Three Spirits Encountered in a Hospital

Copyright © 2021 Alby Stone

  1. Mors

I see him. I know what he’s thinking. That it doesn’t matter, not really. After all, in the end everything returns to its original state. Flesh becomes dust, gases and water. Life and mind, generated by those elements, dissipate. Electricity, data and assorted chemicals: boiled down to the basics, that is all a human being is. Nothing much to get excited about. The animating spark is what counts. Why mourn the body when that spark is gone?

This is a place where sparks wink out all the time. A place of death and healing, of terror and joy. Abandon all hope, you who enter here, for all that will be revealed is truth – the truth of stethoscope and X-ray, blood test and ECG, CT scan and biopsy, bad news and good delivered by medical shamans in full regalia, the gowns and masks and gloves that mark them as travellers between worlds. The scalpels, probes and bone saws that explore, discover, and pronounce judgement. You can hope all you like but all you’ll get are diagnosis and prognosis. Make up your own scenario to fit.

And what flies forth when the verdict is death? Nothing with pigeon wings, harp and halo, that’s for sure. No sheet wrapped comedy ghost or glowing fragment of spirit floating upward to join a greater chorale. He’s seen them all, and that means he has seen nothing. There is no heaven or hell, no God or devil collecting these insubstantial remnants. Whatever they are – if they are – they go their own way, wherever that may be. The great mystery.

I see him. He’s not invisible, though no one else seems to notice his presence. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t conform to those medieval engravings or the Terry Pratchett books. He looks ordinary. He wears a black cotton jacket, threadbare and somewhat grubby, creased black trousers, boots that have a walked few miles too many, a washed-out indigo shirt. Eyes simultaneously sardonic and sad. Sometimes he looks like a teenager. Look again and his features are wrinkled and fissured as if etched with ancient texts in unknown scripts, words no longer understood by the living, though they spell out his singular power. This gift, this curse, is one he bears with some pride and not a little sorrow. He does not like to see the innocent suffer, the old to crumble into humiliating senescent misery, the stupid and reckless to reap the reward of folly. He does not even like to see the guilty, the monstrous, stare into the final void with fear and despair. He does not, cannot judge. That is not his role. What, then, is he for? What does he do?

Now I know. He releases.

I see him move among the injured and the sick. This is his triage. He doesn’t know I can see him. To be honest, I’m not sure I do, or that he is really there. He stands by an old woman whose eyes know the measure of her days even if her brain does not. She is so tired, so frail and pale, so bravely holding back tears. A younger woman, perhaps her daughter, worries by her side. He touches her hand, gently – lovingly. Not yet. He allows her a few more hours to say goodbye. He moves on, ignoring the flesh wounds and minor coughs, the anxious hypochondriacs and mentally ill who congregate at every A&E to unknowingly waste the professionals’ time. He homes in on a young man in a wheelchair, asleep or comatose, and shakes his head. This man, he knows, is a long-term drug addict, a sad creature who has for so long sought a chemical oblivion that is as close to death as he can come without being the real deal. Catholic guilt? Cowardice? Who knows what has kept him from fulfilling his secret wish? But tonight his deepest desire shall be granted. Death leans down and kisses his forehead. The young man’s slumber deepens, his breathing becomes ever more shallow. Then…

The young man slides from the wheelchair and crumples to the floor, Someone calls for help. An alarm sounds, doctors and nurses run. They arrive too late. There is no way back from those years of heavy substance abuse, that final shot at mortality. The releaser bows his head and moves on, heading my way. He stands before me, scratches his head, looks down at my foot and smiles, knowing the extent of my sickness, the intensity and sweep of the pain, the sorrow of knowing it was all my own stupid fault. Our eyes meet and knowledge ignites in the space between. I am not afraid and that intrigues him. Laughing silently, he wags a finger, drifts off to assess someone else. Then he is gone.

The rest is an eternity that passes in the blink of an eye. Time collapses as I understand that now is not the time of my release. Death will come for me, but not yet, not yet, maybe not for a long time.

  1. Angelus

There was an angel in the anaesthetic. Yeah, I’m sure of that if nothing else. It was all so hazy, so fractured, but she was the only constant. She flew above and within me, tiny and lost in the billowing folds of an oversize blue protective gown that flapped around her like unruly wings, flitting around the room like a moth torn between a myriad candles. I was afraid for her; I was sure she was falling, and could not bear the thought that she might hurt herself. But she maintained balance, making every tilt and teeter into a joke at the expense of the laws of physics.

And that’s what she was – a spirit joker, a stoned saint, eyes divinely smashed and wise and laughing at gravity’s limp attempts to take her down. She held the mask over my face and told me to inhale, and then she was in my lungs and kissing my blood goodnight. Unconscious, I knew she was at my shoulder when the surgeon deployed knife and saw. She closed my eyes and sang a wordless lullaby that spanned the time between the first incision and the final stitch.

I read the badge but couldn’t pronounce her name. ‘How do you say that?’

The blue eyes sparkled. She said it and I was still unable to form the sounds.

‘Take deep, slow breaths,’ she said, sparkling with both barrels.

That was when I went away and took her with me, her and that incredible, anarchic blue gown, deep into my lungs and blood and brain.

I didn’t return straight away. I was floating in a brilliant golden light, feeling safe and warm and free from pain. When I saw a tiny patch of blue like a wisp of gauze far off in that aureate immensity, I knew it was her. The face was a crude sketch of lines, careless slashes of blue on blue, but I knew.

‘Do you know where you are?’

‘Recovery room,’ I replied, and the light vanished, leaving my gaze fixed on a picture of a hospital room, imprinted like an antiseptic after-image. A machine bleeped, nurses bustled quietly, voices soft and tinted with relief or concern. Someone, I heard, was in trouble, blood pressure alarmingly low. Dimly, I realised they were talking about me. Surrounded by love and nestled within an angel’s gown of wings, I didn’t care.

Someone was holding my hand. I knew who it was, and that I was safe. Death had made a promise and the angel was there to deliver.

  1. Cobalus

‘Motherfucker!’

I choke off a scream as the pain intensifies. The little bastard has crept up on me again, sliding in from that nowhere-space it now inhabits. This time it manifests as an indescribable shredding of everything between toes and knee, the annihilation of what was in truth only a remembered shape. Gone but not forgotten.

Goblin laughter caresses my inner ear. I imagine a malevolent face painted in a sickly green radium glow edged in darkness, a crazed grin as it plans its next assault. It feels personal, and I guess it is. I feel its hatred. My zombie foot, erupting in razor shards, wiring me to the mains and flipping a switch, prickling and stabbing and fiery, toes exploding at random. Severance payback.

When I move, it weighs twice as much as the original. It waves from side to side of its own volition, rises and falls, twitches, and – a horror worse than the pain – it wiggles its toes. It presses itself forcefully and uncomfortably to the floor, itches, aches, cramps and burns. Its phantom flesh crawls with ghostly worms.

‘Bastard!’ Another toe explodes without warning. The imaginary face warps gleefully.

I know the theory. The brain – maybe the autonomous nervous system, the pathways mapped and marshalled by the vagus nerve – struggles to cope with major disruption like the loss of a limb. Its map is wrong. It compensates by repeating and reiterating the last known sensations experienced by the vanished body part, exaggerating to confirm and affirm the lie of continued existence. So my neural network believes the leg is there even though it has been removed. And why not? It has the evidence, the pains so acutely registered during the last days of contact, of connection. Experientially, the damned leg is still attached and wreaking havoc. Visual surveys do nothing to dispel the illusion; pain takes precedence over pictures. Seeing may be believing, but feeling is the dominant truth.

So I try the exercises, visualisation and mirroring to impose the remaining limb’s healthy sensations upon the phantom culprit, gradually dialling those down to zero, the neutrality of disappearance. Anything’s worth a shot. But no matter how I try, it doesn’t work. The haunting becomes less intense, even halts for hours at a stretch, but it always returns, usually at the most inopportune moments. I jerk and flinch when the pain bursts forth. Food flies from fork to floor, urine misses the target by an inch, a pen gouges the page, speech is interrupted by sudden streams of profanity as I respond the only way I can. Sleep only proceeds thanks to the intervention of opium. I restrict myself to a single dose of dihydrocodeine late at night, and not every night – one haunting at a time is more than enough to worry about. This sparing use buys me a few precious hours of relative peace.

As I write, the goblin unleashes another surprise, an unprecedented incineration of the phantom heel. This time, I’m unable to even screech or swear, as my body responds by becoming rigid for a good thirty seconds: no breath, no motion, no sound. I’m pretty sure that my heart stops beating until it passes, that neurotransmitters and the brain’s electrical impulses pause in mid-flow, temporarily stranded between dendrite and axon.

I see my pen has left scattered marks on the narrow feint page, untidy squiggles approximating letters of the alphabet. With a squint and a little imagination, they are just about legible.

Murderer.

I cannot deny the verdict.

Ultimately, my punishment is self-inflicted. I am the goblin, until nature takes its course and the revenant fades to nothingness. Or until death releases me from myself. But not yet.

Adoration of the Magi

Copyright © Alby Stone 2020

Old Alf brushed against the Christmas tree on his way back from the bar. Only the slightest of touches, but it went flying, tinsel, baubles and fairy lights all over the place. A woman started at the noise and stepped back, crushing the little plaster angel underfoot. Miraculously, not a drop was spilled from the three pints Alf was carrying, tripod-style, to their table, seemingly oblivious to the chaos left in his wake.

‘Looks like some idiot’s knocked the tree over,’ he said, glancing over his shoulder. ‘There you go, lads. Three pints of Doom Bar.’

‘I asked for London Pride,’ said George.

‘Pride’s off,’ Alf replied.

‘And I wanted a Stella,’ said Joe, frowning.

‘They’ve stopped selling it. Something to do with Brexit and tariffs, Eric at the bar reckons. The brewery getting its retaliation in first.’

‘Bloody EU,’ Joe muttered.

‘This is because we’ve nearly left the EU,’ Alf pointed out. ‘There won’t actually be any tariffs on imported beer until the new year. Not that tariffs would apply to beers brewed in the UK anyway. And don’t you start moaning, Joe. You voted Leave, remember.’

‘I thought we were supposed to be taking back control,’ Joe sighed. ‘Seems like we didn’t.’

‘Daft sod. When they said we’ll take back control, they didn’t mean the likes of us. They meant toffs, hedge fund managers and currency speculators. And that posh twat who moved all his money to a bank in Dublin. Profiteers and spivs. Anyway, it’s Christmas. Shut up and drink up.’

The three old men drank in companionable silence for a few minutes. Then Joe cleared his throat. ‘You see that strip of cardboard behind the bar, the one with the packets of peanuts stuck on it? It looks just like an Advent calendar.’

Alf raised his eyebrows. ‘A peanut Advent calendar? Daft sod.’ He raised his glass, sipped, smacked his lips. ‘Lovely. You can’t beat a good pint.’

One of the bar staff and two customers were gathering scattered ornaments and reassembling the Christmas tree. Alf, George and Joe watched with interest. ‘Those lights are pathetic,’ said George. ‘You’d think they’d have splashed out on something decent. And I think that angel’s properly knackered now.’

Joe frowned. ‘I thought it was a fairy.’

‘No, that one’s got wings and a halo. It’s an angel. A pretty crap one, mind. As crap as the tree.’

‘Maybe they got a crap tree because they knew Alf would be knocking the bloody thing over,’ said George. ‘God, I hate Christmas.’

‘You would. Tight as Scrooge and as miserable as the Grinch.’

‘Fuck off, Joe.’

‘I didn’t touch that bloody tree,’ said Alf, a fraction too late for credibility.

Chilled air blasted through the bar as a gaggle of young women arrived, giggling and gaudy with Christmas hats and jumpers, micro-skirts and alarmingly high stiletto heels. Each had a sprig of mistletoe Sellotaped to her forehead. All had evidently imbibed a seasonal livener before setting out. They ordered a double round – Jaegerbombs and tequila shots – then set about snogging every man in the bar, taken or otherwise, though they studiously avoided the table where the three old men sat.

There was a ragged cheer when the tree lit up again. This signalled a rise in noise levels. The tipsy girls giggled more loudly, and a squabble erupted between one of them and a women who objected to her going back for a second snog with her husband. Then the music started.

Alf groaned. ‘I knew it. Bloody Slade. Everybody’s having fun, my arse. And this is only the beginning. It’ll be bloody Roy Wood next, mark my words.’

‘I like this stuff,’ said Joe. ‘Reminds me of when I was young.’

Alf snorted. ‘Daft sod. You must have been too old for this glam rock rubbish when it came out. I know I was and you’re a year older than me.’

‘Bollocks. I’m only seventy. Anyway, I’m youthful on the inside. You’re only as old as you feel, mate.’

‘Bugger me, in that case I must be due a telegram from the Queen. Victoria.’

‘Miserable bastard.’ George drained his glass. ‘My round, boys. Same again?’ His friends nodded so he went to the bar, steering a hopeful course among the Christmas girls. Roy Wood wished it could be Christmas every day.

At the bar, George was multitasking, ordering beer and exchanging words with one of the festive females. Alf shook his head. George was well out of his depth. As if any of those young things would snog a scruffy old man with a ratty comb-over and a personal miasma of Old Spice, mothballs and beer breath. He turned to Joe. ‘So what are you doing tomorrow? The usual?’

‘Yep. Round to my daughter’s place for an early dinner, open my Christmas socks, get ignored by the grandkids, then turfed out before it’s time to break out the serious booze and her bloke gets too pissed to drive me home. You?’

‘The same. Why do they always give us bloody socks? I wouldn’t mind an Amazon voucher. Maybe a bottle of rum.’

Joe shrugged. ‘They don’t know what to get old boys like us. They think all we do is sit around thinking about the old days, like Clive bloody Dunn. No interest in anything else. Hence the socks. Practical, and they know we’ll wear them. Saves them having to use their brains. Anyway, we’re lucky. Poor old George doesn’t have anyone.’

‘True. Mind you, he says he’s happy on his own. Netflix and that project he’s working on.’

‘Yeah, whatever that is.’

‘His memoirs, he reckons,’ said Alf. ‘Told me in the White Horse last week. What he got up to in the Sixties.’

‘Well, if he reckons he can remember them you can be sure it’ll be a work of fiction.’  

Alf’s face softened. ‘Christ, the Sixties. A brilliant time, especially the second half. Great music. Woodstock and Monterey, the Stones in Hyde Park. The World Cup.’

‘It had its dark side, Alf. Vietnam and Enoch Powell. Aberfan and Prague. As much war and hate and fear as there was peace and love and happiness. Just like any other time in history.’

‘You always were a bit of a philosopher,’ said Alf affectionately. ‘Daft sod.’

‘That’s “daft sod, man” to you,’ Joe quipped. They chuckled quietly.

George returned gripping a tripod of pints. ‘Old Speckled Hen,’ he informed them. ‘Doom Bar’s off.’

Alf glared suspiciously at his beer before having a taste. ‘Lovely,’ he pronounced. ‘So what have you got planned for Christmas Day, George?’

‘A lie-in, big roast with all the trimmings, a few beers, Netflix, off to bed with a full belly and a fuzzy head. Might work on the you-know-what. Just like any other day, only with mince pies and a turkey crown. I’ll share that with the cat.’

Alf raised his eyebrows. ‘I didn’t know you had a cat.’

‘I don’t. It lives next door but it always kips at mine when they have their grandkids round. Can’t say I blame it. That place is like a sociopaths’ convention when those brats are there. I’d do the same if I was in its shoes.’

‘Cats don’t wear shoes,’ Joe pointed out.

‘They’re metaphorical shoes, Joe. Like the cat’s whiskers. Or the dog’s bollocks.’

‘But cats have got whiskers,’ Joe objected. ‘And dogs definitely have bollocks, unless they’re female or they’ve had the old chop.’

They collectively winced at the thought.

Another cheer went up as a pint of lager hit the floor and shattered. ‘That was your bloody fault,’ the owner of the former pint complained to one of one of the young women, whose only response was to extend her middle finger. The barman who had been involved in putting the Christmas tree back together emerged from behind the bar with a dustpan and brush in one hand, a mop and bucket in the other, and set about cleaning up the mess. Then a woman in a Salvation Army uniform entered the pub and commenced the annual ritual of attempting to shame a bunch of drinkers into buying The War Cry. ‘Geronimo!’ someone dutifully shouted above the increasing din. Mud took up the musical slack, Les Gray announcing it would be lonely this Christmas.

