Short Stories

I was going to call this Tight Shorts, but that would imply it’s a load of old bollocks. A collection of short tales, some humorous, some not.

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The Duel

To achieve greatness, one needs an enemy. Where would Churchill be without Hitler, Ali without Frazier, shadow without light? Not to keep you honest – let’s not get starry eyed about this – but at least to impose some discipline on your lies.

Or a rival, I suppose. We now live in softer times, after all – pistols at dawn a thing of the past. At a pinch a rival will do. Someone who will criticize your weaknesses and remind you of your failings, not realizing that by pressing you in this way they are only spurring you on to greater success.

And if you can’t even muster a rival? It may be that greatness is not your destiny. Or perhaps you just need prompting from some other direction. A spouse, for example.

“Henry, the bathroom tap is dripping.”

“Is it?”

“Yes dear. Just like it has been all week.”

“Oh that. I tried to fix it the other day.”

“It’s still dripping.”

“I pulled it apart, but it didn’t seem to have a washer to replace. I think it’s one of those modern ones. I’ll need to buy a special part.”

“You could go now.”

“But I’m reading the paper. Halfway through the crossword … You realise I’ll have to turn off the water main? Have to pull out the whatsimathingy and take it with me. Otherwise I won’t know what to get.”

“If you say so, dear.”

A half-hour later, Henry was contemplating the emptiness of the disabled parking space. Its vacancy had enticed him into the hardware store’s small and crowded carpark, the curve of the driveway rendering its orange lines invisible from the road. Should he? How long could it take to buy a single item of tapware? He sighed and selected reverse, began a three-point turn. He had got as far as the exit, indicator ticking away, waiting for a gap in traffic, when a movement in his rear vision mirror alerted him to a car moving out of its slot. He cursed it for not having shown itself moments earlier. Could he back his car down the lane, he wondered? It would be clumsy and ungainly, but when needs must … Grimly, he selected reverse again.

Too slow. The other car was out of its slot now, was coming towards him. Would its driver have the gumption to recognize his reversing lights? To halt at a convenient spot where Henry could back around him? No, apparently not. Too late now, the other vehicle had entered the narrow exit lane. It emitted the briefest of toots on its horn, politely indicating to Henry that he was an obstacle to progress. Henry sighed again. If he’d owned an SUV he could have driven over the curb. Over the flower bed and back into the car park. He considered it briefly but it didn’t seem a wise course of action in a Honda Civic. Another car was coming in the entrance, the empty slot as good as gone now.

Back out on the road, Henry followed the path of least resistance, searching the nearby streets in vain and at random, getting farther and farther away from his destination. It was a Saturday morning, mid-December: worst case scenario for parking a car. It was Marion’s habit to have her morning cup of tea around now, he recalled. Had she remembered to fill the kettle before he turned off the water? He wasn’t sure.

There it was, at last. Not just a hardware store, but a hardware store with vacant street parking. Not a large gap, but times are a tiny Honda will outdo an SUV. And Henry was a native of this city: parallel parking was in his DNA.

Inside, his elation faded. The store was laid out in a series of display shelves, waist high and filled with anonymous cabinets and assorted products that failed to trigger any recognition in his sweeping glance. He blinked, but the stacked items declined to resolve further. Clearly, not a hardware store at all. So what was it then? An emporium for antiquities? A junk shop? The merchandise exuded a collective property – this much he could tell – of being the sort of things that, had the natural order still held, would have been carted here on the backs of donkeys. But beyond this, nothing. His brow creased in renewed frustration.

Or perhaps it was a hardware store, one translated in time. Something about the feel of the place. A vibration from beyond the immediate senses – it shook loose a fragment of memory. From childhood? He recalled poking about in tubs of nuts and bolts, wondering at the pipe fittings and other arcane objects of the adult world, how they made for poor toys. It was a good memory. Here and now, the recollection was like waking up with a dream still vivid and real, yet uncertain whether the events experienced were from real life or mere echoes from some other past dream. This was odd. Henry was fairly sure he’d never dreamed of metal fastenings, but how could he be sure? Whatever it was, something about this place chimed with the memory. The wooden floorboards, the dim light – beams of sunlight that filtered in from a dirty skylight or infiltrated through side windows and between stacks of piled boxes. These sunbeams were the sole form of illumination, he noticed – no artificial light sources were evident – though a term like natural lighting hardly seemed appropriate given the room’s peculiar candle-lit aura. Something about the totality of the impression meshed comfortably with his memory, the train of thought uncreasing his brow and restoring good-humour to his face. Only one thing, he noted, was distinctive of the here and now: a faint smell (his memory was odourless). Not unpleasant, almost inviting in a dusty kind of way; the air had a mustiness to it, like wine aged too long in the bottle, like a forgotten potpourri of dead flowers.

To his right was a counter, behind it a woman he had interrupted in the act of reading a book.

He held up his tap valve. “I’m looking for one of these. I realise I’ve come to the wrong place, but, well, I’m here now. Thought I may as well ask.”

She smiled at him, took the object from his hand for closer inspection then returned it to him with a shake of her head.

“This was the only place I could find a car park …” He looked sheepish.

