Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Art Pact 205 - Anger


I had never been angrier in my life, a black rage that gripped all my muscles tight so that I shook violently and my jaw muscles bulged out at the side of my face. Something of it must have shown, because Mary took a step back, although John was oblivious to it and simple stood there with that same bland smug look on his face. I could feel the muscles in my forearms bunched up like steel wires, and knew that if I looked down I would see my hands in fists. I couldn't do that, though, because the certain knowledge that my fists were there would be the spur to use them, and no matter what I was feeling I couldn't start a fight. I took a step back myself, forced myself to focus on Mary's face. She was frightened, of course - she'd seen me get into fights in the past, so she must have been able to see in my expression how close I was to the edge - but I hoped she also knew that whatever happened I was not going to be taking it out on her. It was hardly her fault anyway. I took a deep breath - it was cold and quiet through my flared nostrils - and clenched my fists tighter so that I could then relax them, letting my fingers hang. John did not notice it. He was still staring at me, the edges of his mouth curled slightly up into an obnoxious smile.

"I have to go," I said, my voice strained.

"That's for the best," he said. His tone of voice was so patronising that I almost hit him there and then, but I just flinched with the effort. Perhaps he thought that I was stung by his little pronouncement, because he seemed to puff up a little more. It was like watching a petty bureaucrat getting ready to explain to some poor supplicant why it was not his job to help, and why they should be grateful for anything that he had done for them. His chest expanded, his head tipped back so that he might almost have been looking down his nose at me (had I not been an inch taller), and his smug smile turned into something more imperious. Again, the muscles in my arms twitched and yearned to be about their business, but again I forced myself to look at Mary and that allowed me to relax slightly. This situation was not going to sort itself out easily, and it certainly wasn't going to sort itself out in my favour if I was looking at it from the wrong side of some prison bars. I turned, walked out of the door, willed myself to shut it gently so that I didn't automatically slam it shut.

In the cold autumn air I could feel a seething energy coming off me, vapours of rage boiling out of my skull. Now safely out of arm's reach I imagined twisting John's head off, punching at his neck until it was just a mass of black and purple and he gasped for breath. But all that did was make me feel more angry - not just at him, but at myself. Why didn't I see the signs? Had there been any? He was always keen on her, but I thought that our acquaintance would at least have counted for something. He'd seemed keen on Mary and I as a couple before, almost solicitous - I remembered that he'd given Alex Drake pretty short shrift when Drake had criticised Mary for staying with me after the Dorking incident. In truth, he was more sure about our relationship than I was, because I had wondered whether Drake was right. I'd come close to having a talk with Mary, telling her that I wouldn't object if she wanted to break it off with me, but John's defence had persuaded not just Drake but me (or rather, it had persuaded me - although he was the target I suppose Drake's famous obstinance meant that he had clung on to his opinion as tightly as he could). I hadn't mentioned my doubts to Mary and after the difficult year it had seemed like a stupid idea. I'd constrained myself to simply following all her suggestions - it had been her that had sent me to anger management classes - and at the end of it we'd seemed stronger than ever. Until this, of course.

The thought of the classes reminded me that there were things I should be doing if I did not want this to build up in me until it exploded in some poor fellow's face. I couldn't focus enough to go through the whole routine, but once I'd got to the end of the garden and through the gate I leant up against a wall and began deep breaths and counting backwards, clenching and releasing the muscles in my feet, my legs, my arse, and so on and so on until at one I scrunched up my face and released it, opening my eyes to find two boys - somewhere between toddler and school-age - watching me from across the road.

"Weirdo!" one of them shouted, and the two of them sprinted away towards town. I felt a brief pang of rage, then a hot flush of embarrassment, but another couple of deep breaths banished that too, and I knew that I was at least out of the immediate danger zone. But I had to get away from the house, from Mary's confusion and fear and from John's smug patter, and out into the countryside where there were fewer people around. I still had the week bus-pass that I'd bought for the training course, so I headed away from town to the cluster of stops by the big supermarket and caught the first bus that turned up, then hopped one to another until finally I made it to the edge of the green belt and hit the bell as we came up to the forest by the old pig farm.

Once the bus was out of sight, I hopped the fence into the field of old sties. Checking that no-one was around, I began to dig.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Art Pact 204 - The debate


"In questionable times like these," the young man said, "it's more important than ever that we focus on our own priorities before looking further afield for problems to solve. What does it profit us if we throw away our energy in pursuit of questionable gains for strangers and neglect those closer to home?"

He looked around, perhaps hoping for a little interim ovation to begin and give him a rest from the sound of his own voice. Nothing was forthcoming, though - as I had expected the moment I had heard him talking. He had misjudged his crowd severely, perhaps under the mistaken impression that he was still talking to his local conservative party rather than the conference's mixed group of economists and do-gooders. I could imagine his confusion, expecting rousing applause from the ruddy-cheeked squires and blue-rinsed grandmothers who must have populated the village halls in which he normally performed, and instead being greeted only by polite coughs and the gently tapping of fingers on laptop keyboards from the continuous-partial-attention brigade. He shuffled his papers nervously and pressed on regardless.

"Despite what some people would like to believe, the aid budget is a zero-sum game."

A few heads perked up in the audience at the invocation of game theory, and I realised that he must have at least a speech-writer who was somewhat aware of the venue. But again it had been somewhat misjudged, since the heads that I could see pop up were only those who were paying attention in order to punish him for his foray into their jargon. The confusion of lay-people being their own little ring-fenced playground, they guarded the language of their work quite closely, and I knew enough to understand that he had used the term only partially correctly. Those who were not specialists had begun to pay attention because of his misstep in making an assertion that it was hard to fully argue. I could see shoulders twitching, hands beginning to come alive with preparations: fuelling themselves, beginning countdowns to the end of the session, calculating trajectories so that they could rocket up the moment the chairperson called for questions, their logical warheads ready to explode over the speaker's head.

The distraction caused me to miss a few lines of the speech, but I saw a few flinches, wry grins, and sudden frowns on the faces of the audience that hinted at yet further controversy in his point. But my concentration was taken completely by something I spotted in the back row, behind the final seats.

Standing by the back wall was the old woman that I'd seen earlier talking to Dr. Fielding. I recognised the clothes, although I had not seen her face the first time. She had, in addition to her handbag, a conference tote hanging off the shoulders with the sort of taut straps that suggested that it was full of books, or possibly lead bars. She had tied back her hair into a frizzy grey ponytail so tight before the band that it might also have been intended as some sort of cheap facelift. Her eyes were a pleasant almond shape, so that I guessed that she might have had some Chinese grandparent, and her lips were coloured with a particularly striking red.

Beside her, leaning on the wall, was a young man that I did not recognise at all, though I recognised quite well the rapt expression on his face as he looked at his companion. I couldn't quite see the attraction myself, although I had to admit that she was relatively handsome. I had to assume that her charisma was based on some more admirable quality than mere physical attraction, and I wondered how close I would have to be to eavesdrop on them. Perhaps another couple of rows back would do it, I thought - if I moved to the left (relative to me), I could get to the aisle and with a little luck travel back without being seen by them. That would give me a good view of their faces without putting me so directly in front of them that they would see me twisting round in my seat.

I awkwardly gained the seat I was aiming for, although extricating myself from my original seat was not as graceful as I had hoped, a little ripple of attention forming around me as I negotiated my way past my two neighbours. The new seat was as good as I'd hoped, though, and as I slowly turned my head over my right shoulder I could see that the young man had turned to face the stage as well, putting his face perfectly on display for my lip-reading.

"...but there's no evidence," he was saying.

"Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence," she quoted at him. But she turned and bestowed a more motherly look on him, adjusting the strap of the heavy tote-bag so that it didn't slip off her shoulder. "You can always go back to the institute and get a little more manpower from them. I won't think any less of you, you know."

"I- no," he insisted. "I can do it. I'll find her."

"Well, that's very ambitious of you. But don't let your pride get you in trouble. If you can't find her, or if they get a bead on you first, go to the institute or come-"

She stopped talking, and the young man looked around at her, saying something that I couldn't see - although I could tell by the subtle movements of his jaw that he had said something short.

"Yes, that's what I was going to say," she said. "But I might have to go underground for a while. If I vanish, I don't want you to panic. I also don't want you to waste time coming to find me when I won't be able to help you. Go to the institute."

"OK," he said, having turned back. "But I'll try myself before that."

"Good. First of all, though," she said, "I'd like you to take care of the man who's watching us talk. There, the one pulling his hat down."

I froze, my hand already touching the brim of my baseball cap.

Art Pact 204 - The debate


"In questionable times like these," the young man said, "it's more important than ever that we focus on our own priorities before looking further afield for problems to solve. What does it profit us if we throw away our energy in pursuit of questionable gains for strangers and neglect those closer to home?"

