Harlequinade

Harlequinade

(ArcheiaMuriel [CC / Flickr])

If he hadn’t been wearing a mask, I wouldn’t have known him. The grinning clown covered whatever changes had been wrought by thirty years and a good reason not to be recognised. In a room full of people with masks, I didn’t realise I was paying more attention to bodies than I normally would until I saw the joints missing from the ring and little fingers of his left hand. It’s a mark as distinctive as any facial feature, but how closely do you really look at a man’s hands – unless you find yourself in a charity masquerade?.

The moment I saw that hand, the rest of the room vanished. If anyone had seen my face turn white and the sweat break out across my brow, I’d have been sat down while my well-meaning colleagues and total strangers sat me down and someone fetched me a glass of water. As it was, anyone looking at me would only see the inverted smile of a harlequin hiding someone standing straight-backed and alone in a room full of mingling masks.

His back wasn’t straight but slightly bent, which gave me some small satisfaction. His movements were a little stiffer than I remembered – as if I’d ever forget – but he was still favouring his right leg. All his efforts to blend in couldn’t repair that the injury.

In a room full of ersatz monsters, I walked up behind the real thing.

“Happy Halloween,” I said.

He turned around to face the harlequin. Seeing no clue as to who I was, he looked me up and down. Even if he remembered me, it wouldn’t have helped him. The scars he left me with are not where he’d be able to see them.

“The same to you,” he said.

His voice was firm, his accent flat. It would pass as English except among the English, among whom the tones the tones of region and class are the true passport of an authentic countryman.

“Who are you supposed to be?” I asked him.

I may not have been able to see his face, but he paused for long enough that he obviously thought it was a silly question.

“I’d hoped it was obvious. I’m a clown.” He shrugged. “I think I’m supposed to be called the Joker, but I’m not very familiar with popular culture.”

“Did you know the clown’s pallor was once seen as a representation of death?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “I believe I’ve heard that. But it’s all a bit of fun, isn’t it?”

“Interesting that you put it that way,” I said. “Because this is the one day in the year when you are not masquerading at all. Isn’t it?”

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A Sort of Waiter

ASortOfWaiter

(jojo 77 [CC / Flickr])

My story’s long and you’ve heard it before, so I’ll only tell you the first part.

It started at the moment I’d been longing for and dreading at the same time. The moment when the head waiter turned to me and said, “take this tray to table sixteen.”

“Yes sir,” I said, which was the only thing you ever say when the head waiter speaks to you.

My mouth was so dry that it came out as a croak, but the head had already turned away so he didn’t care.

I checked my dickie bow and tails in the reflection of the silver tray, which tells you what kind of place this was. If you’re gonna play football, you play for Spurs. If you’re gonna be a waiter, you do it in a place like that, even if you have to sit at the trade entrance for a fortnight to get a trial shift.

What do you mean, weird? Not a gooner are you?

No? That’s all right then.

Point is, I looked like the waiter I’d spent that fortnight wanting to be. All I had to do was wait like the waiter I’d spent that fortnight wanting to be. It was only a tea set. It wasn’t like I was carrying a dozen champagne flutes looking for an excuse to fall off it. How hard could it be?

I stepped into the dining room with my head high, back straight and nose in the air like a pro. If my hands were shaking, it wasn’t enough that anyone would hear the tea set rattling.

I was a waiter.

If I’d only thought to check my shoelaces as well as my dickie bow, I’d still be one today. As it was, I was three steps into the dining room when I stood on the lace. Thing is, it wasn’t a very big teapot. It was only for one person. So I never understood how I managed to pour it all over both the chairman and the chief editor of the Daily Telegraph and both their wives. I couldn’t have managed that if I’d been practising for a week.

So I never did get to be the waiter.