“Just like the drunk in the joke?” She was in her middle years, hard to place any more precisely than that. A part of Henry felt it important to judge her age, necessary for modulating his responses to her, just as another part registered his inability to make the call. Her race, too, was hard to pin down – dark curled hair and an olive skin, suggestive of the Middle East without ruling out South America. It was as if she hailed from some mid-point, equidistant from Asia, Africa, and Europe.

“I’m sorry?”

“A group of people are coming home from a night out. They find a drunk searching for his keys under a lamp post, stop to help him, but no luck. When one of them asks where exactly he lost these keys, he says, ‘Oh, I lost them over in the shadows, but it’s too dark to look for them there’.”

“Ha, I get it,” Henry chuckled. “It’s the name of your shop, isn’t it? Light and Dark, I saw the sign on the way in.” He looked about him. “Is that the reason for the subdued lighting?”

“The drunk in the joke never finds his keys. But perhaps he finds some new friends.” Her speech was accented – melodic and feminine – but not to Henry’s ear suggestive of any one origin over another. “It’s pleasing to find what you seek. But how much more agreeable to discover something you never realised you were looking for.”

“You think I might? Now that I’m here?” He peered into the gloom at the rear of the shop.

She shrugged, her face benevolent. She was not unattractive. Henry wondered at how many customers she must get in a day. Perhaps not many. Yet hers was not a face that looked like it needed actively to seek out conversation and company. He felt a frisson of pleasure at the flattery implied by her talking to him in this unusual manner.

“You’re on a quest.” She patted the book on her lap, as if its pages contained corroboration for this assertion. “Not quite the holy grail, but a quest nonetheless. They say, you know, that to succeed at such a thing, one must keep a pure heart.” Her voice was emphatic, edged with a mix of humour and kindness. While the accent continued to elude him, there was, Henry realized, something in her speech he found familiar. Not from real life but from movies. Old movies in black and white – intrigue in dark rooms or passion under a desert sun. A voice that could speak such words as ‘quest’ or ‘pure heart’ and make them sound like everyday vocabulary.

Henry laughed, the sound of it dying quickly in the still air of the room. “Too late, I fear. I’ve been sullied already. Driving through Saturday morning traffic does that to you.”

She didn’t reply, merely tilted her head at him. A gentle smile.

“Does it still apply in a quest for bathroom fittings? It’s not exactly, …” Henry was watching her face, gauging her reactions as he spoke. A thought occurred to him. “What is a grail anyway? Holy or otherwise. I know it’s something knights are always riding out in search of. But what exactly is it?”

She stood up from her seat. “Come with me,” she instructed him. The simple cotton dress she wore was pinched in enough at the waist to indicate that, although slim, there was a solidity to her physique; something Henry became conscious of as he followed her across the room.

She opened a cabinet and removed a goblet, resting it in the palm of her hand for Henry to look at. “The grail was the cup used to take communion at the Last Supper. So the legend goes. This piece is not so holy, but beautiful nonetheless, don’t you think?” She handed it to Henry who took it with care. Examining it, Henry realised it was made not of metal as he might have expected, nor even of glass, but of ceramic. The thinness of the sides made him intensely conscious of its brittle rigidity, becoming in his hands a living thing that threatened to wriggle loose and dash itself against the floor were a momentary lapse in concentration to provide the opportunity.

“You see the design? It is worked in silver and gold leaf, held by a thin transparent glaze. A very fine piece.”

Henry murmured agreement, peering nervously at the intricate workmanship and feeling a moment of vertigo from its swirling abstract patterns before hastening to hand the goblet back to the woman. He did so with elaborate care, causing the woman’s hands to entwine with his for an extended moment.

“Only one of many treasures here, I don’t doubt,” said Henry. “Perhaps I should have a look around now that I’m here. Christmas is coming. Maybe I’ll find a gift.”

“Please do. There is much here I would be happy to show you, but only you can know what you really want.”

As he turned away, Henry wondered at the time. How long had he been here already? He had promised Marion a quick return. He moved along the aisle, examining the display of trinkets and figures as he went, finding it hard in his beguiled state to concentrate on any one piece. He halted in front of a chess set, its figures carved of wood. He picked up the most ornate of them, the queen, for closer examination, aware from his peripheral vision that the woman was returning to her counter. He placed the chess piece back on the board and pulled his phone from his trouser pocket, feeling guilty as he did so of been seen committing an action so incongruous with his surroundings. It was nearly eleven. What time had it been when he left home? He noticed, too, and without surprise, the icon for loss of signal. The disconnection from the outside world seemed appropriate somehow.

Putting the device away, he moved on to a set of leather-bound books. The sense of recognition that had met him when he first entered the store had merely dimmed in the presence of the woman, remaining as faint overlay on his reactions to her. Now it came back to him as strong as before. Yet surely his childhood self had never encountered anything like this. He took one of the books and checked the spine; it was Bleak House by Charles Dickens. So what could account for the feeling?

