Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Interlude - six of five thousand blades of grass

I can see approximately five thousand blades of grass from my window. The first is about six centimetres long, tapered end, bending slightly to the left, about the same angle as a man who's walked six miles through a shopping centre with his wife, following her from shop to shop as she tries to find the perfect pair of shoes, and has just stopped to take the wait off his right foot. It's a sort of darkish green, approximately Pantone 355 EC.

The second is slightly shorter. I think it comes from the same root. It's roughly the same colour, but a bit more yellowy.

Number 3: It's considerably longer, maybe two centimetres which doesn't sound like much but it's a lot when you're that small. I'd say that the colour was more of a yellow, something like the shade of a jaundiced cauliflower.

It's difficult to talk about the fourth. It's hiding behind its brothers. Or sisters, I'm not sure how one sexes a blade of grass. The French would know. Either way, it's coy. It's just peeking out a little to one side. It's got a jagged tip, like Bart Simpson's haircut. What sort of creature does that? It's yellowish again, like the third one. Not much more to say about it.

The fifth! The glorious fifth! What a leaf! What it lacks in symmetry and grace couldn't be measured by the most delicate of man's artistic instruments! A prince among leaves (or princess, see above), a master (or, again, mistress) of the leafly arts! The rabbit has not been born yet that could do justice to this leaf. [Editor's note: this paragraph left unedited as it was written before our dear translator provided the answer to the humble author's questions regarding the sexing of grasses. This will be amended in the second edition.]

The sixth blade of grass bends her head in modesty. Can plants search out the truth in human speech as our heir-apparent, the quondam Charlie Chester, maintains? If so, she must feel the awful weight of the task upon her - to follow the leaf that went before, that fifth leaf whose photo graces the walls of so many a teenage leaf-fanatic. What a terrible place to be! If only, she no doubt wishes, she had grown a little to the right. Perhaps 2 to 3 millimetres. Then she could have escaped such a withering comparison. But she can take solace in the face that no leaf in the garden could have stood tall in the shade of the fifth. There is no odium attached to failing to such a one. The sixth leaf takes her place proudly, understanding that in a hierarchy some must, of course, be consigned to the lower steps (or steppes, indeed). Also she is a sort of pale green, like the colour of a pistachio nut that has been left in a white bowl.

(to be continued... or probably not).

Art Pact 277 - In the rush

In the rush to close up shop - to lock doors and set alarms and ensure that those electrical implements that were to be turned off were turned off and those that were to be turned on were turned on, that all the windows were closed except for the one in the staff toilets of the first floor - the mechanical counting machine was forgotten. It was obvious that it would be, from the moment that it had been placed on the floor to the right of the counter. People came and went there, and so the machine was nudged further and further under the counter until it was at the back and Rebecca's tote bag had fallen across it. The counting machine had sat there all day, under the soft beige canvas, slowly counting off the seconds since it had been left. When the doors were closed behind the last customer it had got to nineteen thousand six hundred and three, when the lights went off twenty-one thousand and seventy-four, and when the door clanked shut behind the last employee - Brian, who had been given the job of opening and closing that week as part of preparing him for a promotion to shift manager - twenty-one thousand, two hundred and twenty-eight. The counting machine stopped there, reset itself carefully, and began to count again. There was no point measuring how long it had been since Reardon dropped it off - that time had passed now, and the machine knew in its circuits that Reardon would not be coming back, that Claire would not find it by some miracle. It was here in the shop now - possibly forever, because if it had been overlooked in the rush to get out of the door, it seemed just as unlikely that it would be spotted in the hustle and bustle of selling. Perhaps, it thought, when the shop itself was sold there would be refurbishments. The counter would be torn out and replaced, and as that happened some workman would find the counting machine there, covered in dust. Perhaps counting the number of sledgehammer blows it took to removed the partition wall that separated the shop floor from the changing rooms.

It listened carefully, looked at what it could see, straining for some scrap of inspiration about what it should count next. There was its pulse, of course, the constant hum of electrical impulses coming from the clock deep in the centre of its main board. 1028.5 Hz exactly, so that every time one thousand and twenty-eight and a half of those buzzes had passed, it could count a second - although in secret the machine had to admit that it cheated, that it really waited two thousand and fifty-nine buzzes and counted two seconds. No-one would know. It was a counting machine, anyway, not a stop-watch. What business did it have with individual seconds? Seconds were boring. Seconds were a way of measure distance between past joy and current misery. No, it decided, it would eschew seconds.

