Sunday, 23 November 2014

Iron maiden

Verity had stopped shivering. 

Pale white streamers surrounded her. They shimmered and twisted like the Northern Lights. They went with her hair, which gleamed in the spotlights.  He didn’t know how she remained standing, but she did. She was dressed once more in that deep green gown that reminded him of his better days, in the past. Her pulse was faint. Her hands were cold. Her feet were bare. They had turned ice-blue as she was standing on the flagstones, so he had had to go and find a piece of cloth to put underneath them: otherwise she wouldn’t last the night.  There were no shackles small enough for her slim hands in the entire museum, except the ones on the rack, and they were chained to it. The echo silencer was set on the chair next to it. 

He had brought her to have a look at the iron maiden. He had let her have a go at feeling the points, and showed her how it worked. It was only fair: she was always curious about how things worked. She was probably thinking that she would end up inside it, but that wasn’t the idea: he didn’t want to concede any more questions, any more penalties. He just wanted a night as enjoyable for him as that party fundraiser had obviously been for her. To gaze at those Northern lights, white just like his own. Fear without object, pure, white as the ice on Blencathra: it went with her like the snow on a white rose. Verity: silent, spellbound as the standing stones in the evening mist.  In ten thousand years he had never experienced any resonance like it. He didn’t want to have to hand her back, didn’t want her to be a mortal. He noticed the edges of her glow occasionally blushed ever so slightly indigo. She was evidently in fear of oblivion: that his plan to grind down the entire world would run to completion. So, she had faith in him. She was beginning to get ready to concede defeat. Good lass...

He put a hand on her right shoulder. He could feel it was still slightly painful to her, wished he hadn’t been so careless with it. What a blow that shoulder had struck at him: those bloody questions. She now not only knew him but had also, by asking about a sentence left on her bedside notebook, regained the secret of the Apple. Learning from her previous mistake, she had then emailed it to herself and to all her party contacts, disguising it as a humourous article about “temptation” for their newsletter. She had also written it in her notebook. Her final question, about the physics of Fear and how it propagated, had caused him to boast of how it could, by resonance, hold entire countries in its thrall: Germany, 1933. The USSR, 1934.  China, 1966.  It could move through any medium and, by quantum tunnelling, it could travel faster than light. It could overcome any obstacle: it could persist in rooms, even invade dreams. He had let slip far, far too much. He had seen her thinking, from her knowledge of Eastern philosophy: “He who boasts will not endure...”.

Worst of all, he had inadvertently given away the cure for Indifference: it was the income distribution recommended by Rawls in his Theory of Justice. 

He had to say something to make her scream, to check that she hadn’t lost her mind and cost him anything inconvenient: questions, penalties. He had promised himself that he would do this every two hours through the night, and had so far remembered to do it both times. You had to know your limits. 

He whispered: “You are alone...” he could see her mouth the words “I’m left alone...” but that didn’t count as a scream. He remembered she didn’t fear solitude. Her mind was the most important thing to her. He tried again. 

 “Your mind is blank...” She responded in a whisper: “my mind was blank”

“I need time to think...” Mills thought out loud. Verity’s face, too, somehow looked deep in thought. “...time to think...” She blinked, as if waking up, and looked afresh at the iron maiden. She took a deep breath: good, thought Mills, she’s going to scream.

But there was no scream. Her beautiful Northern lights vanished. Verity was singing.

I left alone (the notes were clear: do-me-fa-so. She was hesitant, like a child learning the scale at school. He disapproved of music in schools in the same way that Verity and her party disapproved of army recruiters there, but there it was).

“My mind was blank” (the same notes. Then on a slightly lower scale, and picking up pace and confidence...)

“I needed time to think, to get the memories from my mind...”

she sang a similar melody, but with more spirit:

“What did I see? (she clenched her fists to gather breath. He noticed her hands were no longer cold)
can I believe (Verity closed her eyes as she hit the sixth perfectly: she was warming to the task)
that what I saw that night, was real and not just fantasy?”

“Just what I saw
in my last dream (now gazing up into the spotlights, as if she were on a stage...),
were they reflections of my warped mind staring back at me?

‘Cause in my dreams
He's always there (with bitter passion: she was singing for her life now)
that evil face that twists my mind and brings me to despair!”

She pointed at the iron maiden and laughed. “Number of the Beast! It’s practically your anthem, Mills!” She disappeared into impossible black threads as she started to dance...

She sat up in bed and raised her arms in delight

She had woken Sacha up.

“No more nightmares.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. “tantzuyu...

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Question time

It was an extraordinarily mild late November. Fourteen degrees for heaven’s sake. Verity was sowing autumn beans on the family allotment. Everything was damp: the yellowed leaves, the brown spirals of runners on their wigwams, the black soil that she had so carefully fed with all the goodies needed to bring life. All of it glistened in the late afternoon sun. Verity was something of a trash-vulture: her proudest finds that year had been two woven plastic garden chairs which the nearby sheltered housing had put out near their bins. Verity always asked politely, and Verity very nearly always got. The chairs now sat with their backs to the west wall: the wall which ensured the plot was always in calm. When she looked up after her work was done, Mills was sitting in one of them. 

