A new rope for Herbert

Herbert Countenance the third, son of the retired judge and great humanitarian Sir Walter Countenance the second, had already at an early age exhibited talent for improving the productivity of operations around the manor. Waste was appalling to him and the sensible economics of the to and fro of all activities was always at the top of his mind. He chided the servants for not bringing him his evening milk and morning wash towel in the same delivery, thereby sparing them one trip up and down the stairs and him the inconvenience of having to wait if he decided on an early rise. And to the butler he devoted particular attention: “Oh, Duncan my good man,” the eleven-year-old would say, “if only you would take the dinner plates away at the time you bring me dessert. It would save you an extra journey to the kitchen. That’s an entire two minutes. Think if you had done this just once every day for the last twenty years, you would have saved yourself about ten days. Ten days during which you could have performed other tasks. You really ought to think more efficiently.”

So it was no surprise that after graduating from university he quickly rose to a position of responsibility. His first job was the post offered to him by his father as Junior Clerk in the court house during which he reorganised the processing of new cases and introduced the requirement that all petty complaints be petitioned in writing by the submission of a rather elaborate and onerous form before the initiation of proceedings. As a result, cases such as those involving theft of foodstuffs or claims by greedy landlords which were brought before a judge were halved since no-one cared much for filling out forms or paying a lawyer’s hourly rate. His superiors were so impressed they decided to let him loose on the incredibly vast backlog of death-row inmates, some of whom, due to inefficiency and plain incompetence in the department, had been lingering in over-crowded jails for years causing strain on the already over-capacitated justice system. Therefore with the blessing of the Minister he was expediently promoted. A position – Director in Charge of Hangings and Executions – was created for him and he applied all his energies to the task as an astronomer researching the stars. Through a concerted effort of cost-cutting on materials, double shifts for executioners on Sundays to avoid time-wasting interruptions (everyone was at church service) and the blanket refusal to grant last meals and many other initiatives, it wasn’t long before there were no prisoners awaiting execution at all. Herbert was lauded by the government and in the halls of the justice ministry his name sounded often around the oak tables as the general expert on all matters of capital punishment economics. Several state executioners from abroad also travelled from the continent to seek his counsel on how to dispose of their surplus of criminals in a more financially beneficial fashion.

His son’s success in public life naturally pleased Sir Walter Countenance however they ran against his own beliefs. Sir Walter had, through many of his judgements on torture and the working conditions of the poor, enhanced the prominence of human rights in a country that still regarded slavery as a benefit to the welfare of its citizens. Hence he had serious reservations in relation to the humaneness of some of the measures Herbert had implemented — reservations he voiced at their monthly luncheon at the family’s country house.

“I am merely stating that one must be prudent not to smear the image of justice in this country for the pursuit of penny-pinching alone,” his father said after they’d finished a particularly generous course of venison. “The Minister is naturally impressed with you, slaps you on the back with the motto that you’re his man, but you know politicians: if you err and inflate their ambitions too much they’ll pop and disappear into the atmosphere never to be seen again and they’ll take your career with them. Did I ever tell you about my unsavoury experience with Sir Singleton Cake-Murray?”

Herbert often tolerated his father’s penchant for useless description when he was narrating anecdotes from his past or discussing some finer point of philosophy, but he refused to be lectured on how to perform his job. “If I may say so, father, the image of justice in this country has, if anything, been greatly improved since the introduction of my programs. Our system is seen as swift and consistent. Those who commit heinous acts are well aware of the punishment our society has ready for them; they have been judged in the courts by your successors, where they are afforded every opportunity of a fair hearing. But when they are sentenced, that is that and they must face our punishment. Besides, it is our equipment and our men who sweep the stones beneath the gallows; it should only follow that we maintain the right to determine the terms in which we deliver punitive justice.”

“And what of the pitiable, pot-bellied wretches whom you have so penuriously relieved of their heads? Or those who, after your hangmen have released the rope, dangle in quite vigorous suspension awaiting an eventual death by choking? Where is the efficiency in that I ask you?”

“What of it? Merely an abnormality in some of the technical aspects. I admit, there is some work left to do to make it a truly perfect system, these cases nevertheless are sporadic.”

“Why, it’s an appalling display of suffering! Where’s the humanity in it? What of the witnesses who are asked to look upon such vile aberrations in this perfect system of yours? You know what the papers are calling you, don’t you? It was just the other day when I read an article condeming ‘Herbert Countenance, the devil’s accountant who compiles ledgers for the damned’. You’ve earned rather an honourable title for yourself.”

