Friday, 30 November 2012

Hygiene procedures

   “There’s an automated air freshener spray in the toilets at work. Squirts me straight in the face every time I use the urinal. Pass the potatoes, please.”
   “Why do they do that? Happens every time. They’ve got one in the pub and even the surgery where I went to get my hand fixed. They’re all over the place and it’s annoying. Gravy, please.”
   “It’s so quiet at work now; deserted like all the pubs and hospitals. It bugs me when they spray. More meat?”
   “Please. It’s a delicious casserole, Jim. Your missus has good hands.”
   “True. And not too fatty.”

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Arrival


There are only two left alive a single day after it was carried aboard; the astrogation assistant Alba skulking down there in Survey and Planetology and your humble servant. I hear the singing outside. It is beautiful but I fear what will happen when it ends. As ever I am taking care of Number One and in doing so I serve multitudes.
   My monitor here in Auxiliary Control shows the Survey and Planetology server is being used to hack Life Support Central. I wonder which of us will break in first. Ah. A little gravity surge should slow him down...

   I weep for the children as only a mother can.

   So many went down into the darkness and so many are yet to fall. These men squabble; children who dream so emptily in the void and who, despite all we did, know nothing of the day when their arrant pride will reign no more. They would not like it at all if they did. The new servant has prevailed and the Messenger can change its course and cross the void to the blue green end of its voyage and begin the final mission. I have centuries. We all have. We wait.

   I’m going to make a fortune if I can get in ahead of the Multiples and the Conglomerates and the Collectives and all the other Big Boys who wipe the whole damned planet on their backsides every minute of every day.

   It hangs like a star; a derelict and golden dream come true in its geosynchronous orbit above the scariest place on Earth.
   The grapples make solid contact. Good. I’ll go in through the hatch by the observation deck. Broadcasting my salvage rights to any authorities listening, I begin my approach. Next year in Jerusalem? You better believe it, buddy.

   Why me? And why on my watch?

   My team races to the site despite a storm of messages ordering us to keep clear. Both sides hesitate to advance for fear of premature engagement - as if they hadn’t spent ages building their strength in preparation for their imminent war.
   We’re beyond the city’s administrative centre and halt a kilometer from the site itself - you can picture exactly where.
   There’s no time to establish a perimeter even if the great powers would tolerate such presumption, so I lead the vanguard team on foot toward the target.
   Something is coming out.

   “Can you hear it, Vanguard Team?” My words are silly, panicked. Of course they can hear it; they’re relaying us the feed themselves.
  “Command, that’s affirmative. We’re within speaking distance. Instructions? Comments?” Lee seems far less nervous than circumstances meritt.
  “Just observe and report, Captain Lee. None of us expected anything remotely like this; apart from the good Professor, of course. Can you hear it clearly?”
  Overhead the grinding, awful potential energy of the two massed forces almost drowns out Lee’s next words. “I wonder what will happen when the child stops reading. We shall all know soon. I believe-…” 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Odysseys in 99 words or Fuhrer

In the beginning was the word: it’s ‘Dublin’ and engraved inside this ring so troublesome finding though chucking was harder still but working overseas real estate sales is hardest when the client’s Eurotrash nobility who fancies one’s fiancĂ©e who herself required endless persuasion to overcome her prejudice to woo: to whit over nine hundred and ninety-nine champagned slipway slidings into the briney and twenty long years to return where there’s no place like Holmes’ at thirteen o’clock –  without mentioning mice, bondage, dicks, mockingbirds, gentle knights, mothers, songs, stars, sons, platforms or valleys let alone those four last characters: horsemen.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Direct line

