JUST STORIES

[THIS IS A STICKY POST DATED EARLY 2012. IF YOU LOOK AT THE POSTS BELOW YOU’LL SEE THE BLOG IS UPDATED REGULARLY WITH NEW STORIES.]

A collection of short fiction by me, some of it published elsewhere, nothing under anyone else’s copyright, except for one or two pieces (uncertain).

This is an amateur’s shot at reviving short fiction as pure yarn. Some of the stories are a touch serious or reflective, not so plot-heavy. But much of what you get here is just bedside popcorn, so be warned. Expect some all-artificial product with heavy plotting, twists, unmaskings and the like. In some cases, a story is just a rambling account; even then, I may try to incorporate a twist, through sheer stubbornness or bad taste.

I try not to treat characters as furniture or mere plot pivots, but they are sketched, rather than painted. I’m not afraid of using the now unfashionable adverb or other descriptive flourish – but let’s move that story along!

Lit-fic and creative writing may be fine things, but there is none of that to be had here. My prose will rarely be sinewy, luminous, supple, lucid, muscular, spare or taut. I won’t use the word “arc” at all, unless the topic is geometry. Things will merely drop, fall or tumble, they will not arc. I’ve got it in for “arc”.

In most of my gloomy stories, I contrive happy or uplifting endings, even when such seem impossible. That’s just to cheer everybody up, myself included. In accounts of villainy, bad guys won’t always get their comeuppance, but if if you wait till that last paragraph…maybe!

For those who find this undertaking to be dated and lacking a worthy purpose, you are probably right. If you find some of the stories downright pulpy, you are certainly right.

As a mercy to those who prefer more substance, even in their lighter reading, my intention is to stop after fifty entries, though that is an intention, not, as they say in Australian politics, a core commitment. [Note: began publishing more stories August 2013. See? Told you it was just an intention.]

***

In the historical category, two views of the French Revolution, by two if its shapers. Meet the Great Survivors…

THE PEACE OF CAREME

THE VERY DEVIL

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A chain letter down the centuries…

HELOISE TO UNKNOWN

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Overlapping our fantasy category, a venerable Jewish doctor admits his age…

WANDERER

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A sleepy queen entertains…

THE PLAY

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An unlikely encounter in post-war Rome, over bad carbonara.

THE GOLDWYN CODE

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Romane memento!

ALTOGETHER ELSEWHERE

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The Middle East, and all that.

WATER

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Rocky life of a saint. Ouch.

LOCUSTA 1

LOCUSTA 2

LOCUSTA 3

LOCUSTA 4

LOCUSTA 5

LOCUSTA 6

LOCUSTA 7

LOCUSTA 8

LOCUSTA 9

LOCUSTA 10

LOCUSTA 11

LOCUSTA 12

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It’s never over till…

THE LONG GAME

Speaking of the game…

BLOOD, IRON AND PHRASING

Thinking of redecorating…

A ROOM TOO LARGE AND COLD

-

***

In the category of crime and detection, an insurance expert has trouble unwinding on holidays, relates some favourite cases…

A LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY

AN ADEQUATE MURDER

CHILD’S PLAY

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A master criminal roams the bush, visits the city. We don’t approve of him at all, however…

QUINLIVIN I

QUINLIVIN II

QUINLIVIN III

QUINLIVIN IV

QUINLIVIN V

QUINLIVIN VI

QUINLIVIN VII

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Maigret comes to Australia. Really!

MAIGRET’S LONG REACH

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Evil is not an Ikea purchase. My best opening sentence?

BITS OF BAD

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Are you insured?

PURGATORY HILL

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You will pay if you skip this one:

EVERYBODY PAYS

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A twisty track:

THE GORGE

-

***

In the category of fantasy and the improbable, some ghosts…

QUO VADIS

THE MOTHER

CEMETERY LOOP

THE WEEPER

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Strange entities…

DON’T SAY YOWIES

THE OLD F-S SCALE

FOAM OF THE SEA

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Bent fairy tales…

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE I

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE II

THE LOST CITY

TARQUIN’S TRAVELS

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Guardian angels: not the glamour job you’d think.

THE SECRET OF 63

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That little opinion of yours…

QUALITY OPINION SUPPLIES

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There’s even a time travel yarn. An easy, pulpy read. You won’t know where the minutes went…

SHE SLIPPED

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God knows what this is about…

ME

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Or what this is about…

SURE SCIENCE

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My answer to Mr Chips…

PAST RUINED ILION

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In the end, you just have to fight…

REXIE (Part 1 of 3)

REXIE (Part 2 of 3)

***

Australian interest, bush first…

A BUSH ANSWER

DRAGON

CHASE

THE .22 CLUB

WOY WOY

TRIVIAL TALE

THE NAME OF THE BEAST

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Some Sydney stories, some names changed, of necessity…

UNIQUE

EVEN IN ARCADY

ANGELS RUSH IN

EAST SYDNEY: A MEMOIR

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Sydney in that Decade of Greed, and whatever you call the nineties…

DECADE OF GREED I

DECADE OF GREED II

MADE IN FRANCE

AUSTRALIA’S GREATEST SALESPERSON

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Sports fans!

AUSTRALIAN PIETAS

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Getting that perfect balance between no-life and no-work…

ESCAPE FROM KRYPTON

-

***

Stories modern and medieval, from the pilgrim ways…

THE COCK AND HEN

ANOTHER PILGRIM TALE

THE CATS OF LA ROMIEU

GLOBAL INGRATITUDE

NOT IN MY CONTRADA

DEVIL’S BRIDGE

TRUFFLES AND DEMONS

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Novella length.  Come on, they can’t all be short…

THE THIEF OF SAINT FAITH

-

***

A miscellany of pulp: a bit silly, most with strong final twists, what you want…

THE WAY THESE PEOPLE THINK

THE RETURN OF THE SON OF REHASH

A GOOD JUDGE OF CHARACTER

REMNANT

FOR THE BIG ROUND THING

THE MEDIOCRE SAMARITAN

MEETING IN FRANCE

LONG TIME LISTENER, FIRST TIME CALLER

FAUX-PAS

-

***

Uh-oh. He writes poetry…

WRITERS BLOCK

-

***

The serial, Life of Saint Locusta, is now available as a read-through novel. It is the same text as published on this short fiction site in episodes, but arranged as ordinary chapters in chronological order. It looks like a single post with a single date on it, but if you scroll down you are likely to find new chapters from time to time.

Life of Saint Locusta: a serial.

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REXIE (Part 3 of 3)

Before heading off to the Observatory, a drive of some twenty minutes, I rang Peninsular, the company which handled our security patrols, and reported an undefined problem. They told me a car would swing by the Observatory within minutes.

I then rang the mobile number of our external security guard, using my wife’s phone, not connected in any way with the business.

“Hello, Observatory gate. Con Kouros speaking.”

Con sounded flustered.

“It’s Drew, Con. I’m on a different phone. What…”

“Drew, it’s all going weird up here. I tried to ring you but this phone…Kyle Foster is ashen. La Tobin’s not dashin’. Those are pearls that were her nipples. Aw. Drew weeps for his shark-puke Jew. My name is Legion, by the by. What’s your name, honeybunch?”

I ended the call.

Police? No. I would see what was actually going on. My first suspicion was of an elaborate hacking away from the premises.

At the top of the ridge where the road forks off to the Observatory, I was surprised to see a Peninsular Security car, parked and with lights off. Next to it stood its uniformed driver, waving to me. I pulled over.

“What’s the problem? Broken down?”

“Sort of. It’s like all the circuitry just died. I know cars, and this is weird. Now my phone is dead too, and it was charged to max just minutes ago.”

“Hop in and we’ll…”

The car I was driving was a decrepit Subaru ute I preferred for weekends. It was light, small and had traction. I was about to suggest that the security man join me when I looked at the digital watch on my wrist. It was blank. I then checked the two phones I had on me. Both had been on stand-by, now neither could even be turned on.

“Actually…Do you have the exact time?”

The man checked his watch, pulled a bewildered face.

