Categories
Short Stories

The Plenary Speech

Ronald’s teeth had gone numb. He crouched by the front door in the gloomy hallway of his flat, staring up at the cornicing three meters above him. It was very, very dusty. His flight was in two hours and his keynote speech for UNESCO’s World Humanities Conference was in sixteen. He had yet to write it.

“I’ve got to land that fucking plane on the fucking mountain. That’s all.” He said to himself.

“That’s all.” His voice dropped off. His eyes unfocused. He turned inward.

Ronald sat there for ten minutes before bursting into tears.

He was two bumps from running dry. The little Tupperware container that he kept in his fridge now lay on the kitchen floor. For the umpteenth time he licked his finger and ran it around the small plastic oval. Ronald tried not to think about the reserve; a little foil wrap in the inside pocket of the suit jacket he used for black tie events.

He would get into that just before the taxi to the airport. The evening flight would cheese-grate his soul otherwise. In the next hour Ronald was determined to land that plane right on top of that snowy plateau. He would write that keynote. This was the plan. It was meant to be.

Fifteen minutes later Ronald tore apart the lining of his dinner jacket hunting for the wrap. It had fallen between a seam. He could feel it. His fingers burst the inner pocket trying to reach it, fraying the Bemberg silk. Ronald caught the packet between two fingers and held it up. There was no wrap. Just a paper clip around a small plastic pouch containing a spare button.

Jet engines screamed in his ears. The plane in his imagination swooped down low over granite peaks. The undercarriage perilously close to the jagged seracs of a huge glacier. It was losing engine power.

There was nothing else for it.

Ronald went into his kitchen and opened the third drawer down. It was filled with dead batteries, empty lighters and Prosecco corks. In the very back was a scuffed cassette case of the Bee Gees greatest hits. Inside that was a folded silver baggy labelled ‘Plant Food: Not for Human Consumption’.

Ronald rolled the bag between his fingertips. He could feel a hard crystalline knot inside it. Last time it had felt like salt grains. Last time hadn’t ended well either. That was why it was still here.

On the flight Ronald had a window seat. A family embarked and stood over him.

“Hey! HOWYADOIN?!” Ronald said too loudly. The father took one look at him and changed seats with his wife.

For the rest of the flight Ronald could feel the tightness in the man’s jaw and he nodded and nodded and nodded and nodded.

Down in the hotel reception Ronald felt like he presented a clear and concise case as to why he should receive a room upgrade. Beforehand, as Ronald strode off the aircraft, he had been a well oiled machine. His suitcase whirring by his side. The wheels thrumming out a staccato rhythm as though it were a snare drum announcing his presence through each domain; arrivals terminal, shuttle, hotel. Only upon entering his hotel room had grit been flicked into the bearings and Ronald raged all the way back down to the lobby.

Ronald held up his phone to the receptionist yet again. She looked nonplussed.

“There! Right there! Do you see it? What is that?”

He pointed to the photo he had taken of the vague smear on the wall next to the bedside lamp.

“I don’t know, sir.” The receptionist monotoned.

“Exactly! Exactly! You get it! Right?” Ronald stepped back, lips quivering.

He noticed the time.

“By the way your clock is fast. I can’t have been here two hours already.”

The receptionist shot him a black look as she pushed a new key card across the marble counter.

Ronald spent the next three hours leaving scathing one star reviews of the hotel on every travel website he could find. He made a point of mentioning the receptionist by name in every one, along with an obscene description of her coupling with the hotel chain’s corporate mascot. They all finished with the phrase “Needless to say I had the last laugh”.

At three thirty a.m. Ronald sat on the toilet in the bathroom of his suite. Now he could finally write that damned keynote that he was due to give in four hours.

And write he did! A brilliant call to arms about the current state of the social sciences concerning the unequal relations of power between researchers and their subjects. It would set the theme for the conference. It would be referenced at every plenary thereon and mentioned in every workshop. It would, Ronald felt, affect the very fate of the Humanities as a scientific endeavour. He couldn’t believe it. It just flowed out of him like magic. A tour de force.