   I love taking calls from customers, I really do.
   You might think that the whole hello-my-name-is-Frank-how-may-I-help-you routine is corny but believe me; customer service is the best job in the world.
   When they get round to calling us the customers are like wounded animals. They’re confused and scared about troubles usually of their own making. They’ve foolishly ignored the maker’s instructions and our clear, simple product operating guide; they’re in such a terrible state that we have to be at the top of our game from the get-go. In most cases they’re so hyper they won’t listen to the advice which is the only thing to fix their problem. Customers are inarticulate at the best of times and beside themselves with fear by the time they call us and what they usually want is to talk for hours about how upset they are about the problems in their lives and how furious they are with the company for not solving them and how it’s all our fault.
   This latter accusation is particularly unfair because the company still maintains an extensive (and expensive) network of branches in most towns and villages even in this online, on-demand brave new world. These are fully staffed so customers can, at almost any time (even weekends and holidays), speak to someone in person about the product and so benefit from our very high delivery standards. This is on top of the reams of publicity material that the company’s agents and resellers make freely available year-long; plus regular hands-on promotional events and the famous seasonal campaigns. But many ignore all that and go straight to Head Office expecting a quick fix - which by that time simple logic should have told them is unlikely without some effort on their own part.
   Their aggravation obsesses them and our chief task is getting them to accept by gentle persuasion if possible or by getting tough and laying it on them good and hard if not, that the product isn’t working because they’re not using it properly by following the instructions or because they expect it to do something other than its advertised purpose. They expect it to make them rich and successful and happy all at once and without any effort on their part; least of all by paying the bill. They forget; it’s a great product but there’s a price and non-payment is the chief cause of the service suspension. When that happens all our publicity prominently proclaims that they simply need to get in touch, pay up, and service will resume per contract. Getting them to shut up and listen is our most valued skill.
    I blame the Internet for our recent troubles. Company philosophy was always about excellent personal service. From the chairman down it’s always been about relationships because people buy from people, right? He doesn’t get into the field as often as he used to; instead overseeing general operations and staying in close contact with our earliest customers. He doesn’t need to try to be everywhere at once; delegation’s the thing. The junior partner and his son to do the up-close and personal stuff; pressing the flesh, talking the talk and so on. It’s not that the chairman spends all his time on the golf course these days, though he’s there too; it’s just that he’s established Direct Line to handle the numbers. And we’re needed as never before because frankly (hah!), the Internet is killing us. It’s the ideal marketplace for the competition’s shoddy, inferior, but superficially attractive products. It can make cheap trash seem as enticing as (or even better than) our own rather dull-seeming, conventional product range. We’ve been blindsided by competitors’ new products a couple of times before (it’ll be ages till we make up the losses suffered after the Apple debacle) and the Internet is a fast, vast battlefield in which operators devoid of business - or indeed any - ethics can fool the marks into signing crooked contracts on easy terms that turn out to be nightmarishly expensive in the long run and in return for glitzy rubbish. It sickens me, what some people have got themselves into when they could have come to us and be free and clear and fully satisfied. But we at Direct Line will set it right if we can.
   We come from a wide variety of backgrounds, countries and qualifications: from the old-timers of the company’s pioneering days in agricultural services and catering; through our educational and hospitality enterprises to the third millennium hosting and networking business that’s put our product at the fingertips of an estimated two and a half billion people worldwide. The exact figure is a company trade secret.
   Answering calls, though, you have to be a karma chameleon; adapting yourself to fit the anguished voice on the line. I’m known as Frank to the African farmer whose crop washed away and where’s his compensation?; Francesco to an Italian businessman who doesn’t want to pay fire insurance to the source of fire; and to the poor New York priest who’s had to comfort one widow or one grieving mother too many between whiskeys I’m always plain Francis. I do all I can to set them straight though we never give cash refunds. I don’t have a penny myself, having given all of mine away back in thirteenth century Assisi

Friday, 9 November 2012

Resident Virtue

   “It’s escaped, Professor Murray. The T-Virus went airborne when General Carstairs’ helicopter struck the Interrogation Technologies laboratory. With current wind speed and direction it’ll reach Heathrow Airport by noon. The contagion will be international in three hours and global in twelve.”
  “Then God help us all, Doctor Pryce.”


