes and your brain is assembling them into words. It's partly you, you see. Pattern matching gone mad."

"Oh." That does make more sense, and I relax into a state of no-mind, concentrating not on the semantics of the squirrel's speech, but on the flow of sounds. It is quite musical, or perhaps poetical, experienced this way, but the exigencies of the mission prevent me from releasing my mind completely so that I keep picking up partway through the stream of noise and suddenly finding that I'm hearing words again rather than noises. It does not help that Nina has kept the microphone open at her end and I can hear urgent speech in low tones faintly in my right ear.

"Seriously," I ask her, "what is going on over there? Am I being pulled out? Are you pulling out and abandoning us here?"

"I told you not to worry about it."

"Yeah, excellent advice. Perhaps you'd like to tell me not to think of an elephant, while you're at it."

I stop, surprised. I'm not sure where the phrase has come from, but it sounds familiar. Like something someone has said to me recently. I understand the concept of it - it would be impossible not to think of an elephant if someone had just told you to - but the idea seems to have sprung from my head fully formed and packaged with a ready phrase. It seems unlikely.

"What?"

"Nothing," I say, still puzzled. "Listen, you can be straight with me. If I need to get out, I should know. But if you're bugging out the whole ship there's nothing I can do about it, right? So I'll just get on with what I'm doing and hope you come back soon."

"Please, I said to not worry about it. Just continue exploring."

The squirrel chitters, then bounds off into the forest. I consider chasing it, but it seems like now is not the time for foolish exertion in the pursuit of animals who can climb faster than I can anyway. Still, it seems that in the forest is the place to find things of interest, so I begin to saunter between the trees, further and further away from the open area around the wharf. I take a glance back at the landing craft - glass dome now empty, which means that at the very least the diver must have swum away - and then move further into the dark.

The trees are oppressively tight around me, some species of dark-needled pine that seems to be able to tolerate growing in close quarters. In some places I can barely squeeze between their trunks. Branches scratch and pull at me, and every few steps I have to stop to disentangle one or other of my straps from where they have become hooked around awkwardly-shaped twigs and protrusions. It is hard going, but I realise that away from the sounds of the water washing against the wharf I can hear much more - in fact, I can hear the sound of the squirrel moving through the undergrowth ahead of me, mainly making squirrel noises but occasionally letting out a burst of nonsense syllables.

I follow the sound for a few minutes, keeping as quiet as possible myself. Nina has closed the microphone again at her end, and on my wrist the signal readout bars grow fewer and fewer until eventually the last one blinks out. I try opening the channel, but there is nothing but static. It is while I am distracted doing that that I almost trip over the squirrel, who jumps nimbly aside at the last moment before my foot hits it.

"Careful!" it squeaks. I must be staring, because it points to my ear. "Your ship is out of range now, it's safe to talk."

"Uh... ok."

It glances around nervously.

"We haven't much time," it tells me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Art Pact 155: Ten Super-Short Scenes


One:

Just one-tenth of the amount of explosive packed around the central support column in the middle of the carpark would have brought the building down, so I wondered what the point of all the excess was. I found the foreman on the top level of flats. He was sitting in a reclining couch, with a metal dustbin on his head. He'd cut a face-shaped hole in the front of it, windowed with cling-film.

"What have you done, Barlough?" I asked, horrified.

"They said I'd amount to nothing," he cried. "But I'm going to be the first astronaut from Kentish Town!"



Two:

He leaned closer to me, and I (reflexively) leant away from him. His breath stank of garlic and I could count all the stubby bristles on his chin and cheeks.

"Have you ever seen a fat man do the lambada?" he asked. I shook my head. "Once you've seen a fat man do the lambada," he told me, "you've seen everything."

"I.. I'm not ready to have seen everything," I said. "I've got too much to live for. How about you keep your lambada to yourself and I leave now and forget I ever heard of Nuneaton Municipal Swimming Pool?"



Three:

The space monkeys fired their guns, howling with frustration. But I was away - free and clear, and with plenty of time to spare before the bomb went off. Plenty of time.

I checked my watch.

Too much time, in fact. It would be another half an hour before the explosion, and clear of the monkey's death ray blasts I was already getting a little bored. I mean, really, it's space. There's just so much of it and so little to do. I put my foot on the astro-horse's decelerator pad, swung a hard one-eighty, and dived towards the planet again.



Four:

"Wenceslas, darling!" I threw himself against his broad shoulders, clinging on so that my auburn hair trailed down his muscled pectorals in great waves like a waterfall toppling over chiseled granite cliffs. "Don't go, I beg of you! Don't leave me here, not with him!" I felt myself start to swoon, and I clutched his cheeks between my hands as if I were a drowning woman clutching at a life-raft. I despaired at the thought of his absence, and a plaintive sob burst forth from my lips.

"Alright, calm down woman," said Wenceslas manfully. "I'm only taking the bins out."



Five:

In the forbidden garden of the mysterious museum of the inner circle of Zon, the two hooded monks descended the stone steps of tranquility into the dark rockery on meditation. Their faces were cloaked in shadow, and their bare feet made hardly a whisper as they crossed the sharp gravel.

They halted before an empty rectangle of soil, and one of the monks solemnly lifted his arm and extended a bone finger towards the plot.

"Oh, that!" said the second monk. He shrugged. "Uh, I don't know - isn't it called like the herbaceous border or something? Does that sound right?"



Six:

Hutchinson leant over the body, rapt. His tools were laid out in an array by his side: the dusting powder, the collecting bags, tweezers, callipers, and delicate blades. As I stepped around him I could see that he was waving an ultra-violet light slowly back and forth.

