Malcolm: Volume Zero

a comic novel

Cover Design and Illustration: Rose Horridge   www.rosehorridgeart.co.uk

The following four extracts give a flavour of Malcolm

0

 

Malcolm has frequent, ritual exchanges with the staff of the college canteen, where he’s consistently thwarted in his attempts to establish a convention for quantifying sandwiches. He routinely leaves the place grossly over- or under-provisioned . . .

 

‘Yes dear?’

   ‘I’d like a cheese and tomato sandwich, please.’

   ‘How many?’

   Malcolm frowned. ‘Just one. Please.’

   ‘You mean, like, just one sandwich?’ Hilda waved her hands back and forth above the counter by way of clarification.

   ‘Yes.’

   ‘Like, two rounds?’

   He raised his eyebrows. ‘Is that the same as one sandwich?’

   ‘Well, it depends how many you want.’

   ‘No, it depends on how you define a sandwich.’

   ‘Sorry?’

   He cleared his throat. ‘I said, it depends on how you define a sandwich.’

   ‘What does, dear?’

   He sighed. ‘Whether two rounds is the same as one sandwich.’

   Hilda adjusted her apron. ‘What would you like, exactly?’

   ‘I’d like to know how you define a sandwich!’

   The words rang out over one of those spontaneous little lulls in    the general hubbub. There was a further one second of silence, then a loud collective groan from behind. Malcolm turned to find himself facing a ragged queue of a dozen weary, hungry souls, shifting their weight, rolling their eyes as their lunch half-hour ebbed away. It seemed this wasn’t the best time to start a discussion on sandwich nomenclature. He left hurriedly with a packet of plain crisps and a small, unambiguous pork pie.

1

 

 

Our hero succumbs to the lure of money and female company, along with a hint of cloak and dagger . . .

 

WANTED !

The handwritten poster on the big cork board just inside the Students’ Union had been designed in an eye-catching, Wild-West style, with a frame of dollar signs, and a scrawny, token cactus. Malcolm approached with caution. The Department of Psychology were seeking volunteers for experiments. You had to be between twenty and thirty, with normal hearing and vision. The reward sounded reasonable enough – fifteen shillings per session; but then how long was a session? Was it worth it? There was no mention of sleep deprivation, fasting or electric shocks. On the other hand neither was there of any bonuses, like food pellets or post-trial tea and biscuits. Malcolm stood a while, pondering the sign. He didn’t know much about psychologists – the only ones he’d ever met were students. But then he remembered that those had all been female. He went straight to the porters’ lodge, as directed, and signed up for the following Wednesday afternoon.

 

What’s in a name? The Weiss Building, home of Psychology, was conspicuously black and grey; and the Austrian professor in whose honour it was named had in fact been a pioneer of colour-vision theory. What’s more, from the beaming, benevolent portrait in the foyer, he appeared to have been a paragon of virtue. The poor man himself had largely been forgotten, his true legacy a fund of paradoxes and puns to keep staff and students entertained.

   Malcolm was sitting waiting under this very picture when there came a familiar voice.

   ‘Aha!’ said Angela, looking him up and down, ‘the man with the funny trousers.’ Her hair was up. She was wearing glasses and a smart skirt. And carrying a clipboard. In the transition from tipsy disco-party girl to earnest undergraduate she’d lost none of her allure.

   ‘Not today!’ He stood and did a little twirl to show off his respectably old and untrendy jeans. She seemed less than impressed. ‘I’ve come to be a guinea pig.’

   ‘Yes, I know.’ She ticked off his name on a short list. ‘I’m conducting the tests.’

   ‘Oh. Right,’ said Malcolm, outbeaming even the good Professor Weiss, ‘I was expecting someone . . .’

   ‘Older?’ she offered. ‘Male?’

   ‘Well, no . . .’

   ‘With a bow-tie? Beard? Viennese accent?’

   ‘Not exactly. I hadn’t really thought about it . . .’

   ‘We students do some of the preliminary screening. It’s part of our lab work.’ She smiled and beckoned him to follow, down a long corridor and into a small room. It had low lighting and was warm and quiet, apart from a steady hum from somewhere.

   ‘Have a seat.’

   ‘Can’t I lie on a couch?’

   ‘I think you’re confusing psychology with psychiatry.’

   ‘Oh no I’m not!’ He put on his most devilish grin.

   ‘OK, we start with Stage One.’

   ‘Isn’t there a Stage Zero?’

   She sighed. ‘Let’s assume that’s been done, shall we. You are between twenty and thirty, aren’t you?’

   ‘Well, it all depends what’s meant by between. I’m actually twenty, so . . .’

   ‘That’s good enough,’ she said swiftly. ‘With normal vision and hearing?’

