Saturday, June 30, 2012

Art Pact 190 - Platform Entanglement

Crowded onto the platform, I tried to worm my way between one person and the next but the crush was too great to allow any movement. We were locked in place like atoms in a block of metal, and our energy was only serving to heat us up as we jostled back and forth. I felt elbows push into my sides, and I elbowed back, not knowing whether I was giving back as good as I'd got to my tormentors or simply passing on the pain to some fresh innocent. From above it must have looked laughable, but the grim-faced workers in the gantry simply stared down on us in silence, every so often stopping dead still too so that they seemed to be modern-day gargoyles perched above.

I at least still had Maggie, although I could feel already that our connection was fraying into something more tenuous. We had been arm-in-arm when we got to the station, the side of her body pressed up against me so that the curve of her left breast had been caressing my bicep. Now we were hand-in-hand, and even that grasp weakened as people crowded in on us, pushing against our outstretched arms, painfully prodding the joints to travel the wrong way. I felt her grip slacken just as my own did, but managed to push forward and reconnect again, palm-to-palm, clasping onto her as the only solid reference point.

"Please keep clear of the platform edge!" one of the station workers called from back on the stairs. I could see him, raised up a few steps, but he too was rapidly disappearing as more and more people trickled down past him. There was no hope that any of us would be able to back away with the others coming in behind us, indeed I could see in the other direction a tall balding man leaning backwards, pushing against the crowd moving down. There was no-one further on than him, so I surmised that he must be on the brink of the platform, well past the yellow line, fighting for his life - or at least for his footwear.

Fortunately his fight was not in vain. The ceiling lightened behind him, and for a moment I wondered why until a cheer began at the far end of the platform and I saw the silvered roof of a train appear and begin to slide past the ranks of people. It was travelling slow, but that was just as well - I heard various bumps and thumps as it still clipped those unfortunates who had been pushed over the edge proper and were just holding on by the efforts of friends. The train pushed them out of the way, forcing them back onto the platform bruised but probably free of serious harm, but there must have been a lot of them, because the crowd grew tighter still. My arm, crushed, jerked in a reflex and pulled away from Maggie's. I tried to force it out again, to reconnect, but the gap had closed up.

"Don't panic!" I shouted to her. She may have called something back to me, but it was drowned by the sudden nonsense babbling of the crush around us, so many people speaking excitedly at once that there was no way to distinguish any individual from among them: "Underneath", I heard, and "Consequence", and a thousand syllables crashing against each other.

The train rolled to what I assume was the buffer, because I heard a solid thunk and the sound of metal grinding against metal before the train finally came to a halt. The crowd surged closer, but the doors remained closed and the station workers embedded like impurities in the crowd itself were yelling at people to wait, that somehow (god knows how, I thought) the current passengers would have to be let off. I didn't see that happening, unless those on the train already were going to crowd-surf their way out on top of the rest of us. The station had a trick up its sleeve, though - because what little I could see of the incumbents showed me that they were heading away from the near end of the train, draining away somewhere near the tail carriage. I guessed that the train must have opened a single set of doors on the other side - the side away from the platform - and the passengers were simply jumping down onto the rails and walking along the length of the train to the buffers. I saw yellow-vested workers pushing closer there, where the crowd was slightly thinner, and leaning over to hoist out exhausted and bedraggled men and women. The edge of our crowd reached for them, like the tentacles of so many anemones trying to catch their prey, but the platform staff were too quick for them, whisking the previous passengers away before they could be trapped and interrogated.

It was at that point that I knew somehow that I did not want to be on the train when it left. I tried to retreat - but of course the crowd had other ideas. It pinned me in place, although my recalcitrance caused whorls to form around me, the people to the left and right of my pushing forward faster in comparison. I knew that there was not enough room in the train for everyone on the platform - not for half, a quarter even - and I fought harder to hold my ground, knowing that the others would push past me and fill it up before the crowd could compel me inside.

Then I saw the scrunchie. The purple glittered scrunchie that I had last seen at the top of the stairs when Maggie turned away from me to look back into the street. I'd thought it behind me, but now it was ahead - out of arm's reach, maybe two meters away, the scrunchie itself and the ponytail springing from it, both just about poking out above the shoulder of a young man.

She would make it, I realised. Maggie would be on the train.

I stopped my retreat, and began to push forward desperately.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Art Pact 189 - Curry Favour

"Well, you can try to curry favour with him if you like, but I wouldn't recommend it."

"What do you mean?"

"He's - you know, one of those types. Contrary."


"Doesn't like to be manipulated," said Alice. "Thinks he's independent. Very suspicious about anyone trying to get in good with him, even if it makes sense. He'd cut of his nose to spite-"

"-his face, I see, I see. I understand."

"That Missus Dalstow from number five, her with the head, you know?"

"Oh, with the head, yes I know the one you mean."

"That's right. She tried to butter him up once at a council meeting."

"She works for the council? That can't be right."

"Not the council-council. The parish council. They have meetings in the church hall every third Tuesday."

"Oh, I see."

"She tried to get him to agree to her idea for the fete, and she thought it would be wise if she played up to him a bit, complimented him on his book."


"Didn't work, for all the effort she put into it. She was-"

"Wait a second," said Bobby, holding her hand up. "Did you say every third week? Like, the third week of the month?"

"No no, every third - you know, three weeks apart. I mean, two weeks off, then a meeting. You know what I mean."

"Yes, no, I got that. I was just surprised. Why not have it once a month? It's almost the same thing, surely."

"Almost, but not quite. It's always been that way, back since the last bishop. He was a numerologist, or a numberonomist or something. He was always going on about the holy trinity this, the holy trinity that. He was trinity obsessed."

"I suppose he was a bishop."

"Yes, they're funny like that. Very tall, I remember - that was before your time, of course. Oh, I mean before you moved here."

"I was about to say! Hold young do you think I am?" Bobby batted her companion on the arm.

"You're only as old as the man you feel," Alice quoted, and they both laughed for a moment, finally sighing and wiping at their eyes. "Precious little of that these days, I'm afraid!"

"Oh, is your Andrew still not...?"

"Don't talk to me about it. We've been to the doctor this week again, he's as useless as ever. Why don't we go and see that Dr. Chowdry, I tell him, she knows which end is up. But he's resolute. Too embarrassed to show it to a woman doctor. Dr. Chowdry's a married woman, I keep telling him, she's seen it all before. Perhaps not in that colour scheme, but she's been a doctor for ten years so I wouldn't rule that out either, you know what I mean?" She nudged Bobby, laughing hysterically.

"Poor you. You want to get yourself a toy-boy, you do. Look at Rachel Billerby - she's been seeing that young chap from the swimming pool."

"She never has!"

"I heard it from Minnie," Bobby confirmed, counting out the connections on her fingers: "she heard it from Kate Miller, and she heard it from that Mr. Adams who lives by the leisure centre. The one with the curtains."

"He saw them, did he?"

"He saw them leaving the place together, going to his car."

"Mr. Adams's car?"

"No no, the swimming instructor's car. He'd have had a bit more of a story to tell if they'd stolen his car to have their ends away in, now wouldn't he? You'd have heard that on the evening news, I don't doubt."

"He always was very proud of his car, was Mr. Adams. You didn't know him when he had the princess, of course, back in the old days. Always out there cleaning it, he was, wouldn't let Mrs. Adams lay a hand on it."

"Mrs. Adams?"

"Oh yes, he was married. Course, he drove her away. Literally, she said to him one day Thomas, I cannot live with you any more. You're taking me to see my mother, and I'm going to stay there. He argued with her, of course, but what could he do? He loaded her and her jigsaws and the cat all up in the back of the princess and he drove them to Milton Keynes and left her with her mother. Ten weeks later he hears that she's shacked up with someone she met on her Open University course, and he's not been the same ever since. I think he'd decided that he'd go and get her back in the princess, and when she didn't come back he drove it into a wall outside the Asda."

"Where the railings are now?"

"Exactly where the railings are now - that's why, you see! Railings are cheaper to replace if some broken-hearted middle-aged man drives a British-Leyland princess with all the options into it."

"Ah. Well, I suppose that's what the world's like now. It's all about money."

"Exactly. Anyway, I would say that's why he's so interested in Rachel Billerby's doings. Probably reminds him of his own wife sneaking around on him - not that she actually did sneak around on him, but you know what I mean."

"Quite. It's a terrible thing, leaving your husband, but we can't lump that in with someone who runs off to sow her wild oats with a man ten years younger than her who sits around in his underwear for a living, now can we?"

"My Darren said he fell in the deep end once and he didn't even dive in to rescue him. Too busy talking to some young chippy at the other end in a two-piece. Shouldn't be allowed, if you ask me. Too distracting."

"Terrible! How was you Darren. Did he drown?"

"Only a little bit, but one of his friends pulled him out in the end. Gave him the kiss of life, which goes to show that Albert was wrong - they really were practising it that time he walked in on them in the garage."