At first, the best prospect appeared to be the semi-regular ticking and creaking that came from all corners of the shop as it cooled down. The lights that sat over the display racks were blinding and hot, the ones in the changing rooms dimmer and cooler. Mr. Pockets' idea, that the shoppers would see themselves as starkly as possible when they were in their own clothes, but more favourably when they were getting changed into shop wares. Mr. Pockets thought highly of his understanding of psychology, although there was little evidence that his lighting choices had any effect other than making the inside of the shop broil during summer days and causing light-induced headaches that increased the rate of staff turnover. Mr. Pockets didn't care - if sales went up, it was due to his innovations. If they went down it was the lazy staff.

Freed from the constant grilling they received at the hands of the spotlights, the clothes racks began to contract slightly, causing tiny slips against the hangers that were suspended from them. Stresses built up - tiny earthquakes, measurable only in micro-richters, that made themselves known to the counting machine as pings and clicks that issued half-randomly half-regularly from the shop floor. The machine had been safe from the lights, tucked under the bag in the darkness at the back of the counter, but it could still feel the warmth of the air, and the way that each of the pings sounded something like a sigh of relief, that the bars and struts around him were in their own way relaxing after a hard day at work.

The noises were countable, but not interesting - that was the only problem. The counting machine was used to the challenges that Claire set it: low numbers, but unusual events. The pings and tings and clicks and clacks were the opposite: high numbers, and all too frequent. He had reached seven hundred and seven clicks when the first mouse ran along the skirting board - right in front of the counting machine - and at that instant it reset its counter to one and knew what it would be measuring that night.

Mice are clever. Mice are fast, and they are cautious, and it is well-known that if you are lucky or unlucky enough to see one mouse (the exact magnitude and direction of the luck depends on whether you are out and about or at home), there are ten more unseen within a short distance of you. Mice allow themselves to be seen - or rather, put themselves in hazardous situations in which they might be seen - only when the population reaches such a critical density that to remain unseen is to go hungry.

That, of course, only applies if you are a human - or another creature large enough to strike a mouse as a plausible threat. Mice are scared of cats, of rats, of dogs, and of people. But they show no particular fear of small machines, even when those small machines are novelties, and in the sort of places (corners next to walls) where human-made devices inimical to murine life are normally deposited. The mice that inhabited (I think inhabited is an apt enough term, although Mr. Pockets would no doubt have suggested "infested" if he thought he was not likely to be quoted in a local paper or referred immediately to the public health department of the local council) the shop were not afraid of the counting machine in the same way that the people who inhabited it were not afraid of public call boxes. They had no idea what they were for, but they seemed harmless enough and they didn't move around or make loud noises so could be safely ignored. Within the first half hour after the initial mouse appeared, the counting machine counted seven more mice. That was enough to be interesting, but not so many that it began to seem commonplace.

After the eighth mouse, though, the counting machine began to feel slightly uncomfortable. Was it simple counting the same mouse over and over, or were those eight separate mice? There were definitely more than one - it was sure of that, because one of the mice had been bigger than the others. But could it be just two of them? How could it tell them apart? Was it counting the number of mice inaccurately, or the total appearances of the mice accurately but in error (since it had said to itself that it would count actual mice). The thought was worrying.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Art Pact 276 - Reviews

"Christ," she said, scanning the column. "I've read hostile reviews before, but this is ridiculous. What did you do, strangle his mother?"

I hadn't strangled his mother. I hadn't run over his cat. I hadn't even (and this had been the source of at least three bad reviews in my university comedy group) gone out with him once and then blocked his calls on my mobile because he turned out to be a massive douchebag. In a life that I have spent inadvertently offending or injuring people, in fact, Martin St. Severan was one of the few people I had met personally who had no ulterior motive for writing me up in such scathing terms. If it wasn't for the fact that Caroline had assured me that my act was gold, I might have assumed that my initial fears were correct and that everything that came out of my mouth was a steaming pile of shit.

"He's not one of those arseholes who thinks that women can't be funny, is he?" she asked. "I hate those arseholes. I bet he's one of those arseholes."

Rebecca's level of emotional involvement in any conversation could be gauged by the number of times she said arsehole, and the proximity of those arseholes to each other measured in words. If she ever says "arsehole arsehole" we'll be able to calibrate the scale perfectly, having experienced the zenith of her rage, the theoretical maximum arsehole density. Her last set of sentences scored an average of nine, approximately equal to the rage she might feel when being cut up in traffic while late for an appointment.

