Sunday, 24 October 2010

Modern Fable


There was something wrong when Tom woke. His sand filled eyes darted about the room. The sound of girls skipping drifted on the air. The brass bedhead creaked gently. Suddenly something seemed to snap into place and he jumped up. “We’ve been fucking robbed.” he cried. “We’ve been…” Tom held out his arms and examined his attire. He stood in a pink and white stripped nightgown reaching to his ankles with hat to match. “What the?”

Two children poked out of the covers at the foot of the bed. “Who the ‘ell are you two?” he asked.

“Oh Thomas.” replied the elder, a girl of about twelve. “I’m Mary. I’m your sister.”

“I don’t have a sister. Or a brother.”

“Now Tom, you know right well you have two sisters, and Jack here is your brother.”

Tom sneered. “Well then, sister, what ‘appened to me fucking stuff?”

“Please don’t swear Thomas, it’s common. What stuff are you talking about?”

“Me tv and Xbox and that.”

“What on Earth is an Xbox?”

Tom made to spit something else in reply, when he did a double take at the ceiling, then looked towards the door. “And where’s the friggin’ light gone?”

“Why, it’s by the bed of course.” Mary pointed to a candlestick on the bedside table. She sighed. “Perhaps mother is right after all. She says you’re turning simple. She says that’s why the factory sacked you.”

“Sacked? When was I sacked?” He jumped down off the bed. “I’ve gotta find out what’s going on ‘ere. Something’s very fucking wrong.”

Having struggled with the unfamiliar clothing for some time, much to the embarrassment of his siblings, Tom flew out of the house, the words barely formed in his mother’s mouth as the door slammed shut behind him. His boots were tied up with string; his trousers held together with a safety pin. He scratched at himself where the coarse, brown material irritated his skin. Mary insisted he wore a hat.

The street on which Tom lived had always been cobbled, but he was shocked to come to the main road. There was no main road, only more cobbles. He glanced back and it was only then he seemed to notice that his street was devoid of cars.

Two horses drew a cart laden with beer barrels down the road before him. A sign swung from the side: “Celebrate Saturnalia with Andersen’s Ales.” “Oi.” a voice sounded from above. “Look out down there.” A woman held a wooden pail out of a first floor window. He stepped in the road as she upended the bucket, spilling its contents onto the street. The stench of excrement was nauseating. “You want to watch out ma lad, not everyone’s as considerate as me you know.” She withdrew.

However you judge Tom he seemed to have learnt from the previous day. For hours he wandered, his forehead held tight in a frown of concentration, keeping any thoughts he may have had to himself. Yet whenever he passed a row of houses, he never failed to check above.

His aimless wanderings brought him to the canal. It bustled with activity. The mills had been resurrected; yesterday’s half demolished chimneys arisen and belching out smoke. The royal standard hung from every flagpole. The same design Tom had unfurled from Mick’s bag the before day hung from windows everywhere. And on the streets, men burnt cloth of a different hue, a green dragon on an orange background. There looked to be a dramatic increase in the number of faces dissimilar to Tom's about town.

The night came down. By chance, Tom found the pub. “The Griffin” was now a Tudor tavern, but seemed the same old place inside, save the straw on the floor. Mick and the others were gathered around the fireplace. “Tom.” Mick bellowed, clearly intoxicated. He held a flagon of ale out to Tom. “Drink deep ma lad, for tomorrow we’re away to war.”

“War?” Tom replied.

“Aye.” Frasier confirmed. “We all took the king’s shilling. Signed yous up too. We leave first thing.”

“War with who?” Tom asked.

“The Chinks, you nob.” Mick said. “Ha ha, the Chinks you nob. Get it? ‘Cause you’re a bummer boy.” He glared at Tom through heavy eyelids. “Don’t think I haven’t heard about you hanging about canal.”

“Mick, ‘onestly it’s not what you think. It’s ‘arry you wanna worry about. Faggot.”

Mick shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now lad. The Chinks will probably kill you before you can hump ma leg anyway.” The others roared with laughter and flagons of ale were consumed. “Just try and take a few of slitty-eyed-cunts with you.”

“Ok Mick, I will.” Tom looked confused, but knew enough to humour a drunk.

“Aye, you’ll do for me lad.”

“Mick.” said Gaz, cocking his chin. “Look who just walked in.” Carl Miller had arrived. He treated the looks of hate with a grin and headed straight for them.

“Oi, Miller.”

“Alright Mick, mon frere, where are the other two?”

“Other two?”

“Yeah, I thought there were seven dwarves. Now how does it go again?” He counted out on his fingers. “Fear, anger, ignorance. Immaturity, ineptitude, intolerance and, err, oh yeah, impotence.”

"What the fuck is he on about?" asked Frasier.

"Nothing, he's just a smart cunt." Mick sneered.

