Thursday, October 24, 2013

Art Pact 283 - Ninety-Nine Percent

From beneath the water the horse's soulful eyes stared back at me. I took a careful step towards the edge of the pond, feeling the familiar damp caress around my face. My feelings towards the pond have become strangely ambiguous in the last months. It has always smelt of childhood to me, but there is another scent coming to overlay that nostalgic aroma - the smell of sex, the smell of the sensation inside me when I see a beautiful back, the curve of an ankle. The smell that makes me want to puff out my chest and sing songs of my strength.

"Hello," I said to the horse. Its nostrils flared, and for a moment I thought that it might be mute - some horses are, or they pretend to be, at any rate. But the horse blew out a pulse of water from its snout and then spoke:

"Hello yourself."

I wanted to ask why - of course I did, what else would I ask? But such large questions must be approached by roundabout means. One cannot simply march up to the front door.

"It's a lovely day," I suggested.

"If you say so," said the horse. "I suspect that we have different criteria on which to base such statements."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that the question of whether it is a good day or not depends entirely on one's point of view. What is fine weather for the dandelion is terrible for the ptarmigan, for instance. You, I suspect, prefer a day in which soil is damp but the air is warm."

It seemed to me that a horse might like such conditions as well, but I simply nodded and accepted the point. There is no sense in immediate confrontation, especially when you may have to subsequently share a pond with the person you have so strenuously argued against.

"The conditions of a lovely day," continued the horse, "are dependent on so many factors, indeed, that it is scarcely possible to determine ahead of time even for a single person what such a day might comprise."

"But surely," I said, "broad trends are evident? I, as you say, prefer a damp soil day. The smell of petrichor, the cool touch against my feet, but a hidden sun warming the air so that my blood moves fast. It is part of my nature to desire conditions that suit my body, and surely, since that body is now immutable, my feelings towards the meteorological future will remain constant and predictable."

The horse whinnied with laughter, and somewhere in its unseen lungs there must have been air, because great bubbles burst from its mouth and nose and streamed up to the surface to pop, splashing me with droplets and filling the air with a pungent odour that I could only assume to be the smell of drowning.

I stepped closer to the edge and stared down into the pond. I had not remembered the bank to be so steep as it clearly was. In my mind it sloped gradually into the water, providing a gentle ramp which one might either descend or ascend with relative ease. Now it looked as though I would have to jump straight in if I wanted to swim, and hope that there was some other part of the bank that would allow me an easier escape when the time came. Not for the first time I wondered if I had been turned around somewhere during my journey. But no - this was definitely the pond of my childhood, and I had come to it past the remains of the old pine stump. The horse, I thought, had somehow changed the pond. Or perhaps something else had changed it, and the horse was just as surprised as I was. That might explain its current predicament.

"Is there something I can do for you?" I offered.

"Sorry, sorry," said the horse. "It's just that - well, does everyone have such a short memory?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, only last year if I had asked you about your idea day you'd have said warm water, bright sunlight, plenty of water-shrimp. You wouldn't have mentioned anything about your feet, obviously. Do you think that past you would have seen anything appealing in the feeling of warm air - or would he have talked about nothing but the horror of suffocation?"

"Well of course," I said. "I suppose, there's that, yes. But... But that was different. Everyone undergoes a metamorphosis during their adolescence. That is the very essence of predictability. You can hardly suggest that as a full-grown frog I'm going to metamorphose into something el..."

I did not finish my sentence, as a creeping suspicious finally made its way into the forefront of my thoughts and I began to realise why the horse might be making such an argument.

"Do you say these things," I asked, "because you retain hope?"

"Hope?"

"Hope for the future, I mean," I said. "Is it an attempt to find some future for yourself which is not so grim as the one that experience predicts?"

"You mean," said the horse, "do I search for some crumb of hope that I, like you, might undergo a future metamorphosis?"

"Well, yes."

"I suppose it's possible. There are many such moments in life - a gamete emitted by your mother metamorphosed into a living egg when your father sprayed upon it. An egg metamorphosed into a tadpole, and a tadpole into a frog. Why stop there?"

