Very Extremely Very

An artist’s impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope, to be built high up in the Andes – placed next to the London Eye, for some perspective…

Well, I’ve oscillated back from animals (Whales, T-Rexes) to SPACE again: so here’s something comic about telescopes. Earlier, I read this story on the UK’s financial commitment to the European Extremely Large Telescope (from the Guardian) – and was reminded how funny I always find the naming of telescopes. I’m pretty sure the last one was called the European Very Large Telescope. So it also begs the question of where they’ll go after ‘Extremely’…?

So that’s the starting point for this – the act of naming telescopes (and, perhaps, the difficult act of naming in something like astronomy) – and it takes the form of a conversation between two (antagonistic) astronomer-colleagues, perhaps in another telescope. The main thing is: it’s hopefully a bit of (if not Very, or Extremely) fun:

 

Very Extremely Very,

A Gazillibazoolian-Squillion

 

“BREATHTAKINGLY!” he gasped, before even a greeting, crashing the door against the wall. “That’s got to be it.”

“It’s hardly very objective,” the reply sighed. “We’re scientists, Dave – not advertisers. And good morning to you, too.”

“But that’s what I mean. ‘Extremely’, compared to what? Compared to the things we’re going to be looking at it’s not ‘extremely’ large at all.”

“We’re not comparing it to the things we’re looking at, Dave – we’re comparing it to the other telescopes. Compared to them, this one is extremely large.

A silence as both men make notes, turn dials, type furiously –   front for figuring out their next line of attack.

“By your rationale,” Simon quickly established a new angle, “each measuring instrument would then be relative to that which it measures. What would have become of the Large Hadron Collider then? The Super-Massive Underground Mega-Hoop Measurer of Ultra-Tiny But Super-Important Things?”

“Actually, that’s not a bad –

“ – oh for Heaven’s Sake.”

An impasse – the almost-daily ritual.

“I just think that ‘Extremely Large’ doesn’t do it justice. Although I guess it makes sense as part of a kind or product range, or something.” He assumes a sales-voice in the vein of QVC or similar: “If you enjoyed the features of the ‘Very Large Telescope’, you’ll just love the new features of the ‘Extremely Large Telescope’: now able to blend the distribution of dark matter and finely slice the evolution of black-holes and galaxies!”

From the other desk, he can almost hear Simon’s smile being suppressed:

“I’m not sure anyone’s going to call in and pay for it: the cost would barely fit on a TV screen.”

There is a pleasant spaciousness, both enjoying a rare intersection of humours.

“Well today,” Dave takes back up his hyperbolic cudgel, “I’m backing ‘Breathtaking’ – what else could it be described as? It’s as big as all the other ones put together. If you did that with a cake, people would be impressed. And cakes can’t see into the origins of Time itself, not that I know of.”

“That might depend on the cake. And anyway: isn’t that a compound word, ‘Breath-taking’? You’re like a kid, making up numbers to win a competition.” He assumes the manner of an eight-year-old Dave: “A squillion, a gazillibazoolian-squillion!”

A brief silence as Dave decides whether to be offended, or flattered, at the impression. Then:

“How many zeros would that have?”

“A bloobazoolian zeros, OK?”

“I see.”

The tapping of keyboards. This had become the tacit sign now that they had wasted enough time and should get on with some proper work – nebulae were on the menu today, as they had been for the last four years.

“I just think we’re not going to give the public a real sense of the scale of this thing unless the name truly reflects it. It just sounds so mid-range – like a family car: ‘extremely spacious’. We may as well call it the ‘Pretty Gosh Darn Big Telescope’”.

Now the silence of someone studiedly ignoring someone else. Then, the final barrage, the day’s last attempt:

“The Almighty Telescope?”

“Oh the Churches will love that.”

“The Strikingly Large Telescope?”

“We don’t want it striking anything or anyone except light, Dave…”

“The UNCOMMONLY-”

“Dave: get off Thesarus.com – NOW.”

Can You Take a Moment to Rate This Whale? or, The Appening

A Whale App? But not one like the one in my poem-story, I hope.

It appears I’m once again interested in all things animal (as opposed to all things Cosmic) right now – so, from Tyrransauridae last week, to Cetacea this.

