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First of all I would like to say that I deeply regret what I did. I got carried away and had no idea that things would go so far. I am really very sorry.
It was all just a fantasy. I am a nice man. I don’t even kill flies, but when I let my imagination rip …
I had been reading about the latest terrorist outrages – and they were outrageous – mowing people down on the pavement, stabbing people, blowing up bombs – terrible! But also pathetic. How could these people possibly imagine that by killing a fraction of the numbers who die every day on the roads, that they could strong-arm the nation into whatever it is that they want?
I for instance could do a much better job.
I had it all sketched out in my mind before I’d even got to a keyboard.
I wouldn’t achieve much, apart from perhaps, on the Princip Principle, set the world on fire, but boy would it be spectacular! Imagine – well you don’t have to imagine now – eleven or twelve locomotives steaming into the London mainline stations simultaneously, full-pelt, loaded with explosive.
The joy of it was that it would be, was, so simple just hijack the trains, carry on as normal and then at the last moment full-speed ahead in to the buffers. No-one could do anything about it – the locos would be diesel (no power-outs there) and would only let go at the last moment.
Petroleum, fertiliser, oxygen whatever you could find would be packed into the trains.
And my god it worked.
I can remember hearing it, and I live some thirty miles from London. Incredible [pause].
All heard from him was a Facebook ‘like’. I had no idea he was going to enact the whole bloody thing – I thought he just liked the story!
You do hear of things like this – Asimov interrogated over the A-bomb because of one of his stories – but … [long pause]
Anyway I heard no more from him apart from the Facebook message –“ Keep your eyes and ears open noon today. Thank-you.”
So I did and it all happened almost exactly as I had imagined.
The first would come in from the south and hit Charing Cross at over 150 miles an hour carrying fertiliser and oxygen. I heard the actual explosion from my office and when I stuck my head out the window I could see the first mushroom over the city, very tiny, but just visible the flames and smoke.
Then another, this time crashing into Waterloo Station, then another this time from the west, destroying Paddington.
Then another and another: Liverpool St, Fenchurch Street, Euston and then most spectacularly, Sat Pancras and Kings Cross together! Sorry – I can’t help it – it still gets me exited.
Well I watched the news of course. It was more or less as I had imagined. The façade of St Pancras remained, mainly, but that was all that was left the façade.
I hadn’t anticipated the firestorm… [long pause]
All I am saying is that it turned out just as I thought – even the frontage of St Pancras – I didn’t want to see that destroyed – and left alone it could be a great memorial, you know like Coventry Cathedral.
Sorry [long pause].
Can I have some water?
How many people have died?
Thousands? Yes. Probably hundreds of thousands – my god. What do you think will happen?
Jihad? – Christ, I expect your right.
The President was anxious, despite his confidence in a process of negotiation that was beyond a doubt the safest and wisest and best: The Programme.
Still, he and his opponent, or rather his counterpart, did have the fate of their respective nations in their hands. Some trepidation was to be expected.
He wiped a droplet of moisture from his eyebrow and polished his glasses.
“ People tend to make fair choices when they know so little that they cannot seek their own self-interest.”
That, in even simpler language, was learnt by every child learnt in the kindergarten, but it was still difficult entering into this process without some sense of dread – they were both human after all and entering into a ‘war’ was what it felt like – they had little in common, were at loggerheads about most things and at best could hope only for a greater easing of tension between the two camps – peace it was called.
The situation itself was even simpler, and deadly.
A long-running border dispute had flared up to the point where both parties had indicated their willingness to use nuclear weapons. It was moreover a sad truth that not only had neither side enough weaponry to obliterate the other (so that ruled out the MAD Strategy), but their populations were so vast that the war would most likely continue beyond any initial nuclear exchange and perhaps for generations.
It was a prospect too terrible not to contemplate and so here they both were, at their jotters, filling in their respective questionnaires like two schoolboys doing a detention.
They were not in the same room but could see each other through a glass darkly as it were – each was seated in front of two-way mirror that gave some impression of the figures behind it.
This was no doubt some psychological confidence building measure – The President was more of a doer than a thinker, relying more on his intuition than learnt psychological strategies, but he was no fool, had read the briefings and had expected more or less this sort of setup.
Question One had startled him with its brutal directness:
Would you like to see the enemy completely destroyed, man woman and child?
Well of course not! The very idea! He wasn’t a monster! Of course not … and then he paused.
