Two short stories:
Councillor Meadows peered over his glasses, cleared his throat and put on a conciliatory grin. 'And, finally, Item six, the Long-Hill estate.'
Barely stifled groans reverberated round the Council Chamber.
'Er, as I'm sure you are all aware, a decision must be made today. I fear that at previous meetings we have been guilty of a certain amount of, well, in a word . . .' the chairman glanced up and down the long oak table, 'procrastination. Or perhaps it was simply a failure of resolve. Nevertheless . . . ' The voice continued for some time – even paced and with a certain shaky authority.
The estate in question was virtually complete – a dozen gently winding roads interlaced along a wooded slope on the outskirts of town. A host of new owners were poised to move in at the end of the month. The houses were detached, 'executive-style', with double garages and ample gardens, sited with a pleasing irregularity, blending well with the sylvan setting. Already the more confident squirrels were returning in the wake of retreating bulldozers. The roads had newly laid grass verges lined with shrubs and saplings. They sported speed bumps and prominent but tasteful signage warning of children at play. They had surfaces of fine-grade tarmac to soften the sound of passing tyres, and a gleaming crop of olde-worlde electric gas lamps.
What they didn't have, was names.
Residents-to-be were negotiating, signing and completing simply for "Plots 1 - 198". Not that the anonymity was dampening enthusiasm. Though pricey the homes were seen as a shrewd investment. As always. Over the better part of a century the town itself had grown into being from such estates, each designed and named according to some contemporary whim, each spreading outwards till they touched at the edges. A maturing leafiness then softened the boundaries until areas were identifiable only through the unifying theme of their street names. Forests now happily bordered mountain ranges, rivers merged with lakes and oceans. With less felicity, celebrated politicians rubbed shoulders with saints.
'So, Gentlemen, and, er, Lady,' he flashed an ingratiating smile at Councillor Wolfe, who gave him a stony look, 'may I have your thematic suggestions.' The big hand of the big wall clock clunked forward one minute.
'What about trees?' said Councillor Hastings.
Councillor Ashe shook his head 'We've got them already. Down by the river – Laburnum Grove, Acacia Avenue . . .'
'Those are more like shrubs, aren't they?'
'Well,' said the chairman, 'technically there is a distinction, though it might not be fully appreciated by the man in the street, as it were. Anyway I think we must avoid getting bogged down in, er, taxonomic minutiae.' He gave a scholarly grin and removed his glasses.
Within a short space of time a multitude of themes were proposed and summarily dismissed, from wildfowl and woodland fauna (overly cute) to volcanoes and glaciers (overly apocalyptic). Another minute clunked by.
Councillor Browning – a dapper, greying man with a flamboyant bow tie – waved a tentative hand in the air. 'Actually, I've always been rather fond of wild flowers.'
There was a pause, then a volley of coughs and smirks from around the table. He stared down at his blotter, colouring slightly.
Councillor Fox came to the rescue. 'How about planets?'
'There's only nine, we need twelve.'
'Well, we could throw in an asteroid or two.'
The chairman frowned. 'I must say, that all sounds a bit sci-fi to me!' He gave a little mock shudder at the prospect. 'I somehow feel we need something rather more, well, pastoral.'
'You mean like, spaghetti and stuff?' said a straight-faced Councillor Ashe.
'I meant idyllic, actually.' He replaced his glasses with some force. 'But perhaps the natural world is already well represented in the town.'
'Got it!' said Councillor Hastings. 'There are twelve roads, right?'
'Twelve roads, twelve Apostles,' he beamed.
Across the table Councillor Wolfe sighed. 'It's not our job to perpetuate a monotheistic world-view.'
'All right then, signs of the zodiac.'
'Leo Lane?' whispered Councillor Ashe.
'That might attract your New Age types – all beards and beads and joss sticks.'
'Not at those prices it won't.'
'What we need is something which expresses national pride.'
'Historic naval victories?'
Councillor Wolfe leapt in. 'I think there's more than enough male triumphalism in the world already, thank you.'
'Historic naval defeats then!'
She snorted and threw down her pen.
The chairman waved his hands in a placatory gesture. 'It would be as well, perhaps, to avoid anything, er, overtly militaristic. But we could name them after, say, stately homes.'
Councillor Wolfe rolled her eyes skywards. 'Of course! Why not celebrate privilege, elitism, exploitation of the masses and all those . . .'
'All right, sleazy slums then,' mumbled Councillor Ashe, who was beginning to enjoy himself.
Tea and biscuits were wheeled in, providing some relief, but little inspiration.
'Towns and Counties would be a safe bet.' Councillor Hastings gestured emphatically with a chocolate digestive.
