Short Fiction: Richer Than Satan

He kneels carefully and begins to deploy his tools. He takes a precious few seconds to get his breathing under control, blank from his mind the corpse of Logan a little way to his right.

He must not think of how the blue forest is dissolving his body, eating his cells with its toxic enzymes. His suit must have failed. Acid squirted from the plant must have melted the shield.

They’d got separated. Greed had made Logan ignore protocol and push ahead. Protocol said two had to be together at all times in this hellish place.

An entire ecosystem keyed to kill you. The slightest failure, the slightest tear in the suit and there were minutes, seconds maybe.

And yet it has its own infernal beauty. No direct sunlight can penetrate the depths of the blue forest. The colour of the toxic vegetation and the blue haze which suffuses everything is the product of some kind of bioluminescence, poorly understood.

He clears the riot from his mind and sets to work. The outer cowls of the plant’s sac must be cut slowly, according to a sequence he has practised over and over. His mouth stiffens. Those were simulations. There’s always something unexpected, something you’ve never quite prepared for.

What did Logan …? He must excise the thought. There must be nothing in the Universe except his hands and the plant, the precision of his tools.

The first layers start to give way, spilling a viscous liquid his eyes interpret as purple on to the sodden forest floor. There’s a jet that almost sends him falling backward. The suit. Check the suit.

He extracts a torch and passes it all over, from boots to crotch, all around his arms and chest. An alarm should sound if it’s been compromised but you never know … those loops and beeps upon which we all depend for life have their moments of chaos, of treachery. Everything seems fine. He goes back to work.

‘What’s happening? Have you got it yet?’

Even through the communicator’s metallic tone he can feel her impatience, the speed of her breathing.

‘I’ll get it if you stop interrupting me.’

‘How long?’

‘Don’t know yet.’

‘Is Logan there?’

‘Dead. Like you thought. Hate to think what he’s like now.’

‘Don’t look.’

‘No.’

‘Be safe.’

He doesn’t reply. Does this mean she cares? She’d been at pains to suggest she did … how many nights now?

Back in his cabin on the station. She’d insisted he turn on his privacy screen and then … Side by side after, staring at the never quite perfect artificial dark.

‘I suppose this is just about sex to you,’ she’d said in a voice that still seemed to purr. He’d offered a kind of slow grunt. Strange how careful you always have to be, no matter the situation.

‘I just want you to know that it’s not like that for me,’ she’d said, ‘I feel care.’

‘Me too.’

I feel care. When had that become the phrase of choice for expressing sincerely held emotion? An impersonal way to express the personal. There was an efficiency about it, he supposed. I feel care. I feel queasy. I detect anomalies.

Then again, sex – and the pretence of care – were the oldest ways of keeping somebody close, under watch.

He is closer now. Under the thickest liquid layer is a micro-forest of fibrous sinew. Some contain burning acid, others a toxic powder known to terminate breathing in seconds. The Morbius Plant, like most living things, is loath to yield up its treasure.

It is now that he must cut with extreme precision, tiny tube by tiny tube. He needs to do it in the right order, like defusing a bomb, watching the tubes closely for movement, for any light that indicates a sudden surge of liquid.

He is his task now, nothing in his mind except the unfolding and severing of tendons. A forest of tendrils suddenly shoots up from nowhere, covering the rim of the plant like a lizard’s frill.

It almost makes him fall back. He drops his micro-cutter. He has five or so seconds to key the sonic emitter to the prescribed frequency, to freeze those deadly quills in place.

He waits a moment or two, wanting to be certain the plant’s last line of defence is immobilised. He must work quickly now. The last moments of anything are always the tightest. The last two layers resemble a kind of hard plastic. They have to be prised loose at the edges then peeled away with terrible delicacy.

Too quick or too slow and what remains of the plant’s consciousness will trigger the very last defensive reflex – suicide – and instantly the prize he’s travelled thousands of years to steal will be disgorged as a dead black husk.

His tension eases just enough to allow the voice to come back from that room on Old Earth, thousands of light years away.

‘These things shouldn’t exist, but they do. How can something so incredible have happened by chance? Makes you think, maybe. But the Universe has its own perverted sensibility. It hates to make anything easy. So it decides that they only grow on one world in a forest utterly toxic to humanity.

‘We estimate there’s only one every few hundred square miles or so, and how or why they evolve – if that’s what they do – is utterly beyond our ability to fathom.

‘The bottom line is: peel away layer after toxic layer of one of the most vicious growths in the Universe and you have it, nothing less than a crystalline brain, something capable of performing octillions of calculations every single nanosecond, billions of times more powerful than our greatest computers will ever be.

‘Harvest it properly, and you have in your hands the only entity capable of processing the satanic maths of true faster than light travel. You cut space journeys from decades into hours. You change human life forever. You open the Universe. More important than anything: you become richer than Satan himself.’

One layer comes away like skin off a scab. This should be …

‘The plant seems to have evolved to protect the thing. It seems to have no other purpose. Bauble and plant are separate life forms, unconnected apart from the symbiosis. Like a fetus maybe. Are either of them conscious? Who knows? Who cares?’

It almost slides into his arms, like the easiest of births. And what he cannot process is its stupefying beauty. The deep blue is shot through with lattices of moving, multi-coloured light, the physical manifestation of billions upon billions of thoughts, all happening at once. He’s been warned about this, how the thing can hypnotise.

‘Turn on your camera.’ And he’s grateful to her, her shrill impatience.

‘No need. I’m coming back.’

‘Have you got it?’

‘Stand by.’