Then we get to the part of the story you’ve heard before. I’ll probably tell you that one day. We’re going to be spending enough time shut in here together before either of us is up for parole. It’s the story that starts when you ask someone you know to put you in touch with someone they know who might need an extra pair of hands and a closed mouth, and ends in three years in here. It’s not all bad, though. Tomorrow, I’ll be the one shovelling the potatoes on to your plate. That makes me a sort of waiter, doesn’t it?

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Fiction Review: Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

RogueMaleI distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little in these days that is worth dying for. But dying against – there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.

No, that’s not a Brexit manifesto. Geoffrey Household wrote Rogue Male in 1939, when it would have been hard to argue with. The sentiment is jotted down by the unnamed narrator – the eponymous rogue – while he’s in hiding from his various pursuers.

I must confess that I opened Rogue Male expecting a tale of Bigglesesque derring-do, so I was pleasantly surprised to find so much more than that. The premise is that the rogue was caught pointing a rifle at a central European dictator and, after torture and a narrow escape, is being pursued by the dictator’s agents. It was published a few months before Britain entered the Second World War and while either Household or his publisher evidently thought it wise not to name Adolf Hitler, the dictator is so obviously him that Rogue Male was reprinted in a Services & Forces edition to encourage the troops soon after Britain declared war.

Household gives us a hunt from the perspective of the prey, who is himself an experienced big game hunter and so is able to appreciate the thinking of the predators. The rogue flees for home but the closer to home he gets, the closer the hunters get to him. He is chased from the unnamed European country through cosmopolitan London into Dorset, a county whose quintessential Englishness is underscored by locals talking about how they ‘don’t ‘old with forriners’.

At one point, he is even pursued by the bloodhounds of the local foxhunt, becoming less man and more quarry with every chapter. He spends much of the second half of a novel hidden underground in his ‘burrow’, while the hunters quarter the county for the place to dig him out.

While Rogue Male starts with an attempted political assassination, it’s far more a psychological than a political thriller. As the pursuit narrows his world, the rogue becomes more honest with himself, and though his diary, with us, revisiting and discarding the rationalisations and the laissez-faire with which he presents himself in the early chapters. As his pursers allow him less and less room to manoeuvre in the physical world, so he allows himself less and less room to manoeuvre in the world of his own psychology and we see the turmoil behind his stiff upper lip.

Rogue Male shows the conceit of civilised man stripped away, layer by layer, and replaced by the instincts of a hunted animal. There is pain, there is fear but what the pursuers forget at their peril is that a hunted animal also has a ruthless cunning.

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Posted in Book review: fiction

Spirit of Halloween

SpiritOfHalloween

(muffinn [CC / Flickr])

Martin came home to find Dora surrounded by discarded fancy dress costumes. She spoke before he thought of the right comment. “I was beginning to wonder where you were, darling.”

“Usual rubbish at the office.” Martin slumped into the armchair, as he did every evening when he came home from work.

“Well come on,” said Dora. “You need to choose a costume. Charlie’s expecting us at her party in an hour.”

“Hm? Oh yes. Halloween. Party. Charlie’s.” Martin was never at his most eloquent after an hour on the Victoria Line.

“You might sound a little more enthusiastic,” said Dora.

“Enthusiasm. Yes.” Martin stifled a yawn. “Soul of enthusiasm. That’s me.”

“You need to choose a costume.” Dora didn’t sound convinced. “You can’t go as the soul of enthusiasm.”

“Lost soul of enthusiasm?”

Dora glared.

“All right, all right, I’ll go as a musketeer.”

Dora rolled her eyes. “You were a musketeer at Charlie’s birthday. You can’t be a musketeer again. Anyway, it’s Halloween. What’s scary about a musketeer?”

“Ask the Cardinal’s guards.”

“You are not going as a musketeer. You need to go as something frightening. What scares the living daylights out of you?”

“I work in retail. I’m terrified that people haven’t bought enough stuff for Halloween. It would play hell with the quarterly figures.”

She threw a clown mask at him. “You can’t go as a spreadsheet.”

