Friday, June 11, 2010

Chapter Nine

The good thing about writing for one's daughter is that she doesn't mind the reuse of very old jokes. Unless Terry Pratchett has used them as well (the barstidge).
Coleridge had decided to teach the parrot to talk. “Come on, Georgie,” he repeated. “You can say it. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent!’” The bird remained obstinately silent and glared at him through the bars of the cage with little red homicidal eyes. Traces of catfood plastered its feathers. Dispossessed from her cage, Polly the cat sat at the far end of the bar and licked her scratches.

Ed N’Bro saw no reason to inform his customers that the bird was not in fact a large partly-bald cockatoo. Actually it was a fledgling Aepyornis. When it reached adult size it would be three metres tall, like a giant carnivorous ostrich with a beak like a meat-cleaver, and he suspected that it would outgrow the cage before then.

He shrugged. Right now there were other customers to check on downstairs.

The Old Entomologist basement is long and narrow. As well as the beer-barrels and crates of bottles and glasses that you might expect, it is cluttered with all manner of theatrical props, left over from the days before the building became a pub. Flat plywood scenery, cardboard-and-tinfoil armour, a long pendulum ending in a glittering scythe-blade (left over from a stage version of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’). Racks along one wall hold backdrops, rolled up like blinds. A long table occupies the only clear space in the middle of the room. The low ceiling is criss-crossed by a network of ducts and tubing – gurgling and flushing at erratic intervals – so that it could easily be used as a gymnasium for gibbons.

Ed stood at the bottom of the stairs, listening for a moment. According to his T-shirt of the day, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking up skirts”. He could hear raised voices, a frank exchange of views, muffled by the solid wood of the basement door. They cut off abruptly when he entered the room, as if the doorknob had been connected to a volume switch; silence descended like a stage curtain. Interrupted in their conversations, twelve masked faces turned to look at him (plus a thirteenth person at the table who was wearing a brown-paper bag instead of a mask).

“Anyone need a fresh drink?” he asked.

Sitting halfway along the table was a figure who seemed to be in charge. At least, his chair was slightly raised above the others on a squat metal pillar. The mask over his head was probably supposed to look like a lion, although it could easily have been mistaken for a deformed bear who has just eaten a judge and is wearing the judicial wig. On the table in front of him stood a half-full glass of port – or half-empty – or it was a glass that was twice the size it needed to be. This individual straightened up in his seat now, banging the table with a gavel, as a way of establishing that No, he had not been dozing. “Hernn, herk, what? Herrm, yes,” he explained.

“It’s thirsty work, plotting to divert the course of history,” Ed prompted helpfully. “Working behind the scenes involves a lot of dust.” He was looking at a blackboard that had been set up behind the table. Arrows and boxes were scrawled all over it in multi-coloured chalk. He could read headings like Concealing the Truth about Invasive Extinct Species. Between boxes labelled ‘Inner-City Tram’ and ‘Inter-Reality Railway’ ran arrows indicating Unauthorised expenses, Covert funds, and Tunnelling equipment.

The lion-masked guy with the gavel made noises like a half-awake volcano. “Harumph! Don’t know what you are insinuating, with your errm insinuendo. This is merely the ummm, monthly meeting of the Ob Revival Society, the Obliterati. Devoted to preservation of the time-hallowed Ob language and its errumm…” Slowly the eruption tapered away.

“That’s cool!” said Ed cheerfully. “What you talk about down here is none of my business. You could be the Last Supper Re-enactment Society, for all I care.” His voice was relaxing enough to be bottled and sold as soothing lotion for sunburn. He stepped closer to read the name-tags everyone had pinned to their chests. “Nice masks, Mr… errr… Mr ‘Hi, My Name is Leo’.”

“Devoted to preserving Ob language. Work to encourage fluency, errnn…”

“The Obliterati Society works towards recruiting a new generation of Ob speakers, and encouraging the fluent use of Ob in everyday conversations,” someone called ‘Scorpio’ explained smoothly. “The masks are part of traditional Ob costume.”

Leo nodded in relieved enthusiasm, like a judge who has found a way to block a legal loophole, his wig flapping and bobbing. “Erm, harrumph, yes. Ob. An Ob-long literary history of Ob-scene Ob-verse…”

“Drama and poetry,” interjected ‘Aries’ at the far end of the table, whose mask was a kind of hybrid between the heads of a ram and a Staffordshire terrier.

Ed shrugged. “You’re hiring the basement for your Ob-sessions, and that’s good enough for me. But it’s easier to keep the population in the dark about your plans, while manipulating them like sheep, after a couple of beers. Or so the brother tells me.” He was glancing at the blackboard where wiggly lines labelled Secrecy were intended to form a barrier between a small box around the word Us, and a much larger box labelled General Population. There was also a pattern of radiating lines in a corner which could have been meant to look like a patiently-constructed spiders-web of criminal activities, but otherwise might be a parachute.