Last week, I read a story about the Boston Port Authorities encouraging ships’ captains to use an iPad app which locates the likely positions of whales off the coast and then enables them to chart a slightly different course – thus avoiding the whales. It sounds like a very successful and important initiative -and a great use of the technology. We’ve been making the seas increasingly-noisy for our Baleen cousins which – so research suggests – is making life very hard for them down there. Not only that, but sometimes ships (as per the horrible image on the news story above) even strike whales – causing them injuries and possibly death.

In fact, it’s not my first piece of writing about whales – there’s another piece I wrote, called Whale Fall, which you can read by clicking here on the site for Heads and Tales (a storytelling group with whom I was involved in Bristol). The image of ‘whale fall’ – when a whale dies and sinks to the bottom, creating a ‘feeding frenzy’ as its nutrients and body dissipate amongst the bottom-feeders of the abyss – is at the centre of the story.

But save that for later, until you’ve read today’s poem-story about – well, decide for yourself. Certainly, the idea stemmed from this feeling of intrusion (an Intrusion is the collective noun for cockroaches, by the way – about which there’s a poem-post here). What would it be like if there was something we were drawn to, but which hurt us? (Such things are plentiful, actually). And which kept filling our space until we couldn’t avoid it any more?  I think that was what my subconscious was getting at – how the whales must be with Sonar signals – but I really can’t speak on its behalf, or on whales’ behalf.

And, as someone quoted to me – and I don’t know who said it, or something like it, so this may be a misquote: “Structure the things that come to you”. So that’s what I’ve done. The chance to fuse the ever-more-pervasive app-culture and this news story in s lightly sci-fi way was too tempting . The intersection between nature and technology is of great interest to me: what is ‘natural’, what is ‘technological’, are they always and forever anathema?

The results, I admit, are…odd and perhaps unsettling. But imagine how the whales feel.

 

Can You Spare a Moment to Rate This Whale? or,

The Appening

 

It was not even a noise, to begin with:

hovering somewhere between

sound and sensation. Not quite

synaesthetic – more like a key

which accessed new depths formerly

inhuman, imperceptible.

 

That was at around

10,000+ downloads, but

with each it became

more abyssal.

 

Your lowest vertebra would chime,

softly, sending the feeling through

the tissues joining the spine

to the ribs, oscillating up the neck and

the inner-ear’s instruments –

boiling like a fumarole –

clanged.

 

At around

500,000+ downloads

you could not tell whether the object

you were looking at was itself shaking

or if the optic nerve was being played

as a myelin harp in your head.

 

By that point, on the large screens in cavernous

departure halls, edited-in

between rolling news, the image of a winning

Humpback would flash up, having supplanted

last week’s five-star Narwhal.

 

Then, the merchandise, mimicking

the rounded-off baleen icon: children

wore woolly-hat Rights (attesting

their allegiance to a species) with

a broad hair-toothed grin

on their foreheads, and fleecy-fins,

flopping down, at once

scarf and mittens.

 

But as the number became ever larger,

100,000,000+ downloads,

words began to be missed, then sentences.

Records were broken and now

graphs and arrows struggled

to find space on the screens

between fast-cut images

of flippers, flukes and spouts.

 

On one occasion, a dolphin was slipped in

to the slide-show – a test, perhaps – but

the tabloid headlines and message-boards

turned the air blue

as the Atlantic once was.

 

At some point, the written reviews

stopped – when download figures exceeded

the screen’s capabilities – and there were only

five-star ratings. The app store, mute,

silently swam in icons

of cetaceans.

 

And then the first trip to A&E,

the first fatality. But still the stars,

still the sensation.

Canteenosaurus-Rex or, The Numbering of Teeth

A chomping Tyrranosauridae

A chomping Tyrranosauridae

Running a little behind after being struck down with a lurgy last week, but here is my latest sci-po – no wait! It’s a story.

I won’t say too much about the news story which inspired this, apart from the classic disclaimer: any likeness to persons living or fossilised genuinely is purely coincidental! So if Dr Dave Hone should read this – the curious narrator in this story is not you, it’s just inspired by the work you do (there’s the link to Project Daspletosaurus) and where it could take someone a lot less balanced than your good self (and their diet).

