Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: January 2012

‘The Companion’: chapter 16 (content warning: rude words)

My name is Waverley Diggle.  I lied about my age to get onto this ship: I’m only fifteen.  I must be the youngest person on board. 

Yesterday, all over the ship, there were Hallowe’en parties.  I went to one.  I am sure it was the coolest of the lot.  Kelvin Stark was there.  He had brought out a new beer.  It was amazing.  He calls it Satan’s Wee, and it’s green.  I don’t know what he puts in it to make it like that.  I think it is some kind of herb.  It tastes a bit like that pale green stuff you used to get in Indian restaurants, back on Earth.  The foam on the top is green as well.  It looked revolting at first, but loads of people were drinking it.  I love this ship, and the people on it.  They let me do almost anything I like, including drinking beer.  I had four pints and was quite pissed, but I didn’t throw up.

I am sure we had the spookiest location.  We had the party in the Farm, in the temperate zone, near the trees.    It was fairly dark, and some-one had put up Hallowe’en-style decorations, like nooses and spiders’ webs and skulls hanging from the trees.   I didn’t have a costume (I just went in my work-clothes) but some of the ones that the other guests were wearing were really fancy.  Some of them had rubber masks on.  I have no idea where they got them.  You could not tell who a lot of people were underneath their masks, but I recognised one of the Frankensteins – it must have been Mr Holt, the engineer, because he was the tallest.  He won the competition for the best costume.  He had real bolts on each side of his neck.  They must have been from his workshop.  Kelvin Stark was dressed as a mad scientist.  He had a big white wig which made him look like that professor guy you always used to see in black-and-white pictures on adverts back on Earth.  He had a great big test tube with some bubbling liquid in the bottom and smoke coming out of it.  When you got your beer, the barman dropped some little pellets in it to make it bubble and smoke like the test tube. 

Before the music started, Kelvin Stark did a kind of show with weird science stuff in it.  He got a great big cake, and everybody thought he was going to cut it up and give slices of it to a few  of us, but he put it on a big table and then poured some blue liquid over it from a flask which he held with huge, long tongs.  He stood next to a kind of glass wall, and then he put a lighted match on the end of a long pole, and touched it to the cake.  It went up in flames in a split-second.  It absolutely burnt like fuck: I’ve never seen anything like it.  The flames were so high that they singed some of the leaves on the trees.  It was a good job he had some fire-extinguishers nearby.  He did the same thing with a massive pile of what looked like cotton-wool.  It didn’t burn that time.  There was a strange kind of thudding noise, and a puff of smoke, and the cotton-wool exploded.  The air was filled with millions and millions of bits of fluff, which floated around and then fell on the people.  It made us all look as if we were a hundred years old.  Just about the only person who didn’t get covered was Kelvin Stark himself, because he had sheltered behind his glass wall. 

We had some food, and another drink, and then the music started.  It was while the music was on that the fight broke out. 

Kelvin Stark was dancing on his own to begin with, and then a big group of women came up to him.  They were dressed in shiny red and black dresses and they had really high shoes on.  Some of them were wearing black makeup, like goths.  They looked as if they had had quite a lot to drink.  They kept trying to talk to him, but he looked as if he just wanted to dance on his own.  He kept looking at a really normal-looking woman who was sitting down and wasn’t wearing fancy dress.  After a few minutes, another woman came over.  She was wearing a devil costume.  She had a long red tail and horns.  I would have expected the costume to come with a big red fork, but she was carrying a camera instead.  The women in the shiny dresses kept trying to talk to Kelvin Stark, and one of them started rubbing herself against him, which he didn’t seem to like.  I thought the woman was quite fanciable, but you could tell she was pissed, because she kept swaying from side-to-side.  The woman in the devil costume then started taking photographs.  As she took more and more photographs, the women in the shiny dresses got more and more rude.  One of them flashed her tits.  Another flashed her bum, and you could even see a bit of her fanny, but only from the back.  Her bum had a tattoo of a flower on it.  Then they started trying to kiss Kelvin Stark and pull his clothes off.  That was when it kicked off.  The normal-looking woman shot out of her seat and ran onto the dance-floor.  She was followed by another woman: a chubby woman who was wearing a boiler-suit and a belt with tools on it.  I thought she was going to whack one of the shiny women with a hammer, but she just tried to pull them away from Kelvin Stark, and the normal woman did, too.  They both got hit in the face.  The normal woman had no expression on her face, but the other one looked really angry.  A full-blown cat-fight broke out.  The normal woman grabbed the camera, chucked it on the floor, and stamped on it.  It was smashed to smithereens, and the devil woman got really mad.  A load of other people arrived, and managed to split them up eventually. 

I think the women in the fight are in trouble now.  I think they have got to go to court.  They’re going to get well done.  There’s a prison on this ship.  I spent the night in it once, after I’d got pissed and threw up in one of the corridors.  It’s well uncomfortable. 

I hope I’m not called as a witness: I’m not a grasser.

WT-G may be on the radio twice in one day

I have just had a call from BBC Radio 4’s ‘Feedback’ and have made a short recording over the phone which they expect to broadcast in the next programme (unless there is a major incident and it gets bumped).  ‘Feedback’ is on at 16:30 GMT on Friday 3 February and 20:00 GMT on Sunday 5 February.  It is available via www.bbc.co.uk as usual.