   ‘Yep!’

   ‘Sound mind?’ she added.

   ‘You tell me!’

   ‘So, Stage One.’ She handed him a thin, stapled sheaf of printed pages.

   ‘What is Stage One, exactly?’

   ‘Well,’ she began, ‘it’s kind of a personality test . . .’

  ‘Personality test?’ Malcolm pretended some alarm. ‘What happens if you fail?’

   She grinned. ‘Well, there is rumoured to be a euthanasia chamber. In the basement. I think that’s mainly for rats though.’

   ‘I’d better do my best then.’ He took out a brand-new black biro and removed the cap. ‘Ahh, the hard ones first, eh?’ he muttered, as he began to fill out the top sheet with name, address and date of birth.

   She left him to it.

 

   Being asked to reduce your world view to a few dozen responses on a five-point scale is quite a challenge. An affront, some might say. But it appealed to Malcolm’s sense of economy and order. It did, though, take him a while to decide whether he should put ticks in the little boxes, or crosses. Or were you allowed to do both? Or neither – leaving some questions blank? He settled on ticks, as conveying the clearer, more positive message. A cross would seem to introduce an extra layer of uncertainty – it might be taken to mean either you did, or didn’t, for example, strongly disagree that others sometimes thought you were unselfish. And who’d want to give that impression?

   After that he breezed through the set, happily agreeing and disagreeing, both strongly and mildly, just occasionally feeling neutral, and only once not really knowing, or caring.

   Glancing back through the answers he hoped he’d given at least an interesting picture. He wasn’t at all sure what they were looking for. If anything. And whoever they were. But surely they’d want to know more about someone who could be both shy and sociable, reflective and spontaneous, deep and frivolous, intellectual and modest? A plain, straightforward oxymoron of a man.

 

   Ten minutes later Angela reappeared and relieved him of the  questionnaire, slipping it into a large brown envelope.

   ‘Do you get to see my answers?’

   ‘Well, yes. But we don’t want that to influence you.’

   ‘Right, then.’ He nodded and frowned at the same time. ‘I’ll try not to have let that influence me.’

   ‘It’s a bit late now!’

   ‘I only said I’d try.’

   She gave him another, thicker sheaf. He flicked through the pages. They were crammed with diagrams, numbers and word lists.

   ‘I guess this must be Stage Two.’

   ‘No, we’re still on Stage One.’

   ‘Part Two?’

   ‘If you like.’

   ‘Is this an IQ test?’

   ‘Well, it’s more of an evaluation. Of, let’s say, cognitive function.’ She waggled the clipboard in a vague gesture. ‘But what’s in a name?’

   He filled out the front page. Just name and date of birth this time – it seemed they were confident his address was unlikely to have changed in the interim.

 

The next thirty minutes were a mix of frowns and satisfied smiles, along with exclamations of Errrr, Ahaaah! and What? as Malcolm tried hard to show his cognitive functions to advantage. He supplied missing words and numbers, spotted differences, circled odd men out. He rearranged crosses, stars and stripes, wrestled with blobs, black, white and grey, big and small, circular and elliptical. He juggled polygons and pyramids, poured over lines thick and thin, dotted and dashed, straight, curved and wiggly, crossing his eyes to bring shapes closer for comparison, and once resorting to turning the paper upside down. If they were monitoring him would they deduct marks for cheating? Or add them for ingenuity? Were they monitoring him? And, if so, who were they?

   They, mused Malcolm. A mysterious and much-cited group. Dogmatic too, some of them – the they who boldly state, among other things, that love is blind, ignorance bliss and history bunk. Then there are the more guarded they, who claim merely that east is east and west, west; a rose a rose, a deal a deal. There were a lot of them about, it seemed. And that’s not to mention the they who, so they say anyway, are all out to get you. They had a lot to answer for.

   He looked around. The wall to his right had a mirror which seemed unnecessarily large. If not unnecessary altogether. He pulled a series of silly faces in it. Nothing happened. But then it wouldn’t, would it?

 

   He was sitting back trying to look casual when Angela returned.    ‘Do I get tea and biscuits?’

   ‘Well, they’re always available in the canteen,’ she said. ‘Sandwiches too.’

   He stood up. ‘Care to join me?’

   ‘I’ve got to enter your data.’ She frowned. ‘And other things.’

   ‘I could keep a seat for you.’

   ‘I think it might compromise experimental objectivity.’ She made to take the paper from him. He held on. ‘We’re supposed to stick to a strict procedure. You know, everything has to be double-blind.’

   ‘I could keep both eyes closed!’

  ‘They’ll be in touch,’ she said enigmatically, tugged the paper from his grasp and strode off down the corridor.