It’s a piece about the feeding habits – which may have been sporadically-cannibalistic in nature – of Tyrranosauridae (those terrible lizards of ‘Jurassic Park’ fame). The research is looking at how the T Rex’s scary cousins – such as the Daspletosaurus – ate, and supposes that they ate with a great variety of bites (not just swallowings-whole, as in ‘Jurassic Park’ – the science of which may, of course, be secondary to the story – and the merchandise).

No matter what fine-diners they were, it’s one family reunion I’m glad that evolution, meteors and the like has put pay to (nothing personal, I just think I’d get stuck in their teeth).

Here’s my story:

Canteenosarus-Rex or,

The Numbering of Teeth

The bones are the hardest part. As in, the most difficult. But – like all good researchers – he knows that 3-D computer models will only take him so far. He just wants to know – to really feel – what it would be like to have one as a guest at the dinner table; to witness their repertoire, the one he is sure they had, of chomps and nibbles.

At the start of the week, it was subtle – a basic attempt to avoid that simian lateral-chewing motion. An action, he muttered, evolved for plants. And that meant missing a whole link in the food-chain: those plentiful yet elusive herbivores, the duck-bill Hadrosaurs and horned Ceratopsians. The pelvis of one such creature – a Triceratops – was situated directly opposite the Daspletorsarus skull. His prime exhibit. He sat between them, fossil-eyed; glancing back and forth from the punctured pelvis to the sharp-toothed skull.

Small arrow-shaped marks were placed at each and every one of the impacts on the pelvis, like it was the scene of some 70-million-year-old crime. This was the analogy he used at public lectures, invoking CSI television-forensics cool: he needed, he said, to establish the Daspletosauruses ‘M.O.’.

Before this week, he had something of a routine: Monday was often a salad, pricked with cherry-tomatoes; Wednesday, leftover Mexican day – long enchilada tubes, dripping in cheese; Friday tended towards something hearty – a pie, perhaps, or a lasagne, layered like rock rich to be dug into. But salad had become too, well – brontosaurus, for the venture. Redundant. Hefty. Out of date. Now, many other foods just seemed so inauthentic to him.

By mid-week, his needs had outgrown the habitat of the laboratory canteen – there was just too much chicken. He would never learn anything from chicken – too splintery, too avian. He needed something chunkier, a larger leaf-eater. Beef was OK, or perhaps…giraffe, rhinoceros? Unlikely. He had to be reasonable. Perhaps this was what happened to the Tyrranosauridae, he thinks – to make them turn. Outgrowing their food supplies; that’s when they started to become cannibals.

So the packed-lunches began. Whatever protestations he made about being a feminist, his wife wore the trousers where it came to food. So, gingerly, as he stepped from the Friday front doorstep:

‘Leave the bones in,’ he said, maintaining earnest eye-contact. ‘And cook it quite rare. Really rare.’

She scanned his face for some sign of the joke that was to follow, but it did not come.

‘But what’s the point in a lamb-chop sandwich, when you have to remove the bones anyway?’ she entreated.

‘Rare,’ he repeated. ‘Please? I’m just feeling red-blooded this week.’

‘Lamb-chop sandwiches. Rare.’ She confirms. ‘Really rare.’ A sigh.

So this lunchtime, he sits above the white expanse of table and leers in the way he imagines his subject would: salivating at the feast to come, spreading out across the ceramic plain, the prey’s bills and horns scattering away from his mighty incisors. Nobody has sat with him for the last couple of days, but why would he mind? He is, after all, a top predator – and they hunt alone. He looks at the sandwich and considers which type of bite to deploy – something bone-shattering and bold, or something delicate and tendon-stripping.

Back in the lab, he gazes admiringly at the skull atop its plinth, numbering its teeth; as he tries to remove some lamb gristle with his tongue, he counts the incisors and molars his own skeleton sprouts. Insufficient, he thinks, as he reaches the end of the row and meets gummy nothingness.

Several tonnes, not 13 stone; over 60 razor-teeth, not his piffling set of 32 – nay, 31 after today’s lunch – blunt instruments. He wasn’t even a Daspletosaurus drumstick, barely a rump steak.

In the company of his skull and his other, he sits quietly, contemplatively, numbering his teeth – he doesn’t want to end up anywhere, you know, weird, with all this. So he imagines – just imagines – his own, as twice as numerous and twice as sharp as they really are.

Imagination, he thinks. Empathy. That’s what separates us, from the cannibals.