Sunday 5 February is of course also the day when I will be appearing on Gaia Holmes’s programme on Radio Phoenix from 4 to 6pm GMT.  www.phoenixfm.co.uk

‘The Companion’: chapter 15

My name is Cerise Vallance, and I am in a bad mood at the moment.  I have just had to ditch the name of my online publication.  I had called it My Lips Are Sealed, and I got some-one to do quite a stylish graphic of a Cupid’s bow mouth with a finger raised in front of it.  You know – as if saying ‘Shhh!’  The intention was to associate the product with the idea of secrecy and confidentiality.  I know that seems silly for a gossip-magazine, but the consuming public is like that: irrational.

Anyway, I recently made an alarming discovery about the name.  I was trying to get an interview with Kelvin Stark.  I have been trying for months, and this time I thought I had cracked it.  I tracked him down to the laundromat, of all places. He had a machine on the go, and he was in the middle of some ironing, and so I had him cornered.  I started to interview him, and he seemed more co-operative than  usual, but my pleasure quickly wore off because he would not stop sniggering in a way that I thought was surprisingly ill-mannered.  I broke off in the middle of a sentence.

‘Is anything the matter?’

‘Nothing; nothing; nothing.  Nothing at all.’  But he carried on sniggering.  I gave him a sideways look.  ‘Your e-paper is called My Lips Are Sealed, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, it is.  Why?’

‘Do you know that it has acquired an alternative title?’

‘No, I didn’t know that.  What is it?’

My Flaps Are Stuck Together.’  I must admit that it was difficult to go on with the interview after that, but I did my best to keep my composure.  I put a note in my diary to launch a competition among the readers to find a new name. 

‘Are you seeing any-one at the moment?’

‘You mean in the Biblical sense?’





‘No what?’

‘No, Ma’am.’

‘I mean: what you are saying is that you are not seeing any-one at the moment.’

‘Yes.  That is what I am saying.’

‘What about Prudence Tadlow?’

‘What about Prudence Tadlow?’

‘Are you seeing her?’


‘Have you seen her in the past?’


‘But you aren’t seeing her now.’


‘What happened?’

‘She finished with me.’ 

‘Why the hell.  Er.  Why did she do that?’

‘She said I had too much on my mind.  She said she believed that I was not serious about a relationship with her, because I was thinking about another woman.’

‘Another woman on the spaceship?’

‘No.  Another woman back on Earth.’

‘Who is she?’

‘I’m not telling you.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s private.’

That was all I got out of him.  I did not push him too hard because he seemed to have outgrown his habit of talking complete nonsense every time I asked him a question and I did not want him to revert to his silliness in future interviews.  I charge a small payment for my publication, and if I could get an interview with Kelvin at least once a month, it would double my circulation. 

I sent Prudence an email summarising what Kelvin had said and asking her if it was true.  Her reply simply said, ‘Yes’, which was rude and uncalled-for but perfectly acceptable for the story.  PRUDE DUMPS KELVIN was the next edition’s headline, with a sub-head of She said he had mystery girlfriend back on Earth.  Circulation went up thirty per cent in one week. 


I have been Pamela Collins for over a year now, and I feel less comfortable in her skin now than I did when I first created her, back on Earth.  She is serving her purpose well enough, I suppose.  People look past her and through her as if she were one of those machines they had on Earth in railway stations and hospitals to clean the floor.  I think that is one of the reasons I decided to start the language classes: not just to have some kind of controlled contact with Kelvin, but to get some acknowledgment from my fellow passengers that I could do something that they could not do. 

I am trying to select a science officer among the crew to cultivate.  I have been taking radiation readings since we set off, and they have been rising recently.  I would have taken some gravimetric readings to see what large masses were nearby, but the ship’s compensators would invalidate them.  All I can do is work out the relative intensity of different kinds of particle, to see if it suggests anything about the source.  I just want to make sure that the crew knows as much as I know, but without alerting them to how I found it out.  One idea would be to use my 3D-printer to make an array of particle-detectors, the point being that I would get into less trouble for being a human being who has smuggled a 3D-printer than for being an android.  Even so, this would take quite a long time.  I hope this phenomenon dies down.  It takes a lot more radiation to harm me than it does a human, but I don’t want Kelvin’s balls to lose their potency.  Horace may need a little sister some day. 

I have seen Kelvin talking to a tall chap who I think is Chief Engineer Holt.  He might be worth getting to know. 

If the first year we spent in this tin can was one of settling-in, the second year seems set to be one of frivolity and silliness.  According to the ship’s artificial, Earth-based calendar, in two weeks it will be Hallowe’en.  Somebody suggested that we have a party, and the idea has caused mass hysteria.  Pamela has been advertising a costume-making service (I fear for the new colony’s wardrobe: it seems that hardly any-one on this vessel can sew).  I have been cheating by embellishing the costumes with pieces made by the 3D-printer.  These are only made out of dye and plastic beads, and don’t take very long to finish.  So far, I have made ten zombies, eleven Frankenstein’s monsters, six Draculas, five wolf-men, nine demons, four Grim Reapers, three Phantoms of the Opera, and a mad scientist.  The mad scientist is for Kelvin, and is the only one of its kind I will make.  Apart from a lab-coat, which he already owned, and a mask with a wig, there is very little to it.  Most of the part will just be Kelvin’s acting naturally.