“Why not? There’s a white sheet. I’ve got a marker pen in my briefcase. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be ready to go as a full blown recession.”

Dora said nothing.

“The ghost of recessions past, present and yet to come?” Martin asked. “What will you go as? An unpaid credit card bill?”

“Martin.” Dora’s voice held a dangerous edge.

“All right, all right, I’m excited about Halloween. Look at me. Behold the lost soul of pagan pumpkin excitement.”

“So what will you go as?”

“I shall go as the one thing every self-respecting London suburbanite dreads above all else.”

Dora looked suspicious. “Which is what?”

“A fall in property prices.”

“Oh, Martin.”

For a moment, Martin thought he’d gone too far but Dora stopped herself with a deep breath. When she spoke again, she sounded as if she was under perfect control.

“In that case, I’m not going to be wearing this.”

She picked up a red dress and a tiara with a pair of horns on them, and tossed them to one side.

“Or these.” She pulled a red lace lingerie set from under a werewolf costume and threw them after the dress.

Martin picked up the mask she’d thrown at him and put it across his face. “Pass me the suit.”

“That’s better,” said Dora.

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London Bridges

LondonBridges

(Alwyn Ladell [CC / Flickr])

I nearly stumbled off the pavement in front of a bus, which was my cue to turn left. Now I was looking in the right direction, I could see the glow of electric light in the fog, showing me the way across London Bridge. I walked toward them, thinking I’d never seen fog this thick. My grandfather once told me it happened all the time in his day. He’d learned how to stumble home during the blackout, through fog so thick that, as he put it, he was happy if it meant he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face because that meant Jerry couldn’t see London.

The demise of coal fires had consigned London’s infamous smog to history, so I didn’t have his practice at groping my way around the city. I inched my way along, not placing one foot too far in front of the other, and wondered what kind of fog this was. I couldn’t smell ozone, so it was no more sea mist than it was smog. I’d just filed it under bloody foggy nuisance when I smelled something nasty. It would be just my luck if some septic tank truck had spilled its load where I wouldn’t see it until I waded into it.

I paused and redoubled my efforts to see ahead of me, but I couldn’t even see the electric lights now. I was still peering at nothing when a figure coalesced in front of me. All I could see was a spectre in a long coat, robbed of face, age and gender by the night and the fog. It unnerved me enough that I wanted to hear a human voice, if only to be certain it had one.

“Evening,” I said.

“Godspeed to you, goodfellow,” came a man’s voice as the spectre walked past me and faded back into the night.

Evidently a hipster.

My groping hand touched the parapet. I looked over the edge, curious to know if the night was as opaque in the vertical as in the horizontal. It wasn’t. I could make out water rushing beneath me, as though the River Thames was being forced through a tiny gap.

That didn’t make sense. I’d seen London Bridge in daylight often enough to know there was no narrow gap. It had been built in the seventies, long after engineers had discarded the broad-based arches of the mediaeval London Bridge. The road was supported by a couple of piles, which took up a tiny fraction of the width of the river. Yet as I looked over the edge, I could see a long gap in the flow that could only mean something was blocking much more of the river than it should be. For a moment, I wondered if I was on the wrong bridge, but that wasn’t possible. None of the bridges this far down the Thames were built like that.

I stepped back. It was only half a pace, but it was enough to drop a veil of mist between me and the parapet. A bus thundered past. The fog must have eased slightly, because I could see the blur of its interior lights rolling down the orange corridor of sodium light.

I followed where the bus had led.

I was getting the hang of navigating fog.

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Fiction Review: A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest

CoverIf Christopher Priest has a formula, it can be summed up as two worlds = one character. In A Dream of Wessex, one of Julia Stretton’s worlds is an experiment conducted by the other: a utopian future based around the island of Wessex, formed when seismic activity formed a channel between part of Dorset and the rest of England.