The engines of the plane roared as it circled around for another pass over the massif. This time it would land. He could see the runway lighting up on the high plateau. It was clear.

Just after seven a.m. Ronald collapsed for roughly half an hour and woke up screaming.

At quarter to nine the doorman held the door to a taxi open for him. Ronald did not say thank you because his hair felt too wet.

The words of the chairperson of UNESCO’s WHC committee blah-blahed through the PA system. Ronald heard his full name and title and stood up to applause which echoed around the auditorium. The hall was at capacity. Roughly eleven hundred sets of eyes watched him. A tech clipped a microphone to his lapel and a transmitter to his belt. Ronald drank it all in. The theatre hall was a beautiful space. A modernist take on La Scala in whirling strips of undulating wood that flowed seamlessly over the walls and ceiling. Juxtaposed decorative panels marked the staircases that travelled Escher-esque between the galleries and balconies. People were still filing in. Some had to stand against the walls.

A videographer filmed him as he made his way across the plushly carpeted stage to the lectern. Ronald riffled his papers as he placed them just so. As the committee head took her seat, Ronald inclined his head in gratitude at the panel. All well respected Stone Head professors. The finest minds and shapers of the fields of sociology, anthropology and psychology. The applause swelled as he mumbled his thanks and then Ronald stood back and smiled as he surveyed the room yet again.

This was is it. He had made it. The high point of his career.

“Excelsior.” Ronald whispered under his breath.

Suddenly there was a huge explosion overhead. Ronald ducked and grabbed ahold of the lectern, clinging on to it tightly for dear life. He looked up, startled and bewildered. But there was nothing there. The wooden mosaic was still in place on the ceiling. Everyone was still watching him. Hadn’t they heard it? He looked over at the panel. They had not. A droplet of sweat dripped onto his notes. Where had it come from? He wondered. He felt cold. Someone coughed loudly. Then silence.

Ronald smiled, took a deep breath and looked down at his speech.

“You’re all a bunch of fucking parasites, studying fleas in a circus..” read the first line.

“SHIT!” Ronald almost shouted. Instead he coughed and brought a balled fist up to his mouth. He dimly heard a second explosion as the aeroplane’s wreckage impacted the stony slopes of a non-existent mountain valley. Trying hard not to flinch this time, he bit down on his knuckles.

So many faces all looking at him. Waiting.

Ronald looked up to the heavens.

From the auditorium ceiling a giant flea dressed in a singed airman’s uniform drifted gently down, swinging from a parachute harness. Their eyes met. It saluted him.

Ronald looked back down at his notes and began to read his plenary speech.

Categories
Short Stories

Rip It Up and Start Again

A sharp pain in his rear molar and Todd was tumbling through pitch black space. A hard wooden board hit him across the ribs a moment before his arms and knees impacted the carpet. Winded, Todd slid off the end table and curled up at the foot of the ottoman. Three feet to his right and it would have been a soft landing. He tried to breathe but could only manage a gurgle, though the pain in his chest distracted him from the sharp needle of hurt in the back of his mouth. Todd rolled to his knees and crawled to the corner of the room. Feeling for the edge of the porcelain sink in the dark, he used it to haul himself up to his feet and then tore down the blind.

Daylight flooded the cabin and Todd clutched his cheek. He reached for the kettle shelf, with all the fixings for hot drinks, and pulled down the jar of sugar. Muscovado. It was always muscovado with him. Some things he would not change. Todd packed the sticky brown sugar around the offending molar, two teeth from the back of his mouth, and felt instant relief. Outside the cabin’s porthole a large pink toad sat naked, reclining in a deckchair and smoking a cigar. Seeing movement it rolled it’s massive golden eyes over to him and grinned. It’s hand reached down to it’s crotch and though Todd couldn’t see it, he knew it had begun to masturbate. It’s knees wobbled. It’s massive mouth cooed into an ‘O’.

It was a Relic. He had a word for it now. Though he couldn’t quite remember what it had started as, he sure as hell wasn’t going to deal with it at this moment.