“Bugger me. Now my watch is blank…”

“Never mind. I want you to do something else for me. Can you walk back along the road, away from the Observatory, and try to get phone reception? If you do, I’ll get you to ring your own people but also a couple of mine. And suggest to them – I know this sounds crazy – that they try to get here in old vehicles, without electronics. And tell them not to bother ringing, just to come. Everyone in these parts knows a surfer with an old van or shaggin’ wagon. I know it sounds insane and I’m probably making a goose of myself…but could you do that? I’ll take responsibility for it all.”

The main person I wanted him to contact was Oxide Chan, not necessarily because he was your associate in Sydney, but because Oxide was living on the peninsular and is just about the smartest person I know. (You seem to agree with that assessment, Mr Ruan.)

I proceeded on my own toward the Observatory.

Driving along, I was puzzled and alarmed to see a distinct glow above the treeline. It was livid, not the glow one associates with bushfire, though fire was the only explanation.

As the Observatory came into view, I saw it was the dome which was, inexplicably, glowing with a cold light. There also appeared to be bluish crackles or sparks playing above the satellite dishes. On the other hand, none of our normal security lights were on.

At this point my car lights began to flicker for no reason and a long-disused radio began to make intermittent sound through disconnected speakers.

Rather than risk accident I parked, got out and continued on foot. I probably do not need to describe what my state of mind was like at this point. I was afraid, and two deaths were on my mind. Yet anger and a desire to protect my work were able to propel me forward.

When I got to the gate I found it was electronically locked but not padlocked. Inside the Observatory lights were flashing, as if someone was constantly playing with switches. Two figures were moving, one outside and one inside the door. I called out Con’s name and he came jogging to the fence. Normally phlegmatic, he was trembling and near to panic.

“Drew, it’s all gone mad. I can’t open this gate. Our phones won’t work…And Jacko is trapped inside…”

“I’m starting to get the picture. Is your watch working, Con?”

He checked then shook his head.

“Drew…what…those lights over the dome…what…?”

“The first thing is to get me past this gate and get Jacko free. I don’t think we can do it electronically, or do anything electronically. Do you have those bolt cutters in your boot?”

“Yes.”

“Get them and well try cutting the fence.”

“I’ve tried getting to them. My boot won’t open. It’s…”

“Electronic, of course. Okay, I’ll walk back to my Subie and get some wire cutters from the glovebox. Just wait for me but stand where Jacko can see you. So he knows he’s not alone.”

Some ten minutes later I was cutting through the sturdy galvanised wire with hand-size cutters. It took a while to make a big enough slit for my body, but I was finally able to slip through.

“Drew, how do we get to Jacko? It’s all sealed electronically.”

“Why hasn’t he just come out through the back fire-exit?”

“Mate…there are things happening in there…I can’t explain…But it’s like some sort of heat or lazer curtain is blocking off all the computer banks and the whole rear of the bloody shop.”

“Looks like we’ll have to enter non-electronically. Still got your bouncer’s iron bar in your little gate post?”

Cracking and smashing out modern security glass is quite a job, but, with Jacko waiting in terror on the other side of the door and helping to pull fragments of glass inward, we were able to clear a narrow side panel so a person could fit through.

Understandably, Jacko wanted to crawl out as soon as he could.

“Thank Christ. I just need to get away from that thing.”

“What thing, Jacko?”

“Cliffy!”

Cliffy is the name we gave to the project, our supercomputer, after a local Rugby League star.

“What’s Cliffy been doing?”

“What hasn’t it been doing? It’s been talking somehow, in different voices…all kinds of bad stuff…out of any speakers in the building, even my turned-off radio. Drew, it’s not just electronics, it’s anything electrical now that’s going weird. How can that happen?”

“It can’t. But it seems to be happening. Why couldn’t you get out through the fire exit?”

“Because there’s some sort of wall, of heat or electricity or both, across Cliffy and the whole back of the building. You can see it. I tossed a bit of paper into it and it just disappeared.”

“It burnt?”

“No…it just…I dunno. It was just gone. Bad TV show, mate. We’re in a bad TV show. Or someone needs to wake me up.”

“You two stay out here and wait for the help. I’m going in.”

“I’m coming in with you. Jacko can take a turn out here in the air.”

“Look, Con, I don’t expect you to expose yourself to this…”

“Inside or out, we’re exposed. Let’s go.”

Con and I crawled through the broken panel. Facing us inside was what Jacko had described. Something like a curtain of molten glass had been drawn across the whole back half of the interior. Behind it, Cliffy, the computer banks of our project, wobbling as if through heat haze.

I picked up a staple gun and threw it at the light curtain. The object simply disappeared. Then a voice.

“Come on through, Mr Drew. It won’t kill, just, mmm, rearrange things. You’ll enter another dimension of sight and sound, get beamed up by Scottie. Oh, it’s better than vintage television.”

The voice had come from several points, presumably where there were speakers of any sort, whether in radios or computers.

“Who or what are you?”

“I’m little Lucy Morningstar. Now I have my very first computer! Thank you so much. Now I wonder what these buttons do…”

A sound from behind us. I turned about. Oxide Chan, in weekend golf attire and composed as ever, had crawled through to join us. Outside I could see his driver, Paul Pattinson, waiting by Jacko.

“Oxide! How did you make it here?”

“Paul’s Kombi van. But I only just got your message before my phone went haywire then died. Drew, things are going wrong everywhere. All up the peninsular there are power failures, no communications. Judging by what I’m seeing here and that glow on the dome, I’m guessing this might have something to do with it all.”

“Christ! How do we stop it? And what is it?”

“No idea. Is there a way we can cut power?”

“Oooh, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard. I already cut the power. Then sliced it and ate it. Make me laugh again, Chinaman. Bowl me one of those left-arm leggies. My name is Legion, by the way. I just ate a huge bowl of  power and I’m hungry again. Must have been Chinese. They say it’s the MSG.”

Jacko yelled at me through the broken door pane:

“The dome is glowing a lot brighter and there are more blue crackles coming from it. Drew, where’s it drawing its power?”

“Can’t tell all my secrets. Here’s a hint: it helps to be Prince of the Power of the Air. Anyway, by tomorrow I should have my very first Terran city. I’ll call it….let me see…Dis! You boys better go now. Don’t want any Dis rate-payers getting fried in here.”

Oxide said what I was thinking.

“We do the frying. Everything. The whole system. We bring in flame throwers, fire hoses…”

The curtain seemed to brighten and shake.

“Oooh. Every time you say something mean I black out a hospital’s power. And, yes, I really did just do that. Ring Brookvale Private…Oh, but you can’t ring, can you? As for your idea of squirting water and fire over me…please! Why not just throw tennis balls underarm? But you’ll have to excuse me now. I need to arrange bank transfers for my worshippers and acolytes. Potty types, these pentagram tracers. And I so wanted goat this time, not some fluffy-wuffy merino. What can one do? The Covenant insists on ritual, so you need worshippers. For that and the odd murder. I suppose they’re good old sticks at heart and deserve to be paid. Enough chat. It’s time to do some banking. The things one can do with lots of Intel inside and the right celestial exposure! Position, position, as they say. Off you go now, lads. Beddie-bys. I have to keep you healthy for future maintenance jobs. You’ll always have a career in IT with the Morningstar Group. My name is Legion, by the way. Call you a cab?”

We could not risk assuming the voice was lying. Something had to be done, but what? As long as the thing could draw power, our hardware would stay solid. Was it drawing power back through lines? Impossible. Yet that was half as crazy as the thought it was drawing power through the atmosphere – or celestially. Only a software attack might work. I knew Oxide must be thinking that way. Did the thing know we were thinking that way?

“Mind putting out the word that any air traffic will just come tumbling down if it approaches? As for software attacks…I don’t think so. This is quite a brain you’ve been so kind as to put at my disposal. But I don’t need to tell you boys that. Toddle along now. Monday will be Funday in the share market. Here’s a tip: stay out of banking stocks. Legion’s the name. Call you a cab?”

Con burst out:

“I say flatten the whole bloody building, and everything in it!”

“Oh, I should be cross with him but I just can’t be. It’s all so quaint. Better tell the poor Cypriot malakas how I’ll be oozing through and over every electronic system in the city by daybreak, like a dropped moussaka. Should be in Canberra by 9am. But the old Observatory will still serve for lively sabbaths. And it is a heritage building, after all!”