He looked around, perhaps hoping for a little interim ovation to begin and give him a rest from the sound of his own voice. Nothing was forthcoming, though - as I had expected the moment I had heard him talking. He had misjudged his crowd severely, perhaps under the mistaken impression that he was still talking to his local conservative party rather than the conference's mixed group of economists and do-gooders. I could imagine his confusion, expecting rousing applause from the ruddy-cheeked squires and blue-rinsed grandmothers who must have populated the village halls in which he normally performed, and instead being greeted only by polite coughs and the gently tapping of fingers on laptop keyboards from the continuous-partial-attention brigade. He shuffled his papers nervously and pressed on regardless.

"Despite what some people would like to believe, the aid budget is a zero-sum game."

A few heads perked up in the audience at the invocation of game theory, and I realised that he must have at least a speech-writer who was somewhat aware of the venue. But again it had been somewhat misjudged, since the heads that I could see pop up were only those who were paying attention in order to punish him for his foray into their jargon. The confusion of lay-people being their own little ring-fenced playground, they guarded the language of their work quite closely, and I knew enough to understand that he had used the term only partially correctly. Those who were not specialists had begun to pay attention because of his misstep in making an assertion that it was hard to fully argue. I could see shoulders twitching, hands beginning to come alive with preparations: fuelling themselves, beginning countdowns to the end of the session, calculating trajectories so that they could rocket up the moment the chairperson called for questions, their logical warheads ready to explode over the speaker's head.

The distraction caused me to miss a few lines of the speech, but I saw a few flinches, wry grins, and sudden frowns on the faces of the audience that hinted at yet further controversy in his point. But my concentration was taken completely by something I spotted in the back row, behind the final seats.

Standing by the back wall was the old woman that I'd seen earlier talking to Dr. Fielding. I recognised the clothes, although I had not seen her face the first time. She had, in addition to her handbag, a conference tote hanging off the shoulders with the sort of taut straps that suggested that it was full of books, or possibly lead bars. She had tied back her hair into a frizzy grey ponytail so tight before the band that it might also have been intended as some sort of cheap facelift. Her eyes were a pleasant almond shape, so that I guessed that she might have had some Chinese grandparent, and her lips were coloured with a particularly striking red.

Beside her, leaning on the wall, was a young man that I did not recognise at all, though I recognised quite well the rapt expression on his face as he looked at his companion. I couldn't quite see the attraction myself, although I had to admit that she was relatively handsome. I had to assume that her charisma was based on some more admirable quality than mere physical attraction, and I wondered how close I would have to be to eavesdrop on them. Perhaps another couple of rows back would do it, I thought - if I moved to the left (relative to me), I could get to the aisle and with a little luck travel back without being seen by them. That would give me a good view of their faces without putting me so directly in front of them that they would see me twisting round in my seat.

I awkwardly gained the seat I was aiming for, although extricating myself from my original seat was not as graceful as I had hoped, a little ripple of attention forming around me as I negotiated my way past my two neighbours. The new seat was as good as I'd hoped, though, and as I slowly turned my head over my right shoulder I could see that the young man had turned to face the stage as well, putting his face perfectly on display for my lip-reading.

"...but there's no evidence," he was saying.

"Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence," she quoted at him. But she turned and bestowed a more motherly look on him, adjusting the strap of the heavy tote-bag so that it didn't slip off her shoulder. "You can always go back to the institute and get a little more manpower from them. I won't think any less of you, you know."

"I- no," he insisted. "I can do it. I'll find her."

"Well, that's very ambitious of you. But don't let your pride get you in trouble. If you can't find her, or if they get a bead on you first, go to the institute or come-"

She stopped talking, and the young man looked around at her, saying something that I couldn't see - although I could tell by the subtle movements of his jaw that he had said something short.

"Yes, that's what I was going to say," she said. "But I might have to go underground for a while. If I vanish, I don't want you to panic. I also don't want you to waste time coming to find me when I won't be able to help you. Go to the institute."

"OK," he said, having turned back. "But I'll try myself before that."

"Good. First of all, though," she said, "I'd like you to take care of the man who's watching us talk. There, the one pulling his hat down."

I froze, my hand already touching the brim of my baseball cap.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Art Pact 203 - Walking along the bank


"I don't know," she says, putting her hat on. She pulls the brim down low, so that it covers her eyes when she lets her head nod forward even a fraction. They appear and disappear again as she speaks, flashing on and off like the lights above a zebra crossing. I feel afraid to cross her, though.

"It shouldn't be too bad."

"Well, not if everything goes according to plan. But if there's a cock-up somewhere along the line it could easily go - what was that expression you used? Go south, that's it." She muses. "Why do they say that?"

"I don't know. Look, look at it this way. What other choices do we have? We either go along with things as they are or we make some effort to change them. OK, that's not going to be pretty. OK, if it goes wrong it could be a bit disastrous. But things are just going to keep getting slowly and steadily worse if we do nothing, there's nothing to say that things won't end up disastrous anyway, so it's more a nothing ventured nothing gained sort of situation we're looking at here."

We come to the awkward lines snaking across the open park area in front of the eye, and with some difficulty negotiate our way through the queue. It seems unusually busy, and many of the younger people we pass (german or french students on school trips, I think, judging by their brightly-coloured anoraks and identical backpacks) turn to watch her go past, staring either at her hat (if they are girls) or her bum (if otherwise). I frown at a few after they accidentally catch my eye, but they show no remorse, and, I suppose, why should they? They are just teenagers doing what teenagers do. I step a bit closer to her, though, trying to shield her from a little of the attention her progress through the crowd is drawing to her.

"There's a big difference between something going wrong because it was already going wrong," she says, "and it going wrong because you - me - us, I suppose - pushed it until it gave way. There's a question of agency, of culpability. Like pushing a fat man off a bridge to stop a train."

"Yes - wait, what?"

"You know, those tests." I do not know, and when I have stared blankly at her for a few seconds, she adds: "Those ethical tests. You know!"

"Sorry."

"Never mind. It's not important. Stop thinking about it. All I'm saying is: it's different. It's not the same us throwing a spanner in the works."

We are at the rail and footbridge out of Waterloo now, the bridge whose name I can never remember - is it Waterloo bridge? Is it the Hungerford bridge? Not for the first time, I wonder if there isn't an argument for name reform in London bridges. They could get rid of London bridge, for one thing, or just roll the name up so that London and Tower are the same bridge. Then they could name the other bridges after things they're actually near rather than naming them after some remote town they might possibly have led to once upon a time (see also the number of different Cambridge roads).

She looks for a moment as if she is going to ascend the steps and go up and over, but at the last minute she veers back towards the river, and I say nothing. Perhaps this is where she normally leaves, which gives me one more clue about where she comes from. Not a big clue, I am willing to admit, since it might mean that she is used to going up the steps to Waterloo and from there to all places beyond, but it is something. Another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, although sadly not an edge piece.

We skirt some pieces of art chalked expertly onto the pavement - Venus ascending, and then - cruder but larger - the old olympic logo where the bright pink blocks of colour have been replaced with caricatures of the sponsoring companies that managed to dodge out of their promises to pay their taxes. It seems pointless, I can hardly believe that people are still worrying about that when there are far more pressing matters, but then I remember that she and I are among only a handful of people who understand quite how pressing those matters actuallly are. It is not safe to accuse anyone of misplaced priorities when I am simply walking down the bank of the Thames with a pretty woman, arguing with her over whether we need to do something about a situation that will be the end of us all if we let it go on too long.

Out of the other side and we are in studio land - the theatres and gallerys and television buildings that fill the space east of Waterloo, and the accompanying art pieces and street performers. We navigate around a juggler tossing up flower vases complete with flowers and sploshing water, then stop for a moment to listen to a young lady (I say that, but she can't be old enough to be out of school yet) saxophonist. I take a step to walk on, but she leans forward and tosses a pound coin into the young lady's open instrument case, and embarrassed I root around in my own pocket - coming up with a couple of twenty-pence pieces and a broken biro. I throw in the coins (but keep the biro).

The crowds here are not as dense as around the Eye, but they seem a little more alive, and I suddenly feel that the solution to our problem might lie in the meta-problem that I am already aware of. I say it aloud, before I can think about it too much.

"We should let people know," I say.

"Which people?"

"All people."

"Ah." She stops, reaches up with her pointer finger extended to the brim of her hat and pushes it up to a jaunty angle. "Now that is something we must definitely discuss with the others."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Art Pact 202 - Kingdom of Birds


There was once a kingdom in which several warring princelings vied to be the successor to their aunt, the queen. The queen was herself unmarried, and despite several pregnancies she had been unable to carry an heir to term. Each time the queen lost a child she grieved and cast suspicious eyes at her brothers and sisters and their squabbling broods, but the royal doctor assured her that there was most likely no foul play involved - that she had simply been cursed by fate.