Was that really so? Wouldn’t that more or less solve all their problems? He couldn’t believe that his opponent would feel any differently, especially given their current attitude and position.
“Yes” he inscribed on the document in a firm hand.
Within seconds his opponent’s response was presented to him
“Hmm,” so they did think alike, and It was not without an odd sense of relief that The President received the news. There was at least a common understanding, a common position however terrible it might be.
The second question asked:
Would you like to cede the disputed territory?
Of course not!
“No,” he wrote in block capitals.
The response was the same.
Would you like to cede some territory?
This gave The President pause. He believed that any resolution of the problem would in the end boil down to a parcelling out of the disputed territory, but could not see a practicable way of achieving that.
Reluctantly he wrote “No.”
As before, the response was most unsurprisingly the same.
Q.3. Would you like an indefinite ceasefire along the border?
Well, of course he would, and no doubt would his counterpart, but the actual inhabitants of the region were independent minded on both sides and unlikely to end the intermittent slaughter of their neighbours. Any government action along the lines of resettlement or forced disarmament would likely spread the infection further, along with with the prospect of a five-way conflict between the three sides (!)
“No,” he wrote.
The fourth question troubled him, but he saw there was really no other answer given the circumstances.
“Yes,” he wrote, it would be a good idea if both sides just left well alone, however negligent that might appear. The risk of a greater conflict was too great, and to ‘lance the boil’ as the saying goes would likely only make matters worse.
His opposite number responded in kind and The President placed the pen back on the table and departed.
No human saw him leave, sadder, wiser and not a little relieved. In fact no human other than himself had been present all day, despite appearances.
In reality, The President had merely been answering questions put to him by a computer from behind a Chinese Wall – that was how The Programme worked.
His ‘opponent’s’ responses were in fact, his own.
He had seemed pretty innocuous at first, if a little needy, standing there at the door in his dark, dismal jacket and trousers, a little shiny here and there where his hands had worn away at the fabric, there by the pockets, there, by the flies.
He was selling some sewing kits he'd had assembled, and other bits and pieces of house-holding-together gear: sellotape, pins, Elastoplast and little bottles of some cure-all hooch that you could apply just about anywhere (including internally) and get some relief.
The thing was - he didn't demand a barter, not at first; and he certainly didn't deal in gold (not that we knew of) - in return for a packet of corn plasters or some soap, a reel of thread or some flypaper, it was 'only a favour' he required. In the beginning, this would involve running simple errands or putting a 'friend' of his up for the night or, on a few occasions, helping him to clean his pokey flat.
He'd be round every month or two, and then every month, and then sometimes fortnightly, until eventually he seemed to spend half his time either at our door or in the hall or our parlour, at our kitchen table or even in the front room.
He'd let us know that he 'had something special' this month/week/morning, and once he'd distributed the cure-all, he'd pull some gewgaw from his portmanteau and bedazzle us with it.
The one I remember most was the flower-in-the-box. Simply, it was a paper bloom that hid itself inside the box's mechanism like a reluctant bud, and then, on the end of a remorselessly metal spring, and with a terrible scraping and screeching, sprang from the container into full bloom. He swapped us some disinfectant and plastic pants after that display.
Another time, he had us all transfixed by some glass beads - they were simply irresistible - and by the time he was gone we were all wandering the corridors and making our way to the outside privy in fabulous looking necklaces and tiaras. No milk was drunk that week, but Mercedes was back in a day or so with some curious-looking, rather runny butter, which we gratefully accepted.
That was, looking back on it, the first barter. It had seemed at the time as if we had just lent the milk to him in return for the 'jewels', that being the favour he required; but in truth he swapped a week's supply of milk for only a day or two of 'butter', our bodily adornments soon fell apart ('overuse' he said), and we were soon churning the 'milk' ourselves in return for free spread and a down payment on the repair of the 'precious items'.
This was only the beginning. From where I write this I can see Mercedes dozing in the armchair in the corner, his chest shadowed by the brim of his dark hat, his nose and chin just visible as they strain to touch the buttons on his waistcoat. He's like some item of badly inclined household fixture - necessary, but recalcitrant and unreliable, and not averse to collapsing or snapping shut at crucial moments, or just falling on you. There in the corner, in the half-shadow, snoring gently, he's a monstrous old tall-boy that's got himself wedged in front of the door and just won't budge, drawers stuck and stuff in there we need.