Julia is part of a team that’s supposed to be exploring what a better future might look like. A Dream of Wessex was published in 1977, when Britain was feeling bleaker by the day, though the desire to lose oneself in a better future makes as much sense today as it did then. I’d certainly like to visit the Wessex conjured by the Ridpath projector, though a combination of parameters programmed into it and a blend of the subconsciouses of the characters dreaming inside it. It’s a place where the sun shines, where naked surfers gather around the tidal bore that sweeps through the channel between Wessex and Dorset and where problems are minor and usually self-inflicted.

It wasn’t entirely clear to me how the insights gained in Wessex were supposed to help the austere real world, but then the government soon starts asking the same question. Presumably they’re not employing a gang of experts to indulge in happy dreams, and they’re certainly not impressed by the Soviet-style government of the envisaged future of Britain.

That’s where the serpent enters their Eden, in the form of Julia’s ex-boyfriend. He’s abusive and controlling in his personal life and a bean-counting civil servant in his professional life. It’s impossible not to hate him and when it becomes evident that there’s no way to keep his subconscious from entering, and so joining the shaping of, the paradise of Wessex, it’s not hard to see that this is not going to end well.

A Dream of Wessex carries Priest’s trademarks in that it starts slowly and ends with what-the-hell-happened-there? I found myself reading it more as a literary novel that makes use of a science fiction setting than as a traditional science fiction novel, though as far as I know, it was the novel that introduced the science fiction device of shared dreaming. It’s probably too slow for the dedicated science fiction reader and too imaginative for the dedicated literary reader but if, like me, you enjoy both genres, you’ll appreciate Wessex.

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William or Will or Bill

WilliamOrWillOrBill

(Aditya Doshi [CC / Flickr])

The way they sat on the couch for their first session usually told Marcia more than anything they said in the session itself. Her three o’clock  draped himself across it like a veteran lounge lizard, feet stretched in front with ankles crossed, one arm along the back as though waiting for someone to snuggle next to him.

He was trying way too hard.

She glanced at her notes to check his name, but he spoke before she found it. “ready when you are, doc.”

“Please call me Marcia. I’m a psychologist, so I’m not a doctor, And you’re William? Or do you prefer Will or Bill?”

“Whatever you like, Marcia.”

That told her something as well. Not telling her his preferred name kept her at a distance, but she wouldn’t press it for now. A direct approach wasn’t going to work on this one.

“Let’s start with your first memory,” she said. “What would that be?”

Bill frowned. He hadn’t expected that. “I wonder what that would be.”

“Whatever comes to mind first,” said Marcia.

“Well…when I was a student, I got chatting to this girl. She said she was on the English literature course and wanted to do her dissertation on DH Lawrence. I told her my first memory was walking in on my mother in bed with the window cleaner.”

“Was it true?” asked Marcia.

“Not exactly, but it worked.”

“So you made it up?”

“No, but it wasn’t my first memory. I must have been six or seven when it happened, and he was an electrician. But window cleaner sounded funnier. It made her laugh and then made her feel guilty for laughing because in a DH Lawrence novel, I’d spend the rest of my life trying to get over it. But I don’t need to tell you about psychology, do I Marcia?”

His laugh was slightly forced, but she mirrored it as if she was joining in the joke.

“So really, what was your first memory?” she asked.

“Still thinking about that. I remember there was another girl who idolised Hilary Mantel. Total girl crush. I told her it was falling in a pond at my father’s funeral. It was outside the church and covered with that green weed, so I thought it was part of the lawn. Then there was a blazing row over who was supposed to be watching me.”

Marcia raised an eyebrow.

“That worked too,” he went on. “I thought a Mantel fan would go for the death bit, and I was right. Really, I must have been nine by the time it happened, and I don’t think it was at the funeral. I’m pretty sure it was at my mother’s wedding, but there was only a couple of weeks between them so it’s a bit blurred.”

He shrugged.

“You obviously have a way with the ladies,” said Marcia.