“Hey Miller.” asked a guy Tom didn’t seem  to recognise, “did you ever fuck one of her family by mistake?” The others giggled.

“One of who’s family?”

“That nigger ya married. I can’t tell ‘em apart.”

“Well surely that says more about your poor eyesight that it does about black people.” The others glared at him. “Hmmm, weak eyes to go with a weak brain. And you have the nerve to call yourselves superior.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Mick sneered once more.

“It means that no matter how many times you tell yourself that you’re better than them, that you’ve been born with white skin,” Carl explained, “you are and always will be at the bottom of the barrel. Get rid of any section of humanity you wish, it won’t make any difference to your standing in life.” He stared straight at Tom.

“Now you’ve done it.” Mick said. “You and me, outside.”

“With pleasure. I believe the back yard is big enough for our purposes.”

Carl strode out back, the others following. Mick ran at his back, but a leg hooked back and hit him in the temple. Mick went flying, clattering into a bin. The others advanced, but Mick halted them with a raised hand. His other brandished a serrated blade. Carl removed his glasses and slipped them into his pocket. “Fuck me, it’s you.” said Tom.

“I might have known.” Mick said, rising. “Two bummer boys together.”

“You know,” the man said, “where I come from it’s been shown that the more overtly homophobic a man is, the more likely he is to become aroused by the sight of two men fucking.” Someone laughed. Mick lunged, stabbing. The knife flew into the air with a single blow from the other’s outstep. He took a pace forward and delivered a further blow to Mick’s solar plexus, lifting him once more off the ground. Mick tried to rise, but a roundhouse knocked him out cold.

“Anyone else?” the man advanced. “I’ve fought armies, so a bunch of pot bellied rejects shouldn’t present much of a challenge.” They cowered in retreat.

Mick came to with a groan. Tom came to his aid. Mick used his weight to pull himself up, then socked him in the jaw. Tom collapsed in a heap.

From ‘Carl’s’ hand a silver pool of water seemed to drip. It shifted shape, solidifying into a broadsword.

“What the..?” several voices said in unison.

“Impressive, I know. They call it a labile. Anyway, let’s play a game. I’ll count to a hundred and then I’m going to come after y’all. The first one I catch will be finishing the evening in several more pieces than he started. One, two, three, four.” By five, only Tom remained, sprawled on the ground.

“Hey Tom, wakey, wakey. Come on, let’s get a cold compress on that jaw.” Tom moaned, as he was lifted on to a beer barrel.

“Ow. You, Jesus man, ‘ow did I never notice it was you before? Was only when you took off them glasses. Seemed obvious then.”

“Yeah, something I picked up on my travels. Emergent technology.”

“What the fuck’s ‘appened? Why is everyone living in the past?”

“Ha!” the man exclaimed. “A very apt sentiment. It’s you Tom, you brought everyone here.”

“What ya on about?"

The man sighed. “Come.” he said. “Let’s get away from the smell of stale beer and piss and I will try to explain.”

“Where?” Tom asked.

“Through that wall.” the man replied, pointing across the yard.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”

The man sighed once more and twisted one wrist with the opposite hand. He clicked his fingers and on cue the wall began to dismantle. The bricks span outward, hovered midair for an instant, then flew inward, resolving into a path leading inside. “Come on Scarecrow.” the man said, offering his hand. “Let’s follow the yellow brick road and see if we can’t find you a brain.”

Once inside, it was obvious the scene was fabricated. The horizon was never more than ten feet before them, the stone path curving in a short arcing cylinder. The sky was midnight blue, the same tree passed them several times before a man was seen sitting beneath it. He wore breeches and waist coat, with a mane of black wig. He had a semblance of humanity, but was as fake as the scenery.

“What the…” Tom exclaimed.

“Oh I know.” said the man. “It’s a child’s toy, something I found in a jumble sale. Cheaply made, but it does the job nicely. Know this guy?”

“No.” Tom petulantly replied.

“This is Issac Newton.”


“Know him now?”

“Yeah, an apple fell on ‘is ‘ead and shit.”

“I’m glad to see schools are still teaching history with such vigour.” Tom made to reply. “Ah,” the man placed a finger to his lips, “the time for you to talk has passed. Keep quiet and pay attention and you may actually learn something. I take it no other demonstration of my not inconsiderable power is required this evening?” Silence was as good as assent.

“Excellent. I will try to speak slowly and in a language even you can understand. Now, try to put yourself in Newton’s position. You have all these wild notions about the universe. Gravity and optics and the laws of motion, etcetera. What you need is a form of notation with which to write it all down. What you need is to invent integral calculus and then spend years accusing Leibniz of stealing your ideas. But you see there’s a problem Tom. When you erased Arabia from history, you erased all that its scholars achieved, including algebra. Without algebra, Newton has no notation, no shorthand to explain his ideas. It was difficult enough for people to understand them in his day as it was. And so he died a penniless drunk, driven mad by the sheer weight of his intellect rattling around inside his head without a conduit with which to channel it. No one else but you even remembers his name and all you know about him is that an apple fell on ‘is ‘ead and shit.” The man gave a mirthless laugh. “This man’s ideas were at the forefront of scientific knowledge for three hundred years. His laws of motion helped put men on the moon and I doubt you can recite a single one of them. Hmmm.” The man walked on.

