Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Art Pact 238 - Coming to New York

We'd dropped all pretence at friendship and fellow feeling by the time the boat reached New York. While the others all cheered and waved at Liberty Island and the great slowly greening statue that adorned it we sat sourly in our stateroom and pretended that we were still in the middle of the Atlantic - partly to avoid the realisation that the denouement to our journey was rapidly nearing (and with it any chance of reconciliation), and partly (I think) because it gave us the opportunity to ponder favourably on the idea of hacking each other to death with axes and toppling our body over the side for the sharks to eat, out in international waters where the evidence of our crime would never be detected. At least, that is what I thought, and if I know anything about Chivers it is that he thinks along similar lines as me when it comes to homicide.

The stateroom, which on boarding had seemed so luxuriously large as to present us with almost an overabundance of riches when it came to personal space, now seemed to be far too small for two people to inhabit - even two people of good sentiment towards each other - even, dare I say it, two people on intimate physical terms. The hallway that led from the stateroom door into the day lounge was of necessity not as wide as it might have been, and should one chance to pass from the lounge into the bathroom and discover the other emerging hence having completed his ablutions, there was little passing room to allow manoeuvres that did not cause an uncomfortable closeness of person. I did not mind being pressed somewhat against Chivers' rotund belly, of course - such squeamishness is for imbeciles and bible-thumpers - but to have to look at his face and consider the rapidity with which we had travelled the ordinarily long path from allegiance to hatred (and we had not even the excuse of the short-cut available to married couples), that was both awkward and painful, and it was not clear whether it was the awkwardness or the pain that was the worst of those two emotions.

It is hard to say whether the enforced confinement was the sole cause of our discontent, but it is clear that it acted at the very least as an accelerant to the decay in our relationship. The great liner itself would have been too small a place to share with someone whom one also shared such a terrible secret, but to see them every waking hour was more than any mortal man could bare, of course. I knew that I had done an awful thing - clearly I would no more have travelled to the uncultured colonies had I not been forced to than I would have spent the Christmas fortnight with my aunt and her horrific brood - but I, like most people of some intelligence, had the mental fortitude necessary to put the whole episode in a locked box within my mind, quarantining it from active thought so that I could go about my day without the slightest twinge of guilt or regret, rendering me fit to travel among the great mass of non-murderers and non-thieves with which I coinhabited the Earth.

Chivers, though, stood as a constant walking and talking reminder of what I had done. I might sleep well for the last few hours of each night, but on emerging from my slumber and making my way into the day lounge to sup on the breakfast our cabin steward had laid out for us, I was instantly brought back to the truth of my circumstances by the sight of his hairy visage sat across from me at the dining table. I could see, too, that he was thinking similar thoughts as he saw me - a peculiar slump in his frame, a downturn at the corners of his tight-pressed lips, a blink of the eyes and a tweak of the crow's feet that emerged from each of them, all these served as notes of his displeasure at my appearance, and so to me were a sort of dark (and particularly ugly) mirror into which I stared every morning, a constant reminder of the moral decay into which I had jumped with both feet. I felt not unlike a type of modern Dorian Gray, but one so enamoured of the louche lifestyle and the traces it had left that he proudly displayed the painting chronicling his dissolution above the mantelpiece, glancing up at it each morning as the proud master of a country house might look up at an oil-painting of the long-dead patrician of the family. More than once I dreamt of taking a knife to Chiver's face only to find that it tore like hemp canvas or shattered into a thousand stinging shards rather than simply gushing forth the expected crimson.

So it was, then, that we came to be there in the stateroom, each bitterly watching the other out of the corner of his eye while pretending to be disinterested, each also ignoring the great cries of jubilation from the decks outside (below us, of course, for our stateroom opened onto its own private balcony), and the majestic form of the French bequest as it gracefully slid past the portholes. The Atlantic ocean is only so wide, however, and the same can be said with even more truth about Hudson river, and it was clear that we would be putting in to our dock in downtown Jersey city in no more than ten minutes. Even allowing for a certain amount of bureaucracy- and seamanship-related business, we would be able - perhaps even compelled - to disembark the ship within the hour. There was sadly little time left to repair the rift between us, but at the same time there was blessed little time until we could be shot of each other forever.

"Here we are, then," I said to Chivers, those two possibilities warring in my breast.

"Here we are indeed," he said gravely.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Art Pact 237 - Cellar

I had never experienced such darkness before. Living in the city I'd become used to the ever-present glow of the sodium lighting at night, brighter than the moon, that filled the sky with a bright orange fuzz. Indoors there were the standby lights of electronic equipment - bright as flashlights when one got up in the middle of the night, quite enough to wander the house by with no fear of stubbed toes. Even in my bedroom, where I had done all I could to keep light from disturbing my sleep, there was the faint hint of illumination from behind the curtains, a little line of brightness around the card that I placed in front of my alarm clock's dial so that it wouldn't glare at me. Since my eyes had started working I felt like there had not been a moment of my life where I wasn't able to see something.

Not there. In that cellar was the dark of the abyss, the dark of nothingness, the dark from before the beginning of time and space, when there had been no photons to carry light. It was an oppressive dark with no sense of distance, a dark that could have been millimetres from my eyes or light-years. It was more than a temporary darkness, it was a darkness that crept into the mind and infected past visions with shadow so that even the thought of sight became an impossibility. When I tried to picture my home the concept of home swam through my brain unseen, a fish sliding through ink. When I tried to picture my wife's face it was wreathed in darkness. Had she eyes? I could not remember. I could not imagine the shape of her nose, the curve of her jaw. Her hair was a sensation on my fingers, but I could not see the gloss of it, see it spread out on her pillow.

Paradoxically, other things came. It was so dark there that I saw - I am sure of it - cosmic rays bursting within my eyeballs. In the dark there were flashes of something. Not light, I was sure of that. There was no light there, and my brain had become so starved of it that it would not interpret anything as light, knowing it only to be a cruel deception. So those flashes were something like a touch, something like a sound. They were a colour without light. I do not know how better I can describe them, but that was how they were. If you cannot imagine it, then no fault lies either with you or in my vocabulary, because there is no need for any human language to talk about such things. I felt visions. I hallucinated sounds and smells, and touches within my head, and all of these or none of these could have been the result of flashes within my eyes. They were explosions. They were kisses. They were blows. I felt as though I were sitting outside myself, watching a bit of me - but just a bit - go rapidly insane.

It was like seeing a section of my brain reach retirement age instantly. Shorn of the responsibilities of work in the form of images coming into the visual cortex, that part of me responsible for interpreting the world around began to flail around wildly for some new pastime to grip onto, some hobby that would fill up the sudden void in purpose that had fallen upon it. My heart, ticking like a golden carriage clock, kept up a rhythm that my brain attempted to keep up with, and the strange tarantella dance that erupted from that confused partnership filled my head with bizarre fancies, visions of monsters lurking just out of reach, people I had not seen for decades, odd shapes, strange textures. I call them visions - because what else would I call them - but you should understand that there were no aspects of sight involved in these hallucinations, that I was experiencing them in a dream-like way but not in a way that involved even the fakery of light. I "saw" Necker cubes and Klein bottles, I perceived things that could not exist in reality and because I could not experience them in terms of images I could experience their paradoxical geometry in an entirely new way. If only I could have held onto that understanding later, perhaps it might have made me some sort of genius of maths or geometry. But now that I live in a world of light again all such thoughts are overpowered - my brain, it seems, embarrassed at its mad flights of fancy.

We measure the passage of time, whether we know it or not, by light. The dark and light cycle of day and night, the sight of a clock ticking, a photograph of an infant child compared with the sullen teenager that he has grown into. All of these things require vision, and although we can count time within ourselves - by heartbeats, by bars of music hummed in the head, by simple counting - these things are subjective. We do not know how fast our heart is beating if we cannot compare it with something. Music, counting - both speed up or slow down wildly when we have no outside tone or beat to match them against. So there, in the dark, I could not tell you how much time might have passed while those hallucinations overtook me. It might have been seconds. It might have been hours. I have tried to work back, in the sharp light, to calculate how much time I spent doing this or that in the cellar. But the calculations are hopeless. I do not know when I arrived, have only the vaguest idea when I left. I might as well be calculating the age of the earth by adding begats. All I can know is that at some point I heard a noise, and that noise brought another part of my brain into control, pushing the hallucinations aside.

