Thursday, 25 October 2012

Night watchman

   Professor Milner’s death weighed upon me as a frightened secretary ushered me down into the Chairman’s office: too late now to drive my permitted car like hell for the coast with Annie and Jasmine and sail Sea Princess to the Safety Zones of Europe. Jutland, perhaps; or Corsica.

   In earlier decades the Chairman’s moonlike hail-fellow-well-met countenance would have sported a monocle and cigar. Tonight the clubbable face smiled above an open collared casual shirt; his light bulb head fringed by a toilet seat crescent of thinning hair. If they could truly read minds I’d be dead by now, I thought. Or worse.
  “Come in Robbins, old boy. You don’t need an invitation,” Naughtie growled across a desk bereft of the previous chairman’s Newton’s Cradle and adorned instead with a Rubik’s cube like some literary land-mine. Cute. “Sorry to call you in from annual leave old chap but this Milner business needs putting to bed double quick. See here - oh, do sit down man. “Sit” I said. I don’t… Well, of course I do, but I mean to say I intend you no harm. We’re all in this together and have our duties and it’s really just the same as it always was. We put in a day’s work, take the pay and go home safe and sound to our families.”
   Consider the alternatives if you don’t, Robbins, ‘old boy’, I interpreted. Damn him.
   Too late for that, too. The banter was all Battle of Britain fighter pilot’s safely returned from stonking the Hun but this thing was Twenty-First Century managerialism incarnate. We on the Lunatic Fringe had believed and blogged endlessly that (motto: “Exceeding beyond belief”)was a communist front importing Marxism into the newsrooms, schools and town halls of Britain via influence peddling and entryism: leveraging European Union health-and-safety directives and environmentalism as the vectors of the disease of unfreedom; English ACORNs. We had been dead wrong. Now most of us weren’t even wrong.
  “See here Brian,” the Chairman went on, waving an ostentatiously ceramic paperknife over a Security report into the Professor’s death, “We have a huge hole in the T.O. because of the Professor’s suicide. Injecting haemotoxin into one’s Nobel Laureate arteries: such a waste. His talent will be missed. The shareholders coveted his research long before its publication forced us to scrap our timetable. Milner is chiefly responsible for where we are today; all at sixes and sevens, rushing around half a century ahead of schedule. What I need to know now is if you or anyone else in Human Resources had any inkling about the Professor’s state of mind or his intentions.” It had been called Personnel Management back when I took my degree. I hate the new title and beleive it’s one of theirs; a part of the drip, drip, drip subversion of hitherto free peoples towards Mankind’s newfound status as property.
   Be careful, lad, it’s not England any more. These days the phrase ‘human rights’ refers to cargo manifests, auctioneers’ lists and bills of sale. “Mister Naughtie, we had no idea. Our records have been kept current and thoroughly cross-referenced since 9/11 when the Company took on more defence contracts. The scientists just don’t impinge into HR territory very much. Mostly it’s squabbles about parking spaces or when employment law obliges us to order them on statutory leave. But then they simply log on from home and work the centrifuges remotely.” The Company had constructed automated laboratories under the new Administration Wing. If Al-Qaeda  or a revanchist Russia had bombed it the probability was high that the filtration plants would have continued unhindered – which was probably why our secret owners had instructed their puppet powers-that-be to design the factory back in 2003.
   “I’m placing a great deal of trust in you Brian, and hold you personally responsible for the welfare of our research staff. Observe carefully and if anyone shows the slightest sign of trouble report him immediately. The switchboard’s manned 24/7 and emails to treason@ go straight to Security here in the Basement. We’ll respond without delay.” They can’t phone or Skype but they can operate keyboards. “Don’t be so glum. This is promotion to Non-executive Director. You’re respected by the Shareholders, our partners and other stakeholders. So much so that we’re contemplating freelancing you to work the day shift permanently and see your lovely daughter at seven o’clock every evening.” Which meant she’d soon be attending an Academy where the hostage children of the janissary caste learn to administrate their fellow humans’ lives as valuable, replaceable chattels.
  “Oh, and Robbins. You haven’t seen your ruffian brother lately, have you? Such talent squandered by going into the former army. We need chaps like him minding Africa now the aid budget’s been rationalised.”
   “No, sir. I haven’t seen him since before…Before.”
   “Very well then, off you go. You have much to do.”

   Outside it almost resembled the country of my birth; moonlit walls bordering asymmetrical Norman fields. Limestone houses with high roofs. Cricket pitches and pubs and the occasional origami fuselage of a downed helicopter. Burned churches and scorched and poisoned riverbanks. Gallows everywhere.
   They’d always owned the Internet but hedges make perfect dead letterboxes and three brief blue LED flashes confirmed that my family was safely evacuated. While Yorkshire is no Himalayan sanctuary or Appalachian militia camp, it is big. As I scattered a flask of garlic pollen into the air conditioning and pulled on cricketer’s body protection and high-impact polymer helmet I glimpsed the Management car park where dark-windowed BMWs stood in oil from the auxiliary generator tanks leaking towards time delay fuses.
   I handed traditional ash wood cricket stumps to each of the others drifting in through the Company gym: we’d give Naughtie stakeholders indeed.
   I hefted a steel-tipped stump and prayed (without truly hoping) that I wasn’t promoting myself from Management’s Flavour of the Month straight to Chef’s Special.