He smiled.

She smiled back.

“But really, what was that first memory?” she asked.

William or Will or Bill looked her in the eye.

“We only just met, Doc. I don’t know you well enough to tell you that yet.”

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Quest of a Collector

QuestOfACollector

(Laika ac [Wikimedia Commons])

Leonard snatched his hand back from the ladder. He should have known it would be hot. Everything in the Namib desert was hot by the afternoon. Especially a rusty old ship that had run aground so long ago that the desert was half way through swallowing her hole.

He was lucky there was a ladder here at all. Perhaps the crew had used it to escape when it was waves instead of sand dunes piling up against the hull, or perhaps it had been left here by some looter, decades ago.

Leonard took a deep breath and scrambled aboard, moving fast so that his hands were never on a rung for longer than he could help. He stood on the deck, made of wooden planks that had fared better than the steel hull, and looked at his palms. They smarted from the burns and the sharp edges of the flaking rust, but there was no visible damage.

A life buoy lay on the deck. It’s orange and white stripes had faded, but Leonard could still make out the words SS Malvern. He’d got the right ship. He hadn’t been sure because the desert had stripped the paint from the hull. Her profile looked right, but he hadn’t been sure.

He was within a stone’s throw of the end of the quest that had begun in the registry of Lloyd’s of London which, right now, felt far more than six months and a continent away. He’d spent a week searching the wrecks littering the Namib for the Malvern and now he needed to find the galley.

He tried a hatch but it didn’t budge. A crowbar from his pack forced it open with a groan of protest, revealing a companion way that looked pitch dark from the glare of the tropical sun. He placed the life buoy across the frame in case it slammed closed behind him. He hadn’t come here to be trapped inside with the ghosts of anyone who hadn’t made it off.

His torch showed no ghosts, but stepping inside made him feel as though he’d been uncomfortably close to a flame but had now stepped inside an oven. He took a pull of water. It didn’t help. He’d have to be quick in here, or he’d pass out. He wouldn’t have a chance if the Malvern had been a passenger ship that he’d have to search from top to bottom, but the crew quarters of a cargo ship were small enough that he found the single galley fairly quickly.

It was a moment worthy of savouring, but there was already enough sweat in his eyes to blur his vision. He needed to get out of here.

The first couple of cupboards showed him nothing but tins of corn beef. Third time lucky, he thought. For once, it turned out to be true. The torch beam played over something he’d seen in pictures so often that he saw it in his dreams. Yet the pictures had all been in black and white and consequently, so were the dreams. What he saw was faded, but it was in colour. He was afraid his fingers would go straight through the card, but the desert had preserved its treasures for him.

A shredded wheat packet issued in 1929.

He placed it on the counter, next to a mummified fish that someone must have given the cook immediately before the Malvern blundered into the African coast. There was a plastic box in his pack, carefully measured to the dimensions of shredded wheat packets so that it would protect it from being crushed without giving it space to be rattled around. Being careful not to drip sweat on it, Leonard placed the packet in the box, and the box in his pack.

His collection was complete.

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The Fairy Princess of Worms

TheFairyPrincessOfWorms

(A. C. Tatarinov [Wikimedia Commons])

Ellie didn’t believe her brother was really excited about a worm.

“It’s a worm.” She could agree with his characterisation of the green squirm in his hand. She didn’t need to share his enthusiasm for it.

“It’s more than just a worm.” Donald held it up. “It’s Eulalia viridis. Isn’t it a beauty?”

Ellie looked closer. She had to admit she’s have trouble walking past a necklace in that shade of green, but… “Donald, it’s a worm.”

“You only see these on really low spring tides,” he said.  “Maybe four or five days in the year.”

Ellie sighed and knelt in the mud beside him. They weren’t going to get past the worm until she’d paid homage to it. “It’s a lovely worm. But I didn’t come half way across the country to go rock pooling.”

