Saturday, June 29, 2013

Art Pact 271 - The Big City

Some facts I have noticed about the big city.

Everything is big! The buildings are big! The train stations are big! The parks are big! The people are big!

Well, almost everything. Not quite everything is big, but most things are. Some things are small. The mice are much smaller in the city than in the country, and the rats too. They're timid things, things that you see out of the corner of your eye as they scurry from one hiding-place to another. You could easily miss them if you're not sure where to look for them, and even then you might not find them. It's not the same as in the country, not the same as opening a barn and going inside to find a tool that you haven't used in years. You might look in the corner of your toolbox and see six little black eyes staring back up at you - nestmates, curious to see what has come to find them while their mother is away. The bit city mice and rats are reared in burrows or nests deep in the underground of the city, in the pipes and tubes and cellars and other spaces that are deep down below the bustling surface. There are cracks and faults that might let a mouse go from one side of the city to the other completely underground, passing through wine cellars, and service hatches, and basements, and veins of opened rock. I sometimes wish that I could travel like a mouse, secret and silent, moving out from the sight of the grey masses that move around at ground level.

More facts. There are (if you only count the official inhabitants and not the mice, rats, cats, pigeons, crows, magpies, ducks, swans, dogs and horses) ten million living beings in the city. These are the official statistics, the number so big that it is not considered worth going into more precision. If there were a million and a half people in the city, that half would be defended. Here, people would say, is a city that is much bigger than those million-person cities, those country-bumpkin pretender cities that house next to no-one. Why, they might be rounding up! A city with a million and a half inhabitants can't be counted along with cities that might only have nine-hundred thousand, anarchy would reign!

But a city of ten million has nothing to prove. Ten million, they say. Might be more, might be less. Probably more, though, and who's going to quibble with a little bit of inflation? Who's going to say that we can't describe ourselves as a city of ten million? You? Are you going to stop us with your pedantry? You and whose army (of ten million and one)? No, a city of ten million is a grown-up city, assured of its own status. It moves in elevated circles, no longer a city so much as a metropolis.

Another fact: for every one person in the city, there are approximately a million ants. For every one person there are five mice. For every one person, three rats. For every person, two point six pigeons. Then beyond that, the ratios reverse. For every cat, twenty people. For every dog, thirty-two people. For every magpie, thirty-six people. For every crow, forty people. For every duck, forty-one people. For every swan, one thousand one hundred people. For every horse, two thousand people. There are two elephants in the city zoo, each responsible for elephant duties to five million people. No-one knows how they divide this duty. Perhaps the female elephant is responsible for the women of the city, the male elephant for the men. Perhaps they divide the people by height, or perhaps they time-share: one doing his elephant duty during the day, one doing her duty during the night. It is too mysterious, no-one knows how elephants think. You can visit them during the day, when the zoo is open, and you can look at them for as long as you like. But you will never be able to determine which one of them is thinking about how he can be the best elephant for your needs, and which one is concentrating on someone else.

Fact: The tallest building in the city is the Tower of Future Lights, which is two hundred and sixty meters (or 0.026 millimetres per inhabitant of the city) tall. But you can't go up to the top of it, because it's owned by a bank and they have very serious security guards at all the entrances. I offered to open an account with them, but it made no difference. The security guard told me I had to go.

The second tallest building in the city is the Tower of Communication, which is only one hundred and eighty-nine meters high (or 0.0189 millimetres per inhabitant), but on Sundays they open to the general public, and there is a restaurant on the top floor and a viewing deck above that. You can see out over the whole city, and you can even see out to the countryside, which reminds you that even the biggest city is only so large. You can walk and walk and walk for hours, for a whole day, and never get to the end of the city, but just go up for less than two hundred meters (it takes about a minute and a half in the tower's huge elevators), and there it is! The end!

Fact: no-one I have spoken to since I've been in the big city has admitted to being from the country like me. No-one will say they've been there. They know about it, because when I say that I came in from the country they nod and look understanding and sympathetic. But they've never been there themselves. Fact: in the big fountain in the centre of Advancement Square there are coins, hundred of coins. You can't take them because it would be bad luck, and also because most of them have been in the fountain so long that they've become stuck to the marble beneath them. Fact: this is something to do with the slight acidity of the water. Theory: I theorise that in the old days people were law-abiding or superstitious, so the early coins stayed there long enough to be partially dissolved, which is what is sticking them to the marble. Fact: people nowadays aren't so law-abiding and certainly aren't so superstitious, so they would happily go into the fountain to scoop out all the coins. But the old coins, the ones that are worth something, are stuck to the marble, and the new ones are worthless. They're pennies and ha'pennies and quarter-pennies, all coins that you'd have to have a bagful of just to buy a sandwich. Rescuing a handful isn't worth a person's dignity (Fact: I didn't make that up, that was something that a man told me while I was standing staring into the bottom of the fountain on the fifth day after I arrived. Theory: I think he thought I was going to dive in, because of my country clothes which made me look like I was homeless, when instead I'd already moved into Aunt Elda's house).