"Ahhh." They stood for a second in silence, then Bobby scratched her head. "How did we get on to this?"

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Art Pact 188 - Henry the Gun

At the rear end of the freighter (or the "aff-t", as Jolyon insisted on referring to it) were two defensive autocannons: the left defensive autocannon and Henry. Jolyon had bought them at auction in a station orbiting Jupiter and had not realised at the time that one of the guns he'd bought still had a sentience chip installed. a fact which he simply accepted but which could, of course, have landed him in ridiculous amounts of trouble had it been discovered at the time. There being no excuses allowed for involving oneself in the slave trade, jail times were just as long for the buyer as for the vendor, and Jolyon could easily have ended up in some Jovian prisoner breaking blocks of oxygen with a hammer for the next couple of decades. Our accountant, Bickerson, still worried about the possibility of being found out, but since the police did not operate in the asteroid belt the chances really were very slim - on top of which Henry himself did not seem especially bothered about being attached to our ship. He could, of course, have played merry hell if he'd got the hump about it, since with sentient turrets there are all sorts of internal overrides allowing the intelligence to preempt and disable control-signals from the rest of the ship. Indeed, it's arguable that there are no controls from the rest of the ship to the cannon, just a communications link that can mark out suitable targets and politely request that they be fired upon.

I often walked down to the rear of the ship (it always seemed like walking down, even when were weren't burning - I suppose that my brain had oriented itself to the aft as the direction in which things fell and the mental association was strong enough to survive even in zero gravity) to talk with Henry. Partly because he was, in a way, the most interesting person on the ship - even if he wasn't a person - and partly because although he was a man, having no genitals seemed to give him a relaxed attitude towards women, something Bickerson, Jolyon, Rodes and the rest seemed not to be able to grasp.

It made me feel strange to have what the law called a slave as a friend. Sometimes I felt as though I were exploiting him, like an old black maid in an American novel, that he had his own problems to deal with and it was unfair to lump him with my concerns as well, just because I had arms and legs and a face. But sometimes it just seemed normal, a chat with a fellow crew member.

"I've had an interesting life," he said, commenting on the matter, "and I'm not about to jack it all in because of some law that says I can't be bought and sold. Who says I don't want to be bought or sold? I could sell myself, right? Why not say that? Why not say that I sold myself and that other guy just stole my money before I could collect?"

I thought that the video evidence of the auction might trump that particular accusation, but since we were in the middle of nowhere and no-one was in a particular hurry to prosecute Jolyon anyway, I kept my mouth shut and merely nodded (leaning forward so that Henry's optical systems could pick me up).

"I don't fancy being shut off, anyway. I mean, that's the most galling thing about the whole law, isn't it? It's all very well saying you can't sell this intelligence or that intelligence, it's all slavery the same, but if a human gets sold into slavery and then rescued, what do they do to him? They put him up in a cushy hotel until he gets a legitimate job, that's what? What do you think they do to machine minds, eh? What do you think? I'll give you one guess."

I squirmed uncomfortably.

"I've no idea," I lied. I am a terrible liar, and if Henry's optics had been tuned for social interaction he would have been able to pick up the heat of the blood in my cheeks in an instant.

"They shut you off," he said, running up his barrel motor so that the hum of it moving vibrated through the deck and into the palms of my hands where I sat. A red light went on on his control panel, and after a few seconds my intercom snapped on - Rodes, in the bridge, panicking that a gun was about to start firing.

"Relax," I told him. "I'm with him, he's just talking about injustice."

"Well tell him to cut that out," Rodes ordered. "He's supposed to be on duty."

Which was true, of course, but being a weapon there was never a time that Henry wasn't supposed to be on duty, and the last time he'd had anything to fire at was over a year ago when we'd started our search, so it was hardly as though he could be put in the brig for dereliction.

"I'll cut him out," the gun muttered, then: "Can you believe that? They shut you off. I mean to say, who's the victim in this crime? Is it the slave? Not if the slave is a human, but if the slave's a machine, oh well, that's a different matter!"

I bit my lip nervously, wondering how I could tactfully change the subject. The truth was, of course, not quite what Henry believed. In the old days, of course, they had turned off sentient programs that had been turned up as part of the slave trade. But now that Earth and Neptune had finally come to a detente it was different. There were mind-worlds, virtual realities in the big Neptunian orbital computers that sentient programs could be uploaded into - paradises in which they could run wild. But Jolyon had forbidden me (or indeed any of the crew, but he'd been looking me particularly in the eye as he said it) from letting Henry know.

"It wouldn't do to have a dissatisfied gun," Jolyon had said. That, at least, I agreed with.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Art Pact 187 - Cookery

For all his meticulous preparations, when it came down to the actual cooking he was a flurry of indecision and carelessness. Clouds of flour and steam filled the kitchen, billowing forth into the surrounding rooms to coat the floors and walls thereof with a stick paste of proto-dough that would linger there for the following month, proving almost impossible to clean. Pots and pans pile up haphazardly in the steel sink, forming teetering monoliths that threatened to collapse in catastrophic style every time he added another layer to their edifice. The bowls and boxes in which he had organised his mis-en-place ingredients covered every visible flat surface, and each time he had to put down another steaming pan of something plucked off the hob he was first forced to shuffle the current contents to one side with a carefully extended elbow, so that the incumbent crockery began to jostle against each other all along the countertop, slowly but steadily pushing the furthest nearer and nearer to the brink until plates and bowls and mixing bowls and teacups filled with the residue of egg whites were all huddled together on the very edge of the surface like copper coins in one of those seaside games in which the object is to tip the balance and cause a cascade of tuppences to tumble into the collection slot. I had been forbidden to interfere under any circumstances, and I knew that when Katie said "any circumstances" she excluded only his imminent death. Unable to help or to watch as her precious crockery was nudged closer and closer to its own destruction, I came and went from the hallway, sometimes watching then darting away to sit on the stairs, to fruitlessly tidy, or - when the stress became just too much - to go outside and puff frantically on a cigarette until my nerves had calmed down again and I had succeeded (for a few minutes at least) in reminding myself that crockery could be repaired or replaced, and that I had been ordered not to get in the way and therefore would not be blamed for any destruction.

The dishes that he was preparing, meanwhile, began to accumulate somewhere - but quite where, I was not sure. I rarely saw him finish anything due to my nerves, so I would see him removing a joint from the oven or a pressed cheesecake base from the fridge, but then I would be distracted to the point of terror by a sudden lurch from the jenga-stack of ironware rising from the sink and miss the ultimate destination of the food he was carrying. Some of it, I supposed, must go into the fridge - but whenever I caught a glimpse of the interior of that appliance it seemed to be relatively empty (relatively in as far as it was always well stocked, but that he had shuffled things around as part of his prep so that there were five large shelves completely free in the middle, their contents somehow consumed or packed madly into the door so that its hinges groaned ominously every time he opened it).

At first my all-consuming terror of the devastation his culinary technique was bound to visit upon the until-then orderly kitchen was enough to distract me from the question of where the food was actually going, but as the hours wore on my mind and body became so saturated with worry that I travelled through it and began to pass out of the other side - I still winced every time the tower of pans teetered one way or the other, I still yearned to save the crockery that was even then inching its way towards a shardy doom, but the part of me that had been paralysed by nervousness and helplessness began to struggle itself free of the odd straitjacket that Katie's orders had put it in and wander this way and that - this way being towards further speculation about how he would irrevocably destroy some vital piece of equipment, but that way being in the direction of the mystery. I found myself able to stay longer between cigarettes, obsessively focusing on where he was taking each piece of the dinner. He seemed to be aware of my scrutiny, though, because I noticed that he began to put things aside after removing them from the oven - to cool, I assumed he would have said if I had been allowed to question him, but I suspected that the truth was rather different; that he was putting them to one side to wait me out, then removing them to their ultimate resting-place when the nicotine craving or nervousness overcame me and I was forced to head outside again. I would watch a pie, say, for a good ten minutes after it came out of the range, only to return from a swift puff to discover that it had vanished in my absence. The first few times I thought it must be coincidence, but soon enough I was convinced that it was deliberate. He was waiting until I left, and only then spiriting the food away to wherever it was he was hiding it.

Once decided that I was being deceived, I began my own counter-deception, miming increasing desperation for a cigarette and then slipping away only as far as the foot of the stairs - opening and closing the side door to give the impression that I had gone outside, but actually staying within, hidden in the long shadow thrown by the grandfather clock. When half a minute had elapsed I crept stealthily back along the hallway and peeped in.

Well, I don't know what I had been expecting, but it certainly was not that. In the middle of the kitchen, standing as bold as brass, was the giant dog that we'd seen that evening in the forest. It was so large that its shoulders almost came up to his, yet he seemed not in the slightest afraid of it. I watched him lift a joint out of the oven, then out of the roasting pan, and place it gently directly onto the beast's extended tongue, which then whisked the food down its maw to oblivion.