“Do you enjoy Dickens? It is a complete set.” Her voice carried easily across the distance between them. “Not so old, I think, but hand-tooled. The collectors get so excited about first editions, but here we care only about the beauty.” Henry nodded back at her. He was possessed, as it happened, of an aversion to Dickens instilled in high school. But what about Marion, he wondered? They had long given up the practice of exchanging Christmas gifts, but was this something she would enjoy? Would she delight in the unexpectedness of the gift, or would she recoil from its oddity? Here in these peculiar yet familiar surroundings, redolent of a time long before Marion became part of his life, he found the question a hard one to focus on. In twenty-odd years of marriage, had they ever discussed Dickens?

He replaced the book and continued his browsing along the shelves. Time shifted again. He had gone almost full circle now, down one aisle and up the other side. Glancing across, he could see she had put down her book once more, was observing him unselfconsciously, hands in her lap, her expression one of idle contentment. He nodded at her, picked up a complex-looking contraption of wood and polished metal. “What’s this?”

“Isn’t it delightful?” she said, coming across to him, smiling and unhurried. “It’s an egg timer. Watch! You turn it so, and … ” She took it from his hands and wound a clockwork mechanism on its side, placed it back on the shelf. “Now we must wait for the time it takes to boil an egg.”

“Time?” mused Henry. “You know, I really should be going soon. I still have a plumbing supplies store to find.” Something in the act of saying the words, of watching her reaction, rendered them untrue. It was a Saturday morning, after all. He was here on his own account. Why not take his time. The woman was still watching him with the same expression, comforting and complacent.

“But have you found anything you like yet?”

Henry shrugged. “Perhaps a little bit longer. I’m still looking.”

“I, too, have been looking.” She laughed, stepped across to the cabinet and took out the goblet once more. “I think my first instinct was the right one, don’t you?” She handed it to him.

“How much is it?”

“Price …” She waved a hand, dismissive. “First you must decide whether it really is what you want. Then we discuss.”

In his possession, Henry was conscious once more of the object’s delicacy, resting it loosely on his fingertips, as if to hold it full in his hand risked crushing it in some involuntary motion. He held the goblet by the stem and rotated it, noting how this movement amplified the hypnotic character of the patterns inlaid on its surface. Could he desire such an object?

“Where are all your other customers?” he asked.

She shrugged. “If it is as bad as you say out there, perhaps they are wise enough to stay at home today.”

“Smarter than me you mean?”

“Ah, but you are here for a reason.”

“My quest?”

They were silent for a moment. She took a step closer, began to raise a hand toward him.

Henry’s reaction was barely perceptible, instinctive, the slightest of flinches. The goblet fell from his fingers, shattered on the floor.

He stood unmoving for a moment, registering what had happened. Then a chime sounded. He turned his head in time to see a jack-in-a-box pop open in a clatter of movement. The egg timer.

The woman’s reaction was a brief string of words in a language Henry could not identify, her tone of voice translation enough. Turning back to observe the transformation in her demeanour, Henry was agitated as much by the feeling it invoked as by the shards on the floor, or by the tiny grotesque head that nodded accusingly on its spring, still under the influence of residual inertia. “Oh,” he said. “I’m so sorry. It was an accident. You startled me, the way you … Look, I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.” he hesitated. “ You never told me the price.”

Her smile was long gone; her face hardened. She named a sum.

“What?” Henry look at her, dumbfounded. “Surely you’re joking.”

Behind them, the door to the shop opened and a figure entered. Henry turned to look. A woman with blond hair tied back in a severe bun, a paleness of face that appeared doll-like in the tainted sunlight of the store interior. “Marion? What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to ask you the same question.” She peered about, sniffing as if to adjust to some peculiarity in the air. “I couldn’t do the laundry and I couldn’t wash the dishes. I couldn’t even make myself a cup of tea. So I got sick of waiting.”

“But how did you know where I was?”

“Um, the same way I always do?” She looked amused. “Using Find my Friends?” Glancing across to the shop lady, she gave her a look of complicity, as if to apologize on behalf of all womanhood for the general phenomenon of male ineptitude, and by doing so to assert personal ownership of this specific instance. “I called but you didn’t pick up.”

“I think we’re in a dead spot.” Presented with a question he could answer, Henry rallied.

“Find my Friends had this as your last known location. Either you were still here or you had slipped off into some parallel dimension.” She was still smiling, but something in her expression changed. Henry followed her line of sight to the debris at his feet.

The shop lady now spoke: “This man is your husband? I am afraid there has been an incident. We were discussing the question of retribution.” Her voice had lost all softness.

“I think you mean restitution.” Marion looked at her husband, shaking her head. “Oh dear, Henry. Have you been clumsy?”

“This is a most precious piece. Highly valuable. I must insist.”

Marion focused back on the woman, their respective expressions synchronizing as each took the measure of the other.

“Well, you may insist all you like, but it doesn’t necessarily follow …”

“What are you saying? The goblet was in your husband’s hands. Now it is shattered on the floor. You must accept your obligation.”

“Ah, well, obligation. There’s the crux, is it not?” Marion countered the woman’s haughtiness of tone with a voice of mild reason.

As this was going on, Henry was distracted by his own thoughts, wondering when might be the time to inform Marion of the sum the woman had just quoted him, leaning for the present toward a policy of discretion. He was still pondering the question when he became aware of his wife having just spoken to him.