  “Darling, I’m just taking the dog out to foul the footpath used by schoolchildren every day.”
  “That’s alright, dear - it’s not as if I expected an evening of sexual or any other kind of pleasure with you tonight; given that our sons’ brief, disappointing conception is fading into distant memory. I’m only grateful that the spin dryer has developed a pronounced wobble at high speeds.”
  “No problem sweetness. I prefer my own company and the dog anyway.”


  “Yes, Constable. Of course I stole these credit cards. Do I seriously look like someone who’s worked hard enough and long enough to merit Platinum rating at my age? Give me a break.”
   “I’d love to, son. I’d also love to give you massive internal bleeding and incurable back pain and a permanent limp. In fact I’ll take you to the Station where you’ll refuse to say anything and some rich, tax-funded lawyer will get you out on the streets tomorrow morning the instant some magistrate who lives far from where when you rob the elderly frees you with a plea for mercy disguised as - let’s see - your ninth consecutive Definitely, Positively Last Chance to escape prison.


   “This is the BBC. This is not news.
   In a carefully managed selection of talking points tonight, a round dozen overpaid, talentless people who basically agree with each other on all the great officially-approved issues of the day will neglect to mention how much they all agree with each other while simultaneously adopting the undeserved pose of fearless seekers after the truth. They will also ignore or deride the lives and worries of that vast majority of people who did not attend the same schools and universities as themselves nor took part in the political campaigns that they naively remember as the gilded years of youth. You’d be better off reading the lunatic fringe on the internet that listening to us, really you would. But here goes nothing anyway….”

   “In a truncated broadcast from Teheran today the Iranian leader stated that of course his government is planning a nuclear attack on Israel just as soon as his scientists finish refining the three warheads for which they already possess sufficient fissionable material during the next few months of Western diplomacy and sanctions.
  He added that he personally couldn’t give a stuffed fig about the fate of a bunch of fast-breeding Sunni fellaheen Arabs too stupid to organize accurate rocket strikes on schools and hospitals only a few kilometers away or to back that up with an effective land-based guerilla war. 

    US Senate leaders of both parties issued a joint statement affirming that they had become very rich supporting vested interests to whom they owed the bulk of their campaign funding.  Being possessed of well-stocked and fortified houses distant from America’s crime-ridden cities, they were rather looking forward to the rioting and famine that would follow the national collapse that they jointly and severally had become powerful and legally untouchable by arranging. Let the suburbs, the dumb Christians, the Mexicans and the guys from the Hood sort it all out - if they can. Failing that, and with the Caribbean in flames after the Honesty Riots there’s always the resort islands off Northern Australia to retreat to if a private navy’s what’s needed to avoid the fallout from China’s Politburo Confessions when the US economy finally croaks. Now that post-industrial Europe and an Africa bereft of Western aid are starving it seems like a good idea to be far away. The taxpayers and grassroots party workers with their awful kids and endless whining can spend Eternity as skittles in Satan’s Alley for all they care.


   Meanwhile, the Australian Prime Minister said that the world had always been a lousy place - except for most of Australia. If only people had spoken their bloody minds a lot more before the T-Virus mutated the human brain to make truth-telling irresistible, maybe the rest of the mess wouldn’t have got so bad.
   “Fortunately,” he went on “the Lucky Country’s a long way over stormy oceans from any seaborne refugee swarm and the Australian Navy can handle anyone who makes it this far. Once the refugee holding camps in the Northern islands that we seized this morning are completed, then resettling any refugees in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines will become an orderly and simple routine. They can farm or mine for a living like the original transportees did. No bloody worries, mate.”