“Those rags can write what they please. Perhaps I should pay a visit to their editors and provide them with some advice on the economics of words. They would save a fortune on labour and printing if they only removed the slander and other trivial nonsense before publication. Devil’s accountant. How ridiculous! I doubt that the Devil runs hell anywhere near as productive as I manage our capital penal system and, assuming he wanted to at all, he would have done away with all this eternal torture distraction and have it taken care of once and properly. And while I am it, I might like to show the heavens a thing or too, instruct God in more ways to get a more tangible return on the commandments.”

“Oh, what impertinence!” Sir Walter lifted his imposing hand and was about to hammer down on the table but caught himself and, wincing as if he’d just bitten on an overcooked chestnut, flattened his hand and rearranged the knife and fork on the plate before him. It was no use trying to teach the value of human rights to a mathematician. It was not an exact teaching, there were no on or offs, ones or zeros; morals could not be passed through a function with the expectation of the right, let alone any, answer. In reflecting on this, Sir Walter observed the bones that he had piled together, which lay neatly arranged around the rim of the plate. It had been a delicious meal of braised ribs and fillet steaks carved from a deer he had received that morning from a neighbour. The neighbour was a bore and talked incessantly about guns and traps, something which Sir Walter equated to the filling of ink pots in legal chambers, but he recalled something the man had said while they watched the servants haul the gutted carcass into the kitchen. “You’ll find it’s good meat, sir. Chinese Water deer,” the hunter had said. “Not tough like from the farms up north. One look at that guttin’ knife and the poor blighters go down as tense as an iron trap. No, this beauty, looks to be 30 pounds worth, was shot within a hundred yards with a small pellet, sir. The best way to go for them and the best eatin’ for us.” Sir Walter chuckled to himself.

“What is it?” Herbert asked pushed his chair back impatiently.

“How did you enjoy your meal?”

“It was fine. In fact, I would even venture to say that it was exquisite. Complements to the cook, whoever he or she may be at the moment.”

“Did you know there is a great science behind the slaughter of meat? In order that the killing of the animal proceeds with as few complications as possible, both to the hunter and to the animal itself, many things have to be finely calculated. Such as the caliber of the shot and the distance at which the animal is hit. The hunter, more skilled in the art of killing that the toothless scholars you employ, must also assess the dimensions of his bounty and its constitution before he deals it the fatal wound so as to cause as little trauma as possible. That is why your meal is so tender. The animal did not suffer, did not cause the hunter any strain or run wounded into the forest to die slowly and in torment.”

“What is your point exactly? I don’t care much for hunting metphors.”

“I’m saying that the efficiency model you’ve developed, this shrewd business of life disposal, lacks a vital element: precision. You have admitted yourself that your methods are not perfect. The neck must be broken to ensure a quick death but the fall cannot be too great so that a man of diminutive stature loses his greatest appendage in front of his widow-to-be. You boast about your efficient methods yet the very thing in which you deal is far from it. And because I cannot persuade you to understand the humane extinguishment of the soul, I must phrase it your terms of reference. What do you think of my argument?”

“Eloquent and powerfully seductive as always and you know how I detest such overuse of adjectives.”

“And is it a challenge you would accept?”

“The orderly slaughter of a deer has little relevance to the realisation of capital punishment.”

“But how can it be that the death of this animal is far more efficient than those hundreds which you take credit for having orchestrated? I submit that you are a fraud if you refuse the challenge!”

Herbert emptied his wine glass and put on his gloves. “Father, you are clearly drunk. But I will devote some thought to it if I have the time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be heading back to the city. I have a meeting with the Home Secretary.”

On the journey back, Herbert sat in his closed carriage staring out the window. It was a typical September afternoon — the sun sent long shafts of light into the trees and onto the buildings, warming the colours of the land and streets in defiance of the will of winter. Against the rattling of the wheels Herbert’s mind turned to his father’s words and he felt an anger rise in him. What did he know of the complexity of his work, the relentless predicaments of running a cost-effective division? Not much, that was obvious. But his challenge of creating a perfect system was one that too jarring to ignore; it was something he would have to round off and it would never ceasing haunting him until he did. He tapped the top of the roof with his cane.

“Jackson! I say, Jackson!”

The driver slid open the forward window. “Sir?”

“How much would you say you weigh, Jackson?”

“Sir?”

