Friday, 31 August 2018

Blind Mice

Artwork by Zwutschk


            There are a number of ways to approach Cambridge: a vast network of ancient portals extends beneath the city. These pop up into hidden pockets around town. Some are to be found within public houses, others within college walls, sometimes they are even rumoured to terminate in the dons’ rooms. Many of these portals are for those in the know, the privileged, the elite. But for the layfeline, that is the likes of you and me, the most common way into town is via All Saint’s garden.

            During the week, this is a tranquil, triangular space, dotted with trees and benches; at weekends, it transforms into an arts and crafts market, filled with cats selling their wares. The location of this portal is pretty central, and was close to where I wanted to be: Trinity college Cambridge. In fact, the college’s great gate is only a few foot pads up the road.

            The Cambridge in our home universe is a bit different to that found in the universe we share with humans. Many of the edifices still exist, having been built by humans years before. But in this universe, there are no longer any humans to speak of – in fact, this world was empty of almost all life when we discovered it. Across the spread of the multiple layered universes, this phenomenon has been encountered a few times. As yet, no-one understands why.

            So, the buildings in this feline version of Cambridge share many similarities, although a number have fallen into parlous states. To my left, the walls of the once proud Whewell’s court were crumbling into dust, large cracks exposing overgrown gardens and rooms beyond. This isn’t to say that us cats don’t build anything new. These human buildings in the centre of town have been roughly kept as they were when we found them. In the distance, just visible in the sky between the fa├žades of Trinity and John’s colleges, were the tapering curling pastel purple and green towers of something new. As these ascended into the empyrean, delicate wisps of cloud floated nearby, giving the impression they were an extension of these constructions. Dreaming Spires - you see, in this universe, we like to embody a metaphor in reality.

            I crossed the street, where I was almost run over by a number of maniacal student cats of bicycles. Once the chorus of annoyed bells had petered out, I paused outside Trinity great gate, looking up at the statue perched above the arch in the gothic entrance. Where once a human king had stood proud, now there was an effigy of the famous booted cat, holding a wooden chair leg as his staff. If I squinted, I could just about see the shape of the human king bleeding through into this reality, although maybe it was just my imagination.

            As I was contemplating this, a few gowned, bespectacled dons burst from the gate, speaking the ancient feline language, words of which I’d heard The Architect mutter occasionally. Hearing this ancient tongue flicked a switch inside me: the ghost-like shapes of the other worlds were instantly visible, as if precipitated by these archaic words. Amongst the felines, I saw the spectral shapes of human figures in their world, stepping across the threshold of the college, clustered in small groups as they caught up after lunch.

            I knew I should go in, but for some reason something stopped me. I considered the letter in the bag strapped to my belly, which contained within the invitation to this place, to meet a cat – someone who said they could help me with my book. But I suddenly felt a sense of misgiving. I felt alien to the students on their bikes and the dons in their gowns. Was I part of this world, a little cat from Bournemouth? I felt as if I wasn’t ready for this.

            I found myself moving away from the college, walking past a rank of public houses, already filled to the brim with revelling student felines. Numerous pints of the white stuff were being consumed, the slightly sour taste of certain varieties reaching my nose. I was tempted to dive in, knock back a few pints myself, and perhaps if the place hadn’t been so full I would have. Instead I wandered up to the river, and sat on the banks, watching the punts go by.

            The cats who were controlling the punts were big burly brutes, more weight than muscle. They guided the wooden boats by means of a large stick, the same stick which propelled them forward, pushed deep into the murky depths of the river. The pilots of these vessels reminded me of The Architect - in fact I became convinced that one of them was indeed my friend himself, when the creature winked at me as he passed, his cargo a swarming mass of fur. I waved but then he was gone, born away on the current, up past Magdalene college.

            I sat for some time, watching the traffic. There seemed no rhyme or reason to this – cats sprang on and off the punts when they liked. A few even jumped up onto the bridges, and one or two, having had a few pints of Holstein Freisian, Kefir or even Jersey, didn’t quite make it. There was always a ruckus when this happened, cats meowing in empathy, before the bedraggled creature was eventually landed. Soon, I decided to jump on one myself.