He's just glanced over, and from his look I can see that he thinks I am doing the accounts, as indeed I might be, with the ledger open and the inkpot out. But this diary is my only relief, and I'm willing to risk it if in his suffocating presence I can breathe just a little.
He has had his dinner, he has had his pipe. He will listen to the wireless when he wakes, and then tend to his books, checking that I have them in order. But for now he dozes, and the rumbling, wheezing silence is like a bank holiday before we must return to school or factory. Such is his rhythm and we must dance to it.
Escher wandered in woods with willows singing.
Cornwall was dreaming of lady-boys. Lake, just boys.
Weismann was dreaming of … walking down an unfamiliar corridor only to stumble on Escher conducting a clandestine experiment … The Other Professor was peering into a crucible whence sprang the superabundant treasures that funded their whole enterprise.
Weismann peered more closely at the spectacle.
Six silver coins lay melting, the markings that gave each their currency sliding from their surfaces and dribbling down each molten face and pooling with the graven images on the other coins, where they became just one smoking, coagulating disc of silvery liquid.
Poured from a curiously-shaped vessel Escher was laying a fine blood-red dust upon the face of the disc and all was suddenly a-boil – the silver foamed and fizzled, tiny flecks of crimson adhering to its bubbling surface.
Herr Doctor Professor Weil peered more closely at the material and observed what seemed to be a mass of tiny rubies, stuck to what was now a creamy disc of cooled gold.
Reflected back at him was a rotund, creamy white form in which he recognized his own portly image. Alarmed, he took a step back and somehow fell into the crucible.
He felt a terrible electrical-like shock as he was overwhelmed by a rush of icy-hot water, and looking at his watch, Weil could see its face and figures slipping from his wrist and recombining at a point directly before his feet.
He tumbled into a dark well, and woke to drenched pyjamas.
Spode meanwhile was guarding the Safe and dreaming of what he would do with all the treasure once he woke up.
On the plane over from America, and on his way to the Fens along a largely empty motorway that had regained all the lush, free, flowing lines and surfaces that it had once before enjoyed, Dr Francis Abelard had been thinking and reading.
It was an indication of the seriousness with which the company viewed the memorandum from the research lab that he had travelled all this way in person. The company frowned on travel and had made it almost an article of faith that it would discourage it in others by selling itself to an ecology-conscious public as the planet’s eco-guardian. The fact was that Haliburton Al Saud’s strictures were not entirely altruistic – it had, after all, sizeable investments in micro-communications and quantum tele-transportation technology.
The corporation that Abelard represented was an empire built on plastic (or more specifically the inherited patent for Bakelite) and an enormous amount of money had already been poured into Project Flatland as the Cambridge research was known, and with little to show for it.
The tycoon at the head of the company, a descendant of the eponymous Bakelite, was nevertheless a fabulously rich man, comparable in these terms to the Gates dynasty and he knew that a breakthrough in providing the world with an effectively infinite source of energy would probably make him the richest man ever.
He had money to spare and although the sums were impressively large, he was not an impatient man and understood that this sort of research could take years (other attempts at both hot and cold fusion certainly had) and if they and other ground-breaking projects were anything to go by, he could expect to pay out far more before any returns could be expected. Nevertheless, the new sums involved, as the scientists had suggested, were likely to be very large indeed, and he wanted to know that his putative patent was still a secret - and to a lesser extent, that the money that was being spent was not being frittered away.
To this end, he had decided to send Dr Abelard, a chemist, who fulfilled the role of general scientific advisor to the magnate. Abelard had got the job through the sort of contacts that only a well-to-do New England family might possess - the usual clutch of nest eggs: Ivy-league old boys, family friends and the right sort of money - but he fulfilled his role with commendable thoroughness and flair. Any new development that might be exploited was brought to the magnate’s attention by the observant doctor, although, unusually, he had had no hand in alerting the tycoon to the Cambridge research project.
This was not surprising since the tycoon had been approached quite privately by a senior member of the research team and had somehow managed to charm an enormous research grant out of the old man without once referring the matter to the corporation’s other scientists, including Abelard. As a result, Abelard having been ‘include out’ was somewhat ill-disposed to the project, and although he had finally been given some responsibility for its oversight, he did not feel it to be his own as he did the other R&D’s to which he had brought the gift of financial life.