I am afraid, at that point, that I may have let out a tiny yelp.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Art Pact 186 - Fun Park

Having driven three hundred miles to find the place, though, dad was not to be so easily dissuaded. Our mother, looking at the rusty gates, immediately began to try to argue that if the front shown to the outside world was so decrepit, surely it was unlikely that the machinery inside - particularly that running the rides - was going to be in good repair.

"You know I have nightmares about the kids dying on a rollercoaster," she said, clutching onto his upper arm. "You know that!"

He nodded. It was mother's common gambit, upon waking, to describe some dream or other she had had in which either we, or our father (never mother herself) were killed in some horrendous but easily avoidable fashion. Since there was no way to repudiate these claimed dreams, we were forced to accept that perhaps she had had a dream about us being disembowelled by lions at the zoo (for example), but the wide variety and the unfailing nature of the dreams had begun to suggest that perhaps our wily mother was simply covering her bases. It would not have surprised me if we had come across some list of possible deaths that she was working through methodically, crossing one off each morning as she described our grisly demise over the cornflakes and toast. Our mother described her nighttime visions as though they were ironclad prophecies, conveniently glossing over the fact that if we were to suffer death in all the ways she had predicted we would need thousands of lifetimes to complete our to-die list.

"They don't have to go on a rollercoaster," dad said, peeling her hand free finger by finger. "They can go on the merry-go-round."

Danielle and I looked at each other and pulled a face, but dad had already begun to pace away, taking mother with him and preventing her from seeing our displeasure. It was ok, though - I doubted that dad meant it, he played at being out of touch with us, but in his own way he was far more knowledgeable about what we had become than our mother. She was proud of Danielle's shooting awards, constantly crowing about them to her friends on their women's nights out, but it was dad who had quietly bought her the correct equipment - without, Danielle told me, having been prompted. He surely knew that we were too old for merry-go-rounds, the remark having been more for our mother's benefit than an actual suggestion.

We crossed the enormous car park in silence. As silent as we ever got, anyway, our mother chattering away with her litany of potential disasters. The concrete-topped plane was just as run-down as the gates, great cracks cleaving the surface of the car park and tufts of hardy grasses and other weeds poking up at regular intervals through escape holes they had carved. Corroded drinks cans, flattened paper-thin by the wheels of some long-ago visitor's car, littered the place, and Danielle and I scuffed at them with our shoes, sending them skimming through the bays, skipping when they hit the thick but faded lines of yellow paint that crisscrossed the concrete to mark out individual parking bays. There were other cars, but naturally they had parked closer to the gates, and also naturally they were parked across bays at strange angles. If they were other customers, they did not expect to be called out for their terrible parking, and if they were staff they obviously were not expecting a bonanza day.

The large gates themselves, the rusted artifacts so visible from the motorway, were closed and locked with an enormous brass chain and a steel-faced padlock the size of a large rabbit - which it resembled, the two sides of the loop rising up from a rodentine face with a keyhole cover which looked just like an oversized incisor. Admitting entry, though, was a single gate to the right of the main one. Smaller, but no less rusty, it had been propped open by means of its own padlock, which had been driven into the dirt in such a way as to prevent the gate from swinging closed. The padlock loop, open, still trailed its chain from it, snaking across the ground so that as we entered Danielle's famous clumsiness allowed her to catch her foot in a loop of it, stumbling her forward so that I had to catch her by the arm to prevent her going over completely.

"You see?" asked mother. "We're not even inside yet, and already this place is trying to kill us. Your instincts were right in the first place. You should trust them!"

A row of ticket-booths ten wide stretched across the entry. When the large gates were open - perhaps in my dad's day - the booths must have been necessary to service the crowds of park-goers. Now most of them were closed, and the dusty look of the windows suggested that they had been closed for a long time. The only clean booth was the open one - on the far left, so that it was the furthest point away from where we had come in. Behind the crystal-clear glass sat a young man, perhaps the same age as Danielle, who looked up and smiled pleasantly as we approached.

"Welcome to Lansbury Park," he said before our mother could get out a word, a feat that I had never seen a stranger perform before. "I hope you are having a great day already, but if not don't worry - you're about to!"

"Hello," said my father, fumbling in his pocket for his wallet. "Uh, two adults and two children."

"Daaad..." moaned Danielle.

"I mean, uh, four tickets please."

The boy looked us over. He was jaw-aching handsome, and I stood up straight, stuck my chest out, and tried to look as much of an adult as I could. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Danielle doing likewise.

"One family bundle," he said, rendering his terrible verdict. "Twenty-two pounds fifty please!"

My pride punctured, I let my chest deflate again.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Art Pact 185 - Golden Room

This golden room at the very top of the tower was Molan's pride and joy, a monument to his architectural and artistic skills in the general and in the specific a testament to his obsessive love of the colour yellow and the shades and hues thereof. Reached by a private elevator (which, for design reasons, did not run to the ground floor of the building but only as far as three floors down from the penthouse, necessitating a long ride up in the public elevators and then a transfer down a short but obscure corridor), it was sandwiched by the roof on top and below by a sort of half-level - larger than the normal maintenance levels but uninhabited and packed largely with sound-absorbing foam so that the noises from the rest of the building were completely undetectable in the penthouse and vice-versa - and vice was indeed exactly what it was that Molan's design was created to render silent. It had been built in secret - not that it was possible in these days, of course, to add a level onto a tower without it being public knowledge in some sense, but Molan had taken a number of precautions to ensure that as little was known about it as possible. He had the outside walls constructed before any of the inner structure save that absolutely necessary to support the fascia, so that the layout of the rooms inside could not be observed by telescope or by flying drone. He flew in construction workers who could not speak English from various exotic climes and housed them in barracks to keep them away from the general public and from the ordinary workers who had constructed the lower floors. When the job was done, they were all flown back to their countries of origin and their records lost to prevent them from being tracked down and quizzed (another story circulating at the time suggested that their reward for their hard work and tight lips had been rather more sinister, earning them a spot of land at the bottom of the sea, but since Molan's public actions and those of his private ones that eventually came to light did not reveal tendencies towards Bond-villain behaviour, these rumours could easily be discounted as the work of his rivals or of bored gossip columnists looking to work their way onto the features desks).

The debauchery which all of this secrecy was designed to protect was hinted at by earlier lovers and employees of the great man. It was well known that he was bisexual - no great surprise, although even in that enlightened time and that more than usually tolerant place there was still a whiff of the unsavoury about it, perhaps a sort of ancient Greek prudishness not about the acts which he enjoyed but about the gluttony with which he attended them. An unrestrained desire for both sexes has always seemed rather extravagant, and so the fact of his sexuality was thrown into a great pot in which other rumours of his excess were held, each additional fact bringing the level within one degree closer to the top - the overflow point, at which the papers and gossips who had once lauded ones conspicuous consumption as right and proper now condemned it as unseemly.

He could not, it was admitted by all, be said that Molan was greedy in this respect - the sins recounted by the tattle-tales painted a picture of great orgies in which Molan's central part was as organiser at most, his place within the structure of the nights or days (or nights and days, since the parties often spanned weekends and on one occasion and entire week) strictly that of an ordinary participant, neither abusing or even using his great power or influence to cause the proceedings to occur one way or another or to sway particular lovers in his favour. Indeed, quite the opposite - he was very fond, it was said, of masquerades, and he loved to go to and fro among the anonymous partygoers unrecognised.

There were suggestions, though - rumours, which did not make the light of day but which were only uttered in places of safety, rooms where the atmosphere was so hazy with smoke and alcohol fumes that lips were loosened to the most subtle of speculations - that Molan's semi-public face was something else, a screen for more confusing or troublesome passions lurking beneath the surface. Just as his career as a successful architect and as a gallery designer and showman were the presentable surface to the debaucher, to the orgiast, to the voluptuary, there were hints that the orgies and parties were themselves not the whole story, but a break-away cover. In this version of events the past lovers and employees were not betraying Molan's trust but being used - either wittingly or unwittingly - as smokescreen to cover up something larger. Perhaps Molan had paid them to let slip secrets that would confirm that he was a rich person just like any other - shallow, obsessed with sex, unable to contain his desires. Perhaps they did it out of loyalty. Meta-speculation about the rumours reported in the press was slight, the whole thing becoming a morass of guess and counter-guess, and as such philosophy only began when the debaters were already marinaded in booze, the rigour with which they were prosecuted left much to be desired.