2

 

Introducing the doubly fictional Meta-Malcolm, who appears, suitably indented, in vignettes at various ages, and stages of the narrative, drawing attention to the what-if?s, the sliding-doors and forking-paths of life . . .

 . . . How revealing and instructive it would be to have the backward perspective of some advanced guard, fast-track observer. Someone who, as you grew older, would grow, well, olderer. A paradoxical twin, triggered by the same little bang from birth’s starting pistol, but with the metronome set at, say, twice the tempo – a literal Doppelgänger, playing hare to Malcolm’s tortoise, lapping him annually on their common birthday: Meta-Malcolm, mega-Malcolm, Malcolm major, Malcolm Mark 2. Or Mach 2. He was out there somewhere. But what would he be doing? Perhaps one could sneak a paradoxical peek, courtesy of Einstein. Or Zeno. Malcolm closed his eyes.

   Time warps. If you let it.

 

Meta-Malcolm 25, between stints of study again, stops to adjust the thin leather straps, which have begun to chafe. Tomorrow he’ll put on a thicker jumper – although he already feels rather warm. His burden consists of three plywood panels – a double-sided one held above his head by lengths of two-by-two timber, plus two covering his torso, front and back. These are attached to a kind of yoke which fits, almost, round the neck and shoulders. Thus rigged out he’s been walking the High Street. With dignity, if not pride. Carrying messages for all. Today, if you meet him head on, he reads, top to bottom:

 

PRENDERGAST

 

something

for everyone!

 

From behind it is:

 

MURGATROYD

 

simply

the best!

 

M-M had been concerned to discover that while the subject company names at the top are readily interchangeable (indeed he’s responsible each morning for ensuring the two he’s issued with are firmly velcroed in place) the corresponding predicates below were permanent. Read from either side he presents no contradictions. But if you’d met him yesterday it would have been Blenkinsop that was so universally bountiful, and Fothergill the indisputable top dog.

   There are a few benches in this pedestrianised zone, but encumbered as he is he doesn’t try to sit down. Mainly for fear of staying down – like an unhorsed knight in armour. He turns to look at himself in the darkened window of a travel agents, mops the sweat from his forehead.

   ‘Why aren’t you walkin’?’ A voice from behind.

    He turns back. ‘Sorry?’

   ‘Why are you standin’ still?’

   ‘It’s the only way to stand!’ says M-M, with an almost amiable grin.

   The man is not amused. He flashes a badge of sorts.

   ‘Ahh! Are you from, er . . .’ M-M tilts his head right back as if to read the sign, which however simply tilts back with him, ‘. . . Prendergast?’

   ‘No.’

   M-M twists round to read the back of the sign, which likewise evades him. ‘Murgatroyd then?’

   ‘No. Peregrine Placards and Promotions. You’re supposed to be workin’ for us.’

   ‘I’ve covered a mile or two already today,’ says M-M defensively.

   ‘Where?’

   ‘Up and down the High Street. Well down and up, actually – there’s a bit of a slope. Never noticed before I had this thing round my . . .’

   ‘We pay you to keep movin’, not to stand around.’

   ‘Well how fast would you like me to move?’ His tone is one of innocence.

   ‘Fast as possible.’

   ‘OK. Why?’

   ‘So you cover more ground!’

   ‘True,’ M-M frowns, ‘but what’s the advantage of that?’

   The man rolls his eyes. ‘So you see more people. Or more people see you, rather.’

   ‘Surely that’s only the case if they’re all standing still.’

   ‘How come?’

   ‘Well, if I’m walking, then for every extra person I pass coming towards me there’ll be one coming from behind who won’t pass me, but would have done if I’d been stationary.’ He hitches up the rig into a slightly less uncomfortable position. ‘It’s like running in the rain – your back stays drier but your front gets wetter.’ M-M feels he’s on thinner ice with this last assertion. The man just stares. ‘It’s all relative. To a first approximation the number of people who see me is independent of my walking speed. He gestures at the milling crowd. Now if you could get them to walk faster . . .’

   ‘And how would we do that?’

   M-M scratches the top of his head, just reachable between the two-by-twos. ‘I’m not sure. Loud martial music?’ He raises his eyebrows. ‘Sprinklers . . . ?’

   ‘We’re not payin’ them, we’re payin’ you. Anyway, movin’ things stand out – everybody knows that,’ says the man triumphantly (feeling that his Psychology O-level is finally paying off.)

   ‘But if everything else’s moving it’s the stationary things that stand out from the crowd. Get lots of attention. Think of those mime artists. And human statues! You didn’t seem to notice me ’till I stopped.’

   ‘I can assure you I’ve been watchin’ you for some time. Anyway, I’m not gonna argue. Do you want this job, or don’t you?’