“Did you take it outside?” she asked.

Henry looked confused. “What? No. I …”

“Did you express an intention to purchase it?”

“No, this lady merely gave it to me to admire …”

“And did you break it intentionally?”

“No, of course not.” Indignant now. “She …,” he started then stopped, flustered as well as indignant. “I was startled,… the jack-in-a-box …” He waved a hand at the fearsome miniature head leering at them from its display shelf. “It just slipped out of my hand.”

“Then in that case the problem is one for the store to take up with its insurance company.” Marion smiled genially at Henry, who in his turn was expressing open-mouthed relief.

“But this is unacceptable.” The shop lady’s voice crackled with anger. “An exquisite piece, destroyed. Very old, very valuable.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Marion, still looking on at her husband. “But consumer law is quite explicit.”

Contrite now, Henry looked across at the shop lady. “Marion is a lawyer,” he explained. Addressing his wife: “You know, if I’m going to get to that plumbing store, I think we really ought to be going.”

On the way out, Henry took his wife’s hand. “You really are a marvel, you know. A knight in shining armour. Riding to the rescue.” He gave the hand a squeeze.

She laughed. “You have such an imagination, Henry.”

“Do I? Perhaps I do.” As they emerged into daylight, he paused for a moment to think. “There is one thing, though. One thing about all this that still mystifies me.”

“Really? And what is that?”

“It’s wonderful that you came to find me. But how on earth did you manage to find an empty parking space at this time of day?”


The Garden

  1. Highlights

Catch the scene from the right angle, in the right light, and it acquires for itself a beauty that belongs exactly where it is. Blinker your eyes (to block out the village), wait until twilight (when the river, a murky brown in full sun, becomes polished copper) and you could imagine yourself on Old Earth–still water and a backdrop of exotic-looking vegetation clinging to the pale rock of the river bank, a languid tropical scene from a pre-technical world. Only “exotic-looking”, of course. These shrubs and trees; you see them here in their natural habitat, if such a term can be used for something that sprung from a terraformer’s workstation. But blank that thought. Focus instead on the stillness, the placement of elements in the tableau, haphazard yet artistic–the effect is to instil tranquillity in the viewer. This is the essence of the place. Not the riverside slum in this underdeveloped corner of an underpopulated planet, a long way from trade routes to anywhere anyone sensible might want to go.

Nick had come too far. He’d blocked the distractions, but blocked the beauty too. His focus was on the river, reaching out with his drink bottle, hoping to find, in the gentle current, a patch of water less muddy than the dirty fluid that lapped at his feet. He was angry to be doing this, a fussy distracted anger that signified little and sat comfortably atop his guilt and his pride. Not the guilt of excessive pride, you understand. That might make intuitive sense, for all that it rarely exists in practice. No, with Nick it went the other way; his pride derived from his guilt, in the process creating a matched pair of emotions to buttress the original sin that had brought him here.

That sin? It was high-mindedness. In a society where all was permitted, taking yourself seriously was the last taboo.

  1. Getting There and Getting Around

Nick had spent most of the journey here sequestered in his cabin, resigning himself early in the voyage to his having little in common with either the raucous starship crew or his fellow passengers. While they filled the long hours of travel with parties and other more lurid recreations, Nick kept to himself, fearing the ridicule he would face, the embarrassment, were he to admit the real purpose of his expedition.

Not that he minded being on his own. He’d come to accept his place as one of life’s square pegs–his best survival strategy, he’d found, was to stay away from round holes. And as for being forced to spend time alone with his thoughts; for Nick, this was more than anything else a source of comfort. No, if he felt any discomfort, any guilt, it arose not from his thoughts but from his memories. One memory in particular: of how Cathy had come home from work that day, had found him on the couch, lost in thought with a book abandoned at his side. How she had carefully placed the book to one side, had sat down next to him, put an arm around his shoulder and leaned in against him, had said, in the sweetest of voices, “Nick, you can’t keep living with your head up your arse.”

Those had been her exact words. Her parting words, in effect. He had defended himself, of course. In an earlier time they had enjoyed such intense discussions. But this time Cathy had declined to argue back. She gave his shoulder one last squeeze before extracting her arm and leaving him to resume his interrupted contemplation. It was a few days later that she announced she was leaving, and from that point on would discuss no subject beyond the logistics of separation. This interregnum was mercifully brief. Two more days and Nick was living alone.

He went through the phases: denial, anger, grief. He couldn’t remember the exact sequence but no doubt they had passed in their allotted order. And while all this was going on, a growing sense of self-doubt. Could it be that Cathy was right? And yet, when he lifted his head up and looked at the world around him, all he could see, stretching to the horizon in every direction, were vast swathes of ordinariness. Wherever he looked, it was the same elements repeating themselves over and over again; people and more people, cities and towns, stars and galaxies. The amazing thing wasn’t that he should crave some transcendence from all this; it was that he should be the only one to do so. From this thought came his pride.

Then he remembered reading somewhere about the temple, about the great secrets they kept, the promise of answers. Perhaps, after all, he wasn’t the only person in the universe who felt compelled to contemplate its deepest mysteries? Perhaps all he really needed, it suddenly occurred to him, was to find the right peer group.