The chairman tut-tutted. 'Yes, but the problem then is you'd be designating one element of the address with a term that's normally associated with an element of a different level. It would invite what are known as category errors – infelicitous, even offensive, to lovers of logic and language. Moreover . . .'
'Yes yes, of course. If you say so.'
The clock clunked into the ensuing silence.
The chairman sighed. 'Very well. We seem to have ruled out nature, history and geography.'
'That still leaves the whole world of culture.'
'Indeed it does. We've got composers!'
'All dead white European males.' Everyone turned to Councillor Wolfe.
'Do they have to be dead?' ventured Councillor Ashe.
'It's their one redeeming feature.' A thin smile.
'I suppose,' said the chairman, 'naming things after people does involve a certain, er, potential invidiousness. Perhaps we should be thinking altogether more abstractly.'
'What about colours?'
'Yes, you know, red, green, blue, sort of thing.'
'Wouldn't that be a bit, well, gaudy?'
'Oh, I don't know,' said the chairman, 'it might be rather fun, actually.'
'You haven't got to live there!'
'Well, as a matter of fact it's not entirely out of the question.' A dreamy look softened the chairman's face. He leaned back in his chair. 'Lavinia and I have been thinking for quite a while now that we'd like a little more space . . .'
'Colours are all right in principle. But they've been hijacked by political parties, multinational corporations and others . . .'
'Only the primary ones,' Councillor Browning began, 'there's still lilac, and lavender . . .'
'Watch out, we're back to flowers again.'
'All right, purple. Mauve. Aquamarine. Not to mention your tints and pastels. It could work well. Carefully co-ordinated.'
'You'd need a postman with a strong stomach.'
'And a sense of humour.'
The tea dregs and biscuit crumbs were wheeled out.
Councillor Hastings inspected his fingernails. 'Let's face it, any word you choose is going to offend somebody.'
The chairman stroked his chin. 'Well, it all rather depends on exactly what you mean by a word. You see, semantic content is really only . . .'
He was swiftly interrupted. 'So let's have numbers then – First Street, Second Street. It's simple.'
Councillor Browning gave a little start. 'Oh, dear, that does sound so awfully soulless. And so, well, American. I'm afraid that Alderman Wilberforce,' he gestured at the portrait of the council's first leader, staring down imperiously from a large, tarnished gilt frame, 'would turn in his grave.'
'I think he was cremated!' whispered Councillor Fox.
'Turn in his urn then!' sniggered Councillor Ashe.
'Gentlemen please! We have a serious matter to decide.'
Five o'clock came and went. At half past there began a slow crescendo of sighs, yawns, and paper shuffling. By six, members were openly packing their briefcases and exchanging good wishes for the summer recess. The chairman raised his voice over the scraping of chair legs and clicking of ring binders. 'Very well, in the absence of any consensus you will have to leave me to take executive action.'
'OK, as long as it's not furry animals.'
'Or scaly ones.'
'Or anything too aggressive, please.'
'Or namby pamby.'
'And nothing to reinforce stereotypes or offend minority sensitivities.'
* * *
Summer passed slowly and pleasantly enough, affording the chairman ample time to reflect on the vagaries of life, and language. Words, words, words. Such wonderful things. And yet how easily tainted by human prejudice. Except, that is, for a noble few, which stood apart from the world. Very few indeed though – the truly incorruptible were as rare in language as in local government. Perhaps they should be honoured accordingly.
And so it was that on a crisp Autumn morning committee members awoke to find invitation cards on their respective doormats.
Councillor and Mrs Meadows request the pleasure of your company at a house-warming . . .
On the reverse side were printed directions:
Proceed along the main road and turn left into Moreover Lane, then left again into Either Way. First right is Notwithstanding Gardens, which leads straight into Very Close.
It's number 23, but we look forward to your suggestions for a name.
* * *
Hans ran the little white arrow along the top of the monitor, skirting the midget scissors and clipboard, teeny telephone, clock and printer, pondering the dinky bureaucracy which paved the borders of his word-processor screen. He hovered a good while over an icon bearing an all-too-familiar name. The document was unfinished, seemed indeed unfinishable. It was also unthreatening, even comfortable; he could happily have wasted yet another few hours on it. But he had promised a fresh start, or rather, a fresh ending. He hurried back to click firmly on the little white oblong with the bent-over corner. The blank symbol expanded to fill the whole screen. A literal new leaf, large but, alas, unwrit. It awakened a familiar dull panic. An unwelcome reminder of the failure of finishing power which lately had been frustrating him. And others.