George mimed sticking his fingers down his throat. ‘Christ alive, I wish they’d play something decent. The Small Faces or the Kinks. The Beatles or the Stones. Even the Who. Anything but this horrible festive shite. Oh well, there’s always beer. My shout, lads. Same again?’

‘We can but hope,’ sighed Alf as Joe left the table.

‘Poor old George,’ said Joe. ‘He’s never been the same since his missus died.’

‘Eh? She didn’t die, you daft sod. She ran off with her toy boy. Mind you, she might be dead by now. Nearly thirty years ago, that was.’

‘Are you sure?’ Joe frowned. ‘I distinctly remember the funeral.’

‘No, that was just George making a big production out of it. Must admit, it seemed like a bloody funeral. If I’d been married to that sour-faced ratbag I’d have put the bunting up and hired a band.’

‘I don’t remember her having a toy boy.’

It was the bloke who ran that plumbing business in the high street. Bill something, with the tattoos and the quiff. Quite sad really. They found out George was firing blanks so she took up with someone who had live rounds in his magazine. And a bigger weapon, by all accounts. Not so much with the old brain cells, though, or he’d never have taken up with her.’

‘Women,’ said Joe bitterly.

‘That’s no way to talk, Joey boy. Sexist, that’s what it is. I don’t want to hear that kind of misogynistic claptrap. Get with the feminism, mate. My missus was a fine woman, rest her soul. Kept our house sparkling and always had my dinner ready on the table when I got home from work.’

Joe nodded. ‘Mine was the same. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.’

‘The Hen’s off,’ said George, returning with another tripod. ‘This is Greene King IPA.’

Alf took a sip, nodded approvingly. ‘Lovely.’

‘Pricey,’ said George gloomily. ‘Nearly a fiver a pint. Our pensions don’t go far nowadays, eh? Not that they ever did.’

‘George, you’ve got mistletoe taped to your forehead,’ Alf observed.

‘Really? No idea how that got there.’ George glanced shiftily at the giggling girls, now on their fourth double round and getting louder and more unsteady by the minute. One of them looked over and blew George a kiss.

Alf exhaled noisily. ‘You bloody did, didn’t you? You got them drinks in exchange for a snog. That must have cost a bloody fortune. Daft sod. I hope you’ve got enough money for your next shout.’

‘Not an opportunity you turn down at our age, Alf.’

‘Sexual harassment, that is. You could get nicked for that.’

It’s none of your business. Anyway, it was her idea. And for your information I’ve got plenty of cash on me. Be prepared, and all that.’

‘Be prepared for what?’

‘Eventualities. Emergencies.’

Alf laughed. ‘Bugger me, you only live a hundred yards up the road. What’s likely to happen to you between here and there?’

‘Well, I might get mugged.’

‘So you’ve laid in some cash for the muggers? A Christmas box for some low-life?’ Joe sneered. ‘Now that’s what I call a random act of kindness. You need your head examined.’

‘That’s not what I mean. I read somewhere that if you get mugged you’re less likely to get hurt if you have money on you. Give them what they want and they’ll leave you alone.’

‘If they left you alone in the first place you wouldn’t need to have any money to give them.’

Alf drained his glass. ‘JMy thoughts exactly, Joe. Almost. Anyway, you’re on the way to our places so you never go home on your own. Nobody’s going to try it on with the three of us, even if we could give Methuselah a run for his shekels. Same again? If at all possible?’

George and Joe nodded. Alf headed to the bar while Greg Lake informed the merrymakers that he believed in Father Christmas.

‘I think Alf’s in a bad mood this evening,’ said Joe.

‘No worse than usual,’ George replied. ‘He’s always a cantankerous, opinionated old git. He’s the Groucho to my Chico and your Dumbo.’

‘You mean Harpo.’

‘I know what I meant, Joe. No, you’re right. He is a bit down in the dumps this evening. Let’s face it, so are we. I’ll be alone tomorrow and you and Alf will be unwanted guests. Like Harpo’s ghost.’

‘You mean Banquo.’

‘No, I mean your voices will not be heard. You’ll be there but not-there, because you’re not really wanted and you both know it. They’ll be gladder when you leave than when you arrive. Only relief follows tolerance.’

‘But you haven’t got kids. What do you know about it?’

‘I listen to you and Alf moaning every bloody year.’

Joe thought about that. George had a point. All those family conversations that had gone on around him but rarely included him. The Christmas Days planned without his views being sought. The expectation that he would go along with whatever they wanted, without objection or argument. Being all but ignored by the in-laws, forgotten by the kids as better distractions beckoned. The booze strictly rationed. The fucking socks. His daughter invited him out of duty, not because his participation was desired, his presence cherished. He guessed it was much the same for Alf.

Alf chose that moment to return with the evening’s fourth tripod. ‘IPA’s off. This is called Proper Job. Cornish. Never had it before.’ He sat and took a cautious sip, smiled crookedly. ‘Lovely. So what were you two talking about while I was away?’

‘Harpo’s ghost,’ said Joe gloomily.

‘Is that one of those doom metal bands George likes?’

‘No, it’s what we are at our family Christmases, Alf. Fifth wheels. Gooseberries in the nuclear family relationships. Propped up in a corner to vegetate while the fun goes on around us. If we died they wouldn’t notice until we refused to leave.’

‘Well, you speak for yourself,’ said Alf. ‘But yeah, it is pretty shite. They know I hate sprouts and Christmas pudding but I get them every bloody year. Not to mention cranberry bloody sauce. Never get to see what I’d like on the telly. Always get driven home at six because at my age I need my rest. They’re pretty firm about that. And as for the fucking socks…’

George nodded sagely. ‘Socks come under the category “things you give people when you can’t be arsed to think what to get them”. You can bet your life they’re the very last presents they buy. Afterthoughts. I don’t know how you put up with it.’

‘Well, it’s family. That’s important.’

‘Of course it is, Alf. But so is your dignity and independence – and your status as a person. Me and Joe were just talking about this. The older you get, the less you’re seen as a human being. You become something to be endured, until you pop your clogs and they get to breathe a huge sigh of relief, grab your savings, put your house on the market while rigor mortis is still setting in, and go in search of the life insurance paperwork. You’re a totem with no inner life they can imagine, a symbol they can manipulate to suit themselves. It’s always at their convenience, isn’t it? Always what they want, when they want, how they want. After feeding and clothing them and wiping their arses for years, your kids still expect you to build your lives around them. Sure, they might believe it’s their duty, but really it’s just an excuse to play the martyr with the least possible effort. Virtue signalling that gets more pronounced as the years go by. Christmas is just the tip of the iceberg.’

‘Bugger me,’ said Alf, unusually impressed. ‘That’s bloody deep. And here I was thinking Joe was the philosopher.’

‘You only have to stop and think for a moment. Isn’t it more fun to get pissed and have a laugh with your mates than spend a day with people who can’t spare you a minute because they’ve got too much else on? Why, just once, don’t you have a Christmas built around what you want? ‘

Alf pulled a face. ‘There’s no way my daughter would agree to that.’

‘Nor mine,’ Joe agreed.

‘It isn’t their decision, lads. Just stay at home and do whatever you want.’ George’s face lit up. ‘Or you could come round to my place, make a day of it. I’m cooking anyway, so it’s no hardship to make a few more roast potatoes or whatever. I’ve got plenty of beer in, including a dozen bottles of Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale. Very nice beer. We could have a sprout-free dinner, a good drink, listen to some decent sounds, and watch something on Netflix when we’re pissed enough. You can stay as long as you like. All you have to do is phone your daughters in the morning and tell them you have new plans. They won’t care. Sure, they’ll pretend to be disappointed but really they’ll be bloody relieved.’

There was a scream as one of the giggling girls – the one George had snogged – caught a stiletto heel in the carpet and lost her balance. As she toppled toward the Christmas tree, she flung her shot glass into the air to free both hands to cushion the fall. The glass hit the ceiling, dislodging a paper chain that dropped gracefully down to hang in front of the bar like a liana. A flailing leg knocked over a table laden with full glasses and empties. Then she fell bodily onto the tree, destroying it completely and sending baubles, lights and pine needles in all directions. An object arced across the bar and plopped into Alf’s Proper Job. More drinks were spilled as people jostled to keep clear of the carnage. There was a second of utter silence, and the bar erupted into laughter, jeers, screeches, complaints and angry shouts as two fights broke out, while John and Yoko advised the participants that war was over. The barman shook his head and reached for the dustpan and brush.

The three friends reverently surveyed the chaos. Alf gazed down at the broken-winged and now halo-free angel as it slowly sank into his beer. ‘That’s got to be better than burial at sea.’

‘Amen to that,’ said George. ‘Gentlemen, we should take this as an omen. Our cue to leave the premises before the pub collapses around us?’

‘And we’ve got to get to our beds early because we’re old,’ added Joe bitterly.

Alf shrugged. ‘Yeah, might as well clear off before they’re down to Foster’s.’

They drank up, picked their way through the wreckage and arguments, visited the toilet, and left the pub. Outside, snow was falling.

‘Nice,’ said George, extending both hands to catch a few flakes. ‘Just like the ones we used to know but never really happened.’

‘It’s pretty heavy. Probably going to settle. It’ll be much too dangerous for old men like me and Joe to go anywhere. I reckon it’d probably be best if we phoned our daughters and told them we’ll be staying put tomorrow.’

‘Or not going too far, Alf.’ Joe breathed a misty plume into the night air. ‘We could make it as far as George’s place, though.’

‘That’s that, then. A sock-free and sproutless Christmas at mine.’ George smiled happily. ‘With lots of beer. We can let our hair down.’

‘You don’t have any.’

‘Fuck off, Alf.’

‘I think me and Joe should bring a few bottles along tomorrow. You can never have too much beer in the house. Hey, did you really buy those girls a round just so you could get a snog?’

‘It was their idea. And fair exchange is no robbery, my son. Anyway, these days you mustn’t call women girls. It’s sexist and patronising.’

Alf snorted. ‘Bugger me, at our age most women under seventy look like girls.’

Leaving three wavy lines of footprints in the thickening snow, they walked toward their homes, with George’s bungalow the first port of call. As they reached his gate, Joe pointed to a light dead ahead on the horizon. ‘That’s a really bright star. Or is it Venus?’

‘Nah,’ said George. ‘It’s a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn or something. I read about it on the internet.’

Alf rolled his eyes. ‘It’s a bloody police helicopter, you daft sods.’ He belched contentedly. ‘Christ, I love beer.’

Glasto vrMix 2.0

Copyright © Alby Stone 2020

It was musical mayhem up on the Pyramid Stage. The Hellraisers Redux, second on the bill, always first to the bar. A rare two-drummer line-up, John Bonham and Keith Moon flailing away at their respective kits, not so much keeping time as competing for arrhythmia. Phil Lynott doing the worst-ever impersonation of a bass guitarist, held together by nothing more than a sleepy smile. Jim Morrison swaying unsteadily at the microphone stand, alternating between incoherent mumble and indecipherable scream. Rory Gallagher seemingly playing a different set entirely. A symphony of bum notes and missed beats. Several sheets to the wind, every one of them. Guys whose idea of the twelve-bar blues was the absence of a thirteenth pub to crawl to. The stage was littered with evidence. I’d never seen so many empty JD and tequila bottles in one place. In their prime, sober or even lightly pickled, the Hellraisers Redux would have been magnificent; but the punters only wanted to see a drunken, edgy shambles that would conform to the popular lack of imagination and nostalgic tabloid stereotype. Nobody could tell what they were playing and nobody cared, least of all the band, just as long as the bottles kept coming and the wheels continued to fall off.

Disgusted with that disrespectful bread-and-circuses spectacle, I wandered through the muddy field, skirting the flags and young men with tipsy girls perched on their skinny shoulders until I found the John Peel Stage, where the great man himself was introducing a combo of wizened undead folkies fronted by Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. Not my cup of tea at all. I stayed for the first number – an eerie but predictable rendition of ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, with Denny in admittedly fine voice – but left when Drake took the mic for ‘Streets Of London’. Voters’ choice again, of course. You can’t trust people to get anything right online. Too many chemical variables, too few functional brain cells. Democracy? Even the body politic can’t sustain that many arseholes without ending up drowning in the inevitable.

Now I had a choice. Look for a beer tent or endure the remainder of the Hellraisers Redux set? Definitely not the beer tent. A fiver for a pint of pixels? No thanks. As for the Hellraisers Redux – fuck, I couldn’t bear another minute of that awful shambles. So what else was on offer? What could I do to while away the hour or so until the Shades came onstage? Well, there was an alternative. On a whim I had paid extra for a backstage pass. It meant going back out into the mud, but…

The VIP Lounge – actually a seemingly limitless marquee decked out like the interior of the Palace of Versailles, with waiter service and air conditioning – was a Who’s Who of several golden ages of popular music. Like everything else in this world where pleasing a whimsically perverse public was where the money was made, it was all a bit off-kilter. Sinatra in a ripped t-shirt and bondage trousers holding court at a table where Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse hung on his every word. Elvis Presley trading jokes with Syd Barrett and Leonard Cohen at a table stacked with insubstantial cheeseburgers. Dusty Springfield playing cards with Des O’Connor and Bob Marley. Ian Curtis in a zoot suit, in earnest discussion with John Lennon and Jacques Brel. Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane dressed as hippies. Brian Jones and George Harrison talking about the good old days. Mick Ronson complaining to a martini-sipping Dean Martin that he hadn’t been invited to join his old mate Dave in the Shades, much as he respected Jimi. Inscrutable old bluesmen jamming in a corner with Jerry Garcia and Pigpen. Van Vliet declaiming weird poetry to assorted acid casualties. Aretha demonstrating a complicated dance to Ella, Billie and Bessie. Marley, Toots and Joe Strummer sharing the biggest spliff I’d ever seen. Scott Walker trying to read a book while being harangued by Mark E. Smith. Joey Ramone playing pool with Steve Peregrine Took. Lemmy, Mick Farren and Larry Wallis plotting to tear down the fences and make it a free festival. Bolan and Pete Shelley comparing guitars.  McCartney strobing in and out of view, the jury evidently some way from a majority decision. A dizzying array of stars. A galaxy of reclaimed black holes. But so detailed, so real.

So wrong.

A waiter handed me a cocktail but I couldn’t drink it. There would have been no point trying. And anyway, I felt sick. Giving people what they wanted was all very well – but this?

Outside, the mud was worse than ever, now a gruel-like liquid that trickled into my shoes and splattered up my trouser legs. I might have been wading ankle-deep in brown paint. It wasn’t quite the full Glastonbury experience – for that I’d need to lose my tent, get my sleeping bag stolen and have my stomach pumped – but it felt eerily authentic. Worth enduring, hopefully. Back at the Pyramid Stage, Viv Stanshall was at long last introducing the Shades. This was what I’d been waiting for. The Glasto vrMix supergroup to make anyone with a soul salivate. Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Dave Greenfield, John Coltrane, Hendrix and Bowie. I wasn’t too sure about having the Andrews Sisters on backing vocals, but what the hell. This was going to be great.

And it was, for a short time. The Shades started their set with ‘Heroes’, sounding all the better for the muscular bass, soaring synth and a wall of undulating left-hand fuzz distortion, then Bowie took a back seat while Hendrix drawled through ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ and Bruce belted out an apocalyptic ‘White Room’. Then… Eh? A twitchy, Young Americans-style souled-up version of ‘The Laughing Gnome’. Hendrix aping Ziggy Stardust-era Mick Ronson as the Shades ploughed through a medley of ‘Agadoo’, ‘Funky Gibbon’ and ‘Shudupa Your Face’. I stared incredulously. This couldn’t be happening. Surely not. Normal service would be resumed, wouldn’t it? But when Bowie started crooning ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)’, I could take no more and angrily tore off the VR headset.

Glasto vrMix, my arse. Another triumph of so-called democracy over reason and good taste. I’d paid a hundred quid for this fiasco. Really, I should have known better. Deepfake events like this were all very well, but dependent on viewer votes which were always at the mercy of pranksters, drunks and trolls. And sometimes hackers substituted ‘refakes’ for advertised genuine films and shows. Why, only the week before I’d sat through an online double bill of Casablanca with Tommy Cooper instead of Bogart and a Citizen Kane featuring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their Derek and Clive incarnation rather than Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. That had been interesting, if mildly disconcerting.

‘Play it, Sam. Just like that.’

