Monday, December 31, 2012

Art Pact 249 - Eric in the garden


Old, old Eric Mutterbaum creaked down the steps from his porch to the front garden and stood in the whirl of leaves that the early winter wind whipped up around his feet. He pulled his cardigan tighter around him but it just made him colder, stretching out the threadbare thing until it was little more than crochet lace, holes loosely tied together with wool from some long-dead sheep.

His right slipper was biting at the sore on his heel again, and he kicked his foot at the ground to try to force his toes further in. They were themselves too swollen, though, and the pain was excruciating. He buckled forwards, caught himself on his walker, then tried to right himself against the wind. It was hard work. The wind was bully strong, rushing down the canyon formed by the long straight road and the tall terraced houses on each side of it, and a gust came that almost pushed him off his feet, it was so fierce. He clung to his walker as though it were a railing at the edge of a cliff, and between him and the wind there was a stalemate. He could not pull himself up to his full height (as much as he could anyway, any more), the wind could not drag him away from his garden and bundle him willy-nilly up the street towards the old parts of town, the stomping grounds, the drinking pits, the places of memory and lore and half-remembered history.

Eric was patient, though, in a way that the wind could never be, and in between gusts he could sometimes inch forwards a little, shuffling the walker just that tiny bit so that he moved closer and closer to the great horse chestnut tree at the pavement end of the garden. It was a painful slow process, and he could feel the wind draining his heat faster than he could make it. It seemed like he had never been warm - he could not feel his left side, which was facing the wind, and his left eye (the good one) could see only through a thick film of tears that the wind was stinging into it. He pushed forwards, nevertheless. He could have found the tree in the pitch dark with his hands tied behind his back (another thing that was no longer really possible, since his right shoulder refused to relax backwards that far). He had walked to the tree so many times over the last decades that his feet would know the way on their own.

What did I miss? he thought. The choice of word was unthinking, but as he said it to himself he know that there was a deeper point to it. That was truly it - what was important was what he had missed, some vital clue or spark in the first place that would have helped him to understand life in the way that other people seemed to. Then, beyond that, the experiences he had not had because he was too busy trying to work out how to go about having them.

The front of him reached the lee of the tree and with a tremendous effort he pushed forwards and turned so that his back was to the trunk, the walker out in front of him. The storm whipped around his windbreak, little gusty fingers snatching at him as it to try to pull him away from his shelter, but their force was no match for the chestnut trunk and the effect was just to tear at his clothes so that his tatty cardigan whipped open and closed.

Everything in him ached. His right toes still hurt from where he had tried to push them into the shoe, and both feet were swollen slightly either with arthritis or some build-up of fluid, he was never sure which. His leg bones ached with a sort of tired burn, and the muscles hanging off them were weak like a newly-woken kitten, barely able to keep him upright after their Atlasean struggle to carry him there from the house. His hips, of course - his hips, which his doctor had constantly hinted would have been replaced by now if he was rich enough to be a private patient - his hips were a bowl of pain that he absent-mindedly supped from whenever he forgot that he was not paying attention to them. They were the pain of last resort, when all other pains had been attenuated by drugs or the stupid exercises that the doctor had given him, or by alcohol when he could get his hands on it. All the other pains were negotiable, but the hips were a constant, a background radiation of pain which he could only notice when other miseries were gone but which was powerful in its own right. Above his hips were his aching joints, the burning sensation in his lungs, the sore throat which he had constantly now - acid reflux due to being overweight in his youth, his doctor said - and of course the mild headache, the punishment for wearing his glasses for too long without getting them checked out.

Still, here in the protection of the tree he could rest a little. He felt the rough bark pressing against the bones of his spine, he listened to the ferocious rustling of the leaves and branches above him. Although down below the tree was winning the fight, above it was being slowly disintegrated, and he could see a constant rain of orange and brown leaves in the gardens to the west. In the old days he would have cursed the tree for giving him more work to do tidying up the garden, but now he was past such toil and he had learnt to live with it, to let time and later winds do the job of clearing the lawn for him.

In the far west, on the top of the hill, he could just make out the weathervane on the church spire flapping erratically from side to side.

What did I miss? he thought again.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Art Pact 248 - Fete and Fortune


Full of the joys of spring, the young couples danced around the fete, infuriating Preston. He had been placed at the far end of the field, the lower end where the drainage was bad and in winter a great sheet of ice covered all living things. The ice was gone now, but its malign presence lingered, the vegetation there different in character to further up the meadow. There it was grass and wildflowers and soft moss. Here there was grass, of course - the local grass was unstoppable - but mixed with it were nettles, burr-grass, and a species of foul-smelling mushroom. Once he had been placed there by the vicar, though, Preston felt no impetus to move away.

"You're looking in fine form," said Mrs. Caraller from the next stand over. She reached over her massed ranks of jams to exchange a pot of marmalade with a pot of damson, examined her work, tutted and swapped them back again.

"Fine form?"

"Yes," she said. "Healthy. In good fettle. Hale and hearty."

"Oh. Well, I suppose I'm all of those things. Much good may it do me."

"Oh dear. Are you still grieving after her?"

"Who?"

"You know..." she said, but she saw a swift frown cross his brow and looked down at her arrangement again. This time she tried shifting the marmalades to the right (her right, the customer's left), then moving the strawberries down into a wedge formation so that they might separate the marmalades from the chutneys. Preston thought that he might have called in the plum jams from the back to sweep right in a pincer movement and carry the day, but he kept his war counsel to himself. It seemed that Mrs. Caraller was unsatisfied with her manoeuvres again anyway, because she reset the display. "It's not quite right, what she's done here," she said. "But I can't quite put my finger on it."

Preston looked down at his own stall. It was leftovers. How appropriate, he thought. All of the detritus of the church year, and him. The things that no-one wanted but which the vicar thought that someone would come along and snap up, conveniently solving a problem. In the case of church Christmas cards, a storage problem. In the case of Preston, a rival. Some rival.

"It's probably not what she trained for," he said.

"Pardon?"

"Jam arranging. Probably not what she trained for all of those years."

"Evidently!" Mrs. Caraller laughed. "I suppose they don't do courses for jam arranging in those big universities. Jam arranging!" She laughed again, an uncontrollable cackling, as though it were the best joke she had ever heard. "Wait till I tell that to the ladies!"