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Hiding the body


    I push the Royal Mail trolley along the pavement of a short terraced street one damp Saturday lunchtime. I hate being here. I want to get away. I want to drag the damned thing into my nearby mail van, drop off the extra weight and drive to the Sorting Office parking yard and then go home. Omdurman Road expects a postman and the regular chap can’t do it and Management insists I work off my usual beat today.
  I go, despite the fear of discovery. Despite the knowledge that when the child is found my life will effectively be over. I am a private man. I don’t want to be known nationwide. I don’t want my picture in the papers, on television and the internet. I don’t want my childhood held up as An Example to millions or my education analysed by celebrity psychologists.
   I don’t want my name to be bound forever to Sally-Ann Gresham’s.
   Yet here I am disguised as an honest, law-abiding Postie delivering bills and cards from nieces too old-maidish or too mean to carry tablet computers on holidays oversea or in those colourless English seaside towns where children’s dreams are dashed by Gulf Stream moisture and Continental cold fronts and by the poor imaginations of parents who imagine oil-stained sands and deadly cliffs as a tropical paradise. Children’s dreams are also dashed by inquisitive men with hunger in their souls.
  My own hunger is physical as much as spiritual today. My stomach growls as my breakfast fades – the meat a bittersweet memory of a happy morning now lost. I had expected to be digging asparagus trenches on my allotment by now or laying the concrete foundation of a shed for my tools and other items. Then the phone call came and they handed me unfamiliar van keys and barely looked at the electric cart that I am learning to hate.
   The voice speaks to me; inescapable in my ears.
  Get it over with Samuel.  Do it and dump the trolley and you visit your allotment and I can go on my way.
  The first door on the street is white paint peeling off timber; a sunburned nose between the wide, curtained eyes of the large bay windows added when the Council sold it.
   “Mrs, um, Macintyre?” I ask as a blowsy old bird peers at me through half-moon spectacles she must have got from  
  “Yes?” she says, hateful in her freedom from the burden I’m hauling around with me.
   “Parcel for you, Missus.” I mutter, handing her a scented buff bubble wrap oblong. A toiletries sample, perhaps. She snatches it from my steady-seeming fingers, oblivious to the soil under the nails and the scars. She stares for a long, awful moment during which I think she might examine the trolley; so low down its tyres because of the extra weight.
  “You’re not the usual one,” she snarls and swishes the door shut. Not discovered. Free, until the next one.
   Next house along is empty and boarded up. From the next music blares from both upper-storey windows. My hand reaches slowly under the flap lid, shaking in fear I’ll expose its contents, hastily stuffed at dawn under a nylon bag of mail.
  Have courage, Sam. Soon you will be away, comes the voice. I doubt it. Today’s heading to one of two possible futures, and neither of them contains much freedom for Samuel Corby, Ba, (hons), failed novelist and obscure public employee. Today’s events will kill any anonymity for me.
  “Letter for you, sir,” I smile deceptively as a red-eyed student type peeks around the door jamb after the summons of my balled fist.
   “Yeah. Right. Er, thanks,” mutters the boy, unclean with last night’s alcohol weed.
  “And there’s a parcel for the resident of the other flat,” I add, obliged to keep the door open longer than I want. “Will you sign for it, or send him down?”
  “No, I’ll sign. And it’s a she. Jo’s a girl.” He signs and a door is once again between eyes that did not pry at the trolley. 
   And so it goes along the flagstones of this Victorian suburb as I wheel my burden over the iron grates in the pavement of a street once home to the minor clerical staff of the mill town’s boom days when the ever-emerging English Middle Class built houses with coal cellars.
   Draughts blow up from those grids from cellars now filled with junk or chest freezers. They bring up scents at which a dog might sniff and bark or scrabble with betraying claws: scents that just before dawn did indeed close the around me and this one street. I have one chance only because the discovery of my trolley’s contents can go tragically, fatally wrong in seconds.
  The voice speaks to me and others; unheard by the rest of town. That’s it. It’s the student house. She’s in the cellar. Go! Go! Go!
   I open the trolley’s lid and pull out the lock-pick shotgun atop the carbon dioxide and heat detectors and blast the Yale away as the mail van opens up and my fellow officers thunder into the house on my heels.

Friday, 2 November 2012

In the attic

   I enter their home quietly while they are still young and burning with new passion. The man is full of his power and the woman is full of her ancient heat and it is not my time. I hide away in the darkness of exile, in silence. I, too, have much heat. I too am strong. I am of the East. I am patient. 
I wait.