"Perhaps," he suggested, "the iron will needed to rule a country is incompatible with motherhood. Your constitution, well suited to the demands of the regnal lifestyle, might be too strong for a child to survive. A pregnancy is a battleground," he added, seeing that the queen was observing him coolly with the sort of gaze she normally reserved for those she was about to send away to war or to the executioner's block, "between the mother - who wants to preserve her own life - and the child, who wishes to grow as fast and as big as possible. Such a battle is often well-matched, for the mother is older but the child has the benefit of attacking from within."

"Are you trying to say," said the queen slowly, "that I am too strong for a child to overcome?"

"That is... yes, your majesty."

"I suspect that you may have to argue with the ghosts of queens past," she told him. "Since I have at least two ruling queens in my own ancestry."

The doctor smiled uncomfortably. The queen was known to prize honesty above all other traits in her advisors, but the subject of the dynastic lineage was an exception to this rule. It was well know that the queen did not have two ruling queens in her ancestry, but instead only one, her maternal great-grandmother. The other, Queen Paracel the Just, was the subject of much contention. Had she been a real queen? Had she even been an actual person? Whichever it was, there was no reason to believe that she was a direct ancestor of the queen, unless you were yourself the queen and wished such a belief to be widespread as a political tool for your own use. He briefly considered suggesting something of this, but a less suicidal part of his brain overruled, and so he wisely kept his mouth shut - and therefore, he suspected, also attached to his throat.

"It may be, of course, that your choice of consorts is the sticking point," he conceded. "Perhaps those other queens chose men of hardier stock, perhaps of more forthright seed?"

"Who I choose for my bed," the queen warned him, "is my business."

"As it should be, your majesty. I merely comment that you may have chosen your paramours for qualities other than their ability to beget children upon you." He bowed, and took a step backwards towards the door, wishing he had kept his mouth shut about that too and hoping that the conversation would end now before it became even more uncomfortable. To his great relief, the queen dismissed him.

Alone in her chamber, the queen considered the facts. She had been pregnant four times in her forty-two years, and each pregnancy had ended in unhappy pain. She had hoped for a daughter or son to pass on her kingdom to, but she had come to realise that that was unlikely to be. She would have, she realised, to attempt to discover which of her nephews might be suitable to the throne. She wished that her brothers and sisters had gifted her with a niece or two to throw into the competition, but whatever fate it was that had cursed her womb also seemed to have decided that her siblings should only beget or birth sons - cause for rejoicing amongst certain of her family, but something of an annoyance to her.

She withdrew to her most private chambers, a room at the top of a tower overlooking the palace and it surroundings, and considered her options. She could do nothing, of course, and let the bickering work its way painfully towards its natural conclusion - that one of the nephews would finally dominate the others and be prepared to take her place when she died. That was simple, traditional in its own terrible way, and would at least provide the kingdom with a strong ruler, if perhaps not a just one. But it also hinted at a darker possibility. A nephew strong enough, cunning enough, or ruthless enough to take on his family and win might not balk at testing the strength - or perhaps the liver - of his aunt. The natural corollary to the struggle between the cousins would be an inter-generational battle in which the heir assumptive could move more subtly than she could. She was middle-aged, and her death might be looked on as something more natural than that of a young man, particularly in those margins of the family who resented a woman ruler. No, it could not be so simple as that - she would have to act, and as she was a naturally cautious woman, that made her uneasy. To remain, to watch the status quo, is an easy thing for a queen. She assumed the throne simply because she was the one that the people accepted as her father's heir, and it did not do to think about which by right or other she kept her crown. There was no rhyme nor reason to it, it was all a great game of dice in the heavens. Better to leave that in the hands of the gods and take what came to one.

Even so, the choice now was between action and death, and that was quite enough to motivate her. She could either observe her nephews and choose between them by her own criteria, or she could decide upon a competition, something that one nephew would incontrovertibly win. That was it, she decided - a competition for the crown. None of the family could object to it, and it would provide a little entertainment both for her and for the winner's future subjects.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Art Pact 201 - Magic Show


The magician waved his wand. Nothing happened. From my perch high up in the crowd I could see the brief flash of surprise on his face, but he was an artist and a performer and he rolled with it, making it seem as though it was part of the act. He waved his wand again. Again, nothing. I looked around - if there was someone in the crowd who was suppressing him other than me, I couldn't spot them. I knew that there were plenty of dampers in the town, but would most of them come into a magic show where they could be found out immediately? Well, perhaps - they weren't all known for their intelligence. That was the problem with being a damper, it didn't have any relation to any other talent, so the skill was evenly distributed across the population, which meant that a good half of them were of below-average smarts. They might easily come to a magic show for the fun of it, not realising that it would make them stick out like a sore thumb to anyone who might be watching. 

The thought made me a little paranoid, and I dragged my field closer to me in order to reassure myself that it wasn't me having the effect on the performer. I felt the field close in a little, then spring back. That was unexpected. I drew it in again, and again it felt for a moment as if it were closing around me and getting denser, then like a ball being inflated it popped out again - now I could tell that it was getting larger, definitely big enough to engulf the edge of the stage, possibly all the way to the backdrop.

The ripples of laughter that had accompanied the performer's original pratfalling and self-mockery were now growing a bit thin. The audience seemed to sense that all was not as it seemed, that perhaps there was something going wrong on stage. His patter was beginning to run out, and the confusion at the failure of his tricks was growing evident on his face. I would have to drag my field in somehow. I pulled at it, straining my head so hard that people in the seats around me must have thought I was stricken with some sort of near-fatal constipation. Again, nothing - the field contracted slightly, then bounced open again. At this rate I would be spread so thinly that I'd be damping the entire theatre. I had to find another way out - I got to my feet, began to apologize to the people in my row and make my way to the aisle, awkwardly squeezing past raised knees and over handbags and popcorn bags.

The field was coming with me - it had to, of course, and I could sense that it was not growing any larger so long as I kept moving and did not try to tinker with it in a more forceful manner. It was drawing my damper in that seemed to cause it to spread out further, so I kept my mind relaxed and tried to just let the thing come back to a normal size by itself. It was oddly like trying to get an unwanted erection to go down, and just as counter-intuitive. The field seemed to have a mind of its own, and all I could do was get to the end of the aisle, dart up the steps to the theatre door and get outside.

I was not the only one. As I let the door close behind me and looked out across the lobby, another figure emerged to my right. He was dressed in a sort of greenish-blue-yellow uniform, the exact sort of colour that would have husbands and wives arguing for years if it had been made into dish-towels rather than trousers and a jacket. He was tall, with short dark hair plastered across his head in an unwashed mess, and as he turned to face me I could see that he was squinting his right eye furiously while his left eye remained somehow open and relaxed.

"Stop!" he called.

I - who had not been going anywhere once I was outside the door - immediately realised that there was something wrong here, and that the last thing I should do would be to follow his command. I bolted for the main door, sprinting as fast as I could over the sticky red carpet and hurdling a rope barrier (a jump which I flubbed, but I landed well anyway, simply knocking over  the two steel posts holding the rope). I bashed into the door, then through it, and swung it closed as hard as I could into the other guy, hearing a satisfying thump and cry of distress as it took him by surprise.

For a moment I felt my damper field pull back to its normal size, then again it was being dragged out. I felt as though there were a sucking wind on me, pulling me back towards my pursuer, and I suddenly realised that the field was not stretching of its own accord, it was being stretched for me. I had never heard of such a thing, but there are always things you haven't heard of, and in this job they turned up quite regularly. After all that high-faluting business about only idiots going to magic shows where they'd be found out I had done just that - I'd relied on my control to be able to hide my damper field so that it wouldn't affect the act and get me found out, but someone - someone with less than benign feelings towards me, I guessed - had somehow enhanced the range of my ability until it started to be noticeable, then waited for me to show myself.

As I was realising this, something hard hit my right ankle as it was in mid-air, flinging it hard and painfully into my left leg. I went down like a nine-pin, only narrowly bringing my hands up to protect my face as I hit the pavement. My head banged into my fingers and everything went black.

"Got him," I heard a voice say.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Art Pact 200 - Housing


We went to floor fifteen first, as directed, only to discover that it was a pre-reception, some sort of screening system by which people were forwarded on to their actual destination. The floor was on the same level as the transport hub, fed into from a big plaza on which buses would stop every few minutes, disgorging one or more downtrodden-looking fellow paupers and on occasion some serious looking little gangs of white guys - sometimes in suits, sometimes in more military gear - who we tried to avoid. It was obvious that they were not here to make anything better for anyone, and Beya would shiver every time any of them got near us and have to turn away so that she could not see them. I made sure to step between her and the gangs so that she wouldn't have to see them as often as she might have, but it was tricky work. There were certainly a lot of them.