"Don't-" he began, but he said it quietly and choked off the words. It would get back to her, of course, and somehow in the telling it would be twisted until he was mocking her. "I mean, I suppose..."

He wanted to say something that would distract Mrs. Caraller, but he could think of nothing. He stared back down at the collection again. Christmas cards that hadn't sold during December. 2011 calendars, largely useless now that it was April of that year.

"Ah, look at them," said Mrs. Caraller. She was gazing off up towards the head of the field at the maypole, where children had begun to gather. Another divisive issue. The elder parishioners had been for it as a sign of tradition and continuity, the slightly younger ones against it - something to do with paganism, the bugbear of those middle-aged buffoons - and the still younger ones neutral on the issues but enthusiastic for anything new that would take the edge off the stifling boredom of the village. Mrs. Caraller herself was one of the middle group age-wise, but she worked in the old-people's home and had absorbed enough arguments in favour of the ceremony from both her clients and her own children that she had eventually become one of the maypole's most strident advocates. "They're having so much fun."

The faint strains of music drifted across the meadow, plucking at the ears. Preston turned away to look out over the flood field and the river beyond, scratching at his nose ostentatiously so that he could subtly flick tears away from his eyes with another finger. He sneezed, snorted, then turned back to the fete.

"Do you know, there were some on the council who were going to stay away!" Mrs. Caraller told him. "Stay away, for heaven's sake! As if they were going to summon up the de-the old you know who," she corrected herself hastily.

"I didn't know that," he said.

"It's true. I heard it from Mrs. Fenniman."

"Then it must be true."

"Of cou-Oh hush, you and your sarcasm. It's the lowest form of humour, you know?"

"Really? Not puns made from the pulpit?"

Mrs. Caraller tilted her head to one side, the gesture that preceded every outburst of schadenfreude-sympathy (heart-felt sympathy being an area of her emotional landscape which she had left largely unexplored, so that it was no doubt marked on maps with the legend "here be dragons" and a picture of a grampus consoling a grieving kraken).

"Aw," she said. "There there. Remember, jealousy isn't a positive emotion. You can't project that much negativity towards the vicar without damaging yourself, you know."

Oh god, Preston thought to himself. That bloody self-awareness course. Another one of her projects which he would have supported if she'd only chosen him over the vicar. As it was, the course was not only a symbol of his failure and loss, it was the gift that kept on taking, as it had made the middle-aged women of the parish into a cadre of psychiatrist hopefuls. If there was one thing more painful than the injury the her decision and his own uselessness had inflicted on him, it was having Freud rubbed into the wound.

"It isn't jealousy," he said. "It's anger." But Mrs. Caraller was not fazed.

"Anger," she said. "Oh my lord. Anger's ever worse! You'll do yourself a permanent mischief if you stay angry with her."

"Really. Do tell."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Art Pact 247 - Paperwork


Drowning in paperwork, we took a few minutes to go out on the balcony and smoke, impishly tapping the ash from the end of our fags off the edge so that it tumbled down onto the lower levels. There were five of us, although Bentham didn't smoke, so he stood at one end of the platform and alternately frowned at us and stared at our cigarettes. Sharon, who has a finely-tuned radar for people's weaknesses, nudged me and drew a line in the air between Bentham's eyes and Lola's mouth. I'd assumed he had been staring at her tits, but the truth was more interesting.

"You all right?" Sharon asked. "You look a bit discombobulated."

"What the fuck does that mean?"

"Disconcerted," she told him. "Out of sorts."

"No. Perfectly fine."

"Oh," she said, nudging my elbow again. "I thought you might have some cravings coming over you. You know, perhaps something you used to love in the past but you've given up on now. Thought it might be getting a grip on you."

"Holy shit," I said, getting it. "You used to smoke?"

Sharon shook her head, rolling her eyes. She'd no doubt intended to string it out a little longer, but if she really meant to she shouldn't have drawn me in. I'm notoriously unable to keep my mouth shut. Everyone knows that. That's why she wouldn't sleep with me on the works outing.

"I did not used to smoke," said Bentham.

"You fucking liar," Sharon laughed. "You've got it written all over you. You might as well be chewing a pen and slapping patches all over your arms."

Bentham sighed.

"Fine! Bloody hell, you're like the Spanish Inquisition."

"Unexpected?" Royce piped up. We ignored him.

"You." I said. "You, Mister Scotchguard, used to smoke."

He raised an eyebrow at that. I guess he hadn't heard our nickname for him before. Or perhaps he had, but he hadn't realised that it was him.

"Yes. We all have pasts, you know. I used to smoke. Not cigarettes."

"A pipe!" Sharon said, clapping her hands. "Please tell me it was a pipe."

"Cigars," he told her.

"Oh. Boo."

"How are cigars not better than a pipe?" asked Lola. "I mean, that is classy. Classy as fuck, you know, cigars in those boxes-"

"Humidors." Bentham supplied.

"Humi-what?"

"Humidors. Those little guillotines that you cut off the tip of the cigar with. Wood-panelled rooms filled with smoke."

"Filthy things done with interns," Sharon suggested. Lola touched the tip of her own nose, pointed at Sharon.

"This must be some new definition of classy," Bentham said gruffly.

"Pipes. I'd really hoped it was pipes. Can't you imagine him as a pipe-smoker? Tweed jackets- no, not tweed - a smoking jacket! Yeah, a smoking jacket. Fuck yeah." She leant back slightly, made a frame with her hands and centred Bentham in the middle of it. He turned away, stuck his hands in his pockets, pulled the right one out again with a puzzled expression. There was a little piece of plastic wrapping between his fingers, which he looked at for a few seconds before he flicked out into the air. A gust of wind caught it, whipped it up and out of sight.

"Wow, you really are cutting loose today. You're shattering all expectations. First we find out you've got a secret past as a smoker, now this? Littering?" She shook her head. "It's the end of days, I tell you. The harbinger of the apocalypse."