‘If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough. This bloke came up to me…’

Still, everyone wanted to see the dead stars they’d missed first time around, or the ones they simply missed. Offering an opportunity to see, in glorious virtual reality, deepfaked appearances on the Glastonbury stages by the greats whose bodies were sadly less immortal than their works had been a stroke of genius, both lucrative and crowd-pleasing. And nothing pisses off some people like blameless folk enjoying innocent pleasures. Personally, I’ve never understood how anyone could get their kicks from sabotaging someone else’s fun just because they can. The tech is just so easy to use. And it’s potentially dangerous. Remember when that guy in Manchester faked Linda Lovelace and scenes from Deep Throat into Bedknobs and Broomsticks on Netflix? Or his version of The Railway Children, featuring Jimmy Savile, which traumatised kids and outraged adults up and down the country when switched for the original on BBC1. The sickest of sick shit. Sure, that character was too stupid to cover his tracks and is now justly serving time for offences ranging from copyright infringement to making and distributing kiddie porn, but that only goes to show that any idiot can do it.

It isn’t all bad, of course, and the deepfaked insertions are not all dead stars. There was the first Glasto vrMix, with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Oasis; the Bootleg Monterey Pop with the Sex Pistols and the Clash, something for almost everyone. And even some of the prank fake movies are a pleasant surprise. Raiders of the Lost Ark with Larry Grayson as Indy was hilarious. And who in their right mind would want to forget Alien with Joanna Lumley as Patsy Stone as Ripley?

It got me thinking, though. I mean, when you get right down to it, any film or TV drama is wholly fake. Made-up stories, actors playing parts, special effects, liberties with historical fact, improbable science… We get used to the fantasies we know and don’t like deviation. Does it actually matter if different actors play familiar roles, or whether dialogue or storyline are altered? Or if a long-dead singer releases post-mortem recordings, as long it sounds like them and the music fits the expected image? On my iPod there’s a fake Frank Sinatra singing a swinging ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, backed by what I would swear is Nelson Riddle and his orchestra; a plastic Plastic Ono Band recording of the title theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, complete with reverb, feedback and extended primal scream workouts from John and Yoko; and a Joe Strummer facsimile raucously belting out a song composed by a so-called AI, with lyrics that are authentic-sounding but undoubtedly gibberish. It raises that awkward question, of course. If a fake is so good as to be indistinguishable from the real thing, then is it truly a fake? What is the ‘real thing’ anyway, and is it any better than a brilliant forgery? According to Kant, we never experience ‘the thing itself’, only a simulation of it created by our minds from what our crude, limited senses convey and our limited brains interpret.

But I’m waffling, and approaching maudlin self-indulgence. Sorry, but I do a lot of that. Well, either I do or it’s whoever is really writing this – to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this is. A story? A memoir? A parable? Damned if I know, assuming there is an actual me doing the knowing. Some scientists say we’re probably living in a computer simulation, in which case the whole universe is fake and it doesn’t matter a damn whether I exist or not, or if I’m a true representation of myself. Not that I believe for one moment that I’m not real. Cogito, ergo sum and all that. But Descartes takes us back to Kant again. There’s no logical reason why my perception of self shouldn’t be subject to the immutable law of das Ding an sich. Algorithms permitting, of course.

Whatever. Enough of this recursive philosophising, if only to avoid getting me started on Baudrillard and Lacan, and reasoning myself wholly out of independent biological and intellectual existence. Let’s get back on track and finish this factual/fictional story/memory or whatever the hell it is, if it’s anything at all.

Right, so I was furious. A hundred pounds down the drain, an evening ruined. If I could have got my hands on the faker who ruined my Glasto vrMix, I’d have throttled the bugger. Oh well, the almost certainly vain attempt to get my money back could wait. I had the night to myself, with plenty of booze and snacks laid in. I kicked the VR headset to one side and settled back on the sofa, opened a bottle of beer and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, and switched the television on. It was just before nine on a Saturday night, so there was bound to be some Scandi-noir on BBC4, unless the Beeb was yet again saving money by filling the airwaves with carefully Savile-free Top of the Pops repeats. It was only when I put my bare feet up on the coffee table that I noticed they were muddy. Wet mud. Real mud? Maybe.

Alby Stone: A Touch of Pan

Copyright (c) 2020 Alby Stone    

Another midnight, another bloody crossroads. Humans are so unimaginative, always choosing tradition over comfort, or even common sense. It would be nice, once in a while, to be summoned to a table in a well-appointed bar, or perhaps a lounger by a swimming pool in the Algarve on a warm, sunny day, a tray of ice-cold cocktails and a bikini-clad beauty or two to enhance the sea view. But no, there I was yet again on a wet, chilly night in the middle of nowhere, dragged to discomfort by another nobody who wanted to be somebody. Early June in Buckinghamshire, if the airborne tsunami, poorly-maintained road and ambient smugness were any guide.

But where was the client? I squinted but couldn’t see a damned thing through the water streaming down the Perspex visor, which was also misting over on the inside thanks to that absurd surgical mask.

I like to set a good example, and Christ knows humans need one. They certainly haven’t done too well in that department themselves, preferring to imprison, execute or assassinate anyone born with an ounce of compassion, decency and common sense. The present situation only underlined just how fucking stupid so many of them are. As, to be fair, did most of their history. But I digress. I needed to see who I was dealing with, so I removed the visor and mask and threw them into the air, where they vanished with a barely-audible pop.

My heart sank when he emerged from the shadows. Not him again. We already had a meeting scheduled a few years down the line but no, that wasn’t enough for him. I’d never met anyone who needed so much attention. He would try the patience of a saint, and I’m certainly not one of those. ‘What the hell do you want now?’ I growled testily. There was a strangled squawk as a parakeet fell from a nearby tree, stone dead. And another from the creature he was holding by its feet, upside down and very angry. ‘What did I tell you about poultry? And put down that stupid machete before you have someone’s eye out.’

Smith – let’s maintain the pretence, as it’s more fun to work it out yourself and besides, I am bound by strict rules of confidentiality – replied with one of those looks the British public seem to adore: sheepish, furtive and arrogant in equal measure. The effect was somewhat undermined by the chicken shit on his suit and a stray tail feather sticking up on the crown of his head. ‘Well, ah, I, I…’ he extemporised.

‘Come on,’ I sighed. ‘Out with it. I haven’t got all bloody night. But I should warn you that you have everything you asked for and, frankly, nothing left to pay me for anything else. And for heaven’s sake close your mouth when you do that. You look like a parson’s nose sticking out of a haystack.’

‘Look here,’ he blustered. ‘You can’t talk to me like that. Do you know who I am?’

I stared at him. Did he really think that line would impress me? ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And you know exactly who I am.’ I grinned, extended my height by six inches and my pointed beard by twelve, and gave him a little whiff of brimstone. He flinched and took a step back. ‘So piss or get off the pot. I don’t have time for self-serving timewasters like you. I was playing darts with a bishop when you brought me here, and later I’m booked for snooker with Jimmy Savile and Jeffrey Epstein.’

His face fell. For a moment he seemed exhausted and vulnerable, an honest man who’d given his all, beaten the disease, yet still faced insurmountable odds. For a whole nanosecond I was perilously close to a billion miles away from feeling sorry for him. Fortunately I’ve always been exceptionally good at resisting temptation. ‘Spit it out,’ I commanded.

‘It’s this bloody virus,’ he blurted. ‘It’s playing havoc with the economy. The nation is facing bankruptcy, utter ruin. Companies going bust, my chums losing dosh like there’s no tomorrow. My popularity is plummeting. People are even dying, though thankfully no one important has popped their clogs yet. Can’t you do something about it?’

‘Me? What makes you think I can do anything? I don’t control viruses. Or anything else. I’m strictly a crime and punishment guy. This is his work.’ I jerked a thumb in the direction of the waterlogged night sky, making several points simultaneously. ‘You’d be better off nipping into a church and getting down on your knees. Though with your background there’s no way you’ll be heard. Not without deep, loud, celestial laughter by way of reply.’

‘But what about the Bible? It’s you, isn’t it> Four horsemen and all that. Plague is one of them, right? Or is it Pestilence? Or Poverty?’ He shuddered at the last.

‘Nothing to do with me,’ I told him. ‘The book you are referring to was written by a bloke who was completely off his head on infections caused by excessive mortification of the flesh, plus dodgy mushrooms and the odd slice of mouldy bread. We’ve all tried to figure it out over the past two thousand years but neither we nor the guys upstairs have the faintest idea what Mad John was going on about. My old mate Mingscum reckons it was written as a satire on contemporary socio-religious values in the context of cultural upheaval caused by rapid expansion of the Roman Empire. Says it’s hilarious. But Mingscum does have a very strange sense of humour. The more ruthless he is, the more he laughs. A law unto himself.’

‘Sounds like somebody I know,’ said Smith uneasily.

‘I’m sure it does,’ I replied.

‘Can’t you do anything?’

‘All I can do is offer advice that would solve all your problems.’

He leaned forward eagerly. I lengthened my right arm by a metre or so – yes, along with the visor and mask I like to set a good example by maintaining social distancing – and tickled the chicken under her beak. She was a fine specimen and I knew a male of her species who was pining for company. ‘Yes, all I can do is offer advice. Trouble is, it’s way too late for that. This one’s down to you, Smith. Good luck, because you’ve fucked up royally so far.’

‘But it isn’t my fault,’ he groaned.

‘Not entirely, no. Part of it is the collective responsibility of you and anyone else who served in your party’s governments over the last decade. And anyone who voted for you, really. Maybe if you’d been less fixated on austerity and that dreadful European business you’d have been more willing to ensure the PPE stockpiles set aside for this very situation were audited and kept up to date. Maybe if your lot had spent less time and effort shafting the NHS and running it on a shoestring there would have been more critical care beds, nurses and ventilators when they were needed, like now. Maybe if you’d spent less time and energy shagging around and positioning yourself for personal glory you would have paid attention to what your country really needed.’

‘But it needs me.’ He puffed himself up and assumed that now-familiar expression he thinks makes him resemble Winston Churchill but actually makes him look like a sheepdog with its bollocks caught in a mousetrap. ‘I’m the man with vision and plans. I’m in charge.’

‘You keep telling yourself that. Not that your plans amount to much more than getting your leg over, avoiding difficult conversations in public, and repeating cheesy slogans ad nauseam as a poor substitute for substance. But I’d watch my back if I were you. As soon as this is over and your mates need someone to blame, the knives will be out. Look what they did to Thatcher – and they worshipped her like a goddess. Okay, it was that scary Hindu one with the skulls and bloody swords and all the arms, but even so.’

‘Well, if you can’t stop the virus, how about doing something about my image? The public already think I’m an entertaining sort of chap, even lovable – but I need to be seen as a statesman, a stable and reliable chap with the interests of the hoi polloi at heart. Champion of the Great Unwashed. A man of the people, eh? Why should I be remembered by the oiks as the man who presided over the pandemic disaster? Shouldn’t be too difficult. You are the Father of Lies, after all.’

‘Actually, that’s Mingscum – though to be honest his current favourite human protégé isn’t too far behind. Me? I never lie. That would make me no better than one of you, and that would defeat the whole point of my existence. My function is essentially juridical and I am, and must be seen to be, beyond reproach. Though that doesn’t stop you mortals blaming me for your own character flaws. Read my lips, Smith: I gave you what you wanted, admittedly for a handsome price, but what you do with it is up to you.’

‘Ouch – look here, will you take this bloody bird? He keeps biting me.’

I rolled my eyes so that the irises disappeared upward and reappeared from my lower eyelids. I love doing that. Guaranteed to put the willies up anyone from small children to the Pope. Just ask him. ‘He’s a she and chickens don’t bite, they peck.’ I took the fowl in my extended arms and patted it on the head. She nestled contentedly against my chest.

It’s not generally known that I’m an animal lover. A few thousand years ago, when I was only a kid, some halfwit humans saw me out and about in a Greek forest frolicking with the local wildlife, and a myth was born. Horns, tail, cloven hoofs – I don’t often manifest like that now, usually only when I’m communing with nature, but I suppose it is quite a potent image. Back then it scared the yokels shitless. And the name they gave me that day has seeped into human consciousness, directly through etymology or by homonymy, an explosion of lexical associations culminated in the here and now. Pan. Panic. Panorama. Pandemonium. Pangolin. Pandemic. Spooky, eh? All because a bunch of ignorant foragers thought I was some sort of zoological deity. And now here I was bickering with a fool who couldn’t even orchestrate a pantomime properly and who’s been caught with his pants down more often that Brian Rix. But that’s evolution for you.

I decided to call the hen Pandora. My mouth watered at the prospect of scrambled new-laid eggs for breakfast. They’d go down a treat with devilled kidneys.

As far as I was concerned, my business with Smith was concluded. It was time to get back to the bishop. I had some excellent ideas for that triple-six finish. And I needed to check that the cues were sharp enough for my stint on the green baize with Jim and Jeff. There was also the future to consider. What games would suit Smith? I shrugged. I had a few years to think of new entertainments. An eternity to dream up many, many more.

Smith’s lower lip quivered as I began to emanate the sulphurous mist that has become a trademark component of my departure routine. ‘So you’re just going to leave us to get on with it? Sink or swim? Have you no compassion?’

I laughed in his shifty face. ‘It wasn’t me who failed to ensure that the pandemic PPE stockpiles were audited, checked and updated. It wasn’t me who ignored early warning signs and fucked off on holiday instead of getting my arse in gear and making plans. It wasn’t me who delayed, downplayed, prevaricated and acted the fucking goat while the virus spread and people began to die by the truckload. Compassion? That’s what I am, mate. I’m the one who sees what you horrible bastards do to one another and tries to mete out justice for your crimes of selfishness, stupidity, hubris, laziness and greed. I’m the one who cannot ignore the suffering of innocents, who is unable to turn his face from human brutality, cruelty and treachery. I’ll let you into a little secret. Do you know what an egregore is? Well, that’s me. The embodiment of your species’ need for justice and punishment, for retribution, restitution and redress. For balance. You humans made me to keep your baser instincts and desires in check – then had the bloody cheek to turn me into the cause of all your sins.’

He gave that some thought, about thirty seconds worth, which is quite a long time for him if it doesn’t involve getting his leg over. ‘So, if you’re not the embodiment of evil, who is?’

‘Have you read the Bible? I expect not, as it contains no pithy Latin soundbites likely to impress posh totty and facilitate the swift removal of lingerie. Well, here’s your starter for ten. Which Biblical character is the most greedy, jealous, narcissistic, controlling and vengeful? Who has serious problems with anger management? Who commanded the Israelites to commit genocide, enslave women, and mutilate their son’s penises? Who impregnated a twelve year-old girl without her knowledge or consent? Who arranged his own son’s torture and execution? Who gave the Israelites a weapon of mass destruction? Who destroyed whole cities because they didn’t follow his instructions? I won’t even mention poor old Job. So who was it? I’ll give you a clue – it wasn’t me.’

‘You mean…?’

This is the big problem with egregores. The more solid and realised we become, the more we are thought of as gods. And, being essentially constructed from human nature ourselves, we all too often get too big for our boots and start acting the part, throwing our weight around. We become dictators, every bit as bad as Mugabe, Pol Pot, Hitler, Ceausescu, Stalin… Of course, there are those like me who detest authoritarianism and try to promote freedom of thought. We have some successes – polytheistic religions tend to have inbuilt checks and balances – but monotheistic systems give full rein to spiritual totalitarianism. And the bigger they become, the more permanent they are, and the more they will absorb of humanity’s dark side. Believe me, if there ever comes a time when everyone believes in only one god, Homo sapiens is screwed. Because the sole remaining egregore will be an Adolf Hitler, not a Jesus Christ.

‘Believe me, Smith. You’d be worse off upstairs. Nothing but worshipping that vicious egomaniac and singing his praises for eternity. It’s a place fit only for the mindless. At least my people offer variety.’ Yes, a million and one different torments, all adopted from the ever-expanding repertoire of good old Homo sapiens. We learn from the best. And why reinvent the wheel?

‘Well, thanks very much for the theology lesson,’ Smith said huffily. ‘But if you can’t help with the pandemic and put the shine back on my popularity, it leaves me on a very sticky wicket. What am I to do?’

‘That’s your business, sunshine. According to my calculations I won’t take delivery of your soul until – well, let’s leave that as a surprise. But until then you are responsible for your own actions and must accept the consequences, which for you should be a novel experience. You could make use of that good solid British common sense, if you’re ever lucky enough to encounter some.’

‘Common sense? That’s no use to me.’