Thud, came the sound from behind and above me. Thud, and again thud. The sound of something heavy walking across floorboards.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Art Pact 236 - Mother's Promise

"I will always love you," she croons. "I will always care for you."

And I understand that for the near future this is true, that she means it to be true. She will look after me, she will attempt to lavish me with all the gifts that she can. But she has already given me too much. This insight, I understand, is something that I have but others do not. She has it to a certain extent, but she does not realise how much greater my own faculty for it is. She sees things only dimly ahead of us - and perhaps that is the source of her misplaced confidence, because in the near future we appear closely entwined, as though she were indeed nothing more than she pretends to be: a doting mother. It is only further on, when this gift of foresight has already begun to manifest itself more strongly in me, that the relationship sours. I can withdraw my focus a little - squint, you might say, although that is as far from the reality of the sensation almost as it is possible to be - and simulate to myself what it is that she can see of the future. It is a blurred line, the outlines of she and I always close by, one covering the other as though we were wrapped in an embrace. It would be easy to see that imperfect picture and conclude that we were a strong pair, that as mother and son we would stand together, care for each other, nurture each other. But this vision is - not wrong, exactly, but inaccurate, lacking in important details and textures. Indeed, I can see that we will be together for a long time. But our relationship, one of love and trust at first, will soon sour into a feeling that one of us has trapped the other (we will both feel, I think, that we are the caged ones). We will not lend each other gifts, but rot in place so that each infects the other.

I shift in place uncomfortably, squirming to try to free myself from an embrace that now seems rather cloying. We are sitting in the conservatory (the room that at the moment, free of such complicated vocabulary, I simply think of as the warm-bright-place), my mother on the long leather-covered sofa that stretches along the north wall, I on her legs and stomach so that my head just brushes the underside of her breasts. In the future I can see them being a source of friction - my mother's physique, at its peak now, will of course like all things begin to decline, and that decline will coincide with my first adventures in the opposite sex. Comparing her own failing body to the girls I will bring into the house will cause my mother to lash out at them (verbally, and in one case physically when she walks in on me and one of my trysts in flagrante delicto and hounds the poor girl out of the house, slapping her on the back of the head while I try to defend one against the other - which I will not be entirely sure, even at the time). There will be no happy alliance of mother- and daughter-in-law in my future, my mother always at odds with the other women in my life. There will be nothing, I hasten to add, improper about her attitude towards me, but the damage will be just as real as if there had been.

For now, though, she is ripe to her own satisfaction, and has lovers and prospect of lovers enough to replace my dead father. She is confident in her place in the world, and she feels as though she lacks for nothing. She has her child (me), a place to live, enough money to support us at least until she has to make the decision whether to send me to a costly school or not (she does not, in the end, a fact for which I am grateful because the alternative seems so ghastly, although of course I can only examine my own future and not those of all the me's that will never exist - perhaps I am wrong about this).

I follow the skein of dissatisfaction along its course. After those turbulent teenage years the corruption is evident, and grows stronger and stronger until by the time I am in my thirties we are no longer like mother and son but two festering corpses joined by dead flesh and maggots, horrid things that act only to hurt each other. Birthdays are fuelled no longer by happiness (or even by joyful sadness at the ever-presence and ever-nearing of death), but by a vile spite. As I get older I make every pretence at tearing myself away from her grip, but all I am really doing is wounding her as much as I can. She, resentful at the fact that the grim reaper will be coming for her sooner than for me - we can both see clearly enough to know that she will definitely die first, although she thankfully has no idea how - turns my birthdays into a celebration of my dependence on her, filling the house with reminders of my youth. Particularly, it seems, those memories that on the surface seem benign but which underneath are mementos of horrors that surrounded them. I know the real messages behind the photos and souvenirs, and she knows that I know, and I know that she knows that I know, and so on, and the celebrations become sick competitions to destroy morale. It is all too depressing.

The other direction, perhaps, might be more interesting. I follow the line back, watching our the putrefaction of the relationship receding, curing itself until there is only the faintest line of sickness that weaves itself into the years of my pubescence, my childhood, a faint dissatisfaction that colours all that will follow it but is only barely detectable in itself. I hunt it back, looking for the source - and when I find it I am not surprised.

It is, of course, now.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Art Pact 235 - Ascending

At first tentative, the great device began to pull free of the ground, drawing up the leg-like structures that had seemed to anchor it so firmly in place. Clods of earth tumbled from metal feet, and the thing itself lurched from side to side as its motors struggled to free it. There was a grinding noise from within, overlaid with a high-pitched whine that might have been motors, and an odd rattling sound like many thousands of marbles tumbling through a waste pipe. At the first motion, too, a cloud of starlings had leapt into the air from their roosting places on the support structures, and now they wheeled and tumbled overhead in their great cloud-like murmuration, a flock of dark fish in the light afternoon sky, circling and twisting and constantly reforming themselves in a strange vortex. They seemed alternately to be mobbing the device and calling it upwards, like parents teaching a fledgling to take the first flaps of its wings.

There were seven legs on the machine, three along each side and one at the front with no matching support at the rear. First the right-side legs freed themselves from their confinement, then the left, and finally it was bucked forward as though it were a mosquito and the nose leg instead a proboscis with which it was drinking the life-blood of the earth. With a great effort it swung its weight backward, stretching its front legs and relaxing its rear legs so as to make a lever around its "shoulder", and after a few heaves it finally released the front leg. As each leg came free large flat plates folded out from it, spreading out the weight and preventing it from sinking into the earth again. When all the legs were out the machine shook itself slowly and then methodically lifted each leg up - one at a time - shaking them free of clinging mud.

When all the legs were as clean as they might be under the circumstances, it began to hum louder and louder. The bulk of the machine began to seem lighter and lighter, the legs stretching as though pushing against the ground. But it was not the legs that were pushing, instead it was the sky pulling. The legs reached their longest extent and then - again, one by one - they began to fold gently at the knee, the feet leaving the ground and travelling up perhaps half a meter. The process was far from flawless, and there were reversals. As the middle right leg lifted up the machine lurched alarmingly in that direction, the foot crashing down onto the ground again and the right front leg extending in a seeming panic to brace the device from toppling over completely. The catch must have been successful, though, because the fall was halted and after a few minutes of louder humming the machine righted itself again, then lifted up its front right leg, then - slowly - the middle right leg again. This time the leg rose without incident, and a few minutes later all of the legs were up, the device hovering with its main body maybe ten meters up, the legs dangling down and almost - but not quite - touching the ground. It hovered implausibly, too great a bulk to just be hanging in the air, but with each second seeming more and more anchored. At first it had shifted and wobbled, but the longer it waited there the more unmoving and unmovable it seemed, until it was as solid as the landscape beneath it.

Starlings were not the only living creatures that had made their nest on, in, or around the great machine. As it lifted free of gravity's bonds the ripped shreds of ground beneath shifted and moved, and the sleek red snouts of foxes poked out of their dens. Most of them had dug beneath the machine's body rather than around its feet and so they had survived the upheaval with nothing more than a mild scare, but now that they saw the thing above them some part of their brains understood that they were not dealing with the natural order - that this was no simple man-made device built and then abandoned. They scurried out of their burrows as fast as they could, little white wisps at the ends of their tails chasing them across the field until they reached the safety of the woods and stopped to stare back, mesmerised by the machine's slow ascent.