Fact: The city must rely on the countryside for food and drink, because nothing gets made here. Well, not quite nothing, but even something as simple as coffee needs beans to grow and cows to milk. There are no cows in the city, which is to say zero cows for every ten million people.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Art Pact 270 - First Dragon

From my place under the duvet, safely cocooned from the seasonal but rather rude sunlight that had pushed its way into my room, I could hear the unusual sounds of people moving around in the front room. It was not strange to hear my mother up early - she was a compulsive morning person, unwilling to sympathise with the idea that anyone might not be as chipper as her at seven o'clock in the morning. But my sisters were more like me, and my father even more so - if it wasn't a work or school day there were even odds that you might walk into our house at midday and find my mother the only person out of bed, the only sounds our snoring and the chip-chip-chip of chisel on concrete coming from her studio.

But not that morning. That morning the sounds of girls voices - one loud, one soft - took the place of the noise of my mother at work. Which in itself was strange, because my mother had been compulsively working on piece after piece for several weeks by that time, her rhythms of artistic inspiration and enthusiastic productivity clearly coming into phase with each other for once (they usually overlapped only for a period of a week, before which she was brimming with ideas but unable to muster the energy to work on them, and after which she was still pumped up to be in her workshop but her visions deserted her, leaving her chipping away aimlessly at simple representational sculptures of us - which me and my sisters were delighted by, but which my mother felt were not really art. Not her art, anyway). There was also a sound vaguely audible from outside, a sort of scratching noise and a low rumble like a heavy cart crossing cobbled streets miles and miles away.

Now, any other person might have been interested enough in the peculiar goings-on downstairs to have forced himself up out of bed and gone to investigate. But to those people I say this: you are not committed enough to sleep. I got two chances every week to stay in bed for as long as I liked (within reason, I had to be up for the evening meal or I was likely to starve), and I was not going to waste on of those opportunities just because I'd heard a bit of noise, however intriguing. Instead I grabbed the duvet closer to me and rolled towards the wall, making a Swiss roll with boy centre out of the bedclothes. I tried to reach out to bring a pillow over my ears, realised that I had swaddled my hands too tightly for that, unrolled, put the pillows in place, re-rolled, then squirmed inchworm style until I had insinuated my ears (and of course what lay between them) between the two sound-deadening white cushions. There - safe, so I thought, from any audible interruption - I tried to get back to sleep.

It was not to be. Although I could easily ignore the sounds coming from downstairs, the sound of my own bedroom door opening and closing was something altogether different. I was just preparing to roll over and give the perpetrator of this outrage against privacy and simple decency a stern shouting at when I felt the full weight of my younger sister land on the side of the bed that I had just vacated. Well, I say her full weight. What I actually mean was that approximately forty percent of her weight - the soft forty percent - landed on that side of the bed. The other sixty percent, which was all bones and iron anvils, from what I could tell, landed directly on me.

"Yelp!" I said. Well, yelped. Well, screamed really.

"Geo- I mean fatso!" she corrected herself, almost missing an opportunity to insult me in her excitement. "Mum says to get downstairs immediately!"

"It's Saturday," I said. "Tell her to look at a calendar."

"She says to come down and look at dad's dragon!"

I stopped trying to squirm my kidneys away from her tiny but powerful elbows, instead focusing on rolling all the way over so that I toppled her off the side of the bed. I regretted it instantly - it was far too forceful a roll, and she had hit the floor with a bump that under normal circumstances would have been followed by tears and an appeal to the higher justice of whichever of our parents were nearer, but this time she just shook it off, standing up and pulling at my duvet to try to unroll me. I rolled myself, but in such a way as to let her think she was doing it, then grabbed my pyjama top from the floor and followed her downstairs.

I saw my mother and my elder sister first, staring out of the front room's bay window with expressions that were difficult to gauge. Excitement? Amazement? Eagerness? Pride? Terror? It could have been any of these, and I was to discover as I took the few steps forward to see what they were looking at that it was in fact all of them. Because just as my little sister had reported, there in front of the house stood our father and a heavy goods cart, and in between the two of them a dragon.