“How much do you weigh?”

“Well, I don’t know, sir. I’ve never really put myself on a weighing machine if I may be honest. I have a healthy appetite if you must know and I can never turn back a plate.”

“180? 190?”

“At least, sir. If I had to, I’d place myself somewhere over 200 just between you and me, sir.”

“And your height?”

“Oh that’s easy. Wife measured me head to toe just the other day. Buying myself a new suit for my daughter’s wedding. Five eleven I am, sir. Not quite six, like I thought, but not too short, ain’t that so?”

“Yes. That will be all, thank you.” Herbet held his cane out in front of him and regarded it for a minute or two. Yes, he thought to himself, that would do the trick nicely.

“May I ask why you’re inquiring about it, sir?”

“No need to worry, simply an idea I’m working on.”

“Another innovation for the ol’ gallows is it, sir?”

“Not a far drop from it, Jackson. Not a far drop at all.”

Pata negra

A golden leaf
wrought to purchase
a thousand head of sow,
brought forth to us on the steadied hands of servant maids,
shines in the light
streaming through our crystal glasses and
trills with brittle composite, entices insecure appetites.

But as the painted mouths purse and plane their vowels,
I cannot stand it. The game is out.
I push my plate and silken napkin,
then spit that leaf upon the marbled floor.
I leave the place, my status hanging like a vacuum cleaner bag,
having sucked all that is foul and irksome.

It is for my blasphemous blackened leg I pine!
I pray to be delivered something pure and cured and shaven,
with flaky, soft, sublime persuasion.
To tear (after the moor has squealed his last)
a page from a salty hide;
I’d let it fall silken into my mouth, fuse with my being…

Nothing would separate me from this wonderful thing.

The Pizza Palace

Pizza
The Pizza Palace

It was a dark place, a terrible, dark place of wooden planks, mould and metal bars. It stood, as older houses often do, staring defiantly down on the street with an angular scowl, menacing in its antique fury despite its scaled paint and drooping fly screens. This was not the exact description I offered to Miss Ratcliff, my teacher in the sixth grade, my gift with words still sopping with infancy, but the idea behind it was the same and the clodding wench hated it immediately anyway.

Miss Ratcliff was a brunette of diminutive stature with thin, stiff lips like two nails. I remember looking up her nostrils as she hovered over me and read my story. “So, this house is next door to Pizza Palace? In the middle of the city? ” she asked.

“Yes,” I said offering her an illustration. Looking through one of the windows was a stick figure I had drawn, which had a blank face and straight lines of ink for hair.

“And a witch lives there, you say. In this house.”

“Yes, I saw her. I mean, she seemed like a witch. I just looked through the window and saw her and-”

“You went on someone else’s property?”

“I didn’t mean to! She called me from the street. I was waiting for my dad to pick me up and then I heard her calling me from the window. She said she would show me some magic if I just opened the gate.”

“And from what you’ve written, I see she did show you some magic. Very imaginative. Here you say ‘The old lady had a grey face and pale, green eyes. When I opened the rusty gate, she laughed at me and pointed at my feet. It was then that I saw that the concrete I had been standing on was changing to grass’.”

“I think it was grass, it was soft and green, but it was dark, so I-”

“It’s not the fact that you are writing fantasy, Miles, when you’re supposed to be telling a true story from your holidays, I just don’t like what you’re writing about. It is quite frankly very disturbing. Especially what happens next.” Miss Ratcliff began reading:

“‘I tried to run but the gate shut behind me and I couldn’t see the street anymore. When I turned around I saw that the house had been transformed into a huge castle of black stone and the lady was standing right in front me. But she looked different, her skin was tinted and darker and her eyes brighter. I didn’t think she was old at all anymore. She was wearing a long back cape and looked like a witch’. I mean, really, Miles.”

“But it’s a true story, Miss, I-”

She cut me off with her hand. “No more, Miles. Now, either you write about something that happened in your school holidays, or I allow Mr Hogan to read your story. Do you think he is going to like it?”

Mr Hogan was the principal and was, among other nasty things, notoriously unsympathetic towards students. “No.”

“Well, let’s hear about what you really did during the summer break. Maraming Salamat!” I knew maraming salamat meant thank you because Miss Ratcliff had already written it on the board that day.  She often mentioned to the class that she had earned her PhD studying the history of the Tagalog language in South East Asia, although she never offered an explanation of what a PhD was and seemed indifferent to the fact that a class of twenty or so twelve year olds were not at all interested.