"Yes," I agreed. "Those arseholes."

The sad truth was that - although there really are a lot of men who for some reason think women can't be funny, Rebecca actually was not funny. It's the sort of thing you want from an agent, someone with the worst sense of humour in the world. She couldn't tell when I was taking the piss out of her, and she negotiated on my behalf with a ruthless efficiency that was so humourless that it often completely paralysed the opposition. Unable to believe that she would not understand they often started with jokey offers which she would take deadly seriously, cutting them down to size as though they were grave insults to her heritage rather than light-hearted banter. Once you've been put on the wrong foot by Rebecca it's very difficult to make a comeback.

(An example: I was once offered a part in a comedy film in which I would have to appear topless in one scene. When Rebecca asked what the pay would be, the casting director jokingly suggested that I should do it for free, because the scene would give me much needed exposure. Needless to say, Rebecca pretty much eviscerated him. In case you're wondering I did the film and I did the scene but my character got cut in the final edit so I can only assume that the rushes of me with my tits out are in some cameraman's wank folder, ready to surface in the tabloids in the unlikely event that I hit it big).

"Well I shall be having a word with his editor," she said.

"Please don't."

"No, we can't let this kind of sexism stand."

"Look," I pleaded. "Humour's very subjective. So what if he didn't like it? Not everyone likes all comedy. I'm going to get a bad review from time to time, if you start harassing subeditors left right and centre they'll start putting the boot in on the front page too. Anyway, it's so ridiculously over the top that no-one's going to take his word for it anyway. You'll see."

"No publicity is bad publicity, is that what you're saying?"

"Well no-"

"Tickets will be selling like hot cakes by tomorrow?"

I shrugged.

"Well it's the middle of the hottest summer in ten years, which I'm guessing is traditionally a low point in the sales cycle of baked goods, but..."

She pursed her mouth and stared at me for a second.

"You know," she said. "For a comedienne you can be surprisingly pedantic."

That was a deliberate stab - she knew I didn't like being called a comedienne. It's one of the things I make her put into contracts, that I won't be described like that in promotional materials. I sighed.

"Hopefully there will be ticket sales, yes."

I hoped that what limited acting skills I'd picked up were working, because I did not believe it for one second. It was possible, of course, that people would read St. Severan's review and come along to see what all the fuss was about. St. Severan wasn't, from what I'd heard, the sort of person who was well-liked, and it was even possible that tickets might be sold on the basis of spite. But I was still paranoid that his review had some grain of truth in it, that it was the worst show that he'd ever seen and that that was because it was the worst show that anyone had ever seen (or, in my case, written and performed in). Had I just pitched the jokes a little too high or low? Had I been too self-indulgent in the long section in the middle? Did people just not want to watch a whole show about my time on the cruise-ship? It wasn't exactly topical, after all. Maybe I should have listened to Rebecca and just written another themeless stand-up set (which is what she always tells me, not because her assessment of my comedic skills suffers from any surfeit of perceptiveness, because as I've mentioned it does not, but because I've always done better financially from generic stand-up than I have from anything else, and if there's one thing that Rebecca can do, it's recognise when her fees are larger or smaller).

"I still think we should do something about St. Severan," she said, flipping the paper in half and then bashing it on the table as though she'd suddenly forgotten that she lived in the twenty-first century and not in a nineteen-forties government biopic. The breeze off the newspaper knocked the top off the little Moomin mobile I have on my desk and blew a playbill for Caroline's gig off the top of my in-tray. Rebecca spotted it instantly. She turned her head slightly to read the date. "Isn't that tonight?" she asked.

"Is it?"

"Don't play innocent with me, you don't have the chops for it."

A bit unfair. I played a wrongly-accused schoolteacher on The Bill once, and I got several very positive write-ups on FanPop. Admittedly half of them thought I was Sally Phillips, but - well, I'll take the compliment I suppose.

"That's tonight's date there," Rebecca said, tapping on the date. "It says Friday. Are you going?"

I shrugged, wiggled my head, made a little non-committal gesture with my mouth. I also made the mistake of catching sight of my reflection on the glass of the door.  Oh my god, I thought. She's right, I can't do innocent.

"I was maybe going to go," I said weakly.

"You were going to go, and you weren't going to tell me."

Direct hit.