We made our way across plaza, dodging the buses and trying not to breath too much of the fume-laden air that seemed to hang over the place despite its open surroundings and height. Great doors - twice the height of either of us - slid open with an ominous hum when we got near, and slid shut behind us with an unusual finality, as though they were teeth clamping shut and the building were about to swallow us. Which, in a manner of speaking, it did.

A journey through a great beast's intestines could hardly have been more complicated that the route we took through the various bureaus and officials that day. As I have said, we went first to floor fifteen where we waited behind a queue of the beaten-down figures we had seen outside, each one of them shuffling forward every five minutes to take up the few feet of territory that had opened up in front of them. By the time we'd got half-way down the queue Beya was desperate to go to the toilet, but we were so afraid that if she gave up her spot she would not be able to get back to us that she just stayed where she was, shifting her weight urgently from foot to foot every few seconds and pursing her mouth awkwardly as if pressing one set of lips together might work by sympathetic magic on the other. The woman behind us gave her strange looks, and seemed to be slowly coming to the conclusion that Beya was mocking her, since she appeared to be more and more annoyed each time I looked at her. Fortunately, though, we eventually managed to get to the front of the line without either an accident or a fist-fight, only to discover that - once we had told the clerk all our details, had our index fingers scanned, and signed a document saying that we had entered the building (something to do with health and safety, he explained) - we were simply being told which floor to go to for our initial appointment - floor six. We were to go there immediately, he explained, since there was an appointment available in the next five minutes.

Well, I could tell already that five minutes was not going to be enough for us to get all the way down nine floors and locate the place, especially since there was another queue at the lifts. So I took the decision not to relay this bit of information to Beya (her English not being good enough to have picked that up), and instead got her into yet another queue - fortunately a considerably smaller one - for the toilets.

"Terrible," she told me when she came out again.

Floor six turned out to be practically deserted - indeed, much of it was given over to just empty space, which we could see past the shoulders of the young woman who conducted our interview. She was a shade lighter than Beya, and at first was quite friendly to us, but seemed to grow more and more obstructive as we talked, which made Beya and I nervous that there was something we were saying about our situation that was annoying her. We had all of our papers, the correct medical details for me and the passport documents and stamps for Beya, but the young woman persisted in getting more and more flustered the more she entered into her computer. We tried keeping quiet for a while, letting her explain all the hoops that the administration would have to jump through to find us somewhere to stay, but the description of that Herculean task seemed to make her even more frustrated with us, as though we had deliberately had our home destroyed in order to make more work for her. Beya at one point broke into her monologue in order to describe the troubles we'd had leading up to the fire, but instead of invoking her sympathies even that just seemed to make her more and more annoyed.

"The problem is the lack of places," she explained for the tenth time.

"Yes, we understand," I told her. Beya nodded.

"We just can't go giving out places to people who don't need them."

"Of course," I said.

"But we do need one," said Beya. "Our apartment was burned."

"There are T's that need to be crossed," she said. "I's that need to be dotted."

I could see Beya frowning, and jumped in before we got side-tracked.

"Is there something temporary that we can sort out while the details are being dealt with?" I asked.

"You'll have to see emergency accommodation on floor nine."

"Oh. I thought this was-"

"This is emergency rehousing. But there's a lack of places in accommodation as well."

I glanced at Beya, who was staring over the young woman's shoulder. The expanse of floor in the office was probably enough to fit our old apartment into ten times over. I could almost hear the cogs turning in her head.

"Let's go," I told her, nodding politely to the official.

"But-"

"Let's go."

Friday, July 20, 2012

Art Pact 199 - No call for bread


"There's no call for it," the shopkeeper says, shuffling brightly-coloured packets of sweets across the countertop. She sweeps them with her left arm, her right hand open at the edge to catch the packets as they topple off. Each one of the packets is a different colour, but all adorned with a beaming anthropomorphic strawberry who looks out with dead eyes. She has been doing this ever since I came into the shop. Each packet that falls into her hand she carefully arranges into a column of identically coloured packets in the display rack on the front of the counter so that there are now five stripes (yellow, purple, red, orange, green) stretching the height of the rack - although there must be far fewer yellow packets than the others, since the yellow column is only just a touch more than half the height.

"No call for it?" I ask, incredulously. She turns back, pushes her glasses up her nose, and gives me a long stare as if she had never seen a man come into her shop before. It is possible she hasn't - all of the other men around here seem to work, it's like something out of the nineteen-fifties. I let my eyes wander over the shelves while she scans me. Perhaps nineteen-fifties is being a bit generous.

"No call for it." she says.

"No call," I repeat, "for bread?"

"Man can't live on bread alone," she quotes. A yellow packet falls into her hands and without taking her gaze off me she brings it up until it is in her peripheral vision, then drops it into the correct column. She's like a bastard offspring of an owl and a pick-and-place machine. I try not to look her in the eye, but it is impossible. Every time I let my gaze return to the front I feel it being pulled towards her as though she has some sort of tractor beam or hypnotic powers. I force myself to count the cans on the shelves, to read the brand names of the washing powders (powders! in the twenty-first century!), to try to guess quite how long the wilting vegetables have been in their boxes in the tiny fresh produce section. It is not enough, and like a moth coming back to a flame to get burnt my vision keeps returning to her. She has an inscrutable expression on, as though I had suggested that she stock up on pornographic magazines or french truffle oil.

"I wasn't suggesting it should be the only thing in the shop," I say - perhaps unwisely. She scowls. Definitely unwisely. I hold up my hands, backpedal: "I mean, I know you know that. Sorry. I was just.. are you absolutely sure? People don't want to buy bread around here? Not for their morning toast?"

"Why on earth would people eat toast in the morning?" she asks. "What do you think this is, Hollywood?"

I don't think I'd have been less confused if I'd walked out of the house that morning and discovered that I was living in Hollywood. How can she not have bread? This is England. Time to try another tack.

"Perhaps there's a bakery somewhere nearby," I say. She shakes her head. "Really?"

"Of course not!" she says indignantly. "Why would there be a bakery nearby! I've just told you there's no call for bread around here. What would they do? How would they pay their wages? You can't make a living selling one wedding cake every month you know!"

Having bought a wedding cake within the last year, I know that this is not so. I am pretty sure that the people who made our wedding cake are living in a hotel on a tropical island at the moment. If they'd made the cake out of phoenix eggs it could hardly have been more expensive. But I do not mention this. I am sure that it will be seen as further impudence, and I am already getting nowhere fast. Perhaps I will be unable to get bread here, but I will need to get other things from the shop in the future, it being the only one reachable without a forty-five minute cycle.

"Well I'll take some flour, then."

"No flour."

"No flour?" I ask weakly.

"Not much call for it." She turns back to her sweet packets, and with a final flourish whips the last three into her hand and sorts them into their correct places. There are equal numbers of all the colours besides yellow, and she shakes her head sadly. "I knew it. I knew they were trying to cheat me. Look at this!" She indicates the columns. "Look at it!"

The abrupt change from being her adversary to her confidante catches me entirely off-guard, and I murmur politely, unable to control my mouth into any sensible utterance.

"How... Who... What's wrong with it?" I finally manage.

"They're cheating me out of yellow flavours!" she says, shaking her head and looking at me as if I were an idiot for not spotting something so obvious.

"They're all the same flavour," I tell her. "They're all strawberry. Look."

It's true. They all say strawberry. The packets are some kind of promotional colour scheme, although in favour of what I don't know. Gay pride? I certainly keep my mouth shut about that. She doesn't seem the type to be open-minded about modern sexual mores.

"They're strawberry, yes, of course," she says. "But these yellow strawberry flavours are worth more than the purple strawberry flavours."

"They are?"

"Of course they are! They must be! How rare do you think yellow strawberries are? They don't grow on trees, you know!"

"I know, they grow on the gr-"

"They're trying to cheat me, just because I'm not some big-city supermarket."

"Sorry," I say, "can I just get this straight? You think that the sweets in these packets are made from yellow strawberries, and that you're being discriminated against in distribution because of the size of your shop?"

"Exactly!" she says.

"They're not even made from actual strawberries," I tell her, "let alone yellow ones."