            The punt was called Blind Mice. Which immediately instilled fear into me. The mice were the only inhabitant of this universe when we’d discovered it, and had taken it on themselves to police it against other intruders. When we started arriving in large numbers, this immediately caused problems. The mice then weaponised themselves, being otherwise defenceless against our inherent hunting skills. They struck somewhat randomly, attacking the feline population. But my worries were amplified by my lack of exposure to the world. The mice police were mostly under control.

            I watched the colleges go by, passing under John’s bridge of Sighs, before the backs opened up. Trinity passed on my left, the imposing Wren library’s enormous windows glinting in the afternoon sun. Other Trinity punts passed me by: Wiseman, Harry Lime and Codon. I eventually hopped out near another college called Clare, jumping up onto the bridge. It was adorned with round balls of stone, spaced evenly along its length. One of the balls at the end had a slice taken out of it, like a cake. I sat here for a while, again contemplating the letter.

            The irony of the situation didn’t pass me by. When you are writing a story, your protagonist has to have some kind of conflict. This can be any number of things. The hero of the piece being thwarted by the villain, for example. Or the hero has to rail against the society he has been brought up in to achieve his ends. Some of the latter was a key component of my novel The Shadow Murder, which had brought me to this place. And in doing so, created a conflict within myself.

            As I sat there, I realised there were two options open to me. The first was to go home and spend the rest of my days slowly getting fat on the gourmet food my Slaves gave me. In other words, shy away from any conflict and make my life a form of unreadable prose. Or the other was to actually get a grip and go and meet the cat who had suggested he would be my agent.



To be continued…





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Saturday, 25 August 2018

The Manuscript (Part Two)


Gordiscope mirror © Darmy


The story continues...

            Around the corner of the alleyway was a yard which revealed its own narrative. It was stacked high with railway sleepers, branded with the names of places in England, and dates. They were from Sheffield, York, Birmingham amongst others; some bore ancient marks of the train companies: GWR, LMS, LNER. Having supported the weight of those steam trains transporting people across the land, their penultimate trip seemed to have been to the South Coast, following the same direction as all those holiday makers. I assumed most were from the railway lines closed many years before, and that they’d basked in the Southern sun for decades, the seasoned wood awaiting repurposing. I remember thinking to myself that surely they wouldn’t be around for long now - being increasingly popular for that latest shabby chic look people like in their gardens.

            The yard was overlooked by a series of workshops, windows reflecting the light from the heavens, casting eerie beams of moon at odd angles. A vintage truck sat in one corner, reeking of oil and new paint. The body of the vehicle looked good as new, but the doors had yet to be completed, their surface scuffed and worn. But even so, its appearance was anachronistic. With the aged railway sleepers and this mode of transport, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. I tried to ground myself by listening for the familiar groan of the buses in the distance, but instead I heard a different, unfamiliar noise – the sound of wheels on tracks.

            I tentatively began walking across the yard, the surface of which was unpleasantly sandy and gritty on my paws. I remember wondering about how I’d have to spend time licking them later, and subsequently how I’d have to deal with the gritty sensation on my palate. But then I turned to the matter at hand.

            At first, I looked around for the Architect, but he was nowhere to be seen. As for the rat with my disc... I spent some time searching, walking between the ranks of the sleepers, examining the various workshops, some of which had been left open for the night - this itself was unusual, but I didn’t think much of it until later. I sniffed every pot and bucket and toolbox in that place, but there was no scent trail to speak of.

            As I passed to the back of the yard, there was a large wooden shed. I began to get a curious sense of displacement. I thought back to looking out of the top window at the rear of the house, the room where my tall Slave likes to write. But the wooden shed hadn’t been there before – as far as I could remember this should have been an empty space, sometimes used as an ad hoc car park. And of course, cars wouldn’t have been able to get access with the pile of railway sleepers there.

            I heard the odd whistle of metal on tracks once more. Something really wasn’t right. I sat and listened, but the yard was devoid of life. Even the bats which often fluttered around overhead, jittering their choreic dances to the sounds of echo, were absent. The night was completely still. Realising that the sky was turning a shade of blue, signifying the beginning of dawn, I walked back to the alleyway, only to find my path blocked by a tall door.