I have no idea who thought of this party idea, but I am claiming it was mine.  It is going to be great for my circulation.  I have decided to use it as an opportunity to re-launch the publication, and so I need to have decided on a new name by then.  There has been a trickle of suggestions coming in via the competition, but they have been disappointingly dull.  The name needs to have plenty of pizzazz, and it must be innuendo-proof.  All potential references to unwashed genitalia are strictly off-limits. 

It is rumoured that Kelvin will be bringing out a Hallowe’en-themed beer for the party.  I must find out if that is true.  If it is, I might ask him if he wants me to promote it for him.  I am hoping for lots of drunken debauchery.  If I am lucky, Kelvin will get off with some-one new, and if I hit the jackpot, it will be some-one really good-looking who knows how to handle publicity. 


I wish that ridiculous Vallance woman would stop referring to me as “Prude” on her horrible website.  If she goes much further, I think Judge Fitzgerald may be hearing the ship’s first action for defamation. 


The Ian McMillan Orchestra

I hate those idiotic star ratings that we get in the newspapers nowadays.  I hate delegating expressing an opinion to some-one else. 

This evening The Jays and I went to see The Ian McMillan Orchestra at the Theatre Royal, Wakefield.  It was an experience that will stay with me for a very long time, but if you want to know what you would think of this ensemble, you are going to have to see them for yourself. 

This message is mainly for Ian McMillan himself.  I went up to him during the interval in the performance and told him that I will be appearing on Gaia Holmes’s programme on Radio Phoenix on 5 February at 16:00 GMT.  I mentioned that the theme of the programme is “Renewal” and I asked if he had any ideas or suggestions arising from that theme. 

Ian can comment on this posting, or reply to the email I sent to his website, if he likes. 

You can contact “The Ian McMillan Orchestra” on Facebook or follow it on Twitter @ianmcmillanorch

‘The Companion’: chapter 14 (sexual references)

My name is James Holt.  I am the ship’s Chief Engineer.  Dr Stark has asked me to  write an article for his intranet site which explains how the ship’s propulsion system works.  My heart sank when he told me this was not allowed to contain any equations and must be written in language that an idiot could understand.

I would say that there are two important principles to grasp. 

The first, and the easier one, is how the ship’s power plant generates energy.  Our fuel tank is full of liquid methane which we scooped from the surface of Titan.  We heat this up until the methane molecules fall apart and we get carbon (which we don’t need) and hydrogen.  The hydrogen atoms go into a nuclear fusion reactor at very high temperature, where they join together to form helium.  This process generates an enormous amount of energy.  The contents of the fusion reactor are held inside a very strong magnetic field, which is what stops them from flying in all directions and vaporising the ship.  The energy from the fusion reactor is used to power all the ship’s systems, from the air-conditioning and lighting to the propulsion unit. 

Inside the propulsion unit is the device on which our entire ability to reach another solar system is based.  A conventional rocket works by throwing material out of the back of it, and thereby generating forward motion by the reaction against the stuff that is thrown out.  Our vessel (which I will refer to by its unofficial title of The Irish Rover, since that is what everybody calls it) does not work like that.  I will try to explain how it does work by some analogies. 

Imagine that space-time is a pool of water.  Imagine also that the ship is like an aquatic creature living in that pool of water.  The aquatic creature sucks water into itself and then squirts it out the back, thus driving itself forward.  So does the ship, except that the stuff it squirts is not water: it is space-time.  Consider another analogy.  You are a man trying to get across a large room to a chair on the other side.  The room has a very loosely-laid rug on the floor.  The rug represents space-time.  You can either walk across the rug to get to the chair, which is how vehicles such as cars, aeroplanes and conventional rockets travel, or you can grab the rug and pull it towards you.  What we are doing now is analogous to doing both: we are both flying towards our destination, and pulling ourselves towards it at the same time.  Each little bit of space-time that we compress immediately relaxes back to its original state after we have gone over it but, by that time, we have moved a bit closer to our destination and that is all we are concerned about.

Dr Stark asked me to say how fast we are travelling.  We reached our maximum speed some time ago, and are currently travelling at about 0.9 of the speed of light.  We re-use the same technology that the ship’s motor relies on to control gravity and inertia and thereby prevent the occupants of the ship from being crushed to death.  If all the systems on board are working properly, the only people who can tell we are moving at all are those who can see an instrument panel or an astrodome (and access to both is restricted to senior members of the crew). 

Our speed is not the only thing that determines how long it will take for us to reach our destination.  The real distance of 19.4 light years between Earth and the Achird system will seem much less because of the effect I have described.  To an observer on board the ship, the journey will appear to take about four years. 

Dr Stark has also asked me to explain the changes that the ship will undergo when we prepare to land on Achird-gamma, but I will save that for when we are much nearer our destination.


My French tutor is called Pamela Collins, and she is a good teacher: very patient.  She has one rule, which is that no spoken English at all is allowed in class.  If we don’t understand something, we have to express our lack of understanding in French.  There are about ten people in the class, all of about the same ability.  When I am not contributing, I look at Pamela and try to work out what she is about.  I cannot decide whether she is asexual, or the world’s worst lesbian, or just very neglectful of her appearance.  Her clothes look like industrial cleaning rags that have been sewn back together.  