Well, I never thought it would be, but I had to make the effort. Four years earlier, Smith had taken advantage of a legal loophole to offer me the souls of the entire population of the United Kingdom in exchange for the political bagatelle that would kick-start his ascension. Obviously, I didn’t do a damned thing to help him achieve that – in my experience stupidity tends to take care of itself – but what humans always fail to realise is that the deal is meaningless, mere window-dressing. Sure, there’s a contract, but it’s the desire for that which completes the sale. Once you decide to do it, that’s it. You’re mine, permanently. Oh, I don’t own you, but that same subconscious desire for justice which created me dictates that sin must be punished. In other words, as is so often the case with you jumped-up apes, you do it to yourself. The same goes if you allow someone else to do commit heinous crimes on your behalf. And, Mr and Mrs British Voter, and all those encompassed by your votes, you have done it. It’s what happens when you accept a political system that makes you government property. With any luck your descendants will push for a formal constitution that makes government subservient to the will and needs of the people and which makes its institutions less important than the wellbeing of the masses. Frankly, I’m not optimistic about that either. I mean, have you seen the United States of America lately? There’s not much point in a constitution if you encourage some deranged fuckwit to defecate all over it simply because he tells you that all the stupid things you believe and fear are true, and that none of it is your fault, especially when it is.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘this virus is out of my hands. It’s a natural phenomenon. It must run its course, make people ill, take lives. It’s what viruses do. Human intervention can slow the spread, find palliatives and care for the sick, perhaps find a vaccine. All governments can do is make sure your doctors and nurses have everything they need, follow scientific advice, set clear guidance on how people can keep themselves and others safe, and ensure workable plans are in place to look after the old, the vulnerable and those left without money. Popularity should be the very least of your concerns. But if that’s what you want, just have a think about what will make you popular again.’

Smith frowned. ‘Well, we did the main thing we were elected to do. Other than that…’ He shrugged.

He really was hard work. ‘Well, what do the people want?’

‘Oh, that’s easy. They want the pubs open. They want to go to the beach in this nice weather. They want their children back at school. They want to be able to travel on crowded trains and buses again. They want to have parties and get drunk and have sex. Barbecues and shopping. Visiting their families and friends. Ordinary, safe stuff.’

‘Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they shouldn’t be doing when there’s a lethal and highly contagious virus doing the rounds.’

‘But it’s what people want.’ His face now bore that optimistic but slightly guilty expression that usually means he’s thinking. And suddenly I knew exactly what sort of plan was hatching within that unruly nest perched on the top of his head. A really stupid one.

‘You can’t,’ I said, horrified. ‘It’s too soon.’

He waved that away. ‘Poppycock and fiddlesticks. The British people know what’s best for them. Common sense, remember?’

He stared into space. I had ceased to exist for him. He saw only that approval rating, climbing and climbing. Another term in office. A reputation repaired. Posterity smiling upon his memory. Casualties irrelevant if he could only pull off the unthinkable and give people what they want. They’d love him for it of course they would. It was only common sense, right? Good solid British common sense. No doubt Smith meant the kind of common sense that in recent weeks had been the prerogative of politicians, government advisers, footballers, and other complete and utter fucking idiots who think they can get away with it. Common sense? Why, only yesterday fools were jumping off cliffs for a lark and burning down mobile phone masts because even bigger fools had told them the virus could be transmitted electronically.

But I digress yet again. Blame the lockdown. It’s been weeks since I had a decent face-to-face conversation. As I said, I like to set a good example. That’s why I introduced darts and snooker as torments – the space between the oche and the bishop’s arse or face is perfect for social distancing, as are the width and length of a snooker table – and insisted upon two-metre pitchforks and red-hot pokers. I’ve even been communicating with my hellish but frankly dull minions by Skype and Zoom. I had no idea so many of them had cats.

I sighed yet again and began the manifestation reversal process. Glowing sulphurous mist, dimming of ambient light, eerie silence, a vague suggestion of manic laughter. I’m not what you’d call a stickler for tradition but I know what works.

The hen clucked nervously but cheered up when I stroked her feathers. She and Johnson the cock would make a fine pair. I put Smith and his follies to the back of my mind and thought about eggs and their uses. ‘Tell me, Pandora,’ I said. ‘Have you ever seen Alien?’

Alby Stone: Words of Fire

Copyright © 2020 Alby Stone

In his dream, smoke rose and billowed above Alexandria, a vast, boiling cloud of ideas broken down by flame and recoded in black dust, caught by the wind and transported across the world to be inhaled and swallowed, to settle and be absorbed in other ways. Each dark speck was a seed that took root and grew, spreading through blood and nerves, ultimately flowering in an unsuspecting brain. In China, slaves and sweating peasants ingested Aristotle and Pythagoras, laughing at the absurdity of their plight. Princes and generals from Ireland to Japan awoke in a fever of hieroglyph and cuneiform. Queens, priestesses and fishwives debated Plato and Socrates. Soldiers bewilderedly sang fragments of Homer, Virgil and Euripides as they marched across Europe and into North Africa and Asia Minor. Children everywhere breathed Strabo, Ptolemy and Hesiod. In Australia and the Americas nomads traced alien symbols in the dust with sticks, prayed to Isis and Jupiter and Astarte, Jesus and Hekate. The soot of ancient knowledge and legend seeped into every mind and soul. And humanity was transformed.

Then he awoke and everything was as it had been before he went to bed. Yet another unfathomable, yearning dream. There had been many of those lately. He wondered if he was losing his mind. It’s the silence, he thought as hot water cascaded over him. The sudden loneliness. As if the whole world had died and nobody bothered to tell me. Where did everyone go?

But of course, they hadn’t gone anywhere. They were merely invisible, the sick locked away like a guilty secret, the healthy cowering like frightened mice behind the city’s skirting boards. The few who walked the streets were only the ghosts of vanished crowds.

Leaving the shower was an ordeal. The towel was rough because he’d run out of fabric conditioner. Low on shower gel and laundry detergent, one toilet roll left in the cupboard. Still enough basic foodstuffs to last a couple of weeks, if you didn’t mind scurvy or gustatory boredom. It was, he supposed, time to top up his supplies. Not a problem. He needed the exercise anyway. Work could wait.

If the library of Alexandria hadn’t burned, would we be any wiser? It was, he thought, doubtful. Recent events had only confirmed a lifetime of vaguely negative impressions, all of which added up to the conclusion that most members of the Homo sapiens Club were stupid, lazy, greedy, selfish, fearful creatures who needed a damned good kick up the backside. A couple of centuries’ worth of compulsory education, public libraries and the internet had done nothing to dispel ignorance and gullibility, or to enable people to trust anyone who didn’t look or behave exactly like them. Was it really impossible to make humans read and learn, or listen to wisdom rather than blindly follow the latest folly, panic with the rest of the herd?

It hadn’t been like those apocalyptic films where the mob takes to the street, randomly looting and burning and ultimately turning on itself in an orgy of killing. In real life people don’t behave like that when they believe collective doom is imminent. They turn to family and friends and secure their homes. Irrationality may be the order of the last days, but wanton violence and destruction are pointless in the face of extinction. Rioting is for those who think they might have a future. Those who expect to die go shopping. He’d watched dispassionately from the sidelines as terrified shoppers filled their trolleys with jaw-dropping quantities of goods, squabbled over the last toilet rolls and packs of dried pasta, rammed their way to check-outs like uncoordinated tank regiments.

Breakfast, coffee and a cigarette. While everyone else was fighting over basics in the supermarket aisles, he’d calmly strolled to the corner shop and stocked up on the things that made life bearable. Caffeine and nicotine, chocolate and sugar. The shopkeeper had taken two paces back as he’d stepped forward to place his purchases on the counter and ask for what was kept behind it, then he’d politely done the same when the man added tobacco to the pile. A repeat performance for payment and change. It was a kind of dance.

Dancing mania had been one consequence of the Black Death. Nobody really knew why. Explanations ranged from diseases that affected the brain, organised cult activity, and mass mental illness. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people danced at a time, all ages and both sexes. No social distancing in those days. Not like now, when the choreography was more akin to old-style Irish stepdance. Arms down, a chaste space between, no touching. All desire for physical contact concealed beneath straight faces. A headlong return to the puritanical separation of bodies.

The streets were empty except for lifeless cars, a couple of cats, and one woman on a bicycle who sped past with her head down as if her remaining time was numbered in seconds rather than years. As it might well be if she carried on cycling like that and another vehicle came out from one of the side streets. Then again, she might already be infected, though she looked young and healthy enough to have a very good chance of survival. He wished her well. He wished he could shake her hand, just to feel another life touching his.

At least the air tasted clean.

Only five people queuing outside the supermarket. A strict one-out, one-in policy, enforced by a masked and gloved security guard. A couple of minutes and he was inside, wire basket in hand, a complicated soft-shoe shuffle to maintain the required distance from the handful of customers searching for their personal necessities. Bread, cheese, butter and milk, some fruit and salad leaves, onions and tomatoes, the coveted laundry products and toiletries. There was more on the shelves than the last time he’d shopped. Even toilet rolls, so he grabbed a pack of nine. An orderly, evenly spaced line of only six people waiting for the checkout. Exchanging money for goods, a recaptured fragment of the old normality. A smile for a smile. Thank you and goodbye. Keep safe. See you again, maybe, if we’re spared.

Why couldn’t it have always been like this? Had people really been so happy and content in the angry, noisy chaos they’d made?

The same empty streets on the way home, a movie reel played in reverse. The only change was an old man walking a dog. They looked well fed but starved for company, hungry for a word. Kindred spirits. He called a ‘good morning’ that came out rather more cheerfully than he’d thought he would manage. Both dog and owner perked up at that, one smiling and raising a hand in acknowledgement, the other wagging his tail. Two words were all it had taken to put a little shine on someone’s empty day.

Indoors, he put the kettle on and stowed his new supplies. More coffee, another cigarette. He switched the radio on, hoping for good news. But all he heard was that more were infected, more had died, and more support was needed for various essential workers, vulnerable people and victims. The government, as usual, was issuing confused and contradictory instructions and its members demonstrating an extraordinary talent for exacerbating what was already a monumental disaster. The Prime Minister, who only a couple of weeks earlier had confidently stated that the virus was no worse than flu, and bragged that he was still shaking people’s hands, was in isolation and on his sickbed. Meanwhile, his deputies continued to parrot the same lies. Everything was under control, even though it quite clearly was not. A decade of cuts to the health service and police were now being shown up as self-destructive penny-pinching. And, suddenly, incomprehensibly vast sums of money that supposedly hadn’t existed before were being conjured up from nowhere. Because, as politicians and other so-called experts kept saying, the present crisis was unprecedented.

Unprecedented? The history books said otherwise. The Antonine Plague. The Plague of Justinian. The Plague of Cyprian. The Black Death. The Cocolitztli Epidemic. Spanish Flu. Polio. Asian Flu. Yellow Fever. HIV. SARS. MERS. Ebola. Swine Flu.

There were many more, and that was only in the last two millennia. Epidemiologists had been predicting for years that a lethal global pandemic would appear sooner rather than later, accelerated by modern methods and patterns of travel. Biological warfare had been a real possibility for decades. Yet it seemed no government anywhere in the world had a plan in place to deal with such a pandemic when it happened. The evidence was there for all to see. Not enough medical staff, protective equipment, ventilators or medicines. No preparations for ensuring universal, equitable distribution of food and other essential household items, no methodical support for the vulnerable. No continuity arrangements for education, childcare for essential workers. Insufficient police to maintain public order. Instead, all response was by afterthought, made up as the politicians bumbled along as clueless, afraid and disorientated as the people they were elected to serve and protect. The opposition party wouldn’t have done anything differently. Comprehensive plans made behind the scenes don’t win elections and quiet preparation doesn’t improve popularity ratings. Now it was impossible to tell whether what the politicians were saying and doing was an expression of genuine concern for others or an elaborate face-saving exercise being improvised on the hoof.

For the want of a nail… A stitch in time… As you sow… Opportunities not taken, the future never truly addressed. Profit and power before the needs of the people. Personal ambition before public prosperity. Still dancing to the paymaster’s tune while the dance floors and concert halls became makeshift hospitals and mortuaries. Politics in a diseased nutshell.

A plague on both their houses.

More coffee and a couple of paracetamol for the headache that had been building since waking. He booted up the computer and opened a document at a pristine white page. A deadline loomed and he hadn’t yet written a single word. He thought back to his dream and hoped fire was kindling behind a brow that was warmer than it should have been. Or was that his imagination?

He smiled wryly at the unintended double entendre. Maybe he could start with that. An echo of his dream. All the textbooks and plays, poems and novels he’d absorbed in a life of reading, melting together and combusting in his overheated skull, exploding outwards. Words of fire raining down upon that virginal expanse of pixels as instant alchemically-generated stories. Shockwaves repopulating the empty streets and pubs and shops with hybrid fictional characters re-enacting chaotically merged narratives. Atomised plot and dialogue descending in flammable inky droplets to disinfect the world. A wildfire of ideas to burn away the old order and clear the way for fresh growth.

He coughed.

And coughed again.

 

Alby Stone: Gaudete

Copyright © 2019 Alby Stone

My heart sank as soon as he shambled into view. I don’t know who he thought he was fooling in that get-up. A school blazer and cap, grey flannel shorts with a catapult protruding from one pocket, a skewed Old Etonian tie, a prosthetic scab on his right knee and an artful smear of mud on the left – he looked utterly ridiculous and still instantly recognisable. You know, that deliberately unruly thatch of hair, the furtive expression, the round-shouldered stoop… Did he really think he could get away it? Well, probably. After all, he’s made a career out of appearing to be what he’s not. But he didn’t recognise me. My disguise was a far superior affair.

Allow me to explain. My usual occupation is rather different. But at this time of year there is far less demand for my normal services. Peace on earth and goodwill to all men, women too in these otherwise unenlightened times. Yes, people might not mean it, but by convention they say it and generally do it. Happy this and merry that, presents for colleagues and relatives they can’t stand, wishes of health and prosperity to people they’d rather see dead in a ditch. It’s mild stuff. Hypocrisy of the most mundane kind, barely registering on the old Sin-O-Meter. Not worth the candle. So for a couple of weeks in midwinter I tend to be at a bit of a loose end. Besides, I have to keep my employees busy. It doesn’t take much effort to repurpose a demon and make a Krampus or a Turoń or whatever. Only a change of name, really. Quite a few of us extra-human types work more than one job. You know what they say, a change is as good as a rest. For me, the change is effected by bleaching my hair and beard, temporarily deactivating my brimstone glands, and stuffing my face for a few weeks in the run-up to Christmas so that my usual svelte six-pack loses definition and is enlarged appropriately. Hadn’t you realised? Those appalling office parties, awkward team lunches, the vile socks and inappropriate ‘fun’ gifts, the anodyne carols, Seventies Christmas hits on an endless loop in the supermarket, indigestion and hangovers, the debt and regret – yep, that’s all down to me. Sideswipe punishments for poor self-control, petty envy, and not treating your elderly aunt well. Only a thin line separates Saint Nick from Old Nick. A costume, the belly and beard colour, when you get right down to it. Mind you, getting the weight off after the Yuletide blow-out is a bugger.

So there I was, parked in a tacky Christmas display in an equally tacky shopping mall, bouncing small kids on my knee and listening to their Christmas wish-lists. I was rather enjoying myself. Kids are alright, in the main. They haven’t grown into the worst adult vices and the vast majority haven’t yet done anything bad enough to warrant my alter-ego’s attention. None of them tell the whole truth, but their little white lies are charming rather than alarming. Sure, I’ll see quite a few of them later in their lives, or after, but in childhood they get the benefit of the doubt. Besides, this is a holiday for me too, you know. I like to get into the festive spirit. A plate of mince pies, a box of chocolates, the odd nip from a hip flask of Glenmorangie with a splash of Highland Spring, the company of innocents, the joy of bringing joy for the sheer hell of it – my idea of heaven. Better than the real thing, in fact. I have a long memory.

And I certainly remembered the oafish creature swaying in my direction, spearheading a small army of shades-and-shoulder-holster minders who were clearing the punters out, sealing entrances and even casting suspicious glances in my direction. But what was he doing there, and why was he dressed as a schoolboy? No – he couldn’t be. Surely not, not even a shameless chancer like him. Could he? Really? Oh yes, of course he bloody well could. He barged into my grotto like a dyspraxic bull in a cluttered china shop and plonked his overfed arse squarely on my knee, which nearly buckled under the strain, then grabbed hold of my beard to steady himself. I have no idea how I managed to stay in character. Nor, indeed, how I refrained from summoning a brace of strapping Krampusse to stuff him in a sack and drag him down to that place where he’ll end up one day anyway. Or what possessed me to play along with his pathetic ruse.