"Any news?" I asked. He looked around, surprised, and for a second the light shone directly at my face. Hutchinson turned away quickly.

"Uh, no-" he said. "No news yet." He sounded evasive.

"What aren't you telling me, Hutchinson?" I pressed him.

"Uh..." he said tentatively, "..did you come straight from your date?"



Seven:

We teetered at the edge of the building, balanced delicately in our struggle. If she pushed just a little harder, I knew, I would go over the edge. I vowed that if I went, I was taking her with me. The expression on her face was stony, and I understood that it was me or her, or both of us. We could not walk away from this moment alive.

"Say it," she said, through clenched teeth. "Say it!"

"No!"

"Say it!" Her teeth were still pressed together.

Suddenly I knew I wanted to live.

"Fine!" I shouted. "Gottle of Geer!"



Eight:

Acting with lightning reflexes, Lottie set to work on the computer. Her fingers danced across the keyboard, hammering out a concerto of code. Green letters scrolled across the screen, orange ones sideways.

"Got to hack the firewall before the ICE kicks in," she growled, picking up a can of energy drink and popping the tab with one hand, then tipping it down her throat and slamming it down empty. "Got you you bastard!"

She turned round triumphantly, holding up her hand for a high-five. I looked at the screen. She'd done it - she'd set up Timeline on my Facebook account.



Nine:

Great tentacles reached out, in my dream, unfolding to the bloody stars that crowded overhead, pressing their lamenting crimson light down onto the defenseless earth. There were alien, threatening songs in those stars, and their wailing music descended to the sleeping havens of man and stirred madness in the ears of all those who heard it. Monsters from the depths rejoiced wildly, and stretched forth terrible sinews to press up from their prisons to where they could wreak awful bloody slaughter on weak humanity.

"What do you think it means?" I asked the dinner lady. She stared at me blankly.



Ten:

I watch the two of them carefully through the binoculars, counting the money as it changes hands. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty - fifty? I raise my eyebrows, causing the binoculars to jiggle and take the pair out of view for a second. When I find them again, Boltzman is pocketing the five ten-p coins. Doppler, clearly new at this, looks around nervously, which makes Boltzman laugh. He punches Doppler lightly on the shoulder, then reaches into the inside of his coat. When his hand emerges again, it is holding the pear drop.

"All units move in," I say into my radio.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Art Pact 154


There's a kind of peace that comes over you when you're facing the open end of a gun. Like that little black hole that can suck in a life and erase it forever is really a candle flame that you can stare at to clear your mind. All other considerations are secondary, and everything comes down to just the simple moment. The now. You can't just hear your heart beat, you can feel it. I don't just mean the pulse or the bump in your chest, I mean actually feel your heart contracting in its four separate chambers, two by two sending the blood squirting into your lungs and then into the rest of your body. Like a tiny fist grabbing  onto a finger. I imagine it's what being a child is like, not understanding that there is a you separate from the rest of the world and there is a moment of division separate from the rest of time, an instant that cuts the past from the future. You are everything in your own mind when the loaded barrel is pointed at you, and there is no history, nothing to come. That's the possibility of the gun, the ability to erase a person's thoughts of what he's done, and at the same time cut away any chance he might have of making new thoughts in the days as yet unseen. It's a great power that a gun holds, and it's so frightful that it leaks into the very aspect of the thing, so that you can experience in a sense what it is like to be dead before you are made that way permanently.

I searched the little spot of darkness and found that moment, and let it crawl over me and into me, purging all the fear from me. There's nothing to fear from history, because it is done. There's nothing to fear from the future, because it will not soon arrive. The dead fear nothing. So, by putting myself apart from time and from life, I cleared my mind of fear and hope, and took a step closer.

"I mean it, goddamn it!" Fletcher shouted. The dot wavered, and for a moment so did I, but then the shell of emotionlessness was over me again. I stepped closer. "For chrissakes, I said I mean it! Stay where the hell you are, or I swear I'll put a bullet in your neck!"

The specificity of his threat seemed nothing but absurd, and so absorbed in the absorption and neutralisation of fear was I that I was a sitting duck for such comedy. I found myself smiling, then grinning, then a chuckle was out of my throat.

"Stop laughing, and stop walking, or it'll be the last thing you do!"

I stopped both - coming to a standstill a meter closer than I had been, with just a smile on my face.

"I've been walking since I was six months old," I told him calmly. "If I'm going to die, it might as well be on the move. And I can't think of a better way to die than laughing."

My bravado had overcome my serenity, which might not have been so great for me except that it was now clear that whatever happened, Fletcher was not going to shoot me. He had left it too long - he had begun to see me as a person again. Perhaps a person he hated, but Fletcher's religious streak was too deep for him to be able to kill me with impunity. He was afraid of his god, and his god had said (using as it's agency the old preacher's sermon) that there was to be no raising of the hand against your fellow man. I was going to die by the gun, that much had not changed, but it was not going to be Fletcher's gun, not today and not so long as he was holding it himself. I acknowledged the feeling by backing away again to the water-trough. Although my serenity had gone, it had left me with a profound sympathy for the man, and so I saw no sense in making this harder on him than it already was..

"What now?" asked the sheriff.

"You could get out of here before the cavalry turns up," I suggested. Fletcher jumped.

"Cavalry?"

"Sorry, just an expression. I mean, in case the posse from town turns up here. I'm willing to let you get away, but they might not be so forgiving. Right, Sheriff?"

"Now I don't know..." said that worthy.

"Sheriff!" I said, raising my eyebrows and letting my eyes flick towards Fletcher.