"Oh - no, I mean - you know how it is, I get all absent-minded when I'm writing."

"You're not writing," she pointed out.

"Oh, I mean - I mean not now, obviously, but I was writing when I got this. In the post. Which is where I got it. Through the post, obviously." Oh god why can't I stop digging?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Art Pact 275 - Dry Garden

The previous weeks had been unbearably hot, and it was not just me that suffered. In the early morning, when the sun had risen but had not yet had time to heat the air, I unlocked the door to the cabin and walked barefoot on what had in May been the lawn. I had lain there, reading, the soft moss at mattress beneath me and grass blades borders around my arms and legs. It had been comfortable - lush, almost - but now I could feel nothing but scratchy hay pricking at my soles, and the moss had dried out until it was nothing more than kindling. I sipped at my lukewarm cup of acorn coffee and flexed my feet, scratching at the dry surface of the ground with my toenails. It was time to cut them, I noticed.

"When do you think it's going to end?" asked Milla. I'd not noticed her sitting in the shade of the big oak that marked the boundary between her land and mine. She was still in the long ragged shift that she slept in, and she held a block of ice in her hands, shifting it from one palm to the other every few seconds. She has always been more quickly affected by the heat than me. I remembered her long legs, so pale that the corkscrew blue veins just beneath the surface could be seen easily. At night she would sleepily cartwheel those legs, pedaling the blanket away from herself (and, of course, from me), until there was nothing left on her but her night-clothes, and those rucked up to expose everything up to her lower back. Sweat drops pooled in the little depressions at the front of her thighs. But she had been sleeping in her cabin for the last few months, since our fight.

"A few more weeks yet," I said.

"It's still only July. It could be months. August, easily. Maybe until the end of September."

The names were convenient fictions. Milla, in her language, had different names for them, I believed in a lunar calendar that did not match the written one, and at any rate there was no reason to be entirely certain that we were still on Earth. But we both knew English, and so we called the summer by those names: June, July, August, and the winter by December, January, February. There were no dates more specific than that. We decided by fiat - one day Milla or I would mention it being the start of August, for example, and that would be the end of June. Some of our months must have been barely a fortnight long, others two months or more in reality. But there was no telling what length a month should really be, not here, and so we fell in with our own biases to some degree - if we were enjoying June, we were in no hurry to end it. If it was a terrible month, it would pass quickly. The months, I thought, had passed both quickly and slowly since we had been living apart again. We had both been rushing to get the fight over with, but it had a momentum of its own that we could not override. Milla would move back in with me when she was ready to apologise, or I would creep to her cabin one night and admit my failings and beg her to let me back into her arms.

We were civil, of course, even affectionate - we could not be otherwise, after so long. Even then, in the bright morning, when we were still both tired and stiff from sleeping alone, at the height of our irritation with each other, I was still drawn to her, and I joined her under the tree, leaning against the broad trunk so that I could draw the side of my foot up and down her right thigh.

"You know-" she began. I waited, stroking her leg with my foot, but there was nothing more. She juggled the block of ice into her left hand and ran her right along the back of my calf. It was cool and wet, just as I should have expected, but the shock of how cool it was still caused me to jump a little. She drew her hand back.

"No, no," I assured her. "I was just surprised. You were going to say something."

"I wasn't quite sure how to say it," she said. "I don't want to, uh... accuse you?"

"Well that sounds a bit like an accusation itself. Come on, spit it out."

"You have to promise this isn't going to make things worse between us."

"We're fine," I said, although I was not sure that we were. But I knew that we would be, that we had all the time in the world and we would be, one way or the other. "Go on, tell me what it is."

"It's not a tell. It's an ask. Were you outside my cabin a few days ago?"

"A few days when?"

She shrugged.

"The day before yesterday?"

I'd thought about it, certainly. I'd lain in bed and run my fingers across my belly and imagined that they were hers, and thought how pointless the fight was and that I shouldn't be able to remember even what it was about, except that my memory - my stupid memory - was intent on preserving every second of the experience and replaying it to me over and over again. I could easily have got out of bed and gone to her cabin, but why on earth would I have stayed outside? I would have come in, I would have thrown myself on the big rug of unknown fur and pleaded with her that we had been apart too long, that there was nothing so serious that we should let it get between us.

"What makes you ask?"

"I thought I heard someone," she said. She hesitated for a second. "And there's your footprint."

"Show me," I said.