I looked back in at the mounds of paper that waited inside. It might be nice if Bentham was the first horseman, I thought. We could do with a nice apocalypse, wipe the slate clean of all this damn work. I had always imagined that it would start with fire - perhaps too much listening to my father's tales of the sun's expansion when I was a child. I'd understood vaguely that he was talking about things that were far off in the future, but to a child all of the future is far off - a billion years might as well have been ten, for all I could see. I thought of the bloated orange orb covering the sky, the temperature roasting. Our bundles of forms and comment sheets and polls and data print-outs would begin to dry out, curling up, until inevitably a single spark. Ashes wouldn't just drip down in discrete clumps from the end of our cigarettes then. They'd rain down, grey dust that would block out the sun for the unfortunates in the flats below, a bureaucratic winter. Archaeologists in the future would find our blackened bones in the ruins of the tower and conclude that we must have been some ritual sacrifice. Something for the gods of information, something for the continuance of office life on earth.

"Why'd you give up?" Sharon asked.

"Bad for me, obviously. Plus, there was a girl. A woman," he corrected himself.

"Oh, didn't like the taste of it, eh? Like kissing an ashtray."

She made mwah-mwah air kiss motions towards Lola which ended with the both of them recoiling in mock disgust. I would have laughed, but I'd lost Becky because of smoking  - well, in part because of smoking, in part because of who I was smoking with, I suppose. I tried to imagine what sort of woman Bentham would go for at all, let alone fall for enough to allow her to change his habits. I could imagine that, but I could not add on the extra requirement that she should like him back. It wasn't that he wasn't likeable, it was just that I doubted anyone could bear him enough to live with him. Even we could only really tolerate his constant presence because of the money involved.

"Actually she was..." Bentham began, but then stopped. I could see Sharon's sense for weakness working - she had a little glint in her eyes that came on. This time, though, I nudged her. She looked round, surprised. I shook my head - just a little movement, just enough to say not this time, leave it. She took a deep breath, nodded, let it go.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Art Pact 246 - Stocks and Shares


The precipitous drop in stock prices, though, was hardly a worry for my portfolio - which consisted two shares in Manbourder Industries left to me by my uncle. Manbourder Industries, from what I could tell, was a holding company that held precisely one other company - a fifty-three percent share in a clothes shop in Seven Dials called "Tall and Dark" which catered to overweight and unusually tall goths - generally the former, despite the shop's more optimistic name. The shares, since they were not publicly traded, had no easily calculable public worth, and since whenever I walked past the shop on the way to my day job (filling in forms in the travel agency) it was either closed or open but empty, I imagined that profits were unlikely to be flowing to the parent company fast enough to justify any sort of dividend. Indeed, I assumed that the holding company had originally been set up as some sort of simple shell system so that the shop could be jettisoned when (as seemed inevitable) it finally exhausted whatever reserves of cash and stock it had, without the implosion taking the shareholders with it. I could have looked into it more closely, of course - it's easy to say that with hindsight - but two shares in anything seems pointless. After all, how many companies divide their shares into simple fractions? That's how houses are divided after divorces, not complicated financial entities. A thousand shares in a company - now that's worth something. Two shares? Two shares are pointless.

I answered the door late one Saturday morning to discover a smartly-dressed woman standing outside with a briefcase clutched in front of her thighs. I was still in my dressing gown, half-way through the second cup of coffee of the morning and still not feeling entirely conscious, let alone fully awake. It had been a long night of television and fruitless self-abuse (I had somehow managed to fall asleep in the middle of it, so boring at sex that even I couldn't stay awake when I was doing it), and I had looked forward to wallowing in indulgent self-pity for the rest of the weekend, getting all of the recrimination and grief out of the way on my own time so that I could strap on a mask of happiness - or at least basic neutrality and competence - that would allow me to make it through another working week. To say I was under-prepared for a business meeting was to say that the dinosaurs were under-prepared for meteor season.

"Hello Mister Brunt," said the woman, sticking out her hand. I stared at it for a few seconds, unable to work out what it was for. She didn't seem bothered by my slowness. "My name is Karen Dowd, perhaps you've heard of me?"

"I.." I croaked, swallowed, tried again. My mouth, courtesy of the coffee and of last night's solo drinking, was full of a sort of foul-tasting adhesive ash. "I have not," I finally managed.

"Oh. Well, I'm a friend of your uncle's. Your uncle George."

"Right," I said, nodding. "Sorry." I wasn't sure what for, but there seemed to be plenty of things to be sorry for in that statement.

"Could I come in?" she asked.

I glanced back at my living room. It seemed inadvisable, but on the other hand a good honest pigsty is a good way of getting rid of unwanted visitors. Was she unwanted? I had no idea. I was barely able to focus on her face with the combination of no glasses, hangover headache, and caffeine buzz. I nodded, though, and let the door open a bit more - enough for her to squeeze in. She walked straight past me, into the living room, and perched herself on the single dining-room chair that was in there. I didn't blame here. The sofa was dangerously piled with books and empty bottles, with one hole where a person could sit that was in the shape of my arse. If she'd sat there there was every chance that the other occupants of the chair would have collapsed in on her in a papery avalanche, trapping her.

"I love this chair," she said, confusing me for a moment. I remembered that I'd inherited it too, along with two others (there should have been three more, but one had been broken by my uncle in the course of the decorating that had proved fatal to him). "I used to sit on it when Brandon and I went to visit George. We'd talk about all sorts - money, the state of the world, philosophy. Pets," she added, nodding. "Do you know if they ever found Albert?"

They had not ever found my uncle's near-silent parrot, or if they had, they had not told me. I wasn't even sure who they was in this context, since most of the cleaning out had been my job. If Albert had come back to his home since my uncle died, I would have been the person most likely to be there when it happened, even accounting for my infrequent and hurried visits and the fact that it had been over a year. I suppose the new council tenants might have been visited, but they were refugees from Sri Lanka. Would they have known what they were looking at? Does Sri Lanka even have parrots?

"I expect you're wondering how I knew your uncle."

I wasn't. But I had no idea what the purpose of the visit was, and was more than happy to allow her to set the agenda. I sat down on the sofa myself. The woman looked away conspicuously and I realised that there was perhaps a little more gape in my dressing gown than was strictly necessary. I adjusted myself back into decency.