"Ah, yes - I mean, well, Fletcher here might show willing by untying me. Then there's no harm done, no need for me to get involved, right? He could get out of here."

I didn't trust the Sheriff, but I was willing to bet he wouldn't try anything particularly stupid until he was out of pistol range, so I nodded agreeably and turned to Fletcher.

"What about it?" I offered. "Let the old man go and we'll put all this behind us?"

"Old-" the sheriff spluttered, but a stern glance from me shut him up. He pouted under his moustache.

The little black circle - which had been trembling for a minute now, suddenly began to flatten out and finally disappeared completely, vanishing as Fletcher pointed the gun down at the dust of the yard. He took two steps backwards, and looked back down the valley at the town.

I looked away for a second to the Sheriff. To my surprise the bound man was looking up into the sky. I followed his gaze, saw something moving down towards us. Coming down fast. I opened my mouth to call out a warning, but it was hopeless. With the sound of a thousand amateur violinists the time door slid into the ground ahead of us. Where Fletcher's hand had been, holding the gun, was just a blank space. His shoulder was missing, and his right foot. He toppled into the thing, a shocked expression plastered on his face, and vanished completely.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Art Pact 153


"Oh yes," she said, rolling her eyes. "What an absolutely great idea. You know, I sometimes forget that you're a genius in your spare time, Ray. Can you believe that? Then a plan like this falls fully-formed from your lips like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus and it all comes flooding back to me."

"Fuck off," Ray told her.

I kept my head down. It was best, when they were in this mood. If we'd been in Auntie Becca's house she'd have been elbowing me in the arm and making suggestive expressions, but I didn't think there was the faintest spark of romance between the two of them.  In fact, I was wondering whether to exchange the green string that connected their pins for a red one. They weren't friends, that much was clear. They were acquaintances at best. But were they enemies? A hard one to call. They fought like boxers - to win, but not to kill. There were certain things that were off-limits between them: the matter of Alice's last boyfriend, for example, and no doubt some equivalent sore point of Ray's (I knew less about Ray's historical problems than about Alice's, since there were fewer lines of gossip proceeding through the family from him to me).

"Look," Ray said, palms up in supplication. "It's your money on the line, right? I'm trying to help, so if you've got constructive criticism it's in your best interests to be positive about it. I want to help - alright, I mean I don't want to help."--he scratched his stubble--"in fact, I'll be honest with you, under normal circumstances nothing would give me more pleasure than seeing you get taken to the cleaners. But there's family honour, and there's the wider circumstances. If you lose this then Becca's scheme goes down the drain, and I think she deserves a bit of a break. So, to reiterate, I do want to help you."

"Oh good, because I was beginning entertain some mild doubts," Alice said airily.

"Jesus, you don't make it easy, do you?"

"Look," she said, resting her hands on the coffee table. She gave no indication of how cold it was, although the surface must have been freezing still - the bag of ice had been sitting on it for a good half an hour before they arrived. "I appreciate help, obviously, but I can't help remembering how things worked out when you tried to help Becca with that car problem."

"That was-"

"Or when you and Dad went to talk to those people at Nigel's school," she cut him off.

"Low blow," he said, although I'd heard him joking about that particular screw up with my Mum, and with Becca and cousin Pearl. It hadn't gone well, but it had hardly been Ray's fault - if anything, he'd come out of it smelling of roses in comparison with everyone else involved. Alice obviously knew that too.

"Ah diddums," she cooed. "If you like, you can go home and have a little cry about it while I take care of the problem myself. Which is the safe and smart thing for me to do, given that all of your plans turn out one way or another to be colossal fuck-ups!"

Ray drummed his fingers against a cheek, his mouth open to make a soft drumming noise. I watched him blink - slowly and deliberately, not a reflex but something I'd seen him do before. At the reception after his wedding, just before all the unpleasantness. I tensed up, clamping my legs together and staring at my laptop screen, unable to think.

But nothing happened. I heard him take a deep breath in, then let it out as a sigh. He stood, patted his pockets to check for ths jingle of change and keys, straightened up his jumper, and left without another word.

"That was a bit rude," Alice said. I must have looked a bit incredulous, because she pointed at the door, then to me. "He could at least have said goodbye to you, is what I mean."

"I'll survive," I said. "I - actually I think I'd prefer it if neither of you remembered that I was here to see that."

"I'm sorry, B."

"Don't call me that."

"Ok, Brandon, whatever. Listen, he's a prick, but he likes you. Everyone likes you. You've got nothing to worry about."

"Sorry," I said.

"Don't be sor- oh, never mind. Look, if it helps, I promise to forget your were anywhere near. You can tell Becca you haven't been within earshot of us, you can tell your mum you haven't seen us for weeks. They'd probably prefer you were clear of all this grown-up stuff-"

"Oh thanks!"

"You know what I mean. All this"--she raised her hands to encompass the room in one gesture as a synecdoche of the relentless soap-opera drama of the her generation--"all my bullshit and Becca's and Ray's and your dad's - no, not that," she reassured me, "your parents are one hundred percent bullshit-free. You just get on with your exams and forget all about the rest of us."

I looked up glumly at Alice. Her confidence in my ability to put family matters aside was charming, but - I was sure - utterly misplaced. I was sure that I'd failed geography already; a direct result of the blow-up the night before when Alice had revealed what had happened to her windfall. Maths was next, my ropiest subject, the first part of the exam tomorrow morning at nine (far too early to revise the morning before). I was going to have to stay up late, and since I couldn't do that at home it meant either staying here or going to Auntie Becca's.

Neither of those options, normally quite pleasant, felt even remotely inviting to me. But the greater of the two evils was almost certainly to stay here.