"That's a dragon," I said, pointing out at it.

"Yes," said my mother.

"Well spotted, genius!" said my elder sister, sarcastic for a moment but by the time the sentence was half-way through already back to pure excitement. If you'd heard only the last word you would have thought that not only was she of the opinion that I actually was a genius, but she was even thrilled about the fact.

"He bought it from a man in town!" said my little sister, dancing around us. "We're going to ride in the cart!"

My father had been engaged in inspecting the beast when I first spotted him, but now he turned and saw the four of us through the window. He waved at us, first a friendly wave of greeting then a gesture to come outside.

The dragon was small, by dragon standards, but it was still big enough to be impressive. The length of two horses, and probably the weight of three, the creature was supported by six stubby legs tipped with chunky claws that were almost like hooves except for the sharp points at their ends. Its broad, muscley back was covered with heavy green scales, except for the line of its spine - there there was a fine line of downy white feathers, like those of a baby swan, that led from the back of its skull all the way down to the end of its tail. Its face was broad and pleasant, more like a cow's than a dog's, but when it opened its mouth to jaw and let out a kind of rumbling low, I could see rank upon rank of sharp conical teeth within that looked quite capable of crunching a man's arm (or - and this was of more immediate interest to me - a boy's arm) in a single bite.

"What do you think?" asked my father, obviously thinking similar thoughts, because he went to pat the dragon on its head and halfway through the gesture redirected his arm so that it went instead to the neck. "A beauty, isn't he?"

"Uh, yes," said my mother, sounding not entirely convinced. "Just out of interest, how much did it cost?"

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Art Pact 269 - Dawn Battles

We fought at dawn, the smack of rough punches echoing through the quiet valley and closer to the noises of exertion and exhaustion, coughing and panting and the crunch of knuckles and jaws and other bones that we could not identify as we hammered away at them. My hands were raw from blows, my knuckles just red ruins perched atop the milk-white of my fists, and I could see the crimson streams of blood rolling down my opponent's skin, darkened by the colour beneath. We punched and punched and punched, tore and kicked at each other, we wrestled so that at one moment my thumbs were pressing into his eyes, at the next his arm was around my throat and the world was all spots and lights and the sound seemed very far away. I stamped or wriggled or punched, or more likely I did all of those things, and I was free again to continue my assault, and to continue the sanctioned assault against my own body by means of a contractor. We tore at each others's faces with our nails like wild cats, we bludgeoned and spat and bit where we could, so that our mouths were full of blood and the taste of flesh and salt, and when we parted or fell to the ground we threw rocks and stones at each other, although we had agreed that there would be no weapons involved, so despite the fact that there were sticks within arm's reach we let them lie where they were.

After an hour of this punishment, though, the thought of finishing it off once and for all began to get the better of me, and I could see too that Spritzer was sending longing glances off to one side, into the undergrowth beneath the arid trees where their slow death was measured in unruly stacks of wood, fuel for some future brushfire that might in a month or two sweep down from the hills and devour the forest. There were sticks in there the size of a man's arm, perfect for cudgels, we could both have run for them and the first to reach it would have been able to deliver the coup de grace to the other. I thought that I might still be fleet enough of foot to survive, but looking at Spritzer there was much uncertainty in my assessment. I moved towards the pile of sticks - just a step. Spritzer did the same. We both took another step, and another, and I could feel every muscle in my body simultaneous screaming in agony and taut in preparation. I expected to begin to run at any moment - I willed myself to run, to be the first away and so gain vital seconds - vital in the most literal sense, since they would keep me alive and lead to Spritzer's death. But I could not make myself move, no matter how earnestly I wanted it. It was as if my feet were in lead. I knew that I was defeated then, but when I looked back at Spritzer I could see the same agony of paralysis in his eyes. His feet were covered in the blood streaming down from his legs, but they were pressed tight against the ground as if they could with one push spring away, sending him flying into the high heavens. I waited. Waited. There was no movement.

"Why are we fighting?" he said suddenly.

I had not heard him speak for close to four years, since we had sat opposite each other at the great table at my father's house, when Spritzer had sat beside his captain and laid out the terms of the treaty. His rumbling voice was the same - deep and melodic, but scratchy at the edges somehow, so that you knew that at any moment it might break and turn into an awkward falsetto.