"We met through some shared interests in business," she continued, when I had finished my adjustment. "George and I, and Brandon, were very interested in a certain aspect of human morality and how it affected business and the flow of money."

That didn't sound like George at all. George was only interested in one thing - thieves. Particularly shoplifters. I remembered how obsessed he'd been, ranting away, and only after half a minute of this reverie did I realise that that sounded exactly like what she was describing.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Art Pact 245 - Tumble


When I moved into the house there were several existing tenants - mice, a neighbouring cat that wandered in and out at will, a family of spiders, and most disturbingly, some sort of raccoon. The first thing I did was to duct-tape closed the cat flap, but much to my dismay I soon discovered that there were other ways into the house, ways which the cat and the mystery raccoon knew about but which I could not detect. I kept my bedroom door closed, bolted in fact, because there was a deadbolt on the top of the door left there by the previous owner. That kept the visitors from making uninvited nocturnal trips into my sanctum, but it did nothing to enforce my sense of ownership over the rest of the territory that should by rights have been mine and mine alone.

The cat was easy enough to deal with. I briefly considered just trapping the damn thing (I have never liked cats - probably some childhood trauma) but the first time I caught it strolling through my living room I noticed that it had a collar with a metal tag on it. That meant it had owners, and that meant that if I caught it in a cage and (for instance) released it somewhere on the fens a good two or three hours drive away, there were likely to be questions raised.

I did not want questions raised.

Instead, I embarked on a program of calculated unfriendliness. Whenever the cat appeared I did my best to startle it out of any further desire to visit. I threw tennis balls at it. I jumped out at it and shouted. I also laid out small bits of food on the floor for it, morsels that were heavily coated in mustard powder. I heard shrieks of displeasure from downstairs during the night that often woke me, but I rolled over and went back to sleep safe in the knowledge that each shock would bring the day closer and closer when the cat would view the house as merely a place of strange and disturbing experiences - not as a shelter away from home to be roamed at will, but as a place to fear and actively avoid. After a month of this treatment I did not see the cat again, except occasionally at the end of my garden. Even then, when it saw me it would tense up, hiss dramatically, and then flee as though its tail was on fire.

The mice and spiders succumbed to a combination of grout, poison, mouse-traps, and the Hoover. It is a strange thing that you learn when you have a place of your own - that contrary to expectations, one of the most important places to clean is the ceiling. I had always assumed that gravity would take care of keeping the ceilings clean, but the spiders had other opinions on the matter. Thousands of the scuttling little buggers must have vanished into the nozzle of my vacuum cleaner, attended by the sticky wisps of their homes.

The mice were merely decimated by the traps - I found perhaps eight with their necks broken over the course of the two months that the little territorial war raged, and there must have been dozens upon dozens left alive if so many were caught - but the economic pressures were harder for them to bear. I moved all foodstuffs into the higher cupboards, installed seals around the cupboard doors and plugged the holes that I thought were mouse-sized. The aim was to make it infeasible for a family of two mice - both wage-earners - with two to three pups and no outstanding debts to be able to afford to stay in my house. I have little truck with welfare scroungers living off my taxes, I was certainly not going to stand by and let parasites live off my very foodstuffs. The mice starved once cut off from the teat, or they grew to understand the harsh economic necessities of life and struck out on their own, using their natural entrepreneurial spirit to carve a new life for themselves in the unclaimed wilderness at the end of the garden. Perhaps they simply moved into another house, a house where the owners were more of a soft touch. I'm sure there were champagne socialists living somewhere nearby - let them give the mice their handouts!

But the raccoon - or whatever it was. Well, that was a different matter entirely. I had seen the thing only out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was another cat, but there was something about it that was not quite cat like. I know what you are going to say - was it a squirrel? It was not. It was larger than a squirrel, and although predominantly grey, there were black parts of it too. It clearly was not an actual raccoon, since such creatures are confined to the new world, but it was something that I had no name for. Lacking a definitive name, I began to call it the raccoon in my own mind.

The raccoon resisted any attempt to scare it. It did not take the bait of the "poisoned" morsels of food. It was not startled when I jumped at it - indeed, it did the startling more often than the other way around. I would be sitting in the living room reading, and when I glanced around to look at the clock I would see two eyes glaring at me from the dark of the kitchen hallway.

Sometimes this seemed just natural behaviour - of course whatever the creature was it would want to stay out of my way, and that would lead to surprising meetings. But it sometimes became a little more sinister. On the fourth of May, six months after I had moved in, I was carrying some boxes downstairs to unpack when I suddenly heard a chittering noise from my left, further along the balcony. The next thing I knew was that the step I had expected my right foot to land on was gone, and I was tumbling downstairs, an avalanche of limbs and books and old school trophies and the shattered remnants of a set of wine glasses my aunt had given me many Christmases ago, back before I had been forced to kill her.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Art Pact 244 - Sleeping off a drunk


Well, when you're sleeping off a drunk under a rhododendron bush, curled up in the foetal position with the stink of alcohol in your nose - partly from you, but partly also from the half-finished can of Carling you have clutched in your paws that's slowly letting its contents evaporate into a miasma cloud of booze - that's not the best time to discover that there are dogs outside, wild dogs in that park, dogs that your drinking partners didn't warn you about when you said that you would walk back that way to your hotel (neglecting to tell them that what you actually meant anyway was sleeping on the floor of the little bit in between the lobby and the front door, the bit you can get to without a key card). That's the worst time, in fact, probably the worst time anyway, to discover this fact. When you stink slightly of piss because during the night your bladder got uncomfortably full of cheap lager and started to wonder what it was going to do with it all, because it saw that your brain was out like a light and said to itself "Awwww, how adorable. I'll let him sleep.", so that instead of getting up and moving out into the chill night air and sending a golden arc of piss flying onto the grass where only a few hours later people would be sitting with their picnic rugs, instead of that you just pissed through your clothes so that the ground under your thigh is a mushy little bog compared to the lovely dry soil beneath your head and feet. That, then, when you've cold in the middle and merely chilly at either end, when even a human could detect your species by your smell, let alone some creature with a more sensitive nose, when you're either muddled in the head because too much alcohol is in there or beset by a powerful headache because too little alcohol is in there, that then is the worst time (again, probably) to discover that there are packs of dogs in the park in which you are sleeping, and that they are the sort of dogs that might be a bodily threat to you, and furthermore that a group of these dogs has you surrounded, treed like a squirrel except that the tree is a rhododendron bush and the squirrel is an overweight thirty-something graphic designer who currently looks like (and has the same job as) a tramp.