For it had begun to climb now - not straight up, but at an angle. Its body was still level with the ground, but it rose to the west at the same time as it rose up, and it began to yaw in a slow clockwise circle as if turning to look for something. It rose above the trees, and those foxes that had run to the west scattered to the north and south as the dark shadow grew over them. It rose to the level of the swarming starlings, which flocked first around it and then away, disappearing into the north accompanied by their strange cries. When it reached perhaps a couple of hundred meters up it halted both its ascent and its strange helical turning - suddenly, not as though it had come to a natural halt, but more as if it were doing a double-take. A red light flashed on the nose of the machine, and the vast verdigris plates on its back rose up like petals or vanes to reveal polished copper undersides and intricate dark patterns of wires or pipes or things that were a mixture of the two. Here it halted for a long time, as the glare of the now slowly descending sun flashed off those bright surfaces. It was motionless, a fixed star hanging in the heavens in a way that no earthly machine should, and for two hours it did nothing more as the light around it began to change colour and the sun crept towards the horizon.

Then, far in the distance, a brilliant red flash answered.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Art Pact 234 - Golden River

The Auradoor - which was its proper name, meaning Golden River in the language that had been all but destroyed by the coming of the mesh people - flowed down from the mountain in an utterly normal manner for most of its length. It originated in rain that fell at the top of the mount and washed through the mildly sulphurous rocks that the mesh scientists were so in love with. Then, transformed into the yellowy fluid that it would be for most of the rest of its journey, it gathered in little rivulets which in turn congregated into tiny streams, which they went on to unionise into the river itself, growing and growing until finally they formed the great estuary which stretched almost the width of the colonial town known either as Mesh City or as Morgadsville, depending on how formal the referent was. The native folk tended to refer to it more as Morgadsville the older they were, since it had been their tradition only to name towns after their founders. This meant that for the crucial starting years of a town its name had had at least one zealous protector - that is to say, its namesake or eponymous inhabitant, who being the founder was a creature of some power and influence. But Morgad, the mesh people's spirit of far travel, was either long dead or utterly mythical. The natives did not know what to do with this information. Their own religious or spiritual behaviours had taken either a more or less rational path somewhere along the line, leading them into a sort of non-reifying belief in the spirits of places or things, something that was halfway between an art and a science. The idea that there might be spirits that were agentive, like people but not people, seemed strange to them - although their definition of strange had had to be wildly expanded to deal with the arrival of the mesh anyway. As a result they tended to refer to Mesh City by its proper name only when they were old enough to realise that the mesh inhabitants of Morgadsville took this as a sign of politeness.

For some reason, it seemed, the mesh had got it into their system that the early rebels and disaffected amongst the natives were the ones who had given the town its nickname, so although they were rational enough not to over-react when they heard a young native using the words "Mesh City", it had them slightly uncomfortable. Younger mesh, those not yet so tied in to the mesh itself, then appropriated the name as an irreverent way to poke fun at the shared mind set of their elders, or to provoke or shock. Consequently the name became even more offensive, the whole situation feeding on itself in a spiral. Older, wiser natives knew that it was not a good idea to get involved in the internal politics of the mesh, and so were scrupulous in their use of the proper name.

The river, the Auradoor, also had more than one name, for a strange reason. The natives expelled their waste all together in the form of a liquid slurry, but the mesh people - much to the natives' amusement - had at first appeared to excrete only a pressurised jet of yellowy water that came out of the joint between their two uppermost limbs. At first this had seemed a miracle to the natives. The purity of the mesh people's excretions seemed just another manifestation of their superiority, as though they were so rarified and advanced that they took in food and processed it in some magical way inside their bodies to come out as water - admittedly slightly yellowish water, but the relation to the waters of the Auradoor did not go unremarked upon.

By the time it became clear that this was not the only way that the mesh people excreted, and that the peculiar airless quality of their houses was due to a mild vacuum created within to deal with their other byproduct, the gloss had already gone off the colonists in the eyes of their "hosts". Although the mesh people were by and large sensitive to the effects they were having both on local culture and on the environment, they had their own driving force which seemed to trump all other concerns - their mysterious timetable, which could be invoked by the central colonial government to override protest. The natives understood mesh biology a little better, and psychology a great deal better, than they had initially. The biological matter was that the lines of visible pores along the limbs and sides of the mesh people were constantly dribbling out a fine white powder, the desiccated remains of their foodstuff. This dust, left undealt with, would build up in their houses with toxic results, so mesh buildings were designed to constantly suck the air - and the excreted powder with it - into ducts which collected the stuff, finally crushing it into great blocks which were used for farming and industrial purposes. The streets of Mesh City, over the years, had suffered from this buildup - the warehouses on the coastal side had blocked the sea breeze from running through the town, which meant that the dust excretions of the mesh had built up in their makeshift roads, turning them more and more bone-white as time went on. The mesh initially tried to mitigate the problem with fans, chemical treatment, and simple brushes, but it was too much for them to deal with on top of the demands of the timetable, and eventually they simply gave up, another sign that they were far from all-powerful.

Psychologically, the natives also came to understand that the mesh were just as ashamed of their excretions as the natives were, that they found the marvelous near-pure liquid that they expelled quite distasteful, and the dust as an embarrassing nuisance. Piss, as they called the fluid, was a pejorative, and as the build-up of construction along its banks caused it to flow every more sluggishly and so turn ever yellower, so the Auradoor gained a new name: Pissargo, the great piss.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Art Pact 233 - Duel

"No offence," I told Donnie, "but you couldn't win a fist-fight with toddler."

He stared at me, shaking his head.

"I.. what's going through your head?"

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean is, where's the part of your brain that imagined me having a fist-fight with a child? That's just sick. Ridiculous and sick. You"--he poked me in the chest with a finger--"are ridiculous. You're sick. You have a sickness."

I gave him a second of silence.

"Are you finished?"

He nodded.

"Well," I continued, "the part of my brain that's doing the imagining isn't imagining you fighting a toddler mano-a-mano. It's imagining the aftermath of that little encounter - which is to say, you lying supine on a nursery floor while a three-year-old girl stands with one foot one your chest, with her arms like this." I shook both fists out in a triumphant gesture. "That is ridiculous, I grant you. But it's also quite plausible, and I don't think the ridicule is flowing the way you think it is. I think I'm the producer of ridicule, and you're the subject. I think the ridicule is about you, and there is a big audience watching, and they're clapping."


"Yes, they're clapping. They're not clapping you, though, don't get that idea in your head. They're clapping the high production values of the ridicule, and the way that it seems so real. I think people that wrote the dialogue for this ridicule have achieved a touchstone in realism. I wouldn't be surprised if they were put up for some kind of award for screenplay writing." I nodded, and gathered up my pens.

Donnie kicked savagely at the foot of the desk next to him. When I stood up to go I could see that his right arm was still under the folded loop of coat. What I hadn't noticed before was that the other end of the coat was trapped underneath the front-left leg of his chair. I thought about saying something to him, but a malicious spirit came over me. I nodded towards the door, took a few steps, then turned back just in time to see him try to get up, strangle his hand between the trapped fabric and his own leg, then tumble sideways before catching himself awkwardly. He dropped his bundle, the papers spilling out all over the floor.

"Fuck nuggets," he said, and as he turned away I let myself laugh silently. He scrabbled around, collecting his belongings. When he'd gathered everything together and freed his trapped clothing from beneath the chair, he followed me moodily to the door. I'd just grabbed the handle when I felt his hand on my shoulder.


"Wait a minute," he told me.

"Wait for what? We'll be late for the next session."

"Just... just wait. Listen to me for once."

I rolled my eyes, then turned back to face him.

"Ugh. Fine. What?"

"Fight me."


"Fight me. If you think I'm so easy to beat, why don't you fight me and prove it?"

"I'm sorry, have you gone mad or something? You're already looking forward to one major beating later on today, are you thinking that somehow if you're already beaten up you're going to go all the way round and come back uninjured? Because that's not how it works."

"I'm not going to get a beating," he told me.

"Oh, no, of course not. He's just going to give you a little light massage, maybe rub some oil into your feet. You are going to get the beating of your life, the worst beating you've ever had. Possibly the worst beating you ever will have, unless he's learnt some self-restraint during the last two weeks and I haven't heard about it."

Donnie looked at me blankly.

"What I mean is," I said slowly, "that there's a slight chance you might die."

"I'm not going to die," he said huffily. "I don't die."

"Yeah of course, like everyone else makes a habit of it. Of course you're going to die. Someday. And that someday could be today, if the rest of us have played our cards right. Sorry," I added, struck with a sudden burst of remorse. "That was a shitty thing to say."