Indeed, as he swept across the Atlantic in the hydroplaning sea craft, he felt less the beaming uncle descending on his excited nephews with unexpected riches and more the stern aunt whose money is being wasted and about which she intends to do something. What that something was, Abelard had no idea, but the resentments and anxieties working away in his psyche, well beneath the conscious awareness of anyone so superficially self-aware as Abelard, ensured that he would do something.
Meantime, Abelard chewed the matter over and had confirmed to his solipsistic delight that the scientists were engaged in discovering a super-molecule of plastic that might then spill super-abundantly forth along the highways and super-byways of the electrical and insulating equipment universe.
Plastic! Brimming oceans of plastic that performed all the old functions of the poly- this’s and poly- that’s that bound up the tender impulses that traversed the globe, directing its body and goading its mind.
The complete cessation of oil production, in the time it takes a dustman to pick up a plastic bag of plastic garbage, had resulted in the plastic that had permeated nearly every aspect of human life , simply vanishing, tearing the heart valves from the chests of overweight young men, ripping the clothes from the backs of the masses, knocking over their food bowls and entertainment’s and banishing from their lives the lightweight, the gaily coloured and the throwaway.
As a consequence, surviving on its reconstituted diet of heavy, durable New ‘N-F’ Non-Fossil Bakelite, a substance infused with the smoky, sultry, rather dull tones of a melancholy past that the colourised Filmes Noires had once wrought so romantically, the public salivated over reminders of the bejewelled past and slated this appetite on celluloid from the sixties, the pinnacle of in-your-face plastic.
Plastic: that was the one thing apart from cheap and easy energy that the world still craved, and a Bakelite empire (with heavy investments in micro- electronics and quantum mechanical tele-transportation), was the one that was going to make it all come true, thought Abelard.
One of Abelard’s resentments was that he had not, in his opinion, been thoroughly briefed. The old man had given off an embarrassed air, but had made it clear that the project was so secret and so important that everything was being conducted on a need-to-know basis, and as far as the boss was concerned, Abelard need really not know much at all.
“Just take a look over the place! Try and enjoy yourself! England’s great!”
As far as what ‘they’ were up to, not even the scientists themselves were entirely sure. They were well aware of what, or more truly how they were doing what they were doing, but not necessarily why, unless it were just to see what happened and as such had been urged on by Escher.
And what had happened was that the Energy released in the little starburst that signalled the Condensate’s collapse, had been far greater than Cornwall and most of the others had expected.
There was a sense of unreality about the scene as, outside, the gently undulating landscape with its hopeful young saplings bristling in the breeze and the clouds journeying steadily west over the squat glass and metal buildings remained resolutely indifferent to what had taken place.
The cool, calculated proportions of the lab’s interior, the planning, the infinitesimal accuracies of their measurements and preparations, all belied this unexpected turn of events.
Cornwall, the senior scientist in the small group of professorial colleagues that was engaged in this research laid his hand on one of the large insulators that lay on a workbench. He could feel the cool, creamy ribs of its ceramic torso as his palm enfolded and gripped the object.
In their ostensible attempt to meet the energy crisis, they were seeking a comprehensive understanding of the properties of an unique phenomenon - the Bose-Einstein Condensate, a super-positioned cloud of individual particles that behaved as, and indeed to all intents and purposes was, one utterly condensed ‘super-atom’. From this, they had hoped to derive a source of energy. Research had been going on for years, and although much was understood, little practical use had been made of a material (a 5th state of matter it was suggested) that seemed to offer so many possibilities.
Indivisible matter that behaved like energy - government scientists had dreamt of impenetrable armour, matter-wave bombs and even matter-wave guns, but it had taken the personal intervention of a wealthy entrepreneur to direct attention away from warfare towards a more civil (and civilised) use.
They had been cooling an unprecedented number of rubidium when the condensate had rather unexpectedly sucked with amorous intensity on the froth they were providing it with until their supplies were nearly exhausted.
Once the tap had been turned off, there been an almighty crack and the glass cell in which the encapsulated condensate was held had appeared momentarily to ‘breath’. The strength of the force that had produced the thunderclap was only underlined by the fact that the glass walls of the flask were some centimetres thick.
Then all was still.
“… if the capsule had shattered …”, but that hadn’t happened.
… our little goddess!”
Weil’s customary expressions of warm affection were a nervous facade.
“Did you hear that bitch blow? The …”, here Lake begged the pardon of all present, “the girl’s got some mouth on her, nah? Is that thing leaking?” He frowned as he viewed the dials.