It’s got to be transferred into the environmental can almost immediately. Contact with what passes for open air will kill it. He has to trust the case will do its work. If they’re off by a tenth of a degree, if the case has been damaged …

The plant remains immobile as he backs away from its kill zone, daring a few seconds for a glance over Logan’s spent shell.

They’d been a team, the three of them, their pact made on Earth then reassembled here, after the decades of frozen sleep. They’d worked themselves down here to Theta Station, the one in the zone of the forest calculated as most likely to harbour a living Morbius Plant.

It was the most secret of pacts. They never even spoke to each other till they reached Theta. Like all its counterparts across this globe, Theta was engaged in the ridiculous study of this place as a possible abode – someday – for human life. They had masqueraded as scientists, passionate about survival of the species.

But Logan had broken the pact, had chosen to go it alone, just as Shannon said he would.

A rain has started to fall. It begins as a slow trickle, gathers into a full squall within seconds.

One droplet from this deluge would be enough to deep fry a naked human arm. This Universe. The amount of things in it that want to kill us.

He trudges slowly, ever warily, over metallic bark and grasping spiky creepers, trying not to scream in panic as the ground disappears and his foot is swallowed by a mudhole.

The last moment of everything is always the most clenched. Noise in his ear tells him she’s trying to make contact. He reopens the channel.

‘Where are you? Did you get it?’

‘I’m on my way back.’

‘I want to show you something.’

‘What?’

‘Just switch me on. Do it.’

He activates the small screen inside his helmet. She is standing in Theta’s control room, completely naked, her arms outstretched.

‘Preview of coming attractions,’ she says.

‘Are there – uh – are there people there?’

‘The last two techies went back up to orbit 30 minutes ago. Hurry back.’

She winks and disappears, her body burned on his retinas like a carnal Cheshire cat.

He is careful not to increase his pace. The blue haze of the forest has been pummelled silver by the deluge. He needs to adjust his helmet’s viewer. The suit has its own map and beacon to guide him but he prefers to rely on memory.

A small ridge has been turned to sludge by the storm. He opts to try and trudge through it.

There, he thinks, is the copse of spindly alien trees he remembers. There is no known animal life in the blue forest. The flora is simply too hostile, too predatory.

In the thickening mist he can still spy the white dome. He advances across a stream of violet liquid and waits. He touches his communicator.

‘Here,’ he says, and falls to the ground, still clutching the case.

The husk of his suit remains outside for long minutes before anything happens. If there is no tear, then the enzymes in the ground can’t dissolve him straight away, but it’s only a matter of time.

He is a shell, a dead piece of almost forest waiting for … contact?

It comes with a gentle pulling at his lifeless arm. It is the signal to activate himself, to spring to life like the feral plant and its frill.

He strikes out, knocking the other suit to the ground. The weapon it was carrying falls away. He doesn’t bother retrieving it, simply grabs the case.

He opens his communicator. The voice inside is struggling. His blow must have compromised the suit.

‘Wha … attt?’

‘I checked Logan’s suit before I came back,’ he says, ‘no breaches. The only answer was that the suit had been commanded to shut down from the station. I disabled the frequency on my own suit. You probably should have checked that. Maybe you should have killed my suit before, but then it would have been just you, no fail safe.’

‘I … I’m sorry.’

‘Funny, isn’t it? The three of us would each have been richer than Satan. Funny how even that’s never enough.

‘I … felt … care.’ He waits a time, as if to make sure these are in fact her final words.

Yes, he whispers, in a funny way I think you did.

He turns away from her to the Dome. There is no need to worry about the body, about evidence. The forest will consume everything soon enough. He opens the hatch, climbs inside and begins decontamination.

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Flash Fiction: A Slightly Longer Hemingway

The woman pushes with pale face and unreadable eyes a baby carriage made for two. She never meets the gaze of anyone else in the park.

Only one child sits in the carriage. He looks from side to side at the world with an air of vague puzzlement, as if something which should be there is missing.

Short Fiction: The Human Curse

 

He seemed ill at ease over dinner. That, at first, was the most unnerving thing. I had always reckoned him the most confident person I ever met.

Was it his health? He looked glowing, silver mane like a crown of some inexplicable second youth.

He had confessed to a certain melancholy about his approaching seventieth birthday. Was it mortality then that caused the eyes to cast down a little more than normal?

Yet his books had always proclaimed, if not a fearlessness about death, at least a kind of chilly acceptance: we are here. We are not meant to stay. We are always on our way somewhere else: the human curse.

The other odd thing was how he kept consulting timepieces, looking at and fingering his watch, asking his wife to check her phone, getting up and staring at the antique clock in the kitchen.

The meal had been prepared by his third wife, Clothilde, beautiful, enigmatic and of course much younger than he, though she had to be more than just a totem of success. In her presence, he exuded a kind of distracted puzzlement, as if he couldn’t entirely figure out what she was doing in his house.

It was just the three of us on the veranda, the full moon bisecting the Caribbean waves below. What talk there was touched on the subject of coincidence, a frequent theme in all his books.

‘There are connections,’ he would say, ‘linkages of which we can know nothing. They have to do with realities folded underneath the one we think we see every day. Our curse is that we know they are there, but don’t know how to look at them, and those who say they can are righteously denounced as mad.’

One of his most famous stories concerns a man who becomes convinced that the young midwife who attends the birth of his first child is someone he has met in another life, a parallel reality perhaps. The girl also thinks she has met the man before, but in a place of which he remembers nothing.

His marriage and eventually his entire life end up being swallowed in the attempt to find the truth behind his obsession.

‘I believe that in moments of great stress, such as the birth of a child,’ he said, ‘the veils become porous. We see things that perhaps we are not meant to see.’

