Saturday, October 27, 2012

Miss Grey

Miss Grey

If you turn right at Scotia off Allison you will see the house at the end of the street, a dead end with a turn around large enough for cars but the bane of garbage truck drivers and movers driving long vans. Miss Grey lived in that house for many years. She was born there in the days when people were born in houses, not hospitals and died there, full of years as they say, not long after the beginning of the supposedly last of the wars, at least according to the Committee. Of course an error had been made and later it became clear there were a few more wars necessary to clear the way for ‘peace and constantly joyous living.’ Not that Miss Grey ever paid much attention to wars. To her they were rumours from a far away land and she paid as much attention to them as she paid to baseball scores or young men who race bicycles up and down mountainsides.

Miss Grey’s father was a gangster but a gentlemanly one. During the later part of his career he never shot anyone personally although several of his associates did. He wore tailored suits, sported a cane when he took his morning constitutional and had a church pew three rows behind the most socially prominent family in the neighbourhood. This family was more respectable than Miss Grey’s for it was their great grandfather who had been the gangster and by the time the present family representatives appeared on the scene the money had been washed of the blood he had spilt to accumulate it. Not that Miss Grey’s father went to church much. He showed up once a month and on feast days. Otherwise he spent Sunday mornings playing gin rummy with cronies from the old neighbourhood.

When she was a child Miss Grey was not bothered by the way her father made his money. Those who said nasty things about him she ignored. They were jealous, envious souls, the kind who made a grab for self respect by pulling their superiors down into the muck with them. Miss Grey’s mother, Ophelia was her name for God’s sake, took the ambiguity of their social position (money but gangster money) much more to heart than did Miss Grey. To be frank her mother was paranoid. Her talk, after arriving home from a social occasion, was almost exclusively of ‘certain looks’ she received or ‘whisperings’ or ‘hasty avoidances’ covered up by the swirl of the crowded room. She always came home with a terrible headache which she treated by complaining of the slights she had received while drinking two ounces of scotch from one glass alternating with the two ounces of brandy from another. Usually it was Miss Grey who listened to her. Her father dropped his wife at the door and continued on to the club where he drank rainwater and strawberry syrup. Miss Grey was the only child, so who else would listen?

When Miss Grey became a young woman Ophelia began including her husband in her complaints. She had been fooled into marrying him she told Miss Grey by his imitating what she called a fashionable boulevardier, that is a handsome, dashing, moneyed man about town when in truth he was ‘one of them’, that is a gangster. He picked her up for dates in a brand new sports coupe, took her to the most expensive places, sent her dozens of roses delivered by a striking young man who sang the latest love song playing on the radio right there on the front porch as he handed her the roses and so on. When he proposed he presented her with a diamond she later found out to be corundum and pulled out a bottle of champagne she later found out to be from the vats of one of his bootlegger buddies. She was far too young (eighteen) to be discriminating about such things and when she did become so later on it was too late. She was a gangster’s wife and people were whispering about her in the corners. Her sisters, both of whom married prominent doctors, would not come to her house and limited invitations to their houses to once a year at Christmas time. Her mother, apparently, was mortified and went to her grave so deeply embarrassed Ophelia’s sisters claimed she would be uncomfortable and restless there forever more.

Men in general, confided her mother to Miss Grey, were beastly characters, somewhat like the gods in the Greek fables, whose permanently engorged members were always seeking a place of rest and relief. If it had not been for dear Doctor Blanchard declaring her too delicate for ‘the crude aspects of the relation between husband and wife’ shortly after Miss Grey’s birth, her father, that is Miss Grey’s father, would still ‘be up to it’ demanding this or that and every day she (Ophelia) thanked the dear Lord for Doctor Blanchard declaration that her delicate health would not allow her participation. Of course Johnny (father and husband) had found an outlet for his lusts elsewhere. There was no shortage of young floozies willing to throw themselves at a moneyed gangster, although in Johnny’s case they would not have had to throw themselves too vigorously for him to catch them she was sure. These activities of his were hidden behind a screen of smoky clubrooms and sleazy hotels, one it was impossible for her, a proper woman, a member of society, to penetrate not that she would want to anyway. But she did hear things, second and third hand so to speak. When Johnny had given up drinking liquor for rainwater and strawberry juice his sex drive seemed to increase tenfold in accordance with some kind of mathematics of bodily compensation and Ophelia had heard that he had three mistresses on the go, one of them barely nineteen years of age. Of course he was older now, middle aged, but if rumour was to be trusted he still had two with an occasional singer or dancer on the side.

These revelations were not really revelations to Miss Grey although she pretended they were for her mother’s sake. Ophelia would have been scandalized to no end that her daughter, her well brought up daughter shaped on the lathe of an expensive finishing school run by nuns, knew about such things. But she did. Although not attracted to men sexually Miss Grey was very sharp in picking up the various indicators of her father’s erotic connections and had known for many years of his attachments to certain ladies of the underground. He did not actually tell her for that was not his style, but when he took her to an elaborately decorated suite in a certain hotel and left her to read in the parlour while he disappeared with his host, a beautiful younger woman who hung on his words as if they were the most delicious of intoxicating liquors, into the inner rooms for an hour returning with all the cells in his body relaxed and smiling, even without the scientific words and detailed anatomical drawings, it was obvious to her what was going on. She didn’t mind. For some reason, even at a young age, she did not have any of her mother’s Puritanism, and saw no reason to think of her father’s pleasures as wrong or evil. Indeed afterward, in the mood of expansive benevolence created by his post coital glow, he often took her to expensive shops and bought her whatever she wanted – toys when she was a child, jewelry, clothes, books and perfume when she got older.

Especially books for from her mid teens on Miss Grey was a great reader. The kind of books she was allowed to read by her mother and the nuns did not satisfy her curiosity for, as one can imagine, they leaned heavily toward the pious and the devotional, leaving out all that she was the most interested in. Her father bought her whatever she wanted. Upon entering the bookstore he walked to the sitting area in the back, grabbing a fishing magazine from the rack on the way, and left her to take all the time she wanted wheeling about her cart, piling it high with thick volunms. He didn’t even glance at the titles although it would have done him little good to do so for other than reading newspapers, racing forms, accountant reports and the church bulliten over and over again when the Minister’s sermon was unusually tedious, he read nothing and would not have even heard the names of the books or the authors she herself read. He was a purely disinterested buyer of books and left all matters of taste, content and possible moral danger for her to solve for herself. Her mother would never in a million years understand why Miss Grey loved him for this, loved him for leaving her alone and letting her chose for herself and how whatever sins he had in other areas of his life, if they were sins, were as nothing to her beside this great disinterested generosity. Her father, being a gangster and all she supposed, was a strategic man and the books were delivered wrapped tightly so the servants could not see the titles, on an afternoon when her mother was off to her bridge club. She kept them in a locked trunk behind her dresses in her walk in closet where he mother’s lack of curiosity guaranteed she would never go or even if she did, bother about hounding her daughter for the key, a process Ophelia would find unpleasant and stressful.

By the time she was in her early twenties Miss Grey read her way through the canon of western literature. She then embarked on a journey through the east, reading the classical Chinese, Japanese, Indian and others in translation. She then came back to the west and read through much not normally considered part of the canon – Conan Doyle, the great ghost stories, science fiction, the Norse Sagas, North American Indian legends. As well as fiction she read some Philosophy – Bertrand Russell, Spinoza (whom she loved dearly), Hegel, Wittgenstein, Weill, and religious philosophy, including Emerson, Dogen, the Buddhist Sutras, the Hindu classics and so many others the back of her closet had six trunks in it by the time she was twenty-five, all jammed with books. There was space left for perhaps one more trunk when fate intervened to solve forever the problem of where to hide her books.

On the twenty-third of December, in the year xxxx, Miss Grey’s father and mother, in the back of the chauffeur driven car and on their way to her mother’s oldest sister for a Christmas party, stopped at a red light. While her parents were seating in the back, ignoring one another with a frosty hauteur, three men stepped out of the bushes and shot them and the driver so many times they were all dead within minutes, her father immediately for the autopsy report said one of the bullets hitting him blew out his brains. After the period of shock and disbelief Miss Grey thought it ironic that her mother and father, who for the twenty years preceding hardly said a word to one another other than pass the salt or the front door will have to be repaired, died together in a hail of bullets. Her mother who took some five minutes to die from blood loss, if she was conscious, must have thought this is where linking oneself to a gangster gets you – breathing your last in a limo splattered with blood and guts, stinking like a cesspool and a slaughterhouse combined while the engine idles and coloured lights of the approaching police cars strobe into the cold darkness.

Well there she was, twenty-five, in possession of the legitimized part of her father’s fortune (the gangsters fought over the non legitimate), living alone in a large house staffed with six servants with the major accomplishment of her life being to have spent much of it with her nose stuck in a book. When the estate was probated she had enough money left her that, assuming she didn’t become a wastrel or a drug addict or both, she would never have to worry about money. Five of the servants, four women and a man, were older, all in their early sixties. Miss Grey had no desire to live in her parent’s style, (dinner parties, her mother’s ‘at home’ afternoons, bridge club Wednesdays, club memberships, etc.) so she set up a Trust which paid them a pension annuity and sent them on their way. The other, a young girl who had just come up from the country two years before to become Miss Grey’s maid, stayed behind in the house once lively and populated if not particularly happy, now so strangely quiet and empty. At the time Miss Grey and this girl, Aya by name, were already lovers, although by Aya’s preference, she continued performing the duties of Miss Grey’s maid.

Aya was a thin slip of a thing, a good foot shorter than Miss Grey who, granted, was tall, so tall she always wore flat heels and avoided dress designs which elongated the figure. Aya, now that the other servants were gone, became cook and cleaner as well as lady’s maid but this was not particularly onerous for Miss Steel lived simply. She rose in the morning early, dressed herself in a housedress and sweater and descended to the kitchen where she made breakfast for the both of them. She served Aya breakfast in bed in a reversal of the maid/mistress roles, for Aya, in a naked moment early in their relationship, told her the one thing she hated about being a maid was the very early morning. After this Miss Steel, who loved the early morning, insisted Aya stay in bed until she was served breakfast. After breakfast, Aya got up and went about her chores.  