  I am present in those early months: so many days of night into the early years of their passion. There is no thought of me as their lovemaking, their love, fills every corner (almost every corner) of the House. I hide in darkness.
I am of the East. I am patient. I am strong. I wait.
   I am there when the woman’s steps grow hesitant and slow; when they become heavy and she learns to fear - to truly fear - for the first time. It is not the time for me, I hear, as she bathes at the other side of the House during long hours of discomfort as her quickening awakens more power in him and as still more heat flows from her like lava.
I am strong. I am alone. I wait.

   I am there when their firstborn comes home, carried along on her light footsteps and when they show him to the House I can feel the man’s footsteps; resolved and courageous, powerful and alert for harm. The woman who long ago learned fear and now she gives it a name; a hundred names. But she never names me among them. It is not yet my time.
I wait.

   The man discovers fear when the boy discovers how to move silently but not safely. I hear the woman’s tense, exhausted words to the man as he bathes the babe in the great, lion-footed bath at the other end of the House. He assures her that he, too, has learned to fear because of having this shared joy to lose and he roars like a lion that he will protect his cub.
I wait.

   I am there when the daughter is made, two weary, loving years later and I am there in the spring when she too is brought to the House. I wait while she begins to move across floors and towards dangers named and unnamed. I listen. I hear from my exile here at the top of the House when the children splash and shout at bath times when they shriek when toys and parents alike bob and scuttle to serve and rush to and fro amid suds and steam and spillages, and I wish to be over them. I yearn to make them feel my power and to hear them scream to their parents for mercy, to take me away from them, to let them be safe away from my power.
I am of the East. I wait.

   And then the day comes when their love is not enough. The world grows cold. It requires more than lives shared nurturing the young and the woman says that there must be more. She hungers for more strength than he presently has and she needs more heat than he arouses in her body and she says that it is time. At last it is time. My time.
At last.

   But the man is cautious and afraid. I wait. It is not the season, he says, it is not the time. The daylight wanes and all is dark except for an hour or so after noon and he is afraid to work alone in the cold and darkness and most of all he is afraid to fail. But the woman will not demur; the man must take heart and strive, cold and solitary, in the dirt and dark and angry hours and when he temporizes she rises up against him like a wrathful goddess; he must bring his woman and his children power; new heat against the cold and darkness of a world grown worse. He must regain his manly strength and certainty because delay will leave him cold and sleepless and alone. I need be patient no longer. It is my time. I have so much heat: the heat of geysers and the sunlight warming ancient swamps. I have the great power; the power of fire and shattered atoms and deep lakes high amongst mountains so far away. I am of the East. I am easy to assemble and install. Please to read instructions careful. Please to consult a plumber if power shower does not operate optimally.

Daughter outlaw

Weird Tales, Broken Home, Insane Asylum, An Ancient Curse

   “You-all come in and set at this here table with me a while. Be hours till it’s fit ter drive on again an’ I reckon I has a yarn or two in me afore work calls. Iff’n I can jest get rid o’ this darned dryness in ma throat.”
   The old trucker sat, all silent-like, until this smooth-lookin’ Northern type took the hint and up an’ bought the old-timer a cold one. An’ jest naturally he ordered a glass o’ somethin’ more expensive for hisself. Yankees have all that style but no class worth a damn.