I stared at him, then at the woodpile. It seemed so far away now, and also - as if his question had broken a spell - so pointless. I did not want to kill Spritzer. I wanted to defeat him, of course, but why would I want to kill him? The idea seemed insane, the thought of a blood-thirsty wolf more than a man.

"I..." I croaked. There was a tooth loose in my mouth, and I spat it out along with an arc of blood-red saliva.

"Why here?" he asked. "Why now?"

"We were to fight at dawn," I said. "To settle matters once and for all. One way or the other."

He shook his head.

"What matters?"

There had been something, I was sure of it. Something that was so important that it might well have led to my death, had I let it run away with me. But something, too, that I knew could not be solved by Spritzer's death, nor by mine. I felt the tension in my legs begin to turn into cramp, and I slowly shifted my weight back upright again. If he ran now, he would have the length on me by an arm or more, full enough to turn into my death. But a second later I saw him relax too - in fact, more than I had. Blood began to trickly out of wounds that the tension of his muscles had been holding almost closed, and his face began to grow hideous pale, so that it seemed left there he would eventually be as ghastly white as I was. He moved, and the move turned into a stumble, and the stumble to a topple, and my rush forward to catch him unfooted me too, so that the two of us landed full-length beside each other, felled by our own weakness. I turned my head with some effort to look at him - it was even with his elbow, and I could see the awful blotches that my blows had left on his arms.

"Are you alive?" I asked, my lips cracking.

He coughed once.

"Are you alive?" I repeated, after a few seconds of silence. "Are you-"

"I'm alive," he said.

"Good."

We lay like that for a while. I could feel that somewhere within me the fight had broken something important. My lungs felt tight, but I could not tell if they were constricted in some unnatural way or if it were just that I was lying on them. I took as deep a breath as I could and then let it out in a long painful wheeze. The flow of air was visible in a pathetic ripple of grass leaves extending out from my mouth, although everything looked grey or red to me, so that the grass looked too alien to be real. I watched a drip of blood roll out of a wound on Spritzer's arm and wondered for a moment who had put it there, before I remembered that it was me, my mouth or hands or feet that had somehow cut through him.

"Why were we fighting?" I asked.

"I don't know."

His arm squirmed, the hand grasping feebly at the earth to try to get some kind of grip. At first I thought he was trying to pull himself towards me to attack me again (although I knew now that he did not want to), but it moved closer to his body, trying to raise the arm up behind it until it was upright enough to push against the ground. I saw the muscles tighten, but his body remained where it was.

"I think I'm dying," he told me.

"Me too," I agreed.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Art Pact 268 - Spotting the bird

She was putting her washing out on the line when she saw the bird. She froze, holding the basket of wet clothes in an awkward half-way: not up  entirely and tucked between her arms and her body so that her hips could take the weight, not down on the ground so that she could relax, but a foot or so off the pacing stone of her garden path so that her back was bent over at an awkward angle and the full weight of the thing pressed uncomfortably through her shoulders and in the small of her back. The discomfort grew into pain but still she was unable to move in case she spooked the little creature.

It was about the size of her salt-shaker, and about the shape of her salt-shaker, because her salt-shaker (as many of her possessions were) was shaped like a little bird. She'd been given it ten years ago by an ex-boyfriend - well, at the time just a boyfriend, it was the intervening decade, an ignominious break-up and her marriage that had made him an ex - when she first shared with him her interest in birds.

"Birds?" he'd asked, puzzled. She knew then that she shouldn't have said anything. She was ashamed of her interest, had been hiding it for almost thirty years. "You mean, like... like, birds?"

She nodded mutely. She could tell how people would react to the revelation by their first few words. This was a reasonable response on her boyfriend's part - just surprised, not judging but also not quite accepting. This was the sort of thing she had come to expect a lot of. She knew what was coming next.

"I was into birds when I was a kid," he said.

"I guess I just never grew out of them," she'd told him.

It hadn't worked out between them, but she hadn't had too much grief out of him over the bird thing, and he'd even got her the salt-shaker. Her pepper-pot was in the shape of a lighthouse, because they'd broken up before he had a chance to get the rest of the set and her aunt had swooped in and begun buying her things with a nautical theme - she had never liked the sea, but the aunt in question was of the belief that a present should be an obligation, not a gift. The aunt bought presents that reflected her own tastes, basing this behaviour on the idea that whoever she gave a gift to should be reminded of her whenever they used it. It was a scheme that had worked perfectly - to its letter, in so far as her family members did indeed think of her whenever they looked at her gifts. The thoughts, though, were not fond.