To have a life ahead of you and the resources to do with it what you wish is truly a glorious thing. Yet Miss Steel would not have said so at the time for she was unsure of herself and had not yet found her way. She read and read deeply and voluminously but reading is on the passive side of the co-creation between author and reader which brings forth an imaginary world. We are, after all, enjoying an imaginative world created by another. In its receiving, its ingesting there are elements of activity but not activity of the highest order. Miss Grey understood this at twenty-five but it was a nascent understanding. By the time she was thirty her understanding was fully conscious and she became dissatisfied with merely reading. This was a problem for she read twelve hours a day. Without her reading she would have been at a loss with what to do with herself.

“Write, then,” Aya said to her when Miss Grey told her of her problem.

“Easy to say,” replied Miss Grey.

“Don’t write then,” said Aya.

“Oh, stop it,” replied Miss Grey. According to Aya, who was a very practical, down to earth person, one either did something or one did not. Dithering was not a part of her nature.

“You are too cut and dried, Aya,” said Miss Grey. “Things are not as simple as you make them out to be.”

Aya did not reply to this. That she did not irritated Miss Grey to no end for she knew silence with Aya was an expression of smugness. Why should I bother, her silence was in effect saying, to point out the obvious to this poor deluded wretch? She’ll come around to it on her own without my wasting further energy by repeating what I have already said. Miss Grey had an urge to give her a good poke but controlled herself. Aya, although smaller, was much stronger and more physically active than Miss Grey. Earlier in their relationship they had indulged themselves in several wrestling matches and Aya had won them all. Not that Miss Grey minded for in sexual relations she preferred the bottom but, although she would not admit this to herself, she expected to be on top in the world of words and social relations. Aya usually accommodated her in this but that day, she had kicked against the traces. Steaming inside but pretending to coolly resume reading her book she waited until Aya left the room and went down the stairs before she said to herself aloud but not so loud that Aya could hear her, “You little bitch.”

Two weeks later, after a great struggle not to write so as to prove Aya wrong in her smugness, she decided to set aside two hours a day, after breakfast in the morning, to write. What she would write she did not know. She would simply sit down before a blank sheet of paper and write something on it even if it was merely gibberish. Aya went out of the house in the mid morning to do the shopping. She would do it then and thus hide it from her. Otherwise Aya, silent and knowing, her big brown eyes bemused but so slightly bemused that one could not accuse their owner of definitely being so, would ascend into the seventh heaven of smugness and Miss Grey, weaker or not, would have to leap from her chair and strangle her.

But writing when she left for her shopping trip did not prevent Aya from discovering what she was doing for Aya, although largely successful in pretending to be self contained and disinterested was really very interested, sneaky and snoopy. She noticed that several days in a row as she was leaving the house, Miss Grey took on what might be called the energy of expectation. She was waiting for Aya to go and her efforts to conceal this waiting were unsuccessful. Her hands, for example, as she stood in the hall to say good bye and bestow a chaste kiss on her beloved’s sweet smelling and lovely cheek, her hands were already involuntarily giving away the game by reaching out as if to arrange paper before her on a desk. Her body, leaned over to bestow its kiss, was filled with impatient exurberance. “Go!” it seemed to say. “Get thee gone; I have important things to do.”

So one day, the fifth day of Miss Grey’s new regime, Aya went out the front door and down the step but when she reached the fence at the end of the walk leading to the street she turned right instead of left. This led her to the alley running along the side of the property and eventually to another alley which went across the back of the house. When she reached midway along the back, as lithe as a cat she slipped through the bushes growing there and came up to the back of the house. The day before she had put the orchard ladder against the sill of Miss Grey’s second floor study. When she reached the window she slowly raised her head until she could see Miss Steel seated at her desk and writing in such a furious and concentrated fashion that Aya suspected that even if she fell off the ladder and loudly crashed upon the ground below, Miss Grey would hardly notice. This seemed to Aya simultaneously a cause for celebration and a source of sadness. But now that she was on the ladder, spying through the window on her friend and lover, she felt somewhat ashamed of herself. She climbed down as quietly as she could and went off to do her shopping.

What was Miss Grey writing? Well, gibberish mostly but not entirely for her reading had given her an excellent vocabulary and sense of structure and rhythm so that the descriptive passages she was writing, although lacking context, narrative superstructure and directional drive, were, nonetheless, in their own way, competent and skillful and each hour she put into sitting at the desk and writing was making them more so. They were essentially autobiographical, not in the sense they were direct transcriptions of passages from her own life, but in that they were descriptions of social scenes her mother might have experienced or ones that Miss Grey either imagined or experienced herself, or indeed, imagined she had experienced. When you read as much as Miss Grey had read it is sometimes hard to tell the difference.

Six weeks after she began sitting at her desk two hours each morning, writing, Miss Grey came out of the closet and gave one of the passages to Aya to read. She wondered for some time whether she should do so for Aya, although far from illiterate, was not well read. She read romance novels running from the racy dime store variety to the at least somewhat elegant and refined. With romance novels if they consist of long descriptions of emotional and moral states, they are elegant and refined. If they lean to descriptions of sexual acts performed naked or semi naked then they are vulgar, perhaps even pornographic. Miss Grey thought the distinction silly. The only distinction she herself respected was whether the writing was good or not, although she had to admit that the later were excellent preludes to love making while the former more conducive to a discussion of morality and social order. Whether an ethical discussion was more significant in the larger order of things than an orgasm was a question which made no sense to her. But then again, since ethical discussions can only be had by sentient beings and sentient beings can only be created by a sexual act, then perhaps the orgasm was superior or at least came first as a necessary premise to questions of morality.

The passage she gave Aya was a description of a dinner party. It was in the style of Proust, although  simplified, stripped of much of its arabesques and elaborate metaphors, understandably, as a nod toward the magazine style of the day, for although a great wanderer through the fields of the literary imagination, Miss Steel was a grounded woman and had in her sights certain women’s magazines she planned on sending her work to once she had achieved a satisfactory level of competency. Miss Steel knew the foundation of the piece was Proust but Aya did not, for she had never read Proust, indeed had never even heard of him.

Aya loved the piece. She praised it to high heaven, especially what she considered to be a subtext of smouldering eroticism involving the young heroine (as Aya called her) and the headwaiter which while granted it did not actually break out and declare itself, was still there lurking in the background so to speak, eyeballs rolling and tongue hanging out. Aya was sure the success of the piece lay in a great red sea of eroticism lying beneath the elegant restraint of the prose and the gentlewomanly tinkle of conversation and crockery. She claimed such a combination would sell like hotcakes and urged Miss Grey to send it off to the magazines immediately. Miss Grey was a little taken aback at this analysis but on reflection thought Aya to be essentially correct. She spent three days combing the draft for errors and then sent it off.

Nobody could have been more surprised than Miss Grey when a letter came back two weeks later accepting the story. Three weeks later another letter arrived with a cheque enclosed. Aya was ecstatic. Miss Grey was now a writer. To be the partner and companion of a writer, to Aya, was much more prestigious than being the partner of a rich woman. Riches were, after all, inherited, whereas being a writer came from one’s own talent and hard work. She insisted Miss Grey move her work area to the room at the back on the ground floor, twice the size of the study on the second floor. Miss Grey, after first resisting (she was very conservative – her first impulse was to leave things just the way they were) allowed herself to be swept away by Aya’s enthusiasm. Aya cleaned and painted the room herself, ordered in bookshelves, brought carpet samples from the store for Miss Grey to choose an area rug, and arranged for movers to come and move the chairs and big desk down from the old study. It was truly a magnificent room. It had a bank of windows out onto the garden in the back, high windows from floor to ceiling. At first Miss Grey felt dwarfed by the room’s size, by the great sweep of the window view. She soon learned to pull the drapes when she was writing. (something which Aya thought strange – surely the view out the window should inspire Miss Grey) She positioned two of the bookcases so they enclosed the space to the right of her desk. Thus ‘entombed’, as she called it, she wrote mornings everyday from eight until noon. When the old mantle clock (with new, accurate works installed) struck twelve she capped her pen (she used an old fountain pen of her father’s fitted with a new nib) rose from the desk and walked into the kitchen where she had lunch with Aya.

Within two years Miss Grey was published regularly by the a dozen high circulation magazines. Every week she received letters from other magazines requesting story submissions. A publisher was getting ready a book of her short stories for publication. The magazines she wrote for were asking for a photograph and biographical details ( she had given them a brief fictional bio and published the stories under a pen name – Olivia Monmoth) but she was unsure what she wanted to do about all this. She didn’t really want to give interviews and the thought of her photograph being studied by thousands of people made her slightly nauseous.

“Well,” said Aya, “You are a famous writer now and you will just have to put up with it. You owe it to your readers and to the magazines which send you all those fat cheques.”

“Nonsense,” replied Miss Grey. “I owe them absolutely nothing. They don’t have to read my stories if they don’t want to and neither do the magazines have to publish them. I would have to be a complete fool to talk myself into thinking that I owe my life to anyone just because I write stories.”

Aya thought this attitude very ungrateful. This, unfortunately she thought, was typical of Miss Grey. She supposed it to be a matter of upbringing. To be brought up a princess leads to exaggerated ideas about one’s independence. But then again, thought Aya, Miss Grey was independent, wasn’t she? She could stop writing stories tomorrow, never get another cheque and it would make no real difference. She would go on living in the big house just as before. Nothing would change.

“Nonetheless,” said Aya, “publicity must be taken care of somehow. People like to know something about their favourite author. They like to feel as if they know them and share in some way in what they imagine to be their exciting life.”