"I'm going to, uh, I'm going to go to Becca's," I said, standing and gathering my things.

"You do that," she said. "Good boy. Good solid boy."

I left in lower spirits than I'd arrived in. I hadn't thought that possible, but when Ray and Alice get together - as Becca often said - there was little they could not accomplish. Especially when it came to making a situation worse.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Art Pact 152


Among the Reverend Daniel's most persistent disciples were Arlene and Scott Pike, my neighbours-but-one at number twenty. Their house, which when I'd moved to River Cove had been painted a cheery sunshine yellow with red accents, was now the greyest and drabbest in the entire avenue, and the ornamental flower garden that had graced the south-east side of their plot was long gone, replaced with a potato plantation from which they harvested the most nutritious but least flavoursome tubers it was possible to cultivate.

"Good morning, Mister Christopher," they would greet me politely, on their morning rounds. Like all the Danielites they had begun to dress exclusively in the monochrome uniform of the church when they had joined fully: for men, grey flowing robes that extended from the neck down to just above the ankles, grey socks, and grey sandals. The women, in addition, wore grey woollen trousers so that their modesty might be protected in the unlikely event that wind blew at their robes.

Mostly I tried to avoid them, checking carefully from the bay windows of my father's house before venturing out onto the streets, but the Pikes lived too close to me to be escaped - they could knock on me at a moment's notice, and could easily leave the house in the time it took me to descend from the upper floors of my refuge, don my walking boots and overcoat, and exit the front door. I suspected also that they were stalking me in some way - perhaps watching for the tell-tale twitching of lace curtains in my windows as a sign that I was about to emerge. They were relentless - polite, but relentless, and perhaps the politeness made it worse, since it inhibited my expression of my growing anger with them. Had they been strident and rude I could easily have matched it with my own rudeness by slamming my door in their faces or brushing them off in the street with some barbed remark, but to such gracious advances I could only make feeble excuses and attempt to rid myself of them with gentle lies.

To this day I couldn't say whether the Pikes were naturally that way, or whether they had made a cynical decision to exploit the behaviour of polite society for the benefit of the cult. Perhaps both suppositions are true - when I had arrived in River Cove I had met them once or twice, and I remember them as reserved but polite at the time. But of course all but the worst humans are polite to newcomers anyway, so it may be that I never saw them as they truly were - there was simply no interval between their politeness to the distrusted prodigal son of their town's old landmark and their politeness to one of the few holdouts to their town's new religion.

One morning in late May, perhaps a year and a half after the Reverend Daniel first began to preach in the town square, they called on me directly as part of their usual proselytising round. There were, at the time, nine holdouts from the Danielites - of which I was the most well known, and therefore the most attractive as a convert. The Reverend Daniel had given up trying to call on me himself, perhaps as part of his own more cynical plan, but the Pikes were truer believers than their priest and as such were willing to expend their energy even on the most hopeless of cases - particularly when those hopeless cases were so nearby that their gaudy woodwork could be seen from the Pike's own home.

It was early in the morning - not so early that I wasn't up and about, but early enough that I didn't expect callers - so I opened the door without looking through the peephole first. I'd thought it might be the postman (who still completed his rounds without religious prejudice, although he did cut an odd figure cycling in his grey robes), and I had to clamp down on my natural reactions very hard to prevent a sigh of despair from escaping my lips when I saw Arlene and Scott on my doorstep.

"Good morning neighbour!" they chorused.

"Scott, Arlene," I said wearily. "How can I help you?"

"We'd like to talk to you about something that's very important to us all," Arlene said.

"Look, I appreciate your views-" I began.

"Property values," said Scott.

"I'm sorry.. uh, what?"

"Property values," he repeated.

"We're not here to ask you to attend Reverend Daniel's sermons," Arlene explained, "although obviously we wouldn't be neighbours if we didn't worry about your happiness in the next life, now would we?" She laughed. "We'd just be people who lived in the same road!"

"That's right," Scott agreed. "What we've come to discuss with you is the question of property values, something that affects us all."

Of course, I'm not so green as I'm cabbage-looking, and I immediately saw where this was heading. As I've said, though, I didn't feel able to just close the door in their faces, so I nodded and tried to prepare an excuse. Which would seem more plausible, I thought - something on the hob, breakfast perhaps, or an errand I had to run in town? If I went for the latter I'd have to back it up with an actual trip, if I chose the former there was always the danger that they'd somehow persuade me to invite them in for coffee.

"It's just that to be an attractive property," Scott continued, "it's not enough for a house to stand on its own. It has to be part of a general aesthetic, it has to fit in with the other houses around it. The houses on a road need to form a seamless picture, and if one house doesn't fit in, well... it damages property prices for everyone. But mostly that one house," he nodded sadly, letting his eyes wander around the electric-blue frame of my father's front door.

"I have no intention of selling," I told them.

"And we're glad of that," he said. "Aren't we glad, Arlene?"

"Ever so glad," she said.

"Well, then everyone's happy!" I declared, smiling, and in that moment a strange spasm of comfort and confidence caused me to push my door closed. I stared at it in shock - as, I imagined, did the Pikes.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Art Pact 151


I didn't want to go along with Uncle Reggie's plan, but it seemed as though there was very little I could do to protest them. Mum was super-excited about them - she kept going on about how it would bring the family together and solve our "little problem" (that's exactly how she said it: "little problem", you see what I'm dealing with, right?) Dad was less enthusiastic, but he's never really enthusiastic about anything, so that was no good. He kept saying things like "we'll see" and "maybe this will be a good thing" which made me think that he was secretly in favour of the whole idiot idea even thought it was obviously him who was going to have to do all the work; Uncle Reggie was too weak to lift the gate, I was too young to drive the car, mum was too occupied with Frizzle to do anything. Dad didn't mention any of that, though, and when I pointed it out to him he just smiled and said "we'll see", which was a pretty annoying thing for him to do. I used to get enough of that mystical crap from gramps while he was still alive, if Dad turned into his own dad I was going to spend most of the rest of my life (short as it seemed likely to be) wishing there were some way I could run away from home which didn't involve me being torn limb-from-limb or drowning.