The pain in her back grew from a minor irritation into a major one, then into a sort of lancing agony that felt as though her back muscles were pulling themselves inside out. She didn't want to move, but it was apparent that the longer she held her position the more likely it was that she'd be calling her husband down to take her to hospital instead of to join her in this amazing moment. She would have to risk it. Slowly, fighting against the excruciating pain, she lowered the basket to the ground. It seemed like it took forever, but the bird stayed where it was rather than fleeing, and she let out a silent breath of relief.

It was about five meters away, sitting on the ugly concrete post that held up the other end of the washing line. It had hardly moved since she spotted it, and for a moment she wondered if it were a practical joke of some sort - a model put glued onto the post to trick the crazy woman, or perhaps (thinking more generously) a present from her husband.

She wondered how she could call him. The bird was so small that it would obviously fly away if she made a loud noise - it wasn't one of the giant ones that everyone loved as children, the emus or cassowaries. Instead it was - what, a sparrow perhaps? Sparrows were the little birds she could remember from her books, but there had been a lot of work in bird classification since then, and the newly-discovered birds all had strange names that she found it hard to remember. She put it down to getting old, but really she knew that it was the time it all took to keep up to date. As a child she'd read and re-read bird books, but back then there had been so few. Now there were thousands of species of birds in the records and hundreds of books about them, all arguing one way and the other. You could not get away with knowing the difference between a penguin and a puffin any more - everyone knew that thanks to those programs with computer-generated birds.

If she called her husband from inside, he could bring her the camera. But by the time the camera got to her it would probably be too late. The bird would be gone, and she would be left standing in the back garden staring at nothing, unable to explain to him what the urgency was.

She had never told her husband about her love of birds. It had not come up when they had first met, and by the time she might have mentioned it it was too late - she feared the loss too much. She knew that she could trust him on most things, knew that what was most likely to happen when she told him about her obsession was that he would tolerate it with a happy smile, ruffle her hair and go about his day. But there was still a fear left over from her younger dating days, a worry that this man, this man she loved and trusted above all others, might be a harsher judge of her than some of her previous partners.  To have acceptance just within her grasp and not to be able to take it was maddening, terrifying.

The bird tilted its head. It was a drab brown, the way she imagined birds from the books of her childhood. She had not been entirely unsuccessful in keeping up with the press, so she knew that there were theories - and indeed, now evidence - that many birds were brightly-coloured, but she still found it easier to think of them in various shades of brown. She thought, indeed, that the bird looked just like a picture of a sparrow perching on a dead tree-trunk that she'd loved in her child's treasury of birds, the book that had been the genesis of her life-long love.

She felt in her pocket for her phone. It was an old candy-bar style phone with no camera of its own, but perhaps she could text her husband to come outside - or come to the window, maybe? - with the camera they'd bought on holiday. Would he do it before the bird flew away?

BRING CAMERA TO BACK WINDOW, she texted, her eyes flicking down to the screen only every few seconds. She did not want to take her eyes off the bird any longer than necessary.

She had barely had time to return the phone to her pocket when it buzzed and to her horror began to ring - her tone the ringing of church bells, the only thing the phone had that was loud enough to catch her attention. Oh Jesus, she thought, not now! Can't you for once just do what I ask you!

The bird opened its beak.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Art Pact 267 - Dust Storm

Four-fifty in the afternoon, and a black cloud of sand and dust rolled over the city, sending the inhabitants scurrying indoors. Shop shutters rolled down, windows slammed, flues were closed and those few unfortunates who had nowhere to go hunkered down in place and pulled fabric over their mouths in the hope of keeping at least the big particles out.

Joseph Anonde, who had known about storm for ten minutes before its lazily violent arrival, was counting out the money from his till at the front of his shop, every few seconds peering out through a little window he'd made out of clear wine bottles and had set into the front wall of the building.

"Can you see anyone?" said a voice behind him.

"No-one," said Joseph. "It's thick out there, like the worst night ever."

"Ha, man doesn't know about how bad nights can get," said another voice. "Man has a shop and all the money in town."

"Man has a name," Joseph said, not looking away from his window.

"Show a little gratitude," said the first voice. "You want to be out there in this?"

"To soon to tell," said the second voice. "Too soon to tell."