So he cashed up what meagre possessions he owned and spent the bulk of the proceeds on buying passage on a starship. As yet there had been no sign of that peer group, certainly not among the passengers and crew. One of the solitary thoughts with which he occupied his time on board was to wonder whether this lingering guilt he felt about his mission would accompany him down to the planet. Would it drop away on arrival, as he found himself, he presumed, in the company of others possessed of the same rarefied compulsions? Or would it cling by force of habit, leaving everyone mumbling and gauche? The question remained unanswered. As far as he could tell he was the temple’s only pilgrim.

That still left the locals, but from them at least he felt safe from any accusation, let alone judgement.

He levered himself upright, frowned with distaste at the off-colour fluid that now filled his drink bottle. The guide book had included a water purifier on its list of “Desirable non-essentials” but Nick had skimmed over this and other items of practical advice. What did it matter to him? He would only be passing through on his way to the temple. A water purifier would have been an extravagance. Bottled water, he’d thought. Support the local economy. Heaven knew, he’d be spending little enough money as it was.

Where his cursory research had failed him–what reality had gone on to make abundantly clear–was that there was no local economy. He’d arrived at the settlement an hour earlier, having walked a distance of nearly ten kilometres from the dropship landing field, the only way down to this primitive outpost. The pilotless craft had opened its door; and Nick, its only passenger, had walked out into nothing at all. Literally nothing: no parked aircraft, no terminal building, no evidence whatsoever of a human presence. Just a dusty clearing, a pleasant warmth and an all-encompassing stillness that amplified the click of the hatchway closing behind him. He’d turned and watched as the small automated craft sprung upwards, appeared to hover suspended a moment, then accelerated away into a pale, soon-to-be-empty sky.

Surveying the scene around him didn’t take long–the same bare ground and fringe of jungle confronted him in every direction he looked. Turning on the spot, he felt a spark of panic, realizing that this act of rotation had just destroyed any sense of orientation he had retained from the landing. He squashed this feeling, pressing it back down into his background sense of unease, reminding himself that he’d had no idea of which way he was facing to begin with.

He pulled out his terminal, grateful for this one human artefact, and for the icon on its screen informing him that satnav, at least, was working here. So off he set, taking its bearing and following what may have been a track–he never managed to convince himself one way or the other–that ran in a dead straight line from this dusty field to a settlement by a river.

The landing field was two or three hundred meters in length, no more. On reaching its edge–the beginning of the jungle–Nick paused to assess the terrain he would need to cover. It wasn’t really a jungle at all, he was relieved to find, better described as a plain of stunted scrubby vegetation. Observing more closely, he saw that these growths he had taken for trees felt, to the touch, more like coral, that what appeared from even quite close range to be foliage was in fact a variety of slime mould. He startled himself when he touched it, his fingers passing right through, the goo sticking to his hand. He wiped off as much as he could on a rock-like ‘branch’, smearing the rest on his trousers. Everything here, he reminded himself, was here because a designer chose it to be so. Whatever oddity he might encounter, it was the work of a creator.

Before setting off again he opened and consumed the snack bar he had brought with him from the ship, washing it down with a long draft from his water bottle. Refreshed, he set out, terminal in hand, for what looked set to be little more than a walk in a park.

  1. Things to See

He arrived in the town feeling hot, but also exercised and in good spirits, ready for refreshment and rest. What he found on emerging from the jungle was another clearing, and barely more civilization than the wasteland at his back–just a tatty agglomeration of improvised construction materials, barefoot children and wandering poultry. Bounded by the river on one edge, the settlement was surrounded on all other sides by the same pseudo-vegetation he had spent the past hours walking through. Somewhat farther away was a solitary hill. From the superior vantage point of this bare patch of land he could now make out the walls of the temple constructed on its peak. Hard to miss, really. The river aside, it was the scene’s only landmark.

Taking what encouragement he could from this sight of his destination, Nick retuned his focus to his surroundings. It was perplexing, almost a defining paradox of humanity, that such squalor could exist in an age of star travel. Yet here it unquestionably was. Looking at the ramshackle constructions, the loitering inhabitants, he could only assume these people chose to live this way. As a mode of existence it was diametrically opposed to Nick’s own. But who was he to judge?

Resolving to make an attempt at communication, he approached a nearby child.

“Excuse me, is there a town store where I can buy food and water?”

The child stared at him, dull eyed and uncomprehending.

“Um, a trading post perhaps?” Nick’s second attempt brought no change to the child’s expression. He searched his mind for possible terminology, thinking this might be the problem; felt relief on seeing a figure emerging from one of the shanties. Grateful for this adult intervention, it was only once this person, an elderly woman, had wearily raised her body into an upright position that Nick became aware of her being entirely unclothed. That the child, too, was naked had seemed to Nick somehow in keeping with the tone of the place. The woman’s appearance came as more of a surprise.

“Chockit, mista.”

“What?” Nick frowned, any relief at her capacity for speech outweighed by the difficulty of parsing her words. They sounded like words; it was just their sense that eluded him. Meanwhile, his panicked eyes skittered about, uncertain of where to rest their gaze. “I’m looking for somewhere to buy food and water.” He enunciated these words as slowly and carefully as he could.