I helped Mum out with Frizzle a bit, carrying him in his little cage-thing from window to window so that he could see the gardens and stuff. Down under the water it was only possible to see for maybe twenty or thirty meters, so we couldn't see anything past where the garden gate was, but what was inside our little plot of land was interesting enough.

The bird-table was still in the middle of the lawn, amazingly - I remembered that last year when the hurricane had been on its way Dad had fixed it into the ground with a couple of big metal staplers. They'd loosened a little bit with the soft mushy ground, but they were still holding down the base and preventing the bird-table from floating back up to the surface. Most of the bird seed that had been on it was gone, but the metal mesh feeder was still hanging from one corner and still full of nuts and seeds and globs of fat which were slowly dissolving into a little grey cloud around it. Little fish darted in and out of the cluster of food, picking at the specks of nutrition which Mum had intended for her coal-tits and sparrows. It was easy to think that we were still above the surface and that it was the fish who were weirdly out of place. I saw a big greyish one (about the size of my arm) muscle into the group and scatter its smaller relatives, and it was so like a fat rock-pigeon scattering smaller birds that I laughed out loud.

Frizzle, of course, had no idea what to make of the whole thing. When an octopus swam silently past my bedroom window, flapping his big webbed arms so that he looked like a giant red umbrella opening and closing, Frizzle went crazy with his weird bark-meow noise, scratching at the cage front as if he wanted to leap out of the window and tackle the cephalopod for the interloper it was. On the other hand, the handful of sharks that circled around Uncle Reggie's shed he completely ignored, even when one of them broke away to spiral out lazily towards where the rabbit hutch used to be - Frizzle's favourite territory. Back up on land he would dash out madly if there were so much as a kitten on that patch, but faced with the giant cartilaginous trespasser he simply couldn't seem to be able to muster up even the slightest irritation.

It was hard to tell, so bad was the visibility, whether any of the other houses had survived the submersion. It had looked as though the whole road had come with us at the time, but that was only what Mum had seen as the first quakes started. By the time we were falling in earnest the water was too churned up around us to be able to see anything out of our windows, and when we landed the mud and silt on the ocean floor had been kicked up into a huge dark cloud that had obscured everything for a week. Even now it still seemed like the liquid outside was a sort of thin soup rather than sea water.

"What if we go for a swim?" I asked Dad later on. He was in the garage, working on the modifications to the car. Every few moments there would be a "ping" from the garage door and one of the little plugs of Uncle Reggie's sealant would vanish, fired into the room at the head of a tiny but high-pressure stream of brine. At first Dad had been in charge of fixing the leaks, but there were so many that it had threatened to hold up the whole plan so he'd showed me how to do it. I used a metal cup to catch the water and zero in on the hole in the door, then clamped a little suction pad over the spot before readying the caulking gun full of sealant and quickly whipping the pad free and squirting a new plug over the hole in one smooth movement.

"Nice work," he said. "Where would we swim to?"

"I mean, to the other houses. Like, to see if any of the others...uh, survived." It felt weird saying the word, and I felt suddenly sad. What if the others hadn't been as lucky as us? There had been plenty of Uncle Reggie's sealant around, but there was no way of knowing if everyone had had it.

"I'm sure they're fine," Dad said, but he wouldn't look me in the eyes.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Art Pact 150


The robots rampaged across the town for four days and four nights until the Wednesday before Nigel's birthday. On that day they were sluggish from another long night of destruction, and when the clouds failed to open to admit the sun's energising rays the robots were forced to fold up their solar panels and go into hibernation. After they had remained motionless for an hour a few of the more daring townsfolk got up the courage to crawl out of their cellars and other hiding places and approach the shiny metal boxes that stood in place of the robots.

"Are they inside?" Mr. Crookshaw asked, tapping one of the boxes gingerly.

"I think those boxes are the robots," said Ms. Temperance. She pointed out the little lines and creases where the robot's various limbs had folded into the cubic shape, and a circular slot into which she theorised that the heads had retracted. She put her shoulder to the box and pushed with her legs, trying to move it, but it was far too heavy. "We'll have to get the cart."

"You're going to move them?"

"Well we can't leave them lying around here," she said. "What happens when the sun comes out again? It's getting on for summer now, there could be months with no rain."

"Fat bloody chance," Mr. Crookshaw said cynically, staring up at the sky. "In England?"

"Nevertheless, we can't take that chance. Look what they've done to the town in just four days."

Ms. Temperance's hand swept out in an arc to encompass the extent of the destruction. It was truly grand in its scale - in the ten roads surrounding the Marshall home not a single house was left undamaged, and many had been knocked down completely to the ground. The robots had done their work thoroughly and mercilessly in those cases, dismantling the buildings to their very components which had then been arranged neatly in great stacks in the former gardens. Ms. Temperance's house was gone, one of the first to be completely sorted by the robots, and it its place were five and a half great Jenga-style stacks of bricks, a display of wooden struts arranged by length and thickness in a great fan across the lawn, and three conical piles of a white dust that might have been mortar or plaster. Ms. Temperance's belongings, including her chemistry equipment, were arranged in a crazed line around the boundary of her grounds. They might have been easily packed up except for the fact that one or more of the robots had apparently circumnavigated the unorthodox path and crushed everything on it under a metal foot.