Miss Grey broke out laughing. Although she always looked the lady and for the most part acted as if she were one, thought Aya, Miss Grey could often be very vulgar. When something made her incredulous she laughed in the braying style of a donkey while flinging her arms about as if she were drowning and searching for a grip on a dock or a lifesaver. When this subsided she snorted loudly three of four times and then wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. When this performance was over Aya said,

“Dear Ali, (Miss Grey’s Christian name) surely you are not so insane to think you can be a popular author and remain anonymous.”

“Yes, I am exactly so insane dear Aya,” replied Miss Grey. “They get text and that’s all they get.” This ended the conversation for it was eight AM and Miss Steel led Aya to the door by the elbow and pushed her gently into the corridor. For Miss Steel the writing hours between eight and twelve were an absolute.

Miss Grey’s stories were so popular in the magazines that the publisher decided to forgo their usual requirement of an extensive book tour. Miss Grey refused to do the tour but the publisher thought she was already so well known the lack of a tour would not hurt sales. They were right. Top of the best seller list and so on. This, of course, brought even more pressure on the publisher to trot out their best selling author but unfortunately for them Miss Grey was not the trotting type. They sent her letter after letter laying out various possible schedules (concentrating on the sunny south for it was winter and the north where Miss Grey lived was frozen solid and they thought they might lure her with all expenses paid trip through the balmy south) but Miss Grey refused them all, eventually, after ascertaining the envelope did not contain a cheque, tearing them up without reading them.

Aya could hardly believe all this. An expenses paid trip through the south from coast to coast, staying at the finest hotels, eating chef cooked meals seemed to her to be the summit of desirability. But Miss Grey was adamant. She was not the slightest bit interested in going and would not go. Miss Grey liked it exactly where she was with her daily schedule, her cats, her aviary at the back of the house, her two walks a day, her comfortable, cozy bed with the iron fireplace at the foot where Aya built up the fire and put on the screen just before they went to bed. Twice a week they went to the movie house by taxi, twice a month they had dinner at a downtown restaurant. They went to the city’s two offerings of opera a year, to the three or four ballet performances and to the Chamber Orchestra. Relatives were entertained once in the spring and again at Christmas time. Since the gangster was dead even Miss Grey’s two doctor married aunts attended. They had the immediate neighbours over for a barbecue midsummer. One year after first publishing Miss Grey had run into an old school friend who was also lesbian and her and Aya now had a gathering once a month where the ‘girls’ came and had dinner. Three of these were great readers and they met six or seven times a year to discuss books and read poetry aloud. Two gay males also attended, friends of Miss Grey’s original contact and one straight male who everyone referred to as HIM, even when he was present for he was a good humoured man and enjoyed his status as the only heterosexual man in the crowd. With all this Miss Grey was mightily satisfied and could see no reason to go gallivanting about subjecting herself to rude questions from strangers. All of her friends knew she was Olivia Monmoth but they were not overly impressed. To them she was Ali and that she wrote ‘racy’ stories for the magazines which sold like hotcakes was interesting but not that interesting. They were far more impressed by the ballroom where she and Aya entertained and even more impressed by the catered dinners and tortes cooked jointly by Aya and Miss Grey for dessert. And finally they were just friends for as time went on, perhaps because Miss Grey was doing something she loved and was thus satisfied and relaxed, they simply enjoyed the couple’s company for they were warm, funny and enjoyable to be with. The icing on the cake was Miss Grey’s mind. She was witty, highly intelligent and erudite. There was no anti intellectualism at Ali and Aya’s, very different from other spots in the city where money and knuckle dragging were de rigeur.

Two years after Miss Grey’s first collection of stories, the publishers came out with another. The head of the firm decided to send, unannounced, for she was sure Miss Grey would give a resounding no if asked, a representative to try coaxing her into an appearance at two or three events in the Big City. So one day in June, a fine sunny day so warm Aya and Ali were eating lunch in the side yard where the sun was pouring through the elm foliage and dappling the white table cloth, a young woman knocked at the door. The two women could hear the knock clearly. Ali got up and peeked around the corner of the house. Aya watched her gazing at whatever was there for some time, wrinkling her brow in study and then came back and sit down at the table.

“Who is it?” asked Aya.

“A young woman from the publisher,” Ali replied.

“Are you sure?” asked Aya.

“Not absolutely but ninety-nine percent,”

“What are you going to do?” asked Aya.

“Nothing,” said Ali.

“That would be rude,” said Aya.

“They started the rudeness by not taking no for an answer.”

“Still, that doesn’t give you an excuse for continuing it,” said Aya.

“Yes it does,” Ali replied.

Aya decided to say nothing. When Ali got into a mood the best thing was to leave or remain silent. She never stayed in her moods for long but when she was in one it was impossible to deal with her. Trying to make her see sense only made it worse.

The knocking from around the corner continued with short intervals of rest. Aya supposed publisher’s agents would have to be persistent. If they weren’t they would never last.

When, after ten minutes, the knocking had not stopped, Ali rose from her seat and walked around the corner, coming back a few minutes later with a young woman who looked like she ought to be in high school rather than knocking on the doors of famous authors. She was flustered and embarrassed. Ali sat her in her own chair and went and fetched herself another. Aya placed the plate of sandwiches in front of her and poured her a cup of tea. After an ineffective protest that she was not really hungry the young woman dug into the sandwiches, eating steadily until they were all gone. She drank three cups of tea. Aya and Ali watched her in astonishment. Perhaps, between assignments, the publisher kept her imprisoned on half rations. When she was done Ali invited her to come along for the after lunch walk.

The young woman stayed for three days. After the first day she gave up trying to persuade Ali to tour. The contest was unequal. Ali was a very determined person who knew exactly what she wanted and the young woman was, well, more or less just an ordinary young woman. But Ali, feeling sorry for her, did throw her a bone.

“Why don’t you make out as if you were Olivia Monmoth and do the touring yourself?

“Oh Goodness!” exclaimed the young woman and broke into a horsy laugh.

“Why not?” asked Ali.

“It wouldn’t be right,” was the reply.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Ali. “There is no right and wrong in such matters. It’s business. If the lady’s clubs are convinced you are Olivia then you are Olivia.”

“I couldn’t.”

“Of course you could. With a little coaching you could be Olivia to a ‘T’.”

The young woman continued to protest but her resistance eventually broke down under Ali’s browbeating. Aya and Ali had a loud argument that night when the young woman went out for a walk. When she came back the three of them had a long talk.

Aya traveled with the young woman back to her Big City and (with phone calls to Ali and her lawyer) negotiated the young woman’s contract.

“It’s an acting job,” Ali said to Aya when she arrived home. “That poor thing doesn’t have what it takes to be an agent for dog trainer. Now she has a nice job lunching at lady’s clubs three months a year with a generous salary far in excess of what she would make doing anything else.”

“I’m just worried she might loose her balance pretending she is someone else,” said Aya.

“But the someone else she is pretending to be doesn't exist. Besides stage and screen actors do it all the time. Whether it unbalances them depends on what they started out with in the first place. She’s a very grounded girl at heart. She’ll be just fine.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Enquiry Manager

Enquiry Manager

Enquiry Manager

Being a Enquiry Manager administrator was an isolating job. Firstly one worked in a compound sitting on a neck of land jutting out into the estuary of the river, a compound surrounded even along the river by high, guarded walls with coils of razor wire and electronic sensors atop it. There were sentry boxes every three hundred feet, manned 24 – 7. Secondly the compound itself was isolated. The jut narrowed as it came onto the mainland presenting a three hundred yard interface at the neck which was double walled with the land on the city side of the walls completely flat and empty for six hundred feet. The section of city which began at the end of this was a wasteland of ruined warehouses, at night their blind, empty, lightless windows staring out at the darkness so sadly that regardless of the fact they were wood and bricks, metal and mortar, they seemed, in their lifeless abandonment, their desolation, to give off an atmosphere of organic despair. Thirdly one left the compound infrequently. Other than his vacations (two months a year) during the years he worked there Alan left the compound only six times.

Alan had a fourth source for his sense of isolation – he felt at odds with most of his fellow administrators whom he considered to be blinkered in the extreme and whose opinions he considered, for the most part, to be borderline psychotic. Alan’s reputation was that of a silent man, a lone wolf. This was not really true of his essential self but certainly was of the self he had created to get along with his fellows in the compound. By saying little he was excused from repeating the shibboleths they mouthed every day which if he himself had said them would have made him physically ill.

He stayed because he needed the money. He was the sole support of a family of ten who lived in modest circumstances in a house across the river. He and his estranged wife had six children, all of them grown and none capable of making a living. Five had a rare genetic disease common among the city’s inhabitants. A small minority of scientists wondered if it were not caused by the city’s drinking water which they claimed to be chockfull of contaminants but the majority of informed opinion sided with the Council of Considered and Thoughtful Resolutions, which claimed the disease a result of karmic obstructions imbedded in the DNA of a long line of ancestors. The disease wasted muscle, made walking and balance tricky and thus rendered them incapable of sustained work of any kind. The sixth child was blind and, according to the decrees of the Council, to be tolerated in the interior of a private space but not allowed out in public. The children along with his wife made seven. The others making up the household were his two aged parents and his wife’s bedridden mother. As has already been said the house they lived in was modest but fortunately it was large, a necessity for a house sheltering such a number.

Every month when he received his pay Alan sent seventy-five percent of it in cash, by messenger, across the river. His wife sent a note back by the same messenger thanking him. The note was written in a fine backward leaning script perfectly centred on a piece of brownish notepaper and sealed in an envelope of the same colour. The bottom drawer of his desk, a large drawer twelve inches deep, was full of these notes all replaced neatly in their envelopes with the flaps tucked in. That his wife had sent them every month and that he read them and saved them in the drawer seemed to him to be a symbolic comment upon their marriage and the cool, exact and formal thing it had been. When he signed the contract to work for Enquiry Manager which involved him living in the compound ten months a year, he was mightily relieved for by that time the tension in the household between he and his wife was close to unbearable. He spent two weeks of his yearly vacation in a hotel room visiting the house every day. The other six weeks he spent upriver in a cabin he built some years ago with his own hands.