She stares at me as if I've just trod on her cat.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Art Pact 198 - 51 Main Street


I passed 51 Main Street every day on my way to the job centre - a large townhouse in the middle of two other more anonymous houses that made up a short terrace. Although it was slap-bang in the centre of Moreditch Avenue, the house was marked with a square white plaque beside the door reading "51 Main Street" in a stylish sans-serif font. The two houses to the either side were 33 and 37 Moreditch Avenue, so obviously the name on the sign wasn't the real address, but there was no indication that it had any other identity. I once happened to be passing at exactly the same time as the postman - Dan, a vague acquaintance of mine who I found profoundly annoying but was forced to be polite to. I nodded hello, chatted to him for a minute about some party we'd both been to, and in the course of the conversation I managed to sneak a good hard stare at the incoming post - a big bundle, probably as many letters in one day as I got in a month, even including rejection letters from job applications and stern notices from the government about what hoops I had to jump through in order to keep claiming my benefits. All the letters that I could see were simply addressed to 51 Main Street - no mention of the actual road, or our town or even the county. The only hint at an address at all was a postcode that had been written in in the bottom right-hand corner of each envelope in blue pencil. I briefly considered asking him for more details, but Dan was one of those people who got off on being the keeper of mysteries, so all questions would have accomplished would be to make him clam up tighter so that he could dangle the information over my head.

Fate handed me another option, though. The bundle of post was held together by an elastic band, which Dan removed and dropped back into his bike's handlebar bag carelessly - so carelessly, indeed, that he did not notice that the rubber had adhered to a small letter in a blue envelope which also fell into the bag. As he marched up the path and began to slowly feed the bundle section by section through the letterbox I took a deep breath, considered what I was about to do, then in one quick motion interfered with Her Majesty's Post. I called out a goodbye to Dan - making sure that I was already walking away so that I could plausibly deny hearing his call for me to wait a moment - and continued on my way.

I sat in the waiting room at the job centre with the letter in my pocket. Although it could have been anything I felt like a lovesick teenager holding a letter from his girlfriend. I couldn't wait to get home to open it, but at the same time I felt it was too private a thing to be opened in so mundane a surrounding as the waiting room. The job centre was built into the front of an old shop, whose big display windows had been so thoroughly covered over with poor quality job ads and threatening posters about benefits fraud that they were now almost completely blacked out, lending the waiting room a sickly dark quality that combined with the old fashioned fluorescent lighting to make the place distinctly uncomfortable to visit. It could hardly have been planned better if some effort had been put in, but I was sure that it had arisen merely through the combined action of bureaucracy and apathy. What sunlight did make its way in from outside was a distributed in thin blinding lines that pushed between posters and threw themselves viciously across the far walls and into the eyes of anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting facing them. Since the regular appointments all seemed to be scheduled early in the morning (both of the advisors seemed to be annoyingly chirpy larks), the sun was always low enough and blinding enough (except at the heights of summer or winter) to be a constant source of discomfort during opening hours. The only respite one could get from this deadly flare was to sit on the rows of chairs facing in the opposite direction, in which case one was exposed to a cure undoubtedly worse than the disease - the withering gaze of the receptionist.

There were two receptionists at the job centre, as physically different as it was possible to be but apparently still pressed from the same mould. Bjorn, the first, was a heavily overweight middle-aged man of apparently Nordic descent, although his dark hair and brown eyes made him look like the most unlikely Viking ever, and one could hardly imagine him making it onto the back of a raiding longboat without the dragon prow suddenly rearing up like it had just spotted St George. He worked Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Taking the Wednesday and Friday shifts, as well as those weekend days when the Centre was open for special events, was Alice. Alice was tall, thin, and blonde, but a very effective counter to the idea of the attractive slender blonde. Both of them were sullen in demeanour, unhelpful, patronising to the job centre's "clients" and fawning to their superiors, and to sit facing one or the other of them was to be alternately pointedly ignored and haughtily judged, an emotional roller coaster next to which the temporary loss of ones faculty of sight was positively desirable.

I had got there early to get the sweetest chair - facing away from the window but right at the end of the row so that I was furthest away from Bjorn. Still, there were few enough other people in the waiting room that he could have noticed if I'd taken the letter out. The letter for 51 Main Street, unopened, was still full of mystery. It was too precious to be judged by a sullen receptionist in a disused shop-front.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Art Pact 197 - Posse



Rounded out by the addition of the two Havershaw brothers, our posse looked quite impressive - a combination of broad chests and rugged stubbly chins with brooding eyes that radiated malign intelligence. Staring down the line I could sense an almost palpable energy rising off them, the energy of danger, of menace, of action held tightly in check but coiled like a spring and ready to explode in all directions like a bomb. A spring-bomb. Mr. Calloway had them walk forward and back a few steps, and when they were coming towards us it felt like rocks rolling. When they were stepping back it was like the tide going out, a force drawing you in, drowning you. I felt quite overcome.

"Now then, boys," said Calloway grandly. "The situation we have ourselves in is this. The interlopers, of whom I'm sure you're all painfully aware"--most of the posse wince as he said this, and I shifted awkwardly, feeling the dull ache in my ankles suddenly flare--"have holed themselves up in some sort of fortress they've built in the park. Now I don't know about you, but I personally am not willing to walk around covering the family jewels while I walk my dogs."

I almost burst into laughter, and I could see the wave of uncomfortably suppressed grins shoot along the line of men before me. Calloway didn't seem to acknowledge his potential innuendo, though, simply strutting to one side and the other like a general reviewing his troops.

"I want," he continued, "to be able to go down to that park and feed the ducks without a second thought. I want to sit on the bench dedicated to my dear mother and fall asleep with a newspaper over my face, safe from any assault on my person. I want to be able to eat a picnic in that park on a Sunday afternoon, free from the fear that some goddamn interloper is going to come up and nail me in the privates while I'm eating my cucumber sandwiches and knocking back my Pimms. Isn't that what you want as well?"

The Havershaw brothers had probably never seen a cucumber in their lives, and if they did see one I doubted that their first guess at its purpose would be that it was a foodstuff. Mr. Bronson, a noted alcoholic, would be drinking the Pimms neat if at all, and the reprobate Doolan Miller was famed for only feeding the ducks small metal pellets thrown at high velocity out of his air rifle, but I could see that they were all interpreting Calloway's picture in their own particular way. I myself, although not at quite so much risk from the interlopers by virtue of my more delicate gender, found the idea of not being able to lie in the park with a book in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other quite distressing, and I imagined that even if I had not been so directly involved in the fight against the interlopers I should have found the otherwise intolerably pompous speech quite rousing in its call to action, even if the actual rhetoric employed in that direction was laughable.

The troops thus fired up (and they did, I had to admit, look quite energised - the prospect of receiving continuing kicks and punches to the coin purse having that effect on men of all ages, as I might well have expected), he gracelessly turned the floor to me as an expert on the subject of our enemy.

"Now, Miss Gr-"--I shot a stern look at him--"Ms. Grace Topps has been observing the Interloper stronghold, and she has a theory about how to defeat them."

That's not the only thing I've been observing, I thought pruriently, but I kept that to myself, instead punching my right fist into the flat of my left palm in a gesture I had hoped would be striking but in fact as I did it seemed as though I were trying too hard. I put my hands behind my back sheepishly.

"The Interlopers," I began, "have holed up around the area of the old bandstand. Unfortunately for us, this is quite a defensible position. The rock gardens surround it on two sides, the mill pond on the third. The only obvious way to attack is through the pathway that leads to the swings. Naturally, they will be watching this road. Their sentries are in position, and they may well be rotated every few hours to stay fresh."

"May be?" Doolan Miller queried. Calloway gave him a serious glance, obviously intending him to shut up, but I waved the objection aside.

"May be. The two go in, two more come out. To be honest, I can't really tell the differences between them. I mean, they all look the same to me." That sounded racist. "That isn't racist," I clarified, but that sounded even more racist, so I just drew a line under the whole thing and started again.

"What I mean to say," I said, "is that they all have a very similar appearance, so I'm assuming that they change guards but I can't say so for sure. They have the place very well protected, and they've built up the bandstand itself with logs and hammered-out tin-cans and the consignment of roofing tiles they hijacked on the way to the Havershaw's depot."

"Sounds like we're screwed," said Doolan.

"Possibly," I said. "But there is one point of weakness. I happen to know something about the band-stand that I'm not sure they do. There's a room underneath it, below ground level."

"Eh?"

"Don't ask me how I know," I said, and I genuinely hoped that they wouldn't, "but a tunnel leads from a grate in the groundskeepers hut to a room below. I think it must have been a storage room in the old days. If the Interlopers don't know about it, then we have a big advantage. We can attack from within."

"And if they do know about it," said Doolan, "we're double screwed."

"Well, yes," I admitted. "Someone will have to go in first and scout it out. I'll need a volunteer."

The posse looked at me, but none of them moved. It was only after a few seconds that I understood what they were getting at.