“A brace of cocktails at this end of the table, good sir,” came a request from Aries. “Like puppets, by the way. We pull the puppet-strings of the population.”

“Puppets of sheep?” Ed offered as a compromise.

Leo the chairman had turned to face Scorpio for a whispered argument as to whether ‘quorum’ was an alcoholic drink, or somehow connected to meeting procedures. Now he turned back to face Ed and brandished his gavel. “We in the Obliterati, hermph, have nothing to hide! Feel free to stay! Next on the agenda, errumm, next agendum is a report on – herrumph – on the Ob medical tradition. Bound to be fascinating. From Vice-Chancellor Wordswor –”

“From Society Member ‘Aquarius’,” Scorpio smoothly cut in.

Aquarius was nodding. “Obs-cure! Ob-ligations!” she promised. Meanwhile Virgo took the opportunity to conceal the blackboard by unrolling one of the backdrops, pulling down on its lower edge to unwind it from its roller. The backdrop showed a dramatic mountain scene. Storm-battered trees clinging to crags, night sky, banked-up thunderclouds, full moon, castle ruins on the mountaintop.

Ed shook his head regretfully. “Thanks for the invitation, but I don’t want to Ob-struct you. More important, things upstairs will go completely Ob-late if I linger down here much longer. Brother Blake will start boasting how well he can bowl with the skulls from his collection, using wine bottles as skittles, and it will all end in tears.” He lowered his voice to a more confidential level. “I know it’s none of my business, but are you maybe one of the less-known pantheons of gods, venturing down here to the world of mortals for your gatherings, for some divine reason that only has to make sense to another god? If so, what with that mighty hammer you wield, I’m guessing that you’re the thundergod.”
Virgo waited to be sure that the door had closed firmly behind Ed before she resumed the interrupted argument. “Do we really need to wear these absurd masks?”

“Second the motion!” said ‘Taurus’. "If it is a motion, and not a Point of Order. Or a request for the leave of the meeting, or something like that. This mask seems to be already occupied by several generations of insects, and it makes me feel like a piñata.”

“Errm, harrumph, mmyes. Operational security, errumm. Secrecy. Leaks, betrayal.”

“What Chairman Leo is saying,” Scorpio explained, “is that this way our conspiracy is kept safe from any inadvertent betrayal. If (Heaven forbid) any one of use comes to the attention of the police, or the press, the damage cannot go any further, because we are all ignorant of one another’s identity.”

“Herrumf,” Leo contributed. “Even ignorant of my own identity, hee hee.”
“As a timely reminder,” Scorpio continued, “the next item on the agenda is a report from Aquarius on recent security concerns threatening our interests.” Eleven masks and one brown-paper bag turned to look at Aquarius, where she was creating a long line of up-ended dominos, down near the end of the table with Aries. By the way, the one wearing a paper bag was Virgo, since she had been running late for the meeting, and had left her house in too much of a hurry to remember the mask. It wasn’t really fair for her to be the one making most fuss about having to wear it.

“As for quality of masks, mmph,” said Leo. “Bought in good faith. From custodian at Canterbury Museum, mmm. Assured me that they were ceremonial costumes from ancient Egypt, mmmyes, surplus to requirements of herrn the collection. Then that sad industrial accident in the Mummy Department, so no chance to demand, mmphh money back.”

Virgo was still complaining that the masks were ‘Ob-noxious’, but Pisces hushed her, since the time for Ob jokes was over. Taurus had not finished either. “They look more like they were made by a pre-school art class. Look, still showing through the paint – ”

“Moving right along, mmyes. Next on the agenda. Herrumph, Aquarius.”

Aquarius had finished constructing her miniature domino Stonehenge. She stood. “Thank you for coming, everyone. Now, if anyone is wondering why I made this line of dominos, it’s to dramatise the risks of our activities…”

Leo spoke up to show he’d being paying attention. “Activities include the preservation of the time-hallowed Ob language and its, mmm” – until Scorpio hushed him again.

Aquarius went on: “If word somehow leaks out about any one of our enterprises – the secret underground extensions to the tram circuit for instance – that’s the equivalent of one domino toppling. But it doesn’t stop there. Just as one domino knocks over another, there will be threads running to something else we also want to keep concealed, like the disappearance of tourists who got off the tram at the wrong stop and transferred to an Inter-Reality train. So things keep unravelling.

“I know you’re all familiar with this but I’m reminding you for a reason. A pair of private detectives have apparently been showing an interest in our nefarious schemes. They must be stopped before they see the big picture. Yes, Taurus? You have a suggestion?”