This, then, was the situation I found myself in. Of all the ways to discover that Maligne park had a problem with feral and violent dogs, I had picked the worst (probably), which was to be in that situation and discover that I was in that situation when something nipped at my boot.

The first thing that I did was that I moved closer to the bush's central trunk. Under the canopy of waxy leaves it was actually quite roomy - although I hasten to add that that is an assessment made in the cold light of day, at several week's remove from the event itself. At the time I think I would have been lucky if I could have identified it as a plant, let alone made a critique of its design in its capacity as a hiding place. The process went more like this: I rolled over, discovered that my thigh was soaking wet and cold, groaned, shivered, listened some more to the snuffling sounds and low-pitched yips coming from outside the bush, then began to drag myself laboriously until I was as close to the main stem of the plant as I could get (not that close). I'd sobered up a lot - a little due to sleep, a little due to cold, and a lot due to some part of my brain that was still a little interested in self-preservation and had woken me up at the sensation of tugging from my leg.

Whatever it was that had made the first incursion into my leafy fortress, it had withdrawn when I began to move - possibly it had thought I was dead and had retreated to regroup, but I didn't even begin to entertain the possibility that it might have been scared off. I could still hear the things padding in a circle around the bush. There was a little light outside - a full moon, which did no help me feel any safer - and it provided enough illumination to see shapes moving through the breaks in the leaves - low, lean shapes like hunting dogs.

"Fuck off," I whispered.

Something outside growled.

My thinking was still addled by the pounding in my head, but I was not so stupid as to think that I was going to be able to get rid of whatever was lurking outside by shouting at it. Instead I tried to pull myself upright - a failure, perhaps even an abject failure, since I got as far as one knee and then lost my balance, toppling sideways into a tangle of thin branches which were strong enough to support my weight but not rigid enough to prevent me from twisting as I fell so that my arm got wrapped or twisted somehow in the resulting confusion. I tugged with my whole body for a good minute, desperate to get myself free before the dogs outside worked up the courage to come in, but I could not budge an inch - that is, until I realised that I had grabbed onto the base of one of the branches as I fell and that simply letting go would free me instantly. So fast, in fact, that I almost fell over again.

That was enough of a signal for the dogs. A snout poked under the umbrella of leaves, snuffled twice, withdrew, then reentered followed by the rest of the animal's head and its forelegs. It was a bull terrier: white, ghostly white in the light of the moon. It sniffed again, then spotted me cowering in the middle of the bush and bared its fangs.

"Good doggy," I whispered hopefully but without much hope.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Art Pact 243 - Embedded


Every morning I pick up my watch from my nightstand and strap it on. When my husband leaves for work, I raise it to my mouth and begin to report my observations from the previous day.

In my capacity as a secret agent, I have often wondered whether the people at home are really quite as on the ball as I remember them. I've been embedded here for close on to thirty years now, have married and raised a family and although I have seen much to be deplored here, it is impossible to spend so much time in a culture and not come to appreciate some elements of it. The people here are friendly to me, of course, because I so resemble their cultural ideal - as an eighteen-year old girl when I first arrived, I was head-turningly beautiful by their standards, and although I have been weathered by age, experience, and (chiefly, I think) children, I still retain something of that natural advantage. In addition, unlike the great majority of the native women, I have my training from the homeland, my education and upbringing which have instilled in me a self-confidence that life here slowly drains out of those women not bolstered against its effects. Thus, to the men of this place, I project a shell of supreme competence, which is in itself attractive to them, although I fear they do not perhaps understand why, nor that it is their culture which has robbed their own women of this mental gloss. My own dear husband is still unsure quite why I chose him, quite baffled that someone like me would lower herself to consort with a man of - if I must be brutally objective in my descriptions - rather plain demeanour and equipped with no great fortune. If he knew - that my mission requires me to be placed close to the common man of this land and decidedly distant from any sort of fame or celebrity which might lead to my exposure - I think it would clarify a great confusion in him. He would sigh, nod, and say to himself "of course, that explains it", and he would be a little sad but he would at least have some sort of closure to the puzzle that has dominated our marital life.

The truth behind the truth, though, is that I have come to love him, and had I access to a time-machine and my younger self had had the freedom to select her own mate, I think I should have advised her to pick him anyway. He is not physically handsome, that is true, but neither is he repulsive, and he came to our marriage bed with a humility and an openness to learning that has made that side of our relationship a delight rather than a dull chore. Perhaps he lacks the sweeping passion that I imagine in my homelanders, but his is a comfortable love, a hot-water bottle that warms the heart and the loins alike, there is no shame in such a style and truth be told perhaps it is ideal for these climes, where furtive couplings in back alleys and raging dramas of sex that roam free through the house result more in chills and less in thrills. We in the homeland (can I call myself one of that we still?) joke about their sexual habits being confined to the bed, and yet on a cold autumn morning there is no more comfortable place for it. And all winter mornings are cold here.

If you doubt that my feelings for him run deep, you might look to our children for confirmation. There was no mention of children in my briefing - I might have avoided them easily without receiving censure from above or suspicion from my target nation, since although they are currently in a fit of mother-worship (ironic, since their culture is designed to denigrate grown women in all other ways), they are first and foremost a pragmatic people, well accustomed to individual idiosyncrasy in the matter of parenthood and also, of course, to the medical problems which prevent it. Their science lags behind that of the homeland, making infertility still something that is troublesome to cure, although - in another irony - they also lack contraception which does not rely on the frailties of human memory or maturity, so that the couples who should be able to conceive but cannot are often supplied with infants by young couples who should not be able to conceive but have. I could easily have stayed with my husband without children, then, but I felt that if I did want them he would be as good a father as any. Since there was no telling when I might be called upon to extract myself, I also thought that it might be a good idea to get on with it. If I waited for a recall that never happened I felt that would be filled with regret had I sacrificed my opportunities at a family. If I was recalled after the children were born, I could decide then whether to bring them with me or leave them in their father's care.

