Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The crypt

The abbot is a tall man, and although he is very keen on good food, he is not the fat caricature of monastic myth. He has a tubular, undefined waist, in contrast to his Irish friend who is short, corpulent and a flamboyant dresser when out of his clerical uniform.

The crypt has been rigged with a single lamp which gives a yellow light and throws the places which it cannot reach into dark shadow. The abbot stands to the back of the small crowd of journalists and archeologists, but can see over their heads quite easily. The crypt is low, causing him to stoop slightly, and the the long chamber with its vaulted ceiling has  taken on an atmosphere of extreme theatricality.

He veiws this event as extremely bad taste, and attends out of duty alone. His secretary, on the other hand, has been looking forward to it for weeks, and is beside himself with a girlish, breathless excitement.

The lead coffin has not buckled and warped through the ages as all of the others have. Two men move toward it with small bars and chisels to begin gently prying at the edge of the lid. The assembly falls into an expectant silence as they work and in the confines of the crypt, each small noise echoes off the stone walls and vaulting.

At last, they breach the lid and a strong and steady hiss is heard as the air enters the coffin for the first time since it was sealed with the abbot inside it. The living abbot feels a mounting sensation that he is too close to the coffin. To him it is as if he is standing over the carnage of a traffic accident, idiotically gawping and incapable of doing anything to help the victim. This is voyeurism at its worst, and he wants to run from the crypt into the open air and sunshine.

The men lift the lid and place it to one side. The small crowd audibly gasps at what they see inside the lead box.

The medieval body looks as though it had been placed there two days before. The hair is dark and lightly oiled, the skin is taught across the face and the mouth is slightly apart, showing a row of white teeth, and the robe in which he is dressed is pressed and clean.

His hands have an unstained parchment-like quality and are placed just above his waist. They are holding a small flower which still retains most of its colour in the delicate circle of petals. The abbot gasps too, but in horror.

Before they have time to take all of this apparent miracle in, the oxygen which has been kept out so efficiently for so long begins to work on the corpse, making up for lost time. The flesh falls from the face as dust, the fabric of his clothes likewise, and then the petals of the flower fall one by one before mingling indistinguishably with the rest of the colourless detritus which has dropped through the bones to the bottom of the coffin. Only the slick mop of hair remains unchanged, sitting almost comically on top of the bleached-white skull.

The whole event happens so quickly that the distracted press photographers fail to take a single picture of the intact monk.

The abbot turns abruptly, shaking himself out of the spell of the ghastly vision, then rushes up the stone steps to stand - breathing heavily - on the grass of the lawn outside. His secretary notices that there is something wrong and quickly follows him.

He asks his master if he is feeling ill, but there is no response. The abbot just stares quizzically at him, trying to understand if the brother had seen what he had seen, but there seems to be no comprehension in his face - just a puzzled concern.

The man in the coffin had been - before disintegration - the exact likeness of the living abbot. It had been himself in the coffin. For all that time he had lain undiscovered, and now he had at last been let out to breath the fresh air once more, but he feels more claustrophobic standing out in the bright sunshine than ever before.

Why had they not just left him in peace?

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Spotted Dick

Alerted by a familiar screeching sound and a dart of movement in the corner of his eye, the abbot rises from his desk and goes to the window, where he sees swifts skimming the edge of the carp lake for mud.

His eyes narrow with resentment and he makes a mental note to instruct one of the brothers to take up a long pole and destroy the nests as they are built in the eaves of the cloisters, as he has done for the last eight years. In the long run, he believes it to be less messy than cleaning up all the white shit from the cobbles if they are allowed to breed in the shelter of the monastery walls, as they had been for the previous seven hundred.

With brief knock on the door, the abbot's secretary simultaneously enters the room and places a sheaf of papers on his desk. The abbot sighs to himself and returns to his chair.

He feels uneasy in this monk's presence and dislikes the morning briefings with him intensely. The brother came from Newark Priory, an establishment renowned for its laxity, financial incompetence and - as rumour had it - debauchery.

As his secretary moves close to him, the abbot catches the now familiar whiff of some sort of perfume or aftershave. It is distinctly feminine in nature and makes his close proximity even more uncomfortable as he leans over his shoulder to point out various details of the documents.

Today, there are two unavoidable listings on the calendar that require the abbot's presence - the banquet and the opening of the lead coffin.

For some weeks, archeologists have been working in the crypt with trowels and brushes, and have discovered an intact and well-preserved coffin belonging - as the inscription relates - to one of the original abbots of the monastery. In a great show of publicity, the lead coffin is to be opened later that morning in the presence of local and national press.

