Saturday, 28 November 2015

Trigeminy



“No,” said Verity, “It’s ridiculous.”

Sacha sneezed.

“You can’t drive me to Leeds with a temperature of, what was it, nearly forty? You’d be a bloody menace on the roads and then you’d be Typhoid Mary on the ward_”

“I wouldn’t go to the ward.”

 Sacha hadn’t got the point, as usual.

“It wouldn’t do you any good. And it’d make me more likely to catch it too. Imagine sneezing when your ribcage’s held together with bits of wire: no. Stop it. I’m going to get you some elderberry drink and bring you some lunch here and then I’m off.”

“Can’t you go tomorrow instead?”

“No. Tomorrow’s four weeks. Monday. Remember we noticed Rembrandt’s always there on a Sunday evening, talking with her Monday patients? I want to catch her. And I don’t want to catch bloody ‘flu.”

She kissed him, and went to fetch her combat knife and a lighter.


*****


Verity, deep in thought, looked out over the grey, rain-swept fields.

They must be tracking me, I suppose...must be able to tell I’m on the move. Must probably have guessed where I’m heading. Sod it: should’ve let Sacha drive us. But then they might’ve tried to run us off the road, like that bloke did with Kate Adie...Sacha might’ve got injured. And my ribs hurt. You can’t win...

The train pulled up at Leeds station and she headed for the ticket barrier. It swallowed her ticket, unmoved.

Bugger. They’re here! Perfect place to catch me.

She headed for a ticket inspector who looked promisingly British: a black lad with a toothy grin.
 
“Sorry, I...it wouldn’t let me through. I’ve still got the receipt for the ticket if you need proof_”
 
“Oh they often do that when it’s rainin’: wet tickets get stuck.”

He let her through the wide gate, along with the prams and wheeled suitcases.

“Thanks.”

The incident put her on-edge. That bunch of people...is it them? That bloke? No: wonky teeth. She wished she’d had the presence of mind to put on more lip moisturiser before leaving the train. She thought about taking the shuttle bus rather than walking to the Jubilee Building: perhaps less likely to get ambushed. It meant turning right rather than left out of the station, and crossing the_

Looked right: there’s a sodding great S.U.V.! It’s them!

She crossed the road, walking away from it.

A shot rang out.

Someone else took it: not me. Get in that concrete stairwell...

Down the curved stars, out of sight.  

It led to Neville Street and the four-lane underpass with its strange sighing wall: an art installation. And to the Dark Arches

They won’t be able to pick up the signal from there. I can disappear and come out the other side: I bet they don’t even know it exists...

She pushed through the bedraggled metal fence and walked along the deserted former car-park. The arches with their four channels for the river Aire. Designed by her ancestor, Engineer Bennett. She smiled in the dark. The dark that hid her. 

Breaths came sharply: her heartbeat was pegged and unable to rise to the occasion. Had the brakes on.

Brake my heart...

She got to the steps which led down to the fourth of the river culverts, with its concrete walkway. The darkest place, where she’d first encountered the Cocktail Party. The three operatives, who’d now switched sides and deserted her. Difficult to climb over the fence to reach the steps: pains shot up and down her chest where the wires held it together. 

I’m not supposed to be doing this...

Suddenly the car-park flooded with cold white light. She heard the S.U.V. crash through the fence, drive towards where she’d been just a second ago, and park up directly above her. Doors slammed. Footsteps.
 
Other footsteps were coming towards her along the walkway. She ducked round behind the steel steps just as two sets of sparks shot off them. No gunshot, only a whistling sound.

She hoped they couldn’t hear her breathing. Trying to calm her breath, she hoped she wouldn’t pass out. 

Boots on the stairs, heading down over her. Another gunshot: away from her. More tasers, coming back towards the steps. The drive spark lit up a face: a face wearing those N.V.G.s. The optics, invented by Sacha, now in Enemy hands: on Enemy eyes.

Somebody grabbed her from behind. 

Three twists: pull the knife, twist to stab, twist then pull back. 

Thanks, Black Mountain

A dark figure collapsed near her feet. 

A pain shot up her sternum.

More gunshots: more taser sparks. But they didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. If anything they were receding. And concentrating more on each other than on her. 

She clung to the steps. It became difficult to stand. She could tell: whoever had the Remote was at it again.  Denying her the heartbeats that she needed. 

Footsteps, walking, coming slowly towards her. 