Chaos Theory, Jelly-step

This evening, I went to the Grant Bradley Gallery in Bedminster for a science-inspired writing open mic night. It was a follow-up from a workshop last week, exploring how we might use scientific sources as a ‘jump off point’ for fiction or poetry. Having been writing for a science publication for a while – but within a very specific editorial style – this is something I am increasingly interested in.

Writer in residence at the University of Bristol’s Science Dept, Tania Hershman, led the session, in which we re-defined scientific words (a version of the Surrealist game), wrote pieces based on randomly-chosen science magazine phrases and then a piece based on mystical-sounding science diction, which was not defined for us.

In fact, I didn’t read any of those tonight – I read my 6th Vermin poem, Cockroach/Envy or ‘Admiration’s Cloud’, a poem based around a ‘tweed epidemic’ (‘The Edge of Life’) and finally a piece I dusted off for the event, based around chaos theory and the early stages of relationships, with all the risk and tumult therein. I won a book for my contribution, which was very lovely.

Here is the piece based on chaos theory:

Failed Fractal Poem: Part Two

or, Turbulence

What shall we order?
What order shall we?
The air curled around us
like noodles over tongues;
like tongues over wings;
like wings over air. I
hurricaned on
on bifurcation
points in poetry; you
on Lacanian desire
and jigsaw puzzles
of your own face.

Now here we are,
there. Our glasses at
the edges of the table;
winking, glinting. The
feathered wood stretching
out of our sides. Our torsos
leather and dripping, hover
in the corner.

The words we place inside
one another take flight,
patterned with giant eyes:
our edge-pieces
only just
slotting together.

Jelly-step

And, from the workshop last week, here’s a piece I wrote using various science words we were given. We were also shown a video piece Tania had commissioned, featuring a jellyfish and some bass-heavy music…Perhaps hence what follows:

Jelly-step

‘Mate, it’s gonna be schematic – you’ve got to come.’

I hadn’t been clubbing in months and music genres seemed to be becoming more and more alien, like deep sea murmurs their names sounded to me. So now we’re on our way to a disused electrical substation, apparently to dance.

‘So what exactly are we going to see?’

‘Jelly-step mate, seriously it’s gonna be fibrotic in there. Properly.’

His tone suggested this was a good thing. As we entered the venue, if you can call it that, past the retained ‘Danger of Death’ sign (not heartening), my body vibrated – my epithelium like a drum skin.

‘How much?’ I ask the terrifying door girl.

‘Twenty.’

‘Wow. Inflation…’ She doesn’t smile.

‘Come on, get your actin purse strings open, dude – he’s gonna start in a minute…Actually, I’m not sure if they can be a he or a she.’

‘If what can?’

‘The DJ – the jellyfish.’

‘The DJ…is a jellyfish?’

‘Yeah, of course – that’s why it’s called jelly-step? Honestly mate, you are not the model organism sometimes. Don’t you read MixMag anymore? ’ He looked at my incredulously, then went on, ‘I can hear it – it’s ’Fibroblast’, that one is seriously fax.’

We rushed through to the main room, where a sweaty mass writhed beneath the turntables. In fact, it looked like a lectern, for a preacher – but instead of some manic zealot, there was a large tank of water, sat monolithically.
Suspended within, glowing green was a huge jellyfish, its bubble-head thwubbing softly, while its tendrils sinewed down to the bottom corners of the tank.

‘Watch this, it’s full-tilt benthos mate – amazing.’

As the sounds in the room escalated, the jellyfish’s flashes became brighter and brighter, in time with the bass. The creature’s tendrils appeared to be controlling some sort of console under the water.

At that moment, a small clear bag of mysteriously-coloured crystals appeared under my nose, glowing just slightly. Why not?

I don’t remember the rest of the night, just the morning.

Spand Grectacular!

I read one of the Stitches in Time stories last night – ‘Spand Grectacular or, Pedal-Powered Pavement-Printing Velocipede!’ Featuring the fudge-obsessed and overworked printer, Imogen Clacker.

Being as one or two people said they’d enjoyed it, and may be foolish enough to Google me, then here’s the story:

Spand Gractacular! or,

Pedal-Powered Pavement-Printing Velocipede!

Within her shop

On Scansion Way,

Imogen Clacker pedals away:

She pedals all night

And most of the day

Nobody thinks

She’ll ever stop.