"Oh," I said. "Right."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Art Pact 196 - Biggest Bear




We'd have drummed him straight out of the forest if it wasn't for the simple fact that he was the physical and intellectual superior of us all - so he said, and since we were unable to refute it, I suppose it must have been the case. He lived in a huge fallen tree in the very centre of the great clearing, and every morning he would emerge from his sleeping-place and roar at the top of his voice:

"I AM THE GREATEST BEAR IN ALL THE WORLD!"

Now, naturally, being the kind of bear he was, he made sure that he was up earlier than everyone else so that he could roar this at the most annoying time possible. Well - he could, I suppose, have done it in the middle of the night, but that might have tipped the balance between it being annoying enough that we were all wound up by it and being so annoying that it would have driven one or more of us into a desperate rage. Bernard was able to master any one of us individually, and perhaps two or more of us he could have taken down with relative ease, but he also enjoyed the moral superiority that came with being an early riser. By waking us all up he could demonstrate his great health and vitality, at the same time setting himself up so that he could easily berate us about our own sloth. He was particularly fond of teasing the mayor, who weathered the storm of jocular abuse with narrowed eyes and a barely concealed snarl, but never said anything. Every morning it would be the same - after Bernard's hubristic declaration we would all emerge from our own sleeping spots, bleary-eyed and groggy, and he would point one long claw at the mayor's house and laugh madly.

"Looks like madam mayor's started her hibernation early!" he would shout (not actually a shout, but he was as incapable of speaking at a normal volume as he was of respecting the boundaries of politeness and diplomacy, so it would have been a shout had such a sound come from any lesser bear). The mayor, shaking her muzzle, would simply stare at him until he had finished laughing (which would often take some minutes, since Bernard was as capable of laughing long as he was of overestimating the popularity of his jokes, so he would often laugh several minutes past the point that any other bear would have noticed that no-one was laughing with him).

Eventually, though, even Bernard would get the point and his bellowing laugh would simmer down into a jocular chuckle, then into a sort of self-satisfied humming smirk. Then the day would begin, with Bernard roaring around doing his thing in an annoying up-beat way while the rest of us went about our business grumpy and tired, and each of us muttering under our breath that someone should do something about the loud-mouthed berk and that if the next morning was the last one before the end of the world it couldn't come soon enough. That, indeed, was said aloud often enough that although it was said with a sort of jokey grin I was soon convinced that a great many of the other bears actually believed it, and that Bernard had unwittingly scared up some sort of millennial cult into existence. If there had been bears with sandwich boards wandering around the clearing, eating scraps of dried fish from paper bags and crying out hoarsely for us to repent our wickedness before it was too late, I should not have been at all surprised.

Bernard's annoyance did not stop when the morning began, of course - if it had, there might ave been some chance for rehabilitation. After all, everyone knows someone who is annoyingly "morning-y", right? It's just a strange quirk, and often these people are not particularly night-owls, so although they might go on about the rest of us missing "the best part of the day", we can always console ourselves with the thought that they are going to miss the best part of the party. But Bernard was a candle-at-both-ends sort of a bear, and not only did he burn the candle at both ends, he made sure that it was aflame in the middle too, so that none of the rest of us could hold it without being severely burnt. He was a make-worker, one of those people who was so busy yet still managed to be entirely unproductive, a trait which he owned by describing himself as an "ideas bear". Naturally this was not an assessment shared by any of his peers, and I for one repeatedly called him a bone-idle waster at any time when I was assured that I was not within earshot.

Having painted this undoubtedly less-than-glowing picture of Bernard, it is with a great deal of regret that I must force myself to continue - because to my great shame, although this prologue deals with Bernard Bear's awful and barely endurable personality traits, he had others - bravery, and a willingness to discard convention when it made no sense - which were ultimately responsible for saving not only Bernard, but also myself, the mayor, the rest of the town and - truth be told, the rest of the forest and whatever might be outside it - you included. So before you commit my mistake and condemn Bernard as a useless fool I am forced (much against my desire, since although I am grateful to him in my heart of hearts, in my other hearts I still resent him) to fill you in on the rest of the story. A story, I fear, which will paint an entirely different picture of Bernard, one which might be suitable for framing above the mantelpiece of a lord's hall or a town council chamber, or perhaps for using as the basis for a sculpture of heroic scale in the centre of a clearing where in days past the sculpture's model had slept.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Art Pact 195 - Cityworld


They showed me the view out of the window - metal. Metal everywhere - metal walls, metal walkways (albeit covered in a sort of metallised rubber in order that it not be too slippery to walk on), metal railings and fixtures and lightposts and statues and all manner of things, and it would not have surprised me to learn that the window I had been looking out of was metal (indeed, it did not two weeks later when I discovered it was a form of aluminium film that had been treated so as to allow light to pass through it unhindered). They must have mined an asteroid or riddled the ground beneath the city with galleries, for the amount of ore that had gone into the construction of the place must have been epic. 

It wasn't just metal, of course - there were people, and there was rain. The one struggling along like ants from the height I was looking down on them, the other beating down mercilessly upon the city, huge elongated drops like javelins or the shells of great artillery pieces in the sky, screaming down upon the little figures below, smashing into the metallic planes and curves of the place and filling the air with a great grey haze that admitted little to the sight beyond a hundred meters or so in any direction - although looking down I found easier, since from this height I seemed to be going with the grain of the precipitation so that I could look between the drops.

"Well, this place seems nice enough," I told them. "But what are we going to do about that?"

The few that had come forward to show me the view of the city stepped back now, and the others - the lesser acolytes, I supposed, looked nervously between themselves. None of them wanted to be the first to step into the ring, I supposed, but someone would eventually have to do it. Sometimes, if they're too eager, it's a good idea to make an example of the first person in - perhaps something permanent, perhaps something fatal. I tend to steer clear of fatal, but an embarrassing deformity is always good, particularly if it's something potentially useful that a quick-witted person can claim is actually a gift from the gods. This lot clearly did not need that incentive, though. They were already afraid of me, and the suppurating corpse on the ground at the middle of the summoning ring did nothing to lessen their fear.

"Who was he?" I asked. "A rival?"

The question took them by surprise. I suppose it's not really the done thing not to know about the sacrifice that's been made in your honour. It seems rather careless, if the truth be told, but I thought it unlikely that any of these jokers were going to be sullying my name amongst my peers, and I was genuinely curious. How had they chosen this particular one? I was going to be wearing his face for a while, it seemed prudent to have a bit of background in case it turned out necessary to actually impersonate him.

"Did you kill two birds with one stone, perhaps?" I suggested. "A businessman who'd been causing trouble for you, or one of the local constabulary?"

"Eh, great... uh, spirit?" said one of the robers - the one with the gold-trimmed clothes, presumably the high priest or whatever. He had lost the cocksure tone of the summonation, perhaps expecting that I might be a bit more one way or the other. When a demon is overblown you know where you stand with it, likewise if its the sort of groveling lickspittle that cowers inside its pentagram. Either way, the aim for a summoner is to dominate - to bow the hideous spirit to their will and keep the whip hand strong so that no argument to your orders will be brooked (even if the control turns out to be illusory, which it almost always does when the demon has had enough nonsense). I, on the other hand, like to keep people on the back foot a bit. I think it helps - it gives me a certain leeway in getting things done, since people see me not so much as a supernatural tool and more as a supernatural agent. I can get things done just as much as the next guy, my demeanour suggests, but I can be trusted to take the initiative if things start to go a little pear-shaped. I'm not going to go off on some terrible rampage if I'm thwarted, either. I mean, clearly I am - a good old rampage is quite the experience if you're in the mood for one - but I like to give them the impression that things are otherwise. Here's a demon they can trust (ha ha) they think.

"You can call me a demon," I said suavely. "No beating around the bush, please."

"Uh, yes. Demon, we-"

"I said you could call me a demon," I interrupted sternly. "There's still the matter of honorifics. You can stop talking now. You!"--I pointed to the one standing to his left--"start talking." The one I'd pointed at goggled for a second, then stepped forward (the original talker giving him daggers in his glance as he did so).

"I.. Uh... Oh Great Demon-"

"Better"

"Oh Great Demon, the body you see before you was a homeless man we captured and brought here, thinking that the depravity and despair inherent in his life might act as a more flavoursome enticement to bring you to our mortal realm."

Wow, this guy had the gift of the gab alright. Looked like I'd picked a winner. The original leader was still staring death at him, and I could tell instantly that there was fun to be had here fomenting strife between the leadership. I said nothing of this, though - not a good idea to play your hand out too early. Instead I sniffed at the arms I was wearing.

"So that's what that smell is," I said haughtily.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Art Pact 194 - Stalking


In the twilight gloom we stalked the poor sod, watching him stumble from wall to wall and trip over his own drunkenness so that it seemed almost unfair to me, like kicking a puppy or killing a fawn. But we had to eat, we had to smoke, there were girls to be had for the right price and so driven, there was only one way it could end - with the poor sod in the gutter either dead or dormy, all his drink washed away in violence and all the fineries he carried now in our pockets and bags to be sold as fast as possible.