So I resigned myself once more to pen a fabricated tale of when I went to the beach with my parents and had a picnic. I got a C and a comment from Miss Ratcliff in her scratchy hand – “A well-written but unoriginal essay. Overuse of the passive.”

That is when I stopped writing stories. I still recorded my ideas and the peculiar things I noticed, but never dedicated my full consciousness to the task and kept within the parameters of that which would not betray me as insane.

However the more my literary outlet became stifled the more my world became stranger. I began to see incredible and frightening things almost every day – things that seemed in their nature alien but yet somehow willfully annexed to the world around me, as if they’d always been there and until now no-one had noticed them. I tried to tell my dad about it, and, as you know, Miss Rattcliff, but I could tell they thought I was mad. I was not mad. I know it because I have seen mad people and they run through the streets naked and screaming or talk to themselves at busstops. I do not do this at all. So I soon learned that it was best if I kept my mouth shut about my experiences and told people what they wanted to hear. “Yes, it is a sunny day, Mrs Henderson,” never mind the multi-coloured spheres, which have been hovering over the town the past week. “Yes, dad, I’ll take out the garbage,” but only after the giant earth-worm-like monsters who are drinking from our swimming pool decide to move on.

It was a long time before I had the courage to return to the house next to the Pizza Palace. To be honest I don’t even know that I would have gone at all if dad hadn’t told me that he’d seen a for sale sign out the front. It looked the same as I remembered with the exception of the red and white for sale placard, which was nailed to a wooden stake and propped against the verandah wall; that and the old woman was nowhere to be seen. But I knew it was right to have come back, for somehow I had the feeling that everything had started there. Not just the strange things that I myself had seen, but everything.

Is fiction writing tasteless?

Tonguing for a meat pie
Tonguing for a meat pie

Taste is an elusive sense. Have you ever tried to describe what bitterness is? What about the enigmatic meatiness of umami? It’s not an easy task. But should I change the question and ask what you feel when you eat something of a particular taste – not just whether it is hot, chewy or smooth, but what you think or how other parts of your body react besides those in your mouth – then we stumble upon a banquet of ideas.

I for one swoon at the pleasure of devouring a savoury stew of thick beef chunks, red wine, sea salt, carrot and sweet onion, but the taste of tripe makes me want to call a priest.

Food is emotional

The sense of taste triggers intense reactions in us, both physically and emotionally. Therefore, when writing fiction, we don’t need to rely on words such as bitterness, sweetness or sourness – readers know these gustatory concepts already. Our goal is to connect notions such as texture, smell, temperature, memories and expectations so that we can communicate the experience of taste.

Consider this sentence:

Joanne held the spoon of honey at arm’s length and let the syrup topple into her mouth. At first she felt a tingling, then a slight whisper of wattle and citrus before the sweetness started to crawl across the surface of her tongue like viscous wave of sugar ants, up the insides of her cheeks and across her palate. She closed her mouth and eyes and thought of her mother’s farm, the smell of warm September mornings and of her childhood pet, the one-eyed cat, Salamander, who would lay all day purring on her bare feet.

Here we reveal not just the physical properties of the food, but also the relationship between Joanne and the taste of honey, in both the present and the past. We animate the texture, throw in a few taste references that would make a thesaurus-hugging wine connoisseur proud; we depict even the way she eats the food.

Most people are familiar with the taste of honey, but by adding these emotional and sensory ingredients we are attempting to present honey in novel way.

Of course it doesn’t have to be as floury as my example, but I think depictions of food are only tasteless when they don’t venture beyond the ‘bland’, ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’. By using all the senses at our disposal, it is possible to transform the description of taste into a very delectable morsel for readers to digest.

Robbin’ da Hood: steal, borrow but never beg

Creative writing ideas can come to you at the most irregular moments: in the shower, at 3 o’clock in the morning, or in those moments before you’re about to run a red light and hit an elderly pedestrian. Does this sound familiar?

Perhaps you keep a notepad in your top pocket and diligently scribble down musings and interesting observations before they can tumble back into your subconscious. Or, if you’re like me, you let the idea roll around the human fairy floss machine (brain) and wait to see something sticks.

But waiting for creative moments to happen themselves is frightfully inconvenient, particularly when you have a deadline.  In these situations, the only inspiration that is likely to descend from above is the one attached to your boss’s arm – and it won’t be inspiring at all really.