            Uncertain what to do next, I ran into the street, confused by the lack of cars parked there. What’s more, the street looked different – the houses I remember seeing through the window across the road weren’t as taller, nor as grand. In addition, their front gardens looked different: more manicured, neater. Then I saw some houses I recognised, but even these seemed different somehow, despite the lack of cars and the gardens: everything looked newer, fresher. And there were no television aerials, no satellite dishes.

            I heard that screeching metal sound again, and saw something pass by at the end of the road. Then behind me, very close by, there was another noise: the clip clop of hooves on the road. I turned to see a horse drawn cart, laden with milk bottles. It had stopped momentarily for a delivery, the horse snorting with impatience. It caught me in its glance and I thought it was about to say something, but instead it stamped its foot, stroppily.

            I ran up to our terrace and looked at our house – wondering if my Slaves were asleep. Or indeed if my Slaves were actually there. But the door and the windows were different. I couldn’t recall the door being red, nor could I recall the white lead mullions on the glazing. Frightened now, I started running up the road. I’d been this way a few times, and was aware it was interdit, verboten, according to my Slaves, because they were worried about me getting squashed beneath the wheels of an inconsiderate driver. But this was an exception surely? And there were no cars!

            I simply had to find the Architect. Where was he? When I reached the top of the road, I watched an open top tram screech past, the electrical cables above fizzing. It was a beautiful sight, its red and cream livery lending a regal feel  – so much better than the buses we now have. The lower deck was illuminated, and filled with men reading newspapers and smoking. Their clothing all seemed rather uptight – no slovenly T-shirts or shorts, like my tall Slave likes to wear. On the top deck sat a lone figure who waved as me as the tram passed.

            When I turned back to walk back down the road, I was once again surprised by the milk cart. It had crept closer as it made its deliveries up the avenue. The horse stood looking at me once more, stamping its feet as if trying to tell me something. When the milkman dismounted to drop of a few bottles of silver top, a familiar figure jumped out of the back of the cart: it was the Architect.

            ‘Um, apologies about all this,’ he mumbled.

            ‘What the heck is going on?’ I asked.

            ‘Well, there seems to have been a slight time blip. Happens occasionally. Nothing to worry about,’ he added in a laissez-faire manner.

            ‘Time blip? Just how many years have we gone back?’ I asked.

            ‘Only about… well, only about eighty.’

            ‘Eighty years?’ I asked, incredulously.

            ‘I think we’d better head back down the road, before that milkman appears again, don’t you think?’ replied the Architect, rhetorically.

            It made sense of course, when I came to think about it. My subconscious mind had flagged up something, and I’d half wondered about whether or not I’d entered a different part of the layered alternate universes. But the effect had been so disorientating, I hadn’t been able to work it out.

            We passed the family houses which would eventually later be converted to flats. We passed rows of similar houses that would be bombed in a few years time, obliterated from existence. We passed gardens that would be torn up to make way for driveways for humans’ precious motorcars. Behind us, another tram circled the block, which would be removed from service and sent to Wales or perhaps down the coast to Seaton, the existing network pulled up and replaced by buses. Everything would change, because everything always did.

            ‘Did you find the rat?’

            ‘Of course. Rats can’t stop time like cats. I went to the library first, thought you might be there. Left the disc there. It is all ready and awaiting your arrival.’

            ‘Well, we just have to get there.’

            ‘Just as soon as we manoeuvre ourselves into an approximate position of where we were before the jump…,’ the Architect explained.

            ‘Right…’

            ‘When we get back, we’ll walk around to the library on the road. It is early enough. But before we go…’

            ‘What?’

            ‘This is your house isn’t it?’ he asked, stopping outside the terraced property. I looked up, recognising the house number, the familiar brickwork, and nodded.

            ‘Yes, that’s the one.’