Dear god, not now. I’m tired and dirty and I want to go home. 

She wondered what would happen if she were to simply ignore him and walk off.
He was holding up five fingers and smiling at her. Oh, five minutes, she thought. Fair enough. After that she’d send him packing, as Bernie had so pertinently advised. 

“You are thinking this will only take five minutes. It is a bit more interesting than that for you. You have been awarded questions. Five questions. For your injured shoulder. I have also been told that I must remind you to take them carefully, that afternoon is not a good time for mortals to make important decisions, and that you therefore have until sunset tomorrow."

Verity was tempted to ask how this extraordinarily generous offer had come about, but decided that was a bit of a distraction. Talking with Bernie the other day had made her realise that in Mills, she really had no idea who, or what, she was up against. He knew everything about her: she knew nothing about him. She thought she’d start with something simple, and see where it led.

“Mills, I realise it’s poor form to ask a gentleman his age, but, erm, you call me a “mortal”. What is your lifespan?”

“That is a strange question, and not your usual style. Has somebody been, giving you ideas?”

Verity thought: I’ve struck a nerve. She said nothing and waited for an answer. Mills was obliged to give one, and it had to be honest.

“Very well. I came into being gradually, with a change in human behaviour. Can you guess which one?”

“Was it_” she stopped herself just in time. “You jammy bugger, you nearly got me there!”

“It was the discovery of agriculture. Agriculture gave birth to me. Before then, people lived as hunter-gatherers: lived for the moment. There was fear all right: fear of cold, wolves, and the like, but all these were immediate, and understandable, fears. Agriculture brought a different way of thinking: different beliefs, for example. All-powerful Gods who got angry, rather than local spirits you could talk to and become familiar with. You asked about lifespan: I shall last for as long as humanity lives with agriculture. If for some reason you go back to the older ways, I shall cease to exist”

Verity looked at the little plot and marvelled at the ironies in life. 

“Thank you. That’s, thought-provoking I must say”

“Remember”, said Mills, “You don’t have to ask all your questions today...”

“Thanks for the reminder, I think I shall ask one more and then go home: I’m tired and it’s getting cold sitting still.

“I need to know” she had to think about the words carefully, “Supposing you are with me, and I, erm, really wish you were not. Is there anything, anything I can say, do, or be, that would have the effect of making you go away?”

Mills looked startled. “You are asking me to describe the things I loathe...” 

Verity nodded. Mills looked disconcerted. “It is difficult for me to even mention these things by name. Think of it as asking a mortal to deal directly with a phobia...”

“I’m sorry. But you put me on a rack. You gave me a hard time. I lost my marbles, and my shoulder still hurts. Please, just this once, name them. I won’t ask you any more questions today. If that helps.”

“There are some words I cannot bring myself to say. For example the one concerning the abandoning of debts or grudges_”

“You can’t say “forgive”? I mean, at_” (Damn, she thought. Wasted the third question) 

“It would cause me a lot of pain. Like asking you to injure one of your children.”

Mills continued “I shall ask you to say the words for the things that repel me. I shall not count these guesses as questions: that would not be fair. We shall start with the easiest. What do you often end up doing when you all sit down for your evening meal?”

“Eating. You can’t stand food?”

“No lass. Although food can give you courage, and so can that wine you’re so fond of. This is not a material thing. It is an action. Think, what do you do?”

“Well we all talk a lot”

“Getting warm. What does your talk nearly always lead to?”

“We often argue”

“No. But you sometimes do this at the end of an argument. When it isn’t an argument any more”

“You’ve already said the bit about forgiving...”

“It is not that. This thing, it gives you a lot of pleasure_”

Verity thought of an extremely inappropriate thing to do on a kitchen table after dinner and laughed out loud. Mills flinched.

“Oh I’m sorry! But is that it: laughing?” Mills nodded grimly. “There are two more”

“Love?” asked Verity.

“No. You love Sacha, and yet when he is flying abroad, you have an irrational fear that the plane might crash. A fear which, I notice, you do not have if you are travelling with him. No: love and irrational fear can easily coexist.”

Verity was stumped. Mills went on:

“I am going to ask you to consider an extreme situation, in which you require courage. Supposing you had been sent to the gallows. There’s a crowd watching. You have a last request. What is the sort of thing that you would do? These are the things that would send me away.”

Verity thought hard. She didn’t smoke, so the classic last cigarette was out. She wasn’t religious, so she wouldn’t ask to say a prayer. She had to admit that being sent to hang was not the sort of situation she normally thought of herself in. She’d be far more likely to be shot. Probably for being a communist. She knew all the words to the Chinese national anthem_

“Blimey! I know exactly what !’d do! I’d sing! I’d get the bloody crowd to join in if I could and all!” Mills flinched. 