Fortunately for Allan his job at Enquiry Manager was technical. He was the administrator for the unit which wrote code for robots. He had his own small building containing five private offices with a large common area. He had twenty-one staff ranging from the janitor to an assistant manager. When he first came to the compound he wrote code but over the years he moved more and more away from writing to administrating and supervising. Now he did no writing at all. His days were filled with assigning tasks, dealing with personnel issues, balancing budgets and writing reports. He didn’t hate his job but found no real satisfaction in it. Yet he considered himself lucky to have a good paying job that he did not loath and which enabled him to support his family in a more than adequate style.

But at the same time all this was true, Alan had a great longing. His work was journeyman and technical and he longed for something more absorbing, more compelling. In three months he would be fifty and time was passing by. During his ten months a year in the compound he had little time for anything but work. In the six weeks he spent at the cabin he brought with him at least one, sometimes two of his grown children and although they were mostly independent, there were still much that he had to do as a result of them being there. He had a longing to be free of his responsibilities. He would have loved to wander about the country for a year or so seeing how other people lived, what they did with themselves, if there were any who managed to live a life free of the slavery his own life had become. But this was impossible. His family would starve. To follow his own desires at the expense of others would bring down upon him not only self-condemnation but the anger of heaven as well. He had created two poles in his mind and he was torn between them. He felt he would never be free of the conflict and despair he felt growing within him everyday.

Then, one day in his eleventh year in the compound, on a fine day in late spring, on one of the short trips outside his job occasionally required, he met an unusual man. The meeting he left the compound for was in an office building in the old downtown not far from the river. When it was over the two men with him decided to go on a tour of the building. Alan declined. He had taken it some years before. He and the other two agreed to meet in the lobby of the monstrous high rise when the tour was over, two hours or so. He took the elevator to the ground floor and walked outside onto the vast boulevard  running along the front of the building. The pavement was jammed with automated vehicles. The noise was incredible. The stink of gasoline, exhaust fumes, burnt oil, hot rubber made him slightly nauseous. He didn’t know but he suspected that if he went down the side alley one hundred yards from the entrance, he might run into some area worth walking through and perhaps a place to grab a bite to eat. The security robot followed him, of course. It was strictly against regulations to disable it but he was on the team that wrote its code, so as soon as they turned into the alley and was out of sight, he ordered it to stop, flipped up its control cover and, punching in a series of complicated instructions, ordered it to wait where it was until he came back. Over its shoulders he draped the bright red suit coat denoting him as a member of the bureaucrat classes. Underneath he wore only a generic white shirt cut much like the one worn by most people you see on the street. He wore a pair of scruffy jeans, something his superiors objected to but stopped short of insisting on, for it was the tradition in the compound that the code writers dressed more freely than other bureaucrats. Thus decked out he would appear to people not close enough to notice the expensive watch, the impeccable haircut, the expensive handmade shoes, to be an ordinary person, perhaps a store owner or a small trader of some kind.

The alley was a long one for the building was deep. When he came to the end of it there was another alley traveling at right angles to it. After a moment’s hesitation he turned right for the river was somewhere to the right and he might come upon a park, or docks or something different from the usual maze of urban alleys. He was surprised to find that after ten minutes of walking along this new alley he was at the river. He had thought the river was much farther away.

In river cities it is usual for the well to do to live along the river banks – spreads of lawns with docks and sailboats on the riverbank, and above this the house sprawling its wings across a hill built up to prevent flooding and create a view. But this was not so in the City for the better off chose to live outside the city, in places similar to the compound, circled round with walls and guards. They felt being spread out along the river made them too vulnerable. So, much of the riverbanks were occupied by the poor. There was the occasional ‘gracious’ home chopped up into rooms and small apartments but much of the banks were occupied by homemade shacks constructed of salvaged or stolen materials. Into the sluggish current of the river jutted wharves made of tree trunks cut from the copses of trees along the banks. From these the local people swam, fished and launched their primitive homemade boats. Some worked weirs along the banks. Other used nets of various kinds and description. These people were called the river people and perhaps three quarters of their food came from fishing, shooting birds and trapping small animals along the banks.

The river people were not gardeners. Some of the women tended small salad gardens but that was about it. So Alan was very surprised when, upon coming to the end of his alley to find a long, wide vegetable garden leading down to the river. As it swept down to the bank the garden flowed, so to speak, around the dilapidated sides of a small shack distinguished from most of the river shacks by having a stone chimney sticking up through its metal roof. Midway down the garden, on the left hand side, was a man working between the rows with a hoe. Most uncharacteristically Alan decided to walk along the cut grass beside the garden and speak with this man. Ordinarily he would not have been here in the first place but, given that, it was truly extraordinary that he decided to walk up to the man and engage him in conversation.

The man was a fisherman who came from far up the river where the people, besides fishing and hunting, grew large gardens.

“Everyone here,” he said, “thinks I am crazy to slave away in the garden. They think it unmanly, women’s work. But I don’t care what they think. My family and I have vegetables all year from the garden. The people around are hungry by the end of the winter and sick of eating fish and only fish while we eat root vegetables with our fish all winter long.”

It was early in the season and they had an hour’s conversation about growing plants, with the man doing most of the talking for what did Alan know about growing plants? Before he left the man gave him a bag containing a variety of seeds and told him how to plant them. Carrying the seeds Alan walked back to meet his two companions.

Alan lived in a small house behind his workplace. It was thought necessary that Managers live in separate quarters to keep a certain distance between them and those they supervised. At the side of the house was an open area which got lots of sun. When Alan dug in it with a shovel the earth was loamy and black, the kind of earth the man told him to plant in. Over two days, after work, Alan turned up a twelve by twenty section, screened some soil for the tops of the rows and planted. He had rows of beans, beets, carrots, tomatoes, green pepper, onions, squash, garlic and spinach.

Alan was already considered eccentric by his fellows in the compound. He seldom went to social events organized by the block social convenor. In conversation he was succinct, laconic. Even though he was the Manager of his section, at celebratory social events he attended for a bare minimum of time and then suddenly disappeared, leaving the hierarchical representation to his much more convivial assistant manager. His opinions on social issues were not known. When people began a conversation on such questions he listened politely for a few minutes without saying anything himself and then left, often so abruptly his departure was considered by many to be rude. He did not gossip although he would listen to it sometimes with a bemused expression on his face. When he did talk in an animated manner, it was about an idea or a book he was reading or a development in computer code writing. Occasionally he would say very cynical things about the Environmental Committee’s new plans to clean up the river, such as, “Well, I suppose they will simply calibrate the sensors differently. That should help a lot.” or “If they take readings after ordering a two day cessation of effluent dumping, that should do the trick.” Very few caught the sharp drift of these comments so he was never reported. Most thought them a manifestation of a weird sense of humour as if he were a man addicted to puns or Latin jokes and so narcissistic he failed to realize others didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

So when Alan began digging up the soil beside his house and some weeks later plants began to grow, strange, queer looking things no one had ever seen before, to most people this was simply Alan expanding his realm of eccentric behaviour. That he spent his spare time watering, weeding, and hauling wheelbarrows full of leaves to build a compost heap, was strange but not so strange if one considered it was Alan doing it. When the garden began to produce he set up a portable gas stove in his porch to make stir fry, soups and stews. He invited people over for a bowl of stew but most considered his concoctions to be far too earthy and were afraid they might contain harmful bacteria. It was as if they were made to eat grass and rough, chunky, strangely pungent things lacking the wonderfully even consistency of the cafeteria food with its smooth tastes chemically formulated, sugared and oil injected. His visitors dwindled until there was only two, one a genuine adherent, the other a sycophant looking for a leg up the promotion ladder. The genuine adherent, a strange bird like Alan, a much younger code writer whose own anti social behaviour was tolerated because of his brilliance, began going to Allan’s every evening and helping hoe and haul leaves for the compost pile. This man’s name was Uri and although he was the long, skinny type who reminded one of a reed or a tall stalk of grass, he was amazingly strong despite his spindly, stretched out muscles. On Saturday he and Alan worked in the plot all day, stopping occasionally for a bowl of stew or a green salad or a delicious roasted beet or two. During work breaks, drinking coffee while sitting on the grass beside the garden they talked away at a great pace. Everyone who saw them assumed they were talking about plants and the garden and this was true but they had another topic of conversation as well.

Uri came from a small community in the hinterland. In school he was obviously brilliant and at the age of fifteen was given a full scholarship in the City. Otherwise he would not have been able to attend for his parents were small farmers with nowhere near the resources necessary to pay for a son at the university. The intellectual ferment at the University was just the thing Uri needed. He blossomed like a wild rose and graduated with a Doctorate in computer science before he was twenty. He came to the compound a few months later and had been there for five years. His specialty was robotics. Within the first year he was the source of more innovations than the whole robot research unit had been in the previous ten. Alan recognized his worth the first time he met him and was ruthless in clearing away the deadwood in the department which would have hampered him. He employed the very simple method of transferring jealous and reactionary researchers to other areas of research. In this Alan had not the slightest scruple. For him those who had become stupid and calcified should get out of the way and if they didn’t he removed them.