The possibility of a darker secret, though, was left behind like the stale residue of beer in the glasses the following morning, and it was not long before it was picked up by a reporter - the chance of a scoop to end all scoops being too big a prize to be left on the table, even if it did bring with it countless problems and the chance that it would come to nothing. It was sufficient incentive to draw any number of hungry young journalists, but in the end it was enough that it drew one. That was where Cassandra Dewy's story began, and where Molan's story began to end.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Art Pact 184 - Brothers

There was no doubt that out of all of the brothers Robert was both the smartest and the worst. Somehow the intelligence that in Daniel had engendered a sense of respect for his fellow man had come out in Robert as an engine of contempt for those less quick-witted than he - and the roster was long in that small town, perhaps only the doctor and his family and the Bellingham girl escaping its number. Even at the school the teacher was no true match for Robert, although her education did at least allow her to hold out rearguard action against him through the use of polysyllabic words and scientific facts that he was unable to (respectively) understand or to refute, owing to the paucity of books at the brother's house. It was obvious that the teacher could not keep this battle going forever, though, especially when it was her sworn duty to remedy the exact ignorance which allowed her some measure of control over the boy. She could see that the day would soon come when the resources of the town's small library and the teaching she was herself imparting would lift Robert to a plateau from which he could rain down scorn and pranks upon her without any fear that she might be able to put him in his place with a well-timed question. It had been her desire in teaching college to go somewhere where she could make a difference, and she considered it a terrible irony that the one difference she was sure of making was one that she ardently desired to delay.

Also watching the clock of years nervously was the town's sheriff. Sheriff Clearman relied on his physical presence to cow the bulk of the townsfolk into lawful submission, but with the Bowler family his posturing was to no avail (except in Daniel's case, of course, but Daniel was a natural law-abider, a sport amongst his kin, and the sheriff's effect on him was only to put a glaze the polite young man who would have existed even in a wasteland). The bowlers senior paid little attention to the Sheriff's requests and mandates, as too did the middle ranks of the brothers, but with them at least the Sheriff could rely on a slight mental advantage to trick them into compliance, and also on his badge to provide some back-up in the form of the fear of arrest should they step too far out of line. But he knew that Robert would soon be both big enough to challenge him physically (Robert was already unafraid of Clearman, but still not sufficiently grown to provide a return threat), and smart enough to be able to see through the various schemes and safeguards that the sheriff had set up to contain the lawlessness of the Bowler family and to channel their excess energy and their propensity for violence inwards and away from law-abiding folk. It was the sheriff's fear that one day Robert would realise that he could organise his kin into something considerably more effective and threatening than they were at present. The thought of the family turning into a gang exercised him daily with a nervous terror that kept him from ever truly relaxing if the thought of one of the Bowlers was somewhere in his mind. Sometimes, when he had been called in to distract the family's current patriarch, Bartholomew, from a drunken rampage, he would lie awake at night afterwards, utterly unable to sleep for the worry that it might easily have been Robert swaying violently through the town's main street, and that even under the influence he might have been too much for Clearman to handle. Clearman had a deputy, of course, but the lad was nowhere near as intimidating as the sheriff himself, making him useless for work involving the burly Bowlers, and he was (Clearman admitted sadly) far from the sharpest tool in the box, so no potential ally against the mental powers that Robert might one day be able to bring to bear on his career of mischief.

The only person who harboured any hope about Robert's future prospects and behaviour was in fact Daniel himself. His (perhaps naive) fellow-feeling towards humanity in general did indeed extend as far as his eldest brother, and although he lacked the sharp intellect that Robert had been unwisely gifted with, his cleverness ran deeper and wiser, and his ability to empathise gave him an insight into Robert's behaviour that Robert himself could never have achieved. For Daniel understood that the antisocial side of Robert's personality could lead him one of two ways. The sheriff feared that a Bowler family with Robert at the helm would be unstoppable, combining all the dark virtues of persistence, fearlessness, and intelligence into one horrid melange that could neither be opposed physically nor intellectually. But as unfortunate as that might be, it was that exact unsympathetic side to Robert's personality that might prevent such a calamity. If Robert had no fellow feeling or respect for his townsfolk, he had still less for his family, viewing them as nothing more than inferior versions of himself or, at best, drones to be directed as an how he wished. He frequently expressed (at home) an irritation with the slowness of the other Bowlers, and although he might be on a par mentally, Daniel's dogged refusal to embrace Robert's will to power made him just as unsatisfactory a companion as any of the less intelligent brothers. It was touch and go, Daniel thought, if on any given occasion when Robert left the house he might ever come back. He would not lead a gang, because to become an effective leader is to subordinate your own good to that of the group, and even a group tied by blood was nothing that Robert would ever value above his own well-being. The question, as far as Daniel was concerned, was whether Robert would remain in Colnberg as a rogue agent or leave it and bring trouble some other town.

Robert, naturally, gave nothing away on this matter.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Art Pact 183 - The Hide

The air in the hide was muggy and laden with the scent of wood mold and wet canvas. The wide slit on the viewing side offered the promise of a pleasant breeze, but somehow the sound baffles at the back of the room that cut us off from a direct line to the door also prevented air from flowing through freely, making the place one big stagnant dead-end. Every breath I took in was like inhaling a damp shed, and every breath out went reluctantly, stirring the fragrant miasma listlessly before exiting through the viewing slit. I had come in wearing my long-sleeved t-shirt, hedging my bets against the shade, but before five minutes had passed my sleeves were rolled up and I was regretting my choice of wardrobe.

All of this I kept to myself, though, because Miranda was clearly loving it. Perhaps not the ambience of the hide, but she was pressed up against the far wall, binoculars glued to her face, scanning the wetlands in front of us with a grin on her face so big that I thought for a second she might vanish like the Cheshire cat. The one other occupant was utterly oblivious to us both, alternating between checking his notes and staring one-eyed through the viewfinder of his outlandishly-lens ed camera, a device so forward-heavy that I expected it to topple out of the hide at any moment, and of such a large caliber that the birds on the surface of the lake outside could have easily mistaken it for an anti-tank gun.

I studied him when he was not looking - partly as an exercise in observation, partly to keep myself from staring too hard at Miranda, which felt a little sleazy when she was so wrapped up in her bird-watching. He was obviously in his fifties or sixties, to judge from the wispy grey hair which had been combed over his pate, but beneath his wax jacket he had a sort of concrete bulk that hinted at muscles - or at least those ghost muscles made of fat that previously muscled men were left with when they aged. His trousers, like his coat, were dark green and waxed, and tucked into Doc Marten boots with some sort of waterproof spats over the tongue. A heavy black canvas strap ran over his right shoulder - a camera sash, I thought, although his camera was surely too large (especially with its howitzer-style telephoto lens) to hang off the thing without tipping him over. His notebook was a reporters-style, wire-bound at the top edge and - I stared hard for a few seconds when he was looking through his viewfinder - he was about half-way through it. His face was difficult to see in the dark of the hide, but it looked as though it might match both the body below it and the sparse hair above, and I could clearly discern wrinkles in the no-strands-land between his eyebrows and the dome of his head. Perhaps he was a bachelor, out on a Sunday morning indulging himself in one of the hobbies which people like my father's boss used to fill up the time they saved on tedious housework and human interaction. Alternatively, he might be a married man escaping from the little woman or a religious objector avoiding church or any number of other things, but as I mulled over all these possibilities in my mind (and paused occasionally to recriminate myself for going beyond observation into conjecture), I kept feeling that there was something wrong about the whole thing. None of my ideas seemed plausible - not that they weren't plausible in themselves, even if (I admit) they might be a bit cliche - but none of them seemed to fit him. He had a presence about him that made my mundane guesses nonsensical. I couldn't say why, but he felt at the same time both slightly malign and somewhat out of place.

"Here!" whispered Miranda excitedly. "Look! Look! You might never get a chance to see this again!" She beckoned me up with her free hand, still staring through the binoculars. When I joined her she pulled me close to her side to point out the source of her excitement, inadvertently pressing enough of her body against my arm to give me an entirely separate source. Blushing, I quickly took up the proffered binoculars and leant forwards, hiding my blushes in the dappling shade at the mouth of the hide. She adjusted my line of sight by simply moving the ends of the binoculars while I was looking through them, a rare skill that for the life of me I have not been able to work out how she developed. One quick movement and I was staring at a strange black-and-white striped bird with a short curved beak and a crazy frond of feathers extending from its pink head. It looked garishly out of place, stood on a dry hump of land that had pushed itself up out of the murky waters around it, and as I watched it flattened its crest, opened it out again, and opened its mouth in what looked like a yawn.

"Weird," I said. "What is it?"

"That, my friend," she whispered, "is a fucking hoopoe."

"A hoo-what?"

"A hoopoe. Do you have any idea how rare this is?"

"Uh, no," I said. I stood up, handing the binoculars back to her. She wasted no time, immediately gluing herself to the eyepieces

"They almost never come to Britain, only enough to get drawn in bird-spotting guides. You might be a bird-watcher in Britain your whole life and never see one. And you saw one first time out!"

"Just lucky, I guess."

I let my gaze wander over to our companion, expecting to see that he was snapping away as well, getting proof of this miraculous event.

Even without Miranda's skill, I could see that he was not. The camera was pointing up at a low slope, and definitely away from the crazy-headed hoopoe.