‘Ho, ho, ho,’ I said. ‘Hello, little boy. What’s your name?’

‘Oh – um – ah,’ he replied. ‘It’s – er – Bo… er, Bob. Bob, um, Smith. Yes, that’s right. Bob. Bob Smith.’

 ‘Well, is it Bob or Bob-Bob?’

His eyes shifted rapidly from side to side. ‘Bob-Bob.’ He can never resist over-egging anything. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d called himself Rex Mundi.

‘Yes,’ I said, with a sage nod. ‘You strike me as a two-bob kind of boy. Tell me, have you been good this year?’

The eyes oscillated wildly. ‘Gosh, I, I, I, I, I, er, um, well, you know. I may have slipped once or twice, in a microscopic way. Nemo mortalium omnibus horis sapit, and all that.’

Acta deos numquam mortalia fallunt,’ I replied. That’s not actually Latin for ‘don’t bullshit a bullshitter’, but in the context it amounted to the same thing, though with a much sharper edge. Bob-Bob blanched, which was the response required of a man who’d built a glittering career out of not entirely fake gaucheness, lies, cheap publicity stunts and Latin quotations to signal the quality of his education and membership of the ruling class, but he retained his composure. Credit where it’s due. The man had been born with more brass neck than a steampunk robot giraffe. ‘Have you told any lies?’ I asked.

He puffed out his chest. ‘I have never lied,’ he lied.

I raised my impressively back-combed white eyebrows. ‘Never? What about the stuff on the side of the bus? And that letter to your boss? And, unless I’ve dreamed the last couple of decades, just about every public utterance you’ve ever made?’

‘Fake news. Humbug, balderdash, tommyrot and fiddlesticks. Nonsense propagated by envious gnashgabs and malicious snollygosters.’

‘You mean honest journalists and the people you’ve shafted over the years. Who, one assumes, have some awareness of the law with regard to libel and slander.’

‘Disagreeable fustilarians to a man. And woman.’ He frowned. ‘I say, have we met before? You seem awfully familiar.’

‘We have indeed met prior to today,’ I told him. ‘Just before that rather entertainingly destructive referendum. You wanted to be Prime Minister and I made it happen, even if it was against my better judgement. We made a deal, remember? You signed a contract and paid top dollar for my services. Sixty-five million, if memory serves. Plus one. I wonder who that particular one could be?’

Naturally, he’d failed to fully grasp the implications of our contract, and I daresay the inevitable consequences will come as a complete surprise. I’d bet good money that he believed he was destined for the Other Place, and I don’t mean the House of Lords. It takes more than an obsolete vocabulary and a smattering of Latin to make a man clever, even if it does impress the plebs. Bob-Bob was the worst kind of fool, the sort who thinks he’s a genius because he’s somehow managed to con people even thicker than himself to vote him into office. And he was the epitome of an even worse type of scoundrel, those who think the circumstances of their birth and membership of particular clubs entitle them to power, irrespective of their stupidity, incompetence and moral bankruptcy.

‘But you were less – and now you say you’re more – and why are you dressed up like that?’

‘I could ask you the same question. But as I already know the answer, I won’t. As for me, I have two jobs, this one being strictly seasonal. A bit like you with your political career and the newspaper columns. Anyway, let’s get down to business. What would you like for Christmas?’

He shuffled about on my knee, clearly in some discomfort. I hoped it was haemorrhoids. They always go well with a nice hot poker, I think. Or those eye-watering barbed butt-plugs invented by one of my more creative lieutenants, which come with a matching spiked ball-gag and optional gimp suit lined with razor wire. Not that it would a one-time choice between the fire-iron or the BDSM gear, obviously. Eternity is a long time, and that’s an awful lot of hours to fill, so flexibility and innovation are essential. Really, the most vexatious problem was deciding where Bob-Bob would be quartered. He was equally qualified for the Second, Fourth, Eighth and Ninth Circles of my realm. Maybe I could literally quarter him? That might be amusing. I may be an old hellhound but I’m open-minded and always up for a new trick.

‘I, ah, would like to be Prime Minister.’

‘You’re already Prime Minister,’ I pointed out. ‘That one’s done and dusted. A one-shot deal, no repeats, in accordance with the rules. You have it, now it’s up to you to hold on to it. Wouldn’t you rather have a train set or a set of carved wooden soldiers? An orange? A compendium of games? An X-Box or something similar?’

‘But there’s a General Election coming up. I might lose to that terrorist-hugging Marxist vegetarian surrender-monkey crank with the beard. The country would be ruined. Taking back control might be delayed. Or worse. So I want to be re-elected.’

Nothing to do with him losing the limelight or getting pushed off the gravy train, of course. ‘Let me get this straight. You turned to Satan – now you’re turning to Santa?’ Same difference, you might say, now that you know the facts; but there is a distinction, to me at any rate. And it involves another kind of contract. One deal depends on bad intent – the other requires basic goodness. ‘Let me repeat the question,’ I went on, stifling a sigh. ‘Have you been a good boy?’

He took off his generic school cap and tousled his hair just a fraction more. ‘Of course I have.’

I shook my head. ‘No you haven’t. You’ve been bad so often I’ve lost count. Lied to everybody about pretty much everything. Not just little fibs but whopping great porkies. You’ve betrayed your friends and supposedly loved ones. You’ve shown a distinct lack of compassion. You’ve shifted blame onto the innocent. And that’s just in the last few months. Going further back, you have a frankly jaw-dropping record of elitism, arrogance, hypocrisy, cronyism, self-promotion, venality, bullying, treachery, borderline bigotry, dishonesty, evasiveness, insensitivity, laziness, poor judgement and incompetence. The only surprise – except for the fact that a lot of people have been stupid enough to vote for you – is that you haven’t ended up behind bars. And I don’t mean pulling pints and short-changing drunks. Do you really think you deserve such an expensive Christmas present? Because I bloody well don’t, and you wouldn’t have it even if it was within my remit.’

‘But my country needs me. Only I can make Britain great again,’ he proclaimed, adopting a facial expression that he presumably thought noble and heroic, though it actually made him look like he’d been caught with his hand down his trousers outside a girls’ school.

‘You’re the last person your country needs. You’ve never grasped the fundamental point of democracy – that government exists to serve all the people, not just to bolster the interests of bankers and big business and your posh chums. You don’t understand the responsibility of leadership. Salus populi suprema lex, as Cicero said to me shortly before his execution. You see ordinary people as serfs and cannon-fodder at best, and those who don’t or won’t or can’t serve your purposes are just vermin.’

‘Well, yes,’ he said. ‘But is that really an obstacle? That’s the natural order, isn’t it? Some are born to rule, and others to do all the tiresome menial stuff. Hierarchy is a historical constant. The people need to be ruled. Semper idem. Everyone accepts that we can’t all wear the top hat.’

Thinking about it, history was liberally peppered with leaders who were indubitably much worse specimens of humanity than Bob-Bob. And if not him, there were certainly those in his party I would hesitate, on humanitarian grounds, to employ as tormentors of the damned, let alone lead a nation. Let’s be honest, even the most vile dictators were either elected to office or had, initially at least, popular support. It’s how they got there. In my experience, turkeys tend to vote for Christmas with great enthusiasm.

‘Fair point. But look here, in my other professional capacity I made sure you became nicely positioned to take over the reins when your predecessor cocked up. Remember the referendum? I sent one of my top operatives to ensure that went your way.’

‘You did? I don’t remember anyone with, er, you know.’ He raised his hands to his head and made index-finger horns.

‘You wouldn’t have noticed him, but he was there. Gone freelance now. I suggest you give him a try. But I can’t give you what you want.’

‘Why on earth not?’

‘What I did for you before was a contractual obligation. A one-off, as I said. This is a different kettle of fish. Everyone knows that Santa doesn’t actually provide Christmas presents. They come from family and friends, not the North Pole.’

He was dismayed. For a moment I thought he was going to burst into tears. ‘You mean Santa isn’t real?’

‘Don’t be obtuse. Of course I’m bloody real. You’re here talking to me now, aren’t you? No, my midwinter role is more ceremonial, a kind of semi-formal test of a child’s good behaviour, even if nobody takes it seriously nowadays. In my main job I’m a stick, in this one I’m the carrot. Or do you really think I zoom around the world in a sleigh hauled by flying reindeer and somehow manage to deliver presents to children everywhere in one night? Get real. Reindeer can’t fly and even if they could there’s only so much stuff you can pack into a bloody sleigh.’

‘So you can’t grant me the keys to Number Ten for another five years.’

‘That’s right. But cheer up, Bob-Bob. As a favour to you, I’ll make the call to that fellow I mentioned. He’ll see you right.’ And he would. Mingscum, my former henchman, is utterly ruthless, no scruples whatsoever. Great technique, simply find a like-minded human and sit on his shoulder, day and night, invisible, whispering and whispering and whispering until they get the message. He’s insanely creative and works like a hyperactive Trojan. Spin, smears, fake news, hoaxes, contract killers – it’s all in a day’s work. Okay, he’s as mad as a box of psychotic frogs on acid, and in his human form – which he only uses when he fancies a beer – looks only marginally like an example of Homo sapiens. But if he can’t get someone elected, no one can. Our client lists overlap considerably.

‘What kind of money are we talking about?’

‘Not a penny in mundane dosh. He deals in the same currency as me. Special dispensation because he’s a mate. I expect he’ll want all those souls that have arrived in the UK since you became PM back in July, when I fulfilled my side of our bargain. The rest are mine, don’t forget.’

He was, surprisingly, shocked. ‘But… but… Babies. You’re talking about babies.’ The glimmer of conscience was unexpected, but even the worst of people have one or two lines they are reluctant to cross. This was going to be a stern test of his moral limits.

I shrugged. ‘Even a demon has to earn a crust. It’s your decision.’

Bob-Bob failed the test miserably. In ordinary circumstances, I would have thought there was a flicker of hope for him yet, but predictably ambition and lust for power got the better of him. It didn’t really matter anyway, not for Bob-Bob. His ticket to the Inferno had been irrevocably punched. But he was unable to see that far ahead. Chancers seize the moment and are blind to consequences. They don’t plan for the future. ‘It’s rather tempting,’ he mused, eyes brightening as the tiny spark of compunction was extinguished by a mudslide of ego and ambition. ‘Are you sure he’ll be able to deliver?’

‘There are no certainties, Bob-Bob. A gift can only be from the giver, and this one is in the hands of the British people. But I’m sure he’ll be able to loosen their grip.’

He removed his rump from my knee and drew himself to his full, unimpressive height. He’s not as tall as he looks on television. ‘Well, thanks for that,’ he said. ‘Must be off, tempus fugit and carpe diem and what have you. Cow to milk for the cameras in Somerset this evening. Or is it a bull?’

‘Oh, I’m sure it’ll be all bull,’ I told him.

*

It was a breathtakingly audacious election campaign. Bob-Bob and his pals told enormous, easily discredited lies and were often caught out. Bob-Bob engaged in numerous risible publicity stunts and resorted to the most appalling behaviour under pressure. He was by turns evasive and shifty, offensive and callous. He and his cronies insulted, smeared and slandered the opposition. He demonstrated at every turn just how out of touch with ordinary people he really was. The television cameras captured each and every dirty, shabby moment of what by rights should have been a complete and utter car-crash of an election campaign.

And the public gobbled it up. They chose to believe things they knew to be untrue. They turned a blind eye to his cock-ups and gaffes, were deaf to the truth. They ignored all the bad things that had happened to them because of his party’s policies in the preceding years, and somehow forgot that his party not only comprised the very same rabid ideologues responsible for the very worst, but had wilfully purged itself of anyone with even the tiniest streak of compassion and empathy. The turkeys not only voted for Christmas – they clamoured for cranberry sauce and begged for the carving knife. His party’s rejoicing was a sight to behold, somewhere between VE Day and a poorly-orchestrated Nuremburg rally.

That New Year’s Eve, my annual month of Saint Nick performances over, I had an afternoon drink with Mingscum in an uncharacteristically subdued corner of the Westminster Arms. It’s one of my favourite pubs, a good place to size up potential future acquisitions. I never have trouble getting served there, or finding a free table. Nothing wrong with my mojo. I was my old dapper self, in a cutting-edge black suit – let out at the waist by my ex-papal tailor to accommodate that stubborn festive paunch. The hair, beard and eyebrows were mercifully trimmed and back to black. Mingscum, as usual when he took on a mortal coil, was dressed like a tramp who’s just purloined a set of ill-fitting clothes from a suburban washing line. He also wore his trademark facial expression, that of a vaguely depressed homicidal maniac.

I congratulated him on another job well done. Hats off to the master craftsman, the undisputable centrifuge of spin. ‘How do you do it?’ I asked.

Mingscum’s grin would have curdled milk and terrified small animals, had any been present. ‘The trick lies in keeping it simple,’ he said. ‘Humans like to be told that nothing bad that happens is their fault – especially when it is. All you need is someone to blame. Jews, Muslims, black people, communists, the EU…’ He necked half a pint of Spitfire, belched contentedly. ‘It doesn’t matter, so long as they’re “not like us” in one way or another. And you can spin that any way you want. Don’t have a job? Okay, it’s not because you’re a lazy sod who can’t be arsed to get out of bed for anything less than a thousand quid a day and a free unicorn, it’s because some lousy foreigner has stolen it. Don’t own your own home? That’s not because you don’t have a job, it’s because the luxury twelve-bedroom mansion with a swimming pool that should have been yours by birthright has been given to some refugee terrorist. Tell people what they want to hear. Emphasise that their prejudices and anxieties are more reliable than the opinions of people who actually know what they’re talking about. Have one great big slogan and repeat it at every opportunity. Humans love a vapid illusion of certainty. You can leave the rest to unenlightened self-interest, confirmation bias and collective narcissism. And, of course, our reliable old friends hate, ignorance and stupidity.’

‘But what about all the dishonesty? Every time I turned on the telly old Bob-Bob was standing there with his metaphorical trousers down because yet another of his lies had been soundly refuted. Surely you can’t spin that kind of blunder.’

Mingscum laughed. ‘Actually, the fact that he’s been caught out so often worked in his favour. All those people who’d become convinced that someone was doing them down – I’d laid that groundwork during the referendum campaign – they saw him as one of them, a fellow victim of the liberal metropolitan elite. They rooted for him, and every fuck-up he made only cemented their sympathy. Good old Bob-Bob, they thought. Laugh at him but don’t get serious because that’ll make us think and we don’t like that.’

I shook my head in wonder and admiration. Mingscum really understood these ridiculous creatures. Alright, I knew the theory, but he totally got them, what made them tick, all the weak spots, every quirk and phobia and folly. If I ever decided to retire, I’d certainly recommend him for my job. ‘So many of them,’ I said. ‘Are they really so uncritical? I mean, his track record is seriously crap and it’s out there for anyone to see. Five minutes on the internet should be enough to put anyone off.’

‘Fooling them has always been easy, and it’s even easier now than it used to be. Most humans get their information from their social media feeds, and hardly any of them can bear to tear themselves away from all those posts and tweets. They simply don’t have time to think or research. Why spend five minutes looking up a politician’s voting record when you could be posting a selfie with puppy ears, whiskers and a cute wet nose? Why bother checking the truth of a news story when it tells you exactly what you already know to be “true” – even when it’s a fucking outrageous and obvious falsehood? Shit, I wish smartphones had been around when I was putting young Goebbels through his paces. Nazism would have gone viral within six months of the Munich Putsch. World domination by emoji and status update.’

‘I take it you were involved in the last US election?’ I’d watched the TV coverage with admiration, and thought it had Mingscum’s sulphurous fingerprints all over it, but this was our first opportunity to catch up.

‘Yeah, that was one of mine. Smartphones again. Brilliant invention. Mind you, that ungrateful bastard fired me as soon as he’d won. Said I’d violated the terms of our deal by not getting him a bigger share of the vote. Refused to pay, impugned my demonic honour. I’m going to do a little pro bono work for his opponent next year. That’ll teach him a lesson. Anyway, I daresay you’ll be seeing him soon enough.’

‘Yes, I have a nice spot on a bookshelf lined up for his head. Mussolini at one end, him on the other.’

‘I can see the resemblance,’ said Mingscum approvingly. ‘A nicely balanced tableau. Maybe you should go into interior design.’