It could have been my footprint. What little evidence it had left in the dry ground was hard to interpret, but someone had stepped there, in that dust, and then moved away. Milla never went outside barefoot, so it wasn't her. But it also couldn't be me, because I was sure I would have remembered making it. I measured the length of the print against a stick and compared it with my own foot. It was longer, although perhaps the process of making the print had exaggerated the size of the foot that made it. The person, whoever they were, had stood looking towards the door of Milla's cabin and then turned sharply so that the print was carved into the dust as a strange arc or pie segment.

"I found it yesterday. I suppose I hadn't been looking very hard."

She had been acting a little strangely yesterday, but I'd put it down to the tides of detente and stubbornness that washed us closer together and further apart during our periods of separation. Once, two decades ago, we had spent a year and a half in tumultuous storms of emotion, barely speaking except in anger for days at a time but punctuating those rages with nights of passion in which we seemed to be more together than ever. Now we were older (old, Milla said), and the tides of reconciliation were weaker just as those that kept us apart were fading.

"Well it isn't mine," I told her. She frowned.

"Do you mean-"

"I didn't say that," I said. "I just know it isn't mine."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Art Pact 274 - Early Morning

I woke up this morning to the sound of lorries reversing. The beeping had made its way into my dreams as the ringing of a phone I couldn't get to, then transformed itself into the sound of my/an alarm (I say that because in the half-dream it felt like the alarm was for me, but it's actually nothing like my real alarm: I have the Dies irae from Verdi's Requiem). Finally I heard the recorded words "This vehicle is reversing." and I twigged that it wasn't yet time to get up. My eyes were still covered with a film of that gunk that gets there while you sleep, and I blinked it off awkwardly. The right eye cleared faster than the left one, making me feel slightly nauseous. It was 6:15, still another half an hour until I had to get up, and probably the earliest I had been awake in seven or eight months. I lay down again and tried to squeeze in the rest of my sleep, but the lorries were relentless. Either there were ten of them and more coming as each one left, or there were just two lorries circled up like wild-west wagons and constantly reversing in an endless circle. I tried putting a pillow over my head, then two pillows, then just holding one pillow tight over each ear like I was in a cartoon. Those beeps and recorded voices, though, designed to be piercing enough to be heard on busy building sites or through the closed windows of cars, were certainly more than up to the task of getting through two pillows and worming their way into my ears. After five minutes of pointlessly struggling to get back into the land of nod I threw off my bedclothes and rolled myself out onto the carpet.

"It's the day," said Beaton. He hadn't spoken in several weeks, just hanging there on the wall in his improbable chrysalis. I crawled along the floor inchworm-style, drawing my legs up and then pushing them out so that my chest and face scraped over the carpet's rough synthetic curls. I could feel a good charge of static building up. When I reached the wall I pushed against it to slowly bring myself to my feet. The air at the top of the room seemed fresher than the stuff I'd been breathing in bed (obviously much fresher than the stuff by the ground, but that was hardly a surprise).

"You're coming out today, are you?" I asked. I tried my legs out, and they seemed broadly cooperative so I walked over to Beaton and tapped on the thick shell that was covering him. It had hardened during the night into the consistency of boiled leather, and my knocking elicited a sonorous wooden tone, as if I were rapping on a mahogany door. "You've done all your transforming, is that right?"

"Not my day," he said. "THE day. The day you've been waiting for."

"Oh," I said. "That."

"That," said Beaton. He shifted inside the chrysalis, and for a moment I thought I could see the outline of an arm pressing against the shell. It was a perfectly normal-looking arm, which surprised me. Perhaps I had secretly been expecting a more radical transformation.

"Well, we'll see," I said. I bit my lip. "Do you think it's got anything to do with the noises outside?"

"I think that's highly likely," said Beaton. "Don't you?"

"Hmm. Do you want anything? Water? A biscuit?"

"Don't be an idiot. Although that was very thoughtful idiocy," he added. "Go on, go outside and see what you can do."

I clambered down the ladder and through the hatch that led down to ground level. I could feel the vibrations of the lorries working even before I put my feet on the ground - the ladder ends about a foot shy of the pavement to prevent ground-creepers from climbing up it, but even without physical contact I could feel the metal rails buzzing with the noise from next door. There were several lorries, plus a crane that seemed to have sprung up overnight, and they were all moving. The lorries were manoeuvring around each other like wary male rhinos competing to mate with the house, and the crane seemed to be pulling the lid off the heavy garage that sat at the end of the lot. The crane was at least twice as tall as the main building, and I wondered if it was going to be pulling the roof off that too.