But in-between

The words she prints

And in-between

The treadle’s groan

Something on

The paper hints,

Something stirs

Around her bones.

The more the st-ords

Come out so w-rangely

The more the mages

Puddle themselves,

Imogen Clacker

Sees the matter

Building on her

Cast-off shelves.

There is a problem, with the machines, in Clacker’s Printworks. Some might say a bad workman – or person – blames their tools, but Imogen doesn’t stand by this. Her face is smeared and smudgy with ink, but her printing has always been as crisp as her frosty little mind.

It can’t be my fault

Her thoughts are a-clatter,

I tend these machines –

Every nut, screw and bolt –

Something else

Must be the matter.

Imogen seeks comfort in a box of confectionery by her seat. Since it arrived in the city, quite recently, she has taken up eating fudge whenever anything troubles her. As a result, her teeth are not her best feature – although, it is hard to say what is her best feature. Fudge is not good for the waistline, either. My printing machines, she thinks, are my best feature. Indeed, Imogen often has so much sugar in her system, she pedals and pedals her printing machines while at the same time eating more and more fudge, until she just can’t sleep – and works long into the night. But mistakes are creeping in, and becoming ever more common in her work. People are starting to notice. She considers her most recent misspelling of an important legal document and thinks:

How can it be that

With all of my pedd’ling,

All my hard work

And machinery-meddling

There are these constant

Printing quirks?

Perhaps my machinery

Is going berserk?

But once my new

Scheme has begun

Business will really

Start to run.

Imogen’s thoughts here refer to a very special new machine she took delivery of yesterday, all the way from Paris, which she thinks will be excellent for business. The machine will be able to print advertisements directly onto the ground – she will make special rubber tyres with letters around them and pedal along making the road’s surface itself a billboard. No other printer in the city has such a vehicle and she’s sure it will catch on. It is sitting under a piece of cloth in the corner of the shop – underneath her shelves of misspelled or faulty prints – awaiting the first customer she can unveil it to…

On the street outside, the gas lamps are being lit and occasionally one of the city’s trams – with huge decoy horse heads on the front of them – gallops by on its noisy rails, shrouding the frontage of Clacker’s Printworks in steam. Seeing them, Imogen pedals a little harder at her latest job and thinks:

Steam? Steam!

Who needs steam?!

My pedal, treadle-

Powered machines

Are more than a match

For their foggy screams.

As she glares out of the window through the steam, a man emerges suddenly from it and pushes the door with some force and grandeur.

‘Good day, Miss Clacker!’ his booming bass voice fills the room.

‘Mr Falbust,’ Imogen stops pedalling and stands up, wiping a mixture of fudge and black ink across her nose – she was halfway through a mouthful, ‘I wasn’t expecting you just yet, the programmes won’t be ready until tomorrow.’

‘That is fine, Clacker – I wish to up my order. We will need some bill-posters for the production too – and quite a few of them.’

‘Of course, Mr Falbust – how many?’

‘One hundred, by the day after tomorrow.’

‘The day after tomorrow?’

‘Is that a problem, Clacker?’

‘Of course not, Mr Falbust – and not only that, but might I…make a suggestion?’

‘What kind of suggestion?’

‘About the production – and your advertising?’

‘Go on…’

Imogen scuttles toward the veiled machine in the corner, twitching with excitement. She takes the corner of the cloth in her hand and – like a game-show assistant gone very, very wrong – in one movement unveils it. As she does, she declares:

‘The Pedal-Powered Pavement Printing Velocipede!’

‘It’s a bit of a mouthful.’

‘Yes.’

‘Well – what is it?’

‘As the name suggests, Mr Falbust, this is a machine for printing directly on to the roads and pavements. The city itself will be your billboard! As your prospective audience are trotting along in their carriages or whizzing by on the wretched tram, they will see the advertisement spelt out before them. And you, Mr Falbust, will be the first to advertise to them in this way!’

‘The first?’

‘The first!’

‘Here, or anywhere?’

‘Well – the first here.’

And how much will it cost me?’

‘A shilling a yard for the first ten yards and a half-shilling thereafter.’

‘Expensive!’

‘Innovative!’

‘Will it work?’

‘Or your money back!’

Falbust puffs himself out to his fullest width – which is very wide – and like a great warbling red-breasted bird says:

‘Very well. Take this down: GRAND SPECTACULAR! With entirely New Scenery, New and Magnificent Dresses and Properties, Stage Band &c., &c. – Artemis Theatre, Hatchet Square.’