From the age of twelve to nineteen Uri lived mainly in the world of ideas. He lived, breathed and ate ideas. Three weeks after his nineteenth birthday he fell in love with a young woman whom he met at a student party on the riverbank. These parties were informal annual spring events in student life in the City, one which the university tried its best to discourage but they may as well have tried to prevent spring itself, for the exuberance of the young people and bonfires lighting the dark while the students danced to the weird anarchistic music they loved, went together like matter and energy. The young woman, beautiful and as spirited as a tigress, by some strange principle of attraction, straight armed all the good looking frat boys and zeroed in on Uri, gangly, solitary, self absorbed, whose male beauty was of the highly individual kind but whose intelligence, character and personality shone like gold nugget beneath the surface of an obscuring pool. Uri, granted somewhat otherworldly, but certainly not blind to the beauty of women, did not object to being seduced and the two young people spent the summer together living in a shack on the river belonging to her father, a fisherman. After this they were inseparable. Uri’s contract at the compound included that his ‘wife’ (they were unmarried, neither believed in it) live with him there in separate quarters. This was unusual for the compound contained few women, the men were expected to live away from their wives, but when the contract negotiator tried to refuse him, Uri said he would be leaving then and going back to his home village to work on his father’s farm. This was not an idle threat either. The young couple had determined to do exactly that if she were not allowed to live in the compound. The negotiator quickly changed his mind and made the arrangements.

The bond with his woman changed things for Uri. He began to notice the solid real world about him and the humans who inhabited it. His introduction to her family, physical workers much like the farmers he came from, made him examine the prejudices against their class interwoven into much of what he was taught at the University, the notion that intelligence flowed upward, for example. It was clear from his memories of his own community and his relationships with his girl’s family, that this simply was not true. Fortunately for Uri this did not lead, as it does for many, to exchanging an old set of prejudices for a new. But it did lead to him wanting to leave his research job at the compound. It did lead to him looking into the practical uses of his discoveries and becoming horrified at the ramifications. One of his early electronic discoveries, for instance, seemed to be leading towards a robot which could hover above a crowd, identify a single individual in it and kill him or her with a laser beam or an explosive rocket. He and Ella, his partner, spent hours in the evenings talking about leaving and starting up a farm north on the river. This is why he was so taken with the notion of gardening and when Alan invited him to help he snapped up the invitation. Gardening, farming, could be a way out, a way he and Ella could create a life for themselves outside what he had come to call (only in his own mind and to Ella and a few very trusted friends) the structure of horror.

What he and Alan spoke of then, was leaving. But the situation of the two men was radically different. Uri and his partner could leave at any time. They could either go through the official channels which might take a year or two, or slip away at night up the river into the hinterland where even the authorities could not find them. Alan, on the other hand, had responsibilities. He could not leave his family to starve. Uri, after becoming aware of the problem for the older man, did some thinking and a little tinkering and came up with the suggestion of a solution. But Alan was leery. Not only did this solution seem dangerous but dishonest as well.

“Of course it is dishonest,” Uri said. “But they themselves have been dishonest and it is only a matching dishonesty. Fire must be fought with fire.”

Still Alan was doubtful. “What if they catch us?” he asked.

“They will kill us of course,” replied Uri. “But at least they will kill us straight off. What we have right now will kill us very slowly over a number of years.”

For two years Alan and Uri talked about Uri’s solution, Alan leaning toward it one month and away the next. Finally, when they were harvesting the beets from the third of Alan’s gardens, Uri said to him, “She wants to go. She hates it here and so do I. We can no longer live like this. We are becoming moral monsters, predators. She feels she is living in some kind of terrible limbo world where there is no connection to the earth, no connection to basic sanity. I have some money saved. We plan to buy a sailboat and leave without permission. She says we cannot go through official channels. She says they will never let me go. You are the goose which lays the golden eggs she says. She says once they find there will be no more golden eggs they will kill the goose, bake it in the oven.”

Alan begged Uri to give him another two days to think. Uri agreed. “But only two days,” he told him. “Time is running out. No more wasting time.”

The next day Alan and Uri went for a walk along the river and Alan agreed to his plan.

The plan involved Uri computer hacking and Alan using his administrative authority to cover it up. There was to be a transfer of funds from a number of research accounts into a complex maze of external accounts and then into a combination of gold and cash. When these transfers were complete all three of them, Uri, Ella and Alan, would, during their next vacation, (happily synchronized with the end of the gardening season) first leave town ostensibly for a tour along the river, and then, when they thought the opportunity right, up the river into the hinterland. No one but the three of them and an uncle of Ella’s were in on this plan. In the compound you could trust no one. There were spies and sycophants everywhere.

The transfer of funds went without a hitch. It was not necessary for Alan to cover anything up. No one made enquiries. It was as if nothing had happened. The gold and cash were in the hands of Ella’s uncle, a fisherman and part time smuggler.

Uri went on his vacation three days before Alan, staying with Ella in the same shack on the river they spent the summer they first met.

On the night before he was to leave the compound for his vacation, Alan received a message from an old friend. Alan was taking his nightly walk before turning in when the man came up behind him and fell into step with him.

“I will tell you something,” the man said, “and then leave right away. It is too dangerous for me to speak at length with you but what I tell you now is all I know anyway. They know. A man will be on the bus into the city tomorrow – one of them. He will be the only one on the bus you don’t know. He will try to befriend you and invite himself down to the river to meet your friends. That’s all. Good luck.”

Alan’s friend slipped off the path and disappeared into the darkness.

Later that night Alan texted this information to Uri on the secure device Uri had given him.

“Bring the man along with you, of course,” Uri texted back. “There is more than enough room for another in our little expedition.”

Alan did as Uri told him. The man seemed delighted with how easy it was to make his connection. As they walked along the alley beyond the tall office building, the alley leading to the old man’s garden and in turn to the dwellings of Ella’s relatives, the man smiled broadly at the grass fields and the tall, towering trees as if he indeed were out on a pleasure excursion after a long period of hard work which had been stressful and tiring. But his excursion did not last long. When they were halfway down the alley, in the midst of shade and shadow under the canopies of the great elms lining the road, someone shot the man through the head with some kind of silenced weapon for there was no sound but for a soft pizzzzzt. He dropped like a bag of sand onto the road and almost immediately two men come out from the trees with a wheelbarrow. They stripped the dead man completely naked, one of them cutting from his neck a device embedded under the skin. His clothes and the device they rolled into a ball and dropped into a large metal drum filled with water by the side of the road. They weighted it down with a cinder block and it sunk to the bottom out of sight. They then picked up the body and lay it in the wheelbarrow and covered it with a blue tarp. This was all done so efficiently, so quickly that when it was over, Alan could hardly believe it had happened. But it had happened and the two men were gesturing to him to walk with them as one of them pushed the barrow down the road to the river, while the other, walking beside him, hummed a popular tune Alan often heard on the radio. He followed. What else could he to do?

Uri, Alan, and Ella left that night, as soon as it was dark, to sail up river.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Reverend and Mrs Gordon

The Reverend and Mrs Gordon

Mrs Gordon lived in a shack on the river. She was a very old woman, somewhere in her nineties. No one knew exactly how old she was for she refused to say herself and all others qualified to speak on the matter were dead.

Mrs Gordon wasn’t really a Mrs. Many years ago she had moved towns in the hinterland and found it advantageous to claim her six children were sired by a Mr Gordon, now deceased. A widow was more respected in those old towns than a woman with six children all of whom had different fathers. When, occasionally, during the children’s growing up, one of the father’s appeared, she claimed them to be uncles and taught the children to do so as well. The children knew this was untrue yet went along for they found this editing of the strict and literal truth to be socially useful.

At the time of which we are speaking the children had long ago grown up and moved away for the town had little employment opportunities for the young. One by one they made off to other places. Eventually all had families with children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren.  Occasionally a great load of them came down river by boat to visit the old lady and occasionally she traveled to see them. Two of the originals were now dead. Two were so ill they now no longer traveled and two, the oldest, had turned religious in old age and spent their time traveling around to Revivals where, amidst the frenzy of the shouting crowds, they renewed their spirits.

Mrs Gordon was a magic practitioner. Her one room shack was filled with the natural products necessary for such a practice – animal bones, herbs, feathers, hallucinatory plants, healing plants, etc. She had learned her trade from many teachers over a long life and knew not only just about all the magic lore there was to know but healing as well. Her bread and butter, as far as income goes, for even a magician and healer has to eat and have the handyman patch the roof on her cabin now and again, was a plant she was taught to identify by one of the old people who had lived in the area for some thousands of years before the coming of prospectors, mines, factories and so on. This plant grew in the wild some ten miles from the town. In the late summer every year Mrs. Gordon traveled to the locale where it grew and picked several large burlap bags full. She was very secretive about these gathering trips, partially because there were those who would abuse the plant for thrill seeking purposes but also because it’s sale as a pain reliever was the support of her old age. Anyone in town in need of a strong, genuine pain reliever, went to Mrs. Gordon.

The old lady was measured in what she charged. If the asker was well to do she soaked them liberally. If poor she charged very little. If destitute she often gave the mixture away free. She was in her own way a humanitarian and, although she would not admit it to anyone but herself, she hated to see someone in unrelieved suffering.

There was a minister in that town, one Herbert Grimelody. The Reverend was death on magic and also death on pain relieving medicines or, for that matter, medicines of any kind. According to him sickness, disease and pain were the judgments of God and worm like, sinful humans, should not interfere with them. Why God had not struck down Mrs Gordon with a righteous thunderbolt long ago was one of the great mysteries present in the mind of Reverend Grimelody. He himself had tried, using white magic and righteous energy of course, to fry the old lady in her tracks many times but none of these attempts had succeeded. He gave them up some ten years before because he came to the conclusion that God had a reason for enduring the apostasy of this wicked old woman, a reason He chose not to disclose to the Reverend, no doubt because his heart was full of wickedness and sin.

Nonetheless Reverend Grimelody did his best to dog the steps of Mrs. Gordon. Eleven times over twenty years he had tried to get the council to run her out of town. But only two of the ten councillors were adherents to his brand of religiosity and each time the motion was introduced by one of his Church members it was voted down. This made the Reverend bitter in his heart, not, he told himself, from the irritation of being constantly thwarted by a frail old woman who in a proper world he could snap like a twig and leave dead in the nearest ditch, but because Mrs Gordon was clearly an agent of the devil, a witch, a conduit of the dark side, an evil forest woman with potions that corrupted even the good and carry their immortal souls off to eternal damnation. That the town’s people did not agree puffed him out like a poisonous adder about to strike but there was nothing he could do. He had to swallow his own poison and digest it in the bitter watches of the night.