I wasn’t sure what to make of it myself, but I always accounted him the most original thinker I have ever known.

‘Tch,’ he said as I ventured this opinion, ‘that’s only because this is the most depressing age in all of history, and original thought has been eradicated. It’s only old farts like me, who made their names and fortunes before the tyranny of now, who can dare express an unorthodox opinion, which of course is then ridiculed.’

He had lit a cigar, blowing long slow rings at the moon. I looked around and noticed that Clothilde had vanished. ‘She hates me smoking,’ he said, and shrugged.

He stood up suddenly, stabbing out the cigar. ‘She hates being around for this anyway. Come on.’

He led me back through the house. We crossed a passageway and mounted some steps into a room I had never seen before.

It seemed bare apart from a table on which sat an old telephone.

The only other furnishings were a large wall clock and a small chest of drawers inside which he now rummaged, extracting at length an old hardback notebook, which he passed to me.

He fingered his watch, looked hard at the clock. ‘Wait, I’ll turn on a light. Look at the pages. Can you read them?’

‘They seem to be a list of dates and times,’ I said.

‘Yes. From when?’

‘One seems to be four years and eleven months ago. Another … seven years and … I’m not sure … Another is from eleven years ago, another…’

‘Yes, that’s it,’ he breathed. And just then the telephone rang. He let it ring a couple of times, then crossed slowly and lifted the receiver, pressing a button to one side which caused a voice to crackle into the empty room.

‘Hello? Who is there?’ it said. It was the voice of a woman, probably old, though the distortion made it difficult to tell. ‘I am looking for Can you tell me if there is anyone there?’

I looked at him, finding to my horror that his eyes were full of tears. His voice was a rasp. ‘She won’t hear me. No matter how hard I try. She can’t.’

‘Hello? Hello? I wish to speak to

‘The times?’ I asked.

‘The intervals between calls correspond to a precise mathematical pattern,’ he said. ‘No matter where I am in the world. No matter the number on the phone, I still receive them.’

There was only the odd word now, fragments being eaten by static.

‘But …?’

‘It is the voice of my mother,’ he said and closed his eyes.

 

Flash Fiction: Beach

Always on the precipice of sleep – unless he has managed to properly stun his axons with alcohol – his mind will drift by itself back to the same scene, the same question.

He is lying on his back on the beach, a towel or a shirt covering his face. The power of the sun on his face remains a physical thing, the touch of hot hands. He can never remember what he’s wearing, or even if he’s wearing anything.

He can feel the ebb and flow of tide as of the planet inhaling and exhaling, as if everything around him is alive and aware. Vision would ruin this moment.  The act of tearing off the towel would end the spell.

There is something magical about the pictures and shades of living doubt his other senses can create when left to themselves.

For all he knows they are alone. He can’t hear any other people on the beach. Maybe they’re just too far away. Is this how he remembers it? Is this how it was? Or did it ever have an existence outside his mind?

In time he will hear the pad of slow wet feet on sand, feel the explosion of moisture and health as she plonks down on the towel beside him. Her nearness, newly birthed from the sea, seems to colonise him.

He can see without needing to look the coiled wet locks of hair, the eyes flashing blue against the wet redness of her face, her big white teeth catching the sun as she looks down on him.

And he can’t help thinking that he must look a fright. And it will also kill the spell if he tries too hard to see what she is wearing, or if she is wearing anything.

This moment, then, only this moment. Real or not: what’s the difference?

‘You should get in. It’s wonderful.’

He thinks ‘silky’ might be the adjective that best describes her voice, though ‘silky’ implies some form of calculation, some effort to control both herself and him, and he wishes in this and all other moments to remember her as open and guileless.

There’s a little note of fear too, as if her essence trembles on any word he might say; that sense of power sends a vague throb to his groin.

‘Happy here for the moment.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Can’t think of anything else I want.’

‘Are you going to look at me?’

‘I can see you just fine.’

‘I want you to do my back in a minute.’

‘Sure.’

And just for an instant stretches one those afternoons that memory makes into eternity. Flesh upon flesh, touch upon touch, the intensity on her face remembered until the moment memory dies, but then she says:

‘Can we talk about last night now?’

Memory says he groans. His axons on the cusp of sleep can’t stop themselves from straining to frame how she responds, from hunting down tunnels of hurt, and the dream as always dissolves.

The smell and sound of surf give way to noise. The image of her noise, body exhaling water, the halting gentleness of her voice, gone for yet another night. He might have to get up again, pace and smoke a cigarette.

This moment, only this moment. You can live seventy years without leaving the same moment. Why didn’t he reply? Why didn’t he say the thing she wanted? Why can he never forget?

REVENANT

“I don’t like the way he’s looking at me.”

“Who’s looking at you?”

“That guy, over there … by the dispensing machine.”

“I can’t see anyone.”

“He was there a second ago.”

He fights down a sigh. She’s doing it again. Every so often she just goes … He has evolved a vague, private belief that it’s something to do with biology, with the mysterious interplay of temperatures and pressures, the obscure pull of the moon on her turbulent waters. Her capacity for paranoia in these times frightens him.

And now she’s screwing up yet another night out. Maybe it’s that she just doesn’t like the place, resents his easy familiarity with the rest of the clientele. Jesus. It’s not like they go out that much.

“You want to go. Is that it?”

“I’m not saying that.”

“But if that guy shows … It’s just gonna get tense. Who needs that? We’re supposed to be relaxing.”

“Sorry I’m such an inconvenience.”

“I don’t mean … shit.”

“There was a look in his eye, something … hungry. I got a really bad feeling.”