Escher was peering into the glass vessel, his nose almost touching the capsule.
Cornwall steadied himself. “I think we had better clear the lab.” This, they would keep under wraps for the time-being, but there was little need for secrecy where their Top Secret research was concerned. Indeed even if the greater part of the Cambridge research data had been given away free in copies of The Sun- Times, not many would have been any the wiser.
The maths. The chemistry. The physics. The metaphysics. These were only fully comprehensible to all but a few of the world’s scientists, and most of these were already party to the project.
In short, although its existence was a badly kept secret, the exact nature of the work was sufficiently obscure for few to know what was really going on, including, as been alluded to, some of the scientists themselves.
Others, untrammelled by the facts, and speculating as to what the fabulously funded scientists were up to, had with a wild surmise come up something that actually hit the mark in some respects....
With only twenty minutes in which to cobble together a front-page piece on the week's main event - the council's traffic-calming measures – Barrington (‘Barri’) Harding, Special Correspondent had a hangover and was out of cigarettes.
And without cigarettes he would never start the report, let alone complete it in time, and he was as a consequence faced with a dilemma that might only be cured by a short nip from the quarter-bottle of vodka stashed inside the cavity wall of his cell. The problem was that Luke could not really buy the puffs and write the story; but neither could he think of writing the story without the the puffs. Only a drink could solve the conundrum.
Barri reached for the remedy.
Some years back he had punched a hole in the cardboard-like wall of his work compartment and from this bearish behaviour he had created as sweet a little hiding place for his honey pot as you could wish. As he reached down into the recess with his left hand Barri fumbled in his pocket with his right for a twenty-pound note with which to buy the nicotine.
Unable to retrieve the bottle, and with his arm stuck inside the wall, Barri peered down at his other arm, wrist bucking and twisting as the hand it was attached to writhed inside the vile pocket, mixing it with a gang of loose change, sticks of chewing gum, entangled keys, used tissues and a gritty residue of tobacco dust. He could see his watch - 17 minutes in which to construct what was likely to be this week's main story (god help us). Wrenching both hands out of their respective niches, Barri determined to kill two birds with one stone - he'd head straight for the 'office' and compose the thing on the way.
"The Chief Executive, with customary - no - The Chief Exec. with customary wit - nope - With customary wit, the Chief Exec./remarked: "We do the sleeping police in diff … no, fuck - ironically noted that … 'We/ do the sleeping police in different voices!' - that'll have to do." Luke scuttled across the last of the six lanes of the highway and into the off-licence.
"Good morning Mr Harding - how d'you do?"
"Voddie please Harun and twenty Bensons."
"Er, cheers." Barri was pulling all manner of rubbish from his trouser pockets, but there was precious little of the money he was counting on. "Er, could you do this one on tick, Harun? I've gone and left my wallet at the shop."
As Harun frowned momentarily and then turned with a condescending look to the battery of drugs installed behind him, Luke reviewed the few lines he'd composed so far.
With customary wit, the Chief Exec.
sardonically noted that "We
do the sleeping police in different voices!"
No wonder he was stuck in this town, with his shitty job, at which he was really rather bad and everyone knew it. Indeed readers quite often wrote in to point that out the letters page being rarely about anything else other than the quality of the writing in the paper, and it occurred to him that he was only kept on so as to give the readers something to complain about. They seemed hardly concerned at all with the actual meat and drink of local rags - fetes, council car parking, pub fights, and the like. Instead, they concentrated on the words themselves as if nothing else really mattered.
As indeed so little of it did.
With the world at their fingertips, reports from the national dailies were more interested in 'style' than about anything else and were hardly ever about anything at all. He began to reassess the value of his own work - it at least had content, a story to tell, however trivial…
"Here's the juice and here are the straws - enjoy!"
Barri handed over a £50 pound note he'd found in his sock, received the three quid in change, and turned to the door. With a shy glance over his shoulder, Luke cracked open the bottle's seal, and between his thumb and finger, set the top spinning.
With his other hand, Barri scraped open the cellophane and flipped open the lid of the carton. Pulling with his teeth, he retrieved a virginal cylinder of sweet-smelling tobacco and turned it into an exhaust pipe of vile and noxious fumes.
"Mr. Harding, not in here, I beg you…"
"Sorry chief, I'm in a rush, must go, ta-ta!"