Since I started attending her classes, I have noticed that she seems to have gravitated towards me in the refectory and the bar.  She doesn’t speak to me.  She doesn’t speak to anybody, but I have started to notice that she is there.  I tend to speak French more enthusiastically when I am slightly drunk.  If I engage her in conversation, she answers, but as soon as I stop, she stops.  She doesn’t drink much, either.  If it weren’t for her language ability, she would be completely unremarkable.  I can’t even visualise what she looks like when she is having an orgasm.  The only thing that Pamela has in common with Violet is the way she writes the letter f. 

Last night we had a party to celebrate one year on board the ship, and Pamela was there as usual, but still did not contribute any merriment.  I thought for one moment that I had seen a tear fall from her eye, but I may have imagined it.        


That party last night was awful.  It was the worst I have felt since I was wearing the wedding dress at the St Martin’s Lane Hotel.  Kelvin, whether he was conscious of it or not, was basking in the glow of his celebrity.  Men were slapping him on the back and shaking his hand, and women were fluttering their eyelashes at him and swooning.  It was nauseating.  You used to be able to rely on Kelvin to behave like a surly teenager on such occasions, and be cold, distant, and uncommunicative.  He used to have no interest in what any-one else said, or did, or thought.  Too much adoration seems to be re-shaping him into a public figure, and I don’t like it.  The only other person who seems to see through him is Prude.  I must admit she went up slightly in my estimation after she made that formal complaint about me.  I have even removed all my surveillance devices from her cabin.  I don’t feel threatened by her any more.

Among all the drinking and dancing last night, the thought that I could not suppress and which made me saddest of all was about Horace.  I allowed myself another little peek at “him”, all four cells of “him”.  For “his” sake, I hope the planet we are heading for turns out to be habitable.  I sometimes look at Kelvin and wonder why we could not have stayed at home.  I remembered the night Horace was conceived, and I allowed myself another tear.  I did feel better for a moment.  I at least had a moment of clarity: I stood up, oxidised all of what little alcohol I had drunk, did a large acetaldehyde-smelling burp into the face of the person next to me, and went back to my cabin.  I lay on my bunk, waiting for the sound of Kelvin returning to his, which he did somewhat unsteadily about three hours later.  I can see him as well as hear him if I want, but it is somehow more compelling and often funnier just to listen. 

He was singing The Wild Rover when he fell through the cabin door, slammed it shut behind him, and tottered into the bathroom.  He remembered to brush his teeth and drink his two tumblers of water (and he still has not worked out why he gets worse hangovers since he stopped living with me).  He took his clothes off, which was quite a struggle, and dropped them all on the floor. I happen to know that his cabin is on Pamela’s job-sheet for tomorrow, and so she might be picking them up.  He crawled into bed, and his singing gradually quietened.  After a while, I thought I could hear him crying again.  He said something, but it was so quiet that, even after applying various transformations to the data, I still can’t make it out.

WT-G to appear on internet radio 05/02/2012 16:00-18:00

Radio Phoenix is broadcast from Halifax, West Yorkshire on 96.7 FM.  If you don’t live near Halifax, you can listen to it on the internet.  Visit  www.phoenixfm.co.uk and click on ‘Listen Live’. 

The show will be on Sunday 5 February 2012, from 4pm to 6pm.  It is broadcast live.  It is called ‘Themes for Dreamers’, and is hosted by the poet and tutor, Gaia Holmes. 

The theme of this edition of the programme will be ‘Renewal’.  The programme features an eclectic mixture of music (rock, jazz, folk, world, classical), poetry, and conversation. 

I am a recently-converted listener to this programme, and I find it to be the perfect antidote to everything I don’t like about mainstream radio.  This is radio based on quality of content, not on presentation style or the propagation of earworms. 

Let’s hope that I do considerably better at this than I did on ‘Brain of Britain’ on BBC Radio 4.  At least if Gaia asks me a question I don’t know the answer to, I’ll be able to just make something up.

Gaia Holmes has a new collection of poetry coming out in (I think) April 2012.  I expect more details of this will appear on the programme.  Gaia’s poem ‘It’ is possibly the best poem I have ever read.

‘The Companion’: chapter 13

My name is Prudence Tadlow.  I am a hydro-geologist by training, which means that I am unable to work at the moment, because I have not got a planet to study.  I have been given a job in “The Farm”, which is what we call the ship’s food production area.  The work is surprisingly absorbing. 

When I signed up for this venture (I can’t bring myself to mention its official title – it is quite cringe-worthy) I feared that being confined in a space-ship for several years would be boring.  So far, it has been quite the opposite.  In a matter of weeks, I have started and finished a relationship with Kelvin Stark himself, and acquired a stalker.