Donnie didn't answer. Or rather he did, but his answer was less verbal and more in the form of a fist swinging towards my face.

I'd like to say that it took me by surprise, but it really didn't. I've seen people telegraph their attacks in fights before, but Donnie's was the first punch that I was notified about via a handwritten letter. If there had been any chance that it would have hurt me I would still have had time to compose my will, call my parents, and change into more comfortable clothing before having to dodge it. As it was there was no need, because all I had to do was put up a hand, catch his wrist as it came towards me, and divert it into the doorframe. It must have hit with all the impact of a mosquito colliding with a goose-down pillow, but it was enough to cause Donnie to yell out as though I'd broken his spine.

"What the hell?" I asked him. "You see? This is what I'm talking about!"

His other hand swung at me, and this time I had to turn slightly to take it on the shoulder, not having a hand free (between his wrist and my pencil-case) to stop him. The punch bounced off me, leaving a mild stinging sensation. If anything, it looked as though I had over-estimated his ability to fight. He couldn't have KO'd a mouse with that punch.

"Cut it out, you moron."

He reared back, took another swing. I could see quite plainly that he had his thumb tucked into his fingers, and that tipped the balance. I let go of the hand I was holding, stepped around the incoming punch, and pushed him against the door.

"I won't do it," I said.

"Won't do what? What are you talking about, you fucker!" He tried to kick back at me, but I barred his legs with one of my own.

"I'm not going to beat you up so that you can avoid the duel. You got yourself into this, you can get yourself out of it."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Art Pact 232 - The Scar

She would some it up later, when asked at a dinner party, as "saws and drills". That was all she would say, staring miserably down into her starter. A minestrone so thick with rice that it could almost have been a risotto, stained deep red and spattered with slivers and chunks of unidentifiable vegetables that the hostess bought at her local farmer's market. The rest of the table was quiet - the question had come at one of those moments when everyone else stopped talking at the same moment, as though there had been some previous agreement. A negative flash mob, she thought, stirring the contents of the bowl. The silverware was nice - so clean, a mirrored surface in which she had examined her face earlier, surreptitiously checking for any sign of the experience that might have been left on her face. It seemed almost obscene that she could find no visible scar. There was the off-colour pale patch across her cheek where she'd been knocked off her bike and landed heavily. The little scar on her neck where Millie's girlfriend had taken a swipe at her, the woman's long fake nails catching just under her ear and opening up a cut that took months to heal. But there was no sign of her time in the underside, no exterior marks to match the interior wounds. She was just as she had always been, a perfectly plain middle-aged woman, crows feet around her eyes and slightly lax skin around her jaw where she'd lost weight.

There were saws and drills everywhere, that was the thing. It was as if someone - The Over - had been preparing to cut everything in the world in half, or make holes in every living person. An army of carpenters could have been supplied from that dark warehouse, or a shadow economy in DIY supported. She had never been keen on carpentry - she'd done it in school, of course, but it was one of the few jobs she was willing to concede entirely to her father, then later to her husband and finally to her ex-boyfriend. It was as though the experience had reached back in time to warn her about what was to come, about the defining event (so it felt now) of her life. That warning manifesting itself in a distaste for the honest use of saws and drills, let alone the illicit use that her enemy had put them to.

"Saws and drills?" said her questioner. She was one of the hostess's old school friends, a sort of jolly-hockey-sticks kind of person, but the annoyingly thin variety. No-one else said anything, and staring down into her soup she felt like a sort of perverse lens. Everyone else must be looking at her, and she took those gazes and focused them down into the depths of the minestrone. All of that attention poured into a stock and some dead plants trapped in a ceramic bowl. Did that leave its mark in the past, that moment flowing back through the preparation of the dish so that their hostess, muddling about in her kitchen, would have sensed somehow that the starter was the most momentous item of food she would ever prepare. How much obligation must have sat on her shoulders! That no doubt explained the effort she'd gone to to find the strange and unusual vegetables, the amount of rice she'd bestowed on the pot. In truth it was good - perhaps the best minestrone that she'd ever tasted - but her memories of enjoyment seemed only to stretch back as far as the underside. It was a step-break in her memory - before it, she had simple memories, like something she was watching on TV. Detailed, but shorn of emotion. Afterwards there were more solid memories, memories of minor pleasures, but between the two sets of memories was the tar-black scar of the underside. The newer memories were nice, but they could not grow into their full form without the connection to the past, like salmon parr blocked from returning to their spawning grounds by a new dam.

"Perhaps we shouldn't ask too many questions," their hostess said nervously. She looked up from her minestrone soup to see the hostess had a sort of fixed smile on her face, a mask that poorly concealed embarrassed horror.

"Molly's probably under some sort of legal restriction," the man to her left (John? A lawyer, she remembered, from their brief conversation over cocktails) said. If she had remembered correctly about his profession then he either wasn't very good at it or he was lying in order to give her a plausible excuse. Either way she could take advantage. She nodded, lips pressed tightly so that they curled in a little between her teeth. She pushed the spoon forward, stirring up the rice, then let it rest gently on the edge of the bowl.

There had been no court case, of course, just the inquiry. The Over was dead, there had been no chance to arrest him (or her, but the inquiry had settled on the pronoun he as a convenient shorthand). There was no body that could have settled the case - the divers had found nothing, but there was no doubt that the final wound she had inflicted had been fatal. Her colleagues reminded her (with varying degrees of amusement or malice) that there were plenty of documented cases of people surviving quite serious wounds to the head. Sometimes when they said that there were moments when she doubted herself - but they did not last long. There was no way that The Over could have survived.

"This soup is amazing," she said, beaming at their hostess. "I can't wait to see what you have for us next, June." The hostess blushed coyly.

"Oh, well - thank you! I'm glad it turned out well. I don't want to spoil the surprise!"

A ripple of nervous laughter ran through the diners. She smiled politely, turned to look at John. He nodded, winked at her. She remembered that men had done that in the past, but it was before the scar in her memories.

The scar.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Art Pact 231 - Our uncle and his crimes

Our uncle, in contradistinction to all established human practise, gloried in his enormous crimes while remaining embarrassed about his lesser ones. His position as somewhat about the law in our sleepy little county allowed him a degree of latitude in boasting about his excesses that petty conmen or burglars would have killed for, and he exploited it to the full whenever possible, laughing at dinner parties about the money he'd embezzled from the pension funds, joking when in public about fellow businessmen that he had ruined. The secret behind this impunity, of course, was that he knew himself to be surrounded by those who had benefited directly from his largesse, people who had themselves become so corrupted by association that they could not censure him without becoming eligible for prizes in the service of the advancement of hypocrisy. Even my sister and I, perhaps our uncle's most vocal critics, realised to our shame early in our lives that we depended on him for our house and food, and that with our father long gone and our mother unwilling to perform any sort of work, our lives would have been ones of deprivation and sorrow if he had not been both rich and willing to burn part of his riches on the great project that was keeping our mother in the manner to which she had demanded to become accustomed. It frequently astounded me that the man who could be so hard-headed in business could be such a push-over to his sister - I took care of my own sibling wherever possible, of course, but there were limits. Andrea and I knew that there were family obligations that were carved in stone (me protecting her from bullies, her protecting me from unsuitable girlfriends), but we also knew that we had to treat these services as if they were a courtesy, not a right. If Andrea had begun to get herself into trouble just to have me wreak havoc on a hapless boy, I would have cut her off in an instant, and I assumed that she would do the same. Our mother, on the other hand, combined an endless greed for money with a sullen ingratitude that made me wonder on many an occasion whether our uncle had ever stooped to involvement in murder - and what provocation it would take to drive his to that extreme.