Friday, 19 October 2012

On the doorstep


   Bringing eternal life to strangers is a thankless task.

   Sometimes it’s a wordless task. Type Ones half-open their doors and see the suit and the pamphlets and they slam them without a word.
   The Type Twos are little better. They notice it all and check my badge to discover which variety they are rejecting with; “No, thank you. We’re Baptists and happy about that, thank the Lord”, or “No, thank you. We’re not at all religious; we’re all Church of England in this house.” That sort shuts up with a whoosh and ‘have a good day,’ as if hoping another church’s evangelists will make a convert.
   It’s hard; this door-to-door, but no-one said it would be easy. True; on the rare occasions when someone’s interested it’s the most satisfying feeling in the world and so worthwhile. One gets an overwhelming sensation of joy when one’s in a home and there’s an opportunity to make a conversion. It doesn’t always last, of course; there are all kinds of resistance and doubts and sometimes they switch to outright hostility in the blink of an eye and one can find oneself becoming disinvited. It’s painful when one is no longer welcome.
    But even being shown the exit is better than the Type Threes. They’re the clever ones; the intellectuals; the living embodiment of ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’. On the doorstep they have to beat you down with how Genesis parallels many Creation myths or how the resurrection of the flesh and the return from Death’s kingdom is a story common to many deities: Osiris, Orpheus, Persephone, J***s C****t. And they’re right, of course; most religions address the fear of death and offer some comfort or escape. Don’t get me started on what they say about Holy Communion. Just don’t.
   But it’s the rudeness that upsets me; the attitude that because they’ve read anti-religion articles in The Guardian or New Atheist blogs they’re experts on the Church’s persecutions of heretics, witch-burnings and all that burial-at-the-crossroads nonsense. All of which happened, of course, but it’s also insulting and an example of the Devil quoting scripture to serve his ends. Even though I was perfectly aware of that stuff before my own conversion, I still hate it when they talk about the C*******n Church. It’s painful to me.
   I love Type Fours. They’re the dubious, wavering ones: the anxious, lonely hopefuls; the would-be seekers if only they had the time but ‘I’ve got dinner on the hob and I don’t want it to boil over’ brigade. One can get to them. There’s a way in with Type Fours if one’s careful and not too pushy. I usually employ humour. “I know it sounds funny in this day and age when you hear someone say ‘Let me tell you the good news of how you can find eternal life,’ but I promise you that it doesn’t hurt a bit and will only take a few moments of your time. Ten minutes, tops, if you’re interested.” 
   Take this evening, for example. It was just after the teatime rush before the evening’s TV and before the soaps had started. I knocked and a lady answered. She was blonde and thirtyish and healthy-looking and lacked that happily married glow or the optimistic dating-and-still-excited aura which warns I have no chance. I started my pitch and I could see she was less than thrilled by my wholesome appearance. There was a Simpson’s umpteenth-time rerun playing in the background: the one with the three-eyed fish. She wouldn’t reject me for a mutant fish, surely? Somehow we got on to the topic of workplace stress (I’m in second-hand jewellery myself and despite the upward pressure on gold prices since 2008, reset gems just aren’t selling the way they did before Freddie Mac was valued at round about a Big Mac and fries), and then we spoke about workplace rudeness and loneliness in crowds…and at that point something from Corinthians seemed to do it and she invited me in.
   Her living room was cosy and all the photos were of nieces in Australia rather than anyone who could be anybody’s strapping sons. Her bookshelves ran to cookery, historical fiction (I like a nice Georgette Heyer myself in the dark lonely hours before dawn) and some Dark Romance which might be unfortunate, but I ignored those. No Bible. There was neither PC nor laptop so perhaps no friends would miss her on Facebook and phone her. There was no crucifix on the wall so she was probably tabula rasa theologically. No mirror to indicate vanity and hence worldliness. She wore an angora cardigan with slacks and pumps that spoke of scraping together spinsterish savings before the sale ended. She also had a nice enough pearl set that I doubted any admirer had troubled his Platinum card to lay before her. No silverware anywhere. Perfect.
    She smiled and looked a little embarrassed and a lot sheepish. “So tell me, Dennis,” she asked, “what is the Good News about finding the Path to Eternal Life?”
  “It doesn’t hurt very much at all,” I amended, smiling toothily into eyes that right at that moment saw the light just an instant too late.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Clock’s Pageant - The Dead Monkey’s Revenge.