“But it’s the best time to go rock pooling.” Donald evidently didn’t think that calling the worm lovely was sufficient homage. “Look, you see the red line down the segments? You can actually see the blood pumping along the length of it.”

“OK, it’s a green and red worm. It’s the fairy princes of worms. The Lambton Worm would kneel before it alongside a sandworm of Arrakis if either of them were half as proficient as your green and red worm when it comes to existing. But we need to talk about-”

“How does a worm kneel?” Donald cut her off.

“All right then, they’d grovel.” Ellie took a breath and made herself speak slower. “She’s not coming back, you know. Have you thought about what you’re going to do?”

“I know she isn’t.” Donald dipped his hand in the rock pool, letting the fairy princess of worms shimmy away. “Of course I know she isn’t.”

“Good.” Elle squeezed his shoulder. “That’s good.”

Donald leapt to his feet. “Look! Over there! I think that bird’s a whimbrel. I haven’t seen one of those all summer.”

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A Sister of Mercy’s Gift

ASisterOfMercysGift

(Dennis Skley [CC / Flickr])

Head down. Don’t make eye contact.

Derek’s left arm jostled someone as he shuffled on to the train.

He flinched from the contact. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.”

He didn’t look up as he said it, in case the person he’d touched was looking at him. His chest was already tight as he heard the carriage doors slide shut, trapping him in here with people.

The train rumbled into motion, generating a cocoon of noise that rose between Derek and the people he was trapped in here with for at least as long as it took to get to the next station. It made him feel a little further from them. A little safer.

He lifted his eyes from his shoes and located a vacant double seat. He swayed toward it, not wanting to use seat backs for support in case he accidentally touched someone’s head. He slumped into the seat and shrank against the window. The backs of the seats in front were close enough to make him feel isolated. The isolation made him feel safer, even though he knew it was an illusion. He knew his fear of the other people in the carriage wasn’t rational either, so perhaps it balanced out.

The sense of isolation made him feel so safe that he found the courage to raise his head and look down the aisle.

What he saw smashed him across the face like a blow from a cane. Her face conjured the memory of the cane so vividly that he flinched and clutched his cheek.

He must be mistaken, he told himself. It was the fear getting the better of him again. He was safe here. Nothing to fear – at least, no more than usual.

Fear or not, he had to know if he’d seen who he thought he’d seen or if his imagination had found a new way to torment him.

He looked down the aisle again. The woman was still there, half a carriage away and staring at nothing. He shrank back to the window,

He was sure.

She was older and more wrinkled, and the wimple he remembered was gone, replaced with a smart blouse and jacket, but he’d never forget the sister of mercy who had raised so many bruises on his six-year-old, his ten-year old, his fourteen-year-old body, and left so many scars festering in his sixty-year-old mind.

His breath came in short gasps. His hands were shaking. He knew the signs of the terror rising with him. He fought against it, even though he knew the fight would end, as it always did, in a quivering, whimpering wreck of the Derek he’d have to spend the next months rebuilding for the umpteenth time.

But something was wrong.

This wasn’t the tear-squeezing, bladder-loosening terror that had broken him so many times.

This was a fire, burning within him, tempering terror as burning charcoal tempers iron into steel.

He raised his head, looking straight at the woman who had once been Sister Immaculata.

He stood and walked, back straight, feet steady, until he was looking down at her.

“I know who you are,” he said.

She looked up. Her jaw quivered, sending waves of fear across the wrinkled fat of her face. She cowered as Derek had cowered before her so many times.

“I wish I could believe in hell. Just for you,” he said. “But I don’t. Not anymore.”

The woman whimpered, dissolving from the monster who had yanked him out of sleep so many times into a shrivelled old woman who knew the feeling she’d used reduce Derek to a wreck of a man for the last fifteen years.

He turned his back on her and went back to his seat.

There was no more to say.


Partly inspired by reports of abuse at Smyllum Park Orphanage.

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