“Chockit!” The old woman was grinning through teeth that appeared dazzlingly white amid all her sun-wizened skin. She reached out a hand, encouraging, as if she were the human and he a timid pet. Nick felt his frustration rise.

“She wants chocolate.” The new voice came from behind him. Turning to identify this fresh arrival, Nick was confronted with a man, his head shaven, dressed in a saffron robe.

He was smiling a monk-like smile. “Pilgrims often hand some out as they pass through. You don’t have any do you?”

“Sorry. I was hoping there might be a store around here somewhere. A place where I could buy food and water? Perhaps I could get some chocolate while I’m at it?”

The monk laughed. “No store here, I’m afraid. There’s manna if you’re hungry and plenty of water in the river.”

“The river?” Nick’s gratitude at being offered coherent words was mixed with bewilderment as the sense of them failed to resolve.

“I know it doesn’t look very palatable, but it’s only dissolved grit. No pathogens to worry about.” He waved his hand. “We live in a sterile terraform, you see? Nothing here can hurt you. Not even the people.”

Nick looked at the old woman, the dull-eyed child, saw nothing there to contradict the monk’s words.

“I’m Thomas. You must be Nick Carrington.” He accompanied this introduction with a slight bow. When he raised his head he was still grinning at Nick’s discombobulation. “The ship told us you were coming.”

“Oh, right. Of course.”

“You’re on your way to the temple, I imagine. I’d offer to accompany you, but I’m afraid I’ve an errand to run. Mail drop from your ship. Got to pick it up.” He waited a moment, gifting time for Nick’s understanding of the situation to catch up.

“Oh,” said Nick. “I see.”

The monk adopted a benevolent expression, looked skyward. “It’s getting late. Just one word of warning for you–don’t try traveling at night.”

Nick looked up at this warning. “Savage beasts?”

The monk’s grin returned, wider still. “Oh hardly. But when I said there’s nothing here that can hurt you, I left out the obvious exception: yourself. It’d be the simplest thing to trip and break a leg in the darkness. Then what would you do? It gets very dark here, you see? No moon, and the stars don’t offer much. My advice: if you find dusk is falling, just settle yourself down for the night. It’ll be warm enough. You should be perfectly comfortable. And safe, of course.”

The monk had left him shortly afterwards, parting with further reassurances and a promise to re-establish their acquaintance upon Nick’s arrival at the temple.

Nick was not particularly thirsty, was even less so after a closer look at the river. Nonetheless, the monk’s words still echoed and he recognized the folly of setting out on the final section of his hike without a store of water, even if only as a contingency.

While the monk had been right–nightfall would come soon–Nick decided he would resume his trek regardless. Harmless or not, the settlement’s inhabitants made him uncomfortable. He’d passed a number of others on his way down to the river. “Chockit to you too,” he’d answered back, forcing a smile. The word had come to sound to him increasingly like a local form of greeting, its tone disconsolate and automatic. Nobody had pestered him or seemed remotely put out by his failure to deliver the goods. This world lacked a moon, lacked tides. It was as if, denied mankind’s birth right of lunacy, they had fallen victim instead to a more docile and insidious lapse.

So he kept moving. There was perhaps no more than half an hour of usable light remaining, but he could cover an appreciable distance in that time. The monk had said something about ‘manna’. Nick looked this up in the guidebook as he contemplated the river: it turned out to be the peculiar semi-liquid faux-foliage that had startled him on his way from the landing field. A balanced set of nutrients, he read, engineered by the terraformers to provide the planet with a dependable source of food, one that would require no effort on behalf of the inhabitants to produce. The guide had less to say about its palatability, and Nick was in no hurry to give it a try. Even so–food and water taken care of, the temple hill the only landmark for miles around, and visible from practically everywhere. The monk was right: short of some incapacitating accident there was nothing at all that could possibly go wrong.

  1. Food and Accommodation

Or rather, nothing physical that could go wrong. His morale, he admitted to himself as he trudged along, was falling as rapidly as the encroaching darkness. He had placed so much of his hopes on this pilgrimage; so far it wasn’t playing out at all how he had imagined. The monk had seemed friendly–that at least was a positive–but affable rather than intellectual. Not remotely inscrutable. Could someone like that really provide the sort of answers he was looking for?

Nick used the last of the daylight to choose a campsite, a patch of sandy soil that offered marginally more comfort than the predominant bare rock. He thought immediately of fire, not for the warmth–the lingering heat of the day was more than enough–rather for something to stare into, to tend and care for, to prod with a stick. But he lacked any means to start one, lacked even a stick for the prodding or any other form of fuel. No matter, he had inner resources to call on. If fire was not available, he would just have to do without.

So for a time he sat against a tree and read from his terminal, a familiar activity to counterbalance his peculiar circumstances. The darkness wasn’t long in coming, was as intense as promised, the thin starlight further attenuated by branches above him. Worse, the glow of the screen had made him night-blind. When he gave up on his book and turned the device off, he found himself in an all-enveloping void, absent both sound and light.