"I've seen dead people," I said, and immediately regretted it. Perhaps in the horse's final moments I should be giving it some sort of comfort. Should I lie to it, promise it that there was indeed some other life which would emerge from the bloated remains of its equine form.

"We've all seen the dead," said the horse.

"I meant nothing by it. I mean, I'm sure you're going to be fine." Again, the regret followed the words like carriages following an engine, and I wished fervently that the ground might open and swallow me up. Oh to be a toad, and to bury oneself away.

"Well then," said the horse. "That's reassuring. But I think you mistake me for something else. Tell me, what do you see when you look at me?"

The question was curious, but I leant over the water and stared down into the water. I could see the horse, and myself, and sometimes I could see both. By an effort of will I could focus on the surface and see my own reflection, or below it, to see the horse.

"A horse," I replied eventually. "A horse in a place where a horse should not naturally be."

"Of course," it said. I detected a faint hint of amusement. "Nothing else? Do you not see a delightful female frog?"

"Just a horse," I said.

It laughed again, and pushed away from the bank, and now - revealed in the sunlight - I saw the full length of the creature's body. Not hooves and a barrel torso, but a serpentine form covered in dark blue scales and tipped by a muscular tail. On its forelimbs slender claws wriggled in anticipation of a catch. I began to back away.

"Be happy, little frog," said the kelpie. "There is still a transformations left for you, but today is not the day. The day will come when the water calls you again, and you seek a wife. Remember me then, and find a different pond."

"I will," I promised, cold to the bone.

With that the creature laughed once more and swam away, blue scales shimmering and cutting through my reflection.

I walked to the old pine stump in silence, and felt the damp soil beneath my feet and the warmth in the air.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Art Pact 282 - The Drill

"You know the drill," he says.

"The drill?"

"You know." He points at the door, or rather through it at the situation unfolding outside. "The drill. What to do in situations like this. The drill!"

"Oh, oh!" I say. "Sorry, I thought you were talking about"--I mime using a power tool to drill through a wall--"you know, I thought you had some plan for getting us out through one of the side walls."

"What?"

"Into another shop." He stares at me blankly, so I add: "Sideways. Through the wall. Into another shop, and then away."

"That's not the drill," he says.

"Well, okay, that's just what I thought you were saying."

"No. No, that's not what I was saying."

"Okay, good, I understand that now. It was just an honest mistake."

"Through the wall?" he asks. "Into another shop?"

"It was just a thought. Just a misunderstanding, don't worry about it."

"I mean, how would we get through?"

"With a dri... never mind about that. Tell me about the drill. What are we supposed to do?"

He shakes his head.

"I can't get that idea about going into another shop out of my head," he says.

"Forget about it."

"I can't. I mean, what were you thinking? What good would it do getting into another shop? How would we even get into another shop?"

"Never mind that!" I snap. "Look, just tell me what you were going to tell me. Tell me about the drill."

He tells me about the drill. If anything, it's slightly more stupid than the plan to go through the wall. Actually, scratch that. It's a lot more stupid than the plan to go through the wall. It's straight-up moronic, and I can only assume that it has been written by a staffer at headquarters who has never even been to the shop on a busy day, let alone experienced a riot.

The first thing we are supposed to do is to secure the tills and the payment machines. This is the sort of thing we would do at close of day anyway, but usually you do it without a hundred angry people outside watching your every movement and shouting abuse at you. It doesn't give you much more information, watching someone secure the tills - otherwise it would be trivial for any one of our vast number of ex-employees to get into the lock-boxes and spirit away the day's takings - but it does help you focus on where all the money is going. When you're rioting outside and in the mood for looting and there are thousands of you, trivial matters like heavy wooden lock-boxes, even ones with metal reinforcement, are no bar to the pursuit of your aims. We might as well be holding up big bundles of cash to the crowd then conspicuously stuffing them into our pockets.

"Okay, I'm not doing that," I tell him. "What's in the tills anyway, maybe two hundred quid? We've had a slow day, and almost everyone paid by card. What's next?"

He tells me.

"You're fucking kidding me," I say.

He isn't.

The next item on the drill - the second item, the second item on the drill - is to address the crowd and tell them to disperse. Not ask, mind you. Tell.

"Who do they think works here, fucking Robocop?"