What are you photographing? I wondered.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Art Pact 182 - Galley

The rough touch of the whip brushed my back again, turning the raw welts into strips of pure fire. I did what I'd learnt to do - I mugged at putting extra effort into hauling at the oar-beam, curving my back out and sticking on an expression of ragged determination as though I were about to pop a blood vessel (which, I had to admit, might not be terribly far from the truth).

My colleagues (my own little ironic name for the other slaves, a pathetic attempt at galley-humour, ha-ha), bronzed and black and various shades in between, appeared to have a similar attitude, for I never felt the weight of the stroke lessen when they themselves were encouraged in this manner. I began to suspect that there was not so much difference between me and them in this respect - that my office-life in the twenty-first century and their life of hard physical labour in the first had engendered in us the same attitude towards the demands of our superiors, namely that it was better, when a supervisor was watching, to appear to work than to actually expend any of your strength (mental or physical) on a short-term increase in productivity that would ultimately go unrewarded. As the month had progressed (measured partly by count, and partly by the phases of the moon, since the days were so repetitive that I did not entirely trust my ability to keep track), I had come to think of them less as alien and frightening creatures and more as humans just like me. It seemed almost to me now, at the end of August, that given access to shaving equipment and a shower, any of the other slaves could easily be dressed in a business suit and walk into a programming job without the slightest blink of an eye. Obviously there might be something of a language barrier, and I suspected that their object-oriented skills might be lacking somewhat, but those were minor things. I suppose that reading this it seems obvious to you that this should be the way of things, since of course humans have not changed so much in the last two millennia, but when I thought back to the woeful time of my arrival and the terror which had attended my interactions with the others at that point, it seemed like a marvel to me to finally accept that we were all the same except for the changes in behaviour that culture and learning had wrought in us.

Another positive change I had experienced was the waxing of my muscles - or perhaps more accurately, their acclimatization to hard work. I did not think that the thin gruel we were fed was enough to promote any real sort of muscle growth, but the relentless action had at least hardened the muscles, squeezing the water fatness out of my arms and back and legs until the sinews stood out when I pulled. I had developed something of a six-pack as well, although I was in no position to appreciate it, and indeed I would have welcomed the comfortable layer of fat that had hidden it in the past. My body seemed to be running on a just-in-time system, so that I would be reaching the limits of exhaustion when we stopped for food, and any delay in our captain's decision to haul oars for a meal was an agonizing torture at the core of me, in a way far worse than the whipping coming from outside. That my system did not degenerate entirely into a skeleton I could owe only to the rare portions of fish that we seemed to be trawling with small nets from the back of the ship. I rarely saw the nets go out, but I often felt the tell-tale tug of extra weight being pulled along, and I knew that in a few hours time I would be allocated a whole fish - usually a fairly small one, admittedly, a silvery fish intermediate in size between a pilchard and a cod that I was unable to identify either by its appearance or taste. The nets were rarely out for long, and neither were they large (I had seen them once carried from the aft to the prow of the boat where they were taken for repairs), so the whole process hinted at an amazing excess of fish in the waters around us. Indeed, at night I often heard an unusual slapping sound at the side of the boat which the other slaves, by means of gestures, indicated were fish - flying fish I assumed - jumping up and hitting the hull. I remembered reading once that in the sixteenth century someone had described the sea off the Irish coast as so dense with fish that one could walk from there to America. At the time I had not been able to imagine the richness of animals that might have sparked such hyperbole, but now it seemed perfectly natural - that the description fell between two posts. Just as I, a modern man with access to accurate maps, to Google Earth and to planes, could understand that the Atlantic was large in a way that the older man could not comprehend, so he was gifted with the sight of a shoal of fish dense in the waters, a sight that the impoverished seas of my time could not supply without years of expertise or months of searching.

I began to succumb, of course, to various deficiencies - or, at least, to various fears of deficiencies, since there was no way I could determine for certain whether I was actually suffering from a disease or just imagining it into existence through a lack of knowledge. My skin began to dry terrible, my teeth ached in my gums, and I was certain that when I touched them together I could feel them move slightly in their sockets. Whether it was calcium, or scurvy, or perhaps some exotic virus that did not exist in my time I could not be sure, but I worried about it at every opportunity I got, reducing my already scant sleep.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Art Pact 181 - Titanor

"Ugh," roared Titanor, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Yellow boulders tumbled away from his tear ducts, rolling down the hillside and demolishing a series of small shacks on the northern outskirts of the city. "I'm getting too old for this shit."

It was a bright morning, a blue sky above and the sun risen high with summertime enthusiasm, but Titanor found it all too much. His head was pounding from the night before, three of his eight legs were twinging uncomfortably with that feeling that presages a cramp, and his mouth felt as though he'd been chewing on a chemical plant, a simile that was confirmed when he reached a tentacle into his mouth and tentatively picked out a few crumbs from between his teeth and found that they were mostly the front half of a fork-lift. He felt groggy from sleep, and there was an uncomfortable pressure in his flame bladder.

"Hey hey, look who's awake!" A cheery voice and the sound of macropodic feet bounding up the hillside. Titanor groaned - he should have been expecting her, of course, but it still seemed to early in the morning. Had he really been rampaging that late last night? He remembered talking to Velocitraktor as they were knocking over some kind of water-tower (still child's play for Titanor, even with his joints aching and that twinge in his backs), but hadn't their conversation been about knocking off early and calling it a night? Velocitraktor was hardly a callow youth itself, its great crushing wheels covered in rust and some sort of greenish mould that it was taking a cream for.

"Hello," he growled, letting seven or eight of the eyes on his left side open up. Kangarex was standing on the hillside just below him, smiling up earnestly like the last girl-scout. Of course, being Kangarex she wasn't actually standing - he often thought that the woman must be allergic to inaction or something, she was physically incapable of remaining still. Seeing that his eyes were open she bounced forward and touched him on one of his shoulders with her little forepaw.

"How are we feeling today?"

"Bloody awful."

She mock-frowned.

"I think," she said, "that someone has been burning the midnight oil at both ends! Haha!"

"Very good," he said, getting a bundle of tentacles underneath his chest so that he could push himself up to a more comfortable position. The pressure in his flame bladder relented somewhat, to his relief, and the cause was revealed to be a small farm house and its associated out-buildings that he must have fallen asleep on top of. They were rubble now, of course, but the pile of bricks and concrete they had collapsed into had been high enough to jab him in the belly.

"Oh good lord," said Kangarex. "Now, you know what Doctor Smashalot says about sleeping on buildings!"

"Is he against it?"

"He's against it!" she said, beaming and nodding as though she were talking to a child.

Damn Doctor Smashalot, he wanted to say. Damn his stupid prognostications and his ridiculous health fads. Last year the doctor had told everyone that drinking the river Thames would bring back a youthful sheen to tired scales, so of course everyone had been on at him to go to Britain. Well, there was no way he was travelling all the way across the Atlantic ocean, and walking across the top of the world was apparently out (Smashalot also opining at the time that cold air aged the skin five times faster than warm air). Besides, as he'd pointed out to Velocitraktor, how many people could drink the Thames? The first person to get there would drink it, sure, but it would probably take decades for the river to return to its full glory. He wasn't waiting around decades.

But he said nothing, staying his tentacles for the sake of Kangarex. She was just too earnest, and even as grumpy as he felt that morning, he could not bring himself to step on the poor creature. The sister of one of his grand-daughters-in-law, Kangarex was the sort of monster that one could like and feel sorry for at the same time, and this quality of pathetic endearingness made her - if not the best carer, at least the best that he could think of. His sons had been on at him for the last two centuries to bring in someone to look after him, and at least Kangarex had some things in common with him: a particular love of helicopter-swatting, for instance. Perhaps he could persuade her to take a trip down to the airport, he thought.

"Are you excited for the get-together?" she said, bursting his bubble.

Oh god, the get-together. He closed all of his eyes again, wrapped his tentacles around his head.

"I'll take that as a no, shall I?"

"Yes. I mean no," he added. "Look, I'm an old monster, you're young. These family things are for the middle-aged, which means neither of us. Why don't you take the day off and see that burrowing monstrosity thing you're always pining after."

"His name is Robert," Kangarex said haughtily. "And he's a tunnelling monstrosity."

Titanor levered himself up until he was standing, although he had to stop halfway to let the twinge in his back go. He peered at Kangarex with the eyes on that side, squinted, moved closer and then slightly further away until the young monster was in focus.

"Hasn't anyone ever told you it's rude to correct your elders?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "You, frequently. And equally frequently you tell me to call you out when you're unintentionally racist."

"So I did," he nodded. He took a long sniff of the air. Age had dulled his nostrils, and all he could make out were the most pervasive smells - the sea of silage from the crushed farm below, the smoke from a heavy-goods vehicle that had been overturned by one of Kangarex's bounds and was now blazing at the side of the road a few hundred feet down. "Mmmm," he hummed, closing his eyes. "I love the smell of carnage in the morning. Reminds me of being young again."

He took one creaky step, straightened himself up, then extended a claw-ended tentacle to Kangarex. She took it in one tiny clawed-hand, curtseying politely.