Last night, over dinner, she had been particularly free with advice on impasses, creative, and other. When you're in a rut you have to loosen up, step back. Let go. At least, it was implied, somebody was going to have to. Perhaps she was right. And in a conscious attempt to do just that his day so far had been as atypical as he could manage. The fitful sleep had been unplanned, though not unhelpful, triggering an uncharacteristic chain of preparatory, habit-breaking acts –an early rise, a jog around the park (surprising himself as much as the municipal ducks), a designedly tepid shower, an hour's meditation, a simple, wholesome breakfast. All the usual diverting preliminaries – table-clearing, screen-cleaning, file-tidying – had been studiously avoided. The ground was prepared, the mind freed. But he was still sitting staring at the screen.
You're just too close to the work. You need to distance yourself. He did. Parking the mouse head down in its little plastic frame he picked up the keyboard and walked backwards across the living room, into the arms of his favourite chair. It was just the job for creative endeavour – a nice Scandinavian balance between comfort and efficiency, the frame fashionable yet sturdy, the upholstery luxurious on the seat for long sessions, austere at the back, to discourage slouching.
Poised on what he hoped was a creative brink Hans took several slow, deep breaths. In the spacious ground-floor flat a neighbourless, daytime peace prevailed. Through the window, distant traffic, behind him, the soothing hum and bubble of a tropical fish tank. He began to type, furiously, not pausing to agonise or criticise, oblivious of the many typos and infelicities of language. The keys rattled under stabbing index fingers. Words and phrases, raw but potent, rifled down the elongated coils. Tension mounted in the swinging cable, threatening to violently reclaim the estranged keyboard should his lap friction fail. He paused, passed the cable once around the beechwood chair arm and typed on, the spell unbroken. Across the room the unwatched words wrapped noiselessly around the screen and scrolled off the top.
From the hallway came the sound of the phone. He ignored it, though it would almost certainly be her calling. After 6 rings it stopped. If that was a test of his creative commitment he had passed, if an attempt at détente, she had failed. The feverish composition continued. Coffee time came and went unacknowledged. At noon the phone again, just 8 rings. A mild escalation, probably not significant.
By lunch time the rigorously undisciplined approach had paid off. Hans got up, stretched a while, then read rapidly through the dozen or so screenfuls of text. It would need extensive editing –a laborious, tedious process, but essentially routine. By evening he could have a rough but readable first draft of that stubborn but beatable last chapter. He would try it out on her. They would both be thrilled, vindicated, reconciled. She wouldn't be home till six, allowing him time to re-shower, chill a wine, light a candle, select some sweet music. If you're co-ordinating clichés, you might as well go the whole hog.
But first, consolidation. He unwrapped a virgin floppy disk – new beginnings, or endings, deserved no less – and wrote "Finale!" on the label in a triumphant hand. She had been last to use the machine and would no doubt have left a disk in the drive – part of their on-going, half-joking, his-and-hers territorial game-play (stockings in the basin provoking spanners on the worktop, and so on). As one of the many compromises necessary in any office-cum-living–room the bulky and unaesthetic computer processor unit had been stowed under the large oak dining table, against the wall, out of sight, and kicking range. The monitor of course was allowed to sit on top, though its outline had been softened by trailing house plants. Hans reached under the table to release the old disk from the drive, but made no contact. He moved a chair aside and knelt on the carpet, chin on the table edge, but only just managed to jingle the dangling keys. He ducked into the gloom, left-middle finger extended, palm outstretched below to catch the disk, made contact, pressed firmly on a button. But it was round, where it should have been square. It delivered no disk. And it made altogether the wrong kind of click.
On the evolutionary time-scale toggle switches are extremely recent arrivals. So it can only have been some kind of luck which triggered in Hans just the right response to the crisis, namely to freeze, rather than fight, or flee. But freeze he did, sustaining the finger pressure as his eyes became accustomed to the little green light above the button, then increasing it a good bit as the little black letters, POWER, emerging from the gloom, spelled out his new predicament. For such switches don't toggle off till you let go. Total destruction of his data was imminent, but not inevitable – he had pulled and dropped the pin, but not released the trigger of the grenade.
Minutes passed. The steady glow of the light, the hum of normality from the fan, engendered a fragile calm. The creative mood had been shattered, all efforts must now go to protecting what had been produced.
The phone again, breaking off in mid ring. Just five and a half this time. What was to be made of that? He checked his left wrist, and found nothing – as part of the drive to make the day a different one his watch had been left on the bedside table. Within a few minutes his finger was tired. Not a problem in itself, he reflected, given he had another nine. And he could alternate hands, allowing regular wrist rest. Five minutes on (perhaps a little less for the thumbs and pinkies) and forty-five off – many fingers making light work. But then again, many a finger, many a slip. As in rowing boats and relay races, the risks would lie in changing over.