By the time Barri had crossed to the central reservation, he had all but completed the rest of the report. Admittedly this had been at the expense of a good deal more of the vodka than he had intended drinking, but it had done the trick and he was content to pull on another cigarette as the traffic screamed past. As he committed the words to memory, he savoured one or two of the better phrases.
"That wasn't so bad… that's quite good" he told himself.
He didn't like to write this way - little oases of grey prose in a sea of purple pentameters - he'd much rather the purity of an unfussy, unmetaphorical and even, unrythmical prose with a few bare facts, but the custom dictated that he at least write in a standard house-style. That meant strict iambic pentameter, no fewer than three similes per article ‘and preferably forming the heart and lungs of an overall conceit’, although this usually just amounted to stringing a load of clichés together, hung on the hook of an over-taxed pun.
A gap in the stream of cars and lorries appeared and Luke belted across the remaining three lanes in the time spared him. Tripping unaccountably on a road marking, he fell across the last two lanes in the sort of posture you might adopt if you were chasing an invisible rabbit with one hand tied behind your back. A number of vehicles peeped their appreciation and Luke heard cheering from one van as it red-shifted past.
However, he now only had three minutes to get back to his workstation and input the report. He'd just have to phone it in.
Barri held the phone a little further from his ear. Griffiths (his boss) had lapsed into disarticulated mono-syllablism, which usually meant that he was about to boil over into furious and frothy, polysyllabic invective.
"I'm on the ring-road - thought it'd be as quick t'ring it in."
"You're not the fornicating foreign correspondent Barri - but fuck it, what the hell - I've got no choice..."
Barri recited the hundred-odd lines of doggerel to Griffiths and tucked the phone back into his trouser pocket. He might as well go to the pub now, so turning off from the raging carriageway, he strolled down a quiet side street towards the Crow & Quill.
Julie Simpter was in there, sipping a large G & T and holding forth to a group of lesser mortals.
"She's got a job at the News, she has!" one of them fluted in a mock-Dylan Thomas intonation as soon as Luke appeared.
Barri’s heart, lights, stomach and spirits sank as he heard this, and then lifted again as he realised that she would no longer be there as an admonishment to his own wasted talent and a torment to his trousers.
"Quelle est cette île triste et noir? - C'est Cythère,
Nous dit-on, un pays fameux dans les chansons,
Eldorado banal de tous les vieux garçons.
Regardez! après tout, c'est une pauvre terre."
"Well done Barrington! Just who was that I wonder? And what can it mean?" Julie looked about her circle, beamed back at him, teeth flashing, and pink tongue licking at each word. "Well let us in on your little sécrét."
"Baudelaire, my dear - What is that sad, dark island? (This was for the boys - he knew full well she knew the quote.) It is Cythera, they tell us, a country famous in song, banal Eldorado of every elderly bachelor. Look, after all, it is a poor land!"
"They're not all like you at the News old boy!" one of them scoffed. Barri hailed from The News where he had eventually got the sack for his unorthodox style ("This is not a late-modernist paper Harding…" his then Editor had fulminated when he had presented him with a report on a meeting of the Royal Society in the style of J. H. Prynne, "…and this is an affront to art and sense!") He'd tried not explaining, but the editor was an essentially ignorant man and Luke had resigned in high dudgeon. He now roamed the prosodic wastes of local journalism like a downcast Bellepheron, despised or ignored by those few souls that noticed him.
His favoured style was now more or less a reaction to his disenchantment with the world of so-called journalism.
"And flowers too - how thoughtful of you Barri!" Julie laughed. Luke managed a smirk and made his way to the bar. He had surprised himself with his rendition - he'd meant only to recite the first line, but in an upsurge of relief and good-will he had spotted that the rest of it was fairly apposite and he'd managed it without a trip.
"A voddie, vodka-tonic if you please."
"And which voddie-vodka would sir prefer?"
Barri did not smile but just pointed at the blue label and turned to look down the length of the pub. Silhouetted in the doorway was an enormous figure – his alter-ego, Barrie, the town crier.
Barrel-chested Barrie - extrovert, inflated and with a skill for listening only when he wanted to - was ideally placed to exploit his position. A rhetorical maestro, any audience that was without one or two strong-minded individuals within it, was essentially at his mercy.
"Heil Hitler," said Barri without prompting.