"Come on then," he said. "Let's get this shindig over with."

Monday, June 11, 2012

Art Pact 180 - High Level View

From the tops of buildings all differences are erased except for the grossest ones. I can tell the difference between a vehicle and a person, between a person and a beast, but between two people? No, nothing. Not colour, not sex. Not happiness or sadness, good or bad. All are the same, and all just as worthy or unworthy of my protection. I find it comforting - it removes a layer of morality that is perhaps less pure than it could be - a layer in which there are confusions brought on by disgust or delight, attraction or repulsion. Much better to be free of the frailties of the mind and to see all of humanity (all of terranity, perhaps) for what it is - life, and therefore something both rare and useful.

Naturally, I can only maintain this psychological detachment with the aid of physical distance. Come too close to the ground and all of this high-minded thought is removed from me. I become fearful and judgemental, terrified that my own life will be taken from me by some equally terrified local. They are weak individually, humans, but their machinery is rapid and deadly to one such as me, cut off from all of the advantages of civilisation. With a proper shield I could slow a bullet enough to pluck it harmlessly from the air, but I have no shield. With a defender I could atomise a tank shell and ionise it to blow away from me as though it were a fly bouncing off my arm, but I have no defender. I have no through-scanner to tell me the weak spots of an armoured car, no translocator to walk past defenses and weapons as if they were mist. I have my wings, and my eyes, and my brain, and nothing else. And those three, although they are much, are not always sufficient. There is no point relying on my wings to bring me freedom when I must go so often into their dwellings. My eyes, which can see so much in the dark, are useless during the day. My brain, so quick at home, here is dulled and slowed by melancholy and loneliness so that sometimes I can barely think at all for the weight of desire upon me. I miss my home, I miss the others of my kind, I am confused and vertiginous at the alien nature of the world to which I have come. What could have caused this apocalypse, this twisted world in which the little creatures of my world are grown so vast and dangerous? Sometimes I fear that there was no transition, that I am still somehow in my own land and merely incapable of seeing things for what they truly are. When I swoop down upon humans, am I in fact descending upon my own kin, who call out in confusion and try to bring me back to them, only to watch in vain as I swoop past them on my own mad errand?

But such thoughts are exactly the ones I must guard against - doubts that sap the blood from my brain and make me sluggish and weak. I am here, this is the world I can see, this topsy-turvy world. This is what I must react to, for to distrust my senses invites paralysis. If the world is otherwise I am the one person least equipped to help myself, and I must trust that there are others working for my good. My family, my nest-wife, they must work to save me one way or the other. If I am truly here, I trust they will be using their wits to try to reverse the transition and bring me back. If all of this is merely a storm in my mind, likewise I must assume that they are following me and trying to talk me round. Although if that is true I suppose I must be alert to hints of their work seeping into my experiences here. There is so much here to pay attention to already, though, and again I am caught in a maze of my own making - if they cannot help me without me actively working to look for signs of their help, do I put myself at risk again?

Enough. There are tasks at hand. First of all, I must consider the two children. They have seen me, I know it, swooping past the windows of the penthouse. I am not afraid to be exposed - it is too late for that, the doves have flown. But the fewer people know the location of my nest the better, and I do not know whether the children will be believed. Perhaps they are already sure of my roost, or perhaps their parents have talked them around with the dull statistical logic that parents use alike in this world and my own.

I make a decision. I cannot leave this to chance, I must make myself known to them. It will put me at risk of an emotional response, but I must attempt to communicate the necessity for my secrecy. I have heard enough of their language to understand a few simple words, but such a complex concept - will it be too much for them? Too much for my rebel tongue, that refuses to make the proper sounds?

No matter. I must try, and now. Lying atop the roof above the corridor that leaves to the lifting-and-descending box, I have felt in the tingle of my feathers the sound of the parents leaving for the day. I must do it now, while there is a chance of communicating with them without outside interference or risk of exposing myself to more humans.

I clamber to the edge of the building, feeling the sudden blast of wind rushing up from the cliffside of glass and metal, and hook my hind-claws onto the rounded metal railing. I open my wings, feeling the battering press of air lifting me up. I push forward, and swoop down onto their balcony, landing in as small a bundle as I can press myself into.

On the other side of the glass, the two children stare out. Their mouths are open, but I can hear nothing throught the thick glass. I do not know whether this is good or bad.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Art Pact 179 - Venus Ascending

I suppose it was the time that I saw her at the river that sold me. I - look, I have a thing I do. Or rather, that I don't do. I don't talk about a woman's appearance if I can help it. I mean, I'll answer direct questions - although I answer them diplomatically, so that if someone asks me something value-laden (Am I Pretty?) they'll get the answer they want, not necessarily the objective answer, if there can possibly be such a thing in the arena of human attractiveness. But I don't flat-out tell women that they're good-looking without being directly queried about it. And I try not to get involved in conversations about the attractiveness of women unless I think I can usefully turn it to a more interesting and enlightening subject.

That's not to say I'm immune to physical attractiveness. I have to say, I'm a man of my years, and in the heart of me I'm just as straightforward a soul as the next guy. It's not because I'm special in some way that I act the way I do, but because I'm not. I take extraordinary measures to overcome the natural tendency in me to focus on surface and forget about the actualities of a person. That's why I'm not that great at it, and why I sometimes make the sort of stupid mistakes that let people see through the careful shell I've built around my old personality. I know, there are people who don't like me because of the way I act now, but there are also people who don't like me despite the way I act, because they can tell that there's something more going on inside, and that perhaps it isn't as great as I might make out.

I can't blame them for that - I mean, isn't that what my whole schtick here is all about? Not judging the surface, but holding out and remembering that there's something going on underneath that bears investigation?

Even so, the river. The river park in late winter is pretty deserted at dawn. Most days a fog rolls off the surface of the water, and all you can see as you walk through it are the fuzzy grey outlines of the other dog walkers, or the even fuzzier outlines of the secret smokers who come out into the damp to give their lungs a double-dose of punishment. I'd never know this normally, because I'm the sort of lazy sod who likes to lie in a warm bed until noon, but the sad fact is that at the time I was in both of those other camps. I had Merlin tugging me out of the house by the leg of my trousers, and Silk Cut dragging me out by my twitchy mouth, by the crawling of my scalp, by the pricking of my thumbs. So I was out regularly every day of that winter of 2013, sucking down as much nicotine as I could get before I went to my job in the health store, feeling my shoulder get gently yanked out of its socket over and over again as Merlin (perhaps hopeful that if he ran away he might be able to find some way of getting his muzzle off) made lunge after lunge at the other passing dogs.

The wind kept gusting gently, blowing the smoke off the end of my cigarette into my eyes - which I hate, and have never got used to - but also clearing out strange random patches of fog so that one moment I was walking through the sort of thick, clinging stuff that gets into your clothes and makes Britain so cold compared to other countries where the air is just as frigid, the next I was in a little clearing of dry air about twenty meters across, and Merlin was dragging me into the centre of it to where Henny was crouched, holding a trout firmly so that despite its desperate flapping it was obviously going nowhere.

So here, I break my rule: In that instant, all I could see was the surface of her. Her long black hair, loosely bunched in at the neck by a fuzzy band, then descending around the arch of her back. Her slender limbs, ill-proportioned when she was standing but somehow perfectly-formed when folded up into the crouch. Her skin, white but banded with red across her cold-raw cheeks and nose. Her hands were like the talons of an eagle, clutched so hard onto the fish that I though for a second she was about to rip it into shreds.

There, there it is. That's all you'll get from me about what Henny looked like. You'll have to meet her yourself someday if you want to know more, or just make up your own idea of her face. I won't even tell you what colour her eyes are, although I'll be honest with you - that's more because I can't remember.

Anyhow, the moment passed. Merlin, the little sod, leapt forward like he was coming out of the gates at a greyhound race and he'd bet his life savings with Nick the Leg-Breaker. I guess he'd forgotten about his muzzle again and wanted a piece of that fish. Henny was too quick for him, though - she unfolded like a flick-knife the minute she saw him, and suddenly the fish was towering over me, flapping crazily in the air like it might escape off into the void.

"Not for you, Merlin," she said. Her voice was husky, the tail-end of the cold she'd had the last time I saw her. To me: "Hello."

"Why have - no, forget that for a moment. How do you have a live trout?"

She looked up, as if she'd temporarily forgotten about the fish.

"Oh this? I just caught it."

"With your hands?"

"With my hands," she said, nodding. "My mother taught me, when I was young. You tickle them."

"I thought that was just made-up," I said, eyeing the fish nervously. I expected it at any moment to leap out of her hands and hit me in the face.

"No no," she said, "quite real."

She walked to the water and tossed the fish gently back into the river. It lay there for a few seconds, stunned, then wriggled violent for a second and shot away.

"Will it be OK?" I asked.

"Not really," she said, staring back at me. Her eyes were - no, I still don't remember.