“No Newton, no industrial revolution. And as with Newton’s Principia, so Gaussian Law and Maxwell’s equations, which led to the harnessing of electricity. All humanity’s greatest achievements, gone, all because of you. A once noble language, reduced to pidgin by the removal of one apparently redundant section of the community. Humanity never really got started Tom.” They had arrived at a spiral staircase. “Up.” the man commanded.

“Of course, “ he continued, climbing up after Tom, “no Arabia, so no Muslims and no Jews either. Consequently, no Christianity. Without the glue of a monotheistic faith, stop me if I’m getting too technical for you, the Roman Empire crumbled decades before it was meant to. And with no Islam to act as buffer, the Chinese Dynasties have always been a threat to the west. They invaded India a century and a half ago. The Diaspora there has been going on for nearly as long. Their armies now occupy Europe as far west as Berlin. Personally, I think they’ll be in Londinium by Eostur.”

“Where the hell are we?” Tom asked. The stairs had brought them out on the deck of a large sailing ship.

“This is my ship.” the man answered. “I sail it across dimensions.”

“Yeah? Take me.”

“Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“For company and that.” He pressed his fists together in front of him. “I could see them other dimensions.”

The man shook his lowered head and chuckled. “You still don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?”

“I don’t like you Tom.”

“Then why are you ‘elping me then?”

Another chuckle. “You think I’m helping you?” he said, incredulously. “I’m not helping you, I’m condemning you. Condemning you to live in that most frustrating of worlds, a world where you get exactly what you ask for. A world where you live as you say, not as you do.” His words had menace. Tom was rooted to the spot, every muscle in his body frozen. “You wanted a world free of ‘Pakis’.” As he intoned the word, multi-coloured balloons, the shape of exclamation marks, appeared in Tom’s hands, floated skywards and popped. “Well you made your bed, Einstein, not that he exists anymore either, bless his scruffy big brain. For company, haha. Sorry, I already have a ship’s cat. She’s a jaguar and she’s far, far smarter than you.” A snarl was heard astern. Tom eyes filled with fear. Unable to blink, tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Anyway.” the man said, releasing Tom with a wave of his hand. “Time we were getting you back. Now, what’s the quickest route?”

Tom rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “Traitor?” he cried. “You’re supposed to use your powers to help us. England for the English.”

“Sorry, I was born in my own country. However, it was a long time ago and I’ve achieved so much more since then.”

“But why me?” Tom pleaded.

“Because I was bored. So I cried ‘haunted, condemned and execrated.’ to my ship, span her wheel and she brought me to you.”

“But why me ya dickhead?” he persevered. “What about Mick, he’s a proper racist cunt?”

“Mick?” the man fumed. “Oh I’ll do him for free when you make your next choice. So, who’s for the chop today?”

“Oh no, no more, I’m getting out, you’re a fucking mental.”

“Come on Tom, you know you can’t quit now, you need your fix. Besides, we had a deal. Strictly one request per day. We shook on it remember. Who’s it to be? Pick someone or I’ll have to take you instead.” The man stood close, whispered in his ear. “Think of it this way, with Mick gone, you won’t wake up with that red mark across your jaw.”

Tom hung his head. “Alright.” he said, without looking up. “I guess. I guess the Chinks.”

“The Chinks? Oh, I see, you mean the Chinese?” Tom nodded. “To be honest Tom, I grow increasingly tired of this game, as well as your tedious presence, so why don’t we move things along and just get rid of all the Asians.”


“Well, ask me nicely then.”

Tom grunted. "You tricked me, you cunt." he muttered. The man ran at him, yanked him to his knees, sword to his neck. He screamed: “Tell me to get rid of the Asians or I’ll cut your fucking head off.“

"Get rid of the Asians, get rid of the Asians.” There were tears in his eyes.

The man retreated and bowed, sword resting at his nape. “Consider them gone. Mick too. Right, I think the shortest way home is for you to walk the plank.” The man’s voice was distant.

Tom looked up. “’ey, I ain’t walking no fucking plank.”

“Too late.” the man replied. Still knelt, Tom now see-sawed above the waves on a single piece of wood. Before he could move, it was yanked out from under him and he plunged into the sea. A whirlpool swirled beneath him, pulling him in. The waves washed over. He went under…

…and fell into a sodden heap in his bed. His siblings woke with a scream; he urged them quiet. They stripped him and toweled him dry and pressed their own frozen bodies against him to lend what little warmth there was to go around. He seemed content. He smiled. Exhausted, he slept.

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