Alison Todd, who had been listening to the conversation from a safe distance, ran off and returned with the cart and two disgruntled-looking donkeys that she claimed she had found wandering around the little car park at the entrance to the city farm. Ms. Temperance, who was well acquainted both with the inventory of the farm and with Alison's tendency to take first and ask permission later, looked at the two grumpy creatures with a suspicious eye, but the exigencies of the situation persuaded her not to question the true provenance of the animals. Alison had already hitched the donkeys to the cart, but it was of course impossible to lift the robots up so they were forced to back the cart up to the first of the silent metal boxews, tip the cart down so that its deck was touching the floor and then use the entire cart as a sort of ungainly lever which could lift the robot up onto itself. When the box was in place they tied it up with ropes with which (at the cost of much effort) they could drag it over the axle of the cart and therefore into a position in which the donkeys could pull it away. It was a great deal of work, but once Mr. Crookshaw and Misses Temperance and Todd had hauled away the first robot and so proved that the endeavour was plausible some of the other townsfolk came out to assist.

Ms. Temperance's scheme for dealing with the robots permanently was this - there was a windowless cellar beneath the church hall, and access to it via a little ramp and storage doors. By rolling the cart down the ramp the robots could be delivered into the darkness and left there. Ms. Temperance herself, borrowing a soldering iron, sealed the joints where the robots' various limbs had folded into their bodies, and big canvases covered over each individual machine so that it was triply prevented from regaining its energy and thus freedom. When all fifteen of the robots had been thus entombed beneath the hall the doors were closed, and a heavy chain put around the door handles. To top it all off, Ms. Temperance hung a heavy wooden sign on the door saying: BEWARE OF THE ROBOTS. NO LIGHTS ALLOWED.

Having dealt with the robots themselves, the townsfolks' attention turned to Johnny Marshall. No-one had seen the boy in the four days that his robots had been dismantling the town, but since they had mostly been huddling in cellars or fleeing for the outskirts none of them had been paying particular attention.

"We have to do something about him, obviously," said Mr. Lansdowne, stepping forward and tucking his fingers under his braces like an old-time mill magnate. "These shenanigans have gone on for far too long. It's time we took this matter to the police and had young Mr. Marshall locked up for his own safety."

"His own safety?" Ms. Temperance tilted her head to one side skeptically. She had a rule of thumb, which was that whenever someone claimed to be doing something for someone else's own good (or safety), she immediately assumed that it was a lie and only changed her mind when the other person provided some extraordinary proof. She was no cynic - she believed in the existence of altruism and empathy - but she had heard too many speeches from Lansdowne and his ilk to be under any illusion about what the many really wanted. "Or your own comfort?"

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Art Pact 149


The mystery of the disappearing hat began one bright summer morning when the birds were singing in the trees and the mowers were droning in the gardens of Millaton. Missus Grady (for it was her that discovered the hat, and then later on the absence of the hat) described the day later to her sister as one of the darkest days that she had ever known, but if you could have seen her that morning coming out of her cottage on Tisabel Avenue you would have seen her scrunch up her eyes tight against the brightness of the sun and loosen the button at the neck of her dress to let some cooling air get at her skin. She paused in the doorway and fanned at herself and considered whether it might not be smarter to go back in and change into some lighter clothing. But the day was already underway and as she was on her way to the church fete, there to "person" a booth as the vicar put it, she decided to proceed ahead. Her dress was a patchy pattern of blues and violets and purples, exciting but not too exciting, sober but not too sober, a perfect balance and an indication of the ambiguity she felt towards her task today. On the one hand the thought of spending the whole day in the vicarage garden surrounded by the children of the village filled her with great dread, but on the other the presence of the new vicar, the young vicar with his blond hair and his ready smile, was enough to overcome any other considerations.

Missus Grady's cottage, a low but sprawling building with a false covering of thatch over a plastic heat-retaining roof of her own design, stood on the outskirts of the village near the blind end of Tisabel Avenue that had once led to the bridge across the river. She picked up her ancient bicycle from its resting place inside her front gate and walked that way, the bike's rear wheel tick-ticking gently to itself as they went. She weaved it between the bollards and up the little ramp of compacted rubble that Doctor Spellman had made at the end of winter, and turned onto the path beside the river that led into the heart of the village and the church.

She loved the river in summer time, particularly early summer time when the algea had not had time to grow too far across the bottom of the flow and there were still dark rocks visible down there, dark rocks struck through with shining veins of iron pyrite. In a month's time, when the heat became truly a force, the village children would cool off by diving for the fool's gold, carrying the lumps up to the surface and leaving them on the banks for Missus Grady to kick back in when they sun had crossed back down closer to the horizon and the young ones all called back home for their tea. Sometimes she would carefully pick up a piece of the false ore and stroke the little golden flecks, wondering perhaps if she might build a furnace in her back garden that could purify the iron within. Tools or jewellery made from the very river of Millaton might sell well, she thought, but her plans were never put into action.

Half-way to the church she met Mister Bannon coming the opposite way on the other bank. His dog, Charger, strained at the leash and every few moments threatened to bound into the water, pulling the frail frame of the writer to a wet doom, but somehow the dog's changing whims always conspired to just avoid this disaster.

"Good morning, Harmony!" Mister Bannon called, attempting to draw himself to a stop. He did not quite manage it, for Charger was much stronger than he and with four feet on the ground also had greater traction, but the two of them held a sort of motionlessness, as two stars orbitting each other at least maintain a common center of gravity somewhere between them.