            ‘Follow me then,’ he said, nudging the gate open with his head. I definitely didn’t remember there being a gate. Beside the door stood two ice cold bottles of silver top milk. The Architect scratched at the top of one of these, knocking it onto the ground and began to lap at the cream layer beneath. He then turned to me, shrugged. ‘Well, when in Rome… Your turn,’ he replied, with white whiskers.

***


            In a short while, we were back at the end of the alleyway, where the obstructing door prevented access. And then in an eyeblink, it had gone and all that remained were some old holes in the brickwork, where the hinges had attached. As I examined one of these, a woodlouse crawled out, testing the day with its feelers, before returning into the shelter of the darkness.

            ‘Wasn’t so bad, was it?’ asked the Architect, looking at me with a worried expression.

            ‘No. But how… how did you know where I was? Or rather when I was?’

            ‘Well, my mistake really. Had to spend a while, you know, searching the timelines, once I’d realised what had gone wrong.’

            ‘Searching the timelines?’

            ‘Yep. Every year back to 1928.’

            ‘Every year? But what if something had happened? What if you’d been blown to smithereens by the bombs that landed?’

            ‘You’d have been stuck, old chap.’

            I thought back to the car free roads, the old style trams and dress sense. Would I have been happy there? ‘I suppose it wouldn’t have been that bad. I’d have missed my Slaves though,’ I said, my thoughts continuing aloud.

            ‘Not just that. Cat food. Wasn’t the same back then.’

            ‘I suppose not…,’ I replied in agreement. He was right though – there was no way I’d be able to do without my gourmet white fish and spinach - it was bad enough when the local supermarket ran out of stock.

            I followed the Architect up the street to the library. He knew a secret way in through a back window, creeping through the ladies’ toilets and into the library proper. And there was an easy way up, so it didn’t require any kind of athletic prowess. Inside, a number of computers hummed to themselves in the centre of the space, surrounded by the warmth of bookshelves’ accumulated knowledge.

            ‘Well, there you go…,’ the Architect said, pointing at the technology, which seemed as out of kilter in this space as I had felt in the past. My disc lay next to one of the monitors. When I picked it up, I realised its plastic casing bore little teeth marks.

            Soon, the printers were whirring into action, churning out my words. As I waited, I looked around at the stacks of books, many of which hadn’t even been written a few minutes ago. I wondered about adding my efforts to the similar wealth of literature that filled the feline library, which occupied this very space in our neighbouring universe. Maybe one day.

            With the printing done, we stepped outside into the dawning day. I clutched my manuscript to my chest, fearful of letting it go after all I’d been through to print it. The world outside the library had changed once more, the sky now dark with clouds. A wind whipped up leaves in the street, shook the trees.

            I turned to the Architect, to wish my thanks for his help, but tripped over the step designed for human, rather than feline, gait. In slow motion, I felt the manuscript slip from my hands, split into fractions and be carried by the wind. I tried to stop time, but for some reason I couldn’t. All I could do was watch, hopelessly, as for the second time that day, my words were ripped away from me.

            But then, in the next eyeblink, the next flick of the nictitating membrane, everything was back to normal. The Architect was in front of me, holding my intact manuscript.

            ‘I stopped time. Which was why you couldn’t,’ he explained.

            ‘I didn’t realise you could do that – stop others from halting the timeline, I mean.’

            ‘I know. Rather brutish of me wasn’t it? Anyway… How about I see you to your door with this?’ he asked, gesturing to my manuscript and laughing.

            ‘Sure,’ I replied, feeling a sudden tiredness wash over me, as I joined him in the laughter, which for a moment I thought must have sounded strange to the neighbourhood humans. But then we heard some foxes mating, their screeches hard on the ears, concealing any kind of noise we’d been making.

            ‘Fox mating season,’ the Architect noted.

            ‘Which is why your fox friend couldn’t help?’

            ‘I imagine so,’ replied the Architect.

            When we reached the alleyway, I was faced with having to make the return journey over the sheer fence. Whilst I was sniffing around for a way in, the Architect jumped up with the manuscript, almost pirouetting on the fence post before vanishing from view. Moments later, he’d managed to unlock the back gate to allow me access. I noticed my manuscript had been placed on the cast iron table, held down by a small rock. The Architect continued to fiddle with the key in the gate door, and I watched so I could do the same next time.