A little fellow in a hard-hat rushed up to me, brandishing a clipboard in one of his four arms.

"Are you the home owner?" he asked. He rushed through the words so that each one blended into the next: Rue domona?, which took me several seconds of thinking through to decipher. After that short silence I nodded.

"Well, I mean - this one"--I pointed to my house--"not that one you're demolishing."

"Demolishing? Oh my goodness no!" (Mishin? omineso! - you get the idea). "We're just taking the top off to extract the contents. The big contents."

I knew what he meant. Dahlia. This was truly it, then, as Beaton had said. The day. Did he have inside knowledge, or had he somehow been able to detect through his chrysalis shell the immanence of her leaving? I wanted to rush into her house. I wanted to rush into my house. I wanted to rush into my house and then her house. But I did none of those things. Instead I nodded to show that I understood, and waited to see what the creature in the hard-hat wanted. I didn't have to wait long.

"So you're the owner of this house?" He pointed up my ladder.


"We just have a little bit of paperwork for you," he said, handing me the clipboard. "It's for your protection, to make sure that you're safe. If you could just sign at the bottom, I won't keep you more than a moment. It's just that there are paperwork checkboxes that have to be ticked."

He kept up his barely-comprehensible monologue while I looked at the contents of the clipboard. As I guess immediately from the words "your protection", it was for his protection - or his company's, at least, absolving them from all liability in the event of a hideous disaster that caused damage to my house as well as to Dahlia's. I had to admire his commitment to obfuscation - the waiver was extremely dense legalese, and I noticed that he started talking again whenever my eyes dropped down to the paper, blathering away until I felt the urge to make eye contact with him and nod politely. As long as I wasn't looking at the paper he seemed to be happy. Obviously, when I got to the bottom I simple wrote NO and handed it back to him - assuming (correctly) that he would not bother to check the signature.

"Is it safe to go in there?" I asked.

"Oh yes, perfectly safe!" he assured me, tapping at the clipboard. Perfectly safe for him, is what he meant, ignorant of the fact that I had not signed away my rights to sue. I smiled politely and began to march towards the main house, stopping only to let two of the ceaselessly-reversing lorries pass me before jogging across the wide gravel driveway and up to the front door. It was open, although I had to press past two workmen who were taking the doors off their hinges. A back-up plan, I supposed, in case Dahlia could not be persuaded to leave via the roof.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Art Pact 273 - In the dust

I like it out in the dust. You can float there, surrounded by nothing more than the glow of your own suit lights reflected back at you. Kidderminster tells us that it's like fog back on the ground, and when we ask what fog is he just waves his hands and tells us that we should already know stuff like that.

"How can we know it if we don't know what we don't know?" Peppi asks. She's ten as she asks this, then eleven, then twelve, and now that she's thirteen she stops asking because she knows the answer - there's no way to learn these things except by listening to old people like Kidderminster and then immediately searching for any word they say that we don't understand.

So, this is what fog is - it's water in the air, so dense that you can't see it. Now Peppi wants to know why it is that the scrubbers let this sort of thing happen. Are they broken back on the ground? And Kidderminster shakes his head and rolls his eyes and says "kids!"

What's different between the dust and fog, according to Kidderminster, is the way that the fog will close up behind you, so that there is no way to know, when you walk into it, which way you're travelling from and which way you're travelling to. When you are moving through the dust there's an emptiness you leave behind you, the result of your suit pushing all the dust out of the way as you move, so you can see which way you're coming from. If you want to go back home you just turn around and follow that emptiness back to the gathering.

"Before we came here," says Peppi, trying out the words in her mouth. She's floating next to me, our suits tethered by a bungie cord a little too short for decency, and that slack. Someone coming out in the same direction as us could see it, the little blank line cut through the dust by the cord, the evidence that we are closer than good moral children are. I try to kick my leg back to disrupt the evidence, but I can't do it without the sort of violent movement that would disrupt Peppi's serenity, and I want to let her rest a little. She's having a hard time of things at the moment, she needs to be relaxed and to have nothing on her mind. "Before we came here."