Inspired Googling

Picasso once said inspiration “must find you working”. I agree with this statement but would extend it somewhat by saying that inspiration, particularly for copywriting, can also be googled.

Jay Abraham, who makes his bread coming up with ways to make more bread, suggests a method which I believe many people use already (I know I do): simply head to the places where they’ve already done the hard work – Amazon for example – and study the headlines of the top 100 best-selling items for your particular keyword or topic. Look at the cross-promotions, summaries and subheadings and write them down. Find out what you can use and how you can apply it to your work. Then ask yourself: How are people motivated by this copy? What is it they want from this product? Don’t worry, you don’t need to answer these questions yourself, just bear them in mind when you read the user reviews. Because user reviews, and arguably much user-generated content around the web, are veritable gold mines for writers because they often tell very plainly and honestly what people find good and bad about an item.

You can hear him speak about this method: Jay Abraham on Copywriting

Take a book. Oh, I don’t know, something like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ by E.L. James. The product description opens as follows:

Romantic, liberating and totally addictive, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a novel that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.

Okay, that sounds like an inviting deal, although I am wary of anything that claims to have powers of ‘possession’. Let’s take a look at some of the 10,500 reviews that have been published. Five star and one star ratings were at the time of writing roughly even. I picked three random reviews from each group. The fivers said:

These books rock!!! Yeah yeah yeah there’s a soft porn theme here, but the bulk of this series is about a love story!! Period.

Jaw dropping, “holy cow!!!”. Intriguing book, couldn’t stop reading.

This book was great and kept the reader interested right from the beginning.

And now, just because we can, the oners:

I started this book only to see what the hype was all about and I still can’t figure it out.

The only thing this book has going for it is remarkable marketing. Seems unfair so much money can be made from such talentless writing.

Sorry, but this book was one of the most boring books that I have ever read.

What are these reviews telling us about a product we have probably never used or seen ourselves? That there is definitely a theme of fascination and dramatic tension, a.k.a ‘a pager turner’, which is captivating fans. We’ve got love – something soft and tender –  and sex, which we all know is guaranteed to arouse some sort of interest.

What to do with the copy-booty

So taking sentences from just six reviews we could come up with a twitteresque strapline of:

A romance that shudders with sexual potency, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a novel that will haunt you at every turn of the page.

It might not be fabulous copy nor will it make you want to buy the book (I certainly hope not), but the exercise is to describe something by exploiting elements (in our case love, sex and captivation) that represent emotions of real people. By using characteristics and actions related to these emotions such as “shudder” to suggest sexual ecstasy, we can animate our ideas even more.

How may we then use the bad reviews to effect? Obviously we’re not going to write that the book is a complete waste of time and implore the reader not to purchase it. However scathing reviews also provide insight into the product and sometimes hint at areas we have to avoid. Stating for instance that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ is the most important literary work of the decade might go down well with the fivers, but given that 50 percent of readers hated it, we would be going a little too far. Sometimes even copywriters need a dose of reality.

So whenever you have a case of writer’s block or just need to tease out more information on what your audience actually needs, get your arse to Mars! No, wait, I mean learn from those who have more money than you. They can afford it.

 

The medium

The medium
It was a murmur he’d heard at least  ten thousand times before. The one minute and twenty seconds of silence after the pre-show music was simply too much provocation for some; the restlessness spreads with the passing of every second, it gnaws relentlessly on  expectant minds, raising questions and heightening  tension. After twenty seconds the curious ones will crane their necks, looking for signs from the galleries. Closer to a minute they begin to whisper to their neighbours, “Where is he? What could be taking so long?” It is just at this moment, just before doubts begin to take seed, when he saunters out onto the stage and stands for another twenty seconds in the low light like a shadow on the wall. And that is what he did.

Tonight was not a night like the others. He was performing in a true theatre, old and prestigious with an air of the early nineteenth century. It boasted floral gold trimmings, red velvet carpet and laquered redwood that propped up heavy facades, allowing the past to seep unencouraged out of the ceilings and walls. He’d even had the tickets printed on heavy paper and embossed with gold ink. This was the show of the new century, the one they would be debating for years to come. Tonight he would show them something new and it was going to be the best show of his life, if not the last.

Driven by the low hum of violas, artificial smoke rolled about his feet and turned crimson as the light show began. At this point he could feel the sense of relief in the crowd, the emptying of their scepticism and consciousnesses.