Turning away from the porthole Todd reached for the garments strewn around the cabin floor. He flicked off the dog ends that had burned holes in his wetsuit tunic and wrestled his way into it. Todd liked the way it felt tight around his torso. His fingers lingered, probing the crisp edges of the burn holes, brushing the skin beneath. After this he bulldog clipped a thin, hard towel around his waist. It didn’t quite fit all the way around him and left a split along his thigh right up to his hip. Todd didn’t mind. He’d shaved that leg especially. Then Todd put on one Wellington boot and one Flip-flop. Open and closed rubber was a consistently interesting sensation.

Todd stepped out into the garden. The relic was still at it. Todd glanced askew at the big pink toad then did his best to ignore it. Whatever desire the Relic had begun life as was now a puzzle to him. He could have consigned it to nothing but his curiosity kept it hanging around. Todd knew the answer was somewhere within himself. But like the solution to a Snakecube or a Rubix Decahedron, when Todd got to a certain point in figuring out the beast he just kept making the same bad twist.

The Relic shifted position and began doing something lewd and unspeakable. Todd frowned disapprovingly. All he could think of as he watched it was his father. He was pretty sure that was not it’s origination but damned if he get away from the thought now. Todd hurried out of the garden in need of distraction.

He looked up to the sky and considered a party and there it was. But only so he could walk through it on his way to somewhere else. He decided on a firehouse for that ‘somewhere else’. With big red shutters and a pole. Way out on a strip of land where a lighthouse would normally stand. Todd began the trek out to it.

The party was a Block party. People appeared and fell into place. Slotting neatly into a cool scene. Odd pieces jumbled up on the dance floor. Todd revelled in wilfully ignoring them as they waved and called out to him. Then he thought about what usually came next in this iteration.

Ah yes.

He would imagine her face and then he would make her so. Just to get her approval. That was all he wanted. Then he would want her gone. It was always the way. It had happened countless times since. Not only her, his sister, his brother. Everyone he had known at one stage. The Wrongs he had righted. The Scores he had settled.

Time was All Time inside the Ecived. It did not flow unceasing any longer but was instead bottled up in a cistern with Todd’s hands metaphorically manifest on the spigot and the sluice. Time for Todd was no longer unanticipated. His molar jabbed him under the sugar poultice. He winced and sucked on the tooth, testing it for hurt. Pleasure was dull numbness. Pain let him know he was still existent.

Todd was over the party now and he threw his drink into the face of the nearest guest. A stunned hush fell over the gathering. Todd smiled as the crying started behind him. He walked through a copse of plastic marijuana trees and he could not hear it any more.

Cold hair fell from a clear sky as Todd reached the firehouse. He climbed up the stairs of the drill tower until he stood on the upper deck. High up out in the open. The pelting strands stung as they struck his exposed flank and arms. The clumps itched fiercely as they clung to his skin. When Todd shook them loose they left behind curving corrugations of red chilblains. Todd scratched and scratched the welts in satisfaction as he looked out across the land and asked it what next. Then he jumped before it could answer.

Todd had long ago passed mundane ideas of perfection. He had always wished for a place by the sea so then he always had the house by the sea. Then that became houses. Then the houses under the sea. The houses in the sea and on the sea and over the sea. Now he couldn’t see the sea but the sea was there. If he cared to listen there were waves somewhere just around the corner. But what did he truly want?

A long fall was one way to answer this question. Imminent injury had a way of focusing the mind. This fall was not a long one though. Perfect futures metastasised rapidly as he plummeted towards the ground and they all had absolutely nothing to do with a soft landing.

Then it was too late and all he had was a bush. The leaves shook as he crashed into it. Todd rolled free as it began to smoulder, leaving his towel and single flip-flop behind.

“That was stupid.” He said aloud to no one.

“Really, really fucking stupid”. He lay in the sparse grass remembering the time he had crippled himself on impulse.

When Todd stood up he found he had unconsciously spewed forth a yard. A rough Autumnal space with the first scattering of fallen yellow and umber leaves amidst the mud and gravel. Cool and peaceful. A mildewed swing-seat shook in the breeze and the faint smell of smoke was in the air. Todd automatically wondered how long it was before Halloween. A deflating football and a fading Frisbee lay next to a tipped over lawn chair. Todd righted the chair, sat down in it and sighed.