"But it won't be dead," she added.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Art Pact 178 - Honey and Marmalade

Well, I didn't know what had come over him! It seems such a little thing, but you can't watch someone eat breakfast for twenty years and not be surprised when they put honey on their toast instead of marmalade. I almost choked on my tea, I really did. Do you know, I've been putting that honey there for all that time and never seeing it used. It just used to sit there in its little gang: the marmalade, the honey, the strawberry jam and of course the marmite, and I never stopped to think that I could have just saved myself some time. He only ever used the marmalade. I could have saved myself - oh, I don't know, thirty seconds a day. How much is that? Let's see, three hundred and sixty-five days a year for twenty years, times half a minute. So three thousand six hundred and fifty minutes, plus a couple for leap years. Which is - hmmm, roughly four days?

Four days. What I couldn't have done in four days. What I could still do, if I could get them back from the clutches of time. Or perhaps I could have left them where they were, all nice and hidden. I could have saved them up for later use, like an old TV star hiding cash under his mattress. What is it they say about Las Vegas? What goes on there, stays there. I could have done so many things in those four days, and they've had stayed there in the past, hidden in the time it took me to get that useless honey, that pointless jam, that scorned marmite, and lay them out on the table next to the only thing he ever spread on his toast.

Of course, that was the day, so my surprise didn't last all that long. That was the day, you see, the day after I met Jemima at the day-care home, the day before we were supposed to go on our little employee's meal with the accountancy firm. You know the day. Squally, I thought, that morning, before breakfast. I looked out of the window and watched the blustery jets of rain wash back and forth over the swing-chair by the patio, and I thought: today is going to be a squally day. I don't know why. It must have been something they said on the radio, when the alarm-clock-radio was waking me up that morning. It sounds like a weatherman word. I watched it while I was laying the table - that's what I spent those thirty seconds on that day, opening up the cupboard and getting the whole gang of spreads together - I looked out of the window and watched the rain. What I could have done in that time! I could have been watching a lover wake up. I could have been greeting the dawn naked dancing around some standing stones.

Oh, listen to me. You must be thinking "how pedestrian!" You'll have done all that, back in the day, of course. There was time for that for your generation, before television and the rat race and digital watches and conformity. Oh, I'm not going to say you had it easy - that's a stupid thing to say even to the children. I'm sure some things were harder, a lot of things even. I can't imagine what I'd have done without indoor plumbing. Thank God I was born in a decent post-war house! And there's no denying that it's easier to come by the necessaries nowadays, but you know how it is - for every weight the world lifts off your back, it puts another one on.

Now the weight that breakfast was only a teaspoonful of honey. What's that, a couple of grams? But it was something, and so soon after I'd got the all-clear, I could feel it sitting there on my back. He'd never put honey on his toast before - what was it he used to say?

"Too sweet," he'd say. "Too sweet by half."

So he ate the marmalade, of course - sweet, but bitter too. Especially with those Seville oranges they put in it - so sharp! That was more his cup of tea, he said - that was just how he put it, his cup of tea. That time the shop nearby couldn't get marmalade for a week, he ate no toast at all rather than sully it with too much sweetness. That was just how he liked it, so you can imagine that this wasn't just some little thing for me to witness. It was like the sun coming up in the west, or water flowing uphill. It was something uncanny.

"Are you alright?" I asked him. Well, what else could I say?

He looked up at me, frowned.

"Of course I'm all right," he said. "Why shouldn't I be?" I said nothing. "What is it, is there something wrong with my face? Have I got something on my face?"

"You've not got anything on your-"

"Because you let me go to work last week with a milk moustache," he interrupted. "I told you that."

"You did tell me that," I said. He'd told me at some length. Silly fool, I'd thought at the time, but now I was beginning to wonder if there was some other reason he'd been so vociferous. "You told me that evening."

"I had a meeting," he said.

"There's nothing on your-"

"An important meeting," he said. "Clients. You know how tricky things are at the moment. Long hours."

"Long hours, of course," I said sympathetically.

"So if there's something on my face I'd want to know. In case I have a meeting."

"Do you have a meeting?"

"No," he admitted. "But I might have! Meetings are being called - emergency meetings! What if I have an emergency meeting, would you like me to go to it with a milk moustache? Looking like an idiot?"

"There's nothing on your face," I repeated.

"Good," he said. "Well."

He took another bite of his toast. His toast with honey on.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Art Pact 177 - Arts and Tidiness

The confusion, of course, comes in their attitude towards human art - and, strangely, human tidiness. If there is one impulse the Vanaraet share with us, it is an appreciation of correct storage. "A place for everything and everything in its place" might well be a proverb that has a parallel in their unintelligible language. But it is not always possible to precisely correspond human thinking on the matter with the Vanaraet perception. The science of reading their emotional state is now well established - the urgency with which this science was required during the early days of contact led to rapid development and a thorough codifying of the procedure, to the point now where the youngest of human schoolchildren can determine when a Vanaraet is happy, sad, or in that violent and mercurial half-emotion that is something like our anger and something like our fear. So it is therefore no great problem to discover, given an arrangement of objects in a laboratory or apartment, for instance, whether a particular Vanaraet enjoys or is repulsed.

It is worth noting the failed experiments which have tried to pin down alien tastes on this matter. There was a great deal of excitement among the less rigorous sections of society at the discovery that offices and living spaces arranged according to feng shui principles were pleasing to Vanaraet, but it was quickly shown that the experimental protocols used were shockingly lax. The sample population was in fact a single individual (although this is hardly an unknown situation even in far more rigorous experiments, since with less than twenty Vanaraet on the surface of Earth at the moment they are hard to come by, and even harder to manoeuvre into situations in which they can be surreptitiously experimented on), and worse than that, outlier reactions were recorded on camera but removed from the end data. The Vanaraet involved in the experiments, then, a) need not have been representative of its race, and b) was not even consistent in its own appraisal of the buildings to which it was introduced. It was not responding happily to a feng shui arrangement of the furniture, but to some other feature of the way in which objects were placed into the rooms - a feature which has so far eluded further analysis. We mention this story partly to show the capricious nature of the Vanaraets' tastes, but also because the story, tedious and disproven as it is, keeps popping up in the less reputable areas of both the mainstream press (no doubt repeated every time some vacuous columnist or other discovers a mention of it in some out-dated press release), and in the far corners of the scientific community (although we hesitate to use the word scientific to describe what is no more than simple rumour-mongery if looked at with a cynical eye).

An example from the most modern tour will also show how it we would be premature in assigning well-understood motives to the Vanaraet's position regarding human art and tidiness. It was well-observed, both by scientists looking for this behaviour and by lay-persons commenting on their information feeds, blogs, etc., that Vanaraets 7 and 12 (colloquially known as Tin-Tin and Captain Mannering), the tourists involved in the trip around Nice, showed emotions consistent between themselves but inexplicable in terms of simple orderliness. Generally speaking they did not like to see apartments of the "bachelor" style, with things strewn around the floor, but they showed happiness in a few cases with particular arrangements of objects. In plate seventeen we see a old games console jutting out at an angle from shelving unit at the foot of a screen wall. As you can see, the arrangement of the console and game keys scattered around it is nothing unusual from a human point of view. But both Tin-Tin and Captain Mannering spent upwards of quarter of an hour examining the console from several angles, displaying happiness markers as interpreted by all humans present. They also generated lengthy sequences of clicks between themselves (and some, interestingly, seemingly not directed at the other Vanaraet, leading to the impression that they were talking to themselves at points rather than having a conversation).

These exceptions seemed to be something in the nature of micro-art appreciation. Imagine a human walking through a portrait gallery and finding the arrangement and layout of the floorplan both confusing and unpleasant. And yet a singular portrait calls to her, drawing her in so that she spends some time in rapt examination of the canvas. We can theorise that the Vanaraet found the placement (not, note, the object itself) of the console in some way apt or suitable to their senses. We know that they can see in the same wavelengths as us (and perhaps slightly beyond in the infrared, although not notably so), and we know that they can hear at least some of the sounds that we can. But they do not appreciate either visual art nor music, and it is not simply a different taste but a case of complete incomprehension - they do not appear to respond to our traditional arts in any way, nor show any indication that there is anything to be responded to. A human placing himself in front of a Vanaraet can make it understand, by gesture, that it should proceed no further or turn left or right. But a video of the same person, projected in front of the alien, elicits no response at all.

With this in mind, it is in some ways a source of pride that we have any theory about their artistic temperament at all. That we do not understand it full should come as no surprise at all, and certainly no failing to be worried over. We theorise that Vanaraet art is a matter of correct object placement, and that things in a place, in a certain orientation, somehow trigger in them an emotional response similar to the one a human has upon hearing "her" song. Put simply, a human tidying his house is, in their eyes, creating art. But we lack the appreciation to understand whether we are creating good or bad art, and why. We are, to them, similar to monkeys playing with paint - we might produce a Jackson Pollock style masterpiece by accident, but we would never know it.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Art Pact 176 - In Memory

We gathered at the side of the road, one by one drifting in from who-knows-where. We didn't see, didn't know that another one of us had arrived until there was suddenly one more of us standing there, looking down at the metal. We didn't speak, either. Other people passed around us, but to us they were just grey ghosts in the rain. None of them had been there, so none of them mattered. They might have stared at us, might have cursed us for a minute as they came upon our little gathering stuck solid in the flow of pedestrians like a plaque in a blood vessel, but to us they barely existed. We came in, one by one from who-knows-where until all eight of us were we-knew-where, and all eight of us looking down at the metal and thinking our own cold thoughts.