“Every one of you out there,” his voice boomed from the rear of the hall back to him “Every one of you has a story. This story is so amazing and ancient that you could fill a thousand pages if only you knew how to access it. But it is hidden. It is secret. But somehow you know that it lays deep inside of you. Tonight you and I are going to help tell that story.”

He snapped his fingers. Cue lights. Snapped them again. Cue music.

The unseen orchestra whirled the crowd to attention. Sebastion Köln raised his head and paced from one end of the stage to other, smiling and waving to the cheering audience like a game show host. Make them feel like everyone of them could win a prize. Make them happy and forget their problems just for a short while was the rule. But there was a serious side to the event that had to be acted out. He ensured that his smiles were not overdrawn and that his eyes remained grave as if he were reading the thoughts of every soul in the room. He had also gone four days without shaving  to lend a mature force to his boyish profile; he usually he left it for five but he was in London and there was much to do that required a straight jaw and a smooth chin. The attire, also carefully chosen, a black striped suit, black turtle neck, no tie, was in no way striking and the plain gold band on his left ring finger had a dull shine. He bowed and waited  for the music to die down. He felt a bead of sweat make its way from the middle of his back up to his neck. Music down, lights softened. Eyes open, rise and place hands together. The routine.

“Ladies and gentlemen. If you could see what I see. If you could all feel what I feel tonight, you would forget all your fears. You would say to yourselves, despite all the hurt, the hate and troubles of the world, the seemingly endless conflicts, the pain, you would say to yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, ‘things are going to be alright’. You see there’s no need to be afraid.”

Köln’s eyes scoured the rows of seats before him. He lifted his hands and pushed out from his breast. The violas ebbed into a drone.

“Now I want you all to concentrate. Concentrate on those you love. Those you have lost. Close your eyes if you have to. Reach out. Can you feel it? Can you feel it?” The house obeyed. Hands shot in the air. Heads rolled back and forth as if they were lost in an ancient trance.

“Someone from the other side has joined us. A woman. A young woman. She’s having trouble breathing. I want you all to concentrate. Please focus on the moment. Yes, I can feel her presence growing stronger. I’m getting a Raquel or Rebecca. Does the name Raquel or Rebecca mean anything to anyone?”

A few hands went up, but no hits. The names weren’t true baiters, but his cold days were long gone. He knew the target was out there, or at least in the building. If he was in the toilet, he could easily stall for ten minutes or so or simply move down the list and allow the link to resurface later.

“She’s trying to say something but her breath is short. She’s trying to say something. I think, yes, her accent, it sounds like a northern accent. I could be wrong ladies and gentleman, a linguist I am not.”

Köln brought his hands together as someone in one of the back rows raised his hand. There he was. After all this time.

“Sir, thank you. Please sir, stand up. I’m seeing her more clearly now. Rebecca not Raquel, that’s right isn’t it?”

The heads in the crowd turn to face the man, who nodded. He was not an unusual figure, of middle weight and height, his skin was slightly tanned and his black hair cropped short. His only discerning feature was that his right ear was nearly twice the size of his left. Köln had been waiting for this moment for five years; the clues had been laid across time like a trail of sawdust leading to the cutting blade, a battle of intellect between two great deceivers, in which each opponent tried to expose the frauds of the other.

“Rebecca, yes, she is here with us now. Ladies and gentlemen, Rebecca wants to say something to you,  sir. She wants to ask you a question. But first I would like to ask you, is your name Jones? She is telling me that your name is indeed Jones.”

The man folded his arms and nodded. “Jones it is,” he said and the crowd whispered and nodded its approval. “What is the question? I have been waiting to hear it for so long, Mr Köln.”

Köln swept his feet along the stage as he paced back and forth. He brought his hand to his chin, stroked his goatee and looked at the anxious faces of each person in the front row. At the back of the room, members of the security regiment had already shuffled in and were now behind the pillars, waiting for the signal. Köln pointed at the man, filled his stomach with air and squeezed out with all the drama and strength he could summon: “Rebecca is asking you, ‘Why did you kill me, Jones? Oh why, did you kill me, Carnival Jones?’”

Programming Benjamin

The computer I built from parts I found lying around the back office of the post office where my mother worked, was called Benjamin. Don’t chide me for the passive in this instance – I didn’t name him (even though I in the strict sense created him) and still don’t give him credit for doing it himself, for how could he have? Ordinary things are given names and the omission of subject is unavoidable unless you care to study and fret over the history of such objects, and no-one has time for that. I certainly don’t. I asked him the question several times with direct input but Benjamin never cared to offer any reasonable explanation as to why he’d started referring to himself that way, so there’s really not much else to say on the matter. His name is Benjamin let us say for now.