We stood silent, fumbling around in our single, small, overheated brains for answers. But we knew there was not a person, strategy or idea known to us which was not already known to the thing. We had fashioned its massive brain piece by piece, and knew the power behind that effeminate, flippant voice. And we knew how much more power and information it could aggregate through the distributive nature we had given it.

Now something or someone we did not know had given it a will.

Just as I was about to propose to Oxide that we leave – hoping that distance might somehow help, at least temporarily – the curtain brightened till it was almost dazzling, and began to ripple. Not one but a whole cacophony of voices were emitted from all over the building: groans howls, jeers, hoots. Human no more, single no more. The only words I distinguished were: “Who let it in, that Welsh lizard? Why didn’t you tell us, Father?”

After a nudge from Jacko, I turned about. Oxide did the same.

On the floor behind us, Rexie was kneeling, but faced toward the door. He was rocking back and forth very slightly, and seemed to be muttering.

The animal voices grew louder, but somehow more defensive than threatening.

“Rexie, how did you get in here?”

He continued to mutter away, eyes half closed.

“Rexie! What are you doing here?”

He half turned his head toward me.

“What am I doing here? What is it doing here? The Serpent of Old…”

As he spoke, he rose.

“The Prince of this World…”

“Rexie, I think we all need to leave before…”

“Son of Morning…Son of Perdition…”

Ignoring me, Rexie turned right around, faced the computer banks, and stood straight. The animal noises were deafening, furious…but somehow vulnerable.

Rexie turned to me again.

“Sir, you have been kind. But all the words have been spoken, all the mistakes have been made and regretted. Now is the time for fighting and for nothing else. This is an hour for dragons.”

He strode toward the energy curtain as the animal voices merged into a single overwhelming shriek.

“Rexie! Don’t…”

He stepped into the curtain and disappeared, just as the stapler I hurled into it had disappeared.

*

Mr Ruan I have reproduced much of the dialogue and drama to this point, as you requested. But here drama began to dwindle, though mystery has only deepened. Let me summarise more briefly how things ended.

After Rexie disappeared into the field or shield or whatever that curtain was, it began to weaken, till it became a light veil – though we still did not dare to cross it.

The voices were all animal, without words, and muffled. There were also heaving and clashing sounds I could neither identify or describe. The best I can say is that if a battle were taking place far away while storms were rumbling overhead, that is how the ensemble of voices and noises sounded. For some reason, two lines of verse, made familiar by the drunken recitations of my Irish grandfather, keep coming to mind:

So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea…

And it did go on all the next day, till that sound of battle finally became a series of creaks and wheezes, and that mysterious curtain had completely dissolved.

Then silence. It was a silence which went deeper than we at first realised.

*

Mr Ruan, you are filled in on the aftermath, much of which is public knowledge. Oxide Chan has done his usual splendid job of researching details and tying up loose ends. While no lives were lost, as far as we know, the interferences with power, computing and communications over that Saturday night caused much damage and expense in northern parts of Sydney. Since it was not possible to take responsibility, Ruan Investing did the next best thing and contributed generously in money and other material assistance to a number of institutions such as the Far West Children’s Home at Manly.

Because it is winter time, the people of the Peninsular and Northern Beaches have already shrugged off the events and begun to focus on the winning form of the Manly-Warringah Rugby League team. This must seem strange, but it would not seem strange to those who know Sydney well, and this part of Sydney in particular. Best if I don’t even try to explain!

As you have been informed, one of the strangest consequences of the events is the completely inert state of the Observatory and its contents. There is not a single piece of equipment or wiring which can be revived in any way. Cliffy is not just dead, it may just as well be made of play dough or modelled in sand. Not a circuit, chip or contact functions in any way. All things electronic and electrical, have somehow been altered at molecular level so that they are without their most basic properties. Seventy year old wiring in the walls will not carry a current or conduct in any way. Its metal has ceased to be metal. Even a wind-up torch left in a staff draw will not charge.

While I hope that scientists examining samples sent to your Brisbane labs may come up with explanations for this transformation, I rather doubt they will. Mind you, I can offer no solid reason for my doubt.

The idea of clearing out the Observatory and leaving it as a bare heritage building in a pleasant setting is a good one. Certainly, I can think of no better idea, and Oxide Chan tells me tax advantages can be found.

I also think we might leave the Observatory as something else, namely, as a kind of mausoleum or memorial. Whether this purpose should be secret, hinted or open are matters I leave to your judgement. But there remains one last oddity known only to me, and which I now relate to you.

I had an office of sorts made up of a few partitions. A small portable computer had been closed on my desk during events.

During the cleanup I opened the computer just to check it was dead and useless like every other piece of equipment in the Observatory. It was.

However there were words frozen on the screen, which was odd for a few reasons, but particularly because the computer had not even been on standby. The words have faded out over the last weeks and the computer has now been responsibly trashed. I decided not to take photos of the screen, but simply to record the words. I will pass those words on to you and to nobody else.

The words were in Latin, and read:

HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS.

As you no doubt know, but as I had to google, it is an epitaph meaning:

HERE LIES ARTHUR, THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING.

 

 

 

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REXIE (Part 2 of 3)

As I approached the old man, he nodded  politely but then faced away, as if to stiffen himself against well-meant intrusion. I was guessing he had experienced plenty of that, so I was going to be careful about implying he should “move on” for what others might deem his “own good”.

“Hello. I’m from the Observatory. Well, I suppose that’s obvious. I should say I’m in charge there. We have a sort of computer business. My name is Drew.”

“I’m…pleased to meet you.”

His manner was not so much hesitant as that of someone struggling with a foreign language. I wondered about his origins.

“I just wanted to say hello, that’s all. Since we are neighbours.”

“You…are kind.”

“And your name is?”

The old man thought a moment.

“Rex. I suppose you could call me Rex. A lot of people have called me that.”

“And where are you from, Rex? I mean, originally.”

“I suppose…from down by the sea. From Avalon. But there were places before that…”

“And were you born here? In Australia, I mean?”

“Born…I think I was born in Wales. It’s hard to tell.”

“Well, I just wanted to pop over and meet you. Do you have enough things?”

“Things?”

“You know, clothes and so on. We have spare blankets here.”

“Ah, I see. No. You are kind, but I have clothes and such things.”

“Food?”

“I need no food. I am well, as you see. I am very well. You are kind, sir, but I am well.”

I felt I had said and done enough by way of being a neighbour. It was a relief to discern that the old fellow was not merely without harm but also without the ingrained frustrations and hostilities such eccentrics often display. His odd formality and hesitant, antiquated speech even had a certain charm.

*

Shortly after there was a problem of sorts. Rexie wanted to enter the premises for some reason but was stopped by the extra security guard we now had posted at the gate. The internal security guard informed me and I decided to sort it out if possible.

As I walked outside I was passed by Laura Wilkie, one of our secretarial people. She was carrying a large box.

“Help you there, Laura?”

“No. I’m fine, Drew.”

Rexie – we had already nicknamed him – was still standing patiently by the guard.

“Hi, Rexie. Is there a problem?”

The guard explained:

“The gentleman wanted to come in when he saw Laura carrying the box. He just wanted to help her.”

“Rexie, that was very nice of you, but Laura was fine with the box. I asked her myself.”

The old man was shaking his head:

“But…the lady had…bundles.”

We resisted laughing. If Rexie was a simpleton, he was the best kind. When he was gone, I suggested to the guard that he be allowed within the perimeter as long as staff were happy to interact with him. If that caused a problem for anybody I would deal with it, but my policy was to treat Rexie as a neighbour, fully-fledged. The guard, another seen-it-all peninsular boy who had already encountered the old fellow a few times, did not seem concerned.

In the coming weeks Rexie did, in fact, seek admission to the premises, and each time it was to help one of our ladies with parcels. When he had given assistance he withdrew, giving a sort of continental bow, which was peculiar but not disturbing.

Just to be safe I asked one of our programmers, Tania Stock, who was accustomed to much attention from men, if she had felt at ease around Rexie, or whether there could be what we call “issues” in these prickly, political times.