Four times the Reverend, whose sect had deep roots in religious pragmatism, tried to have the old lady killed. There was no shortage of men in his congregation ready to do the job as long as it was sanctioned by the religious authority of the Minister. But none of these attempts worked. In two cases the old lady was not home when, in the middle of the dark night, the killer arrived. In fact she was not at home for some weeks after, seeming to have disappeared, magically her adherents said, into nothingness. The other two times, when the killer entered the house he found the old lady sleeping in her bed but when he raised his gun to shoot she disappeared and the killer was transported to a spot on the riverbank where, against all the efforts of his will, he tossed his loaded gun into the river. The Reverend tried his best to suppress knowledge of these attempts but in a small town people talk. For some time after the last attempt, rough men would accost him on the street and mock him by asking, “Have you seen Old Lady Gordon lately, Herbert? I hear she has been asking about you.” One of his own Churchmen told him in confidence that he should leave the old lady alone. “If she turns up dead one morning there are those who will blame you and they will not hesitate to kill you in vengeance,” he said. This put the fear into the Reverend and he ceased looking over his congregation on Sunday mornings searching for a new assassin. When some of the young men told him they would succeed surely for they were ‘righteous in the Lord’, he turned them down. A Divine communication had informed him, he told them, that the ‘time of the Lord’s vindication’ was not now but in the future. He told them to hold themselves in readiness. This they did if the evidence of their grim, intense faces before him each Sunday morning was any indication.

Some two years after these failed attempts the Reverend had an inspiration. He had been told that the old lady went, in mid August of every year, into the forest to collect the plant yielding her ungodly pain medicine. She sailed up river with an old man who the Reverend suspected of once being her lover (that he might presently be her lover was too distressing a possibility for the Reverend to consider). This old man, perhaps twenty years younger than Mrs Gordon and thus, the Reverend conjectured, seduced in his early manhood to serve the wicked lusts of that already aging witch, was hale and hearty, although even his middle age had long passed by. He drank in the tavern on Saturday nights and visited the bordello, even at his great age a slave to his lusts. Early in the morning on a bright day in mid August, the two of them would climb into the old man’s fishing boat and sail up river. They returned two days later.

Things can happen in the wilderness, unplanned for things like snakes and panthers and swamps. People thus taken were seldom found. They were devoured by wild animals, eaten by insects and their bones buried under dense vegetation. They were seldom searched for. The wilderness is far too dangerous for the townsfolk to venture into it and the wild men up river could not care less if the forest claims fools who wander into it. In the second week of August the Reverend made a great show of leaving town to visit a city down river for a Revival. His congregation saw him off at the pier, shouting prayers and exhortations at him as he sailed away.

The Reverend, however, did not go to the Revival. Instead at the next village he disembarked and walked back along the riverbank opposite the town. When he reached a small, uninhabited fishing shack he went in and laid out the few things he brought with him for his vigil. The shack had a window looking out on the river where he could see the little summer pier where Mrs Gordon’s friend tied up his boat.

Two days later the old lady and her fisherman friend came down to the boat. It was early morning, not long after first light. At first the Reverend was unsure it was them but when he looked through the binoculars lent him by a devout member of the congregation he could see them clear as day. He threw his things into his bag and rushed down to the pier. When the two wicked ones sailed up the river and around the first bend, he followed.

The Reverend was a reasonably good sailor. As a boy he had accompanied his brothers fishing and even when he had been ‘called’ and afterward, he sailed for the exercise during the summer. But the old man was an expert. He slipped from one side of the river to another seeking always the least current and the best advantage of the wind as other men would weave unconsciously around the potholes in a road they were walking. The Reverend could not make enough headway to catch sight of them and, after three hours he grew afraid they had slipped off the river without his knowing and he would never find them. However, five hours or so after he had started out, he caught a flash of white in the leaves on the bank, and when he sailed in to take a look it was the old man’s boat pulled into the bushes and tied to a tree. There was a trail of footsteps leading off into the forest.

The Reverend packed a small bag containing water, a day’s food and a compass. He took a careful reading before he started out. On his shoulder he balanced a double barrel shotgun. He began his walk up the trail in a cheerful mood. God will not be mocked he said to himself. He abides; He waits his time but He will not be mocked.

Many hours later, long after the Reverend had thought he would overtake the two old people who surely could not travel as fast as a man barely into his forties like himself, dark began to fall. This filled the Reverend with a fear so papable that it seemed to rise up from the earth itself and seize his entrails in an icy grip. He had never spent a night in the forest. Town’s people never did. In a party, for a lark, they might journey in for a short distance and then return to the safety of the riverbank. Even when he was a boy he had never gone into the forest for more than a few hundred yards. And now here he was, perhaps ten miles in with no sighting of the ones he was following and dark coming down.

He became so afraid his teeth started to chatter. Around him was thick green vegetation alive with things spawned of the devil. The thought of it made his skin crawl and his bowels loosen. There were the wild cries of birds and animals, no doubt greeting with joy the coming reign of darkness. Perhaps a mile away, but so near for such fleet creatures, came the screech of a big cat. He began to hyperventilate. To calm himself he stopped and sat down on a fallen log. He looked around him. He was in a small clearing and beside him was a tall tree. He decided to climb the tree and spend the night as far up as he could go with the barrel of his gun aimed downward.

A miserable night. He was so weary he caught himself twice almost falling asleep and thus out of the tree. He splashed most of his remaining water on his face. He slapped himself across the cheeks. He shouted out all the prayers he could remember. In his anguish he called for God to help him and he did for a short time later dawn arrived and in no time the clearing below him was bathed in enough light for him to distinguish the bushes, a few rocks jutting out of the path and at the foot of the tree the night black cat peering up at him through the leaves. The Reverend was so surprised and so terrified that he didn’t bring his gun to bear but there was no need. The cat looked at him speculatively for a few moments and then suddenly turned and slipped into the trees. He ate the rest of the food in his bag and climbed down the tree.

The Reverend decided that he would have to return to the riverbank. Out of food and almost out of water, to continue into the forest would mean his certain death and the thought of another night in the forest listening to its hellish sounds, the slitherings, the creakings, the cries, the sudden rushing and screechings, was too much to bear. He got out his compass and took a reading even though it was unnecessary for he could clearly see the trail leading back to the bank. He started off.

People unused to the forest must beware. A trail may appear clear and unmistakable but a few moments of inattention, a slight swerving off its central line and poof one is in the midst of the unmarked wilderness. A slight panic and a rushing about in desperate, demanding search, almost always leads to becoming lost. The Reverend became lost. He also became so terrified of being lost, so horrified of the possibility of another night in the forest, he screeched in frustration and distraught fell onto the ground, most unwisely for he crushed down a bush where one of those poisonous green snakes was climbing up to sun itself, one of those snakes with two golden stripes, which, understandably, assuming it was being attacked, bit him in the nearest warm spot available – the big artery on the right side of his neck. As everyone knows this snake’s bite is deadly anywhere on the body but with the poison injected directly into this artery the poor man was dead in a matter of moments. He barely had time to remind God he was dying in his service.

Two hours latter Mrs. Gordon and the old man found the body. It was terrible how even in that short time the poison and the heat had bloated it almost past recognition.

“Well,” said Mrs Gordon. The old man picked up the shotgun at the Reverend’s side and tied it onto his backpack.

When they reached the riverbank some three hours later, for these two were far more efficient forest travelers than the Reverend, they towed the Reverend’s boat out into the river, stove in the bottom and let it sink. When the last bubbles had broken on the surface, the old man turned his boat downriver while Mrs Gordon raised the sail into the slight breeze which, along with the current, pushed them downriver with their boatload of plants in a small matter of two hours.

Mrs. Gordon made the old man throw the gun into the river. “You can’t be sure it has no markings,” she said. After opening his mouth to argue the old man thought again, closed it and tossed the gun overboard where it twinkled once in the bright sunlight and then was gone.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Excerpt From On the River Eg II


The Imperial Army entered the Nia Valley through trails winding among the hills from the west. The planners were very good and the timing exact. On a night of full moon, when its round, lustrous disc was at the meridian, horse units, riding at a gallop to close the last few miles, fell upon the Nia Capital. They surrounded its outskirts in a series of well executed movements and then, when the main body caught up and the first light of day glimmered above the eastern hills, they started moving into the suburbs, slaughtering and burning as they went. They butchered everyone, for the order was to butcher everyone and the Imperial Army always obeyed orders. As the slaughterers went about their work, troops with wagons came behind loading the corpses to be carried to the riverbank and tossed into the water.

   The Nia had been asked to sign a treaty with the Imperial government involving a garrison, tributes of sheep and metals, and hostages. The Nia had refused. This refusal put the Emperor into a terrible mood for the very day he heard of it he received intelligence that a numerous and warlike people called the Rechyai had conquered the northern section of the River Eg and were soon to move out onto the plain. Two things threatening the Empire learned of in a single day pushed him over the top, although if the truth be told it did not take much to push him over the top. He once ordered the killing of several thousand in a local marketplace because he heard that one of its merchants had sold a cloak made of  purple cloth,  a color reserved for his Royal Person.

   As well as ordering a punitive expedition the Emperor also ordered that Storytellers accompany the Army. Their task was to compose an Epic poem or two about the heroic exploits of the Imperial troops and then later to spread out through the far provinces of the Empire reciting it in marketplaces and taverns. Thus the butchery of the Nia would act as an object lesson for the outer tribes, reminding them it was wise to obey the Imperial will.