He had certainly caused deaths, although none in a way that was directly describable as murder. He had ruined businessmen in such humiliating ways that at least one had taken his own life, and there were two more whose families blamed my uncle for a decline in health that lead ultimately to death. He was guilty of manslaughter (although neither in the legal nor emotional sense, only in the sense that I and my sister and many others knew with reasonable certitude that he was entirely culpable for the factory accidents in question), and it was widely whispered - although always with great care, for my uncle was a master at using the grapevine himself - that he had tampered with the scene of his first wife's car crash, and that it had been him rather than her who was at the wheel. He had attributed his survival and lack of injuries in the crash to the relaxed posture being heavily drunk had imparted to him, but it seemed considerably more likely that his relatively light injuries had been due to the car's superior driver's side air-bags, and that in fact the alcohol had caused the collision. But the local traffic police were in his pocket just as much as the detectives and chief constable, and so no such rumours made it as far as the crown prosecutor's office, much less the newspapers or a jury.

I had to admit to a certain admiration for the way in which he kept his largesse local and his crimes at arms length, ensuring that those surrounding him were rarely affected in such a way as to make them hostile. The ruined businessmen and dead factory workers, of course, all came from his concerns in the south, and so the locals saw them less as victims and more as rival teams who had had the audacity to live in a richer part of the country and pronounce their 'a's long and therefore deserved derision and defeat. My uncle exploited this ruthlessly, ensuring that when he had to do anything unpopular locally he hired posh-sounding consultants to come in and hand out the news as though they were government employees, putting himself in the position of having his hand forced. These stage-managed events he carefully designed so that they had slip points in them which he could pretend to exploit - for instance, when he wanted to extend the local bingo-hall to include slot machines (which meant knocking down the old people's home next door), he had his stooges pretend that this was part of a land-grab involving four blocks of flats and the neighbouring pub as well. He then arranged matters so that it looked as though he had outmanoeuvred the fake officials, saving the pub by a slight of hand involving local boundary laws that the big-city lawyers had misinterpreted. He was not, unfortunately, able to save the old folks home, but the residents of the flats and the pub landlord were saved. Not knowing that they had in fact never been in danger, their gratitude provided my uncle with an excellent smokescreen behind which he was able to secure the land on which the old folks home had been. By the time the slot-machines were in place three years later, no-one remembered what had been in their place.

Even this, though, was understood and written off to some extent. It was the really small crimes that seemed to be most embarrassing to him, especially those local to him. He would proudly say that he had ruined a man, but keep his lips sealed over swindling his housekeepers out of a month's pay by blaming them for stealing and dismissing them early. These trivial injustices were hidden from the world, but my sister and I were acutely aware of them.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Art Pact 230 - That guy

Oh, that guy. He spends all his time indoors - you know, tied to the computer. Complete sad case, but what are you going to do with those nerdy types anyway? You need someone to make facebook or whatever, right? The art is in keeping them interested without them getting all - you know, stalker-y, right? I mean it's not like he's actually got a chance. No, he's for one of those chunky girls, you know who I mean? Not like, the sassy ones, not the ones who've just put on a few pounds because they've been having bad days recently, but the real full-on... you know, it's depressing just to talk about this. I mean anyway, we're talking about people who somehow manage to live in a different world.

That guy is an embarrassment in class. I mean you'd think he'd be the first to put his hand up, right? To answer all the questions, like nerds do. But he's not like that at all. He keeps his mouth shut, just sits in the middle of the class like some kind of special (you know what I mean) and stares at the teacher or at me or whoever, it's totally disturbing. I can't bear sitting in math class because he's always behind me, it's creepy having nerd eyes on the back of my neck. I keep asking to change seats because it just isn't fair, but that's Ms. Donbretz for you, assigned seating or nothing - I might choose nothing, but I mean why should I stand for the whole class? That's just wrong, and it leads to varicose veins (so Wendy says, and she should know after all), so it seems like I'm sort of stuck with it.

Worse than the staring is the whispering. It's like, how much of a freak can one guy be? I'm sure he's always whispering about nerd things, or some other geek rubbish, or things about the wind - like, he's some sort of weatherology freak or something, and I just can't be hearing about all of that stuff, like the way the storm is going to come down on us all, or how we're going to get carried away by the wind. It's like, newsflash, only sad cloud-watching geeks are ever going to get carried away with that sort of thing, the rest of us have other sources of excitement in our lives? It's just so wrong, I mean I get that people have some different hobbies - Wendy collects beads, for god's sake - but there has to be some kind of limit, I mean when someone is that excited about the weather there must be something mentally wrong with them, like he was dropped on his head as a baby, or he came out with callipers or something, or like Wendy says maybe his mother let him get inoculated by one of those doctors who's just interested in putting a tracking chip in all the newborn kids or something. It's weird, because sometimes Wendy talks a whole load of rubbish, like everything about home and stuff, but she's quite on the ball when it comes to science stuff.

Anyway, that guy, you never see him outdoors except in the most weird places, like (obviously) he seems to love science, because I guess they all do except that he always gets terrible marks on his tests, so  bad that Mr. Carmichael calls him up to the front of the class. You have to laugh, because they look like such a pair of nimrods together, Mr. Carmichael with his comb-over which isn't fooling anybody obviously and then that guy just staring up silently while Carmichael's shouting at him that he would have expecting this from one of the airheads but it's a complete confusion to him why that guy has to be disruptive and write down complete rubbish in all the answers. Then that guy just whispers like he does, that loud whispering they do in the drama club where you're supposed to be able to hear what Romeo or Juliet are saying because for some reason you're supposed to care (like, who would care about Italians or whatever?), and he tells Mr. Carmichael that everything that's in his class is rubbish, that it's all just going to get blown away by the wind and Mr. Carmichael with it, and that's when Carmichael gets crazy like he does, and he shakes his head so that the long flap of hair all falls down over his right ear, and he sends that guy off to the principal's office. It's all so tedious, like why do these people have to fight over trivial stuff like that when they could just be happy if they fell into line with what all the normal people do? Wendy says that they're looking for something in their lives that they can't find, but they're staring past it because it's too close for them to see, which I guess makes sense if you think about all the sleeping around that dad did before he finally got together with her when she was his secretary and left mom.

The weird thing - no, the most weird thing - no, not even that, obviously, but a weird thing - is that that guy loves going on the science field trips. It's like, he's totally a nerd in his normal time, and totally a retard in science classes, but when we go out in the park to the north he's completely ecstatic.

We had a field trip last week - something totally boring, like having to count the number of bugs on a certain tree, totally gross, but I made sure to partner up with one of the other nerds so that he'd do all the work. I saw that guy on his own, standing in the middle of a bunch of old trees and just staring up with a great stupid grin on his face at the leaves up above that were rustling in the wind. He was whispering, like he does, and for a moment it looked a bit like he was actually talking to someone.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Art Pact 229 - Pits and Peaks

A life thus scattered, as all men's are (and all women's, true, although no man such as I can truly understand that), with such rare peaks of happiness and infrequent pits of despair, but otherwise a flat plain of everyday grind, neither elating nor crushing. Those grey days blend into each other so much that in my life's ledger they might all be subsumed under a single heading, a descriptive flow with variables X and Y and Z, such as an algebraical factoriser might use in his lonely scribblings. One might by rolling a die for each slight variation (say the food I ate on a certain day, or who I visited, or where I walked) throw games of chance for years without once coming upon a combination which I had not already fulfilled. Such a game of Yacht my life would make!

There were moments, however, as I have alluded, in which this everyday script was thrown to one side with great force by the hand of fate, the dice table overturned, if you will, by an angry gamer who tired of his slow losses - for such a life is. One may not suffer the shirt from one's back with each roll of the bones, but as one grows longer and longer in the tooth one quickly realises that the stake in this game is life itself, the precious little chips that are seconds and those more solid ones that are months and years. A loss so subtle that a man might not notice it until he is almost bled dry, that is the price of this game - no buy-in, no limits on play or loss, a man sits down at the table one day and if he does not rise of his own accord or suffer an interruption to his game he may never stand again.