There is no before, no after. There is movement, there is cause and effect, but we are here now and we are always here. Kidderminster and the other old ones like to use words like this to trick us. There is an order in a day, they say, and we say: what is a day? and they shake their heads and roll their eyes and they begin to talk about how children these days are forgetting their roots. But my roots are easy to see - they are the tracks that lead back and forth through the dust, the footprints I leave in the gathering. The fact that I am making Peppi happy is a root. The fact that I am floating in the dust in my suit, the suit I make myself, that is a root. Roots are what anchor the plants to their rocks, and roots are what anchor me in this place. Roots are not stories, roots are the facts of what is, not the fact of what is not.

"Before we came here," says Peppi, putting the emphasis on came. There is a word for fools. Kidderminster says it, as he is telling us the story of "our roots", as though he doesn't understand that he is a separate person from us. He can distinguish "yesterday" from "tomorrow", as if those were things, but he cannot distinguish actual things like "us" from "him".

"Before we came here," says Kidderminster, "we lived on the ground and walked under the sky. The light came from the sun and there was fog by the sea and gravity from the Earth below us, and there were birds in the sky and insects that were sometimes on the ground and sometimes in the sky and sometimes in our beds. That was a better time, back before we came here."

So many words that we have to look up. We look up sun, because we know about light and that seems to be something we could understand. I have lights in my suit, and there are lights in the gatherings, and if you're free of the dust you're in the life-light that makes the plants happy. The sun is a star, says the network. The sun is the star of Earth, a ball of plasma fourteen million kilometres across. This is hard to believe. It's eight kilometres from the gathering to the dust, and that's the farthest it's possible to go. A thing so big won't fit into the entire universe.

The sea is more believable, but still the size of the thing beggars belief: the sea is one thousand one hundred kilometres long, and all of that is filled with water that might be a kilometre deep. If it is a real thing you can pour it into the universe and drown everyone in it (if you want to do that, but who would want to do that?). This is the problem with Kidderminster's stories, the fact that even if you can tease out facts from the denseness of his archaic grammar, where he says "lived" instead of "living", "came from" instead of "comes from", you are still left with the mendacious nouns that describe things that cannot possibly exist. Even worse are those words where the two impossibilities coexist, like "walked". What am I, what is Peppi, to make of such a word? The grammar is old-fashioned, the action it describes ludicrous.

"You fall forward," says Kidderminster, "and catch yourself on one foot. Then you catch yourself on the other foot, then you repeat that. It was a very easy way to get around, back before we came here. People used to be able to walk for hundreds of kilometres."

"That sounds very boring," says Peppi. "You walk around in a circle for ever?"

"Not in a circle," he says. "In a straight line."

He tries to demonstrate walking for us, but the motion is nothing more than flailing his legs in the air. It doesn't move him so much as an inch. The whole performance is risible, but Kidderminster and the other elders are like that. They are always that way, talking about myths and stories and making up nonsense to try to fool the rest of us. But we're not so gullible as they believe. We know what's what in the world, we know which way is out and which way is in, and whatever they say doesn't fool us.

We are floating in the dust, the sum of all the things we are. We are listening to Kidderminster's tales of some fantasy world. We are staring into the shining motes all around us that are reflecting the lights from our suits. We are tethered too tightly to be just friends. We are having a good day. We are having a bad day. We are in the world, the huge world that other people call small, and we do not care what the sun is, or the fog is, or what all the made up words and chimeras of the elders are. We are together, and we are now.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Art Pact 272 - Seven Aspects of Animals

One: Seven hundred of the world's finest swans will be performing in a lake tonight. The swan ensemble comes from all corners of the world and includes the famous whooping swan choir of lower Germany, plus (controversially) a dance routine from the black swan group of Australia. Swan society has become considerably more open in the last hundred years, but this still marks the first time that black and white swans have performed together on water in public - certainly on such a large scale, arguably ever (our reporters have been to several mixed performances in the past, but they were all small affairs marked specifically as rehearsal spaces to get around the strict swan segregation rules that still exist in some states). The performance is expected to be attended by several well-known swans.

Two: In some cases, rabbit warrens have been found to extend for hundreds of miles underground, right down to the lower edge of the Earth's crust. There are several theories about the existence of the specially heat-resistant bunnies which must be necessary to excavate such amazing feats of lagomorphic engineering. The first is that they are ordinary rabbits, mutated slowly over the course of millions of years to be able to withstand the great depths and terrible temperatures attendant to such proximity to the Earth's molten mantle. The second is that tunnels were actually eroded over the course of billions of years by acid-releasing extremophile bacteria or archaea, and simply repurposed by the rabbits at their top levels. The third, and most likely, is that no such tunnels exist, but that hyper-intelligent rabbits near the surface have captured our robotic explorers and programmed them with false depth-readings and images.