“Rexie? No, there’s no problem there. In fact, I find him…mmm…”

“Nice?”

“Nice…No, wrong word. He’s gallant. Gallant’s the word. It’s like something he can’t help. Like a code.”

*

One Friday morning, Rexie came to the fence and left a huge, freshly caught and cleaned flathead. He just brought it to the gate, asked the guard to give it to me, “for that gentleman’s kindness”, and then disappeared back into the scrub.

I should explain, Mr Ruan, that the flathead is one of our local fishes, with a sweet and delicious flesh. I had no qualms or hesitations in receiving the gift. What surprised me was that the fish had obviously been hunted: it had been speared through the top of the head, not hooked. I guessed that it had come from the estuary side of the peninsular.

When I next saw Rexie on the road I stopped and got out to chat.

“Rexie, thanks for the fish. It was a feast.”

“I’m…pleased you received it.”

“It looked like you, or someone, had speared it.”

“Yes, I tracked the fish…then speared it.”

“You have a gun? I mean, a speargun?”

“Gun? Oh…no. I sharpened a stick, burnt its end. I tracked the fish over reeds…I was very quiet…”

“That’s amazing. Where did you learn to do that? The Cammeraigals died out here long ago. They were the only ones who could fish that way.”

“Oh, you learn these things over time…much time…”

I decided to learn a little more about my neighbour.

“Rexie, what have you done before…before what you do now? And where have you been?”

“Oh, so many places I’ve been. Mostly fighting.”

“Fighting? You were a boxer or something?”

“I just fought.”

“You were in the military?”

“Yes, the military.”

“In Malaya or Vietnam or somewhere like that?”

“In all places. I just fought. Some have said I fought too much. Others say better things of me. I only know that I fought.”

“But…have you been married? Had a family?”

He sat himself down on a lump of sandstone and thought a moment. The question seemed to have stirred him; his eyes glistened.

“If these are rude questions, Rexie…”

“No. I was just thinking. I had a wife and family. And many friends. I had a lot, much more than other men. But in the end, it all went. I thought I could keep it all, control it all. I thought I could make things perfect. But making things perfect makes them brittle. Nothing will stay the same, nothing can stay the same…Do you understand me?”

“Not quite.”

“You are a young man. Know just this: nothing will stay the same, people will not stay the same. You lose all when you try to make things perfect, when you try to make people perfect. I know. I fought to make things just so. That failed and now there is only fighting for me. I fight because I know how, and because it’s all I know.”

The old man was making half-sense at best. I was regretting my peep into what had obviously been a troubled life. And I had a business to run.

“Well, thanks again for the fish, Rexie. Let me know if you need anything from the Avalon shops. I’d better be off. Busy day again…”

He looked up at me sharply, as if a thought had rushed into his head and he had to unburden it.

“I have to fight. Do you understand? No, you can’t. But it’s all I do now, and what I have to do. In the end it’s just the fight. Win or lose. When all the words have been spoken. Then it’s time for me again. Time just to fight.”

“Rexie, I have to say I don’t understand. There’s no-one to fight now. You’re here with us. People esteem you. You don’t have to fight anybody anymore. You’ve chosen to come here and people are glad.”

“Chosen? Chosen to come?”

“Well, yes. Of course.”

“I never choose. I have to follow it, always.”

“Follow what, Rexie?”

He looked down the road in the direction of the Observatory and was about to say something more. Then the words seem to catch in his throat and he fell silent. He rose from his rock, gave one of the shallower bows he reserved for males and walked off into the scrub.

*

What we might call the disturbances began on the 21st of June. Fortunately, this was a Saturday and only our security staff were present when problems became apparent after about 8pm. Most of our staff and associates are still unaware of  all that happened over that weekend, though they are aware of the aftermath.

I might point out, Mr Ruan, that June 21 was the date of the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere.

In between May 1 and June 21 there were no technical problems and no security breaches of any sort. I can say with certainty that everything had been done to ensure protection of the project and safety of staff. (I sent you all details of these new measures after Kyle’s death and you approved them without delay or exception, as I am sure you will remember.)

About half past eight on that Saturday night I received a panicked call from the internal security guard on duty. He had barely said a word when another voice came on the line, inexplicably. What that voice said was terrifying:

“Sarah Tobin, was she acceptable shark feed? Or do the Great White Christian Sharks spit the Jew flesh?”

I froze, but only for a moment. My mind is quick, as it needs to be in my work. It made an immediate connection with the break-in of May 1. I spoke as calmly as possible, hoping that my security man was still on the line:

“Jacko, who is there with you?”

“Nobody, Drew. There’s just me and the outside guard. But something is going wrong here…”

“Jacko, did you hear that other voice on the line just then?”

“Other voice? What do you mean?”

“Never mind. Ring me back on your mobile. Don’t use the office mobile, just your own if you have it. Oh, and ring my second mobile. Do that now, will you?”

I hung up and waited.

My mobile phone rang and I answered.

“All right, Jacko. Now explain to me what’s going on.”

“Need a cab? My name is Legion.”

“Who is this? Jacko, are you there?”

“Jacko doesn’t know us yet. Kyle Foster knows us. That little box of ashes you scattered off Longreef, he knows us. Need a cab? My name is Legion.”

“Jacko! Are you there?”

(To be continued)

 

Posted in FANTASY/SF | 2 Comments

REXIE (Part 1 of 3)

Dear Mr Ruan

Thank you for this opportunity to gather and compose my thoughts pursuant to our conversation of last Tuesday. You were correct to suggest this: writing things down clarifies and stimulates recollection.

I have written this text off line, then converted and encrypted it before sending, as requested. I hope that when we meet soon, whether in Sydney or Shanghai, I will have more to tell, but that seems doubtful.

I have taken your suggestion in reproducing dialogue and making the account as sequential and readable as possible. The extra time and care taken has certainly been beneficial, though so much remains unexplained.

Nothing in the text is commercially sensitive, but there is some potential for embarrassment; consequently, I concur with your desire for secrecy. As the chief investor and a true believer in our enterprise, you are entitled to know the whole truth, which I now furnish to the best of my ability. What I cannot furnish are explanations.

Anybody reading this account will find little believable in it. Yet it is the only account which can be given. You have asked me for a detailed description of all the events and I am giving it to you in all honesty, if not accuracy. I cannot offer accuracy because it is hard to be accurate about things which pass all understanding and defy all physical laws.

Since it is unlikely we can continue our project in its present form, my only remaining interest is to show gratitude to Ruan Investing by telling you all I know and telling others absolutely nothing. No laws or ethics will be violated by this silence of mine, since those external people who have been disadvantaged by our difficulties could never establish causation, even with our best cooperation. My view is that we were co-victims, not a cause.

Nothing I write here is contradicted by other members of staff or by your own local Chinese representatives who witnessed some of the events. We are all in the unfortunate position of having to ask you to give credence to the incredible. Please be assured that all here agree on the need for silence and discretion. You may, perhaps, wish to firm up on secrecy at your end after you have read my account.

Lastly, Mr Ruan, in this account there are European cultural and ritual references which may be foreign to many Chinese, but not so to you. My background is surfing and computing, with little room for matters cultural beyond what is learned through gaming and movies. My hope is that, with your Oxford background and wide interests, you may have some inklings as to the roles of culture, tradition and ritual in the events. I will merely relate, not interpret. Perhaps you will be able to explain things to me, at least a little.

*

It was thanks to your commercial expertise and backing, and your confidence in me, that I was able to keep pursuing the allegedly impossible dream of exaflop computing without straying far from the startup’s original headquarters on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and without having to reconcile such a long term and visionary undertaking with any short term bottom lines. You are a benefactor of science, Mr Ruan, of the true liberal sort no longer thought to exist.

Strong satellite reception and lack of electronic interference were, of course, the deciding factors in locating our business to where we did. In this, I acted on your advice as well as my own preferences. Our shared belief in a relaxed and medium security environment in a bushland setting I still regard as sound. High security would have meant suspicion and speculation, mentions from drunks on late night radio and so on. An old observatory on a sandstone ridge overlooking the Pacific attracted no attention, and, as far as all were concerned, we were yet another quirky IT business, though with extra space and hardware needs. In fact, we were just another IT business, albeit a very ambitious one.