The recall did not, of course, come while the children were living at home. Indeed, the whole subject of communication with the homeland has been puzzling me for some time. I talk into the watch, the special watch they gave me that they assured me my handlers would be monitoring. I tell them things I have observed, the dispositions of policemen and the locations of government buildings. I wait further orders, but none are forthcoming. There is no mention of the homeland on the news here - I vaguely remember something about an information embargo, no doubt a trick by the local government to keep their subjects from learning about a better way of life. I read nothing in the papers, either, and I monitor the web pages I remember being drop-boxes for general codes, but most of them simply return page not found errors. Has something happened in the homeland?

It is troubling, but I am a soldier. I continue to make my reports.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Art Pact 242 - Thrown out


I punched the bartender, which lead inevitably, as night follows day and day follows night, to me being repeatedly punched myself - first in the face by the other bartender, who at least did me the human decency of putting the bottle she was holding down behind the bar beforehand, and then subsequently in the back by bouncer number one (the big guy, the one with the newspaper type tattoo on his face that made him look like a huge human-shaped piece of silly putty). Finally there was a a resounding one-two in the stomach by bounder number two, who I can only assume had some sort of obsessive-compulsive need for balance, since he gave me one shot with each hand one perfectly opposed ribs. Had I gone to the doctor no doubt I would have been awarded a cup for the most symmetrical injury. At the time, of course, my thoughts were not on that glittering prize and the fame and women that would come with it, but on the four sources of pain which were now present in my otherwise healthy body, and how they might be affected by the parabolic arc in which I was being comically sent by the two bouncers - or more strictly, how they might be affected by the impending collision with the pavement which promised a swift terminus to my impromptu aeronautics.

The question of why I had punched the bartender, given the retaliation that I knew would come from such an act, was not one I chose to ponder on during that flight - except obliquely. Instead I thought - as I often thought, at the time - of William. I suppose in a sense he was the primum movens of the five blows, although perhaps it might be more accurate to describe him as the antithesis of the primum mobile, he constituting as it were the innermost point around which I (and as far as I was concerned the rest of the world) rotated in steadily increasing concentric rings. I, I thought charitably, might perhaps inhabit the sphere of Mars, somewhat distant but still important, although my natural disbelief in the stereotypes of gender made me recoil somewhat from this thought, implying as it did something of the John Gray orthodoxy. Similarly glumly I might accept that Caroline was the inhabitant of the sphere of Venus, a domicile she was well suited for.

It was perhaps too much of an opportunity for the grim world to pass up on that I might think of her at that very moment so that my mental, emotional, and physical pain should coincide in a perfect storm of misery, my mind occupied with that treacherous siren just as my hand, my elbow, my head, then the rest of me, crashed into the paving stones with reckless abandon. I saw a bright light and was somewhat disappointed to discover that it was not the light from above, the beckoning heavens calling me to ascend and forgiving all my sins, but instead some sort of brief flash caused by the intersection of my delicate brain and the unyielding stone.

I lay there. I'm not ashamed to say that my eyes were watering, and if it hadn't been for the fact that the impact with the pavement had winded me, I might well have been crying. You don't take a beating like that without a little sadness, and since I'd taken beatings of greater or lesser extent in the past, I'd come to accept that toughing it out wasn't always the best plan. Sure, in front of other people you tough it out, show that you can't be controlled by pain, but when I'm alone that rule is superceded by the need for emotional release.

Of course, times change. If at one moment you're alone you may well start crying only to find that you have to stop rather precipitously. I heard the sound of platform heels clunking towards me, and then the surprising voice of Alison.

"Oh my god! Billy? Billy, are you all right?"

My heart sank, but fortunately the displacement of that organ provided enough emotional vacuum to suck the tears back into my ducts. I felt around on the cold surface, trying to get my hands under me enough to raise my head a little. I got there, but once I'd freed my face from being pressed against the pavement my arms decided their work was done and they let me down again. I was left with the other side of my face on the paving stone. Admittedly, it was a little more comfortable. But it also made more of me visible to Alison, confirming her diagnosis.

"Oh god! Here, let me help you up!" I felt hands on my shoulders, a little lifting force, then I was let go again - fortunately I had not moved far enough to fall. "Oh no! Wait, don't move! Don't move while I call the ambulance!"

"I'm fine," I groaned, this time pushing myself up into a sitting position.

"Who did this?"

I nodded towards the bar. Alison rolled up the sleeves of her houndstooth coat and set her jaw to kill.

"Homophobic bastards!" she spat. "Want me to go in there and feed them a few knuckle sandwiches?"

"Please don't," I said. "I think they already have catering in the bar, I don't want you to get in trouble."

"They can't get away with this!"

"They can," I groaned, getting to my knees, "and they will, do you understand? I started this."

"Fucking gay-bashing Nazi bullies," she said, slipping one arm around me and helping me up. "You can't let these things go."

"I can, and I will," I repeated firmly. "Listen, they're wankers but not that sort of wanker."

Alison was determined to blame someone, though, and without an obvious target in bigoted bar-staff that left only me. She tutted at me, huffed through her nose, and moved me off down the pavement.

"I can't believe you're still getting in this sort of trouble," she said.

"This is new trouble," I confessed.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Art Pact 241 - He's got a photo-bomb


(with apologies to Mark Leyner)

He's got a photo-bomb.

He gets into the frame, clicks the button on the top of his camera, his lovely DSLR that his wife bought him for Christmas, framing the holly stalk so that it's perfectly on the two-thirds line in the viewfinder, because he's heard that that's the ideal point to place the focal point of the picture. He turns off auto-focus - because, really - and gently adjusts the focal ring until the drop of dew that's sitting on top of the nearest berry is so perfectly in focus that a millimetre either way would spoil the interplay of light on top of it. The shutter button depresses, and releases, and the speaker in the camera makes a little click to show that it took the picture. Satisfied, he lowers the viewfinder from his eye and scrolls back into the camera's gallery to review the picture.

He's got a photo-bomb.