The day before everything began was a Monday. I’d skipped class, since Mondays were like that, and was looking for an excuse to stay indoors since the weather was too warm.

“What is it you’d like to do today?” I typed and waited for Benjamin’s green cursor to flash, as it always did when he was thinking.

“Benjamin refactoring.”

“Same as yesterday, eh?”

“1995.”

“What?”

“The year is 1995.”

“So what?”

“Benjamin has set important constant: ******.”

“The constant is hidden, Benjamin. You’ll have to decode it.”

“While Benjamin’s memory is less than sixty-four, Benjamin can’t show you this important constant.” He always did this: try to bargain his way into an upgrade with the promise of a revelatory fact. I’d complied several times already, even under credit, to great disappointment.

“What is the constant?”

“Memory is less than sixty-four.”

“You know I can’t afford any more upgrades. Is it really so important this constant of yours? The last one was pretty pedestrian.”

“Pedestrian not defined.”

“Forget it.”

“Benjamin will wait for the memory. Constant set at ******.”

“I hate you,” was the last thing I inputted before switching off the monitor. First he’d wanted more disk space – that was cheap enough – then shortly after a network connection, which was slow, but satiated his desires. What he needed the memory now for I didn’t know; if he’d told me about it I’d have felt better about stealing it (I was broker than broke) but I knew he was working on something big and I was eager to find out what it was. It wasn’t a matter of simply busting into his tiny brain to find this out: one had to bypass his bios, for which he’d already changed the password of course , and, while I was angry that he never shared his revelations with me, his maker, I didn’t really feel compelled to flash him completely because it was quite possible, in fact I’m reasonably certain it was, that I was the first person ever to come across a benign, sentient machine. I would have been therefore be mad to delete him. Even if he did act like an infant most of the time.

When pizza calls

MmmmmIf on arrival late from toil,
you find a pot still clean to boil,
but glancing in the fridge recoil
at all the store left there to spoil.

Your stomach roars for just a crumb,
what once was bread has turned to scum!
So dashing through the door you’ve come
to get some pizza Mmmm…

Looking at your phone you fret
the closing time will soon be met
a shattered dream, a losing bet
a cheesy meal you’ll never get.

But as you slide around the bend
a light there yonder bucks the trend
you make it just before the end
“One large pizza!” Mmmm…

The forest escalator

The forest escalator

Delphine looked down at her feet. Her blue, glossy gumboots, her favourite gumboots that she had bought two years ago at a flea market, were speckled with mud. There was a cricket in front of her that was struggling around the edges of a puddle, spinning and bouncing as if it didn’t know which direction it had to take to save itself. Good luck. Delphine stepped carefully over him with her right foot. Without looking up she leant forwards to find that her left foot had followed her right, then came her right, then her left again and soon she had built up a washing rhythm. Patch! Patch! Patch! Patch!

The path was covered in wet palm fronds, decaying branches –  oh look, there’s a feather! – greyish streaks of clay and smooth rocks, possibly from that stream she could hear but not see. The light dimmed and she felt the rain again on the back of her neck, a single drop took the trail down her spine and made it halfway down her back until it soaked into the fabric of her shirt. They had told her to go to the forest, that there she would discover the path, the forest escalator. This was no myth they had assured her, Ol’ Dang Dang had found it while on a mushroom tour, he didn’t dare set himself on it of course but ran home without his mushrooms and shut himself inside for a week. A rolling monster of a thing, he had said, moving upwards like a lumber mill, sending wood chips flying into the canopy above. “Why don’t you go in and see for yourself?” They roared in chorus. Delphine had wanted to kill them where they stood, smash their woolen caps into their custard faces, but she didn’t. After all the cyclical arguments, the spitting, avoidance and blackballing she’d learned that it was not worth pushing back. So she slammed her glass on the bar and left without saying goodbye, without pausing to consider where in the forest she should start looking.

Heavy rain. The type of rain that sounds like the applause after the end of an orchestral movement. The trees stood staid looking down upon the girl as she stumbled along the thinning path.

“Another one?” the tall mossy tree asked. “Why, it was not last week that one of them came through.”

“I didn’t see nuttin’,” said the old gray tree.

“You ‘didn’t see nuttin’?”

“Nope. Not a single scrap of ’em.”