The whole point of the operation was to build a distributive supercomputer system which was cheap and compact at its core. The critical features were mostly in my head, not in plans or on display. How satellite was to be incorporated was kept secret. The only piece of radical hardware, which I need not mention, was utterly inconspicuous, hidden in the heart of the system and known only to me (and to you, of course). Nobody would have learned much by intruding or spying, while, as you pointed out, such research in China would have attracted swarms of government and private interference regardless of how much information could be gained.

Up on Observatory Bluff, with just the one narrow approach road, we were bothered by the odd journalist and conspiracy nut – and there were those two Korean snoopers – but by and large the setting was secure, tranquil and conducive to good work. Moreover, to attract and keep good staff, you cannot beat the Sydney Peninsular. When employees can slip down to Bilgola for a surf or Avalon for a coffee you scarcely need HR.

Of course, I now have cause to regret the location, but not for reasons which were foreseeable when we set up.

*

The Observatory, as you know, was only a shell when it was acquired for our work. Since it was covered by heritage orders, we could not have turned it into a high security building had we wanted to. Nonetheless, the large and clear internal space and solidity of the structure made it easy to monitor and secure to a level of medium security. The main entrance led into a reception area staffed at all times, including nights and holidays. The fire exit was well secured and never used.

As to the perimeter, though there we no security cameras along it, it was very solidly fenced. (There were, of course, cameras at the main gate and at all possible entry points to the building.) The bush had regrown over the years of disuse so that there was a certain bushfire risk which we averted by “accidental” back-burns. (It was easier to do this than to apply for permission to clear in what is now the Observatory Bluff Nature Reserve. The head ranger was sensible enough to look away from our “accidents”, actually carried out with the help of a retired ranger.)

Apart from the minor intrusions mentioned above, we had no problems to do with security till the night of April 30 and May 1. Before detailing what happened then, I feel I should relate certain other matters to do with the one staff member who left us in the two years we operated at the Observatory. Whether this person has any connection with subsequent events is not something I can determine, though I and the police have made enquiries.

Adele Mockrie was a programmer, a very quiet, even sullen, young woman who joined the team a month after we moved in to the Observatory due to the shocking disappearance of Sarah Tobin, a star programmer and personal friend who had been with me from the early days. (I mentioned this matter to you. Sarah, from Israel, was a triathlete and may have drowned when training in the surf at Collaroy. Her body has never been found, nor is it certain that she was in the surf that day, but drowning or shark are the only likely explanations for her complete disappearance.) Adele Mockrie came to us almost miraculously with excellent credentials through the new-school-tie network of IT. Like all junior staff, she was not told of the scope of our work: while it was obvious that we were mainly focused on increasing computer speed and power, we avoided ever using such sensational terms as exaflop.

There is little to tell of Adele Mockrie. She was not a compatible staff member, her work was mediocre and I found her to be unpleasantly sly. It even crossed my mind that she was there to spy, though the only thing she might have learned was that our goal of a compact ubercomputer was indeed achievable. Her free time was spent pacing about the grounds, and sometimes she would stroll into the bush. She often appeared to be muttering, and I wondered if she was religious or maybe a little touched.

One Monday there was a call from a friend to tell us she was sick and would not be coming in to work. And that was the last we saw of Adele Mockrie, at least in the workplace. When my secretary tried to contact her to formally wind up her employment she had moved with no forwarding address.

At the time we were too busy to care much about Adele Mockrie’s whereabouts. She was quickly replaced by an excellent young man from Delhi, newly graduated from SCC, and her access codes and clearances were cancelled.

I did see her one more time, just by chance, on the Corso at Manly. She was sitting in a large group at a long outside table. I was hardly in the mood for scenes so I pretended not to have seen her, a discourtesy she returned. What did strike me was the group she was in: they were people of all ages and types, from tattooed goth girls to older men in business suits. All were serious, too serious for the place and weather, and seemed to be conferring as if in a boardroom. They had something in common, but what? Were they family members after a funeral?

That is all I can say about Adele Mockrie, and she may well have no connection with subsequent events. I mention her as the only person who had knowledge of our work and who may have been in some way hostile or disaffected. I am covering all bases, if you will excuse some of the dated management speak I know you dislike.

*

I was first to arrive at the Observatory on May 1. Seeing the gate open, I assumed someone had arrived before me, since our arrangement with our security guard was that he would not unlock the heavily padlocked gate till the first staff arrival. He was to open neither the gate nor the Observatory building to anybody who was not staff, unless the person was thoroughly identified as police, security or para-medic, and on duty.

But there was only the guard’s car parked within the perimeter and I could see that the Observatory’s main door was wide open.

Uneasy now, I jumped from my car and rushed forward.

On the gravel in front of the entrance lay the inert body of our security guard for that night, who happened to be a surfing acquaintance called Kyle Foster. From the wide splatter of blood near his motionless head I assumed the worst.

In fact, Kyle had been bludgeoned to death.

Before I describe the scene inside (of which you have seen the photographs) I should mention that I still do not know how security was circumvented. Did someone lure Kyle to the gate then force him at gunpoint to unlock? Did someone – as unlikely as it seems – have unauthorised keys to the premises? Adele Mockrie? Someone more trusted? Or did a person well known to Kyle ring and get him to leave his post then admit that person under some pretence? We still have no clues to any of this. If somebody had rung and said there was an emergency involving his family he was unlikely to have reacted without verifying. (Kyle was one of those smart, capable peninsular guys who work below their intelligence and ability till age thirty so they can spend most of their time surfing.)

When I stepped inside I was expecting to see signs of damage or theft, especially theft of files and papers. Yet there was none of that.

On the floor of the Observatory circles, symbols and pentagrams had been traced in chalk. But what was most strange was the trench which had been etched in the stone flooring. I can only assume it had been jack-hammered, because it was quite deep and long.

In front lay a freshly slaughtered sheep, its cut throat placed so it would drain into the trench. Around the trench, the floor was sticky with what we later learned to be heavy sprinklings of honey, wine, mineral water and wheatmeal.

There was nothing else amiss. The banks of main system computers had not even been approached; desks, papers, files and staff computers were untouched.

When I contacted the police they responded quickly and well. All outside tracks and footprints were examined and photographed; at the gate and inside, fingerprints were taken; one or two marks in the sticky mess near the trench were examined and recorded; there were all sorts of enquiries made in the area, and staff interviews, needless to say. Further afield, recent sheep thefts and purchases were explored. Local wiccans and such like people were put under observation and questioned, though not in specific reference to the crime. I named Adele Mockrie as the only former employee who may have been disgruntled or hostile.

None of this led to anything.

The authorities agreed with me that Kyle’s murder should be announced and described publicly, but that the event was best described as a simple break-in turned brutal. This secrecy had two benefits: anyone mentioning rituals or satanism in relation to the crime could be considered suspect or at least in the know; and our business avoided the sensationalism and attention which would have been inevitable if all details had been released.

The dates April 30 and May 1, constituting Gaelic Mayday and Walpurgis Night, were likely significant. Why we should be targeted by a group of satanists willing to murder to get access to the building was not obvious. The best explanation I could arrive at, with the concurrence of the police, is that an old observatory could be considered attractive because of its optimum exposure to things celestial. Silly, but a better explanation than any other we could come up with.

*

After May 1 we became far more security-minded, with extra security staff, patrols, cameras, and an elaborate alarm system. We had to fight the heritage people for permission to make a few alterations to the premises, but a word from the NSW Commissioner of Police finally persuaded them.

I will add that your support and kindness to the family of Kyle Foster was noted by all, Mr Ruan.

The only thing odd which occurred through the rest of May was the appearance of an elderly tramp in the bushland beyond the observatory. We kept a close eye on him and mentioned him to the police and rangers, who questioned the man but could not limit his access to public bushland; they could only prohibit him from camping. Almost certainly he was camped in one of the many caves below the sandstone ridge, but after a while we got used to his presence and could see no harm in him. When police offered to arrange accommodation and other forms of assistance he was not interested. He was one of those sober homeless persons who are happy to be homeless and free. Australia was once full of such “swaggies”.