   “Time wounds all heels,” quoted the Archangel of the Proconsulidae, scratching his ear with an imperfectly adapted hind leg. Sitting amid throngs of spirits belonging to the Circle of Fallen Primates, the AoP gazed down at the Earth: still green; still full of life and promise; still full of Homo sapiens sapiens. Still empty of Proconsuls and a whole host of opposable-thumb types who just didn’t make the cut for The Disney Channel, the Moon landings and sub-prime mortgage bundling.

   “Nuts to dat,” growled  an orange-grey Afrotarsius whose dorsal tiger stripes and buff thorassic fur-patch the exact shape of the KFC logo no paleontologist had been able to infer from the lower jaw and handful of teeth that had so far been the sole evidence of his people in the remote, terrestrial here and now of the Twenty-first Century Earth. Gollum-like eyes resembling sulky grapes stared down at Hollywood Boulevard moodily; dreaming of dating J-Lo and cruising The Strip in a Ferrari or running bamboolike fingers through Emma Thompson’s hair, for some reason. Maybe the British accent works even in the Evolutionary Cul-de-sac neighbourhood of the Afterlife. Or maybe that should be ‘perhaps,’ dontcher know old boy? “Look at all dose stoopid Progenitor-mating biped types screwin’ it all up. I mean, seriously? Friends goes ter ten seasons an’ De Howlin’ gets six sequels an’ still dose dopes down dere expect ter colonize Outer Space fer Goodallssakes? Gimme a break! De Biohaz musta reached deir evolutional zenith wid de original series Star Trek. It’s gotta be all downhill from now, right? Am I right, guys?” 
   “ I don’t know ‘bout that, Marley,” muttered a Gigantopithecus in the back row; dividing his attention between pitching a baseball upward toward the starry firmament and popping fortune cookies between his huge, square jaws. “The reptiles must of thought they was finished back in the Permian–Triassic extinction event. Rise Of The Mammals an’ all that but then, bingo! Along comes Coelophysis a-swingin’ those dinky little hips an’ all of a sudden it’s back into the burrows for the uppity mammals for the best part of another quarter billion years. You can’t extrapolate Mankind’s imminent extinction just because Battleship followed Alien. Things can go backward for a while without it being the end for a line of evolution; look at the ‘prequel’ Star Wars movies, for example, or Alien 3 or Terminator 3. Sheesh! But then came The Matrix. Awesome. And remember when we all thought that sliced bread was the best thing since, well, unsliced bread and believed baking could never get any better but then they came up with Twinkies? How cool was that!  Not all apparent evolutionary degenerations are dead-ends; some can be loops, kind of:  are in fact just stages to something better. take Bruce Willis. Are you seriously saying that David Addison was cooler than the later, self-referential John McClane or the Special Forces guy in The Fifth Element? No way it turned out to be true, but looking at that hairline over the years you might guess he was on his way out.”
  “The point is,” put in a rather camp Homo heidelbergensis drinking soda and watching The Eocene Channel through a laptop Time Portal where a pair of so-far undiscovered and unclassified saber toothed caribou were sparring over the sad-looking corpse of an equally unclassified giant tree badger, “you can’t just say it’s lights out for ole Double Sap just because they elected, well, you know. They can still bounce back from their lows, and if you don’t believe me, all I’m gonna say to you is walk upstream in time from Bewitched to Pushing Daisies and just accept that a species can survive one helluva lot of lot of Golden Girls and Dukes of Hazard on the TV pageant to Buffy and South Park.
  “You Tea Party Mammoth guys always mention South Park, don’tcha? Never reference M*A*S*H or Taxi, do yez?” sulked the Afrotarsius, tossing an ectoplasmic peanut at the big hominid’s head. “You Red Ochre Cave types had it easy up in the Ice Ages. Us so-called ‘lower primates’ did all the heavy lifting long before yez came on da scene an’ took da world away from us. We scampered up into da trees once da dinosaurs was gone. We did da whole nocturnal-to-color-vision change thing. We suffered and starved and bred and survived and developed da opposable thumbs millions of years before you from da Giant Elk’s Club came along and stole all our achievements.”
  “That’s ‘Log-cabin Mammoth guys,’ if you please, Mister Occupy Madagascar” retorted heidelbergensis, mincing away to mince a ghostly cave bear.

  “Hey, why the long faces?” asked the returning Archangel of the Proconsulidae, carrying a rather batter football. “Just because you folks no longer rule the Earth, and never did in some cases, it doesn’t mean that the Creator doesn’t have a Plan for you. And the Plan is to be happy. This is supposed to be Heaven for crying out loud, so get happy. And even Mankind won’t last forever. Touch football, people? Furs versus skins this time. C’mon guys, the clock's ticking, let’s go.”

   After a while, even the resentful proto-tarsier ghost Marley the Afrotarsius cheered up. Football really was the best - especially with this particular ball. Even though the long beard was ragged by now and the frock coat torn and stained from being used in a thousand touchdowns, Marley just loved to kick and punt this very special ball. This really was Evolutionary Dead-End Heaven, he mused, kicking Charles Darwin as hard as he could for a field goal.