Not even a cooling breeze. No moon and therefore no tides. Also, the guidebook had told him, next to no tilt on the planet’s axis, meaning no seasons either. As near as was possible, this place had no weather.

So, as he knew he would, he gave himself up to his own mind. Nick knew he was something of an oddity; his guilt extended beyond the failure of his relationship with Cathy, encompassed also his inability to engage more effectively with the rest of the human race. But this was also the source of his pride; his sense of who he was. Alone and in darkness, on a faraway planet a long way from anywhere he might call home, Nick’s guilt came to him now. Not as a voice–Nick didn’t really think in words–more like a swamp gas, rising up from hidden depths, tainting his thoughts with a faint nausea. What conclusions of any practical value do you produce from all this endless rumination? And who would listen to them if you did? Why should the monks care about your pointless esoterica? No doubt they are steeped enough in their own.

His pride, having stood back to make space for these sentiments, now silenced them with a single nod of its sage head. It wasn’t that it disapproved of these propositions. On the contrary, Nick’s pride drew sustenance from his exceptionalism. He wasn’t like other men. Yet pride, he knew, was traditionally deemed a sin. Was this true regardless of the source of that pride? Another question to ponder. More thoughts came and went, erratic and unherded: a new insight could come at any time, you just never knew. Like the Buddha, like Newton: where better to seek inspiration than beneath a tree, in a wilderness. He smiled at his own joke, staring into the blankness. Before long he was asleep.

He woke in the early dawn still nestled at the base of the tree. Not full morning, just a lightening of the eastern skyline, dark enough that he could rest a while longer. The discomfort of his position, though, soon made itself felt, as did the gnawing of thirst and hunger.

He had taken his water bottle out of his backpack the night before, had set it to one side in the hope that the monk’s dissolved grit might settle. Picking it up now, he examined it, but the dim light made it hard to tell. He sipped and grimaced. Enough to wet his throat and no more. Turning next to the tree, he reached out a hand to the substance that grew like moss along the extremities of each branch, scooped up a dollop with his finger as if it were whipped cream from a spatula. Well, he thought, I have the testimony of the monk and the guide book to vouch for it. He dabbed at it with his tongue, brought a sample into his mouth; it had the consistency of sherbet and tasted vaguely of chicken. A hint of saltiness, mixed with other flavours both sweet and savoury. Hmm, he thought. This is not so bad. He sucked his finger clean. Collecting a handful, he sat back down at the base of the tree and breakfasted as he waited for the sun to rise–one hand his bowl, a finger his spoon.

  1. What to Do Now You’re Here

The temple appeared built of wood. A large central building set in a compound that lacked an outer wall, was marked out instead by a series of outbuildings with open spaces in between. The entrance was through a traditional mon gateway, its symbolic welcome emphasized by its lack of a door. Before entering, Nick halted on the threshold, taking advantage of his new elevated vantage point to look back over the ground he had covered: a vast plain, carpeted in green and broken only by the thread of the river. He could find no evidence of either landing field or village, in which direction they might lie. It occurred to him that while the journey here had been guided by the unmistakable landmark of this solitary hill, there was no such aid for the return trip to the landing strip. As easy as it had been to get here, without the benefit of satnav, it would be far from easy to find his way back out again. Was some previous pilgrim out there now he wondered, condemned to wander as if in a maze, sustained indefinitely, drinking river water and slurping manna?

“Nick Carrington, we meet again.”

Thomas–yesterday’s monk–came striding out to greet him, looking fresh-faced and vigorous, clearly an early riser, as monks are reputed to be. Having experienced so much solitude lately, on the ship and in the jungle, Nick felt a sudden surge of gratitude for the warmth of the greeting.

“I’ll bet you’re hungry. Come inside and I’ll see what we can rustle up.”

“Actually I’ve already breakfasted,” said Nick, sheepishly. “On the local produce. What I would really appreciate, though, is a glass of water.”

The monk laughed. “Wash that river grit out of your mouth, eh? I understand. Come with me then.”

Thomas ushered Nick along a hallway and into a dining room. Like everywhere else, its walls were of unpainted timber and its rectangular space was filled with two communal tables placed parallel to each other, also built of wooden planks and with a design not unlike what you might find in an outdoor picnic table, only longer.

The room was spotless. Early though the hour still was, the debris of breakfast must already have been cleared away. At the monk’s suggestion, Nick switched his order from water to tea, then relaxed as his companion went off to the kitchen to prepare it. The décor was austere, his bench seat no softer than the ground he’d recently slept upon, yet these rustic surroundings felt comforting to Nick. Perhaps his fears were overdone. He let his mind empty itself of all but anticipation for that hot drink.

The monk returned carrying a tray with a teapot and two small cups.

“You must have come a long way to reach us?” Even in small talk, the monk was all good-humour and focus on his guest.

“My pilgrimage? It certainly feels that way. I’ve never been anywhere remotely like this before.”

“Remote is most certainly the word.” He grinned as he poured the tea. “So, you come to us as a pilgrim?”

“I suppose I must be. As a visitor, certainly.” Nick looked about at the empty room.