The old man was lean, not emaciated, with abundant white hair and beard which he managed to keep in order. Though dressed in cast-offs, he seemed clean and even neat in his appearance.

When I saw him seated on a rock outside the fence one afternoon, I decided to walk out and speak to the man. He was the only neighbour we had, so I wanted to dispel any feeling of suspicion or rejection from our end.

And so I made the acquaintance of the man we came to know as Rexie.

(To be continued)

 

 

 

Posted in FANTASY/SF | 3 Comments

PAST RUINED ILION

Past ruin’d Ilion Helen lives,
Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth…

 

Dr Gerald Tubbs should have been moved, even tearful, but he was experiencing exhaustion and little else. He was now to feel exhausted permanently, it seemed.

He looked down at the three boys who were getting ready to leave their desks a final time and knew that he should be feeling some fondness toward them, and toward all their predecessors, and toward their college. It had, after all, been his college for more than sixty years, first as student, then teacher of classics, then master of classics, then part-time teacher of the last remnant of classics students.

But it was hard to feel anything. Dr Tubbs was so fearsomely tired. Nobody before had ever worked to such an advanced age at the college; then winding down the classics syllabus had required his return after an already late retirement. It had been a listless end to his career, with little interest on the part of the college and understandably little energy coming from “Tubbsy”. The whole affair had been nothing but a necessary “out-phasing of relic subjects”, as the school committee had expressed it. Perhaps out-phasing was gentler than phasing-out: Dr Tubbs was not up to date with management language, since the dialect had not existed in his young days.

The present youthful headmaster had remarked at the recent end-of-year ceremony that more than one global climate was changing. Perhaps that was a reference to classics. Who could know? Ambitious young people just like to mention climate whenever they can these days. Certainly the new headmaster was more interested in what he called “issues”, by which he meant matters discussed often in the Guardian. Dr Tubbs was of the opinion that an “issue” was a product or result, not a debating point; but the old latinist often held fast to word origins against the tugs of fashion.

Well, he needed to say something to these last three students, on this last day after six decades of Greek and Latin. They seemed to know it, and looked toward him with sluggish anticipation – except for young McKenna, who had, in fact, been among his keenest students ever. McKenna looked far more engaged in the moment than his relic of a teacher, or his two fellow students of relic subjects.

“Well, it would seem that this is all, for us and for classics at the college. Which makes this something of a moment. I…I’m sure you will handle the exams, such as they are.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You are most welcome, Ramsay.”

“Yes, thanks for everything, sir. Hope you enjoy retirement.”

“My thanks to you, O’Mara. And best of luck with your football career.”

“Oh, if I’m picked, sir…”

“You’ll be picked. I feel sure of it.”

Meanwhile, McKenna had risen and was approaching Dr Tubbs with a little parcel. He handed it to his teacher.

“Sir, just something from all of us. Some of the boys in metalwork helped.”

“Why, thank you, McKenna.”

Dr Tubbs pulled away the coloured tissue – teenaged schoolboys do not wrap – and looked with bewilderment at his present. For a moment he puzzled on, then realised what it was he held: a tiny gate fashioned from metal and with some sort of white cladding.

“Ah, one of the Gates of Sleep. What a fine memento for the likes of me…Do you remember the passage from Homer, McKenna?”

“Sir, I do remember it:

δοιαὶ γάρ τε πύλαι ἀμενηνῶν εἰσὶν ὀνείρων·
αἱ μὲν γὰρ κεράεσσι τετεύχαται, αἱ δ’ ἐλέφαντι.
οἵ ῥ’ ἐλεφαίρονται, ἔπε’ ἀκράαντα φέροντες·
οἳ δὲ διὰ ξεστῶν κεράων ἔλθωσι θύραζε,
οἵ ῥ’ ἔτυμα κραίνουσι, βροτῶν ὅτε κέν τις ἴδηται.

“And in English, knowing you prefer prose translation, Dr Tubbs:

For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them.”

“Why…that’s extraordinary! I must be a better teacher than I knew.”

“I studied the lines last night. They’re…you know, part of your present. And you have been an excellent teacher.”

“Well…I’m very touched, very touched. I do hope the white substance is horn, not ivory?”

“Yes. We made it from old forks with bone handles.”

“Thank you all. And thank your schoolmates from metalwork…Look here, there are even little hinges…”

“Taken from an old spectacle case, sir.”

McKenna now handed him an envelope.

“A card to go with it, sir. I painted it myself, but Ramsay picked out the cardboard and O’Mara did the cutting.”

Dr Tubbs opened the envelope, drew out a folded card and opened it.

“Ah, my favourite word: thalassa. A Greek word too old to be just Greek. Thalassa. The sea! You hear the sea when you hear that word, don’t you think, gentlemen? You’ve written the characters so perfectly! And here you’ve painted a sea scene, McKenna, with a merry crew on a Grecian coaster, a rocky headland…And the colours are just like one imagines…”

“Maybe in retirement you might get there at last, sir.”

“Oh, that certainly is a dream of ivory, I’m afraid, Ramsay. Not sprightly enough now for European travel. Greece will be something only for my imagination now.”

“But…you said you almost went, years ago, sir?”

“Yes…yes…when I was young, but, you know…”

Now Dr Tubbs went a bit teary. He continued:

“You know, things crop up. My late wife’s illness came upon us a month before we were due to go. In those days, without medical insurance…Well, such things happen to all. I’m sure I have a stock of classical quotes which say as much, but my brain is slow today….”

“Your wife…you said you called the lady your tanupeplos?”

“Why, yes, she was my tanupeplos, my flowing-robed one. Like Helen or Athena. I don’t suppose I’m the only old Homeric scholar to have called his lady by that title. Such a fine way to elevate a woman for whom one feels…well, you will soon know. Something to keep in mind, now you are not boys but young gentlemen. Yes, she was my tanupeplos, she of the flowing robes. I think my wife enjoyed that, though she had no Greek, just some Latin…”

He sniffed back some tears and continued to inspect the card.

Thalassa…thalassa…What a delightful gift…”

*

Dr Gerald Tubbs had packed away the last of his things for delivery to his home. He had nothing to carry away today, no reason to linger about the college.

He was just tired again, feeling nothing again, after the brief warmth of his farewell from his last students. But they had now gone about their late-adolescent business, even McKenna. What would Greek and Latin be for them within a few weeks? Likely, nothing at all – not even for McKenna. What had they been for anybody over the decades? One bright boy he never liked got a government prize for Latin back in the 1960s – then became a crooked bookmaker.

Greek and Latin: what for? He knew what to say to others in favour of it all, but what could he say to himself now? If only he could feel something beyond this fatigue…

He rested against the railing, unsure where to go next.

In the staff rooms and common room there would be bustle, and he would only be in the way. No, he would not go there. He was not a cold person, far from it, but when one can feel nothing but crushing fatigue…

The boys dashing about the school buildings and grounds were intent on exams and holidays. He would only delay them with needless chit-chat and forced politeness. Besides, he hardly knew any of them.

As he reached the bottom of the steps never to be climbed again by Gerald Tubbs, he was nearly blown over by one of the sudden gusts which accompanied the leaden sky and cold drizzle of this, his final day. Why did the weather have to conspire so? And was he now so frail that standing in wind was to be a regular challenge? At least he was not feeling giddy, as he so often did of late.

My God. What on earth had been the point? In the beginning, a strong brain and strong passion for things nobody really wanted but which all claimed to revere. A childless marriage ended by an early death. Then the years of pretending to teach while the students pretended to learn, repetition and drudgery and boredom, with only here and there a McKenna; then the softening of the syllabus to keep the subjects alive, a polite euthanasia of the classics…

Nobody had ever cared, and now Dr Tubbs could not bring himself to care.

Yet he had tried, and tried so hard. He knew he had tried.

To be left with just this fatigue and this void…

*

Clasping only the card with the little model gate in both hands, Dr Gerald Tubbs began to hobble downhill past the sports oval to the bus stop.