I was caught myself - caught between feeling a little sorry for the poor sod, which made me want to hang back, and between my shame over the little scuffle with Bronson and his boys which made me want to be the first to step on the poor sod, to show that there was still fight in me, still a bit of fire no matter what the others said. I was damned one way and cursed the other, so I found myself in the middle of the crew, Sally and Drut going first, Bounce and Little Boy after me, so that no-one could accuse me of hanging back. I don't think I thought about it, but that was the way it worked out, and that was how it was that what happened happened.

Afterwards, Drut said that it was me the poor sod saw - but that isn't the fact at all. It was Bounce, right behind me, who was caught on the outside of one of those big dumpsters when the poor sod twirled round by mistake. I'd jumped in front of the dumpster and hustled into its shadow, Little Boy was behind it so hidden from the poor sod's sight. But Bounce must have been right there, and perhaps it was lucky for him that he was, because we never saw Little Boy again.

"Hey!" called the poor sod, and then - knowing that we were made one way or the other - Sally and Drut ran at him. There was a blinding flash and a sound like an oven opening, and then Sally was standing there, stopped so solid that Drut ran into her. That was when she came to bits - Drut ran into her so hard that she just puffed apart into a grey cloud, the ashes that the flash had turned her into pouring out everywhere - mainly onto the ground around him, but also over Drut and up into the air. It wasn't thick enough to block him out completely, so Bounce and me saw him standing there, up to his ankles in our old boss, all grey like a statue himself because he was covered in her. I guess I was so scared I started to laugh, because all I could think about was something she'd said to him the other day when he'd been flashing his dick around at Jelly's whorehouse, that she'd let him inside her over her dead body, and that was exactly how it came to pass. I guess you have to be careful what you say in this world, because someone's listening and whoever they are they have a grim sense of humour. It's another point for my argument that there's no god but there certainly is a devil, I reckon.

But I was telling you about that night. So, we're frozen there - just staring at Drut, who's stuck himself in the middle of what used to be Sally, and for a few seconds there's silence and then there's yelling - I think it was Drut, but I couldn't say for sure because my mouth was definitely open and so was Bounce's when I turned round to look at him. There was a yelp from behind us - and I guess that was when Little Boy got taken out by whatever was there, because I guess it sounded like the time we'd crept up on him - back when he was suing to get into the gang - and grabbed him from behind to test what his nerves were like. They were bad, of course, but he was so funny the way he begged and groveled that Sally knew she had a simple one on her side, that he'd do anything she asked unless someone else threatened him not to, and that was good enough for her. She had fighters - she had Drut, she had herself, and up until the Bronson thing she'd thought she had me (and so had I) - so what she really needed was a lickspit. That was what Little Boy was, and he did a good job of it, right up until the point that he vanished behind that dumpster and vanished off the face of the Earth forever.

Well, while the ash is settling around Drut's feet and one or all of us are still screaming I see the poor sod just walking calmly through the cloud of dust towards Drut, and I start to think - did we pick on a wrong one here? Like maybe he was just pretending to be drunk, and that poor sod staggering around didn't really exist, he was just bait. But then the next things came and I could see that it wasn't that way at all. If it was, he'd have been around, just like me (and Bounce, to a lesser extent), instead of up in the sky on the metal spikes that had Drut.

They came down like spears, or like the gate on an old castle, a whole row of them. One hit Drut in the shoulder, and I guess then you really could tell who was screaming. Another went straight through the poor sod from head to arse, one hit Bounce at an angle so that he went one way and his left leg went another, and lucky me - I was missed by a fly's nuts, so that when they pulled up into the sky again there was just me and Bounce and Bounce's leg, and although the leg would have been much lighter it was Bounce I scooped up off the floor and hobbled off with as fast as our three-legged race could carry us.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Art Pact 193 - Cave Dwellers


Of all the niches, in all the caves, in all the mountain ranges, in all the continents, it had to walk into mine. I say walk, although it slouched in one its great tongue-foot, leaving a trail of viscous slime behind it so that passers-by toppled like nine-pins as they walked past outside. I was sat behind my desk, deep in a big fruit that had marinated in the heat for so long that it had begun to turn alcoholic. That's the way I like fruit - I don't like feeling as though I'm doing anything too healthy, but the addition of booze makes that scruple drift away one way or the other.

"Hello Brogan," it rumbled. "It's been a long time."

"Not long enough," I said, looking up. The beast had aged - and not well. Its skin was still just as slimy as always, but now I could see a sort of frail translucence underneath it, a thinning that hinted at wrinkles and forgetfulness. Its shell blocked the entrance to my office - well, I call it my office but really it's a cave within a cave, a little alcove set back from the main town opening and made business-like by the addition of a somewhat flat rock set in the middle of the room as a desk. I was sat on the far side of it from the door (well, from the opening), the way I liked it. I preferred to have my back away from any spears. I've made enough enemies in my time, but I've been canny enough to make lazy ones. None of them were going to come charging all the way in here to fight me hand to hand, but a few of them might be just energetic enough to thrust a spear into my back while I was sitting in my doorway. It's all safety nowadays. Once upon a time I could just do what I want, but now there were other concerns to think about.

"Is that any way to talk to your old partner?" the beast complained. One of its stalked eyeballs pulled back into its head and then sprung out again, directly at me, stopping within a few thumbs-widths of my face. I didn't flinch. I'd like to put it down to stone-cold cool and unflappability, but the truth is I was so sozzled I was unable to react. I stared in its eye, its cool black eye rimmed with gold. I could see a stye - an orange discolouration stretching from the pupil out to the edge of the eye. Another sign of age. I wondered what it could see in my eyes. "You should lay off the hooch, Dane. Your eyes are red like a baboon's ass in mating season."

Well, that answered that question. On to the next.

"What do you want?" I asked.

"Why do I have to want anything? Can't I just come here to sightsee? Maybe I woke up this morning and I thought either I'd like to see an old lush, or visit my old friend Dane. Maybe I came up with a plan where I could do both."

"Very funny." I reached under my desk - well, beside it - for the spear I kept there. The beast must have seen me moving, because it withdrew his eye again and pulled some of his head and body back into it shell. Not much, just enough to allow it to make a quick escape in there if need be. "Now why don't you tell me what it is you're here for."

"It's business, obviously." it said.

"Obviously."

"Listen, if you don't want to make some money I can go elsewhere. I can find Tony the Axe. I don't want to work with him because - well, because he's a dick, and you and I go way back. But you know what? It's probably for the best. I mean, he is a dick, sure, but he got that way by being so good at what he does that it gave him that big ego. I like you. We got history. But you definitely don't have that problem of too much success. Thanks, Dane - you've helped me make up my mind, and that's probably the one good thing you've done all day."

"Don't try to reel me in with that phony-baloney Tony the Axe crap," I growled. "Why don't you just get to the point like a good customer."

"Customer? You hurt me," it said. "We're partners, Dane, partners."

"Keep saying my name," I told it. "I want it worn out. Worn out so that when anyone talks about Dane and Beast Investigations they don't have clue one who Dane is supposed to be. When are you going to get it into your thick shell that we aren't partners anymore? We haven't been partners since the Bernoulli job, and I'd like to remind you that when you stab your partner in the back and make off with the money and the dame, that's the kind of thing that makes you the bad guy."

The beast relaxed a bit, coming further out of its shell.

"We're going to be taking the moral high ground this afternoon, I see," it said. "Well perhaps I'd better cut straight to the one thing I know gets you off that elite hill faster than anything else. There's money in it, Dane, big money, but the only way we'll see any of it is if you help me out with a little job."

Well, that was the thinker. I've worked with the beast in the past, as you may have gathered, and if I know one thing about it, I know that it doesn't understand that there's no such thing as a little job - or maybe it does, and it just likes to fool me into thinking it doesn't.

But money was involved - and money I could certainly do with. I was running nicely short of cash, and I had been ever since... well, I don't want to talk about that. Not yet.

"Keep going," I told it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Art Pact 192 - Consistency


I ask Bellows. He is working his forge stripped to the waist, his heavily-muscled upper body glistening with sweat. He is not actually at the bellows themselves, but motions me to work them while he lifts the metal shape in and out of the flames. With every press of the bellows-lever a blast of hot air rebounds from the fire and licks uncomfortably at my face. My ears clamp shut painfully every time Bellows's hammer hits the shape, and when he holds it up to inspect it I discover that I have clamped my jaw shut so hard in order to avoid the pain that I have a cramp in my throat.