When Kelvin asked me if I wanted to go for a coffee, I thought he just meant that I looked tired and needed a break: I thought he meant “go for a coffee” on my own.  But he meant a date.  He asked me a lot of questions about geology, and I found myself having to dredge stuff up from my undergraduate course.  I don’t think I have been asked so many academic questions since my PhD viva.  Later conversations revealed that he had absorbed everything I said.  Talking to him is like trying to swim through treacle.  I ask him what I believe is a plain and simple question.  “Do you like heavy metal?” would be a good example.  First of all, there is no reaction.  I am just about to repeat it, because I am convinced he has not heard me, when he decides to respond.  “Do you mean the music or do you mean in the chemical sense?”  I laugh.  He looks at me.  I look at him and realise he is serious.  About half an hour later, if we are lucky, we have established that he likes some heavy metal.  Sometimes it is like talking to a robot, at least until you move him onto a subject he is passionate about.  He told me that he used to have a therapist on Earth who told him he might have Asperger’s Syndrome.  I was not surprised. 

We had dinner in the refectory a few times, and went for some walks under the trees.  When he finally made his move, he was a surprisingly good kisser and then became quite physically demonstrative.  When he started to express himself with his body, his ability to convey his feelings in words seemed to diminish even further.  I am very wary of men with emotional baggage, and he was evasive the first few times I asked him about his previous relationships.  He mentioned a “Lieutenant Thorn”, and I thought for one doom-laden moment that he was bi-sexual, but the “Lieutenant” turned out to be a woman.  They split up just before we left Earth, and the alarm bells started to ring.  I am convinced he is not over her. 

One night when we had had quite a lot of Kelvin’s own beer to drink (that Black Mischief stuff is quite nice if you put blackcurrant cordial in it) he admitted that on Earth he had had a “companion android”.  I have never seen one of those things, but I have always considered that the word “companion” is in the same category as the word “escort”.   I eventually got him to admit that he used to have sex with it.  I think this is weird.  It put me off him a bit, but it was the fact that he still seems to have his mind on some-one else that made me decide to finish with him.  He took the news with complete detachment.  All he said was, “This is a new experience for me.  No-one has ever dumped me before.  Can we still be friends?”  Completely contrary to my better judgement, I said that we could.

My stalker had already started by then.  She is a tallish woman with mousy hair.  She cleans cabins, but she is a passenger and not a member of the crew.  At first I could not work out if she was following Kelvin or following me, but now I know it is me.   If she does not stop soon, I am going to have to say something to her.  I don’t know what her problem is.  I have never seen her socialising with any-one.  In fact, I had never noticed her at all until I realised she was tailing me. 

A few people expressed surprise when they found out I had ended it with Kelvin.  A strange woman called Cerise Vallance asked me some very intrusive questions, including what Kelvin was like in bed.  I told her to go and boil her head.  If she writes anything about me in that ghastly e-paper of hers, I will not be at all pleased. 


Doctor Prudence Tadlow has dumped me.  I am sorry about this, but not heartbroken.  I still get to see her around the Farm.  I realised after we broke up that I am not very good company at the moment, because my mind is on some-one else. 

I miss Violet.  I think about her while I am lying in bed, and sometimes I miss her so much it makes me cry.  I have never regretted anything in my life so much as I regret leaving her behind.  Looking back, I cannot remember why I decided to do it.  I immerse myself in activity, to stop myself from thinking about Violet.  I have started a brewing and distilling business which is doing very well.  I potter around the Farm. I practice the guitar.  I have seen an advert on the intranet for language tuition, and I will probably sign up for that.  But none of this stops me from thinking about her when I am on my own.  I was so comfortable talking to her: everything flowed, and felt natural.  Talking to Prudence was interesting, but it felt alien sometimes.  She wanted me to talk to her the way she talks, not the way I talk.  She kept asking me if I had heard her, when I always had, but I was thinking before speaking.  Violet never did that. 

Wherever Violet is, I hope she is not as miserable as I am.  I can’t bear the thought of her with another legal owner.  I am sure she is living on her own somewhere.  I hope she is happier than I am. 


Kelvin has been crying himself to sleep for the past few nights.  I can’t make it out.  It seems incredible that breaking up with Prude would have upset him so much.  I wish he would talk more.  When he is on his own, he usually keeps up a running commentary on everything he is doing.  He refers to himself as “we”.  It’s funny.  But these episodes of tearfulness have been infuriatingly non-vocal. 

Pamela has put an advertisement on the intranet for language classes (French and Spanish). 


‘The Companion’: chapter 12 (rude words and sexual references)

Pamela has started hanging around “The Farm”.   This is the nearest thing that the ship has to a large, open space.  Most of the food production is done by machines.  They scoot along on rails in between huge trays of plants and lights which are stacked close together, just wide enough apart for the plant they are growing to reach the required height.  We certainly have a varied diet of vegetables and fruit.  The commodities we lack which cause the most complaints are cocoa and rice.  We even have tea and coffee growing onboard.  There are no weeds and no pests, but the machines plant, water, feed, monitor, and harvest (but the tea has to be sorted by hand after the machine has cut it).  The lowest level of The Farm is suitable for people to work in, and is also a place of leisure.  It is a bit like visiting a huge garden centre, except that the light from above is artificial (we get all the energy we need from the fusion reactor in the ship’s power plant). 