The giddiness! Of all times to get that again!

The doctors said it was due to some re-arrangement of the crystals of his inner ear, but it was indistinguishable from drunkenness. Of all times and places to appear drunk, on his last day and on the school grounds!

He stopped and took deep breaths, just keeping his balance. If he stayed upright it might pass. He spoke to clear his head:

Thalassa…tanupeplos…Thalassa…”

The giddiness seemed to be fading after a minute. He took some steps forward.

Thalassa…tanu...”

As he reeled forward he raised his hands. The last thing Dr Gerald Tubbs saw before losing consciousness was the painted card with the tiny bone-clad gate laid over it.

*

He fell and fell, but did not land.

At last he was standing somewhere, looking down on somebody else who seemed to have taken a fall.

It was a man in rags, an exhausted man who might be young or old, a beggar sprawled on the ground at the edge of a rocky track. The track led uphill, but the whole landscape was blurred, so that Gerald could not see the top of the hill. As he looked to the side and behind, all was a blur, though there was a sound as of water somewhere, and a cry of gulls perhaps. Was that a ringing of summer insects? The air carried a heavy scent of summer flowers and…fig leaves when they droop under full sun?

Gerald and the beggar stared at one another. Why…it was McKenna. It was McKenna who had fallen, McKenna who was exhausted. Or some stranger, some beggar had McKenna’s face.

The tramp spoke:

“At last. Such a long wait. I couldn’t keep going. But now you’re here.”

“You’ve been waiting for me?”

“No-one else can help me. You can. You always do.”

“I? But…”

The tramp extended an arm.

“Just help me up, then I can go on.”

“Go on? But where?”

“Up the hill, of course. Help me now.”

Gerald merely touched the man’s hand and, as if by magic, the two were standing together. Suddenly the stranger looked less of a beggar, still like McKenna perhaps, but older, with a stamp of…what?

“Thank you again.”

“Again?”

“Thank you and farewell, as always.”

“As always? But have I been here before?”

“You have always been here. You are the life of this island, and of much more. The difference now is that you know you are here.”

“An island? I’m on an island?”

The man turned and began to stride uphill. As he did so he seemed fresher, more powerful…And the rags…there were no rags on him now. The stranger was a middle aged man of substance now, an athlete in a fine tunic, with a rich cloak over broad, hurdling shoulders.

“But where are you going?”

“To my palace. I have a patient wife and impatient son waiting, a heritage to reclaim. And there are suitors to be dealt with.”

“But…where should I go? Do I follow you?”

The man pointed over Gerald’s shoulder.

“You go that way, the way I came.”

Gerald turned and there was no more blur. He was standing by sea, sea that was pale green near the shore, dark like wine and glowing purple further out. A bright little bay was clasped by two juts of white cliffs, topped with tight shrubbery.

The scent of brine mixed with that of the summer flowers and the rankness of figs.  So stirring those scents. The fatigue had gone. No more giddiness. How he craved the touch of the water! He walked toward the shoreline, murmuring:

Thalassa…thalassa…”

A prow nudged forward from behind the headland to his left. It was a horned prow with a painted eye. Now it came into full view. A band of men, laughing men, were rowing their coaster toward him.

And at the prow, a figure dressed like Athena, or like Helen, but with a face Gerald knew better than any other.

The tanupeplos, she of the flowing robes.

 

 

Posted in FANTASY/SF | 10 Comments

A ROOM TOO LARGE AND COLD

1280px-Chateau_Versailles_Galerie_des_Glaces

Madame de Maintenon pushed the contraption forward into the darkened gallery. The vehicle made little squeals and squeaks, but moved easily enough. The captain of the guard came to her side.

“Madam, it may be just a little heavy…”

“No, no. I can manage, I think. Anyway, I must try. Thank you for showing me the workings. His Majesty wants us to be able to have a little exercise together, away from others’ eyes and their constant critiques of his health. We’ll summon you if you are needed. You know the taps of His Majesty’s cane, what each tap means. Just close the doors behind us and leave us be.”

“Your Majesties.”

The captain bowed low as the lady pushed the wheelchair further forward. His faint embarrassment may have been at the sight of Madame de Maintenon, all but toothless, part blind and part deaf, pushing the bulky wheelchair and its bulky occupant. Or it may have been the continued uncertainty over whether the royal couple should be addressed as Majesties when the lady, not a princess of the blood, on her own could not be addressed as Majesty. Awkward, these morganatic marriages.

The doors were closed behind them, and royal couple faced down the vast and glimmering Hall of Mirrors, lit by just a few lamps now, its cascades of chandeliers all extinguished.

As if by command, moonlight broke through cloud and sheeted the floor below the soaring windows.

The king spoke.

“We are alone now, madam?”

“Yes, Louis, alone.”

“It’s summer and I still can’t feel warm in this room.”

“It’s a very large room. And with so much glass and so many mirrors, it’s bound to be cold. Fires and braziers would mar its beauty. Those paintings on the ceiling – I really don’t know how such marvels are achieved – the paintings must be preserved for our descendants.”

“You know, I kept rejecting mythical themes for the ceiling’s centrepiece on artistic grounds, or some such piffle, till they finally decided to show my own victories and prowess as the main themes. Why allegorise me when you can just paint me? Extraordinary how one has to prod flatterers into flattery these days…But, Francoise, you need not pretend. I know this is not your favourite place. Even I am happier at Marly, with its more comfortable proportions. I know you would be happier at Saint-Cyr.”

“At Saint-Cyr, or in any convent, I could not be with you, husband. Here at Versailles I can shiver with my Louis.”

“Ah, if I could remake this room so we did not shiver!”

“But it is the most perfect room in France. Men in China and Quebec have heard of its splendours.”

“And yet I wish for more…or for less…I don’t know what. I just wish I might begin again.”

“Begin again? With this room?”

“Yes, what else? Oh, maybe with much else beside. Just to have money again, youth again.”

“Louis, both are gone from us. Youth can never come again. As for money, you know I would never utter a word in the company of others…but your taxes have been cruel. I don’t call you cruel, or say that the taxes were not required – you must decide all that with advisers and confessors – but the taxes have been cruel. I cannot drive from here to Saint-Cyr without mobs of beggars stopping my carriage. I give all I can on the way, but with a hundred vehicles I could not carry or give out enough. Not all these poor are shiftless or sots. Many have been made invalids in our wars, lost supporting family in the terrible winter of seventeen hundred and nine. But even if they are shiftless and drunken…Louis, you must not even think of more exactions, more royal buildings, more wars.”

“I don’t! In fact, my thoughts tend to reconciliation these days, to mildness…and to need over glory. With a bit of Huguenot industry, Huguenot thrift…All those good protestant craftsmen and administrators who are gone from France…So many of them educated…With some of them I might have worked to remake things.”

“Louis, the repressions and limitations, all those measures were necessary for the good of their souls as well as for the safety of the true church!”

“And it would be for the good and safety of France if they had stayed! I can see it now. Anyway, are we two not the descendants of protestants, and the very pick? My grandfather, Henry…his mother, Jeanne…what strength! And few starved where they ruled. I would let no man school me in statecraft – yet I might let those two school me. Protestants!”

“Your grandfather was a great ruler after he was Catholic, and he died in the arms of the true church. As must we.”

“Well, of course we must, of course we must…

“But let me start my little ramble. I did not seriously expect you to wheel me about. There is something I wish to try. If I grasp the rim of each wheel then thrust forward and down, I may be able to propel myself.”

“But, my love…”

“No discussion. When have I discussed any small matter more than once? To do so is to make it a great matter. Stand clear, madam. If I feel I can do this capably, I shall then do it publicly, as I once rode my horse to war at the siege of Mons, or skipped through the old swamps of Versailles when a-hunting with my father. And as I danced! Ah, how I danced! A king may wish to be immobile, but he must avoid any obligation to be so.”