‘Who do you think gave them the idea for the Big Brother house? And don’t forget Crinkly Bottom. That was fun. You got Pestilence drunk and persuaded him to audition for Mr Blobby. I couldn’t believe it when they gave him the job.’

He sighed wistfully. ‘Ah, the good old days. I do miss working with you, Nick. The camaraderie. The screams and groans echoing through the smoky caverns. The delicious aroma of roasting flesh and red-hot iron. The free healthcare package, which is more than these poor buggers will have in a couple of years.’

‘Never mind. Look to the future. I expect Bob-Bob will be in need of your services again when the next General Election comes round.’

‘Oh, I think he will. I mean, can you see all those rabid right-wingers in his cabinet allowing him to actually make life better for ordinary people? I should fucking cocoa. No, I reckon by then things will be so bad in this country that even I won’t be able to swing it. Even humans aren’t that stupid. Mind you, I’m always up for a challenge.’

I finished my pint of Bishop’s Finger – which reminded me, I had another soiled clergyman of that rank to attend to when I got home – wished him a happy new year, and ambled toward Westminster tube station and the Circle Line, spotting a number of clients, both present and future, as I crossed Parliament Square and passed the seat of government. I thought of what Mingscum had just said. He was right, of course. Most humans are incredibly, unbelievably stupid, not to mention greedy and selfish. Intellectual laziness seems to be hard-wired. The majority care about nothing but themselves and instant gratification of base desires, unto oblivion. All those literary novels dealing with the human condition talk about things like angst and happiness and fulfilment, but it’s all rot. The human condition is simply terminal. And they’ll be taking the rest of the planetary life with them, which is a shame. Meanwhile, their leaders do nothing but wring their hands, shed crocodile tears and watch the cash pile up while the oceans rise and forests burn, and species wink out of existence one by one. Global warming? I’ll give those presidents and prime ministers and corporate walking piggy-banks a bloody warming, one they will literally never forget.

And that brought to mind Bob-Bob’s final utterance as he left my grotto and stomped awkwardly toward his minders. He looked at the jars of sweets I keep handy as a treat for my normal child-sized customers and said ‘I say, have you got any gobstoppers?’

Why not? Smiling through the white beard, I opened a jar and gave him the biggest gobstopper I could find. It would do until it was time for the ball-gag, not forgetting the butt plug and gimp suit. In perpetuum.

Alby Stone: Surviving Christmas

Copyright © 2018 Alby Stone

Ahead, the Pole Star and a horizon hidden in darkness. Behind him, a long, meandering trail of furrowed footprints in the snow. Back further still, among trees and rocks, the shredded remains of his blue Cessna 185. Escaping that with only small cuts and a few bruises had been a miracle worthy of the time of year. But he was lost and cold and alone. His winter clothes wouldn’t keep him alive for long in the Alaskan night.

It had been a routine flight, right up until the storm hit. One last job before the holiday. Anchorage to Kodiak and back, returning home from a charter – scientists one way, cargo the other, he’d done it a hundred times without incident, could do it in his sleep. But not this time. First the lightning, then the wind, instrument failure followed by loss of power and a near-blind descent through dense snow and hailstones the size of his fist. A freak, completely outside his experience, impossible to predict. Not even time to send a distress call before the radio died and the plane slipped into its downward rollercoaster glide. Now he was in deep trouble.

The cargo – cardboard cartons filled with Inuit and Yup’ik handcrafted goods, small wooden carvings, necklaces and amulets made for tourists – had some minor cultural significance and maybe monetary worth but no survival value. Blankets would have been useful, maybe even a pair of snowshoes. Nor had there been anything in the plane. No weapons, no cigarette lighter or matches to make a fire, no food. All he had was an empty flare gun – fired and unanswered – and what he stood up in, a red anorak and lined cargo pants, Timberlands; thermal underwear, shirt and sweater. Dressed for cold, but not this kind of cold. This was Shit Creek, and he had no paddle. At least the grizzly bears would be fat and asleep at this time of year. But there were other predators. Not that he’d have to worry about them, not the way the temperature was falling.

He trudged on, the Pole Star his only target. There was nothing else to aim at. Hopefully, if he went north he would still be roughly on course for Anchorage. A long, hard trek, though he might just make it or strike lucky by stumbling across a road with traffic. A slim chance, but not wholly impossible. But if he’d overshot Anchorage completely and ended up in the Denali National Park, well, he might as well lie down and die right now. Six million acres of mountains, trees and snow might look beautiful on a postcard, but to a man in his position it meant only a cruel and sad death from exposure. Or worse.

What a shitty way to spend the last few hours of Christmas Eve. By now he should be in the Blue Fox or – his favoured hangout when a job paid out – Darwin’s Theory, knocking back a beer or two before going home to his apartment, then in the morning driving over to spend Christmas Day with his folks. Roast turkey and mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. Giving and opening presents. His mother fussing over him as if he was still her little boy, his father smiling easily and spinning bourbon-lubricated yarns late into the evening. Would he ever see them again? It was looking doubtful.

He was tired but had to keep moving. Shivering was good, so was feeling cold. It was when you stopped feeling the cold that the real problems began. Hypothermia caused disorientation and hallucinations, and gave rise to irrational behaviour. Paradoxical undressing, a desperate shedding of clothes as blood vessels constricted to cause an unbearable and treacherous hot flash. Terminal burrowing, where you dug into the snow like an animal, a crazed last bid to keep warm, forgetting that human beings just weren’t designed to do that. Frostbite was another danger. His hands and feet were already numb, as were his nose and ears. Even if he was rescued, even if he somehow made it to safety, it was likely that not all of him would be going home.

A movement caught his eye, then another, just ahead and to his right, something slinking silently from tree to tree, little more than a shadow, hard to identify in the gloom. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem large enough to be a threat. A fox, probably – perhaps a lynx or wolverine. Animals that wouldn’t attack a grown human, though they wouldn’t think twice about feasting on his corpse. Not a wolf, at any rate. He was fairly sure of that. In this neck of the woods they travelled in packs. Please God, no wolves.

Or maybe he was suffering from that delusion he’d read about when he was a kid, where travellers in snowy wastelands think there is an additional member of their party, a phantom who vanishes when a count is made. Not a ghost, of course. He didn’t believe in ghosts. But surely it was only wise to be afraid of whatever out here might be mistaken for one?

Sometimes the very thought of fear brings the thing itself, a blind and unreasoning dread that may sometimes propel but more often than not simply petrifies. And now, by admitting its existence, he’d let it in. It filled his soul with an inner chill that matched his surroundings and threatened to overflow, to burst out as a scream. He fought it down and forced his feet to keep moving. One after another, striving to maintain pace length. Eyes fixed firmly ahead, no sideways glances. Swing that leg, half a yard and ram it forward, make another bone-wearying trough of a footprint. Then another, and another. Wishing he was shorter and less bulky, the belly smaller, less to carry around. So hard with the snow so deep, with freezing muscles and blood screaming for sugar, exposed skin yearning for honest warmth.

Keep going. You’ll soon be there.

Be where?

You’ll see. Soon.

*

‘You’re a tough bastard, I’ll give you that. When your plane came down I gave you an hour, maybe two, assuming the crash hadn’t killed you outright. But six straight hours of walking in these conditions? By rights you should be very dead by now. I’m impressed.’

He opened his eyes and slowly sat up, surprised to find that he was indeed alive, lying on a bed and covered with thick blankets, the inner chill banished. Welcome heat from a fire he could not see. Something smelled good and cheering.

She spoke again. ‘Here, drink this. It’s not too hot, but take it slowly.’

He took the cup gratefully, sipped the extra-sweet coffee, the warm liquid soothing his chapped lips. The caffeine and sugar quickly hit the spot, quickening the blood and clearing some of the fog from his mind. His limbs and fingers were still stiff and his limbs ached, and his vision was slightly blurred. He examined his fingertips, gently touched his ears and nose. He wiggled his toes. Everything felt normal, no pain or numbness, nothing missing. He was alive and had astonishingly escaped even frostbite.

The woman came back into view. She was, he guessed, around thirty – pretty in a homely kind of way. Light brown hair worn long and loose, greying a little. Striking amber eyes. A grey dress from neck to ankle, long sleeves. Thin but lithe. Hands that spoke of hard work. Toothy, friendly smile. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘Tired and a little achy. Picked up a bruise or two in the crash. I feel good, though, considering the alternative. Where am I?’ His voice sounded strange, hoarse and wheezy. Obviously he wasn’t yet completely unfrozen. He drank more coffee. It tasted like fiery nectar.

‘My home. Found you lying in the snow nearby when I went out to look for rabbits a while ago. You were wet through, near-frozen on the outside. Had to take most of your clothes off. Hope you don’t mind.’

He realised that beneath the blankets he was only wearing his thermal vest and shorts, and laughed weakly. ‘Mind? You saved my life. I can’t thank you enough. You live out here on your own?’

‘Not at first. There were others.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s hard out here. They were old, got sick, accidents. Just me and the kids now. They’re in the other room now, sleeping.’

‘You have kids here?’

‘Boy and a girl, still pretty small.’ She looked away. ‘Their father passed just a month ago. Went hunting, never came back.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that. I guess it must be quite a way from the nearest town. Seems a strange place to live. I don’t mean to be rude.’

‘That’s okay. We came here just because it’s so isolated. Away from people, you know. It’s a good place to live, even in winter. Beautiful in sun or snow. It provides all I need, usually. It’s home.’

There was, he sensed, a story behind her words. The solitude, the simple clothes – he guessed maybe she belonged to some religious sect or back-to-nature movement. But there was also something strange about the cabin, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was square, maybe twenty feet by twenty, the walls hung with plain ochre and green blankets, no windows, just the hearth and the bed. He couldn’t see a stove or cooking range, chairs or cupboards. Maybe this was just one room of several – this must be a bedroom and that door must lead to a larger living area. But there was a white carpet, and in one corner was a Christmas tree, shrouded in tinsel, multicoloured baubles gleaming in the firelight, so tall its top was lost somewhere in that high, shadowed ceiling. It looked gorgeous.

‘Did you see my plane come down?’

She shook her head. ‘Heard it crash, that’s all. Nothing else out here to make a noise like that. I figured you’d be on your own. Light aircraft, late on Christmas Eve? Only working planes would be up there, and in these parts that usually means a one-man operation. Didn’t know exactly where it came down, or how far it was, so there wasn’t much point in going out to look. I guessed whoever was in it was heading for home. Roast turkey and mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. Presents. Family. Mom and dad.’

‘How long have I been asleep?’

‘A few hours.’

‘It must be Christmas Day by now, damn it. I’m going to miss Christmas dinner.’

‘Don’t worry, there’s food here. Enough for a feast. Not that you need building up. Plenty of meat on those bones.’

His teeth began to chatter. ‘I’m feeling cold again,’ he said drowsily.

‘You should get some more sleep,’ the woman said. ‘You’re exhausted. Here, I’ll lie alongside you to keep you warm. Christmas dinner can wait a while.’

‘You’re so kind. Thank you.’ He closed his eyes, slept deeply.

He dreamed he was in a forest clearing, supine in a deep bed of snow that covered his body from the navel down. Scattered around him were a red anorak, black cargo pants, Timberland boots, a sweater, a green plaid shirt,a thermal vest. His mouth was filled with barely melted snow. The clearing was roughly square, walled with spruce and larch. Above him rose the majestic Milky Way, a sparkling curve of silvery dust set with stars that blazed like jewels in the cloudless night sky. But his eyes were dimming, the picture fading back into a slumber that would be deep and eternal.

The wolf rose from his side and licked her grey chops. This was her home and tonight it had provided. The human was bigger than most of the few she’d seen in her time. Enough for a feast, enough to keep them alive for another few days until something else came along. Survival was all that mattered. Her belly rumbled. She called to her hungry pups.

 

Alby Stone: Grandfather

Copyright © 2018 Alby Stone

Remembrance is both good and bad. You just can’t beat a well-constructed happy memory. Equally, you can’t really escape past misfortune, not by moving forward, not by forgetting, nor by reinvention. No matter how you regard or reshape your history, the bad things still happened – and they happened to you. Rewriting in the now does not change that.

It’s a little more complicated for me, but the rule still applies.

I called my grandson this morning. I like to know that he’s okay, even when I know he isn’t. It’s always good to hear his voice, though what he says is sometimes distressing. But he’s an intelligent, resourceful young man and his activities are so interesting that I am always eager to listen. In some ways he reminds me of my own youth, though I am sure I was never so boastful of the least success.

When I was his age, give and take a few years, my life was one long adventure. I lived in what might reasonably be described as a self-contained war zone – suburban London in the late Sixties and early Seventies may have been quiet and sedate for some, but not for me – and came close to death on many occasions. The first time was in 1969, when I was fifteen years old. It was just before nine in the evening and I was walking home from a friend’s house, crossing a main road that nowadays would be busy. Then, of course, there were fewer vehicles on the road and not a lot to do after the shops shut and work ended for the day, so apart from a bus and a couple of old boys on bicycles the road was more or less empty. Then a car pulled out of a side street and accelerated, heading straight for me. Luckily, the sound of the engine revving startled me, and I managed to dive to one side. I caught a glimpse of the driver’s face as he passed – it seemed vaguely familiar but I didn’t know him – then rose to my feet and shakily cursed him. Over the years, that face came to haunt me, though it would be a very long time before I could put a name to it.

For all his faults, all his obsessions and the single-mindedness that has caused us both so much heartache and soul-searching, I love my grandson very much. I can’t say the same for his late father, though. My son was a deeply unpleasant man, brutal and violent. He beat and bullied his wife into alcoholism and an early grave. He served time in prison for crimes I don’t care to think about. Thanks to him my grandson has severe psychological and emotional problems, not to mention a good number of scars and a few once-broken bones. My son died five years ago in what the police said was a mugging that went wrong – a knife in the belly on a deserted street in the early hours of a cold Sunday morning. I’m pretty sure nobody was sorry to see the back of him. Not me, and that’s a fact.

My son’s demise reminded me of the seventh attempt on my life – an unexpected assailant as I was taking a shortcut home one night in 1971, the sudden blade glancing off the tobacco tin in my inside jacket pocket, becoming tangled in the cloth and falling to the ground as I ran away. The would-be assassin, as usual, made no attempt to conceal his face. As ever, there was that bewildering sense of almost-recognition that refused to bring a name to mind. The coincidence was uncanny, though an eyewitness said my son’s killer was masked.

My grandson has unrealistic ambitions, a life plan that is destined to fail. We have no secrets – well, I have one that he will never be told – and we talk openly and honestly about his legacy of fear and pain, his constant depression and despair. He says if his plan doesn’t succeed, he will take his own life. I hate to hear him talk that way. I tell him, with absolute certainty, that it won’t come to that. But he sneers at my confidence. He has his own. It isn’t his fault he doesn’t know he’s wrong.

Just thinking about him breaks my heart.

The murder attempts went on for eleven years, one or two a month, right up until I got married, when I was twenty-six. I never told anyone about them. Some gut instinct told me it would be inadvisable. Besides, who would believe me? I was a nobody, an ordinary young man living a dull, average life. I didn’t do drugs, I wasn’t involved in crime. I hadn’t wronged anyone, not as far as I knew. Who would want to kill me? But the attempts continued. The sniper on a tall building, the brick dropped from a high window, the cars from nowhere, the knives and blunt instruments in the dark, the gas leaks, the hand forcing beneath the bathwater. Petrol through the letterbox, sliced brake cables, the shove in the back on a train platform. The cyanide in the coffee, detected just in time. And always that face, the face that loomed in my dreams and nagged at my memory until…

What happened that night is burned into every axon and dendrite in my brain. Yet somehow I didn’t see it, not until it was too late.

Who am I kidding? It was always going to be too late.

My grandson doesn’t know that I know. Not that he’d ever stop talking about himself long enough to register anything I have to say. It’s all about him, all the time. His terrible life, his endless angst, what he suffered at his father’s hands, an eternal ebb and flow of suffering and blame. I’ll kill myself, he wails, though we both know he’s too much of a coward to take his own life. It’s easier and more self-affirming to blame, blame, blame. Really, my existence is only acknowledged when he’s blaming me for the way his father turned out. I know differently, of course. I remember the love and care my wife and I showered upon our only child, the opportunities we gave him, the time we took and the money we spent. It wasn’t our fault nature gave us a selfish, vicious narcissist – that our blessing turned out to be a curse. My grandson doesn’t see it that way, though. I am to blame, the cause of all his misery. I wish I’d never been born, he says with monotonous regularity. I am so glad his grandmother is no longer around to witness his descent into self-loathing and nihilism.