Passengers and crew are encouraged to visit the farm as often as possible, as a means of avoiding depression.  It is divided into “climatic zones”, and this is mainly for the benefit of the humans rather than the plants.  There are three “forests”: tropical, temperate, and coniferous.  These have occasional, artificial rain, and the coniferous one has snowstorms.  Kelvin has started publishing the schedule for these precipitation events in The Rover, under the heading “Weather”.  There is a myth circulating that these trees are necessary to generate our oxygen, which I happen to know is not true.  I sometimes go into one of the forests and hide for long periods, watching out for copulating couples.  I have not seen Kelvin yet, but I happen to know that the ship’s male captain is having a clandestine relationship with a male nurse from the sick bay. 

Kelvin’s favourite spot seems to be the fishpond.  This is where they breed the carp which are our main source of protein. Like the agricultural area, most of it is automated and utilitarian, but part of it is landscaped and used as a place of relaxation.  There is an oriental-style bridge under a weeping willow tree that Kelvin and Prude like to stand on when they are at their soppiest and most nauseatingly sentimental.  I am pleased to note that Kelvin always seems to be stone-cold sober during these trysts.  One of the ship’s regulations says that it is an offence punishable by three days in the brig to dispose of waste in the fishpond (and this specifically includes pissing or shitting in it). 

It would  be particularly embarrassing for Kelvin to be found committing such an offence.  As well as being well-known for his partial authorship of the mission that we have embarked on, he is also frequently seen in the public gallery in the ship’s law court.  I must admit that I enjoy attending court sessions as well.  The best ones are those presided over by Judge Fitzgerald.  He is a florid-faced Australian lawyer with silver hair, a beer-belly, a loud voice, and a perfect knack for allowing counsel, accused and audience to have their fun without ever losing his grip on the proceedings.  The prosecutor is usually a woman called Cecily Johnson.  She is well-spoken, conscientious, and has an impeccable academic record, but is also inexperienced, unworldly and idealistic.  During the hearing of a recent case of alleged public indecency, she broke the first rule of advocacy (never ask a question to which you do not know the answer) and had to ask one of the witnesses what “felching” was.  There was hushed silence among the audience.  The witness’s answer (which was so word-perfect that it could have been read from the Oxford English Dictionary) produced uproar which even Judge Fitzgerald took several minutes to quell.  Counsellor Johnson’s well-bred, ivory cheekbones turned bright crimson.  This case left quite an impression on Pamela, because I had been hiding in the tropical forest where it took place, and it looked at one point as if I might be identified and ordered to be appear as a witness. 

Half the crime on the ship is due to drunkenness, and this is partly Kelvin’s fault (a fact for which he assumes no moral responsibility whatsoever).  The ship has its own currency (which is expected to continue in circulation after we land).  Kelvin has started investing by renting growing-space in The Farm, and manufacturing-space in The Factory (the portion of the ship where most of the workshops are).  He grows barley and hops.  The barley he makes into malt which, with the hops, he then makes into beer.  More recently, he has also started making whisky.  Thus far, his whisky has been good for little more than removing stains, but his beers are excellent, and in great demand.  He is already getting a return on his investment and, if he keeps on like this, he will already be wealthy by the time we reach our destination. 

He is even showing signs of a flair for marketing.  His first product was a bottled beer, a dark mild (3.5 per cent alcohol) with a full-bodied, sweet, nutty flavour and a chocolatey finish.  He called it Black Mischief, and promoted it by, among other things, serialising Evelyn Waugh’s novel (from which he had stolen the title) in The Rover.  Sales of the beer and the hit-rate on The Rover’s website both went up at the same time.  Black Mischief is now established as the drink that many people have at the beginning of a session: too much of it is considered to be overly dehydrating.  In pursuit of something lighter and more refreshing, he came up with a pale ale which is almost like lager.  He called this Light Brigade.  The label has a picture of men on horseback and cannons, and the slogan “C’est magnifique, mais c’est n’est pas la-geeer”.  Pseuds buy it because they think this is clever, and the rest of us buy it because it tastes good and is 5 per cent alcohol.  I believe he is working on some others, but he wisely spends time getting the recipe just right and assessing demand before going to market.    

Apart from semi-public sex, litigation, and getting drunk, another shipboard pastime (I won’t call it entertainment) is learning to drive.  In the era when we left Earth, cars drove themselves, or were driven remotely by powerful, central computers.  No such system will exist when we arrive (until we can build one ourselves) and so we are having to resort to old-fashioned methods.  We have a number of government surplus vehicles which people are encouraged to learn to drive in one of the empty cargo-bays.  This was mildly amusing at first but, once you have seen one person cursing after reversing into a pile of packing cases, the amusement soon wears off.  Driving a vehicle is something that my algorithmic brain is particularly good at, but I pretend to get it wrong sometimes, just to maintain my cover.