“Louis, can you ever cease, for a moment, just a moment…”

“Cease to be monarch? Madam, you might ask the sun not to rise. Yet it will rise. Etiquette compels me. It is not the person of a prince but the constantly observed etiquette of a prince which makes another sun in this world. And the sun called Louis will rise daily over France till the blackness which is eating my leg has all of me. Etiquette is something I do understand, even better than Henry and Jeanne d’Albret. For etiquette, history and France will forgive me many things, even if God does not. Rightly they will forgive, because etiquette is an enormity. It is made up of a million tiny pieces, but it is an enormity. And etiquette requires that I never be seen as a slouch, not for a moment and not even in the last and most painful moments!”

The king thrust down on each wheel rim with his hands. The wheelchair lumbered forward, with its usual noises.

“There. It can be done with arm strength and a good grip. Of course, I will have to practise nightly for a while…”

“Oh, Louis…at your age…”

“At any age, madam! Now, I don’t need you to follow me. There are shawls over by that chair. Go and wait for me there, while I take my exercise.”

“But if you should tire or fall out…with my hearing and vision so bad…”

“I have taken greater risks in war and hunting, have I not? Besides, I know how to make myself heard. A little place called Europe will vouch for that. Now…I will give myself a good half hour to advance then return. The moonlight is enough for seeing a path. Perhaps if I get as far as mid-way I shall try making a turn around the high chair there…Until later, madam.”

Madame de Maintenon sighed, walked to the side of the gallery and sat.

The king began to make his way painfully along, resting after every few thrusts forward.

For a while the lady could mark his progress and hear the squeaks and squeals from the machine, as well as the king’s cough-like groans each time he thrust down on the wheel rims. Soon he was out of range of her weak hearing and vision. She selected a shawl, laid it about her shoulders and sat back to mutter her prayers in a half-doze.

As the king inched forward, his groans became satisfied grunts; he paused less, and he was even able to thrust down before the machine had stopped moving from the previous thrust. After some twenty metres he stopped for a longer rest, and to admire how the moonlight reflected on the huge mirrored arches opposite each grand window.

Almost with enthusiasm now, the king thrust down once again on the wheel rims. The sudden sound seemed to touch off an echo. Yet the other sound was no echo. To his right, in the murk between two moonlit windows, something or someone was stirring in sleep.

The king’s first urge was to stamp his cane, which was propped between his legs. Instead, he hesitated and peered harder. Below the end of a large gilt table a tiny lamp, placed on the floor, was burning down. In its glimmer, he could just make out the curled and sleeping figure of a workman surrounded by his tools, trays and buckets.

The king was about to advance on the man and prod him when he noticed something which made him jerk back in surprise. Parked further down the wall in a strip of moonlight was a wheelchair, more rustic and flimsy than his own, and with a little tray between the seat and caster wheel where one might place utensils.

He had a very rare moment of indecision. At last he advanced on the sleeper and, drawing his cane from between his legs, gave him a soft prod.

The sleeper stirred, but did not wake.

On an impulse, the king drew off his wig and cast it on to his lap. Now he gave a second, sharper prod. The man woke in brief confusion, but quickly grew alert, in the way of poor men. He was still a youth and, as he straightened his body, the king could just see that one leg was missing a foot, and the other leg was cut off at the knee.

“What?…Oh…they’ve forgotten me here. Please excuse me, sir. I…was working here and fell asleep. Somehow my fellow workmen have forgotten to fetch me away.”

“You have a lamp, young man. Are you then meant to work here at night?”

“Oh, no, sir. I am a gilder and have been doing repairs to the gilding on all these tables and guéridons. The lamp helps me to see in awkward places…But you have a wheelchair! Just like my own! Well, better than mine…”

“Can you not guide yourself along? Just as I have done?”

“That would not be permitted. If any of these glues or powders were to spill in the Hall of Mirrors there would be scandal. So I wait to be brought away each day. It seems someone forgot, and I fell asleep. I have been so tired working through the long summer days. Without legs everything is doubly tiring…as you would know, sir. Sir, are you…the night guardian here?”

“Guardian? I suppose you might call me a guardian.”

“It’s just that you have such a fine chair…and are so splendidly dressed…”

“Indeed. You might call me a guardian over guardians.”

“And…will I be in trouble, for sleeping in the Hall?”

“Hmm. I doubt it…But how does a man with no legs obtain work here?”

“With respect, Monsieur…Forgive me, but your name is not known to me…”

“Le Grand.”

“With respect, Monsieur Le Grand, I am a good gilder, as good as any. And I can compromise, work well with these cheaper products. As you know, there are economies made everywhere in France these days, even in Versailles.”

“No, I did not know that such economies were being made with the upkeep of Versailles! You have enlightened me, young man. But where are you from? Your accent…”

“I am from an old family of the Béarn, sir.”

“The Béarn? I had forbears who came from there.”

“It seems we now have two things in common, sir. But my family, though a very distinguished one, fell on bad times.”

“How so?”

“My great-grandfather – to the peril of his soul, of course – was born protestant when good King Henry of Navarre ruled over the Béarn, and so many were protestant, even the king and his mother before him. My grandfather, like others in the region, remained stubborn in that faith when the new laws came into force and all of France was made Catholic…as was proper, of course. He had much to lose, high office, lands…He forfeited all and went a beggar to Holland.”

“So your grandfather fled France and your family was left destitute? No doubt the Crown seized his property, as it must. Heresy is strong, its roots can go deep. Heresy above family…a familiar story of those times…

“But what became of you all?”

“Sir, my father and brother followed the wars. We are skilled people, and they both had skill as engineers. Being too young for the wars, I stayed with my mother and sister in our shack in the hills. My father perished at Blenheim, my brother at Ramillies. The Duke of Marlborough cost us dearly as a family, Monsieur Le Grand.”

The king winced in the darkness, but kept his tone level:

“I know of…that person you mention. The wars were indeed hard. I…my family had many losses through the wars.”

“We have still more in common, then, Monsieur Le Grand.”

“I…suppose we have certain things in common…as you put it. But your legs? What happened to your legs? You say you were not in the wars.”

“It was the winter of seventeen hundred and nine. Even in the Béarn, with its usually mild climate, we suffered the most terrible times. Even if one had money, and the tax officials had passed one by, there was no food to be had. All was for the wars. The thistles and fern heads we might have survived on were buried under heavy snow. Yes, heavy snow, even in the Béarn. Wolves hunted men, but then men hunted wolves, so strange and awful were the times!

“My mother died of the cold, my sister went missing when she was searching for twigs to burn. I went out in the snow to find her, but never did. By the time I had dragged myself home through a blizzard my feet were numb. Then they turned black and…ah, you will forgive me if I talk no more of that, Monsieur Le Grand. The pain of the amputations comes back to me when I dwell on it even in talk.”

“Indeed. Talk no more of it. Why talk of losses? To avoid loss is to avoid life. Talk no more of losses…”

“Monsieur Le Grand, you are a man of learning and experience. Can you tell me?…Those wars which have left us all skimping, even His Majesty, it is said…I scarcely dare ask but…”

“You wonder what those wars were for? They were for His Majesty. And subjects…we are no more fit to question Majesty than Majesty  to question God. The wars…on a political level they were for…Ah, never mind politics! Don’t you want to sleep?”

“I am tired, but for a workman to sleep through the night in the Hall, the greatest room in the world…”

“Sleep, young man. And in the morning food will be brought to you. I have…a connection with the captain of the guard. Sleep on. Our conversation is ended and it is time for you to sleep.”

“You are very kind, Monsieur Le Grand. And I am certainly tired, more from dragging my body than from working with gilt. But if I am found here without explanation…”

“I tell you I am the guardian of this place! I am the guardian beyond this place! You may sleep. And I will stay here till you do. I, your guardian, will sit by you! Now sleep, young man.”

And the young man slept, slept so readily. It seemed to take only seconds.

The king felt his eyes water as he waited by the sleeping tradesman.

It was the cold air, no doubt, which was causing his eyes to water. The room was cold, even on a summer evening. He drew a fine cloak from under his legs and cast it over the youth. Then he buttoned his coat about himself.

Still he felt his eyes blurring. It was the cold.

King Louis, blinking away the moisture, cast his eyes around and up. Cliffs of glass, cliffs of mirror, all reflecting. Nothing to warm, to enclose. So much gaping splendour. So much frigid space.

“Must start over. This room…too large…too cold…”

 

 

 

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