            Eventually, he managed to close the mechanism and leapt back down, landing silently on the patio beside me. We sat in silence for a while, staring at the stars once again, before I spoke: ‘Well, thanks for your… help?’

            The Architect raised his paw, waving this away. ‘But look, posting it is your responsibility!’ he replied, before performing another acrobatic manoeuvre and disappearing over the fence. I could hear him laughing to himself in the alleyway beyond.

            Thankfully, the following evening, I managed to negotiate sending the book away without incident or need for assistance. But really, that was just the beginning of the story…



END







Twenty-one: coming soon



Saturday, 18 August 2018

The Manuscript (Part One)

Gordiscope by Darmy

Let me start this epistle with an apology. It has been some weeks since you heard from me. I hope you didn’t think I’d been squashed beneath the wheels of a car, had my head bitten clean off my a neighbourhood hound or some other such horror. I was merely ‘on tour’ with my agent. Entertaining my clutter, if you will. Or my clowder. There are so many collective nouns for our species, I lose track.

In any case, the new short story collection ‘Vestigial Ghost Tails’ came out a few weeks back. Which means a contractual obligation to follow my agent around to wherever he thinks the books will sell best. Or at least create a buzz, which might sell more books. Perhaps my adventures in the foreign climes I visited will make their way into these sheaves of the interweb. Perhaps not.

I suppose I was fortunate enough to acquire an agent for Shadow Murder relatively quickly after I’d finished the book. I know others spend years trying to find someone to ply their wares for them – my tall Slave for instance hasn’t found one yet, just a sheaf of rejections. But sending my first novel away wasn’t without its problems…



***



            In the olden times - or you might say: ‘back in my youth’ - agents preferred proper printed documents. My Slaves do have a desktop inkjet printer thing, which would have been convenient, but for the fact they didn’t have enough paper and the machine took ages. Also, trying to print off a thousand or so sheets surreptitiously wouldn’t be easy and they would be sure to notice. I considered engineering it so they blamed it on one another, but ultimately, I didn’t think this was fair on them. They had just started spending a lot of money on my gourmet food, appeasing my fastidious dietary desires – I really didn’t want to risk a return to the cardboard flavoured generic branded cat meat. (I’m sure you know which one I mean, but I’ll refrain from writing the name here for legal reasons.) So, I had to think up another plan.

            I was sitting in the garden one night, wondering what to do about this, watching the distant stars, when I heard a scuffling nearby. Moments later, The Architect loomed into being over the top of the fence. The fence wobbled for a moment beneath his bulk, before he landed on the patio next to me. I was, as ever, surprised by the light grace of his movements, which belied his size.

            ‘Greetings, my good sir Architect,’ I offered.

            In response, the cat issued a deep mioaw. He remained silent for a bit longer, so I resumed my search of the heavens, hoping for Bastet to reveal herself and solve my problems. Perhaps she was busy in her human form, dealing with their multitude of problems. I believe they call her Artemis, but I could be mistaken.

            Some time after this, The Architect chose to speak.

            ‘Your neighbour remains quiet…,’ he said, talking of Athena, the Rock Star cat.

            ‘Quiet? She’s been making an awful racket. Apparently she’s in some creative purple patch. The Owl is her muse. Et cetera,’ I explained.

            ‘Oh, right. I think…’

            ‘Therefore you are cat?’

            ‘Very amusing. But Let me rephrase that. She has been quiet when it comes to time,’ said the Architect.

            ‘I didn’t realise time was loud.’

            ‘My ears are attuned to its vibrations. In a similar manner to those cats which can detect Earthquakes before they hit.’

            ‘Are you trying to say thanks?’ I asked.

            ‘In a manner of speaking,’ he replied.

            ‘Well, perhaps there is something you can do for me…’

            I explained my predicament, The Architect nodding as I outlined how such a transgression as abusing my Slaves’ printer would likely not pass them by.

            ‘Well, perhaps you could try the library?’ he suggested.

            ‘The library? Isn’t that just full of books?’