One such moment attended the death of my father. We were estranged - he had himself long ago been given entirely to the game, immersing himself in a routine so straightjacketed that no variables would have been necessary to describe his twilight years, merely a page describing his day and a footnote instructing "singulos dies usque ad mortem". He dined similarly, slept similarly, was visited by the members of our family (me excepted) on a regular rota - although in truth it did not matter who visited him, since my stepsister informed me at the graveside that he treated all comers alike: sons, daughters, wives and former wives, all of them subjected to the tedious recital of all that they had done wrong in the past, and yet how good they were compared to his one rogue offspring (that is to say, me). You might think, of course, that being so distant from my parent I might not be much affected emotionally by his passing. In truth you would be right, because although I felt sadness, I introspected quite clearly that the sadness was not for the passing of my progenitor but a prescience of my own ultimate ending.

But this was no more than a distracting sideshow, a monument constructed in a devil's cauldron on the edge of a great abyss. My funereal musings on the way to and from the ceremony (for my father's dislike of me was not so pronounced in my other relations, and they had for one reason or another insisted that I accompany them back to the grand house for the gathering and for the reading of the will) were all-consuming, but I understood them to be shallow. I had felt such gloom-clouds over me before, and they were themselves just as perishable as I was, so that I knew that within a few days I would be back to my old heedless self, gambling away my days as recklessly as a pauper in a casino. No, it was what transpired in the house itself that was to throw me into a deeper torment.

The gathering was a sombre affair, although it might easily have been a gay one given how little affection any of our clan had for its patriarch. But there were outsiders there - of whom I might have been one, since there was perhaps no way for the others to know whether my own feelings towards my father matched his towards me - and so we were all reserved, and no words were exchanged that might malign the quondam head of the house. We drank the tea the servants provided us, we nibbled listlessly at the cucumber sandwiches and various hors d'oeuvres that had been laid out, and we swapped meaningless niceties about the prospect of heaven and the ways in which the old man would be missed by the village (we carefully refrained from revealing whether we would miss him ourselves, but attributed great sympathy and emotion to the local peasantry). Thus we frittered away a few more hours of our lives that could have been spent improving ourselves or at the very least pursuing some more colourful pleasure, but eventually all of our guests save my father's lawyer made their excuses and left, and the family was alone for the reading of the will.

To say that I expected nothing would be an understatement. I had not even expected to be at the reading of the will, and even as the solicitor was going through the preamble I expected that my share of the estate would be no more than a stern imprecation towards the real inheritors that they would be visited with severe sanctions should I be allowed to step over the threshold of the old manor. To my great surprise, though, I was mentioned as a beneficiary. Not of the house, nor of my father's carefully-shepherded fortune, but of a book in the library and a small parcel of land on the southernmost tip of the estate: a section of scrubland running up to a cliff-edge. I knew it well; unsuitable for agriculture, it was chiefly remarkable for an obelisk which had been erected many centuries before our family took control of the land. It was worthless, or so I thought, but even so it was more than I had expected from the old man.

Judging by the confusion on the part of my family, I was not alone in my surprise.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Art Pact 228 - We Fight Any Dinosaur

We Fight Any Dinosaur! That's our name, and in our competitors' mouths it would also be a hollow boast, but we call a guarantee. If you want a dinosaur fought, give us a call! Here are just some of the services we provide:

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  • We will come into your house if you have a velociraptor infestation! Although the Mongolian Velociraptor is a relatively harmless house pest, they can affect property values. You don't want to have realtors or potential viewers come into your house and spot a velociraptor, or even velociraptor spoor. House buyers are very wary of such things nowadays, and our service can guarantee you a clean house for upwards of eight months. If you live in Nevada or California you may also be aware of the spread of the considerably more troublesome Utahraptor. Infestations of Utahraptors have been moving west for the last few decades, spreading due to increased use of pesticides which have been depressing local Allosaur populations and allowing the Utahraptors to move into their empty ecological niche. Once a utahraptor colony moves into an area it can be extremely hard to get rid of it, but our trained dinosaur fighters bring a professional attitude to their work and have a proven track-record of removing Utahraptor colonies. We can also consult on sealing houses and workspaces against Utahraptor infestation, ensuring that you have many years free of trouble. Our guarantee! Note: if you should see a Utahraptor, do not attempt to handle the infestation yourself. They are very coy animals, and if you can see one it generally means that there are dozens you cannot see! Their bites can be very painful, too, leading to raised areas on the arms and in extreme cases large areas of air below the wrists. Do not take risks with your or your children's health! Call in our trained exterminators today.
  • One of our employees has punched two Parasaurolophi. Two! That's one more than EZ-Dino, and is currently a world record for Parasaurolophi-punching. Those are the accolades that other companies lust for, but only We Fight Any Dinosaur has put in the resources to find and punch two Parasaurolophi. We take our job seriously, whether it be executing an Egyptosaurus or backhanding a Brachiosaur. If you need a dinosaur fought - fatally or non-fatally - we can do it. Call us today, and watch us Fight Any Dinosaur!

But it's not just dinosaurs that we'll fight. We offer a full service, including fighting ancient crocodiles, giant extinct sea reptiles, pterosaurs and even giant flightless birds of the post-saurischian periods! But there's more! Listen to this happy testimonial from a satisfied customer, L of Illinois:

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"Now I put in complaint after complaint to the town council, but it seems like they just weren't interested in sorting out the infestation. Turns out they blew their budget on trying to capture a Parasaurolophi that one of the local companies had bought on eBay and set loose for some kind of punching stunt? What a total waste of taxpayer money, but I guess these other dinosaur-fighting companies don't care what effect they have on the local economy. Someone told me about a federal housing grant for clearing dinosaurs from vacant lots, but guess what? It's for dinosaurs only, the grant doesn't cover Pliocene mammals because of the Renaulds Act of 1985. 

"I thought I was left with only one option - to fight the Chalicotheres myself. I bought a book on dinosaur-hunting, I got myself ready for the fight by weight-training and punching solid blocks of Cynodont meat that my neighbour leant me from his evening job. My wife kept telling me that it was mad to take matters into my own hands, that I'd only get hurt. But a guy's got to defend his family, right? I couldn't sit by and let my only daughter's chances at university get screwed by a bunch of overgrown sloths! I was ready to punch those guys out, but just as I was revising my will and saying good-bye to my family, a friend told me about We Fight Any Dinosaur. I was skeptical, but their phone service representative assured me that they would be happy to get rid of the Chalicotheres for the low low price of $1500 plus local sales tax! Not only that, but they let me watch so that I could see that they were doing their job thoroughly. Now it's a year later and my daughter can cycle home with her homework any day of the week without trouble. Thanks, We Fight Any Dinosaur! I recommend them to all my friends".

Dinosaur (or other prehistoric monster) problem! Don't Delay, Call Today! 555-DINOFIGHT. Or look at our website!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Art Pact 227 - Baptism

We waited on the riverbank, shivering in our white robes and nothing else. That was the compromise - between being born again as we had the first time, in our altogether, and the terrible sins that the sight of flesh could tempt us to. The backs of my arms were covered in goose bumps, and I wished that the compromise had run more to the shame side of the block, because  my balls were freezing up like little ice cubes. To either side of me were the Monk twins, looking damn foolish in the gently flapping robes. Althorpe Monk was clicking his knuckles, just the same way that he did before extorting lunch money. Easter Monk, on my left side, was mumbling to himself. Not for the first time I wondered how they had managed to grow up with such different personalities but identical in all other ways. What exercise was Easter doing that let him match the muscles of his thuggish, sporty brother? The ways of the world were mysterious - the ways of God, I reminded myself, tuning half my attention back into the ceremony. Preacher Green was still talking about the responsibility we all had to bring as many people to Jesus as we could, and how our reward in the promised land was in some way dependent on that above all others. That was talk for the foot troops, as my father used to say, a general team bucking up with no real meaning. Everyone in the town was coming to church now, not like the bad old days under Preacher Goforth, and with everyone on board, who was there left to convert?

"Althorpe Monk!" called Preacher Green. "I call you to join us..."

I watched him go, the stocky tread of the bully when forced to act nice. He waded into the water as though he were walking through a corn field, although I knew that it must have been freezing in there. When he reached Preacher Green she said a few words and then with one hand on his shoulder she pushed him all the way under the water. It seemed like he was there for minutes, although it must only have been seconds. I wondered whether I would panic. Both of the Monk brothers were strong enough to push against Preacher Green's arm, I thought, but I was not sure whether the same was true for me.