“You’re a good looking girl. Guys are always going to look you over. Girls too, for that matter. It’s just … life.”

“This wasn’t like that. It was creepy … like he wanted to reach into me and … take.”

“Jesus.”

He does his best to keep the explosion quiet. The place is noisy but he’s not sure if she’s heard. He has decided. They will leave. There’s a place a few blocks away, a sort of bistro.

Maybe what she needs is more focused attention. They’ll be face to face over a small table. There’ll be food. Maybe he can talk down her mood, whatever this is. Maybe he’ll get to have a few drinks.

She puts up only token resistance to his suggestion, feeding his suspicion that she just wanted out of the place all along. Damn her moods, her caprices. Why couldn’t she just have said it before they came here?

So he stands, robed in shadow, as the taxi carries them away. He briefly wonders if he should follow. Feeling him again, the woman clutches her chest inside the car, huddles a little closer to her irritated mate.

What a treat she would have been. What a thrilling essence: nobility of sentiment uneasily married to truly feral passion. There were of course those who claimed to prefer more elevated natures, who delighted in feasting upon the unworldly, on the purely spiritual, but beings such as hers cried out to his eternal hunger.

Follow? The mate might lose patience and forsake her. Perhaps he would drown his resentment in alcohol, blunting his ability to protect.

No. Better to be cautious, to hide inside the denser parts of the human stream. Pity though. He leaves the corner and strikes back towards the centre of the city by night.

The Prophets Of Now

My first brush with ‘serious’ literature occurred when I was about 11, and read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ in a day (man, I must have been bored). I gloried in the righteous rage of the animals’ revolt. I was as excited as they were during the first heady days of Revolution, exulting in Snowball’s relentless organising of committees for this and production groups for that.

And of course, like every young reader of Orwell’s tale, I loved the horse ‘Boxer,’ as much for his stupidity as his endless nobility of spirit. I think it’s the only time in my life when I’ve ever actually wanted a horse.

When things started to go sour, when Napoleon gradually extended his stagnating stranglehold over everything and eventually forced Snowball to flee, I hadn’t read enough Russian history not to keep holding out for a happy ending.

I turned page after page hoping that Snowball would return with some liberating army, oust the hated Napoleon and return everything to the golden time of before. There’s a line in a Divine Comedy song which I think touches on the same feeling, that maybe the next time you watch ‘The Great Escape,’ Steve McQueen might actually make it.

For months afterwards, my 11 year old imagination started toying around with a sort of sequel to Animal Farm. It would be a kind of extended TV series in which Napoleon had been overthrown and replaced by a turbulent democracy.

I think I’d even worked out the main character. His name was going to be Robin and he was, for some reason, a deer. His fledgling administration would face numerous challenges to its authority. Napoleon would still be holding on to some enclave of the farm somewhere, for example, but in the end he’d figure it all out and the animals would move forward together in a progressive manner, or something.

But it was only on reading supposedly ‘real’ Russian history that I realized ‘Robin’ had already existed. His name was Kerensky and the real life Napoleon, Joseph Stalin, hadn’t been long about seeing him off.

You’d think such disappointments should have finished me off with ‘serious’ literature, but they didn’t. At some later point, I got around to reading Orwell’s ‘1984,’ but with mercifully nothing like the same expectation of a happy ending.

Orwell’s legacy as a true prophet of what would happen to the world in the later 20th Century is somewhat patchy. The true guide to the way our age is now was just about then realizing that Disneyland – which was situated very near where he lived – was the first in a series of elaborate but entirely fake creations which would eventually begin to overwrite reality itself.

Philip K Dick did not perhaps directly predict Google, Facebook and the Internet, but he described their metaphysical schematics to perfection, and long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he put forward a future in which literally everything was fake.

Dick realized that the guiding spirit of the age to come would be buccaneering, screw you capitalism. Other would be prophets, such as Orwell and Aldous Huxley – and before them HG Wells – had assumed that humanity would be undone by some sort of socialist notion of good, that we would be destroyed by the overweening power of one philosophical idea, or simply by a desire to make everyone ‘feel ok.’

Dick was more plugged into the true mainframe of the future, and the world we live in now becomes a little more like the one he described every day.

But where Orwell remains unrivalled is in his analysis of what politics does to language, of how you influence people not by winning arguments, but by changing the emotional meanings of words.

A rigorous prose stylist himself (something poor old Dick could never be accused of), Orwell was acutely sensitive to the ways in which the powerful attempted to justify unprecedented atrocities simply by neutralising the emotional context of the words used to describe them.

So, for example, Stalin used terms like ‘resettlement’ or ‘new nations’ to disguise things like ethnic cleansing and mass murder. Even Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ was an early linguistic attempt to provide clothes for the unspeakable.

Orwell’s fantastic essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ deserves to be read by anyone even slightly serious about the use of words, and indeed anyone who cares about freedom.

It is even more relevant now when – as warring tribes of humans shriek relentlessly at each other – language itself becomes a kind of fog of war, and terms like ‘fake news,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘racist’ and even ‘rapist’ derive their meaning solely from whichever tribe happens to be using them at any given time.

He’s particularly scathing too, on the sloppy use of language, pointing out that what starts as a kind of pop-eyed laziness can end up having sinister consequences. Academic figures are a particular target, and given the tide of politically correct McCarthyism currently sweeping across University campuses in the US and elsewhere, it is worthwhile to remember that, historically, a lot of the most toxic stupidity to benight humanity has actually first been bred inside Universities.