Ostensibly to earn money, I have volunteered as a chamber-maid. All the passengers have to have jobs.  This caused consternation at first, particularly among the academicians of the more abstruse subjects.  Egyptologists and orientalists (who are well-represented among the colonists, mainly at Kelvin’s behest) are allowed to work in their chosen field, as long as they can get people to pay to attend lectures.  A handful of them have succeeded in this, but most have failed.  Given its size and complexity, the ship has a crew which is surprisingly small in number.  Nearly all of them are employed in keeping it moving, pointing it in the right direction, and making sure that it does not strike any obstruction.  The passengers are supposed to be responsible for, among other things, keeping the living quarters and food preparation areas clean.  They have had trouble recruiting cleaners and “cabin refreshment operatives” (maids).  As soon as I heard this, I abandoned all my schemes to do with picking locks and scrambling cam-feeds.  In my role as maid, I can go almost anywhere unnoticed.  I am currently deciding whether it is worth systematically bugging all fifty-thousand cabins, or if that would just be taking a passion for thoroughness a bit far.  I don’t have that many microphones or cams, but I have my 3D printers in my luggage container (which we are allowed to access while we are travelling) and so I can make as many as I want.  It took a few days before I was given a worksheet which included Prude’s room, and a few days more before I got into Kelvin’s, but I have them both under surveillance now.  This has made shipboard life much more interesting (and sick-making).

He has had his leg over, at long last.

Holmes’s first words to Watson

It is quite obvious from recent analytics for this blog that there is little point in my posting anything other than items about ‘Sherlock’ (not that that will stop me from continuing to serialise ‘The Companion’).  Feel free to post any more theories about how Sherlock survived the apparent fall at the end of the last series.  

I have just opened an old copy of ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’, and looked at the first story, which is ‘The Empty House’. 

Reading the first two or three pages conveys very clearly the difference between the original stories and the BBC adaptation.  I don’t know if sales of the Conan Doyle’s books have gone up because of the recent publicity but, if they have, I think that many new readers will be disappointed.  Life has changed since 1905.  (I know that ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’ was set in 1894 but it was published in 1905).  Literature has changed since accordingly.  Contemporary readers want the opening sentence and the opening paragraph to grab them by the throat.  They want every word of every sentence to convey something important to the story.  On the whole, they want a narrative to be like an SAS raid: they want it to get in, do the job, and get out again as efficiently as possible.  Most readers want the story to give them themselves.  I don’t think the original stories do that any more. 

The question which jumps off the page at me when I look at ‘The Empty House’ is, “What will Holmes’s first words to Watson be when he reveals that he is still alive?”   It is quite certain that they will not be the words which appear in the original.  Holmes has disguised himself as an elderly bookseller, but takes off his disguise while Watson’s back is turned.  Watson faints (which is a possibility in the adaptation).  Holmes then says, “My dear Watson, I owe you a thousand apologies.  I had no idea you would be so affected.”  I am not saying these words are too archaic for our Holmes to say them: I am saying that they are completely out of character for the character of Holmes that Benedict Cumberbatch portrays.  

The worst news about series 3 is that it is unlikely to be ready until at least near the end of 2012, because both Cumberbatch and Freeman are working on films.  Freeman is among the cast of – of all things – ‘The Hobbit’.  What a tragedy that our grown-up, complex, contemporary, hard-edged enjoyment should be postponed for the sake of a grossly over-rated ruralist fantasy about a bloke with hairy feet who goes on a camping holiday.  

Would anybody care to speculate on which stories will be chosen to be adapted for the next series, and what Holmes’s first words to Watson will be?

‘The Companion’: chapter 11 (four-letter words)

Kelvin is going to hate this: he is scared of heights.  Small groups of us are taken up in a lift.  All we can see is the metal cage around us, and the grey, metallic, curved skin of the craft we are about to board.  The lift veers from side-to-side in the wind, which is uncomfortably warm.  The only illumination comes from flood-lights on the ground, which is just enough for me to be able to see my hand in front of my face, but destroys all sense of scale.  My internal aneroid barometer thinks we have ascended about 18 metres. 

We had been hurried into a hut by mute, uniformed figures.  Inside, we changed into our flight-suits.  We gaped at each other, trying to work out what we were supposed to do, and which fastening went where.  After the ascent in the lift, we are now hurried again to our “seats”, which seem to be covered in foam padding at least a foot thick.  We are strapped in.  The lift descends for the last time.  The door closes.  We are in virtual darkness and surrounded by the low murmurs of confined humanity.  We stay like this for what must seem to the others like hours, but which I know is just thirty-seven minutes, and then the engines are ignited.  The vibration is terrifying, but the take-off seems worse.  We rise with ponderous slowness, and then accelerate to the point where the force is crushing and any movement, including breathing, seems impossible.  I use one of my tricks and switch over to anaerobic operation for a while.  I go into a dormant state until we dock, by which time we are weightless. 

If the last craft we were on was a cattle-truck, the one we have just boarded is a hotel.  This is a good thing, because I believe we are going to be stuck in here for several years.  I can’t see outside, but gravity behaves normally: up is up, and down is down, and things which are denser than air descend if you drop them.  The passage I am being conducted along looks remarkably like that on a ship, with framed doors on each side, mats riveted to the floor, and lights in the ceiling.  I am escorted into a lift, with a member of the crew and nine other passengers.  There is a great deal of  metal in the surrounding structures, and so I doubt if I would be able to detect Kelvin now, even if he arrived still wearing one of my fabric microphone-transmitters.  One of my fellow passengers, who seems very nervous, is humming a tune which I recognise as “The Irish Rover”.  That is what I am going to call this vessel. 