In the evening, a banquet is to be held to celebrate the signing of an agreement between the owner of the nearby country house and the abbey, which plans to convert the house into a conference centre with a top-class restaurant attached. The guests to the banquet will include a French-born T.V. celebrity chef, who is to be the head of the restaurant. The abbot is not at all confident that the two cooks of the abbey's refectory are up to the job of providing the sort of five-star meal that the chef has come to expect on his visits.

Preparations for the feast have begun in the kitchen since early morning, and the two cooks are busy stitching herbs into the bellies of fish which had been pulled from the pond the day before. They have reluctantly taken on the taciturn lad as a pot-cleaner, because two of the regular lay-workers have fallen mysteriously ill. As they work, they constantly bicker with each other, like an old married couple.

They are still arguing about what is to be made for a pudding, when one asks the other where the chopped onion is. One insists that it was agreed that the other chop the onions and says that they are needed at this very moment if the meal is to be prepared according to schedule.

The lad has not said a word since he arrived in the morning, but - to the cooks' incredulity - suggests that he chop the onions while the cooks continue with their tasks. They both look at each other with a conspiritorial wink, then one wipes his hands on his apron, places a board next to the unpeeled onions on the table and puts a large and sharp knife into the hand of the lad. They both stop what they are doing, confident that he will take ten minutes to deal with one onion, probably cutting himself badly in the process, then stand over him to watch and - ultimately - humiliate him. They did not want this boy in their kitchen and would be glad of a reason to send him home.

In two deft movements, the boy removes the peel of a large onion, then cuts it into two pieces. He pins each half to the board with his right hand, then  - using his fingernails as a guide - flicks the blade up and down in movements so rapid that they are difficult to follow with the eye. In five seconds the onion is finely and uniformly chopped into small pieces and he reaches for another as the cooks look on in astonishment.

They know that the boy has all his meals cooked for him by his mother, and they wonder how this left-handed lad with seemingly autistic tendencies who had only just left school had learned kitchen skills which are normally only seen in the best restaurants.

They go back to their work, and in a very short while the lad is standing over a great heap of chopped onion and asking them what they would like him to do next. One of them jokingly says that he could make the dessert if he wants, and he takes them seriously and goes to the pantry for ingredients.

They ignore him as he quietly mixes various things at a worktop, then one of them notices him add a large quantity of chopped suet to a basin, and asks him what he is preparing. The lad says it is to be a Spotted Dick. They laugh and return to the main courses.

A little later, the lad stops what he is doing and goes over to one cook to point out a better way of preparing the goose which he is working on. The cook stifles his anger at the kid's presumption and ostentatiously asks for his advice about a better way. The lad gives it and returns to the Spotted Dick.

Speechless, the cook realises that he was right.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The doll

The young woman sits in her flat, fantasising about firemen as she has done many times before.

She has reverted to the standard scenario of 'toe stuck in bath tap; downstairs door locked; firemen forced to enter via upstairs window by ladder; water still pleasantly warm in bath, etc.' because the real event, when it happened, was profoundly unfulfilling.

He didn't look like a fireman when she chatted to him in the pub, but the somewhat over-weight, middle aged, married man that he became when off duty and out of uniform, without the huge yellow helmet hiding his receding hair-line.

It had all been over and done with in a sweaty and hurried, drunken struggle, and then he had left immediately to avoid having to fabricate an over-elaborate reason to explain his lateness to his waiting wife.

She had agreed to join him at the archery sessions he held on the following Saturday, but was regretting it. She did not want to repeat the experience, and had no interest in archery whatsoever.

Drifting between fantasy and reality, she becomes aware of a persistent and insistent sound coming from the street outside. A dog is hoarsley barking down on the pavement, and the unchanging volume of it tells her that it is not moving.

She imagines it to be tethered to a lampost, waiting for its owner to come out of a nearby shop and tries to ignore it, but the barking continues for too long, so she summons a mental picture of the street outside her front door. She remembers that there is no post of any kind near enough for the dog to be tied to, so she rises from the chair and goes to the window to investigate.

Down on the pavement, there is an old, large and mangey-looking dog with some indistinct object at its feet. It is staring straight up at her and when she reaches the window, it momentarilly stops barking as its eyes meet hers, then it continues again a little more persistently. Some people walking past pause briefly to look up at her. She wants to explain that this dog is nothing to do with her - she has never seen it before - but decides to go down to see what it wants.

She opens the door and the dog immediatelt puts his head over the threshold, drops the object on the mat at her feet, then turns to walk away in the direction of the station. It is a child's doll.

She takes the doll upstairs and throws it on a table before putting on the kettle to make some tea. When she has the tea in a cup, she goes back to the table and picks up the doll again to examine it more closely.