Specifically, Orwell derides the tendency to use phrases like ‘not unhappy’ instead of ‘happy.’ In 99 cases out of a hundred, the only reason for using the ‘not un’ combination is intellectual adulteration, an attempt to distract the reader from the fact that your thoughts are less than the sum of the words used to express them.

He even offers a sentence designed to cure writers of the ‘not un’ combination. It goes something like: ‘a not unsmall dog was seen chasing a not unwhite rabbit across a not ungreen field.’ Even now, it’s a terrible pity that more people haven’t read this sentence.

Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell points out how much easier it becomes for academics and politicians to use phrases like ‘in my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption’ than to simply say ‘I think.’

There’s a lot more going on here than just sloppiness. There is a refusal to be honest, both with yourself and others, and the consequences of that dishonesty reach a lot further than we might think.

Dehumanising language, the process of making your words less personal and direct, assists greatly with the dehumanisation of people.

It is ridiculously easy to dehumanise somebody in the ear of the listener by manipulating the type of language you use to describe that person.

Orwell understood this perfectly, and his rigorous honesty – exasperating to some – meant he called things as he saw them.

What a terrible pity it is that our age seems to lack an Orwell, or that if it doesn’t, he or she is all too often drowned under the ever more shrill ravings of idiots and hucksters.

Pity about the sequel too, mind, but you can’t have everything I guess.

Greetings From The Land of Rain Gods

The fourth instalment of Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series, entitled ‘So Long And Thanks For All The Fish,’ features a truck driver named Rob McKenna. Poor old Rob is described in the very first sentence as ‘a miserable bastard,’ but he’s a miserable bastard with a serious excuse.

At one point in the novel, he’s hectoring Adams’ main character, Arthur Dent, about how miserable everything is. ‘It-rains-all-the-time,’ he insists. Arthur attempts to reasonably point out that it doesn’t, exciting poor Rob’s fury all the more, and eventually disengages himself to go off and try to meet his girlfriend (it’s the one novel in the series where Adams allows Arthur some space to try and be happy. One trusts something lovely was going on in his own life at the time).

But poor Rob is left behind in the cafe, still miserable. It’s already been explained by this point that Rob is perpetually miserable because Rob is a Rain God. All he knows is that, in the course of his own wretched life, he has evolved hundreds of ways to categorise different types of rain, from mild drizzles to dirty great blatters.

All he knows is that any holiday he’s ever been on was an unmitigated disaster, and no one wants to go on holidays with him ever again. All the clouds know is that they love him and want to be near him, to cherish him and to water him.

I can’t help thinking about Rob McKenna now and again, when I’m out and about in my own country, wondering, as I try and tuck my head still further inside the neck of my coat, whether I and my countrymen aren’t in fact an entire nation of Rain Gods, and just don’t know it yet.

It’s one of the most boring truisms in the language: I come from Ireland, and we get, like, a lot of rain. Lately, it seems to me that this rain is more intense, more violent than it used to be, that this seems to be our particular dividend from global warming, but maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, my bones and blood are no longer thick enough to ignore it the way they used to.

I’ve never been organized enough to group rain into specific numbered categories the way Rob McKenna does (I think I’d just go mad), but what I have evolved, I fancy, is an elaborate set of metaphors to describe the many different moods of Irish rain.

There was the rain burst that assaulted me suddenly last week, for example, erupting all at once out of what seemed as clear a sky as we can get in Ireland.

As my huddled form was gathered up inside its full fury, its behaviour struck me as being akin to that of a thug who’s had a few too many on a Saturday night. His rage is all embracing, but also weirdly non-specific.

He wanders up and down the town’s main street, angrily seeking exchanges with something, anything, and ends up repeatedly headbutting a lamp post which gave him an unfriendly look.

This rain storm was like that. I could tell it didn’t like me, but I didn’t feel singled out. It appeared to have an intense yet unfocused dislike of just about everything.

The lugubrious season which passes for summer in these parts throws up a kind of rain which just seems to hang there, just a foot or two above your head, keeping the humidity simmering at about the level of the average Indochinese jungle.

This rain is like a depressed pub bore whom you can’t quite hate because his life seems so miserable. He gently soaks your clothes with the salted milk of his disappointment: the wife hasn’t given him a friendly look for years, the kids haven’t spoken to him since shortly after they were born, he thinks his boss might be having an affair with his poodle etc.

Even as he’s ruining your clothes and your mood, you can’t help feeling for him slightly, for the creak of his fear. Is this all there is until death? Is this all there is until all that winter shit starts up again?

There used to be a concept called the ‘soft Irish day,’ which doesn’t crop up so much any more. This basically meant a day suffused from dawn to dusk with a kind of drizzle so vague and gentle that it hardly seemed like rain at all.

It resembled nothing so much as a kind yet befuddled neighbour, or perhaps a benign elderly relative, telling you the same stories over and over again, gently and blamelessly wetting your carpet as they did so.

It was a little boring perhaps, but not the worst kind of company. It was familiar and therefore comforting. It even had an oddly positive vibe about it, a kind of almost friendliness. You didn’t need to go running to avoid its gaze the way you would with the globally warmed up psychotics of today.

The soft Irish days are mostly gone now, as indeed are the kind yet befuddled neighbours. I sometimes wonder if there is a connection.

And I can’t help wondering if the waves of national misery which engulf us from time to time are due to our unwonted status as a nation of Rain Gods.

This has always been a far less hospitable land than, say, England. Mark the example of the Romans, they conquered Britannia and named the island to the west of it ‘Hibernia’ – which is Latin for ‘land where it p***es out of the Heavens continually’ – and had the good sense to keep well away. Anyone will tell you that the Romans knew a thing or two about countries.