This isn’t a good enough place to hide: What if he’s got N.V.G.s on? Or some kind of infra-red camera?

She spotted an iron ladder leading down into the water: into the black Aire, swollen with the rain.

Yes, if I take three steps down that, I’m completely out of sight of whoever this is, and then when they give up looking, and I think all the other ones have gone now, I can just get back up and be on my way...

The chilling water tugged at her legs as she stepped down: she could tell it would drag her away if she lost hold of the ladder’s uprights. She wrapped her arms around them and listened for the footsteps. Nothing. 

Embracing the ladder, she closed her eyes and waited. Time became strange. 

Perhaps it’s safe now. Safe to climb up.

She opened her eyes and looked up.

Golden uprights. Golden rungs: thirteen of them, and they belong to someone called Jacob. Thirteen beats to the bar. Clouds at my feet. Just a perfectly normal day. I’d better get a move on, towards that hand at the top there, help me up. A left hand: and all those twazzocks saying their god’s right-handed... 

She started to climb.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Couplet



“So, gentlemen: this is our first subject. Our pioneer, if you like. Meet Patient Zero.”

Professor Austin addressed his two students. One of whom, Verity noticed, was female. 

The Professor’s voice was lower and more carefully-spoken than Verity remembered: she wondered if he had the ‘flu. She stared blankly at the wall behind his left shoulder. 

There was Jamila in her damask robes, turning her chair round and getting out her little book for morning prayers. She put a shawl over her head. Verity wished she could do the same; she was finding it hard not to smile at her own ingenuity.

*****

“Helen, Jamila,” she had said earlier, over breakfast, “I don’t know if I ever told you, but I volunteer for experiments. As a, er, subject. And I heard yesterday that these guys, the latest lot, they’ve just got their grant money through. They’re psychologists. Or psychiatrists, I can’t remember.”

“Are they coming here, to the ward?”

“Yes.” Verity looked into her empty breakfast bowl. “I’m really sorry_”

“What are they going to do?” asked Jamila.

“Just...look at me and, try and talk with me. It’s like a Turing Test_”

Helen looked up. Verity could tell she’d never heard of such a thing.

“They’ve got, fifty real mental patients, and fifty of us who’ve got nothing wrong with us. And we’ve got to pretend to be, you know, one thing short of a wotnot, and then without doing any physical tests, like brainwaves and stuff, they’ve got to tell the real ones from the, er,”

“Players?”

Verity grinned. “Yeah. Players.”

“So I take it your sponsored silence_”

“Ooh thanks, yes, that’s a point!”

She took down the notice about Amnesty International. “Yes: I’ve not really much choice have I..?”

“You must be mad.” Helen had said.

*****

The Professor came around beside Verity’s bed, pulled up a chair and sat down. He leaned in. 
 
“Hello, Verity.” He spoke slowly and carefully, looking right into her eyes

Verity stared blankly past him and out of the window.

“Do you remember who I am?”

“Judge your honour...” said Verity in a monotone. She noticed the male student snigger.

“Can you hear_”

“Hear...” Verity echoed.

The female student came over. 

“Can you remember your name?”

“My...prayer...” Verity remembered to squint: disconcert them. The female student backed off a little. 

“Yes: Player, that’s right.” said the male student with a smile that even Verity could see was fake. “Verity,” he looked down at his clipboard, “Imelda, Player.” She decided she didn’t like him. She stared straight in his eyes and announced:

“I’ve just cut my good man’s throat.”

She saw Helen grinning and stifling a laugh. Thankfully Jamila was still in deep communion with The Merciful.

The Professor’s right hand flashed up to slap Verity, but her own left arm moved quicker to block: defence. 

“Self-preservation.” said the male student. “Surely getting rid of the drive for self-preservation will prove more difficult than the work done so fa_”

“And what, exactly, would you know about these complex cognitive processes, hmm? Of the statistical calculations involved in analysing and modifying them? Of the search, the screening, the vetting, for the ideal, first subject? Ewan?

Verity noticed ‘Ewan’s ears turn red. 


The Professor turned pale. He got up and left the bay, followed by his two students. Verity watched them out of the ward door until it had closed.

“They’ve gone”, she said.

The Colonel walked in with a coffee. 

“Oh, thank you.” She smiled up at him.

“You were damn good!”

“Thank you, Colonel. Have you met Helen and Jamila, by the way?”