Perfection was what he’d been promised with the Ecived. This garden was almost perfection. A slice of memory from his Child-horde. Taken from The Way Before he had encapsulated himself. Todd breathed in the nostalgically crisp air and remembered the times he had visited his grandparents. They had been as mountains in the summer; Pleasant, craggy, white topped, timeless and slightly ominous when clouds passed over their faces. They were always working in the yard. Always. Todd could almost hear the sound of Granpop sweeping leaves, and decided he ought to. A pleasingly rhythmic swoosh and rattle came from nowhere.

This wasn’t bad. Was it? Surely he could stand this? Perfection in this garden seemed moderately achievable. Todd just had to build it up and settle into it for a little while. Let it mould into place. Todd remembered the advice his doppelganger had given himself.

‘Think like jazz! Only by revealing your true innermost could you reach equilibrium. Then you would know true heaven!’

That son of a bitch must’ve been lying. Todd always lied to himself. As he sat there looking around Todd felt relaxed but bored. He rolled up that feeling and dropped it into the Ecived’s metonym slot. Something rattled and clunked and then Todd thought of Chicks.

Apparently that was what he needed. Not the female kind. He had done enough of that for it to get really weird. No, this time he needed something essentially sweet and comforting.

Baby chicks.

Although maybe not just chicken chicks. Something like parrot chicks. But not bitey parrot chicks. Or maybe just a little bitey. Cute bitey. He formed a picture of them and let it wander a little at the last second until they be and was and is.

And they were! Lots of them. Hundreds in fact. Small and cute. Feathery and fluffy. They did not have wings. Todd realised he disliked like things that went flap. Too frantic and panicky. Instead they had arms. Tiny, buff little arms with cute little flappy nubbins at the end instead of fingers. They surrounded him peeping gently. Clustering around his feet as he sat there in the lawn chair.

He pondered the quail. Was what they were? Or maybe quial or qauil? Or Grouse? Or maybe just Very Odd Chickens. Budgerregards. Yes that name fit best. Still. It wasn’t quite enough. In his mind Todd turned the dial up.

The birds clambered up onto him and screamed and screamed. Their feet were plump and pointy, like tiny pin cushions. They left white scratches in his skin as they skittered over his body.

Todd selected one and named it Come Fly With Me.

He winced as his mind reached into the budgerregard’s head and wrinkled up it’s brain. Increasing the surface area as much as the tiny skull could take. The bird’s eyes went wide and its beak gibbered. Todd thought he might have overdone it. Then Come Fly With Me shook its head and cuffed the others out of the way with its tiny muscular arms. It climbed up Todd’s neoprene tunic and then onto the crown of his head, clinging tightly to his scalp. It began to sing.

‘The summer wind, came blowin’ in, from across the sea..’

The rest of them began to sway in time. En masse they crooned the refrain:

‘Doo-doo-do-do-dooo—do-dooo.’

‘It lingered there, to touch your hair, an-nd walk with me..’

‘Doo-doo-do-do-dooo—-do-dooo.’

More of them now picked it up. They came scuttling from all corners of the yard. Or was it truly a yard? Could be a real garden if he let the grass grow. They all joined in. Todd, in spite of himself, felt that urge of morbid curiosity yet again. He increased their number with a stray flick of his mind giggling as thousands of them came bobbling towards him from all corners. They piled up thickly against his body until Todd was buried up to his neck in an enormous chick pyramid. It tickled. He could feel their tiny arms pummelling him gently.

Todd smiled in satisfaction. To be swept up in a smooth crooning hillock of warm budgerregards was apparently very soothing. In fact this was shaping up to be pretty gosh darn good as far sensations went. Todd could probably enjoy this for a quite a while.

Then Come Fly With Me shit on him.

It ran hot and wet and sausagey down Todd’s forehead and into his left eye. “AAH FUU..” Todd yelled and the cold inrush of air hit the cavity in his molar as he ripped it up and started again.