Three: Butterflies routinely kill other butterflies. This is a fact. No amount of gun-freedom talk can erase the simple statistics that show that a butterfly living in America is far more likely to kill another butterfly-American with a gun than equivalent butterflies living in Europe, Asia, or Africa. Gun freedom exponents can argue the case until they are blue in the face, but they can't change that. They only way they could win such an argument, in fact, would be to take their guns and shoot their butterfly opponents until they are the ones that are blue in the face. Butterflies being unusually argumentative, there is growing suspicion that this is actually happening. Further research into butterfly gun violence and the causes of butterfly gun violence are eagerly awaited. Predominantly by those butterflies who wish to use the research as an excuse for more butterfly-on-butterfly gun violence.

Four: This wombat is quite the arsehole. Look at this wombat go. Who the hell does this wombat think he is? Does he think he's some kind of koala, for god's sake? I mean, you have to hand it to him, he's a dapper arsehole. He's got that cute little nose, and the kind of trim but at the same time roly-poly physique that the ladies all go for, but you have to ask yourself: would you choose this wombat over a koala? He clearly thinks you would. That crazy walk is as much as saying "look at me, I'm here and as far as I'm concerned I'm the best thing since sliced bread!" But to the outside observer - to the trained observer, the one who knows his koalas, this wombat is no koala. This wombat, to those unbiased people, is an arsehole.

Five: The glass squid complains that her friends are so transparent, but somehow fails to extrapolate that to her own life. She's got that one big eye, always looking up so that she can see threats or prey passing above her, but it's got a plank in it that's the same size as the motes in all her friends' eyes. No glass squid is an island, after all. They say that, do glass squid. It's a thing, possibly because they're insecure about their size. Among squid in general there's an anxiety, I think. Everyone wants to be a kraken, nobody wants to be a bobtail squid. She sees that in her friends, and she rightly points out that not everyone can be a kraken. But they she goes home and looks in the mirror and fails to see that she's been eating not because she needs to eat, or even because she likes to eat, but because she's trying to stuff herself full to attempt to attain an unrealistic (and unhealthy) image of size that's been pushed on her by society at large.

Six: The highest flying ever tardigrade refuses to accept the title, throwing the whole awards ceremony into a strange tizzy. Armitrade Buzzlow, the tardigrade in question, says that she saw her friend Goosepring fly higher: "He just kept going and going, up into the sky forever." But the academy of advanced survival won't give out altitude prizes to those that vanish in space. So, unable to award the medal to the rightful (by their eyes) winner, they end up giving it to the second place, who accepts - causing Armitrade to point out in the press that now the academy are distributing their prizes to the third placers, since she of course sees herself as in second place to Goosepring. This is the sort of nightmare that will take decades to sort out, if not centuries.

Seven: Underneath stones is where you'd think to look for woodlice, right? Underneath stones and bricks. Like, maybe a piece of wood you'd dropped in your garden by mistake when you were doing that renovation on the conservatory the year before last. The renovation you were really proud of until Phillipa started going on and on about how the door wouldn't close properly with the way you'd raised the floorboards, just on and on and never mentioning anything else, right? I mean, what a way to drain the joy out of something. And then she complains that you never do anything around the house? Well, it's hardly surprising now, is it? You've been successfully trained out of trying to make an effort. That's on her. But sometimes you still think about it, but never when you open the bathroom door in the middle of the night and find five woodlice in a tiny boat rowing from one end of the bath to another while a sixth woodlice rides a bike along the side of the bath, and all of them stop what they're doing as you turn the light on. They stare at you, horrified. You stare back, both horrified and confused. This goes on for a while. This staring. You're looking at them, they're looking at you, and you carefully tie up your dressing gown where you pulled it on haphazardly and it didn't quite cover your right breast, but when you come to think of it why would woodlice - why would any crustacean, really - be the slightest bit bothered about a human breast? They stare at you, and you stare at them, and after what seems like a minute's silence you just back out of the room, pull the light cord throwing the whole place into darkness, and you walk back to your bed, clamber in next to Phillipa. "You got that bladder thing again?" she asks, because for some reason she has to have a report on every time you go into the bathroom, and you say "No, just thought I wanted to go but I didn't.", and Phillipa nods dozily because we've all been there, haven't we, and she rolls over and falls back to sleep.