It is extremely well made for a toy, and the clothes on it are of a microscopically fine and intricately made exquisiteness. She finds a magnifying glass in a drawer and looks closer still. She has never seen fabric like this.

As she turns the little doll over in her hands, it slowly dawns on her that there is something extremely unusual about it. She rolls the thing around through 360 degrees, trying to focus on the minute weft of the fabric. She thinks she must have missed something, but she cannot decide what.

Then she understands. There are no seams on the cloth of the doll's clothes. The only way they could have been made would be to weave the fabric around the doll itself, which would have been impossible.

Feeling slightly faint, she puts the doll into a drawer with the magnifying glass and runs a bath.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The arrow

What's all this about a dead child and Mr Punch, I hear you wonder? Well, I will get to the beginning at some point, but in the meantime you may find it helpful to know how the child came to be killed.

A young woman arrives at a large country house to take her first lesson in archery, having been talked into it by the lascivious leader of the club, in the pub the previous evening.

The targets - or 'butts' as they are called - have been set up on the large swathe of grass which is the lawn to the rear of the house, and various members of the club are standing around chatting before actually beginning to shoot arrows. There is a massive cedar tree to the rear of the shooting positions, and the butts are set - about 100 yards away - just in front of the fringe of a dense wood.

The owner of the house - an elderly and solitary man - oftens allows various local community groups to use his extensive estate for activities, including - and this is important - charity fetes with Punch and Judy shows for children on the lawn.

The youngest member of the archery club is a somewhat disturbed and taciturn youth of about 17 who wears ex-army camouflage jackets and trousers. The club leader has taken him under his wing in the hope that he will be diverted from less wholesome, solitary activities, and has discouraged him from bringing in items such as American hunting knives for unwanted 'show and tell' sessions with the rest of the group.

The young woman waits for a break in the proceedings until she can safely move her position to 30 yards of the butts, then - under the tuition of the leader - shoots off the first of a few arrows, actually managing to hit the large straw discs with the paper targets pinned to them. Everyone else loses interest and forms huddled groups to stand around talking at the rear while the novice is trained. None of these groups include the outcast young man.

The leader is called away on some domestic business and delegates responsibilty for safety to an older member, leaving the group to its own devices. They ignore the young woman and set up from 100 yards again to loose off arrows using the modern reflex bows, which are festooned with awkward looking weights and counterbalances. They are all very experienced and consistently hit the yellow centre of the targets from that distance. The young woman stands no chance of getting an arrow anywhere near the butt, let alone the target pinned to it, so she stands around doing nothing.

She considers leaving and going back into town, when the taciturn young man appears at her side holding a very strange-looking bow, and suggests she try using it.

The bow is much shorter than the reflex bows of the others, is a matt black in colour and seems to be fitted with two strings. The young man points out that there is, in fact, only one string which is threaded around a series of pullies, converting the weight of the pull from 30 to 100 pounds - far greater than the young woman would be able to draw on an ordinary bow.

With the lad's help, she looses off three arrows. To her amazement, the second one hits the edge of the distant target with a sharp smacking sound. The third - although it seems to her to be dead on target - disappears noislessly.

The lad laughs and explains that she has has hit the gold centre, but the middle of the straw butt has been weaken by the many perforations of previous arrows, and her arrow has gone clean through and out the other side. It is somewhere in the wood behind, and she is given a metal-detector for use in the bracken and bushes, then sent to find and retrieve it. All shooting is stopped for her, but the meeting is due to be ended anyway, so the members begin clearing up and rolling away the butts as she enters the wood.

At first, she wears the headphones of the detector and sweeps amongst the foliage in the path of the arrow, but eventually she takes them off and uses her eyes rather than ears.

In the early Summer heat, she starts to lose concentration, falling into a dreamy reverie and noticing various fungi and small, delicately coloured flowers before she remembers the aluminium arrow she is supposed to be looking for. A minute later, she finds it.

Just as she loosed the arrow, a child had disobeyed the instructions of its parents, and briefly - very briefly - had slipped through a forbidden portal into the world of humans, just to see what it was like.

The arrow hit it and literally pinned the boy to the earth - the Earth. There would be no chance of the child returning home. The parents would have to come looking for it.

The young woman tries to process what she sees on the ground, but cannot. A miniature human in bright clothes, skewered against the moss by the rogue arrow.

She leaves the wood and - for want of words - says that she could not find the arrow and has to go home urgently.

The taciturn lad is furious with the woman - all women - and vows to find the arrow as soon as he can. Why should he buy a new one?

Friday, 13 January 2017

The sphericon

Now, where to begin? The most common - and most irritating - response to an opening line like that is, why don't you begin at the beginning? as if it were that simple. Not many things go in straight lines between birth and death.