The holly is there, okay, that much is true. But it's out of focus, a soft white blur around a brown shape that might, if you were being generous, be recognisable as the stalk. Dark green blobs represent what should have been leaves. The dew-drop? It might once have been there, but historians of dew would not be able to tease any evidence for their theories out of this photo, no matter how advanced future photo-reconstruction technology became. There is no sign of the single beautiful dew drop that sits in front of him, large as life, when he lifts his eyes back up to his subject.

What there is, in the picture, is a squirrel's head, poking up from the bottom left of the image. It's staring straight into the camera lens like a hypnotised deer or a poorly-trained actor. In its tiny too-human hands it's holding a nut, and the whole impression of the scene is one of malevolent amusement. It's as though the squirrel was waiting for him to take the picture so that it could pop up. It's so aware of the camera it might as well have been holding a sign saying HELLO MUM. He looks around, but there's no squirrel to be seen anywhere. He lifts the camera to his eye again, frames the picture perfectly, focuses in again on that singular jewel of a water drop, that slippery liquid diamond that he thinks will so capture the eye in this picture that it will be an instant favourite on Flickr, will grace computer wallpapers across the globe. He listens carefully, can hear nothing, presses the shutter release, checks the gallery.

He's got a photo-bomb.

It's not the squirrel this time. Instead the camera is focused beyond the holly into the near background, the sky behind the bush, a patch of beautiful clear blue winter sky in which the camera has captured a flying pigeon in the act of defecation. The stream of white shit is caught in perfect focus, a little lance of faecal matter and avian ammonia sharply captured in a way that it could never have been if he had attempted the shot deliberately.

He looks up, and around. The sky is clear of all pigeons, the ground absent any sign of squirrels or other rodents. He turns the camera onto auto-focus, quickly raises it up and snaps a shot of the holly-berry before anything else can get into frame.

He's got a photo-bomb.

There's a fly dead on the centre of the lens. It's a technical marvel, he has to admit, that the camera is capable of such an amazing macro focus that it can get the detail of the fly's underside, individually distinguish the six legs that are spread out so as to block him from taking the shot. He scrolls back through the gallery. He's taken three shots with the camera so far, and all of them have been useless.

He takes a few more shots, and each time the same thing. He tries to take a photo of the frost glistening on the playing fields in the park down the road from his house, but it comes out as a photo of two dogs escaping their owners to engage in an elicit tryst. He tries to take a photo of the Christmas tree in his house, but just as he does his cousin drunkenly lurches in the way, grinning madly. He puts the camera away, ignoring the frowns from his wife.

The shops are open on Boxing Day, so he braves the crowds of disappointed gift-getters and parents who are desperate to buy packets of batteries for children's toys that have sat staring accusingly at them during the showing of "The Great Escape". He endures the hideous renditions of Christmas Carols reimagined as seductive blues numbers by young girl-bands, and depressing quasi-religious ballads by leathery old pop-stars desperate to cling onto the one possible market they have left. He stands in line and stares enviously at the people who walk past them on the river side of town, wrapped up in their muffles and big fur coats and obviously enjoying some sort of post-breakfast walk with their family. He would rather be walking with his family. He could be getting some great shots, he thinks, crystal clear photos, none of this instagrammed nonsense with computer-generated grains and shonky colour balance that he has to watch filling up his facebook feed while he stands in line. Instead he's forced to deal with his recalcitrant camera.

In the camera shop he hands the camera over, shows the assistant the gallery and explains what he was trying to do in each case. The assistant picks up the camera, points it out of the window, tries to take a picture of the queue of shoppers waiting outside. When they look at the picture, one of the shoppers has his bum pressed up against the store's plate-glass window. The assistant nods, flicks through the manual he has for the camera, and looks up at him.

You've got a photo-bomb, the assistant says.

I know that, he replies, rolling his eyes.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Art Pact 240 - Plantship


The great mother-pod rolled in its orbit, the lower castellations and towers on the surface of the craft rustling the leaves at the very tops of the trees below. Workers on the surface of the pod wound their vines and graspers around the nodes extended from the pod for safety, clamping tight so that they would not be swept off into the void. Some of them had the presence of mind to grab at the leaves that were brushing at them, snatching trophies and collecting samples for their work.

We are coming in, said the mother-pod. One more run.

The forest planet's green sphere spun beneath the pod. The canopy shielded the life forms below, and the surface workers clinging to the side of the mother-pod attempted in vain to peer below, signaling their frustration with waving tendrils. They had been expecting a less fertile target, and although the buzzing fecundity they found promised greater advantage for them, it was also an unnerving unknown. A planet so lush might be an uninhabited Eden, full of resources ripe for the plucking. But it might equally be the pleasure garden of some more aggressive strain. Caution should have been the byword, but they had not planned for caution, neither had they any resources to attempt the surface in any way other than their prescribed manner. The mother-pod's troops and bridgehead were ready in its vast womb, lining up nervously for their landing, and if they discovered resistance more stiff than that they were capable of defeating, there would be no reinforcements nor any hope of retreat. The mother-pod might in extremis dip down close enough to the tiny planet's surface to lower vines, but vines might so easily be repurposed by their enemies as tethers, so the risk would have to be worth taking. An expeditionary force's value would not be enough to justify the potential loss of a mother-pod, and the members of the group were grimly aware of that fact, marshalling their thoughts and turning them towards the optimism of success and away from the grim inevitabilities that were foot servants to defeat.

Ready first drops, said the mother-pod.

Beneath it, the planned incursion site grew closer and closer. The extra run the mother-pod had made over the planet had given it little more information about the landing spot, but had confirmed that there were no others it preferred - and since there were no better places, it might as well be the one that they had planned for. At least in the event of a complete loss, an expedition sent to determine what had happened would not have too difficult a time finding their remains. It was disturbed by the amount of growth that had occurred in the time available - the tiny message-pod that had alerted them to the planet's habitability had shown only rather sparse growth covering the surface - much smaller trees than the ones that now blanketed it completely, and an open area where the first growth of the bridgehead could begin without interference. Here, it seemed, there was no such opening. The landing crew and troops would have to baby the bridgehead, carving out an area of forest around its implantation point to prevent it from being strangled before it could grow out far enough that the mother-pod could reach it safely.

Release, it said.