With a good four hours to go before she'd be home he would need to make himself comfortable. The floor around the processor unit was thick with dust. Not through laziness – Hans' regular cleaning routine extended even under the bed and behind the cooker. But he never dared push the brutish Hoover too close to the sophisticated circuitry, afraid of inducing some electrical trauma in its fragile filaments. Data can be irretrievable. But trousers can be washed. By gradually rotating arm and body and inching sideways he was able to sit back against the wall without releasing the vital finger pressure. He allowed himself a little sigh of relief. What was a few hours of your life? The hardest, creative work was done, against all expectations. The rest was a comparative cinch, demanding only a state of relaxed vigilance. A kind of meditation even. He carefully crossed his legs, closed his eyes and took a slow deep breath through the nose, in pursuit of serenity.
It was the very first sneeze which brought him closest to disaster, arriving with less than a second's warning. The following five, though of increasing violence, came with a tolerable regularity, allowing time to brace the shoulder muscles and so decouple the arm from the effects of the spasm. But then he was nearly caught out by a very last one. Though of only modest intensity, it occurred after a full half-minute of increasingly reassuring quiescence. It was several further, full minutes before he allowed himself to declare the All Clear. Right index finger provided belated relief for left middle. He relaxed back against the wall. The phone again. Twelve rings.
Peering out from his lair Hans took stock of the room with a fresh, mouse's-eye view. A forest of furniture legs, stretching to a horizon of window ledges and curtain hems, and directly opposite, behind the chair with the captive keyboard, the fish tank on its wrought-iron stand. Mirrored in the front glass was the table top which roofed him in. He could make out a chunky dictionary, two wine glasses, a coffee pot and cups. These were interspersed with lower-profile, vaguer forms – a stapler (or was it the fancy corkscrew?) and what might have been a small pencil case (if either of them had owned such a thing). Centre stage, dominating the picture, sat the monitor screen, aglow with the last page of his recent, unedited thoughts – a rectangular reef of text, fringed by bubbles and gently waving weed. Gaily coloured guppies hovered and darted in the ragged margins, nibbling at his words. Given time (and he certainly had been) one might just decipher those words, letter by wavering letter, back to front, right to left. But the bulk of his work had scrolled off the top, existing now only implicitly, in pulsing patterns of electricity, buried somewhere in the inscrutable beige metal box. He'd been told files could save themselves, automatically, these days. But where, and how? You'd have to have set that up somehow, surely. He hadn't. Had she perhaps? It seemed unlikely.
If he could get hold of the mouse he might trigger a print command. The tedious task of re-typing would be as nothing to the Herculean one of re-creating. By assigning button duty to the left ring finger, easing his way along the wall, then leaning out and backwards like a trapezing dinghy sailor he could just make out the reflection of the printer. It was certainly switched on – in the distant wavy mirror its little red and green lights had a jaunty, nautical air. But its hopper sat empty, just inches from a tantalising ream of blank paper. There followed an extensive period of manoeuvring, stretching and contortion. But the printer, and indeed the mouse, remained quite unreachable, in spite of increasingly bold and desperate permutations of arms, hands and fingers. The exercise would have gone on a good deal longer had the circular recess surrounding and protecting the power-switch been large enough to accommodate a big toe.
A good wodge of bubble gum might have held in the button, but he had none. There might have been sticky tape in the pencil case, but it really looked more like a purse, and was also inaccessible. He was simply going to have to wait for help. And forfeit lunch. But if memory served there were hidden treats within his grasp.
He sent the left hand back up to explore the table top, monitoring its progress in the glass of the fish-tank. Intrepid walking fingers skirted a wine glass, hurdled a biro and soon were wading in the soft, crinkly paper traylets of the chocolate assortment they had opened the night before. He dragged the flat cardboard box so it projected a little over the table edge, then, splaying his fingers vertically, inched it further until he was supporting it around the centre, finally sliding it clear with a waiter-like flourish. A good proportion of the chocolates were left, but their weight was by no means evenly distributed (she had indeed remarked on his unhealthy bias towards the denser, cream-filled varieties). This left the centre of gravity outside the critical pentagon of fingertips. Manna, albeit of the mundaner, Cadburys variety, rained down heavily. A hazelnut cluster fragmented on impact, the glossy brown shrapnel rattling across the floor and under the sofa. A small salvo of cherry bonbons rolled in pursuit. But the bulk of the windfall came to rest within arm's radius and were soon safely corralled in a corner. With a little self control they would see him through the afternoon.