Frantically, Imogen runs to her machinery and takes down his words on her typewriter – a half-ball shaped device from which all the letters of the alphabet protrude – from which a piece of paper emerges.

‘And where would you like the text, Mr Falbust?’

‘This is the main shopping street, so the full length of Scansion Way. And across the Hybridge too, there’s a lot of traffic there.’

‘Of course, Mr Falbust – I’ll let you know how many yards once it’s done. By tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow it is!’

‘Splendid, Mr Falbust.’

‘You’ll be getting one of your staff to do it, I suppose?’

‘Yes, one of my staff. That’s right.’

‘Well send them my thanks – I hope to see a full house every night. Must be off, the dress rehearsal is about to begin.’

‘Break a leg, Mr Falbust?’

‘Yes! Let’s hope you don’t, with all this pedalling – eh?’ he guffaws.

‘Yes Mr Falbust, let’s hope not!’

As he leaves the shop, Imogen waves him off and thinks:

Staff? STAFF?!

He’s having a laugh,

It’s only me

Who’ll make this budge,

Who’ll spell it out

Without a smudge –

Me and my

Beloved fudge.

She opens another box and sits back down at her machinery to finish the theatre programmes. It is going to be a long night.

***

Imogen awakes with a start in her bed out the back of the shop. Last night was something of a blur, as if she’d dreamt all the pedalling to finish the programmes and the first outing of her new Pedal-Powered Pavement Printing Velocipede to advertise Kester Falbust’s new production. She must only have fallen asleep a few hours ago once she’d printing the length of the Hybridge (having had to wait for a ship to pass through) and then the full length, both directions, of Scansion Way.

She leaps from her bed and rushes to the front door, excited to see the results. Sure enough, there are the messages printed at regular spaces all along the road, past the turn off to Redolent Road and all the way up to the junction with Indolent Avenue. It’s like the street is a giant piece of paper and Imogen has written neatly all over it.

But then – she looks closer. Although the letters themselves are perfect and crisp, on closer inspection, the message on the road reads:

‘SPAND GRECTACULAR – With Scew Nenery, Drew and Nagnificent Messes and Boperty Prand, Stage &c &c Artemis Hatchet, Theatre Square.’

Imogen is horrified –

How can it be

That my murds

Are so wuddled?

Is my sense of spelling

So befuddled?

Truly, this a

Mectacular spess

And cannot be construed

As anything less.

She barely notices that even her thoughts are starting to get confused, too…She glances up at the clock and sees it is 6am. The sun is only just peeking up through the dawn and only the odd shopkeeper is stirring along Scansion Way. Perhaps Falbust won’t have seen it yet? Imogen resolves to rectify her mistake before he can. But she must work fast. Soon, the trams would start running and the whole city would wake up…

First, she looks at the wheels of the Velocipede, hastily removes the rubber tyres, made up of individual letters, and rearranges them so the message is now spelled out correctly. Re-attaching the wheels, she pushes the velocipede out of the front door and hops on. In order to correct her mistake, she will have to erase the first set and then print them again with the proper message. She switches the machine from ‘Print’ to ‘Brush’ mode and starts to retrace her route – to the Hybridge first then back to correct the street outside her shop.

By 7.15, she has managed to erase the messages in both directions of traffic on the Hybridge. As far as she knows, Kester Falbust would have to make his way across the bridge to get to the theatre, so now she just had to get back to Scansion Way before Falbust came to check on his posters, programmes and street printing. Imogen is frantic:

I must correct

This silly error

Or my rep

Will be in tatters

When Mr Falbust

Comes to find us

The perfect print

Is all that matters!

She pedals furiously back towards Scansion Way, her stout legs straining, and takes another mouthful of fudge to keep her going. At the end of the street, Imogen is feeling distinctly worse for wear. Her eyes are barely open and her legs feel as though they are made of lead.