   ‘Yes,’ says M-M and sets off down the street. After a hundred yards or so he makes an ostentatious turn. The full three-sixty. The man is still watching him. M-M starts to call out repeatedly with increasing volume and conviction “The end of the world is nigh!” The crowd gives him a wide berth. Nobody so much as looks at his signs. It begins to rain. He continues on into the distance, his enticements and warnings falling alike on stony ground, a walking demonstration of communication failure, an increasingly soggy human sandwich, earning a crust.

3

 

Malcolm has just decamped from his noisy and expensive hall of residence and sought sanctuary in the vast college library.  As he settles down atop the highest bookshelves in Philosophy we see that certain obsessions have smuggled themselves in along with the bedding and provisions . . .

 

 

The first night in any house or hotel is traditionally a restless one. If it’s not lumpy beds or creaky floorboards, it’s some other kind of strangeness. Or perhaps some strange kind of otherness. During the long evening the library revealed a gentle rhythm all its own: the half-hourly automatic flush from a rank of distant urinals, at ten past and twenty to the hour for some reason; the half-minutely advance of the several wall clocks within ear-shot. It seemed that all the clocks were triggered by some central synchroniser, but the sounds arrived slightly staggered from their varying distances – a ricochet of clicks in the cavernous hall.

   Hot-water radiators have their part to play. Malcolm was surprised they were still active in that season. And the pipes were in fact permanently cold. But water seemed to ebb and flow according to some ancient rhythm, in unfathomable patterns of trickles and gushes. The bookcases, too, took time to settle – issuing continual faint creaks and groans as they accommodated the changing temperature and humidity, plus the odd resounding snap when some mounting tension was finally overcome.

   Only the books themselves remained silent. Alphabetic adjacency makes strange bedfellows – Leibniz and Locke, Nietzsche and Ockham, jacket to jacket, reconciled to their comfortable shelf lives, nestling down for the night in mutual tolerance, like ageing spouses. Alone, aloft and supine in his sleeping bag Malcolm lay wide-eyed for a good while, taking it all in. A night owl in a forest of oak.

 

   Spread out around him, a world of knowledge. Or perhaps a brave but rather imperfect map of a world. Inside his own skull, an extremely imperfect map of that map – his personal, microcosmic library. Unsystematized. Uncatalogued. Fragmentary. Exams are round the corner and there’s a good deal of work to be done on the mental re-shelving and acquisitions front. A tide of tiredness draws him out of his home bay of rationality towards more ancient, unfrequented shores. Metaphors proliferate, and mix. Sirens of unreason call from the mist.

 

Malcolm is racing through a maze of shelving, in pursuit of something unclear. He goes left, left, right, right, left, left, right, right, and so on, until he feels he knows exactly where he is, without realising he doesn’t know where where he is is. He sets off back to where he was, now pursued by something unclear, but soon realises he doesn’t know where where he was is. Or even was. The bookcases (or is it the gangways between them?) broaden and heighten to Manhattan proportions, then soften and buckle into giant, navigable cortical folds, before reverting to shelves and spaces. He runs on. Left, left, right, right. Suddenly he is outflanked by a mob of baying peasants. The ring of flaming torches closes in. He starts to climb, hand over hand, shelf after shelf, the summitless stack of human knowledge. A foothold gives way. He grabs wildly at a shelf-full of metaphysics, before plunging backwards, a flock of Aristotles fluttering after him into the abyss.

 

He opens his eyes and half recognises the surroundings. But the subject labels signposting the area are gone. Classifications falter. Categories dissolve. The books mingle, swarm and pulsate in a vast Dewey Decimal dance. Covers disintegrate, leaving a monstrously thick club sandwich of learning. Then pages, paragraphs, words, letters merge. And all is soup.

 

Meanwhile, in another part of the library forest, Malcolm is on patrol, foraging, communing with nature, indeed naked, though unashamed (luckily this is not a conventional, busy-Saturday-afternoon-in-the-High-Street dream). He wanders into Humanities, where recently he’s seen fleeting shadows, heard footfalls and beguiling woodland calls. Scaling the heights of Literature he finds a footprint in the dust – high-arched and promisingly unshod. His own size-ten, plonked alongside, reveals its relative daintiness. Lacking a box of milk chocolates he leaves a handsome volume of Keats and retires to the shadows.

   Patience is rewarded. She emerges into the moonlight, all hair, eyes and limbs. A fellow feral. She senses his gaze and covers herself with the Keats. He grabs a Times World Atlas in reciprocal modesty. They circle one another, wordlessly, while time stands still. The silence is broken by the approach of authoritative footsteps. Hand-in-hand they make for the seclusion of Horticulture.