"Good morning, Mister Bannon," Missus Grady called. "I'm afraid I don't have ti-"

She was too slow to halt Bannon's flow, though,

"Have you spoken to Johnson in the corner shop today?" he cut her off. "What a shame about the postman, isn't it?"

"I really must-"

"I mean, first of all there's no delivery on a Saturday and now this! It's not civilised, I tell you! The Germans would laugh at us. Imagine that, Germans laughing at us!"

Mister Bannon shook his head sadly, although the gesture was swallowed up in the random movement caused by Charger's enthusiastic circling. Between them the lead twanged taut and relaxed again, twanged and relaxed, and the day was so peaceful that even across the river Missus Grady could hear the soft note that it made.

"I imagine you have plenty to d-"

"I blame the Internet," Mister Bannon said. "Do you know who invented the Internet? Germans."

Missus Grady, who knew very well that the Internet was not invented by Germans (although she suspected that there were German people involved, since the world was small now and people from all nations were likely to hold patents on modern technology), simply nodded. She had learned in years past that it was better simply to humour Mister Bannon rather than to call him out on his more ridiculous pronouncements.

Nonetheless, she did find in that sentence excuse enough to continue upon her way, and waving politely to him she continued her walk. Mister Bannon began to say something but this time it was he who was cut off by a loud woof. She imagined an ally in Charger, or perhaps the bark was simply the dog's way of expressing jealousy of one who, free of a leash, could simply wander away from his master's gibberish.

Missus Grady, coming to a flatter part of the path, hopped onto her bike and began to pedal, thinking of the new vicar. He would be standing in the garden now, checking his watch, looking around him at the hustle and bustle of preparation and wondering where Missus Grady might be. Her heart quickened at the thought of his thought, at the idea of his idea of her.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Art Pact 148


I make monsters out of the leftover parts while Angela rants on about her friend above me. The underside of her workbench is dotted with stalactites of gum hurriedly hidden in order to present a professional aspect to a client and then forgotten. The wood is unvarnished and dull, except in two shiny protrusions that extend from the edge where Angela sits, the ghostly shadows of her thighs where they press when she has her chair too high. That happens only on stressful days, of which there must have been many I would guess. I recognise it as the inverse phenomenon to one I have seen frequently at home - getting undressed for bed my sister takes off her skirt or trousers to reveal pressed lines on the front of her legs, a hand's length below her hips.

Now, though, she is complaining about Serena to her other friend Elizabeth. Elizabeth stands in the door, as far away from the bodies as she can be without leaving. Elizabeth is a perfume counter girl, and I do not know what she looks like, not really. Her shoes are heels, but the heavy comfortable heels of someone who must stand up all day enticing women to come closer so that she can subtly criticise their pores under the guise of friendship and fellow womanly feeling. For a similar reason her ankles, unlike the rest of her, are thick with muscle. I can see no higher than that from my vantage point, although by certain shifts of weight I can tell that she is leaning against the door frame, and at one point in the conversation she lifts the right foot out of its shoe and folds it up closer to her body, presumably to rub it.

"She doesn't understand," Angela says, kicking a filing cabinet draw closed with her own right foot. "She's got Guilliam, they've been together for so long she's forgotten what it's all like."

I suspect that Serena does understand. I look at the pieces before me - the tail of a cat, two legs from a Chihuahua dog, and a budgerigar whose owner left it here two weeks ago and has not returned since, nor is she answering the phone calls that Angela makes to her at the insistence of her boss. The parts are of comically different sizes, but I stitch them together anyway. I cut off the budgie's wings and scrape them out with my knife to form the attachment point for the dog's legs, then pluck out the tail feathers (I would have liked to put the cat's tail elsewhere, to give it a new purpose, but there is only so much room on a bird to work with).

"Guilliam's taking her to Paris," Elizabeth drawls. "I should ask Richard to take me to Paris. He took me to Calais once. He said what's the difference? It's all France, isn't it?"

"Typical Richard," Angela reluctantly agrees.

"I asked him, do you really think there's no difference between the most romantic city in the world and some dreary port full of high-per-mar-shay?"--she stretches out the word until it is almost unrecognisable--"I told him, Calais is somewhere you go with school to buy french sweets, it's not somewhere you take your future wife."

"Yes."

Angela is bored of Elizabeth, I know this because she talks to herself at night, in the big bed across the room from my own smaller one. She and Elizabeth have been friends for years, almost as long as she and Serena, but in that time their jobs and interests have made them drift apart. The separation is certain now, although it has been growing glacially slow, so that neither of them recognise the source of their discomfort with each other. But it is obvious in the room at the moment, I can even see it from my vantage point. Elizabeth is shallow, that is what Angela thinks. Her job is shallow, her relationship with the safe but tedious Richard is shallow. On the other side of the coin, Elizabeth is repulsed by the morbidity of Angela's profession. She might as well be a gravedigger or a doctor in a morgue as far as Elizabeth is concerned. Elizabeth's world rewards a very strict definition of femininity, and stuffing dead animals is not included in the list of womanly pursuits.

"You should come out with us," Elizabeth says. "Get your glad-rags on, come out on the pull. Just you and me and Richard. Get yourself a decent man, forget all about whats-his-name. Make Serena jealous  of you,  you know? Best cure for the green-eyed monster is to pass it on to someone else."

I have cleaned up the left leg and the corresponding joint on the budgie enough to fix them together, but realise with some irritation that I did not bring any packing material down here. I could try snaking a hand up to grab it from Angela's desk, but I do not know whether Elizabeth knows I am here, and although she is unlikely to turn Angela in to her boss there is always the chance that the sudden appearance of a hand from beneath Angela's workspace might startle her.