"Consistency, you say," he says. I rub at my throat, and nod. He holds the shape closer to me - its cherry-red glow has dulled to a less exciting grey-orange colour, but I can feel the heat still pouring off it, and I know that if I touch it it will burn me. It is a curlicue, a spiraling shape that does not spiral but winds around itself. Something for his latest commission, I suppose, but I cannot tell whether it is supposed to be a depiction or a more arty representation. "Consistency is the bugbear of small minds."

I fumble in my back pocket, trying to find the notebook, but the cramp in my throat spasms slightly and I have to go back to rubbing it. Bellows holds up a finger, then shakes his head. I wonder what I have done wrong, and start to pump at the bellows again, but he reaches out with one strong arm and removes my hand from the lever by a simple push at the wrist.

"I'm wrong," he says carefully. "That's not the whole of it. A foolish consistency is the bugbear of small minds, that's the whole quote."

"I see," I croak.

"Good. Because it's important not to misquote people. Words are an art, just like painting or sculpture. If you sample something out of context, even words - well..."

#

I ask Virtue, who I am surprised to find in the garden, kneeling in the centre of a circle of daisies that have somehow infiltrated the lawn. She beckons me in, and we both kneel facing each other. I feel as though I am part of a ceremony - a Japanese tea ceremony, perhaps. But she has no cups, no teapot, merely a dictionary. After I ask her she stares off into the sky for a few seconds, taking three slow and measured breaths before opening the book and rifling through it to the correct page.

"The following of constant forms or principles," she recites. "To conform or agree to similar patterns or designs. Bellows has consistency, you should ask him."

"I already have," I say, leaning forward to offer the sleeve of my blouse. She sniffs at it, taking in the aroma of the smithy, the scent of hard work and smoke, and she nods. My bona-fides are proved. "But he's doing something different now. He hinted so when I asked him, anyway, and I didn't recognise what he was making."

"Perhaps it's for the best," she says. She sweeps an arm out to indicate the circle of daisies we're sitting in. "Look at this. The lawn lacks consistency here, because I have prevented Posy from mowing it."

"Prevented?"

"I sat here. I've been here for three days now. It was enough. She cut around me, and I plucked at the daisies inside the circle. Here is the result. The lawn lacks consistency, but it has something better. Mystery. Art. This circle could be a sacred place, or just a place where a woman sits to read her books."

"Have you been reading here?"

She shakes her head, laughs sadly.

"I have only this"--she holds up the dictionary--"and it is perhaps not the most interesting read. But if I get up, Posy will mow the lawn and the circle will be destroyed."

"What will you do?" I think that I might offer to get her a book, but she has other ideas.

"I will stay here until I begin to resent my prison," she says. "Then I will leave, and I will not be so sad to see it destroyed."

#

I ask Manse. He is staring at a book, deciphering the scratchy writing within, his bowls of ingredients set out beautifully around him so that he seems as though he might be setting up a shop display. He looks up pensively as I come in, then nods when I ask him. He does not answer straight away, instead pointing to the book.

"I can't quite work out what it's telling me about the ratio of flour to oil," he complains. "It seems to be saying a ten to one ratio is ideal for the texture, but then the recipe is more like eight to one."

"That seems like quite a discrepancy," I say. "But I was asking about-"

"That's what I thought. I mean, eight to one and ten to one, that would be the difference between a runny dough and damp crumbs. That's a lot. I'd say ten to one is probably about right, but I'm not sure whether other things in the recipe are taking the place of the flour. I mean, there's this stuff"--he indicates a bowl of black mush that I cannot identify--"it would help with the cooking later, but it's also somewhat wet, so it wouldn't help the ratio during mixing."

"Well, I guess you'll sort it out," I say, patting him on the back. "You're a good cook-"

"I'm a good baker," he corrects me. "I'm a terrible cook."

"Ok, well, you're good at what you're good at. But I was asking you about consistency before we got distracted into all this stuff."

He frowns.

"What do you mean distracted? What do you think we've been talking about for the last two minutes? This," he says, pointing at the recipe. "The consistency of this mix."

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Art Pact 191 - Ghoul Trouble

"Seriously," I asked. "What's the worst that can happen?"

"He could find out," she said glumly. "You don't know him. He's"--she rubbed her fingers together by her mouth, miming worms writhing their way into a body--"insidious. He'd find out. I couldn't keep it a secret from him."

"Couldn't?" I asked. "Or wouldn't?"

She shook her head: don't know.

I levered myself up slightly, putting more weight on the rotting tendons of my right shoulder than they were accustomed to, so that they creaked mightily and threatened to disintegrate and topple me back into the grave. From my higher vantage point I could see that the mist that was gently cascading in over me was spread throughout the cemetery, right up to the brick walls and the lightning-fire outside.

"What's the weather like out there?" I asked.

"What?"

"The weather. When you came here. You came here from home, right?"

She looked confused for a moment, then nodded.

"Yes, of course."

"What's the weather like, outside. Misty? Cold?"

"Yes, and yes. But it's not raining, at least. You can see the moon through the clouds."

"Good, good," I said, but I still looked nervously at the bolts of red and blue that flashed through the sky beyond the wall. Perhaps she was just telling me what she thought I wanted to hear. "So, this new one, what's he like? I mean, is he the burly type? Could he defend you, if..."

"If Roger came after me? I don't - I mean, Carl isn't really a fighter. That's - it's what I want, obviously, after..."

"I understand. But If you just make a clean break of it you have to find somewhere that Roger can't get at you."

"Or I could stay with him."

I coughed, my jaw rattling against my skull-bone. She looked away, still obviously not quite at peace with my current state.

"You can't stay with him," I told her. "That's the one thing I am sure about. The guy is a prick, and it's only a matter of time before something happens that sends him off the rails. It doesn't need to be anything tangible, take it from me. You can be perfectly above-board with Carl, and Roger will still suspect something. Trust me, if he's that"--I did the same mime with my fingers, probably considerably more evocatively, since my fingers had themselves been insinuated by worms in the recent past--"insidious, his mind will find something even if there's nothing to find. He'll make things up. He'll imagine excuses to be a shit to you, and that will turn bad."

I could see that I was losing her a bit, so I turned over and got my knees up under me - no small feat, and I think that I left my right patella down in the box - then stood up and motioned for her to give me a hand up. She looked uncertain for a few seconds, but then reached down with one gloved arm. I clasped on.

"God," she said. "You're so light."

"I know. I should write a diet book. Eat all you want and still stay dead, the Ex-plan diet."

"How much longer are you going to be able to..." she gestured at my mouth.

"No idea. But I don't - I mean, I don't sound different, do I? To you, I mean."

"No, no different."

"Perhaps I'll have my voice as long as I'm here, then."

"Do you talk to the other..."

"What, underground? Do we all have a good gossip when we're in our boxes? No, not at all. I don't even know if any of the others are - you know, still active."

"It can't just be you," she said.

"Who knows? Maybe I'm a trail-blazer. Maybe in ten years time everyone'll be doing it."

I looked at the boundary wall. It was low - easy enough for Penny to get over, and she had never been a particularly strong climber, not like her sister. I could get over it, I thought, even without help. But the storms beyond - great ripping sheets of lightning bursting in all directions, like Satan's firework display. I would be incinerated instantly. Unless the whole thing was a hoax. Clearly there was something outside, a real world where I had once lived and where Penny and Alison and Andrea still lived. Or maybe the lightning was real and the comfortable suburb a fantasy, Andrea sitting in her living room with her cup of tea and a picture of me on the mantelpiece while all around her those horrid bolts of fire lashed and writhed unseen behind the veneer of normalcy. I had to discover it.

"Do the others come here?" Penny asked suddenly. "I mean, Alison and mum?"

"I don't know," I admitted. "Perhaps. I assume so, but they don't come here at night, they don't talk with me the way you do. Maybe it's not me that's the trailblazer, maybe it's you."

She shuddered, wrapping her coat tighter around herself.

"He called me a bitch once," she said, her voice strangled tight. "The weird thing was, I was sort of relieved. I think somewhere inside I thought that he'd called me a witch."

"And that was worse?"

"Well," she said, shrugging. "I know I'm not a bitch, but the other thing... I'm not so sure."

I felt my teeth gritting - there was actually a lot of grit in them, so I tried to spit it out. I couldn't make any saliva though. I suppose I should have expected that. I moved around the open grave and sat on my headstone, my arse bones clicking beneath my leathery skin.

"He called you a bitch, though," I said. "There's no excuse for that. The man needs to be taught a lesson one way or another, and the simplest way is for you to get out of there. Just go, find somewhere safe to live out a couple of months then you can start working things out with this Carl fellow. If that's still what you want."

I could see that she wasn't convinced. So much for that way, I thought, looking nervously at the lightning outside. It would have to be the other, then.