Barrie B's bonhomonious smile was quickly overtaken by a frown, but collecting himself, he addressed the barman: " St George he was for England, / And before he killed the dragon / He drank a pint of English ale / Out of an English flagon. Pete? A pint of special please. And as for you Barry Harding…" Barrie B turned all his antimagnetic charm on Harding, his face purpling and his eyes bulging with anger, "… I've just been speaking with your editor about some lunatic I nearly killed on the Boulevard! I'm pretty sure it was you my man, so you just watch your step!"
Harding blanched a little at the memory, but he was not so easily put off this morning.
"I understand you're up for an honour. Sir Verses rendered?"
Barrie's demeanour had shifted slightly from anger to malevolent suspicion, but as Barri alluded to the oration that had won him his Chevalier, his eyes began to glaze over as he relived the sounds and sights that mention of his triumph inspired in him, and began to recite some stanzas from his formal announcement of the road-widening scheme: "... And of our ancestors' broad lanes may we /now say, that they have truly led the way." Barrie shuddered with pleasure as the orotund vowels went rolling around inside his head and bounced about in Barri’s.
"What's that? You're mumbling."
Barri was reciting some statistics under his breath - he found that the numbers relaxed him, took him away from all this verbiage and cleansed his mind with their simple regularity. "I was just counting the feet - very good, Barrie, very good."
Barrie grinned and Barri smiled.
"What's that? You're mumbling again dear chap!"
As his near namesake took a huge gulp from the quart flagon reserved for the Crier, Barri pulled a paper from the rack beside the bar, and then put it straight back, mulling over what Tarbuck had been saying to him the other day:
"Barri, I ask you - the headlines in verse - rhyming verse! - it's absurd! It just means that if The Sun Times comes up with a snappy iamb with a memorable rhyme, it sticks in your head all day, like some old grey whistle-tested tune you can’t stop humming."
With that Tarbuck began to hum and whine 'Pop Goes the Weasel', until breaking into song with a few snatches from The Sun-Times past and present.
"Alright, I know some of its very poor and a bit pointless, but what would you rather have - just prose? I mean. It'd be like radio without the ambient vision, or films without sound for god's sake."
"We'd have the facts - or a version of them, instead of 'journalism' in fancy dress.
I love literature - I was always there with my nose in a newspaper or reading the airport narratives, I was all up for it, loved it. Then, as you know …” - Barri yawned – “I discovered The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner. It was a report, in ryme! Done properly!..."
“Yes mate, we know all about that …”
“I’m not talking about getting the sack – I had an amazement! And they don’t go away Harding and they are always about one big thing …”.
“So what is it this time?”
“I was researching my Council report. It was the figures for child deaths on the road over the last ten years that gave me the idea.”
He sighed. “Painful to listen to in more ways than one..."
Barri peered at Tarbuck. The wayward poet intrigued but scared most people. He was a regular attendee at council meetings and such a specialist at the ventriloquist whistle and the gallery murmur that security had never as yet been able to lay a finger on him (everyone knew who it was). He and his fellow Donnés were liable to pull stunts at any moment, indirectly lampooning the status quo - indirectly, since the group had foresworn direct statement as a viable political act. Establishment verse, Leisure Verse, Reportage were all mired in the tractor ruts of the formalist, diversionary language of the prevailing paradigm, and they would have nothing to do with it.
Instead, Tarbuck and his cohort would disrupt the staid tetrameters of council meetings with examples of Concrete poetry, mostly comprising spontaneous vocal outbursts. Taking the human voice to its limits, the strangulated whoops and squeals, the gargling and aspirating, whilst quite pleasing on their own, served not so much as to punctuate the councillors' speeches (although punctuate them they did with slowed down, sped up and backward squeaks) but more as to puncture their inflated afflatus.
By Tarbuck's intercession, the dry and lugubrious role call of parking spaces made available and car lanes broadened, drained of even the most superficial pretence of feeling, novelty or life by the clunking formal emphasis on rhyme and the dogged pursuit of Correct Expression, would be suddenly enlivened. The rest of the group would sometime engage in rounds with Tarbuck getting the ball rolling with a creepily resonant "Boom! Ooh! Yattata!" Some, identified by the guards, were thrown out, but once begun the rounds had a tendency to spill over into the general public (Tarbuck knew a hook when he heard one) and the meetings usually collapsed..