"I don't know. I'm not sure that - I mean..."

Is it as obvious to Angela that Elizabeth really doesn't understand her problem, I wonder? Perhaps I do not understand, because from what I have overheard it sounds to me as though Serena's take on the whole issue, the one that Angela has just spent ten minutes deriding, is spot on. Perhaps what my sister is unwilling to admit to herself is just that - that in fact Serena understands perfectly well the situation Angela is in with Alexander, but that if Angela accepts that she must also accept that there is something in Serena's advice. My sister is afraid to act, and the action that Serena has mapped out for her is doubly terrifying to her, because it would put her on the back foot for once.

At that moment my sister lifts her current project off her desk and places it on the floor, forgetting that I am down here. The dog's face is not fixed yet, and it stares at me with hideous blank eye sockets. I shriek involuntarily.

"What the hell was that?" Elizabeth asks.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Art Pact 147


"I'm begging you, sheriff," Carter said, his face pressed uncomfortably close between two bars. "Please, you gotta do it."

Sheriff Townsend kicked the edge of the table gently, stared at the ground and shook his head. He would not meet Carter's eyes, but nor did he put down the gun in his hand. He turned it over, looking at the smooth chromed curves of the metal and wondering if it would even fire. He distrusted the gun's ornamentation, the fact that it had been built for show. Surely that meant that something had been taken away from it, an essence of utility as if design were a zero-sum game and a weapon could either be fit for purpose or beautiful. He'd not thought of it since the townsfolk had given him the gun, but the idea was unavoidable now. Perhaps it would allow him a way out - if he were to aim the gun and pull the trigger but the gun didn't fire, would that be enough for God? Or would it be the act of gambling a man's life that the almighty saw?

"Come on, sheriff, have some mercy on me?"

"Be quiet!" Townsend snapped. Carter shut up and fell away from the bars, sagging back onto the cot bed that was the cell's only furniture. His face was a closed mask, nothing of the cocky bravado that he'd had when Townsend had first met him remained. Townsend thought back to that first meeting, cursing himself for not moving Carter on when he'd had the chance. But he hadn't wanted to be that kind of lawman. He'd just wanted to keep the peace, not trap the town in some kind of amber that would preserve it forever without change. He couldn't protect them from the future, and the future was men like Carter. And women like Miss Eaves, he thought suddenly.

He walked to the window again, and looked out over the crowd outside. They had given up their chanting, and it looked as though a couple of them had decided that they might as well get back to work while there was no chance of getting their hands on Carter. There was O'Reilly, though, and there Oxford, and behind them Mr. Arnold still holding the shotgun that Townsend had told him should stay on his farm. And yes, there she was, well behind the crowd, standing in the shade of the porch outside the general store: Miss Eaves, one hand on her hip, the other clutching a tin cup full (no doubt) of watered-down gin, watching the mob disapprovingly. Perhaps she saw him, because the hand at her hip raised up and waved - a terse wave, almost a salute.

"What if I did it," Carter suggested.

"What?"

"What if you give me that gun, and I just put a bullet in my head? I swear, I'd shoot myself. That'd take all the blame off of you, right sheriff?"

Townsend hefted the weight of the gun in his hand. Yes, that would be much easier. Take out all the cartridges, hand over the gun to Carter and then throw the man a single cartridge from some safe hiding place, just in case it was some kind of trick. He looked at Carter's face, where hope and despair were battling it out and between them producing a grotesquely unreadable expression.

But that would be suicide, he thought to himself, and Carter's ticket straight to hell by God's law. Why let the man shoot himself just to avoid a horrible death at the hands of the mob outside if he was only going to meet a worse fate at Satan's hand?

"Can't do it," he told Carter.

"For God's sake, man! Have some mercy!"

"Now you calm down and let me think, will you?" Townsend ordered his prisoner. "I just need one moment to make this all clear in my head."

Townsend walked to the back of his office, behind the empty gun cabinet and the piles of horse-blankets that his predecessor had left. There the air was close and musty, and it pressed in on the head, so that thoughts were slow. He could still hear the noise of the crowd outside, but here it was duller, like he was hearing it on the wireless rather than right outside his office door.

So here are my choices, he thought. I do what they want me to do - hand over Carter to the town, and just sit back while they string him up for a slow death. Result: Carter's dead, Miss Eaves hates me, and I have to leave town because I can't look any of my neighbours in the face again. Or I shoot Carter myself. Result: Carter's dead, Miss Eaves hates me - but maybe a little less - and they run me out of town. Plus I got to make a representation to the Lord, and maybe that's a long way off but maybe it isn't, and either way I don't know as how he'll accept my excuse. Last choice: I give Carter the gun. Result: Carter's Dead, Eaves hates me, the rest of them will assume that Carter somehow tricked me out of it. They'll think I'm a grand fool, and it won't be long before there's someone else in here doing this job.

It seemed that whatever way he turned the problem in his head, the result was the same. Carter would be dead, his chances of courting Persephone Eaves similarly deceased, his time as sheriff of Haywardstown over for good.

"I've been thinking like the sheriff," he said out loud.

"What was that?"

"Like the sheriff," he announced, walking back out to the front of the jail. "I've been thinking like the sheriff."

"Well," said Carter gloomily. "You are the sheriff. God knows I wish you hadn't've been."

"You don't mean that," Townsend reminded him. "What I mean is that I'm more than the sheriff of Haywardstown. I was Honour Townsend before that, I'm Honour Townsend now, and I'll be Honour Townsend when all's said and done."