Joseph turned away from the window and looked at his two guests. He had had a phone call from his sister in the next town over. The dust cloud had come on them first, and she had promised to call when it passed by. It had been twenty minutes since the phone call, and his sister said it had taken her five minutes to get everything together before she called him. That meant that the storm was likely to be a long one. When he got the call he'd rushed outside to begin pulling down the shutters, and to start calling to the other people in the street, hoping that the noise of his commotion would attract the attention of others and the story would spread throughout the town. He had waved in Solomon, the beggar who had set up on the far side of the road, and then he'd spotted something else - a bundle of clothes and rags tucked into the old blocked-up doorway that had used to lead into the Delfino family's house before they had fled town and it had been turned into temporary offices for the bureaucrats who ran the market. Calling Solomon to help him, he'd partially unwound the bundle to find a woman within - young, her face ravaged by pox, with a thick stench of hashish on her skin and robes.

"Get off me!" she said, her words slurred and with a thick southern accent. She batted at his hands and he withdrew them.

"We have to get you off the street, sister," said Joseph. "There's a dust storm coming. If we don't get you inside you might die."

"What are you talking about, man?"

"It's true," said Solomon. "You have to get inside."

"I'll give you something to eat and drink," Joseph said, as though that were a novelty rather than just what anyone would do under the circumstances. "Come in, sister, please." There was something strange about the woman, something that made him feel he was talking to an alien rather than to another human.

"Man is not my brother," said the woman darkly.

"Please," he begged. "If you're outside..."

She came, eventually, although she insisted on staying at the door until the dust cloud was visible, in case it was a trick that the two men had concocted together to take advantage of her.

#

Joseph and his two guests ate in silence. Joseph had eaten a big lunch, so just sat and drank and nibbled at the edge of a piece of bread so as to appear sociable. Solomon and the woman, on the other hand, seemed almost to be inhaling the food that Joseph had arranged for them, throwing it down their throats almost without swallowing. Joseph felt terrible sympathy for the woman, and a strong guilt towards Solomon. If circumstances had been otherwise (if the man had been begging on another street, for instance), Joseph would have given him money, seen to it that the beggar was fed at least, but he had ignored Solomon's makeshift bed on the opposite side of his street in the hope that the beggar would move on more quickly. It was not good for business to have the homeless nearby, not with the rich at any rate. Joseph sold to everyone, of course, but he was quick to admit that the bulk of his profits, the money he actually lived on, came from the richer customers and their exotic tastes: apples, raspberries, fruit so unsuited for the local climate that they were almost impossible to grow and therefore commanded high prices.

Now he saw that he had done the man a bad disservice. Solomon's arms were free from their robes, and Joseph could see just how thin they were - mere sticks whose joints bulged out comically at the elbows and hands. Out on the street Solomon had been an unfortunate irritation for him, but sitting in the shop, his back to a shelf covered in cans of powdered coconut milk the beggar had become a person again, a person that Joseph had to his shame neglected. This is how it begins, thought Joseph to himself, the process of becoming one of the rich. You forget that the man is a man, and slowly and surely you turn him into an enemy, or a nothing. Then the only thing left is you, and your desires eating away at you.

"Have more cakes," he said, reaching down a packet of sweet tarts from the counter behind him. He fumbled off the paper wrapping and pushed the tray towards Solomon and then the woman. Solomon grabbed one immediately - the woman much more cautiously, as with everything she ate. First she looked at the sweet, then up at Joseph for a long stare through suspicious eyes, as if she were trying to read his soul and see whether there were lies or tricks within it. Finally she took one of the tarts, but she did not eat it until she had seen Solomon take another one, and even then she only took a small bite at first.

Joseph found the woman's stare unnerving, and her reluctance to eat slightly insulting, but he said nothing. He made an extra effort, after that, to drink first from each new kettle of tea he made, so that she could see that there was nothing wrong with it. It was the tea that led to the revelation.

#

When the storm had been going on for forty minutes and there was still no phone call from his sister, Joseph heated up the kettle again and brewed fresh tea with it, cutting slices of lime to go in everyone's cup. The woman, who had been silent since her earlier cryptic prognostication, reached out to take the cup nearest her when the twist of cloth that had kept the sleeve of her robe closed fell open to reveal the inside of her elbow. It was a shocking pale colour, like bleached flour. She quickly wrapped it up again, but the damage was done - Joseph realised that the strangeness of the woman was not to do with her personality but to do with her face and hands. He had thought the colour of them was natural, but now he could see that it was more dirt than tan. He forced himself to look away, and saw that Solomon was staring open-mouthed at where the woman's arm had been. He saw it too, he thought.