Ok, I will just paint in the background with a broad brush to give you a slightly greater chance of glimpsing the nightmare world inside my head, but don't blame me if you have a job finding your way out.

An Irish priest is staying with his friend, the abbot, in a large, ancient and semi-commercial Cistercian monastery. He has been working for some time on the concept of perpetual motion using kinetic energy, and has made a prototype machine in the shape of a sphericon, powered by the movement of steel ball-bearings within internal chambers with gravitationally operated valves which open to allow the balls to run to the opposite, lower chamber, the valve of which is open too, but quickly closes as the sphericon lurches upward - a bit like a mercury switch. The shape of the sphericon means that the object moves both side to side and roughly in a straight line. It has a tendency to go off at tangents, depending on the terrain - like me.

In the middle of the night, he makes his way to the vast, circular Chapter House of the medieval monastery, because the floor area - although somewhat uneven -  is large enough to test the sphericon for the maximum possible time it might take the thing to run out of momentum without bumping into furniture.

He places the little plastic object somewhere near the centre of the huge room and sets it off with a gentle push, then makes his way to the edge of the Chapter House to take up position on one of the bench seats which run around the whole circumference. He is hoping it will be a long night.

The low light, the late hour and the rhythmical clicking noise that the sphericon makes as it wobbles around have a soporific effect on the elderly priest, and he nods off to sleep within ten minutes.

When he awakes, the sphericon is still moving and clicking, but he notices that he is not alone in the room. On the far side, he sees a monk seated on the bench, his face and head covered by his cowl. The only exposed parts of the monk are his hands and feet, both of which are almost inhumanly large.

The priest clears his throat and begins to speak to the monk, apologising for not noticing him enter and - not knowing the time - expressing his hope that he was not interrupting any imminent meeting. He does not recognise the man, despite numerous visits to the monastery in the past.

Unnervingly, the monk ignores these nicities and begins a softly spoken, tangled account involving the accidental death of children. The priest begins to fear for both his safety and the sanity of the man, and so attempts to change the subject by asking him what his prime duties at the monastery are.

The hooded monk says that he is in charge of the gift shop, and begins to list all the items sold to the visiting public there, one by one. He does not stop until he has named every single item, but as he speaks he rises to his feet and walks over to the sphericon, watching it move around as he lists the entire stock.

The priest catches a few glimpses of the monk's face under the hood, and his features are grotesque. His enormous nose curves droopingly downwards, almost touching his equally grotesque chin, which rises sharply upwards to meet it. He looks like Mr Punch.

The monk resumes his rant on the vulnerability of children, equating the sphericon to a baby which the preist has brought into the world -  a baby which is small, delicate and vulnerable - and as he does, he raises one great foot over it.

To the priest's horror, the monk brings his foot crashing down on the sphericon, sending bits of plastic and ball-bearings spinning and rolling across the huge stone floor.

The priest awakes with a start, realising that it was the cessation of clicks that woke him. The sphericon has stopped moving.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Our bathroom wall

Well we like it anyway.

Stand still

There are blizzards forecast for tomorrow and I am supposed to be driving to high ground.

Are you the sort of person who likes to get out in it and have fun trying to get through blocked lanes, or do you prefer to stay at home indoors near a heat-source and read a book, sometimes looking out of the window to see how much worse it is getting?

You can probably guess that I fall into the latter category. I don't mind going out and playing, but I don't like going out in it and working. If I had a Land Rover I might feel differently, but I usually park my car on a cul-de-sac hill to make sure I have the perfect alibi.

One of the things I love about deep snow is that it brings everything to a standstill. The muffled silence that snow brings to the countryside extends even into towns and cities, occasionally interupted by a snow-plough or 4x4.

Ah, you British - the Canadians say - a couple of inches of snow, and everything stops. Yes, that's the way we like it. The perfect excuse to be non-productive and opt out of the race for a few hours or days. Poor nurses.

In 1963, I looked out of my bedroom window to see two feet of pure white snow, and it was still falling. I think it was about two weeks before my school reopened. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

One warm Summer morning in 1969, I was walking down a country lane with a friend. We were on our way to a building site to begin eight hours of back-breaking work on a concrete gang, constructing a new filter-bed for a sewage works.

Suddenly, my friend stopped and began looking around him. "Look at the sun filtering through the green leaves," he began to muse, "Listen to the birds singing. What the HELL are we doing going to work on a day like this?" We turned around and slowly walked back in the opposite direction with the slightest trace of guilt tainting our spirits.

This is a genuine note sent to the employer of a Mexican worker to his boss, and was found by Richard Brautigan:

Dear Boss. I will not be coming to work today. I am not ill, I just feel too good to work. If I feel worse tomorrow, I will come.