Taurus had a hand in the air. “The answer is simple. We should do away with dominos. Discourage people from playing it. Damn stupid game anyway; I never understood the rules.”

“Good idea!” said Aries. “We could plant a story in the media that domino sets are a health hazard. Claim that the tiles are made from nitrocellulose, like billiard balls used to be, so they can explode if they bang together too hard. Start a public-health campaign to have all domino sets withdrawn.”

Aquarius may have been rolling her eyes, though through a mask it is hard to tell. “Very good. We’ll call that Plan A. I have also been working on what I call Plan B.” Chalk in hand, she turned, frowned, and set out to uncover the blackboard.

However, the backdrop of dramatic mountain scenery refused to wind back up, despite any amount of tugging at its lower edge. Pisces passed her a remote control. One button dimmed the lights in the basement. A second restored power to the long-disused hydraulics in the pillar under Leo’s seat, and it began to turn slowly on its axis. A third turned on a dry-ice fog machine that had been sitting idly in a corner under a pile of costumes, and suddenly there was a tidal wash of cool damp fog spilling across the floor and rising up rapidly towards the level of the table before Aquarius could find the button that turned it off again. Yet another button triggered a second backdrop to unroll from the wall-rack, in front of the first one. This second scene seemed to be a dungeon interior in the ruined castle: crude blocks of stone, a tiny barred window. Aquarius abandoned any idea of using the blackboard.

“Plan B,” she explained. “We distract the detectives. Divert them.” She paused to give people a chance to ask her how, but no-one spoke. The gentle rotation of Leo’s chair had lulled him back to sleep.
“We do that – we lead them away from our schemes – by hiring them ourselves, to investigate some different and more interesting mystery! They will not be able to resist! In fact, I have already contacted them. I arranged to meet one of them – the detective Coleridge – in this very room. I gave him details of the fictitious case; he listened attentively. Even now, I am confident, the team of Coleridge and Porlock are directing all their considerable intellectual energies into the tracing the whereabouts of Ed N’Bro’s own brother… who is probably just a figment of his imagination! Any questions?”
[Upstairs, Coleridge was persevering with his language lessons, though he had switched to a shorter message. “ ‘If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.’ Come on, Georgie, you can say it. Clever Georgie. ‘If a lion could speak’…” The round eyes of the Aepyornis chick gleamed like full moons in a werewolf movie.]
“Any questions? Virgo?”

Virgo stood. “Yes. I also want to query these humiliating false names we have to use.” An instant uproar of overwhelming agreement. The loudest contribution came from member ‘Ophiuchus’, who was not entirely convinced that Ophiuchus was really a sign of the zodiac.

At some stage in the confusion, someone bumped the table. At each end of the line of dominos, a tile wobbled and fell, starting two inward-spreading toppling cascades. Woken suddenly, Leo struck out with the gavel, leaving Taurus and Pisces complaining loudly about being treated like piñatas. Then the two domino waves met in the middle with a loud detonation as a tile was struck from both sides and exploded.

Twelve chairs toppled backwards. The remote control went flying. Eleven masked figures (and one in a brown-paper bag) sought shelter under the table. This is where Ed found them when he came back in through the basement door, carrying a tray with two martini glasses, each one wrapped in a layer of sandpaper.

Leo remained in his seat, because the pillar underneath it was now telescoping upwards with a hissing of hydraulics, elevating him in the direction of the ceiling. A trapdoor flipped open, allowing the chair and the chairman to slip through into the bar above. The members of the Obliterati Society could still hear his voice, raised in protest: “Shame! Shame! Shame again, barman!”

Ed had changed T-shirts, and was now wearing one with the slogan “A man cannot drown in the same river twice”. He looked around for Aries. “Ah, there you are. Here are your drinks.”

“What are those?” wondered Aries from under the table.

“You did order abrasive cocktails, didn’t you?”


mikey said...

The bartender's name was Sandy, and he had the grit to serve a drink that would round off the rough edges. Smooth, and dry as sawdust. It is, after all, how Sandy met his soon-to-be wife Gail Garnet...

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I'm guessing Chapter 10 is where the cocktail slurping furries get down to bizness?

ckc (not kc) said...

"relieved enthusiasm"

...when you work with bozos, this may be the ne plus ultra (not to be confused with the sine qua non or the summa cum laude)

Smut Clyde said...

Chapter 10 is where the cocktail slurping furries get down to bizness
People said "write about what you know" so most of the chapters involve scruffy ne'er-do-wells sitting around in pubs talking shite. Descriptions of dramatic activity are beyond me so most of the action, such as there is, takes place off-stage while other story-lines occupy the foreground.

The cocktail-crew story-line does not make a reappearance until Chapter 16.

mikey said...

Well, yeah, sure, but doesn't ANYBODY get shot?