Hans swapped fingers and uncrossed his legs, one-handedly massaging away the beginnings of pins and needles. Then, with shoulder, neck and eye muscles at full stretch he set to work on the mirrored text. The usually more-than-adequate 12-point Times Roman was rendered all but inscrutable by distance, reflection and reversal. It was like being tested by some devilish optician.
He had just cracked the first line, awarded himself a strawberry fondant, and was beginning the second when the whole page disappeared in a flash. But his pang of alarm quickly abated as the words were replaced by the familiar, reassuring screen-saver pattern. Against a backdrop of implausible aquamarine a mini shoal of animated, Technicolor fish pouted across the monitor, mouthing cartoon bubbles at their real-world counterparts. So, thirty minutes must have passed, or was it sixty? – she had been known to tinker with the time delay. The text could be brought back by pressing any key. Or merely hitting one. He lobbed a Turkish delight – they were the most numerous, his least favourite, and felt ballistically suitable – but it fell well short. He tried and failed again. His third shot made a direct hit in the numeric keypad area, reawakening the words and putting the fish to flight. In more normal circumstances he would have applauded.
It wasn't really so hard, hitting just any key. But wasn't there one special key which would save the work to disk, save the day indeed, and who knew what else? Yes, but there was also one which would delete the whole file. True, that normally required a second, confirmatory keypress. Still, there was no telling what mischief a ricocheting praline might do.
He stared across at the keyboard, less than ten feet away. If he couldn't go to it, maybe it could come to him. He pulled gently on the cable, but it was firmly anchored round the chair arm. Perhaps he could reel in the whole chair, inch by inch, like a prize marlin. He pulled harder. The cable stretched alarmingly, but nothing budged. Any greater force might fracture the inner wires, causing a system lock-up, software crash, or some fatal blowing of fuses.
The phone once again. Sixteen rings. She would be getting annoyed; communication was a two-way thing, as she had often told him. Two more hours seemed too long a time. He cast around for a tougher, more expendable kind of rope. From the twin wall socket behind him trailed two off-white cables, snakily intertwined – sturdy, 13-amp lianas, with lassoing potential. One supplied the unusable printer, the other, the computer with its precious data. But which on earth was which? This was no time for eeny-meenies. He traced the tortuous coils to their respective destinations, twice, and then again, just to be sure. But no amount of sureness could stop a stab of anguish as he pulled out the plug, or a burst of relief as the little green light continued to glow. Hans blew the dust from a rum truffle and chewed it thoughtfully while his heartbeat returned to normal. Then it was time to play Hopalong Cassidy.
Time after time he sent the plug skimming across the polished floor towards the chair, jerking the cable sideways at the critical moment, hoping to induce a whiplash, a multiple wraparound, ensnaring it by the leg. In vain. He swapped hands, he varied the speed and angle of projection, putting kinks and twists in the cable to foster entanglement. The exercise became a challenge in itself. He threw wider and wilder, using ever-defter wrist flicks, ever-stronger exhortations, and expletives. The very last throw was close to perfection, the plug arcing majestically away then swerving like a captured asteroid, wrapping tightly once, twice, inextricably, round the left front leg of the fish-tank stand.
Hans slumped back against the wall, sighing deeply. Meanwhile the cartoon fish had regained control of the monitor screen. Another hour gone then. A well-aimed coffee cream (her favourite, but foil-wrapped and so not wasted) brought back the last page of text, now much clearer in the growing dusk. From the table top above he retrieved a biro and began copying the words on to the back of his hand, wrist, forearm. The last line took him just above the elbow. If only the page-up key had been accessible he could have continued. Even a modest frame like his own offered, he reckoned, a good few A4 sides of reachable, writeable skin. She would have been amused, intrigued, having said more than once that she could read him like a book. She could have typed him up, head to toe, cover to cover, then, when he was safely documented and backed up, finally erased him in a celebratory hot shower.
Hans sat now in full darkness, savouring an orange cream (his favourite, and all the more piquant for being last of the box) legs aching, fingers failing, listening for the sound of her key in the door, the familiar, confident "Hi!" from the hallway. Ten minutes passed. A perilous sleepiness began to descend.
He was saved by the doorbell. The question of "Who?" was quickly resolved by a distant and embarrassed "Hi!" through the letterbox. As for the "Why?", it was sitting inches above his head – pencil cases, purses, key pouches, viewed casually via a fish tank, were not unalike.
The bell again, repeatedly, insistently. Hans began to stir himself. Grimy-handed and trousered, chocolate-mouthed and graffitied as he was, somebody needed him. He let go. He saw the screen flash its last, and heard the fan's faint descending whine as he hurried, hobbling, to the front door.