"Language, please," he says, frowning. "We are still representatives of the Maximus Clothing Corporation."

"Fuck the Maximus Clothing Corporation," I tell him, "and fuck you. There is absolutely no way that I'm going over there-"

"Outside," he corrects me.

"What?"

"It says that the store manager or the most senior supervisor should go outside to address the crowd."

"And what does everyone else do?"

"They stay behind."

"Oh, that's lovely."

I poke my head around the rack of clothes we're hiding behind. The rioters are pressed up against the shop shutters in a solid block of angry humanity that one would normally only see in a zombie movie or on boxing day at eight forty-five. I am not quick enough to avoid being noticed, and a great yell goes up. I duck my head back and five seconds later I hear the sound of the shutters being rattled - at first randomly, then back and forth as the crowd manage somehow to build up a synchronised rhythm.

"I suppose at least we managed to get the shutters down in time," I say.

"Well, that just makes it more awkward," he says.

"What?"

"Well," he says. "Now we've got to wind the shutters up again if you're going to go out and tell them to move on."

I stare at him for a few seconds, hoping that my relentless slack-jawed glare will somehow get across the impression I want to give, a sort of uneven solution of utter disbelief suspended in righteous anger. After a few moments, it is clear that the message has not been received. He is still looking at me evenly, almost expectantly, as though at any moment I might bound up, punch my way through the shutters, and stroll nonchalantly out into the crowd dispensing pearls of stern wisdom on all sides as I go, and presumably as I walk up a magical rainbow and am received directly into heaven. Rather than what will actually happen if I open the shutters, which is that ten seconds later I will be on the floor getting kicked from all sides while psychotic looters pour into the store and start gutting it like a whale on the deck of a Nantucket sailboat.

"Let me make this absolutely clear," I tell him. "I am not - not now, and possibly not ever - going to lift up those shutters, unlock the door, and go out into that crazy mob. If you think otherwise, you need to disabuse yourself of that delusion quickly and with no fuss. Telling the crowd to disperse is a job for the police, as is the subsequent job of getting them to disperse with tear gas and truncheons when they decide that they're not going to cooperate. Do you understand? Is this making it's way in there somehow?"

He opens his mouth as if he's about to answer, but at that moment there is an almighty snapping sound from the front of the shop - an ominous sound that I cannot identify but which is loaded with bad promises and the anticipation of worse to come. I pull back a couple of the coats just in time to see the source of the noise before it vanishes.

The snap, it is clear from the moment I see it, was caused by a gigantic gently curving crack that has formed across the single pane of glass to the right of the door - a pane about fifteen feet high and the same across. The constant pressure on the shutters has caused them to bend in slightly and press against the glass, and some small weakness in the glass had suddenly grown to cross the whole surface.

I see the crack only for a moment before it vanishes - sadly not through some amazing application of high-tech self-repairing glass, but because the entire thing shatters, tumbling out of its mounting in a glittering rain of safety-glass powder and weakly-attached mosaics that crash to the floor of the shop just inside the shutters. There is a moment of stunned silence from the mob, then an ecstatic roar made three times as loud by the fact that there is now no longer anything but air and a metal shutter between me and them.

"Well fuck," I say.

"Language," he chides me.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Art Pact 281 - This is hardly

This is hardly the time for jubilation. The kingdom is fallen, the crows feast on the bodies of the dead, a great plague covers the land and a blood moon presides over all, looking down and laughing its crimson glee at the chaos that engulfs us. Hope has fled to the farthest corners of our minds, and we cower in dark places, hiding from ourselves as much as each other, calling out to gods that we are sure no longer exist for a grace that we have long since forsaken. A dark shadow rolls across the land, and with each person it touches it grows stronger, sapping away our humanity and calling us to arms against each other, man against woman, parent against child, beast against bird.

This is hardly the place for a feast: in the middle of the battlefield, a table set for ten surrounded by the bodies of thousands, sweetmeats and sorbets laid out delicately on silver and crystal bowls, white and yellow and gentlest pink set in a field of deepest red gore, the ruin of many a man. Yet here sit the ten who have been called here, supping as though they dined in fields of gentlest daisies, where butterflies took the places of the sharp-beaked ravens that cluster around. They say little, these diners, as if careful not to break the spell that has been cast upon them by their own desires. The clink of silverware against glass is all that can be heard.