Althorpe emerged from the river, the sodden robe clinging to his chest muscles and showing off the bulk of his arms and shoulders. It seemed like a magic had occurred - that the baptism had actually made a godly man of him, for his usual sullen superiority seemed to have gone. I'd been prepared to look away, expecting a furious frown from him and some whispered promise of a beating the next day in school, but instead he just walked back into line, his hands clasped in front of him. The cold of the river, I thought, but I could not dwell on it too long - my name was being called.

"Anders Scoville, I call you to join us in the kingdom of God on Earth," said Preacher Green. "And the promise of that greater kingdom in heaven. Step into the water and be reborn."

I walked down to the river's edge, just like I'd been told. From close up I could see that a lock of Preacher Green's hair had escaped from the dark bundle that she'd tied it up in. The rogue hair fell down the side of her face, a cataract of brown over that alabaster skin. She was smiling her welcoming smile, and up to her waist as she was in the water her own white robe formed a halo around her that made her look like the stamen in a huge water-lily.

The water, as I'd expected, was arctic-cold. I could feel my feet turning blue as I took the first step in. At least they'd picked a sandy bit, so I didn't have to worry about slipping on a moss-covered rock and looking like an idiot in front of everyone. I walked forward slowly, feeling the frigid touch of the river climb further and further up my legs. When it got to my balls a sharp shiver ran up my back, so uncontrollable that it must have looked like I was having some sort of spasm. Preacher Green played it off, though.

"The power of the Lord runs through this river, like it runs through all things!" she said out loud - then quieter, to me, she said: "Don't be ashamed, it's a big thing coming to Jesus, you can let trivial things like a shiver go. Greater men than you have lost their bravery at this point."

"I'm not afraid," I said, although I was, a little. Preacher Green was beautiful in her church, but in the river she was beyond human, like there were no adjectives that would do her justice. She reached out to me and took me by the hand and lead me round like a dance partner until I was facing the shore again. I could almost feel some of the energy coming off them, like there really was something to the church. Perhaps, I thought, the reason that I never really believed so deeply before was that Preacher Goforth had drained the faith out of everyone else in town, so that even those who believed in Jesus didn't have enough energy to share that faith with other people. We were misers of our faith, hoarding it in the back of our minds in the vain hope that we might be able to take it with us, in some strange way.

"Ready?" she asked. I nodded, and then that hand came down on my shoulder. I was wrong - the Monks couldn't have defeated it. She was as strong as an ox, and I went under the water like a flash, my robe billowing up around me. I barely had time to take a breath. I didn't even have time to close my eyes, which is how I suddenly understood what had got Althorpe Monk all abashed like that. It wasn't the power of the lord at all, but the power of Preacher Green's two slender legs, bare as the day God made her, sheltering under the umbrella of the white robe that was floating up around her waist.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Art Pact 226 - Answers about love


No: Ah, well - there's nothing more we could do about that. But let me ask you a question. Have you ever been in love? I mean, not the sort of in love where you say you're in love, but the sort where you really are.

Yes: That sounds like- I mean, I resent the implication. You're calling me a liar. The worst kind of liar.

No: The worst kind of liar? That seems a little presumptuous. Let me tell you a story. When I was younger I asked my vicar whether such-and-such a person was going to hell.

Yes: Who is this such-and-such? That sounds like a foreign name.

No: Again I must disabuse you.

Yes: I prefer it to the alternative, which brings to mind your point. Continue with your story about a priest.

No: A vicar, I said. Let us say that my enemy was Mr. N. E. Body.

Yes: That matches what I know of you. Quite plausible! Continue.

No: This person, N. E. Body, was a thief - and, I knew to my cost, a seducer of the wives of others.

Yes: To your cost? When you said "younger" I imagined you a child at this juncture. Were you then old enough to be married? Or were you married at a young age. Mmmm, mmmm, I understand - you were promised in marriage to a woman older than you, and before you could grow enough to service her womanly needs, she was swept away by this old so-and-so.

No: Such-and-such, I said.

Yes: I stand corrected.

No: Not corrected enough, for neither was I married nor was it my own wife seduced by this excuse for a Christian. He was the man who drove a wedge between my mother and my father.

Yes: They must have been very close.

No: Certainly before, though not after. Once there was space between them, he occupied it.

Yes: In the formation of a menage-a-trois?

No: You are far too literal, in addition to your incorrect assumptions about my marriages.

Yes: You have been married more than once? Good lord, the things I do not know.

No: There have been many attempts to enumerate such, I believe they are commonly referred to as libraries. But this is all beside the point. I want you to remember only that such-and-such...

Yes: AKA so-and-so...

No: AKA N. E. Body...

Yes: Yes, yes. We understand.

No: That this person to whom we have devoted so much of our brief lives referring was a scoundrel of the highest order, and that if there were ever a more deserving case for hell's admission policy living in our village, I could not name him.

Yes: I believe that. Indeed, your principal skill appears to be in the not-naming of people.

No: I asked, therefore, our vicar - that is to say, the vicar of the church which stood on the outskirts of our village, because it was clear that he belonged not to us, but to the church itself - whether this person would be bound for hell - as I believed to be the case, or wished to be the case for the sake of my nascent understanding of extra-corporeal justice.

Yes: A belief which you still hold?

No: If I did, I should certainly not say so here, not where it might be used against me. These walls have ears, you know.


Yes: Common or garden paranoia. When you have come to your senses again, perhaps you would enlighten us as to the reply your vicar gave you.

No: Us?

Yes: I mean me.

No: But you said us.

Yes: No, I said me.

No: You said us, but you meant me - that is to say, you.

Yes: I both said and meant myself. Go on.


No: Alright. Well listen then.

Yes: We are.

No: ...

Yes: That was a joke.

No: Keep them to yourself in future. There's no room here for humour. There are special rooms where the jokes happen. Here is what he said.

Yes: Proceed.

No: He said that he believed that no-one truly went to hell, with the exception of Judas Iscariot.

Yes: Judas Iscariot?

No: Yes. Do you see what I'm getting at here?


No: Who is the worst person you can think of?

Yes: Hitler, I suppose. Can I say Hitler?

No: I should have been surprised if you had said any other. Now, imagine you are in charge of hell.

Yes: Fortunately whenever we converse, it becomes easy to imagine.

No: Two people come to you, and you have to decide who to take into hell and who to reject.

Yes: I see. I choose the one on the right.

No: Don't be so quick off the mark. There's more.

Yes: I was afraid of that.

No: One of these people-

Yes: Is it the one on the right?

No: Ignore that. One of these people sold out a friend in a moment of weakness. He regretted it so much that he killed himself.

Yes: That's bad.

No: Quite. But the other person had millions of people killed. He did not regret it.

Yes: That sounds worse. He's on the right, too. I let him in.

No: Right! Yes! Thank you! Wait a minute. Are you letting him in because of what he did, or just because he's on the right?

Yes: Yes.

No: No, I meant, which one?

Yes: The one on the right - I mean, because of his many crimes. His many, many crimes.

No: Exactly. If there's room in hell for Judas Iscariot, there's room in there for Hitler. If there's only room for one person, Hitler it is. You see my point?

Yes: Yes. I mean, no.

No: That's what I was afraid of.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Art Pact 225 - Desk fort

I sat on the floor under the desk, my little happy place. Let me describe it. Our desks are cubicle desks, built in fours that face inwards. The desks curve in the middle, which is where we sit, so that we can turn in our chairs either to the left or to the right and easily find more desk space. Desk designers, you see, are like military generals in that they prepare to fight the previous war. In the old days, when everything in an office was done on paper, having a big desk was no doubt an advantage, and having easy access to it a further advantage. I imagine a bowler-hatted bureaucrat spreading case files (or whatever it is they have - I'm unclear on the details, having been born at the very tail end of the twentieth century) across their vast expanses of planed and varnished woodwork, reading from one, cross-referencing another, and so forth. In those days naturally desk surface would be at a premium. I can even understand how it would have worked as a sort of territory in a strange way, so that the more important one was, the larger one's desk. People would no doubt have fought for a large desk, would have measured their worth in square-footage. No matter. Nowadays, we do not work in that old world. I won't be so naive as to suggest that we work in a paperless office - we do have a human resources department, after all, and if there is one thing they are good at (and extensive experience suggests that if that statement has a failing it is that it is if anything over-generous), it is producing paperwork. I would estimate that out of every two pieces of paper I have on my desk, approximately three of them are from HR. It's as though they inhabit a separate world, one in which our computers belong to our competitors and communication via paper provides a windtalker-style alternative language which the enemy are unable to decipher.