            ‘It is quite different to the feline libraries you’ve visited. As well as books, Human Slaves like to populate their libraries with CDs, DVDs, books which can speak to you and computers which can print things. It is just around the corner,’ he continued, raising one paw to point over the high wall that ran along the alleyway behind the garden.

            As I’ve pointed out before, I am not really one for climbing. At most I will jump onto the garden table. But that is about my limit. I regarded the wall with suspicion.

            ‘Isn’t it a bit high?’ I asked, half expecting The Architect to call on his fox friend to help. But he didn’t mention it. And I was reluctant to ask this favour of him, due to my rather British sensibilities.

            Eventually he replied: ‘Look, I’ll go first. You follow my footsteps. If you fall, you’ll land on your feet anyway.’

            ‘I’m not so sure…’

            But as I spoke those words, the Architect had launched himself back up the fence, teetering on its summit.

            ‘Hang on! I’m not ready! I need to get the disk!’ I replied, dashing back into the house and charging up the two flights of stairs. This was before the ubiquity of USB sticks and the invention of cloud drives. Data had to be saved to a shiny disk, which you’d transfer between computers – the disks themselves were housed in brittle plastic cases. I selected the disk onto which I’d saved my opus magnus and gently placed it into the belly bag I use to transport things around the place.

            Moments later, I was downstairs, watching the Architect swaying on the top of the fence. The disk strapped to me was bulky and uncomfortable; even worse, it seemed to get in the way every time I stretched for the jump. I shook my head, expecting the Architect to say something, but he remained patiently silent.

            I jumped. But undershot. And was forced to scrabble up the creeper which grew up the trellising. I almost lost it at one point, but then I was up there, next to The Architect, feeling the structure yaw. My thrashing around caused the security light next door to flash into action. Remaining mute, the Architect turned and jumped straight at the wall, leaping over the length of the alleyway and attaching himself to the vertical surface. He climbed up like a fat spider, before settling himself on the top and glancing down at me from what seemed like an unfathomable height.

            I sat there contemplating the leap until the security light flicked off again. The Architect vanished against the night sky - all that remained of him were the glittering eyes, like two additional stars in the sky. Soon though, the rod cells in my eyes became accustomed to the dark, the crevices of the wall; even the footholds my friend had used became visible. I decided to go for it, leaping across the expanse. But then as I hit the wall, I found myself sliding downwards, my claws too finely trimmed by my Slaves to make purchase on the surface. I flipped backwards and felt myself falling, gravity pulling me upright and I landed with a bump in the alleyway.

            I looked around, noticing a rat next to me, baring its teeth. I swiped at it, but it ducked, refusing to back away. Brazen creatures, are rats. I swiped again, but the creature refused to move, almost as if it was interested in me. Seconds later it pounced and we began to tumble around, scratching and biting each other. And then, as quick as the attack had begun, it shot off down the alleyway. Feeling lighter, I quickly discovered that the disk had vanished, my belly bag empty. I looked around in a panic, hoping it had just fallen out in the scrap. Unable to find it, I realised that the rat had taken it.

            Above, I saw The Architect charging across the top of the wall, keeping pace with the rat as it plunged along the alleyway. I also began to pursue, darting through the overgrown lane, giving the large bush of holly a wide berth, jumping over the old pots and pans left to moulder over the years, and then speeding up as I reached the stretch of herby stuff which sprang beneath my feet. At the end of the alleyway, a bike was locked up, its wheel jutting into the alleyway at an angle, spokes glinting in the moonlight. Some movement also flashed nearby: the disk which contained my novel.

            And yes, before you ask, this was the only copy. And yes, I should have known better. There is a lesson here for all you writers. But I suspect these days everything is automatically saved onto your cloud account. Nothing can ever be deleted. These words will remain here, on the interweb, in perpetuity. Even if I remove them from this website, they will remain saved somewhere on a hard drive deep beneath the earth’s crust. But this wasn’t the case with my novel back then. As the flashing disk disappeared around the corner of the alleyway, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. And a sense of disbelief, which slowly morphed into anger.



Continues...





 

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