This is hardly the way to raise a child. In the basement of a chapel whose upper glory now lies in ruins, the woman in the black dress carries the infant king from one pond to another and shows him the sights that the waters bring her. The liquid has dripped in from above and spread itself in patches across the flagstone floor of the room, and she does not think to ask what might have seeped down within that rain, what loathsome fluid might have been dissolved in it and now rises in fumes from the floor, bringing her visions of what is, what was, what might be. She holds the child above each pool in turn and it sees its place in the earth.

This is hardly the town to find some peace. There are lights in the darkness of the old town, and shapes that shun those lights or cluster close to them, and who can tell whether those shapes are prey or predator. One such light is the candle above the broken door of a townhouse whose residents and owners are dead or flown, which has been taken over by the fat man who was once called the Abbott. He waxes by selling the salvaged stock from the old abbey one filthy glassful at a time, and a grey man nurses one such drink and waits, looking through the window every few minutes at the broken clock tower in the old plaza that has read midnight for eight months now.

This is hardly the woman to save the world. An acid-etched sword dragged along the ground by a weary traveller, her skin blotched and scabbed by disease, cuts a rut in the soil into which the poisonous rain spills. It is lit by the ghastly red moon, so that as the woman travels she leaves behind her a blood-red trail, as though she were slicing the earth open, as though she might take one of those neatly -sliced edges and pull back, flensing the world of its dying skin and purifying it for some other time. She seems unaware of the line she is leaving behind her, though. From beneath a mud-soaked hood her eyes stare forward, only forward, fixed on a destination she does not know.

This is hardly a minute since the end. In the scheme of things it is a focal point, an instant, a brief interlude between two greater periods of time, but such grand vistas, such a big picture, is reserved only for those who can see time for what it is, who can stand outside the details and see the patterns, the long periods of changelessness and stability. Viewed from within it is an eternity of sadness, with no clue as to its beginning or hope of its end. Even those who understand how the world came to be as it is now can barely remember how different it was such a short period of time ago. Devoid of light, their minds can form no images.

This is hardly an appropriate moment to think of gain. But there are men and women in rich robes who stand at the newly crowned top of a tower in the middle of the city and look down on the devastation and talk of power and profit. This is a moment between breaths for them, they who have placed themselves carefully to take advantage of instants like this. The coin may fall one way, or it may fall another - but these few have placed themselves with great precision to ensure that the coin finally rests in their quarter of the board. They appear to wait, to see who will come out on top, but behind the scenes they are moving.

This is hardly the garden in which kindness flourishes. An acid soil of despair and terror provide no nourishment to the gentler feelings, and yet there are still some weeds that struggle against the prevailing conditions. A young man on a cart strokes the hindquarters of the donkey that pulls him, brushing away the flies and ticks that trouble it. The animal struggles to pull the vehicle over the ruts and bumps in the road, slipping sometimes in the mud but always catching itself before it falls. They approach a figure before them, a hobbling figure drawing behind itself what at first appears to be a dull metal pole, but resolves into a sword as they draw near. The young man descends from his seat to offer it up.

This is hardly a matter for gods to concern themselves with. There are greater forces at work in the world, in the worlds beyond the world, in the hot stars that surround the sorry Earth, forces that are more fundamental than anything that might occur on one small backwater rock in the middle of nowhere. And yet there are eyes that watch the world with trepidation, knowing that from small seeds mighty brambles can grow, that there are some problems that will not resolve themselves - or at least may not resolve themselves in a desirable way. There are eyes that watch from the burning disks of stars, and from the cold black clouds that span the spaces between the worlds, eyes that watch and grow uncertain.

This is hardly a beginning. But the pieces are all in their places, and the board is set, the stakes have been calculated, the ante thrown in. Were it a game for real, this would be the moment when the players took a deep breath and looked each other in the eye, trying to decide who should make the first move. This is the pause before the battle, a silence pregnant with possibility and tragedy. It is hardly a beginning, true, but one must begin somewhere. We begin in the rain, in the darkness, on the edge of a city that was once bright but is now just a few pinpricks of light spread wide across a vast black plain.