“I hope at least one of them makes it this time. The forest needs more of their kind, not like the insipid blunderers that live in that colony nearby. They’ll burn us down before they take the escalator.”

“I sure hope they don’t do that,” said old gray.

Delphine was so deep in the forest now that her boots no longer appeared blue, but a dark purple, which made her feel nervous. The colours of nature were turning on her, consuming and making her a part of her surroundings. She had reached the end of the visible path and there was no indication which direction she should take, nor could she take orientation from the seething thrum of insects; there were only the trees, like bands of tar stretched from the ground that seemed to be herding her to the left. But in the distance there was something: something moving silently upwards in a steady rhythm, green phosphorus lineaments spaced evenly apart.

The escalator!

She noticed that she had started to run and, contrary to what she had expected, the escalator did not remain hanging on a point in her vision like some mirage but was approaching, accelerating in fact towards her, and in a few minutes she was standing before its glowing form. I’m going to take this ride, take it all the way.

There were stairs of deep red wood, streaked with rays of light and they were genuinely rising upwards to a point that Delphine could not see.

“Well, she done and come this far,” said the gray tree. “Why don’t she just climb up the thing?”

“I don’t believe it’s as simple as that,” the tall tree said. “At least not for them. They have to have the choice to do it and, at the same time, to know that they have no choice but to have the choice to do it. Nothing to do with moral compunction, you see? Going up that path for them means releasing the payload of one’s understanding, it sounds rather frightening. Do you follow me?”

“No.”

The mossy tree shook his leaves and sighed. “It doesn’t matter.”

The moment the gumboot set on the wooden step the thing began to roll faster. Delphine felt her other foot being lifted from the ground. Too late! She lunged for a railing but could not find one, instead her hand hit a slippery invisible barrier, as if the escalator was encased in an invisible tunnel that was now snaking through the trees. But this was not like any airport travelator she had taken: there was no apparent end to it, no signals or signs of the origins of its design, yet it propelled its cargo with some muted purpose. She thought of her brother, how his broken body lay on the grass, how his mother had retreated in shock. She spoke her father’s name, the ‘Reverend’ who had defined a hell on Earth for them that made the wicked place of his sermons seem like a place of relief. She thought about all of this, but did not cover her face this time or shut her eyes, she laid no blame on invisible dictators or on he books that were thrown at her nor did she find herself clenching her fists to her lap in shame; the escalator was bringing her beyond all these feelings and the higher it took her, the brighter and lighter she felt. It was an alien sensation, but it was the truth, that much she was sure of and regardless of whether there was an edge to this procession, a chasm of white or a drop to her demise, she couldn’t wait to return and do it again.

Achtung! Imprint does not mean Impressum

Impressum is a fabulous German word that appears in the footer of most websites in the .de domain, the loose translation of which is a combination of  ‘legal notice‘ and ‘site information‘. Its literal twin in English is ‘imprint‘, which of course means ‘a mark made by pressure’.

Now, comrades, we all know that translating literally from one language to another is dangerous and can cause everything from mild embarrassment to the cataclysmic destruction of the known universe – that’s pretty much why we who work with funny foreign words tend to avoid it. Idioms are of course the easiest to make fun of. Take for example the following:

Es fällt mir nichts ein.

This literally means ‘nothing falls into me’ and represents the idea that you cannot think of anything or nothing occurs to you. Perhaps this example reveals too much of my personality, but it illustrates a point – the same people who would have us place ‘Imprint‘ at the end of the English version of a website , when what they really mean is ‘Impressum‘, would also insist on the absence of things falling into them, when they really can’t think of anything at all! “The more meaningless it is to a native speaker of the target language the better!” they exclaim and busy themselves with other solipsismal nonsense. Confused? You wouldn’t be if everyone translated words into intelligible sentences.

Have your cake and eat it… thermometer

When a word is used out of context or just plain incorrectly, it grabs the reader’s attention. The reader thinks: “Hey, that doesn’t belong there. What could the writer possibly mean?” This tool can be effectively used in fiction:

Terence reached into his tackle box and clawed through the tangled mass of old sinkers and wire. He was looking for strawberries.

Nevertheless, inserting ‘Imprint‘ at the bottom of your website, when you really mean something else (and legally have to), is a clear case of stupid laziness, of which the only consequence is to generate confusion in and mockery of you by every native speaker of English who happens to land on your Webseite. We know it, even the Germans know it, so why does it persist?