“Music, then. Does that include music that I just listen to?” Mills nodded. 

Verity had never before thought of music as a weapon. But if they once banned it in Afghanistan, perhaps it was.  Mills was speaking

“There is one last thing. It is so dreadful to me that I ask you not to say the answer out loud. I am so sensitive to it that I would be able to tell when you are thinking about it. Especially you, because your thoughts are so plain to see. Your body language would give it away. At least the question itself is simple and it’ll be over quickly”

He was really suffering. 

“What did you do, that brought you so much delight, at your party fundraiser last Thursday?”

It had been Verity’s best evening all year. Just thinking about it filled her with joy. There was practically everything she liked in life. The place had been packed with her party friends. Chatting and laughing. There were books and cake for sale. Judy was offering back massage for donations: it had given her extra strength. There was music, and wine, although she had stuck to spritzers all evening because, being so happy and full of energy, she had been_

Mills gasped audibly and winced. 

“That’s the last one. I can’t bear it of all people. While...(flinch), a person has no fear at all. Not even the little residual fear that people normally carry around, which is so slight it isn’t even called fear in most languages: it is commonsense, or self-restraint, or what have you. And when a person has no fear, I cannot even see them: they look like a black, indefinable, nothing. I can’t tell you how disconcerting that is: perhaps you felt it when you first set eyes on the anger-thing?”

“Yes, I did. I couldn’t see it properly”

“Well, last Thursday you were either dressed all in black or I just couldn’t focus.”

Verity thought, how strange. For some reason, though it was far from her usual style, she had in fact gone to the party fundraiser dressed entirely in black. 

“I forced myself to watch. Five whole seconds. Then I fled outside. You walked the two miles home, alone, didn’t you? You sang all the way. You weren’t even walking, you were so happy you were_ (flinch) fearless”

 “I think I’ve put you through enough. I shall go home now. How many questions have I got left?”

“Two.” He added almost affectionately “You dropped one by accident, didn’t you? Are you giving me a sporting chance?”

“I can’t lie” said Verity: “I slipped up. Perhaps it was subconscious, though” 

As she was walking home, she thought: Bernie, you’re an inspiration and a star.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Air Canada

Verity was flying.

She was flying over the most beautiful landscape she had ever seen. Forests covered in ice and snow, with the low sun picking out every detail. The sky was clear but for a long, low, dark grey cloud on the Eastern horizon. She was flying towards that cloud. Except, the dark grey wasn’t just the cloud: as she flew on, she could make out a strip of dark grey land below it. The forest came to an abrupt end. She recognised the grey land with a shock: the Canadian tar sands had featured in a recent petition that she had signed. Now she was seeing them in real life: mile after mile of grey goo. Not just seeing, either. There was a resonance. Somehow the stripped and damaged lands were also her shoulders: they felt raw and scarred.

There were people working. One of them glanced upwards. She recognised Zac, Bernie’s eldest son. His big, round face was easy to make out even at this distance. He was laughing with his workmates. Zac had put up with a string of low-paid, dead-end jobs in England before finally taking the plunge and getting his Canadian papers. A friend of a relative had put him on to an agency who took on extra hands for the oilfields. He’d quickly got his safety certificate, and then here he was, out in the wilderness, absolutely in his element. He looked as if he’d been here all his life. The shock of seeing him woke Verity up. 

“I thought you’d appreciate my little tour of Canada. How do you like it; your best friend’s son out there doing my work? Happy in his job and earning more money than he’s ever seen before. What are you going to say to him, next time you are enjoying one of his delicious barbecues? I know, you’re going to joke about it. But you joke about the things that hurt you, don’t you?” 

Verity was livid. 

“ VERY, bloody, DARE you show your face in this room, after all you’ve done! Clear off!!” She looked around for something to throw at him. But there was no need: the anger-thing came out of nowhere and shot across the room straight towards him. He only just got out in time.

The road

Verity was walking.

She was picking her way with difficulty along the grass verge of a major road. She couldn’t remember how far along it she had come. A low sun was shining on the wet surface, bringing it out in a dark, blue-grey colour.  

The road, which she usually only vaguely thought of as that silver ribbon that leads effortlessly to one’s destination, revealed itself to be completely different when travelling at this speed. The verge was uneven and rutted, and strewn with filthy debris. Shredded plastic bags were stuck in the few straggly trees.  The noise level was terrific. Her feet, which for some reason were bare, sank as she walked. And each blade of grass was coated in a thick layer of grey goo. 

Progress became slower and slower as each pace required more effort. She noticed with indifference that her feet had begun to bleed. The earth, too, was bleeding: there was a resonance. 

There was a screech from behind her as a truck lost control: it was coming towards her along the verge. Just before it hit her, she woke up. 

She was alone in the bedroom. She reached over to take a swig of water from the glass on the bedside table. There was no water. Only her notepad. 

On the top page was written:

You are lost. 

Verity tore off the page, screwed it up and threw it across the room. 

She gritted her teeth. I’ll bloody have you!