Since I now live and work in the twenty-first century, in which almost all work is done on a computer, this ergonomically-designed desk is more of a hindrance than a help to me. Should I wish to discuss some matter with a colleague, I am forced to sit with my body between him and the computer screen if I wish to be able to read anything out, and if we both need to look at the screen at the same time - well, let's just say that I have to keep my eyeglass prescription very much up to date. I'm considering buying a pair of opera glasses to lend to visitors.

So my desk, as you will be able to imagine, turns ninety degrees in the middle, albeit in a deep curve rather than a sharp angle. It has two canvas-covered backboards, forming the cubicle walls, although it lacks the other two boards which would make it a true cubicle. These two backboards form one backboard each for my two neighbours, and... well, you've seen open-plan offices before, you get the gist.

Underneath the desk, where I was, were also the little nest of wires that had escaped from the desk's woefully inadequate cable management system, the footrest which human resources had pointedly given me on my first day due to my short stature, my desk-drawer (three drawers, from top to bottom: personal belongings pens and paperclips; electronic junk; files from HR that I was supposed to keep with me and review monthly), and a couple of tote-bags that I'd been given at conferences in an attempt to persuade me to buy .NET framework libraries that did something or other with XML so boring that even I had forgotten what it was. In one of the tote bags was a supply of hemp chewing gum that I'd been sent as a joke by my old university flatmate, but which had turned out not to be hemp-flavoured (as I - and I think he - had assumed), but actually saturated with THC and therefore mildly intoxicating. I snaked a hand into the bag, pulled out one of the little sticks, fished a juicy-fruit out of my pocket to give my teeth something to work on, and began to chew.

There was a lot to be gained from the underside of the desk. First of all, even those well acquainted with my height did not realise that it made it relatively easy for me to hide, so unless one of my closer colleagues walked past I generally went unnoticed. It was quiet enough to think, the top of the desk blocking out a little of the general chatter that makes open-plan such a terrible proposition for programmers, and it was a little more comfortable temperature-wise, since the exhaust from everyone's computer blew out below desk height, making a little bubble of hot air a few degrees warmer than the arctic conditions maintained by the building's over-active air-conditioning. The carpet - nylon-topped tiles over the raised floor that housed the office's cabling - was not particularly comfortable, but I was able to stretch my legs out and lean back against the partition that I shared with Katherine - indeed, to my right I could just about see the shiny red tips of her shoes (empty, no doubt, since she was one of those people who would wear shoes only when necessary, kicking them off with reckless abandon whenever possible).

There is, of course, a deadline beyond which most problems cannot be avoided. And I knew well that this one in particular could not be put off for more than a couple of hours. But work days have an intriguing property that real life does not - the discontinuity between one moment and the next. When it is half-past four, a problem that must be addressed within the next hour becomes a problem that can be put off until tomorrow, with luck. My desk was the shield that would be providing me with that luck. I just had to sit under here for another - I checked my watch - twenty seven minutes.

Piece of cake, I thought to myself.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Art Pact 224 - Death by Owl

"If there were any other way of getting around the problem..." she told me. Her eyes were large, and her head swivelled around its axis, the fine feathers of her neck ruffled and twisted as they followed her neck around. She flapped her wings once, hooted, then coughed as if embarrassed by this unnecessarily avian outburst.

"I'm sure it can't be the only option," I protested.

"I'm afraid it is."

"No incarceration, perhaps? Surely I could be locked up. For life, perhaps - I'd accept that. Or maybe just for a few decades? It's not that serious a crime, surely. What would you do if another owl had..."

"Another owl," she said firmly, "would not have."

"Are you sure? I mean why is there even a law in the first place, if it's a thing that no-one would do? Are there sentencing guidelines or something?"

"Of course there are guidelines," she said huffily. "We're not savages, you know. When you were in court, didn't you see the judge looking at her law books?"

I had been too busy being outraged at the whole farce of the trial, but I kept my own counsel on that, instead making a gesture that I hoped would be sufficiently ambiguous that she could accept the answer she was looking for. It obviously worked sufficiently well, because she went back to leafing through her own notes, hooking a toe under the edge of each page before flicking it over with a violent twist of the ankle.

"Is there hope for appeal?" I asked.

"Hmmm? Oh, appeal. Well, hmmm, quite," she nodded.

"So there's hope?"

"Oh no, no hope at all. There won't be time, you see."

"Won't be- what do you mean, there won't be time? Of course there'll be time. There'll be time, won't there? Surely." I looked at the page she was looking at, trying to decide whether there was some hidden message there. It appeared to be about civil real-estate cases. "Why won't there be time? When are they going to do this?"

She closed the book, stared at me for a few moments. There's no human in the world who can compete with owls when it comes to the serious business of staring contests, so I had to look away before she did.

"You understand, of course, why there is no other way of resolving this?"

"Not really," I said.

"It's because of your... your size and shape. Under normal circumstances-no, let me rephrase that. In the unthinkable and extremely unlikely circumstances that an owl had committed this transgression, that particular owl might be confined to a penitentiary or some other jail cage."


"But there are no cages big enough to house you, nor - if there were any - would they be strong enough to confine you without fear of escape. You are a liability for any prison. No-one will take responsibility."

"So that's it? Just because you don't have the facilities to detain me, I'm to be executed? You couldn't build something?"

"We have neither the time nor the resources, especially in this time of war, to waste on the construction of a prison for a single person. Besides, the skills aren't readily available. Who here knows how to make a jail that will hold a person? It's never been done before, there aren't any precedents for it. The first one will go wrong, obviously, and the second one, and so we'll pay the price three times over. It won't be cheap, either - nothing ever is the first time  you do it."

"So it just comes down to money, does it?"

"Everything comes down to money in one way or another," she said, leaning her head forward. The dark rings of feathers around her eyes made it look as though she was trying to look over the top of a pair of spectacles at me, and I leant backwards slightly. "And that's why you won't have time for an appeal. There's no jail to hold you for a long stay in prison, but that also means that there's no jail to hold you for a couple of weeks while an appeal gets processed. The court can spare sufficient soldiers to guard you overnight, and enough to make a firing squad for you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow!" I squeaked - I'd intended it as a yell, but my voice broke in the middle of the word. All my thoughts of escape flew out of the window immediately, and - as it is so written - my mind was focused wonderfully. Of course, it was focused on the immediacy of my death, with little attention to spare for anything else. I could almost see the firing squad in front of me, perched on their stands, clutching their little guns in one foot and balancing themselves with their wings. It would have been adorable if it wasn't for the fact that it might be the last thing I saw.

"Tomorrow morning at first light," she said, tapping at her book. She gave a sudden and startling flap of her powerful wings, and with a gust of air that washed over my face like soil falling onto a coffin, she leapt away to the upper perch at the top of the bookshelf. I considered briefly making a run for it, but I was sure that the soldiers had not left. There would be no escape until that bullet was winging its way towards my face, and that would be the end of me and everything I'd done and known. All my skills...

All my skills, I thought suddenly.

"There's someone who knows how to make a jail that can hold a human," I said quickly. "Someone who'll work for nothing."

She turned, stared at me for a moment, then fluttered back down to the nearby perch.

"Really?" she asked. "And how do I get in touch with this altruistic construction worker?"

"Well," I said. "You'd probably have to get the clearance of the court to talk to him about it, and you'd have to convince his security detail. But the good news is, he's close at hand. Couldn't be closer, in fact."

"You've got to be kidding me." she said. I shook my head.

"Dead serious."