There’s a British company called ‘Center Parcs’ which specialises in bringing interactive, highly fun forest rambling experiences to its customers. They’re actually setting up a new operation in a big forest a few miles out the road from me, and I do hope the venture doesn’t turn out to be a step too far, like poor old Napoleon’s trip to Moscow.

Unlike many of their English counterparts, Ireland’s forests spend most of the year being foggy, boggy and flea bitten, kind of like rain forests without the warmth or nudity. Let’s hope Center Parcs have figured out a way around this, like maybe enclosing the entire forest under glass.

We try to drown our drowning induced misery with drink, an interesting attempt at literally trying to fight fire with petrol, but we’ve been doing it for millennia, and I don’t know what it says about our nation, but we haven’t come up with a better idea yet.

Making Beautiful Music Out Of Adversity

We are barely three months in, and already 2018 shows ominous signs of being like 2016, in that it will be chiefly remembered for its haul of celebrity mortality.

This week brought the very sad news of the death of Stephen Hawking, for decades the single most famous scientist on the planet (even if, strictly speaking, he wasn’t so much a scientist as a theoretician, but media celebrity has never been much interested in such fine distinctions).

The news led in turn to a positively surreal exchange on the main Government radio station in my own country, Ireland. Some science bod from one of the Dublin colleges was on, ostensibly to provide an appreciation of Hawking’s life and achievements.

The guy declared that Hawking’s book had ‘changed my life,’ but then didn’t seem to be able to remember its name.

Sure that’s always happening to me. I’m always coming across books like that. It’s like meeting girls at parties. They change my life and then I can’t remember their names.

The science ‘expert’ then went on to give a very partial and incomplete definition of ‘Hawking Radiation,’ declared that a new telescope in the Irish Midlands will be ‘looking at things like Black Holes’ (Impossible: you can’t actually ‘see’ Black Holes, therefore you can’t ‘look at them’) and mentioned Hawking’s famous cameo in Star Trek, where he ‘played chess with Mister Spock.’

He didn’t. He played poker with Mr Data, Einstein and Issac Newton. Maybe such details don’t matter all that much in the grander scheme of cheap media airspace, but I wouldn’t be pinning my hopes on any theories this guy comes up with about the true nature of the Universe.

For those in my country, moments like this are a small but depressing reminder of how lives might end, great and ordinary women and men come and go, but Banana Republic codology remains immortal. Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone.

But exchanges like this also, perhaps, illustrate the flip side of Hawking’s decision to embrace global celebrity in the way he did.

His book, by the way, was called ‘A Brief History of Time’ (there are others, but it’s the most famous one) and Hawking said he wrote it out of a desire to popularize interest in his field of science, to get people thinking about the Universe and its origins.

It’s also been suggested that he did so in order to help pay for the increasing cost of his care, to maintain both the growing entourage and increasingly sophisticated technology necessary to keep him alive and functional, and that is completely understandable.

It led to him becoming one of the most instantly recognisable people on the planet.

Anyone who hunted through the pages of ‘A Brief History’ hoping for, as one of Hawking’s publishers put it, ‘a key to the mystery of life’ was going to be disappointed. It topped the bestseller charts for years, and there was a long time when it was immensely trendy to pretend you could read it, but since there remain far more questions than answers in Cosmology and Physics, any hope of a Holy Grail was remote.

It’s a long time since I read it (I think I finished it) but I remember finding some of its arguments a bit reductive. I had no grasp whatever of the Physics, but Hawking struck me as a fairly conventional sceptical thinker in the English tradition. If there was the possibility of some remarkable revelation looming somewhere in the background, then he certainly wasn’t saying.

Instead, Hawking’s own remarkable struggle against debilitating illness became the thing which defined him. His was, in that sadly jaded cliche, a triumph of the human spirit, the ability to survive adversity if not defeat it, to make beautiful music out of a horrible fate.

Diagnosed with motor neuron disease in his early 20’s, he passed away 55 years after Doctors told him he had a couple of years at most.

In 1985, a serious bout of pneumonia which almost killed him took away his voice, and led ultimately to the instantly recognisable sound of his synthesised speech, that mechanised voice which somehow conveyed a strange, yet presumably accidental plaintiveness. There was something in the laboured sibilants, the truncated vowels, which spoke somehow, almost magically, of vulnerability.

The voice became an intrinsic part of Hawking the media phenomenon. Wherever he appeared, be it on The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory or the news, there was no mistaking whom that voice belonged to, even if it was not actually his.

It is perhaps unfortunate that his celebrity came to define him. It also ended his marriage. Hawking himself frankly acknowledged that his survival would have been impossible without the devoted care of Jane Wilde, the young woman he married before the full onset of his illness (and who appears, fascinatingly, to have been the spitting image of his mother).

After many years, Jane decided she could no longer cope with life as the consort of a global media phenomenon, and I wonder sometimes if Stephen Hawking ever fully dealt with it either. This is one of the many plaintive aspects of their story.

Leave aside the Cosmology for a moment, and Stephen and Jane appear to have simply been ordinary people, ill equipped for fame, for the endless demands of random others, attempting to make the very best they could out of a shocking fate.

His fame led many media airbags to refer to him casually as ‘the greatest scientist in the world.’ Was he? There are perhaps just a handful of people on the planet qualified to answer such a question.

So many of Hawking’s breakthroughs still belong to the realm of theory: ‘Hawking Radiation,’ for example, is the idea that, absolutely contrary to what Physics had thought for decades, Black Holes do actually radiate some energy back into space.