I am now in my cabin.  It is small, but habitable.  There is a single bed and a desk, both fixed to the floor; two upright chairs; a bookcase; a chest of drawers; a wardrobe, and door which leads to a small bathroom.  The desk is equipped with some kind of computer workstation, which I have not tried to use yet, and on the walls are digital screens which seem to be showing some kind of tasteless slideshow, which I must see about changing.  First we have a picture of a camel with the Pyramids in the background at sunset.  Now we have a vintage car driving along a winding mountain road.  Now a lighthouse with waves crashing on the rocks below it.  I touch the screen and a menu appears.  One of the options is “Mirror”.  I choose that one, and it does what you would expect it to.  That is much better.   

‘My name is Pamela Collins.  My name is Pamela Collins,’ I say to myself silently into the mirror, over and over again.  I look at my reflection, and think, ‘Why doesn’t she put some make-up on?’ but that is undisciplined, and I must change.  I must put more effort into becoming Pamela.  Pamela is my friend.  Pamela is going to enable me to sneak right up to Kelvin without his knowledge (when he finally drags his arse here).

Since I have nothing better to do, I make an ultrasound and electronic sweep of the room, including the bathroom,  the ceiling and inside the chest of drawers and the wardrobe.   I find nothing, except some plumbing pipes and some wires which lead to the light switches, the air-con controller, the workstation and the towel rail. 

I’m bored.

I have been here for over two days now.  I know this partly from my internal clock, but also because the lights in the cabin and the passages work on a twenty-four hour cycle, which they have now been through twice.  I was doing a survey of every part of the ship I could reach, in order to check for restricted access areas that might not be marked on the maps, and I was on the deck which is the next one above where my cabin is, and I saw Kelvin.  All his outer clothes were new, and untouched by me, but his underpants were still talking to me: I got a kind of stereo effect from his footsteps along the passage, which I could hear both externally and internally from the microphone.  I was proud of Pamela: she managed to suppress the desire to run towards him.  I followed him at a discreet distance, with stooped shoulders and gaze directed at the floor, which is how Pamela usually walks.  He did not notice me, until he got to the stairs, looked at the map, realised he had gone the wrong way, and doubled back on himself.  I walked past him, but then executed the same manoeuvre that he had.  He went up several decks to the nearest refectory.  I waited until he had filled his tray and sat down, noted that he was on his own, and then went back down the stairs to the deck with his room on it.  There is a narrow screen on the outside of each cabin-door in which the occupant can display a message.  Most of them are blank.  A few of them are lewd, suggestive, or obscene.  Kelvin’s simply says, “Dr Kelvin Philip Alexander Stark, PhD”.  Some wag with untidy, masculine handwriting had stuck a label underneath which said, “The Alpha Male”. 

Life on board ship seems to be picking up as the passengers get to know each other and their surroundings.  We have access to an intranet, on which there are various forums and electronic papers, some of which have already sunk to the depths of salacious speculation and personal insults.  Forum moderation seems to have been replaced by a feature which automatically puts the cabin number of the author against all posted items.  You can sometimes hear the resulting thumps on doors and altercations late at night. 

Kelvin started an e-paper and announced a competition to find a name for it.  I suggested The Rover, explaining the reference to my pet-name for the ship and the Irish folk song, and I won.  Kelvin sent me a very polite email of congratulation, which demonstrated that he does not suspect who I really am. 

The Rover is a strange publication.  It is published, according to Kelvin, whenever he “has enough material” (for which read, “when he feels like it”).  A small part of it is devoted to an update from the ship’s navigator on how far we have got, which nobody ever reads.  Another covers any shortages, bottlenecks, breakdowns, or standing orders to do with the running of the ship.  This is useful but boring.  There is usually a feature article about something academic, often from art or literature.  I think Kelvin chooses the subjects for these, but gets specialists to write them.  Tabloid-style prurience he leaves to other publications.  Any column inches he has left over are filled by the main driver of the circulation, which are what purport to be computer-generated articles containing pure nonsense.  Here is a recent example.

Court News.

Her Majesty the Queen Mother yesterday attended Ascot, where she was heard to belch so loudly in the Royal Enclosure that several hats were blown onto the course. The oncoming horses trampled them to fuck, reversing several times just to make sure of a thorough job. This has fanned the flames of the recent, hotly-contested investigation into race-fixing, in which it has been found that the animals themselves have instituted an arrangement whereby the one with the silliest name will always be allowed to win.  The odds have shortened considerably on “Fanny Haddockbonker The Third” for the Derby. 

Kelvin has another paramour.  Her name is Dr Prudence Tadlow.  Apart from being a stuck-up cow, she is a hydro-geologist with a PhD from Imperial College, London.  They still seem to be at the stage of getting embarrassed and mumbling to each other when they “happen” to meet, but all the signs are there.  For some stupid reason, Prude always wears a boiler suit and a utility belt, the latter very powerfully accentuating the curves of her “fuller” figure.  Kelvin also seems to have noticed that she has thick, fragrant, chestnut-brown hair, green eyes, and a very attractive, intelligent and punchable face.  They are so ridiculously awkward together, sometimes Pamela just wants to throw a packet of condoms at them.   

I was behind Prude in a crushed queue in the refectory the other day and I managed to do a quick scan around her kidney area with ultrasound.  She seems to have disgustingly healthy ovaries.  I have a good mind to draw to her attention the standing order which says that passengers must refrain from getting knocked up before we reach our destination.