The Colonel’s eyes widened on seeing Jamila.

“Is that a real, y’know, Moslem?”

“Yes. She’s praying.”

“Well, OK. Now, let’s talk about Cassie. Methods: tactics. You ‘member the tone?”

Verity hummed it.

“She ain’t gonna get scared off like your Prof, and she ain’t got a stinkin’ hangover neether_”

“Was he hung over?”

“Sure, couldn’t you tell? ‘Mazed you didn’t get tipsy just sittin’ near the guy.”

“You...weren’t...”

In. No I wasn’t. Trusted ya to do a good job. You play soccer don’tcha? Defense.”

“Used to.”

“One-up at half-time, huh? Whatcha gotta do now?”

“Er...keep my nerve.”

“Sure. Defend good. I can go in and tell if you’re losin’ it, if ya like. If it don’t disconcert ya.”

“What could you do, though? If I_”

“Sit in the lounge there, line o’sight, and give y’a signal. Biofeedback.”

“That might help actually, yes.”

Verity spent the rest of the morning on-edge. Just before lunch she went to the window and looked, once more, at the evil Plant Building. Recalled the lad she had seen in Helen’s chair. Decided not to tell Helen about it: thankfully everybody had slept right through the fracas. 

Hurts. Sicks. 

She grasped the handle to open the window. No infrasound today.

And screamed out loud:

Oh my God!! Infrasound! Hertz! Six!! That lad...Six Hertz!! Bloody hell! Am I thick or what??”

When she turned round to apologise to Helen and Jamila, she slammed straight into Cassie. 

Can love beeee...

She hummed the tone in her head: block Cassie’s signal. 

She couldn’t see the Colonel. She didn’t know how a broken person should walk. She recalled the R.T.I. video she'd watched last year, took its advice about emergency situations and collapsed.

Cassie knelt beside her. Someone's footsteps headed for the Nurses’ Station. 

“Are you OK?” Cassie’s voice. Footsteps headed in towards her.

“All the excitement proving a bit too much for us, is it?” Dr Wheeler’s voice. “General, I think we’d better allow Mrs Player a bit of quiet, hadn't we?”

Cassie wouldn’t budge.

Thud.” said Verity.

Cassie’s footsteps receded.

Dr Wheeler knelt beside Verity, but she could tell his attention lay elsewhere. She heard the ward door close.

“Well done,” said Dr Wheeler, putting down Verity's discharge report and medications so as to offer her a hand up. 

“I think we had her fooled, don’t you?”

Verity couldn’t quite believe her ears.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Operations


“Are you sure we can do this here?” asked Sacha, his huge frown betraying doubt.

“Yes yes, just pull the curtain round, like that, and bring that other little footstool from over there. It’s Visitors’: they won’t come and bother me for anything right now.” 

Verity got out of bed, pulled on her dressing gown and lowered the over-bed table. 

“Then all we need is this one, and put the little table here...”

They knelt. In an instant they stood on the steps of Verity’s Mind Palace, overlooking the garden. 

Autumn had arrived. The skyscape was low, dark and monotone. Orange leaves stood out like frozen flames. Most of the plants in the beds had long since lost their green pulse of life and collapsed, brown and greasy, on the soil.

“Hey, the layout’s changed!”

No more ornamental octagonal expanses of flowers: instead, regimented raised beds of winter root vegetables, lined up for inspection.

“It looks like at the Dacha.”

“It looks like ‘Dig for Victory’. Anyone’d think I’d gone on a diet!”

They turned round to go in. 

“Oh God, the lights are out_”

“No, there are heavy curtains_”

“Blackout blinds! Heck it looks grim.”

“Grim oop North.” Sacha smiled. 

“Put that bloody light out!” Verity joked.

There were no chandeliers in the hallway: just bare bulbs with black metal hats. A wall blocked the right-hand half of the enfilade. On a dark wooden door whose cross-wired, frosted window had been curtained off from the inside were posted the words:

Ministry of Conversation

Verity tried the handle. The door opened.

They stepped through onto dusty worn parquet. The room stretched before them for at least twenty paces. Cold gloss walls, dark green to a brown strip at dado height and cream above, faded to indistinct colours towards the far end as the dust and soot in the air did their work. 

A huge wooden desk stood near the side wall to the left, with a formation of chairs around it. Verity noticed the design: ‘Utility’, from the middle of last century. 