“The Clerk of the Council had been reading out those kids’ deaths in a monotone. To try and cope with the rhyming, he'd ordered the figures so that the ones ending in the same number were read as a distinct unit. It gave the recitation some formal structure, but it was essentially unelaborated, a minimalistic surface of functionality and efficiency, just fulfilling the civil service strictures on versification and simultaneously rendering the data harder to interpret.”
Tarbuck reached for his drink and took a sip of his Chuggs Primer Ale, and continued. "I'd been looking for a formal way to assert the primacy of content over form. I thought I'd found it in the quotidian and the informational: witness the immediacy of instruction, the galvanising effect of the imperative - even its wit - "Keep Away From Children" indeed! But it had been staring me in the face - where could we rediscover that noumenal world of objective fact, clearly rendered and readily communicated?"
Tarbuck looked down, as if he were contemplating something and then looked up again with a start. "Sorry. I was in a fugue there." He looked a little guiltily at Harding, as if he were a country girl caught reading in the drawing room of the Big House.
"This is it Barri - I've cracked it - a whole new poetic language, a donné, perfect in its synthesis of form and content, Barri - numbers!"
Barri stared, "Numbers? What? The Bible?"
"No you idiot, just numbers pure and simple - related to facts, but not too obviously,"
Tarbuck produced a voluminous volume from under his seat, and then placed a paperback edition on the table.
Harding stared, twisted his head and squinted (Tarbuck was often less than co-operative even when it was in his best interests).
"You could make this a little easier for me by turning it round," but by then, Barri had got the idea. It was a – rather, they were – railway timetables.
Luke stared again, but this time at Tarbuck. Thoughts occurred, feelings welled, understanding dawned.
"You’ve gone mad. I mean madder."
"Arse. Take a look. Look at the simplicity, the symmetry, the FACTS. Look at the – thing!"
Barri picked up the bigger version and nearly dropped it.
"Careful, that’s precious – well, expensive."
Tarbuck handed Harding the slimmer volume.
"The Selected Numbers…" Harding intoned to himself, thumbing through the guide.
"Westing to Hardinghouse. Lincoln to Stratford. Stevenage to Newton."
Putting the pamphlet on the table, Luke took a seat and reached for the Complete works, opened it at random and began to read aloud:
“SUNDERLAND TO LONDON KINGS CROSS Southbound Departures Monday to Friday Sunderland 06.45 08.42 12.28 17.31 Hartlepool 07.09 09.07 12.52 17.55 Eaglescliffe 07.30”
" Eaglescliffe – like the sound of that. "
"Forget the bloody words – just contemplate the numbers!"
"06.45 08.42 12.28 17.31 07.09 09.07 12.52 17.55 …"
“Why are some in blue?”
"Shut up. These – numbers,” he wrenched back the book, “are facts and nothing you could get too worked up about."
“Depending on who you are.”
"What if you wondered what they meant."
"But that’s the point! You’re either bothered or you’re not. You either take it as – er,…"
"Yes! Or it just drives you mad. Or something. Perfect. "
"Certainly sorts the sheep from the goats."
Harding stared at this troubled, troubling man. He had great affection for Tarbuck – he was subversive in a way that Harding, deep, deep down, truly approved of.
He hated all the hidebound organs of the Estate: the Law, Government, and above all his profession with it’s absurd traditions, the florid, creaking verse it used to report the nouvellement. It was true that some writers could pull it off, but too often it was, well, just creaked out and he hated it.
Tarbuck on the other hand had brought the literary and labial arts to a point of such aspergian regularity & lucidity that it often achieved the sort of luminescence that could guide any fog-bound voyager back to good sense and sound living.
Luke thought back to the article he had phoned in earlier. It could hardly be turned into numbers, but what about a piece of straightforward prose?
"The Chief Executive, with customary wit, alluded to The Waste Land when commenting on the proposal to introduce 'sleeping policemen' on certain designated routes."
Then he tried the Baudelaire he had quoted earlier:
"What is this island sad and black? - This is Cythera we are told, a country famous in song, an old boys banal Eldorado. Watch out!! After all, it is a poor land." Hmm, well that seemed to survive being prosified without losing much of its integrity and charm.
But numbers- was that going just that little too far?
Then Harding had a brainwave - how about shuffling the words - in perfect metrical form., natch, but so it all meant something else?
It wasn't quite what Tarbuck had in mind, but nevertheless ...
"Tarbuck. I've had an idea."
Tarbuck gazed warily as Luke gazed back, as if enamoured – autist or artist, Barri began to suspect that the man might just be a genius.