At some point, everything goes dark. Imogen is suddenly aware she is tiny, riding upon a Velocipede a little like her Pavement Printing machine – only enormous. She clambers up to look at the printing wheels, and sees they are made not of rubber letters, but of fudge cut into hieroglyphs, strange symbols she cannot understand. She looks down at the pedals and realises they are powering themselves – or rather, they are being powered by a steam engine just under Imogen’s feet. And it is hot. Her feet are starting to burn – and steam from pipes stretching up either side of the Velocipede right up into the sky – she can’t even see their end. As she attempts to stop her feet catching fire, she begins to breathe heavily and panic. What is happening? Imogen becomes aware that her breathing is not her own, there is a rhythmic sound, coming from behind her. She is asleep and dreaming! Her eyes spring open and she turns to look behind her. Looming from the fog is one of the city’s trams, the horse-shaped front end is rearing up not twenty yards away, belching steam towards her!

Imogen puts her feet to the pedals and tries to push, but something is stopping her. Her heart races as the tram races toward her little velocipede and she reaches down to the pedals – feeling around them, a box of fudge is wedged beneath the right one. Wrenching it out, she presses with all her might and the velocipede lurches forward, just at the second the giant red tram roars by – clipping the edge of the wheel. She squeals as it does so – eek! – and then all is quiet as the tram clangs off on its rails.

Pushing the velocipede back to the shop, Imogen looks down the street – which she must have managed to erase the misspelled advertisements before falling asleep, which was something. The corrected street-writing would have to wait until she’d fixed the Velocipede.

Pushing through a pile of cast-off prints – she must have knocked them off in her hurry – and falling back into her chair, Imogen thinks:

I could rather do

With a day off or two –

And in fact, more than that,

Someone to point the finger at

When everything’s too much for one

And all the work has not been done.

This morning has surely

Been portentous…

As Imogen finishes this last thought, a young woman walked into her shop and says:

‘I wonder – might you need an apprentice?’

No-one had ever rhymed with her thought before, except herself. This, she thinks, is a sign.

‘Funnily enough,’ says Imogen, ‘I am. And you can start with these posters…I need to fix my velocipede.’

And so, Clacker’s Printworks became Clacker and Associate. It transpired too that her new worker had something of a dislike for fudge – and after that day, so did Imogen.

Edging

My, what a busy week for storytelling.

Tonight, I’ll be performing a story of neighbourly suspicion and summer garden gothic intrigue among late-middle-aged widowers (or are they?) entitled ‘Edging or, Two Birds. One Stone. No Alibi.’  This will be at Folk Tales, The Scout Hut, near the water and opposite Severn Shed.

Then on Sunday, I’ll be at the Central Library for Skylab Stories Sunday Adventure Club to read another story from the raft of characters emerging from my novel, ‘The Stitches in Time’. This time, it’s Jack and Stella Hammerton-Stanhope, precocious (and spoilt) children of Lady Hammerton-Stanhope, who can’t help but competing in who knows more about the world and its history…Nazcans! Aztecs! Messopotatomians!

2pm at the Central Library on Sunday 4th July.

An artists representation of some Victorian children.

Clear Autumn – a seasonal apocalyptic story…

I wrote this a year or so ago, but thought I’d pop it up on the blog in case anyone should read it…

Clear Autumn

I’ve been thinking about change recently: how we notice it, when we notice it, what counts in our mind as a change worth noting. The changes in my body seemed only slight, but were obviously the start of some decisive decline. I can see that now. Drawn over the past, the line of change seems so clear.

So it is with all our lives now. There wasn’t a cataclysm or a boom which bust up the party – more of a slowing-down and fizzling out, like a sparkler in a bucket of water. There was conflict, of course, and there were those who did not weather the change – but things have levelled out again, only with less colour, less extravagance. Whatever paints life has lost most of its palette.

Near my home, I walk around the tree-lined streets some days. We used to walk for miles on our four strong legs – young man’s legs – out to the woods beyond the gorge: our hands warm and knitted together as we strode through the unravelling seasons. It’s harder to reach the woods now with the bridge gone – and it would take much more than twenty pence to cross that icon again. Although the television says it’s not a good idea to walk alone, even in the daytime, I cannot just stay inside and watch the endless repeats on the ever fewer channels that move across the tiny screen. It’s less a window on the world these days and more a porthole in a sinking ship. Perhaps the news itself is a repeat – there seems to be no system. There used to be so many channels, catering for every niche taste and sub-group, but they’ve become much less complex, less important. Televisions once grew larger and larger, as if the age of the dinosaurs were upon us again, but became prone to natural selection and began to shrink again. But there was no meteor, just a slow starvation.