Deep in the womb of the great living craft, the waiting troops and workers rushed towards the blossoming openings. They had their first taste of the atmosphere of the planetoid - thick, full of both oxygen and carbon dioxide, and heavy with a sweet perfume. They did not pause in their duties, although the presence of the scent was unexpected, and they knew that it might mean trouble - it was redolent of signals, of calls for help and of unknown and scuttling things that would rush in to defend the local flora. It could mean nothing, of course, but there was already the troubling speed with which the planet had changed since their scout had catalogued it and returned its message-pod to the home worlds. If the planet could change so much in so short a time, what other secrets could it hold? The possibility of "other forms", as the central minds diplomatically referred to them, was one that even the most hardened warrior found disturbing. Veterans of the forbidden campaigns would often speak in hushed rustles of the dark forms that moved faster than any normal person could react, of terrifying shapes, of an inexplicable free movement that allowed the enemies to attack from any direction at any time, striking and retreating before retaliation could be made, throwing encampments and bridgeheads into chaos before  vanishing into the night.

They tumbled like spores from the bottom of their carrier, plummeting and floating in equal measure as the mood took them - there was a deliberate randomness to the landing, a detail honed over generations upon generations of incursion to ensure that hostile growths could not develop simple plans for destroying an incoming bridgehead. Soldier and worker plants rained down in equal numbers, mixed together, and along with the actual bridgehead seed fell dozens of inert shells, chaff to distract any defenders away from the energy intensive prize that they would be looking for.

The fall was all too short for the soldiers. They thudded into the ground and began to work their way across the drop zone, seeking out and strangling a little circle of locals in order to clear space for the bridgehead seed. The seed itself had landed a little south of the intended insertion point, but workers were already swarming around it, leaning quickly over it from one side to encourage it to grown north as it reached up through the atmosphere. An opening in the canopy appeared and then grew as the soldiers did their deadly work, and by the time the mother-pod had down three more rotations the tip of the bridgehead was beginning to be visible climbing just above the local trees. The landing had proceeded entirely without incident.

Still, the brains on the mother-pod were nervous. Something was wrong with their information, and that made them uncomfortable.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Art Pact 239 - Spirit City


Lords and ladies and other things that hunt in the inbetween spaces, observe this simple mirror trick. Hold a mirror close to a light - not too close, perhaps the width of a knife's blade away, so that the light shines back in on itself with but barely diminished strength, then stare sidelong into the gap. There you will see the spirit city of rotted silver domes and empty boulevards. Reach forth into that space with a knife's blade, for I know you have one to hand, and scratch at the window. If the planets sit in their houses that scratch will grow and grow and open into a door until you can reach in a hand, a head, a leg, and step into the bewildering bright gloom on the other side.

You are burning with questions, lords and ladies and other hunters, you are aflame with curiosity, yet wait. Do not do this yet. This is not the trick. Any fool with a mirror and a light and a knife with a sharp point can cut the membrane and travel across into the other city. But once one arrives, what then? To traipse those empty streets is to learn nothing - to learn less than nothing, for the very memories of your own past would be driven from their perches by the eerie silence of that hidden city. Some of you, I know, think that you would welcome such a boon. But as the recollections of bright frost mornings and first kisses, mother's hugs and the crimson blossom around a rival's throat drip careless from your uncasked mind, what will you think then? You are not the unlucky ones, no matter how much you might fool yourselves. That privilege is reserved for the dwellers in niches that fear your claws, that fear your teeth and the shallow pond of stillness beneath the surface of which you submerge your rage. You may not know it, but you have nothing you wish to forget. They are those who you have blessed with memories like swallowed razor blades, thoughts that jangle within their heads, cutting and slicing and healing all at the same time so that each thought that touches upon them is as painful as the last.

No, to drink from this Lethe is no trick, but to find the occupants of that city, those downtrodden, that is the trick. There are no mirrors in the city of domes, so you must bring your own, carry it through the door. Have you fought a mirror? It will fight. But those among you that are lords and ladies and hunters know that any fight can be won with cleverness, or with overwhelming force. I leave it to you to decide on your own methods. Take a mirror, then, through the space that you have carved for yourself. Into a place where no mirrors exist, and for good reason. There you can walk the cold cobbles and think upon your past, fix it in place so that it does not fade away and unmake you while you search. Hold the mirror in your right hand and watch both the mirror and the buildings on your left. It must be that way - to hold your mirror in your left hand is to invite disaster.

For a mile you may walk, as the soft stuff of your life becomes blurred and indistinct, as the memories of killing and eating are plucked away by the air, refracted by the pock-marked silver surfaces of the great domes. You may see nothing. You may take a single footstep, on the other hand, and see in an instant that where there is no door on your left, on your right there is a door. In this place it is easy to deceive the eye, but as every lady knows as she covers up her face, there is no deceiving a mirror at any cost. The mirror will show you the door that is there, and if you walk closer and reach out your hand, so the hand in the mirror will grasp a handle. Turn the handle and walk in. Are you the person in the mirror, or the person in the street? Perhaps there is a distinction, perhaps not. If we who are trapped in the world are real, we show no signs of it.

Through that door and up the stairs, and can you see any difference? Here is the spirit city reflected, but the reflection is merely the left hand of the destruction that the right hand has wrought. You can climb the stairs and turn this way or that, but the result is the same. You will find the inhabitants, those who hid their doors so that they would never have to face visitors. Hunt them in their lairs, lords and ladies and hunters of various lands, for that is what you do. Chase them down until they have nowhere left to go.

Here, huddled in the grey rooms chased with red, here is the true trick, the one reserved for those such as you. You who have already bought the deaths of your prey with your quick knives and your cruel hooks, here you will see where they have run then, here you will find them in the refuge they think that they have paid for with their lives. But the spirit city is no refuge for those who know the trick. Those who cut their way into the spirit city with their bright blades, who brought it with them.

Now you may let your questions lick the walls and catch yellow-orange-red around you. Demand answers from those who huddle away from your light! You have killed them once and sent their spirits running here, but that has not sated your desires. The true death can only come once they are nothing, and even here, behind the mirror, they are something. Raise your knife! Strike! Strike again, and drive them from the life after life. And ask them as you do it: Where will you go now?