A black stove squatted beyond the desk. Though throwing out heat, it showed no flames and didn’t seem up to the task of warming the room. A coal bucket stood next to it. 

A small table near the stove held tea-making things: a black kettle, a large pale blue enamelled-metal teapot and a flotilla of cups and saucers of a light green, triangular design that Verity remembered from her grandparents’ house. On the blackboard over the table someone had written: 

When in doubt, brew up.

Against the far wall they could make out a stark, bare table and two chairs. A black-shaded lamp hung low over the table. Near this arrangement sat what appeared to be a huge set of some type of audio equipment. Verity walked over to investigate it. 

“Hey, it’s Russian! Look! Made in Leningrad: like you!”

Ленинград, СССР

Sacha’s confidence working it took Verity aback: he wasn’t usually the practical sort. When he fired it up it replayed, verbatim, the entire conversation she had had with the Colonel in his Mind Palace. 

Verity found a sheaf of papers on top of it: technical drawings.  She recognised the shapes of all the pieces the Colonel had shown her in the attaché case. She turned to Sacha and leaned on his shoulder,

“Thank you...”

“What for?”

“You must have come and sat by me, when I was visiting the Colonel’s mind. Without your help, there’s no way I’d ever have been able to memorise all the stuff he told me...”

“Oh, what’s this?”

It looked like an oscilloscope. Verity fired it up. 

A perfect sinewave showed on the screen and a single tone filled the room.

“It’s...”

Verity’s face lit up.

“That’s the jamming frequency! The Colonel told me, how to defend against the sort of mind-reading he does. He was showing off like a twazzock. He forgot I have perfect pitch: I can remember it!”

She went to sit in the chair behind the large desk, and absentmindedly tried its top drawer. The drawer opened. In it lay two notebooks: one dog-eared and bound in pale green, one brand new and bound in black. She waved the green booklet,

“It’s a ration book!”

And opened it,

“It’s...words! Conversation! Like conversation’s on the ration!”

“Well, you don’t like to say much now because of that_”

“Blimey, so it is on the ration. And it even has a Ministry. To administer it. That’s...weird.”

Sacha came over, picked up the black book and opened it.  

“Let’s have tea” he said slowly.

“Oh, good idea! There’s_”

“No, I mean, that’s what it says in here, look.”

Verity looked. There were only two sentences typed on the first page. The second read:

“Let’s talk in the kitchen, where no-one can hear us.”

“What an odd pair of sentences.”

We’re an odd pair of sentences.” said Sacha, putting an arm around Verity.

Verity giggled. “Yes I suppose we are. D’you remember when we had to do that? Use the kitchen to_”

“It’s a code book.”

“What?”

That’s what we said, and that’s what it meant.” Sacha indicated the two sentences as he spoke.

“So it is!”

Verity flicked through the rest of the pages in the book. All were blank. She noticed a pencil in the desk drawer.

“Shall we fill it in, then? Make up a code?”

Sacha looked once more in the desk drawer. Another little book, and a second pencil, had materialised there. 

“I think it’s trying to tell us something.” grinned Verity.

They set to.




Thursday, 5 November 2015

Bonfire Night thoughts

When I was a kid, I always thought tonight's date was about celebrating someone who was brave and daring enough to get rid of a load of greedy MPs, presumably for some noble, selfless cause. We learned the bare bones of it at school, but nothing about the reason behind it.

I came home and asked my mum what "torture" meant. I was about 5.

Then I found out that the celebration marked his failure, not his daring.  I thought this a bit of a let-down: why celebrate something failing?

Well, perhaps because the alternative was even worse than what England had going on at the time (famine, witch-hunts, etc). Meh. By this time I found this out, I was about 12.

Later we moved to Glasgow, where nobody likes to talk about it all because it's so divisive. We didn't go to bonfire nights for those four years: things tended to get ugly outdoors on 5th November. Fireworks were better saved for the New Year. 

And there my attitude stayed, until a visit, last year, to York Dungeon.

According to the display there, Guy Fawkes was on the rack for ten days and in all that time gave away NOTHING AT ALL. And the only reason they found him in the cellar in the first place was that someone had written a letter to a friend, warning them. No threats, no coercion.

Now at last I can think of bonfire night as having something useful and uplifting to say.

For over 400 years it has served us as a not-so-quiet reminder:

Torture doesn't work.