The sun seems larger than it should on this bright autumn day. I carefully tread the tectonic plates of the pavement (of which there are more and more) alongside the rows of moulding fossil cars . Everything is out of scale, out of place. Out Of Scale, I laugh out loud, the title of the dinosaurs’ biography. Sometimes I think up the fossils’ Latin names, though I don’t know that ancient tongue, and mix it with made-up marketing words; words which were designed to capture an idea that would capture us. Mondeosaurus Ex. Fronteracus. Rangia Roverius. I loved these creatures as a boy, dominant on every continent. I suppose parts of me are getting older faster than others, dying more hastily, so I walk slowly to be democratic to my body while indulging my boyish mind. I feel like the world, divided in to time-zones: – some entering night, some still clinging to dusk. Dividing in to more and more paving slabs.

As I pass the park the industrious crowd of rabbits barely look up as they consume the green of the grass. They are so numerous now that those few of us that walk past don’t seem a threat. I don’t like it when we have to use them, abuse their trusting nature, but they are plentiful, nearby and easy to catch; so it makes sense. I remember cooking Indonesian rabbit stir-fry once a long time ago, in the early days. How we both cringed at having to cut through the bone of our market-bought meat. It’s necessity now, not novelty. A raven lands in front of me on the cracked slab surface, and we stare at each other. It seems to be listening for something, from me or from the sky, but all we can hear is the leaves.

It was around a week ago I began to notice the change. Not the normal change, a new one: a change in the change. They turned pale, as they have each year, but then continued to turn paler and paler, until they could not be seen at all. They moved through the spectrum from green to yellow and red and then vanished into a range beyond the human eye. They had not ceased to be, but just ceased to be seen, by us, by me. The air around the deciduous trees looks like an inverted heat haze – the transparent leaves make the image wobble, like a dream-sequence or flash-back on the oldest repeats. It took me a while to notice that it’s not just the deciduous trees who have taken this unknown cue to sleep – it’s all of them.

The few people I pass and acknowledge move through the transparent detritus as I do – slowly, uncertainly. The substance of the leaves hit me as they fall, startling me, though their light does not strike my eyes. In the places where the wind deposits them, drifts build and I nearly fall as I walk through them. This is not such a change: my legs are so heavy that it feels as though the air is thick and rotting. But it’s the sound that alerts me to the drifts more than anything else: the crunch and squelch, mixing with the sound of rushing in my ears. Volume up, brightness down. On the colder days, they scrape along the ruptured pavements and shatter beneath my feet. Sometimes carrier bags get caught in these troops of dancing shards, and because I cannot see the scraping leaves, it seems the sound of the bag is amplified; one voice copied and pasted, thousands and thousands of times. A trapped voice, like his – trapped in the call-minder which now has only silence to mind. I catch myself in one of the fractured shop windows and notice how pale I am. Perhaps I will go the way of the leaves – falling, invisible.

I pass the doctor’s surgery, but it’s still the same. I’m running out of the prescription and I have to take more and more each day. It has been locked for a few weeks now. I wonder what has happened to the nice lady behind the prescription counter who always smiled, even whilst shaking, and was always well turned out in spite of everything. I hope she is OK. I hope everyone is OK. I return home and unlock the yale lock, the second lock, the third.

He was there waiting for me, in the frame, with my mobile phone next to it. I switch it on for a few moments sometimes, though it always says the same thing. I allow myself to look at one of the text messages from before, hoping the bars will spring up and the network will appear and a new message will come to me. The signal that meant we could talk. Some sort of explanation. He was lost in one of the storms over-seas – not lost to the world I hope, but to me – and there was little hope of getting back in to this country now. If there is such a thing.

From my well-worn place in the arm-chair (which was red once, but now more grey) I try switching the television on, but it won’t. I stare at the dusty image of two bright faces and equally bright clothes, and remember how our colours deepened. How our passionate red remained, but mixed with all the colours of our years together. All these memories are just compost now. Compost that will feed nothing. In the corner of my eye, I think I see a plane glinting in a blue patch in the sky, but it’s just an apparition, a reflex from before. The apparition of the leaves is real though, and the square of sky in the window shimmers as they pass. It’s like the window itself is trying to change channel, but cannot. This is it now – the only thing I can watch. Everything dying, becoming clear.