It was, apparently, a source of disappointment to him that Hawking Radiation had not been physically observed during his lifetime, but then, it would be incredibly difficult to spot. As with some of Einstein’s legacy, decades might pass before later scientists are able to proclaim ‘yes. He was right after all.’

I like the fact that he was a bit of a contrarian, someone who enjoyed going against the grain. Ever since I was a child, scientists had believed that the star Cygnus X-1 orbits the first experimentally observed Black Hole in the Universe. This is partly because it’s a strong source of X rays, and because the companion star seems to have been stretched into an egg like shape, presumably because of the enormous gravitational pull of the Black Hole.

Hawking apparently bet his colleague, Kip Thorne, that Cygnus X-1 would turn out to be something other than a Black Hole (observational data proved him wrong in 1990). He also wagered that the Higgs Boson particle would never be observed. Oh well, even Einstein blew some smoke in his time.

His sense of humour travelled light years in a world stuffed with inexplicable self-importance. He never seems to have taken himself too seriously. I love the fact that he was into Wagner. Indeed, I’m evolving a weird little theory of my own about the relationship between Wagner’s music and mental energy.

It’s unfortunate that something horrible has been going on in academia since the mid-point of his career, that intellectual adulteration of the kind typified by our friend at the start of this piece has become the depressing norm, that liberal arts faculties have been engulfed by a McCarthyite hysteria which has eradicated both debate and the spirit of honest inquiry.

It might have made some difference if the world’s most famous academic had spoken out about some of this, but then, perhaps it wouldn’t, and maybe it would have been asking a bit much of someone who already had plenty to deal with. Also, I suppose, was academia really all that healthy before the fanatics of perpetual victimhood came along?

As the biggest media science celebrity since Carl Sagan, Hawking inspired a lot of people to start thinking about science, and he encouraged many others to see disability as a challenge rather than a life sentence. For this alone, he has rendered a service which is incalculable, and his name deserves to shine with honour.

I’ll also confess to a personal stake, as someone dear to me beyond any words found Hawking an inspirational figure, and indeed recently completed a school project on him.

If she some day gravitates towards a career in science, and goes on to encounter exciting unknowns, then it will have had something fundamental to do with Stephen Hawking, and the same, no doubt, will be true of many who are children today.

May he be at peace!

Life Lessons In The Swimming Pool

I recently gave into progress and started going to the swimming pool and sauna. There’s a profusion of them out our way now, one of the few concrete legacies, apart from homelessness, abandoned houses and galaxy sized corruption, of Ireland’s short lived economic boom.

I wasn’t really paying attention back then, so I’ve no idea when saunas and steam rooms became things that were no longer the exclusive purview of athletes, narcissists and people from Scandinavia. I couldn’t get why it was that the rest of us needed to be interested in them too.

I still don’t get it, really, but there are times when you have to just give in and go along with the rest of the swimsuit clad herd.

And I suppose they’re not entirely unpleasant either. There is something about stepping into water and telling most of gravity to naff off for a while, let the liquid deal with it.

Since I’m a bit of an expert now, I fancy that I prefer saunas to steam rooms. Surviving the steam room is an exercise in proving yourself, in demonstrating your enduring, healthy boy credentials. I am tough enough to wear these trunks. Oh you better believe it!

You park your moist butt on those heated tiles, experience your senses being pummelled by waves of heat which feel oddly like caresses from some seriously drunk prizefighter. By comparison, the sauna is like a country saunter, a mere breeze.

And all of that intricate sweating is supposed to be incredibly good for you too, though I’ve no idea why.

The quick shower in the changing room afterwards is also a must, apparently, though again I’m a little hazy about the reasoning. After all, you’ve already been in contact with huge amounts of water, whether in the pool or in the form of vapour.

Maybe it’s just about revelling for a few hours in that feeling of being spectacularly, unbelievably clean, although there is the less kind possibility that it’s actually about trying to get rid of some of the nasty swimming pool bugs that have adhered themselves to your skin.

The pool is usually pretty deserted, which suits me fine. Most of these Celtic Tiger edifices are deserted, like enigmatic mausoleums left behind by some weird old ancient culture that might have been visited by aliens.

The economic dogma which dictated that every hotel had to have a swimming pool, steam room and sauna didn’t specify how you were supposed to attract enough bodies to make them pay for themselves. It just sort of assumed, in the best traditions of Adam Smith style mysticism, that ‘if you build it, they will come.’

They didn’t, but the facilities are still there anyway, because just like banks and merchant banker robber scumbags, you’ve got to have saunas and swimming pools. My place tries to compensate, I think, by keeping the lighting dim. This presumably saves a few bob, and suits me just fine as well.

I’d have felt a certain reticence about using such facilities when I was younger. It is a curious paradox, at least for people of my age, that we get less shy about our bodies as we get older, when, presumably, displaying them is even less of a good idea than it used to be.

Maybe it’s just that we don’t care any more, or maybe it’s because that ever so caring Lady Experience has shown us that people are so fundamentally weird and nuts anyway that almost nothing you can do, say or display is ever going to stand out that much.

Even so, the changing room is still a weird experience. The very small clientele at the facility I frequent features a fair few rural types, who are apt to stare at you in hostile befuddlement, in much the same way as when you enter a country pub for the first time.

I haven’t quite worked out what to do when a naked man pauses the process of towelling himself down to stare at you in a way which implies he suspects you of stealing his cattle, but I presume I’ll work it out eventually.

As you prepare for entry into the pool and the other inner rites, the changing room takes on an aspect of almost monastic gloom. It feels like a sort of departure lounge for its almost naked penitents. I pass uncertainly over the wet tiled floor, eyes downcast in order to avoid slipping or meeting the eyes of one of the naked farmers.