Yes, my grandson is a clever and inventive man, quite brilliant actually, and I love him dearly. But I can’t say I like him all that much. He shuts himself away in his cellar, surrounding by electronic components and arcane tools, building machines he claims will change the world, transform people’s lives. Well, he’s right about that. One of them will certainly change his life.

I didn’t realise until that proud day – for me if not his father – when my grandson went away to university. I took a photograph, him standing in the garden flanked by my wife and son, all smiling for my camera – not that my son’s smile reached his dead, cold eyes – and in that moment, gazing into the viewfinder, I knew. Recognition was belated but total.

Blame, blame, blame. My fault, mine alone.

That night, that terrible night. Strolling home after seeing her to her door, a chivalry that was nearly suicidal. He lunged at me from the darkness of a garden, flowing from shrubbery like an eel after prey, the knife glinting yellow in sodium light. Black hooded top, grey jogging bottoms, unusual clothing in those days. That face, twisted in hatred. We struggled, fell to the pavement. The knife turned and was buried to the hilt in his chest, driven home by his own misguided hand. I stood and stared down at that face, horror diluted by relief. My tormentor was no more. I ran from the scene, sweating for days until it became clear that the police would not be following a trail to my door. It was over.

That face. So like my own when I was his age.

My grandson phoned again just now. For once I interrupted the usual litany of woe. What are you wearing? I ask. I can almost hear his impatient shrug. Grey joggers, black hoodie. Why? No matter, I say. Then I feel compelled to tell him this one thing, one last time. I love you, you know.

He hangs up straight away. It isn’t what he wants to hear. I could try to warn him, but he’s habitually deaf to my advice. And what would it achieve? What happened is what has always happened, what will always happen. Really, his life was over long before he was born. I know because I was there.

For a few seconds, I feel guilty and desperately sad. Then I think of all the times he tried to kill me, and sympathy evaporates. The little shit deserves what’s coming to him.

Alby Stone: Wigwam Ban Man

Copyright © 2018 Alby Stone

Like most people, I hadn’t really noticed how far the aberration had gone. Too busy worrying about the important things in life – the kids’ education, our health, my job, making a decent home for my family, the turbulent and usually depressing fortunes of Charlton Athletic – I’d been more or less deaf to the clamour and hadn’t seen how radically it had changed perceptions and affected our institutions. At least, not until the day of my son’s seventh birthday. The day had begun brightly in every sense – waking up to glorious sunshine, the profound joy of seeing the excitement on his face, watching as he wolfed down his breakfast before opening his presents. In the afternoon, the party. A dozen or so of his friends eating cake and trifle, then playing raucously in the garden. My wife and I were enjoying it as much as the kids, sneaking the occasional gin and tonic and chatting with other parents, lazily chewing the fat while the little boys and girls entertained themselves.

Then came the knock at the door. I opened it to a man in a brown suit and a woman wearing a drab, smock-like dress that appeared to be cut from the same bolt of cloth as her companion’s attire. He was short and skinny, she was even smaller, and I towered over them. They brandished identity cards with photographs in the favoured passport style – unadorned faces staring straight ahead, emotionless and mildly disturbing. I squinted but without my spectacles the accompanying script was too small to read, and in any case they were returned to their pockets of origin before I would have had a chance to read them even if I could have. The woman spoke. ‘Mr Campbell? Tyrone Campbell?’

That was my name, as it had been my grandfather’s. I answered in the affirmative and waited for them to state their business. Like so many people with my background, and despite my respectable occupation and impeccable citizenship credentials, I was wary of white people with official ID cards. The Windrush scandal was many years in the past, and though I had been unaffected in one sense, in another I was as involved as any other descendant of those who had arrived on ships to answer Britain’s call. The Home Office ‘hostile environment’ policy and changes to immigration law had been designed to foster fear and uncertainty, to make immigrants and their children ill at ease – for which read ‘not wanted here’ – and that job had been done all too well. Irrespective of documentation, reputation or occupation, none of us was unscathed, especially we who had been children at the time. The worries of adults are easily transmitted to their children. And anxiety is both contagious and transformative. Fear of the knock on the door was now hard-wired.

They exchanged glances, the kind of look government officials wear when they are about to deliver bad news of the hugely gratifying kind. I should know. I’d worn it myself often enough when interviewing tax evaders and their less savoury kin, the avoiders. ‘May we come in?’

‘Not until you tell me who you are and what you want,’ I said, smiling politely.

The man shook his head. ‘Very well, if that’s how you want to play it. My name is Ronald Buckland, and this is my colleague, Julie Pullen, Ms Pullen. We are from the Office of Cultural Identity, Enforcement Division.’

‘Never heard of it,’ I told them. ‘Which Department?’

‘Culture, Media and Sport,’ said the woman. ‘Though technically we are a cross-departmental team, so we are also subject to oversight by the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Among others. Until last year we were part of the Department for Rejoining the European Union, now defunct.’ she sighed. ‘Well, let’s be honest – after Davies and Fox they were never going to have us back.’

‘Well, I work for HMRC, and I’ve never heard of you. What do you do?’

‘We investigate complaints, Mr Campbell.’ The woman’s smile was wholly insincere. ‘And a complaint has been made against you. That is why we are here.’

‘A complaint? About what?’

‘A matter of cultural inappropriateness. In your garden, as we speak.’

I was mystified. ‘What, a child’s birthday party?’

They exchanged glances once more. ‘I think we’d better come in,’ said the man.

‘And if I refuse to let you in?’

‘We have power of entry,’ the woman told me. ‘You’ll leave us no choice but to summon police assistance. If necessary, they will break down your door. And you will be arrested and charged with obstruction.’

And the nightmare began.

Really, I should have known. I’m a well-educated and not unintelligent man. I work for the government, and even with all those other important things to distract me, I ought to have taken note. All those training courses and awareness events – yes, I should have known. But I’d treated it all as a joke. We all had. Surely nothing that stupid could ever become law? Yet clearly it had. The scene unfolding in my back garden proved it.

The woman spoke, the man made notes on the kind of pad I recognised from work, cheap stationery supplied by the inadequate contractor du jour. My wife and our friends looked on from the kitchen window, the children continued to play, though they were less confident and lively than before. They all knew something was wrong. I still didn’t have a clue what it might be.

Eventually, the man and woman came over to where I stood. ‘It’s got to go, I’m afraid.’ Pullen handed me a form. ‘This is a compliance order. You have one hour to remove and dispose of the item, in a respectful manner as prescribed by law. Failure to do so within the specified time will result in prosecution.’ She emphasised the point by forcefully extending a digit in the direction of the offending item, which occupied pride of place in the centre of the lawn.

I stared uncomprehendingly at the form, then my eyes followed her finger. ‘The wigwam? This is about a bloody wigwam?’

Pullen frowned. ‘There’s no need for that kind of language,’ she said. ‘We’re only doing our jobs.’

Buckland made a note, cleared his throat and spoke. ‘As it says on the form, this is an order made in accordance with the Cultural Identity Enforcement Act 2057, section 3, paragraph 2(c)(7). Items and imagery reserved for Native American use only.’ He looked around, leaned toward me. Artificially confidential, conspiratorial. ‘A word to the wise, Mr Campbell. That framed bullfight poster in your hall. Souvenir from Spain, right? Well, you really ought to get rid of it. Paragraph (2)(c)(17), items and imagery reserved for European nations. And that woman in your kitchen, the one wearing the sari? She doesn’t look Indian.’

‘Hindu convert,’ I explained. ‘Married to an Indian man. That’s their daughter.’ I pointed to a small brown-skinned girl with trifle on her grinning face.

‘That’s acceptable,’ the man allowed. ‘And that woman wearing a cross…?’

‘She’s the vicar. That’s her son over there, the one in the Batman suit.’

‘Religious items appropriate to faith, good. Superhero costumes are acceptable, as long as they fall within guidelines.’

‘Guidelines? For kids’ superhero outfits?’

He seemed surprised. ‘Of course. It wouldn’t do to have white or Asian children dressed as Black Panther, would it? Black Lightning and Luke Cage? They are classed as reserved characters. Surely a man of your ethnicity would appreciate that.’

Frankly, I didn’t give a toss which kids wore what superhero get-ups, but sneakily justifying this bullshit by invoking my race was well out of order. ‘Don’t pretend this is about me. My family’s been in this country for a century, and I’m as British as you, despite the colour of my skin. Frankly, I’m disappointed that you’d even mention it.’

‘I’m sorry – I merely thought you would have a greater appreciation of the importance of cultural identity.’

‘Rubbish. You were playing the race card. And I never thought I’d be saying that to a white man. Look, isn’t this cultural appropriation nonsense going just a little too far?’

Buckland made a face. ‘Between you and me, some of it is a little silly. Presumably you’ve been following the Pasta Trial in the High Court.’

‘Pasta Trial? What’s that?’

‘Exceptions to the Enforcement Act can be made upon contractual payment of royalties to a bona fide representative of a source culture. The Italian government has requested compensatory payment for pasta, pizza and other foods traditionally associated with the Italian peninsula. The big supermarkets and restaurant chains have formed an alliance to fight the move, but they won’t win, as the legislation is watertight. However, there has been a complication. China is claiming a share of any royalties for spaghetti, as noodles were invented by the Chinese. Marco Polo, you know. Unfortunately Taiwan is also claiming those royalties, so it’s getting a little nasty. And Mexico is claiming a share of royalties on tomato-based sauces and similar products. The Italians are spitting feathers. Sourced locally from Leghorns, one presumes.’

‘That sounds pretty complicated. It seems to me that this legislation is a rod for our own backs.’

‘It gets worse, believe me. The Mexicans are also claiming royalties on avocados, chilli, maize, potatoes and tobacco. But so are various Native American tribes. India is demanding payment for curries and other foodstuffs deriving from the subcontinent, including tea, as are Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. China, inevitably, is demanding money for dishes originating or copied from there. But that isn’t the worst of it. Behind the scenes, China is also claiming exclusive use of paper money, printed matter, and fireworks – that or a huge compensatory payment, and we’re talking billions. Meanwhile, Jamaica wants a one-off two billion pounds for reggae. This is strictly entre nous, naturally.’ He smiled. ‘French grandmother, so I can say that.’

‘I’m not surprised the government’s keeping quiet about that. This will drive up prices to an unaffordable level. It could bankrupt the country. People could starve.’

‘I agree. It’s political correctness gone not so much mad as totally insane and drooling in a straitjacket. Quite honestly, I don’t think it would ever have gone that far here in the UK – but you know the trouble we had securing international trade deals after Brexit. Every agreement came with multiple strings attached, and as we’ve become more dependent on – ah – sensitive countries, the strong-arm tactics have worsened. But we’re hitting back. The Foreign Secretary is in talks to offset these financial impositions. After all, no matter what the Chinese say, we gave the world cricket, rugby, football and golf. There’s a good chance of some success with the quid pro quo approach, however. Japan has agreed to keep origami, karate and judo off the table as long as we do the same with whisky and pinstripe suits.’

‘That sounds hopeful.’

 ‘Well, we’re also stuck with karaoke. And greater problems are looming, unfortunately. Everyone is claiming to have invented beer, trousers and agriculture. In fact, the Chinese are claiming to have invented everything, and the Hindu nationalists in India aren’t far behind. Then there’s religion. The Israelis are demanding payment for Christianity, and word is that they’re putting the squeeze on Islamic countries, claiming that the Prophet got the idea of monotheism from Jews, which for all I know may be true, even if the Iranians are saying Zoroaster started it all and Egypt reckons Akhenaten invented it. And various Arab states are claiming payment for algebra and chemistry – and coffee, which is bad news for much of South and Central America. Whole countries are having to find alternative names for the stars and planets, and atlases around the world are being revised and reprinted. It’s a mess, no question.’

I was pondering this when I noticed his colleague was no longer present. ‘Oh,’ Buckland said airily, ‘she’s probably just having a look round your house.’

‘Can she do that?’

‘Power of entry gives power of inspection. Don’t worry. It’s just routine. I’m sure you have nothing more to hide.’

‘I wasn’t hiding the wigwam or the bullfight poster,’ I pointed out. ‘I wasn’t even aware they were illegal.’

‘Oh, they’re not illegal as such. Merely reserved. If you were Native American then you’d have a perfect right to owning and displaying the wigwam.’

A thought struck me. ‘Where does this leave the museums?’

‘Potentially rather empty. For instance, the British Museum has already agreed to return the Elgin Marbles, and many lesser items will be going back to their place of origin. Arrangements have been made to secure some exhibits on a permanent loan basis, but for exorbitant fees that may make the place financially unviable. That was in the news only last week, as it happens. Big demonstrations, Farage and Johnson doddering down the Strand with a bunch of equally decrepit UKIP, Tory and BNP veterans. Mind you, I’d thought Farage died years ago. Must be in his nineties now. Surprised he could still walk, let alone keep hold of his pint and fag at the same time. He made a speech about how it was vital for us to leave the EU and made snide remarks about Belgians no one could remember. Johnson’s now so obese he can barely move. He was wearing one of those new lightweight solar-powered exoskeletons. He fell out of it in Trafalgar Square. Into a fountain, of course.’

‘Did he drown?’

‘Sadly, no.’

At that moment Ms Pullen came storming out through the back door, waving a book. ‘You failed to declare this, Mr Campbell,’ she cried.

I peered at the book. ‘Oh, come on. Even books?’

‘Not just any book. I can overlook the Cervantes, Dumas, Tolstoy and others, in accordance with Schedule II of the Act, Permitted Exemptions (Literary)(2)(a), Translations Promoting Positive Images of Nation or Culture – but not this, as it is an instruction manual specific to a particular culture and promotes activities included in section 4, paragraph 2(7) of the Act – intellectual property with practical applications, in this case practices reserved for use by Indian nationals or their direct lineal descendants.’

I laughed incredulously. ‘The Kama Sutra? You mean to tell me this nonsense even covers our sex lives?’

‘This is no laughing matter, Mr Campbell. That section of the Act can have very serious consequences. Tell me, were you utilising any of the – er – techniques described in this book when your son was conceived?’

‘Well, it’s none of you damned business, but he’s seven. We only got the book two years ago, to spice things up a bit. I’m pretty sure it’s the 2056 edition. Do the sums.’

She looked at the edition date and relaxed. ‘I’m pleased to hear it, though we will require a written deposition signed by both you and your wife, along with an undertaking that you will discontinue any – um – techniques you may have previously employed or are still using.’

‘Oh, for… Hang on a minute. What serious consequences did you mean?’

She reddened. ‘If your son had been conceived while using a… technique from this book, he would have been confiscated. And he would have become the property of the Indian government, unless they were prepared to waive their claim. On payment of a small fee, as provided for in the legislation and separate reciprocal arrangements, for use of their cultural property as a service.’

‘What do you call a small fee?’

‘Fifty thousand pounds. A small price to pay for a child.’

‘Not if you haven’t got fifty grand kicking about. What happens to the kids if their parents can’t afford to pay?’

‘As far as I am aware, that has yet to happen. But they would be re-educated as Indian nationals, taught to speak Hindi, and given a place to live and employment appropriate to their caste.’

‘But my son doesn’t have a caste. And I thought the caste system had been outlawed in the twentieth century?’

‘You really should keep up to date, Mr Campbell. It was reinstated five years ago in line with India’s current cultural policies. It’s all those claims they’re making for the historical veracity of the Mahabharata. They say if the caste system was good enough for the people who invented aeroplanes, the internet, atomic warfare and beer, then it should serve them as well today.’

‘Christ, this just gets better and better. Why hasn’t all this been publicised?’

‘It’s been on the news, and has been debated in Parliament.’

‘But nobody watches the news if there’s something better on and nobody pays attention to Parliament unless the party leaders are insulting each other or someone’s apologising for a sex scandal.’

‘It’s a moot point anyway,’ Buckland put in. ‘And I mean that literally. France has objected to our use of the word “Parliament”, so it’s going to be renamed. “Folkmoot” has a bit of a ring to it, don’t you think?’

‘It sounds like something out of Tolkien. Horrible.’

‘Get used to it,’ said Buckland. ‘Do you know just how much of out legal and political terminology is French? It’s all got to be translated into Old English, to make it sound a bit grander than modern English words. Luckily, the Italians are fine with the Latin, as we used to be part of the Roman Empire. It makes them feel that they’re still relevant.’