“You’re wondering where everyone is? The rest of us are in another part of the monastery. Morning chants–I’ll be honest and say I’m not disappointed to have missed it.”

“You do a lot of chanting?”

“And meditation. We’re old school in that respect.”

“And the pilgrims?”

“Don’t worry, you’re not obliged to join in.” He grinned. “Oh, you mean where are they all? I’m afraid there aren’t any, right now. Just you.”

“Oh.”

“I’ll be honest, business has been slow for a while now.” The monk shrugged happily. “We’ve taken steps to change that, but even so, the fact has to be faced. We’re not the drawcard we once were.”

Nick nodded his acceptance of this. The monk was grinning so fiercely at him, he felt he could do little else. “You’re the guardians of the great secret? Does that not bring them in?”

The monk laughed. “Oh, we still guard it, for what that’s worth. But it’s an open secret these days. A quick search on the net will bring it up. I’ll be honest with you–that was never much more than a gimmick. A loss leader to get the punters in through the door. Knowing why there is something rather than nothing? What’s the use of that? Knowing the meaning of life? Doesn’t provide much help when it comes to actually living it.” He picked up his teacup and took a sip, gesturing at Nick to do the same. “An interesting piece of trivia for a dinner party, perhaps. Not much more.” He paused, evidently sensing something in Nick’s reaction. “Oh, I’m sorry. Was that what brought you here?”

“Yes, I’d thought… You know. I’m familiar with the concepts of course. I just imagined, up close, you might deal with it on a more, um, esoteric level.” Nick tried to summon his earnestness, a quality of which he usually held a great store. “You were right before. I am here on a pilgrimage. Looking for, er…” Nick’s words faded to a mumble, unsure of how to present the circumstances that had brought him to this place.

“Oh, I understand. Absolutely. You mean the pursuit of enlightenment, don’t you?” He paused to acknowledge Nick’s enthusiastic nod of the head. “Well, actually, that’s something else altogether. But, yes, we still do that.” Pausing again to sip his tea, the monk cast a kindly eye over Nick’s recovering spirit, a cursory gesture before pressing on. “But I should warn you. Enlightenment takes a lot of work. It’s not really the sort of thing for a passing pilgrim to be worrying about. At the very least you’d have to sign on as an apprentice.”

“An apprentice?”

“Lots of chanting and meditation, I’m afraid. Irksome, I know, but it seems to be the only way.”

Nick’s expression tilted back toward bewilderment. “I’m confused. You’re saying the secret is no secret, that enlightenment is only for the adepts. Then why do people come here?”

The monk’s smile broadened a fraction, if that were possible. “Now that’s the right question to ask. We do cater for people like you; most especially for people like you. You’re looking for answers aren’t you? You’re tormented by the inadequacy of your knowledge. Desperate to make all the pieces fit together, frustrated at their refusal to do so. Am I right?”

“That’s a fair summary.”

“It’s the curse of knowledge. Many people get through their lives without being remotely bothered by such matters. But others–people like you–are more sensitive to the human predicament.”

“And you can do something about that? You can help me find the answers I’m looking for?”

“Most certainly we can help.” He gave an encouraging smile. “Although, to be honest, we’re not so much about answers. More about redefining the question.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Let me explain. With fewer and fewer people coming our way, we realized we needed to offer something new, something that can’t be had anywhere else. That was when it struck us–really, it should have been obvious all along–that the very nature of this planet presents a unique opportunity. You remember what I told you back at the village? How this place is a sterile terraform?” He gave Nick a moment to digest this. “Well look at it another way–it means we exist in a state of grace, free of all worldly corruptions.”

“Er. Yes…” Nick looked even more bewildered.

The monk laughed. “I understand your confusion. It catches a lot of people.” He adopted a conspiratorial expression. “The truth is, we pinched the idea from the competition.”

“The idea?”

The monk nodded. “You must know the story of Adam and Eve? Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge? How in the act of gaining free will, humanity was cast out of God’s presence, cursed to live forever in the wilderness, forever unsatisfied? Because that’s the nature of knowledge, you see? It’s infinite. There’s no getting to the end of it.”

“But enlightenment…”

“Is a way to feel confused at a much higher level, that’s all.”

Nick leaned back, a wariness clouding his expression. “I’ll have to think about this.”

“Well you could, you could,… but thinking will only make things worse. As it happens, we have an alternative we can offer. Turns out, it’s really very simple, just a small neural hack, basic brain surgery. And we can do it right here at the monastery. For a modest donation, we can lift the curse and return you to a state of nature. Take back the gift of knowledge and understanding, in doing so rid you of your sins. Restore you to a state of innocence.” He focused on Nick. “Sound attractive?”

Nick recoiled in horror. “But that’s…”

As if wishing to save Nick from his gaucheness, the monk cut him off with another wave of the hand, this one more expansive, taking in everything around them.

“And once the procedure is done, everything you need is right here. There’s no reason ever to leave. What you see out there, the places you came through to get here–you might not have twigged to it at the time, but that my friend is the new Garden of Eden.”

Nick gaped. Words failed him.

“Paradise regained. All those stories talk about selling your soul to the devil–but we offer you the chance to buy it back. Surely you’ll never get a better deal than that!”

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