   The General of the Imperial Army was a small man with a snow-white beard. The dazzling effect of his beard was accentuated by the fact that his hair was dyed a bright orange for this was the fashion of the court at that time. Perhaps because he realized there was too great a contrast between his beard and his hair, he wore on his head and enormous hat resembling a gigantic loaf of bread pouring over the sides of far too small a pan. The hat, like the beard, was white but a little off color, a kind of beige. After many hours of looking into the mirrors (he owned thirty nine of them) in his ancestral home and still further hours asking the opinions of his concubines, he decided that the hat, its color complementing that of his beard and smothering with its folds most of his orange hair, created the desired effect. The effect he was looking for was one of splendid, dashing, heroic glory.


   Rising from the helmet strapped onto the head of the charger the General was riding was a single plume made up of the feathers of many birds, resplendent and multi colored. Below, on the breast plate of the charger and, as well, on his own breastplate in a smaller version, was the coat of arms which the Emperor had granted him after his second Triumph. This was a hideous image of a man impaled upon a stake and writhing in agony.

  It was a hot day and the work of butchery was tiring and tedious. It took all day for the Imperial troops to work their way into the center of town. The river was filled with bodies and the streets red with blood. There was little resistance. The Nia warriors were south raiding tribes on the borders of their territory. The few young women and small boys who attacked the troops were soon cut down. When the forward horse units reached the center of town they were pushing before them a crowd of Nia elders. When they reached the main square other troops had already set up sharpened stakes in a line along the river. The elders were stripped and beaten and then impaled on the stakes. There were two hundred and thirty-three of them and, for the first while before loss of blood weakened them, the screams and screeches of these old men were deafening.

   The Storytellers (in the Falconian Empire a special sect which wore badges to indicate their office and had a school in the capital where they were taught their trade as well as a mystical love and devotion to the Emperor) were ordered to stretch themselves out in a line (there were twenty –five present) and sit before these sufferers. They were to listen carefully to their shrieks and moans and thus, according to both General and Emperor, bring to their literary compositions the power and energy of harsh and strident reality. Most of the Storytellers found this to be difficult. They were men and women of words and ideas and they found this terrible cruelty almost overwhelming. Yet they sat and watched for they knew the General was not adverse to impaling Storytellers who showed weakness and misguided compassion. He had done so before.

   One of the Storytellers, a man named Nawan, a member of the sect and an Imperial citizen but half Nia himself through his mother, actually approached the victims, shouting Imperial slogans up into their twisted faces. Of course they barely heard him for their sufferings were terrible, their eardrums bursting. Such was his fervor and fury that the General himself noted his actions and instructed one of his officers to find out the man’s name so that he could be rewarded later with one of the Emperor’s low ranking metals reserved for Storytellers. However, if he knew what Nawan was up to he would have done otherwise.

   Tied up in a harness beneath his voluminous cloak Nawan concealed a sheep’s bladder filled with a strong narcotic, a small amount of which would stop a man’s breathing.


Attached to one end was a hollow needle which he could easily bring out through the opening in his cloak. When he came in close to scream and spit in fury at the impaled man he leaned against his thigh and injected him with this potion. The victims were so engrossed in other more horrible pains they did not notice the jab but within ten or fifteen minutes they were dead. Nawan administered his potion of death strategically to protect himself. He walked the whole line abusing each in turn but choosing only every tenth man for injection. By the time he came to the end of the line, exhausted by his shouting, almost unable to speak, he had brought to twenty-three men his kiss of death.  

   Several hours after the impaling the General rode from his place at the side of the square surrounded by his subalterns, all brightly uniformed young men, who, as they remained away from and above the killing on their horses, looked as though they had just turned out for a fancy dress parade. They were all from noble families and carried on one side of their breastplate the Emperor’s coat of arms, on the other that of their own house. As this processional made its way across the square, the soldiers created for it a path much as the magician in the Falconian fable created a path across a raging river. As the processional passed, on each side the packed and hysterical soldiers shouted themselves hoarse, crying out from the dying embers of their bloodlust for their victorious General. He graciously waved back and even, once or twice, in a sly, ironic fashion, smiled.

   When the General came up to the line of the impaled his officers moved off to either side. He was draped by a servant in a hide cloak which covered his front and handed a long sword, razor sharp. With this he proceeded to cut off the heads of the first ten men in the line of the impaled. With each beheading his troops shouted in delirious joy and his subalterns politely clapped. When he was done he handed the sword to his chief of staff. The subalterns jostled with their horses to be in line to cut off a few heads of their own. Afterwards the bodies of the victims were removed from the stakes and thrown into the river. They were replaced by the heads, the features frozen by their sufferings into masks of agony. The General ordered these to remain until they were reduced by rot, insects and birds to bare skulls. Then they were to be taken down, smashed with hammers and thrown into the river.

  One of the Falconian Storytellers sitting crosslegged on the ground before the impaled elders, was a young woman of twenty-one. Her name was Fli and she had just received her First Degree Certificate from the Institute in the Imperial Capital, Hawan. Although she had heard stories of such things and had been taught at the Institute that the Glory of the Emperor required many grim practices she was truly devastated. It is one thing to listen and approve of ideas, words, ideologies and another to witness up close unbelievably cruel depravity. When the soldiers had lifted the naked old men up and jammed them down on the sharpened stakes the entire structure of her inner world was


shattered in a single blow. Every thing she had been taught at the Institute was a lie. The purpose and significance of her life, which up until then had been sure and steady and lain out before her in a long, glorious shining road stretching off into the future, was cut off and she felt as if someone had suddenly removed all of her inner organs and replaced them with an iron nothingness.  But she was a strong young woman and did not allow any of her true thoughts to show on her face. She arranged her features in a mask of cool stoicism and looked upon these suffering and screaming men as if they were so many fish thrown by fishermen to die flopping on a sandy shore.

   When Nawan came down the line of the impaled, cursing and abusing the sufferers, her reaction was one of disgust. She knew Nawan from the Institute and was surprised for he had always seemed to her to be a thoughtful young man free of the brutal fanaticism of many of the students and here he was a screeching maniac, a point man in a world of raving lunatics. But when he came up to the man off to her left she saw what he did with his needle, not clearly for what he did was covered by his body and cloak but still she was sure by the movements of his body by the almost imperceptible pause in his stream of abuse that he was accomplishing something diametrically opposed to the dramatic role he was playing. She watched the impaled man she was sure Nawan had done something to as Nawan himself went on down the line. He was a man in his seventies, his face white with pain, his features distorted, his eyes staring off into a terror which could only end with a now deeply longed for death. Two minutes after Nawan was with him his writhings slowed down to a kind of weird rhythm. Four minutes and his face relaxed withdrawn somehow from the world of terror it had been in to become human again, to take in one last time the actualities which were about him, the soldiers, the Storytellers sitting before him, the cries of his fellow victims, perhaps even the smell of the river behind and the blue haze of the sky above. A minute later he reached up with both hands and closed his own eyes, very gently, employing his fingers in the most delicate way. Then he dropped his hands, slumped to one side, and stopped breathing.

   When the impaled man was gone Fli shifted her eyes to watch Nawan who had progressed down the line. She got up and walked to the end of the line and watched him from there. By the time he was finished and walked over to one of the water buckets to drink she was sure. Somehow he had drugged and delivered a kinder death to some of the victims. And here, in this world of mockery, sadism, and depraved hysteria his actions, perhaps because they were so weird, so out of synch, had gone undetected, other than by herself. Nawan sat not far from her and they both watched the closing act, the General with his deft beheadings, the bodies flung into the river, the heads placed upon the stakes. When it was over Nawan rose, shouldered his pack and started up the river bank to the north. Fli followed.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Infill Factory

Infill Factory

Working in an Infill factory was a difficult job for many but not so for Joseph. He had spent so many years in so many terrible places that to find himself in a warm building with a separate place to sleep and wash was almost unbelievable. Out of the 168 hours in a week he was required to work only 98 thereby leaving him, after sleep, a glorious 14 hours leisure time, more if he slept less than eight hours a day. The first year of his employment he woke every morning into a strong bath of gratitude for his new situation. Of course, after a few years, this feeling of gratitude had diminished but not entirely. Now, rather than manifesting itself in a feeling of physical effervescence as it once did, it had become a quiet surety of place and comfort.

InFill factories were automated. The Big Screen, a six by six screen in a room full of mess and wires, controlled the processes. When he is on shift this is where you will find Joseph, seated on a milk crate, its checkered holes filled in and softened by a filthy cushion. Workers in InFill factories were not allowed to sit, thus the milk crate. It brought Joseph, in a seated position, below the level of the observation camera. The computer which monitored information on operators seemed to deal only with positive information. That Joseph was nowhere to be seen did not seem to matter.

An InFill factory is a noisy place. It is composed completely of metal and the movement of the machinery, the vibration of the great maze of parts and processes, create a constant buzzing hum overridden now and again by violent screeches and the blowing out of pressure horns. It took Joseph some time to get use to all this. He had spent much of his life outside in the wilderness, or near wilderness, where there was quiet - sometimes deep, deep quiet. But after a while the noise became background just as once the quiet of the wilderness was background. He even began to like the noise in the same way a mother might grow to enjoy the racket of her bickering brood.

There were deliveries to the factory at the back but Joseph had nothing to do with them. Computer operated machinery brought whatever and computer operated machinery unloaded it. He had never been in the back. Apparently, at least on the odd occasion, a technician came and fixed, installed or adjusted things. Or at least, Joseph thought, they must, for otherwise how would things go on working year after year? All that jiggling and banging would surely throw things out of whack. Yet, then again, possibly there was no need. Perhaps this section of the factory had cybernetic maintenance.  Perhaps there were little fixit, maintenance robots built into each machine which went to work as soon as they closed down for the night. But then who fixed the fixit robots? Maybe they fixed themselves. Maybe they were like the human body which, at least in many cases, fixes itself.