‘This is insanity,’ I groaned.

‘It’s necessary,’ said Pullen. ‘People’s culture is part of their identity and should be inviolate. Take your own culture, for example.’

‘My own culture? Me and Buckland have been through this. I’m British.’

‘No, you’re legally a Briton of Afro-Caribbean Heritage. That means you have a distinct identity which is protected in law. Just think – you won’t have to put up with seeing white youths with dreadlocks or playing reggae – that will be banned under the forthcoming deal with Jamaica – or speaking in fake Jamaican accents, not unless they want three months in prison.’

‘But I don’t have dreadlocks, and I don’t even like reggae. I’m a bald jazz fan. As for kids speaking Jafaikan, I really couldn’t give a damn.’

‘Jazz is a tricky one,’ said Buckland. ‘It’s like beer. Everyone’s claiming it – West African nations, Jews, the Irish and Scots… And the Chinese, of course. In fact, there are quite a few troublesome grey areas in this field. You remember all that fuss about the cheomsang back in 2018?’

‘I was just a toddler in 2018. Remind me.’

‘A white American girl posted a picture of herself online. She was wearing a prom dress based on the traditional qipao or cheomsang associated with Chinese women. A man self-identifying as Chinese took exception to what he called “cultural appropriation”, and he sparked an internet campaign. The poor girl was vilified in social media. Then, just as all the fuss was dying down, someone pointed out that the cheomsang had actually been imposed on Chinese women by the Manchurians when they took control of China. So this traditional Chinese garment wasn’t Chinese at all, except by enforced adoption. Naturally, the Chinese soon claimed to have invented Manchuria. It stopped the rioting in Beijing and Shanghai.’

‘But doesn’t all this prove that the idea of cultural appropriation is complete and utter rubbish? Ideas, artistic styles, styles of clothing, technological developments – these are not things that respect national or ethnic boundaries. I can’t think of any culture that’s grown up in isolation and never taken anything from another. Cultural exchange is necessary. Without it we’d still be hunting bloody mammoths and wearing their skins.’

‘I think everyone recognises that,’ said Pullen, with a nod to Buckland, who made a note of my mild profanity. ‘This is only partly about giving credit where it’s due. The main thrust is identity – retaining ownership and control of particular aspects of a culture that make it unique and so confer uniqueness on its people, while at the same time preventing other cultures from making use of those aspects to reinforce lazy cultural stereotypes.’

‘Like dreadlocks and reggae?’

Pullen bridled. ‘There’s no need to be sarcastic, Mr Campbell.’

‘Yeah, well. All I see is a whole lot of people wanting to be unique because they think their culture makes them better than all others. And a whole lot more wanting to make money out of it.’

Buckland grinned and nudged Pullen. ‘Wait for it…’

‘I mean,’ I went on, warming to the subject, ‘isn’t that what the Nazis were all about? Reclaiming ideas and images from their so-called Aryan past and shouting about how it made them superior? Hitler would have loved all this rubbish.’

‘Bingo,’ said Buckland. ‘That’s a fiver you owe me. No banknotes, just in case.’

Reductio ad Hitlerum,’ sighed Pullen, handing Buckland five pound coins. ‘Better known as Godwin’s law. If a discussion goes on long enough, sooner or later somebody will compare someone else to Hitler or the Nazis.’

‘Well, much as I hate to point out the blindingly obvious, what you’re doing is exactly the kind of thing the Gestapo used to do. Anyway, how the hell did you know about the wigwam? It only arrived this morning and it wasn’t put up until a couple of hours ago.’

‘A tip-off from a concerned citizen, Mr Campbell,’ Pullen smirked. ‘And I’d thank you to refer to it as a tipi, as Native American custom requires. It is a portable habitation of poles and cloth associated with indigenous peoples of the North American plains and prairies. The wigwam, wickiup or wetu is actually a dome-shaped structure built from whatever materials come to hand, and is typical of tribes associated with forested regions. This is clearly a tipi. Schedule 3 of the Act – concerning the protection of cultures through strict use of correct terminology – provides that the proper words must be used for all items, ideas and persons.’

My temperature was rising. ‘It was that miserable old git from number twenty-eight, wasn’t it? He’s had it in for me ever since the kids put a football through his window. I offered to pay but he still insisted on taking me to court over it. Bloody lawyers.’

Pullen again muttered something about offensive language. Buckland made a note of it, then looked up at the sky. ‘Spitting with rain,’ he observed. ‘The forecast said it would be turning wet, cold and windy. Good job you’re taking the tipi down anyway.’

‘Wigwam,’ I growled and turned to go indoors.

‘Where are you going?’ Pullen asked, as the raindrops grew fatter and more frequent.

‘I’m going in to get my parka. It’s going to be chucking it down in a minute.’

They looked at each other. Pullen smiled blissfully. Buckland at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. ‘Parkas are an Inuit creation,’ said Pullen. ‘Well, actually they and anoraks are claimed by several peoples. The Inuit, the Kallalit in Greenland, the Nenets of Siberia…’

‘And the Yupik,’ added Buckland. ‘The Yupik are often classed as Inuit but they are linguistically and culturally distinct. The word Inuit doesn’t even occur in their languages, and they don’t like being called it. Anyway, the disagreement over origins means that in this case it will probably be impossible to allocate royalties and the clothing may simply be subject to a banning order. Oh, and I hope you don’t have any willow pattern crockery. The Chinese, you know.’

I mentally took a quick inventory. Shoes and socks, trousers and jeans, boxer shorts, shirts, coats and scarves. Most of my wardrobe was good, plain generic clothing with equally good, plain English names. My wife’s, though – lingerie, negligees and brassieres; espadrilles, culottes and camisoles; kimonos, pashminas and stilettos… She would need a lengthy shopping trip and a downwardly-revised fashion sense if she was to avoid either public nudity or penury by pay-off. And all because sundry collections of rabid nationalists wanted to feel superior to all the others.

‘What about learning languages?’

‘Approved and licensed individuals only.’

‘Foreign travel?’ It had been a fair while since I’d travelled abroad.

‘No problem there, Mr Campbell. Though you must now be proficient in that nation’s main language, to at least a conversational level.’

‘And to do that I’d need a license and approval. How much?’

‘An internationally-agreed standard rate of one hundred US dollars for the license, and five hundred to pay for the approval process. Oh, and the fixed ten per cent tariff for handling foreign currency.’

‘So it’s all a racket,’ I scoffed. ‘This whole thing is a trade-off between nationalist lunatics and money-grabbing con artists. It’s always the same. Cui bono?’

‘Latin,’ said Buckland approvingly. ‘I think you’re getting the hang of it. Should save you a few quid in the long term.’

‘Ah yes,’ said Pullen. ‘That reminds me. There is a five hundred pound charge for our services, payable immediately. Inability or refusal to pay will result in a fine of one thousand pounds and three months imprisonment. Card payments only.’ She looked at her wristwatch. ‘I must also point out that you now have just under ten minutes left in which to dismantle and dispose of the tipi. Otherwise…’ A shrug. ‘But you can pay when you’ve done that. Mr Buckland will give you a receipt.’

I almost panicked, wondering how the hell I was going to dispose of the wigwam – okay, the tipi – in such a short time. Those wooden poles were long and would never fit in the dustbin. I eyed Buckland and Pullen nervously. Then I became angry, the rage building up to a point at which I could no longer control myself. How dare these unthinking bureaucrats come to my home, disrupt my son’s birthday party and start laying down what I was sure would turn out to be a wholly unworkable law? How dare they threaten an honest working man, a man who had never before committed a crime of any kind, who didn’t have so much as a parking ticket to his name? The bastards were going to pay.

Almost rigid with fury, I called to the kids, telling them to go indoors. But it wasn’t because of my anger, or even the rain. I grinned at Buckland and Pullen, watching me from the shelter of an umbrella, as first I removed the cloth from the tipi, then set about rearranging the poles, setting two of them sharp end upward in the existing holes. I only needed the two. At that moment I didn’t care that Vlad the Impaler was Romanian. Bucharest could sue me for payment when it was all over. So could Beijing.

Alby Stone: The Discovery

Copyright © 2017 Alby Stone

‘Of course, you understand the need for secrecy.’ Ted MacBride stared at the document once again, wishing the conference table would open up and swallow it – that he would wake up from this bad dream and find it was a Sunday and he could look forward to a nice, relaxing round of golf. ‘There’s no way the public can know this. The first major lunar mission for more than sixty years, a symbol of restored international harmony after the horrors of twenty years ago, and it’s a total fuck-up. Billions of dollars and this is what we get? The American people will go crazy.’

‘We are all in the same boat,’ said Fangzhou. ‘The People’s Republic of China has also invested heavily in this project.’ He swept a hand through the air, describing a circle that took in everyone present. ‘As have the governments of Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, the European Union and Russia. None of us want this. No one could have predicted what was found. But we must try to be positive.’

‘Agreed,’ said Kawasaki, the Japanese representative. He nodded toward Malinov, his Russian counterpart. ‘I believe Nikolai has a suggestion that may be helpful.’

The craggy Russian stood, groaning under his breath and yearning for a glass or two of vodka. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the International Lunar Survey Expedition has, from most of our points of view, been a disaster. The expected minerals and metallic ores do not exist. So from that perspective, our nations’ investments have been wasted. But all is not lost.’

‘Not lost? Are you fucking joking?’ Amy Holloway, the Australian, shook her head incredulously. ‘As Ted said, billions of US dollars and roughly the same from every government represented here. It’s a fucking catastrophe.’

‘Perhaps not,’ said Malinov. ‘ Let us review the findings. The Survey Team excavated at six points on the moon’s surface – north and south poles and four equidistant points on the lunar equator, as planned. They followed this with sixteen further excavations at sites roughly equidistant from the first set of tests. After consultation with Mission Control in Almaty, Houston and Beijing, another ten excavations were undertaken at sites selected at random. The results were consistent and conclusive. All previous lunar surveys, from earth or space, have been mistaken. The new survey conclusively shows the surface of the moon was originally an even layer of regolith, loose dust and rock about three metres deep, covering a non-lithic core. The visible features we see now – craters, so-called mountains, ridges and so on – are the result of displacement of that surface layer caused by meteor impacts over thousands of years. What we found beneath the regolith was wholly unexpected – something that has never shown up in any scientific study, though somehow it does seem to have been enshrined in terrestrial folklore.’

‘But how is that possible?’ Sondrine Menard, the EU representative, was practically tearing her immaculately coiffed brown hair out by the roots. ‘We have used radar, infrared and laser scanning, mass spectroscopy, all the tools of modern technology. And they all show the moon to be a solid mass of rock. They cannot have been fooled. It is impossible.’

‘Evidently, it is possible,’ said the Indian representative, who insisted upon being called Mrs Patel. ‘Instruments may lie but excavation does not. What we need to worry about is not that it happened – or what was being concealed – but how and why.’

‘We don’t know why, but we do know how it has gone undetected for so long,’ said Malinov. ‘The team drilled furher beneath the surface and found evidence of a transmitter, a device possibly thousands of years more advanced than anything we have. Somehow, it intercepts any beams or waves attempting to scan the moon and sends a fake return signal. It’s an automated defence mechanism, presumably placed there by an advanced non-human civilisation.’

‘What?’ Kawasaki was stunned. ‘Aliens? Why am I hearing this only now?’

Malinov and MacBride exchanged uneasy glances with Fangzhou. ‘The Presidents of Russia, China and the United States thought best to keep it under wraps. Temporarily.’

‘Permanently, you mean,’ said Holloway, folding her arms and wrinkling her nose in disgust. ‘You are only telling us now because you need our help in putting a positive spin on this fucking fiasco. What else have you bastards strong-armed the survey team into keeping it from us? Is that why they are still being held incommunicado in Houston?’

‘They’ve been able to talk to their families,’ said MacBride.

‘But they haven’t been allowed to discuss the mission,’ said Mrs Patel. ‘And there’s always a security officer present.’

‘Look, we don’t want mass panic,’ said MacBride. ‘You know what would happen if people found out aliens had visited thousands, maybe millions of years ago. Rioting, looting, lawlessness. All the world’s religions would be in serious trouble. Everyone would assume all that Roswell and Area 51 bullshit was true and they’d no longer trust our governments. We can’t admit the problem until we have a solution.’

‘A solution to what, exactly?’ asked Menard.

‘We need a way to exploit what the survey found,’ said Malinov. ‘If handled properly, this discovery could change the world for the better. We’ve all seen the same data, but I don’t think we’re not all reading it the same way. There’s a fantastic opportunity here. Just think about it. We could eliminate global suffering virtually overnight. We are open to ideas.’ 

‘Bring in the English,’ said Holloway.

Silence fell. Eye contact was avoided. The only sounds were those of shuffled papers and shifting bottoms. ‘Impossible,’ said Menard eventually. ‘Since it left the European Union, England has been…’ She searched for the right words.

‘Unstable, unpleasant and ungovernable,’ Holloway said. ‘Human rights abuses, crime rate through the roof, widespread racism and homophobia, administrative corruption, no investment, unemployment on a previously unimaginable scale, a dying economy. The whole country’s been sucked dry and asset-stripped by the very people who bankrolled the campaign to leave the EU. The English haven’t got a pot to piss in. And while they were cutting off their nose to spite their face, they also left the European Space Agency. No money and no involvement. But from what I’ve read today, they’ve got the know-how we need.’

Menard bristled. ‘The ESA also has the “know-how”, as you put it. In France we have experts who could resolve this.’

‘From what I’ve read today,’ Holloway repeated slowly, ‘only the English can provide the specialised expertise we need.’

‘They won’t go for it,’ said Mrs Patel. ‘It would wipe out their economy.’

‘Their economy is already wiped out,’ said Kawasaki. ‘Since the European finance centre switched to Frankfurt and international investors pulled out, even their service industries have collapsed. With Northern Ireland joining the Republic, and Scotland gaining independence and de facto control of North Sea oil, they have nothing the rest of the world wants, except cheap sex for sleazy tourists and the chance of a selfie at Stonehenge or outside Buckingham Palace. All the rich people have left for good except the Royal Family and the politicians, and they spend most of their time out of the country anyway. We know from the last UNICEF report that the only children not living in abject poverty are the ones selling themselves in the sex trade. Malnutrition is rife, and so are diseases associated with it. I never thought I’d say this, but in the year 2037 England is as bad as North Korea was before the revolution thirteen years ago. They may be impoverished international pariahs but we need them. If necessary we can fund the follow-up mission between us. Look upon it as an investment.’

‘I still don’t understand, said Park, the South Korean. ‘How can the English help?’

‘They can help,’ said Holloway, ‘because there is one man in the United Kingdom of England and Wales with an intimate knowledge of what was found beneath the lunar surface. One man who knows how to exploit it. One man who can save his people, and solve the world’s most pressing problem. And help us keep our jobs, of course.’

MacBride shrugged. ‘Okay, as long as our governments agree.’

‘We have no choice,’ said Holloway.

‘I agree,’ said Mrs Patel. ‘And if the governments of the United States, China and Russia are unwilling to do so, then the Indian government will make sure the world knows what is going on. As, I believe, will the governments of Japan, South Korea and Australia. Madame Menard?’

The Frenchwoman gave a traditional Gallic shrug. ‘I still think this is a matter best handled by the European Union, and specifically France, but I will abide by the majority decision. Reluctantly.’

‘Okay,’ said MacBride with a relieved sigh. ‘Let’s do it.’

*

The unusually large landing module touched down. After a while, the airlock door opened and a spacesuited man emerged clutching a spade, which he used to gauge the consistency of the regolith. The man gazed excitedly at the grey moonscape. Then he turned to the landing module and gave a thumbs-up. A few minutes later, a platform descended from the belly of the craft and when that met the ground a diminutive figure drove a small caterpillar-tracked vehicle from it to where the man stood. The smaller figure operated the digging mechanism, rolling his eyes occasionally as the standing man inexpertly supervised the excavation. After a while, the man held up a hand and the digger was moved back. He carefully studied the substance they had exposed, and nodded thoughtfully.

The man took a spoon from a pouch on his suit and gouged out a small sample, which he placed in a complicated airlock on his helmet’s faceplate. A tiny conveyor belt extended inward from the airlock and delivered the sample to his waiting mouth. He bit and chewed thoughtfully, then smiled delightedly and turned to his companion.

‘They were right – it is Wensleydale! Nicely matured, too. Now let’s get the ship loaded. Job well done, lad.’