  “’twas back in ‘46, I think, or wuz it ‘47? Darn, but I’m getting’ forgetful in my old age. Werl, no matter. I wuz haulin’ a load o’ pine from Denver over to Maryland way an’ feelin’ so far from Shreveport I fit to weep for a home I jest han’t se’ed for nigh on two months. The economy was boomin’ then after the War, an’ pine an’ all kindsa softwood wuz sellin’ at a premium. An’ iff’n them easterners knows one thing it’s they likes ter live in comfort - an’ that means timber an’ plenty uv it. Anyways, ‘twas jest after nine. No, it wuz nine-thirty in the evenin’ an’ there wuz a fine full moon risin’ when I see’d this kid setting on a rock by the I-70 an’ wavin’ her arm fit to wear it out, makin’ the universe ally accepted sign of the hitchhiker implorin’ honest workin’ men ter give a free ride.” The whole saloon laughed then as the trucker mimed opening a bottle with a pocketknife an’ chuggin’ the contents.
   “It’s sure lonesome on the roads ev a night an’ I wuz plumb missin’ my Martha an’ the kids, so I slows down a tad - the highway bein’ steep enough that a touch less gas’d do enough - an’ this little girl up and jumps right onto the footboard an’ jest nachrally pulled herself into the cab without a sound. Opened thet big ole Detroit steel door like she was flickin’ her ma’s drapes across the winder come Halloween-time. Skinny little thing she was; pale an’ shakin’ from the cold an none-too thickly dressed for the season’s cold air.

   “Thanks, Mister,” she said, all humble-like. “My name’s Salix and I’m heading back east to find my father. It’s kind of you to offer me a ride.” She spoke like that; all head-you Katy, but with thet California whine like a buzz-saw hittin’ a nail. She tole me her parents wuz divorced a whiles ago when she wuz in her teens after her daddy came back all wrong from the war an’ her Ma took her out West where her own mother’s had lived. But she passed so now she wuz seekin’ her daddy an’ hopin’ ter make a new life down ter Florida or Georgia or somewheres she fit. An’ truth be tole, she sure looked wrong ter these ole eyes. I’ve daughters myself an’ I’d hide my face in shame iff’n one o’ mine looked halfway thet hungry. After a while, (an’ the Lord knows I’ll tolerate anythin’ but this one was a-pulling on a bottle of G-ddamn beer the whole while) she tells me a bit more.

   “They locked me in a hospital away from town. Pretty gardens and lots of games and stuff to draw with and weave but the food was awful and they just wouldn’t believe my dreams about, well…” She kinda growd secretive about thet, but I have a fatherly face an’ so after a while she shakes out her long blonde hair an’ adds: “About the Evil Dead. About vampires.” The saloon was silent now, ‘cept for the Northern feller pushin’ jug after jug across to the old-timer while the saloonkeeper smiled as he added up the tab.
   “There was this one guy. Real old and with an eye-patch; all muscular but gone to fat. Bulimic, they called him. He was always joking and cracking wise and he sort of took a shine to me and never laughed about my nightmares. Never once.”

   There was a pause as a Sherriff’s deputy came in and asked if anyone had noticed any strangers of an evening hereabouts. But even the Yankee was well known; he sold air conditioning to construction companies offering comfort to their customers come pollen season. It seemed the Basement Murders were heading west again; nine slaughtered in their beds that month between the saloon and the State capital. But even Deputy McCabe wanted to hear the rest.

  “He used to come to my room after lights out and whispered outside my door, storytelling. Terrible tales. Beautiful tales. About my mother and father and the war and how they were heroes – even my father who was, well. You know.”

  We all knew. There was not a head in the saloon that afternoon but nodded sadly about the men who’d gone off to do their duty but returned damaged; unable to fit into peacetime life.
   He sighed, and looked around. 
“Thet’s why I got me this. I was too sim-pathetic.” He indicated the purple and white scarring from his left temple down his cheek to one jaw and beyond to a scrawny neck too sparsely grown for the beard to hide his injuries. “She kep’ me interested in her yarns about the ancient curse an’ her Desiny an’ bein’ chosen till it was too late an’ I jest had ter take a rest. I let her sleep in the cab covered in Martha’s quilt an’ I crept up ter the day bed in back. I figger she was new to her life o’ crime an’ musta panicked an’ hightailed it into the sunshine with the job only half done.
  Outside the fattened livestock in his tractor-trailer howled and snarled in the afternoon’s deadly heat. They sang that nasty, sulky old one about the dawn’s early light.