Once a month a small door opened on the wall adjoining the delivery area and ninety frozen meals were dropped into a waiting basket. Joseph pushed the wheeled basket into a room close by and stored them in a freezer. There was no signage on the meals so at first Joseph had to guess what was what but he quickly came to recognize the shapes of lunch, breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was three eggs, four strips of bacon, two toast and hash browns. Lunch was two grilled cheese sandwiches with coleslaw and pickles. Dinner was pork chops, beef steak or chicken drumsticks. A cup of fruit was attached to the dinners by a flap of plastic wrap. These meals were composed of excellent materials and quick frozen in such a ways that texture and taste were captured handsomely. Granted the breakfast toast was limp but he resurrected it somewhat by leaving it for ten minutes on the housing of a hot machine. Besides the frozen dinners there was a bag of dried apples and apricots. These he boiled on a hotplate in the control room. They were very tasty.

Before he came to the factory Joseph lived in a village some miles up river. The factory, of course, was on a river. All factories were on rivers for otherwise where would they dump their waste? Why have expensive, computer operated machines come to carry away the waste when the river did it for free? Joseph thought his old home was upstream on the river the factory was on but he wasn’t sure. It was some river, of course it had to be some river, but if it was this one exactly, who knows?

He had lived there in a village of fishermen. He didn’t fish himself but built wooden furniture. In the summer it was a good life but in the winter food was scarce and many people starved or sickened. So when the factory recruiters came he signed up right away. A warm place to live and food as regular as clockwork, sounded to him like a perfect dream. Then they were on an air transporter traveling all night  and then at the factory.

“Do I get a vacation?” Joseph asked the recruiter before he left.

“No,” the man said.

“What does the factory make?”

“None of your business.”

Three years after Joseph still didn’t know what the factory made. Just as deliveries were at the rear, shipping was at the front. Here computer operated trucks came and took something away but Joseph had no access to this section of the building. At first he was curious but after a while he ceased caring what the factory made. What did it matter? It was warm. It provided him with food and shelter. Whether it made bombs or plastic plates didn’t really matter. Besides, the recruiter had told him it was ‘none of his business’ in a tone clearly informing him it was better if he didn’t know. It was the kind of knowledge better not to have.

His ignorance was abetted by his self-sufficiency. He had spent years alone in the wilderness and for the first three years of living in the factory he spoke with not a single soul. If he opened the door onto the side alley and stepped out onto the small balcony he could look down the hill onto the town below. It was a rough looking place as ugly as the scarred cement walls of the factory and designed, as it was, bare bones functional. The buildings were of unpainted logs cut from the forest. They were scattered about as if a child had thrown his box of blocks across a section of his playing yard. The streets were gravel, deeply rutted in summer, frozen solid in winter. There were no street lights. There were no public buildings. The buildings ran for a kilometer along the river and then sputtered out into the forest beyond. Around him, on the hill the factory was built on, like raisons in a loaf of rising bread, were other factories, some smaller than his, others bigger. There were perhaps two dozen in total. Directly down from the hill on the riverbank were three long Jetties jutting out into the river at an angle pointing downstream. These were the factory piers.

During his first three years Joseph never left the premises. He sometimes felt a need for human company but he did not act on it. So much of his energy was taken by his long hours of watching the Big Screen and doing it’s bidding. “Go to 4A and replace assessment valve, Part #260-456” would suddenly come onto the screen in flashing bold blue letters. Joseph would replace the valve and come back to the screen. “Order 70342734 completed” would be flashing, then, “Pump FGHTYU-21 transfer column about to come loose from clamp. Adjust. Replace clamp, Part # 260-4567A.” Off he went again, and so on for fourteen hours a day. There were times when the Big Screen gave no orders for hours on end but these were infrequent. Often he ran the whole day and fell into bed at night so tired he was asleep almost immediately.

But after two years he had learned to work the order system so that he wasn’t so harried. He would take a piece from a replacement part kit, discard it and claim the kit incomplete. This threw the Big Screen into a searching frenzy through its digital records until it came up with a part number for the missing piece. While it was doing this Joseph sat on his milk crate and had a cup of coffee and read his book.

One month after he began occasionally using this strategy, a message appeared on the screen headlined, ‘Manager Inquiry’, short for the boss is asking - “Why so many missing pieces replacement part inventory should not be answer immediately.”

“Don’t know,” typed Joseph. “Do not supply part packages thus have no control over quality.”

“Manager Inquiry” popped up again. “Should be only 1.3% defective packaging inventory. Last month 6.7. Unsatisfactory read disciplinary code 3602-7991.”

A side bar gave him the complete 3602-7991 – “Operators neglectful of or damaging to company property will be food ration reduced, incarcerated in a penal institution, forcefully psychologized or eliminated at the discretion of the appropriate officers of the company. In all cases year credits are unrealizable either by the Operator or his next of kin.”

“Fuck you!” Joseph said under his breath but he kept his face neutral for he was standing and thus on camera.

Manager Inquiry – Answer?

Joseph – A blip?

“Possible,” said Manager Inquiry. “Tracker app applies. Work diligently! Respect company property!  
True, faithful and obedient service is its own reward!”

Joseph was not a dumb man. After being given this information he calculated the number needed to stay near 1.6. He upped this so he would be between 1.6 and 2%. This and a personal program to replace certain valves, switches, etc. which needed regular replacement while he was already working on a unit started playing dividends in a less frenetic work pace.

One day, on an early summer morning, he sat out on the balcony and looked down on the little town. He could see a few people moving about and a sailboat moving slowly up river. On one of the company jetties there were what looked like two young boys, fishing. When he lived up river he had been a devoted fisherman partly because he loved to fish, partly for food. He once lived with a woman, who later died of dysentery, on an island in the river for two years. They ate very well for he caught fish all year round (cutting a hole in the ice during the winter) and she was an excellent gardener and fish smoker. The food delivered every month never included fish.

One day he decided he would cut a pole from the trees at the bottom of the hill and go fishing. He had not left the factory for three years two months.

Early morning and evenings are the best time for fishing. When work ended there was still two hours of daylight and carrying with him a bag of fishing gear he had found in his things, he started off down the hill. When he reached the trees he found an excellent pole and cut it from the tree. When he reached the jetty the boys had been fishing on (the middle one) he baited his line with a piece of stinking cheese and tossed it into the river. He caught six fish that evening. One he ate before going to bed. The other five he placed in separate water filled bags and put in the freezer. After that he went fishing twice a week and ate fish once a day, some days twice.

The company had a money script which it claimed was universally accepted but this was untrue. The farther one got from the company towns the more discounted the script became until when you came to a certain point people would not accept it at all. What they wanted was the old aluminum coins, some of them worn down to the point where you could no longer read the writing – weird phrases left over from the old empire. One evening Joseph met an old man on the pier who offered three of these old coins for a pump valve casket kit. Three days later Joseph brought him the kit but took only one of the coins in payment. Three were too many.

The old man didn’t fish but he liked to sit on the pier and watch other people fish and think his own thoughts. He was a silent man. He spoke only when spoken to and then only what was strictly necessary to answer the enquiry. Over some time Joseph got the old man to tell him what the factory made, or, to be more accurate, grew. The answer surprised him somewhat but not entirely. Even people who lived in the wilderness had heard of such things in a filtered, distorted sort of way.

“Who are they for?” he asked the old man.

“Them,” said the old man, jabbing a not very clean thumb downriver.

“And who is them?” Joseph asked.

“The ones in the Big City of course,” said the old man.

“But the Big Screen says there is no Big City. It says all stories about the Big City are mythical rather than real.”

 “Ha!” said the old man. “That’s what they want you to think. If that were so then where do these factories come from and who are they making things for?”

“Well,” said Joseph, “for everybody all over the world.”

“Well that too,” said the old man, “but they also live in big cities.”

That was all he could get from the old man that day. He suddenly clammed up and sat staring at the river as if asking it for forgiveness for abandoning his laconic habits.

Two days later the Big Screen flashed another ‘Manager Enquiry’  - “All Operators subject to the Seditious Conversations law promulgated Second Infill Factory Peace and Good Order Convention. Is the Operator aware of content?”

“No,” Joseph typed.

A black bordered section of text suddenly appeared on the screen. “No Operator or any other employee or officer or family member of such or indeed person of any description, will engage in conversations injurious to the interests of the company. Failure to comply will result in reduction of food ration, incarceration in a penal institution, forced psychologizing or elimination depending upon seriousness of the offense as decided by the officers of the company who shall not be named in this document or any other for such a naming would be an infraction against the very injunction here cited. In all cases year credits are unrealizable by either the Operator or his next of kin.” After a moment or two Manager Enquiry asked – “Did the Operator read and understand?”

“Yes,” Joseph typed.

Manager Enquiry – “Then he will conduct himself in accordance with the law forthwith?”

“Yes,” Joseph typed.

Two days latter, when the old man came walking up the pier and sat on the deadman beside him, Joseph slipped him a note. “We can’t talk here. Is there a place we could meet away from the piers?”
 it said but the old man, realizing the import of being slipped a note, stuffed it into his pocket without reading it. Three days later the old man approached him on the pier and, most uncharacteristically, embraced him as if he were a long lost brother. He slipped a note into Joseph’s pocket.

Joseph read the note on the way up the hill to the factory. It was light enough to see his way but too dark to read so he slipped off the path into a small copse of trees and read the note by flashlight. “After fishing turn left off the pier and follow the road two hundred and thirty full paces. The cabin on the left overlooking the river is mine. On the porch will be a lantern turned down to a low flame.” Joseph lit the note with his lighter and let it burn to ash on the bare ground.

The old man was seated at a table in the one room but, after making coffee on the gas burner, they went out onto the back verandah overlooking the river to drink it.

It was mid summer and, after a very hot day, new air, cooler and accompanied by a light breeze, was moving in. The two men sat silent for some time, the relief of the cooler air, the gleam of the river under starlight, the rustle of the leaves in the overhanging trees more than enough to fill all the spaces between their sips of coffee. After what seemed many hours but was in reality only ten or fifteen minutes, Joseph asked in a thin voice which seemed so vulnerable, so human in the midst of the lush, velvet surroundings they found themselves in, “Why do they do this?”

“Because they are mad,” the old man answered. “Because they have lost their way.”