Like most religious rituals, it is to do with passage from one state to another: entry into the realm of water. They say our bodies feel most at home inside water, but I’ve never quite worked that one out either, perhaps my genes are just too damn evolved.

Still though, it’s a nice, pleasingly pointless way of spending an hour or so, and you do feel – a la the religious thing – so incredibly cleansed afterwards, though of course that doesn’t last long.

How To Grow Your Own Celebrities

They keep looking for new angles to prolong the Reality TV thing. They used to just lock people up in houses or abandon them in jungles, but it seems viewers are finally, miraculously getting tired of that sort of thing, so newer, ever more ingeniously vacuous concepts have to be dreamed up.

People stuck in elevators, people marrying their sisters, people attempting to marry their sisters while stuck in elevators; even, hilariously but successfully, people sitting watching other Reality shows on their televisions.

Like a particularly resilient superbug, Reality TV keeps altering the outer surface of its DNA to avoid extermination. On this side of the Atlantic, Britain’s Channel 4 has always been the leading evangelist for ‘TV about nothing.’ It seems there’s nothing in this vein they’re not willing to at least try.

The most recent batch of such programmes involves ‘celebrities’ with embarrassing tattoos they want removed, or ‘celebrities’ looking to propagate themselves by mating with equally minor ‘celebrities’ or ‘celebrities’ talking about embarrassing rashes or warts they want investigated, or whatever. You get the picture.

There’s just one snag with all this, however. Finding myself trapped with one of these programmes the other week, I determined to try and make the best of it, only inciting the rage of my companion by making death noises every three or four seconds, which I thought was pretty reasonable.

The programme opened with taglines about each of the participating ‘celebs,’ presumably intended to jog the sluggish memories of the viewers. These ran something like: ‘Brick Moss is the heavily tattooed hunk who was engaged to Stefanie Scrofula before falling for the satanic charms of Nazi Page 3 girl Adolfa,’ or ‘Vanessa Brainmuncher is a self-confessed man eater who’s feeling a little hungry. Will there be any of Brick left after tonight?’

The other person in the room turned to me after some of this and asked ‘have you ever heard of any of these people?’

I shook my head. ‘Not a one.’

Now, I fully accept that some of this might be to do with the fact that I don’t keep abreast of the ten cent magazines or other Reality shows where these people have presumably made what passes for their names, but doesn’t the term ‘celebrity’ imply that some actual people might be aware of who you are?

‘Celebrity’ has become like ‘genius.’ It’s a word that’s thrown around with far too much promiscuous abandon, usually for economic reasons. After all, if some of these people are genuine ‘celebrities,’ then surely so is the guy who caused a bit of a scene down the pub last week by emerging from the toilets with his trousers severely unfastened.

Bargain basement celebrity was invented partly to sell tabloid newspapers and supermarket women’s magazines, and also to provide a kind of hook for the ever mutating bug colonies that comprise Reality TV programming. These outlets need fake celebrity in the same way gun manufacturers need spineless politicians.

Let’s face it, modern media is now so weak that really important celebrities are pretty much insulated against embarrassing disclosures, unless they’re actually arrested for something. A decent scandal involving someone of genuine note crops up only every year or so. That’s nowhere near enough to sell all those tabloids and magazines.

Likewise, if you’re a genuinely talented and lucky person who has actually achieved fame for some valid reason, then why on Earth would you go on ‘Celebrity shorts being eaten by bugs’ or ‘Celebrity Embarrassing Wart Removal’? You’d want to be at least as insane and masochistic as the people who actually go on these shows.

So Reality TV and supermarket magazines invent fake celebrities because they need them. They need all that willing psychic cannon fodder, that utter lack of anything approaching self-awareness.

And the real reason, by the way, that Reality TV isn’t going away anytime soon isn’t because people like it, but because it is so fantastically cheap to make. You don’t have to pay pesky creative types like writers, directors or actors, or even, God forbid, journalists and researchers. Many of the actual participants are so desperate for any form of fame that they’re probably even paying the TV company.

But it occurs to me: why bother bestowing fake celebrity at all? Why not streamline the process even further by making up your own, entirely fictitious celebrities? After all, the number of people who can confidently point out ‘that’s not a real celebrity’ is getting smaller all the time. Trust me: nobody’s going to know.

It would be process akin to what big, rock playing radio stations used to do in the States in the 1950’s and 60’s. The guy hosting the early evening show might be called ‘Martin Marvellous’ or something, and whenever he quit or died of too much moonshine, they’d simply get another guy and call him ‘Martin Marvellous’ instead.

Think of it, if I populate my new show, ‘Celebrity Cretins watch flies try to score dates while crawling up a wall,’ with characters like ‘Mel Bodkin: she’s a medieval sort of shemale who likes confinement and hideous pantaloons,’ or maybe ‘Gary Absent, he’s the dashing, upper class playboy who once drank the entire contents of an elephant,’ or even ‘Dirk Twiddle, he might have the odd spot of bother doing up his shoelaces but he’s the Reality TV sensation who delights everyone, everywhere with his ability to vomit anywhere, anytime, on demand,’ then who on Earth is going to know that I’m making any of it up?

By the by, I think the main reason Reality TV has never done it for me is that the stakes aren’t high enough. If these people care that much about fake fame, then they should be willing to put their lives on the line. Commit to your goal. Show us you care. Stop pussyfooting around.

I’ve thought for a while that regular death tolls would add greatly to the allure of Reality TV. Looks like the writer of ‘The Hunger Games’ thought exactly the same, the only difference between us being that she made several truckloads of money with the idea.