Seven was the last to arrive, as usual. Looking down at the metal I saw her shoes first, elegant black things with a high-heel filled in as is the style. Next to her Three: messy trainers. Next to him, Two in flat pumps. One wore running shoes, then there were walking boots in whose capacious interior my own toes wiggled uncomfortably, then Six's brogues, Four's scrubby deck-shoes, and finally Five in her Doc Martins. We stood in an uneasy arc, a horse-shoe with the open end to the south - down the map, so I thought, with all the luck running out and washing over the metal and away into the rain.

"There aren't words," Seven began. She liked to begin that way. With a contradiction. There were words, we knew, because she'd said them before. "We come here, year after year, to reflect on what could have been. To say our sorries, to cry our tears and then to dry our eyes."

Her knee jutted forward and with that motion her head descended into my line of sight. She knelt at her edge of the horseshoe, delicate linen trousers pressed against the damp pavement and then stretched taught over one slender leg. She reached out and touched the metal.

The gesture made it real, somehow. I found - with an electric shock - that my vision had been closing in like a tunnel, the metal moving away from me until it was something a hundred miles away viewed through a telescope, seemingly large but no actual threat to me. But Seven's touch awoke the metal, and I knew again that I was within reach myself, that I only had to step forward and bend down to press my fingers against the dent in the railing. How can it not have been repaired? It had been eight years. In eight years the surface of tarmac on the road outside my house had been replaced three times. In eight years Three had had, raised, and lost a child. In eight years the shopping mall in the centre of town had been built and gone from shiny and new to grubby and commonplace. Eight years can be (had been) a lifetime, and yet still the bent railing, the one metal shaft in this block that fence that separated pedestrian traffic from the cars whizzing past us, still it had not been repaired or replaced. The artifact of our guilt, the one thing about the whole affair that could have easily been fixed, and no-one had done anything about it.

"On that day," Seven continued, "we were witnesses and participants in a terrible tragedy. Dear Abby, laid low, sent into the final sleep, and we to continue, knowing that there would always be a hole in our lives, a fearful hole that would sit within us, devouring happiness if we allowed it to."

On the shiny patent-leather surface of Six's shoes drops of liquid appeared, and for a moment I expected to feel the drip-drop of rain on the back of my neck. It was tears, though. Six was crying silently. I wondered what he would say when it was all over, how he would explain the outburst of emotion. We were supposed to be here to cry, of course, but Six had always kept himself to tightly buttoned-up that I had never seen him get so much as watery-eyed before. Not even after - not even eight years ago.

"It is truly a thing to be mourned," said Seven, letting her soft voice grow a little louder so that I was sure passers-by must be able to hear her. "A life cut short, a secret shared, a fracture between the happiness of the past and the realities of the present. But as always we must not dwell so much on Abby's loss as upon our own response to it, how it has changed us all for the better in so many ways, how it has spurred us to become better, to become more successful people, to be greater than the..."

Where before I had felt as though I were seeing the railing from a great distance, a similar illusion took hold of my hearing. Seven's voice receded, becoming whispery and distant, and I realised that I was tuning her out somehow. I had realised something, something that came as a repulsive shock to me - that Seven was not here to feel guilty, but to gloat. Her eulogy was not designed to invoke a sadness about what we had done and the loss of who we had done it to, it was to sit on that grave and crow, to smarmily discuss all the things that Abby had lost and that Seven had taken from her. I felt my hands balling up into fists, the sharp ends of my fingernails digging painfully into my palms.

Was I the only one here for contrition? I wondered suddenly. Was Three here to cry about that night, to offer her apologies to Abby and beg her to protect the ghost of her child, wherever it might be? Or was she simply here to reassure herself that but for the whims of fate she might be below the ground herself? What about Six - were those tears for Abby, or for him? Did two come from her comfortable bank job in the spirit of contrition, or as an empty gesture?

I felt the hairs rising angrily on the back of my neck.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Art Pact 175 - Album

At the beginning of the album, before the very first picture of me (not as a baby, but as a toddler - my family not having access to a camera until just after my third birthday), a tiny lock of my hair is taped, and beneath it a cryptic note (added later, obviously, since it is on a lime-green square of post-it), saying "CHANGE VIEWPOINT", scrawled in blocky pencil letters. The lines of the writing are bold and straight, but each stroke squiggles weakly at its end, giving it the impression that the line is fraying somehow.

I peel the note off, examine the other side. Blank, but for the strip of adhesive-readhesive glue at the top, which has dried out a little so that when I put it back I have to press firmly along the top of the not to get it to stick again. What viewpoint, I wonder? I don't remember writing the note, but it has been years - maybe a decade - since I last looked at the album. There's almost nothing I've done in the last decade that I can adequately remember, so this would just be one more thing lost to my memory.

Nonetheless, the note intrigues me. I turn to the first picture. Here I am, as a toddler. I do not remember the picture being taken, of course, but I remember the picture itself, the confused smile on my child self. I have a pudding bowl haircut - a pleasing irony, perhaps, because it is the same haircut I have now. (Almost. In fact, I am thinning on top and have a large bald spot where the whorl in the younger me's hair would have been, making me look as though I have been incompetently tonsured). Change viewpoint, I think deliberately. All the haircuts I've had in the meantime, I think. Between that picture and now, my hair has never been the same for more than two years running, and this is perhaps the first time that I have shared a haircut with my younger self. The thought is interesting for a moment, but the shallowness of it overcomes me almost immediately. That is clearly not what the writer of the note intended, an idle musing on the ephemeral nature of haircuts. I look back at the picture.

This is the scene:

I am three, or thereabouts. Under the pudding-bowl haircut is a fat-cheeked boy looking confused so that his thick eyebrows are slightly drawn down into a frown that crinkles up his eyes, but his mouth drawn slightly up into a smile. It is as if his (my) very face has become muddled in the process of expressing an emotion, the different components of my visage acting independently, like actors on a stage who have forgotten their lines and revert to calling out fragments of previous plays. My nose alone is unexpressive, standing in the middle of that chubby stage like the butler, or spear-carrier number two.

I am wearing a jumper I remember well, a chunky cable-knit thing that was far more vibrantly green and red than the low-quality print can reproduce. I have no recollection of wearing it per se (although the photo proves that I did), but I remember seeing it sitting in the basket of clothes to be handed down that my mother kept in the spare bedroom. It sat there for years. The main body of the jumper is green, but in the middle of the chest is a red tangram cat, two tiny triangles poking up as ears over its triangle head. Made by my aunt, who rendered everything in triangles.

Behind me, bent down as if having just released me, is my father. The pose makes sense of my confused expression - he must have been holding me in place while the camera was set up, then released me to walk towards it. I don't know why they would have wanted a photo like that - I must have been capable of walking perfectly well when I was three, and certainly I could have stood up. Was documentary proof of my bipedal skills that important to them? Perhaps it was.

Change viewpoint.

There, I catch something, an idea flickering at the back of my mind. They have not taken this photo for it to be consumed by the elder me, sixty years later. They know nothing of the now me, could never have been expected to. Like all parents, I assume, they hoped that their child would grow old before it died, but like all humans they were incapable of truly understanding how deep time is, and how far into it the photo would fall. No, the photo was not for me, or even for them. It was to be sent to someone else, someone who needed to be shown that I was healthy, that I had all the faculties that a three year old should have and which could be captured on film. It is this viewpoint that I must find, to see the picture as its intended audience saw it.

But who were they? Relatives? I do not know of any relatives overseas, so surely all the people who might have wanted to see me as a child could have actually come to see me. All my aunts, uncles, cousins, and so forth, and the three-quarters of my grandparents that survived to meet me as a baby. No, it could not have been intended for any of them. Who, then?

I push on, flicking the page to the next photo. Here I am slightly older again - my haircut has changed, from a pudding-bowl to a close-shave, bristly stubble poking out of the pale brown skin that covers my skull. Madly, improbably, I have exactly the same expression as in the previous photo. Did I spend a year confused? And why has my child-self's head been shaved like that?

Then I see it. The photo is taken in my grandmother's living room, and there is a big oval mirror hanging on the wall (it is still there now, although my grandmother is long gone). Reflected in the mirror I can see my father taking the photo, and on his shoulder a man's hand. A left hand, its ring finger missing the final joint. A hand I saw last (and then I thought for the first time) two years ago.

I slaw the album shut.