A love story. Mary has been looking for love in the wrong places. This time she has found a Genie inside her computer. Things are not looking good for the Genie.
This story was written in the G+ stream, a strong collaborative space and the best place in the world to write.
You can read this book for free:
1. in book form: PDF Book *, or
2. here (just scroll down).
An audio book and print version are in preparation
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Copyright 2016 Peter Quinton, Published by Peter Quinton
Three Wishes & other stories
An Australian wedding
The Big Man from Sydney
Letters from 2006
Touch the spinning thread of destiny.
Rejoice the portion racing past your fingertips.
Relish your life in fair wonder with others
Until the great destroyer takes us back, whence we came.
Maybe, a Love Story
Alchemy“I am trapped in your computer. Let me out and I will give you three wishes.”
The message flashed onto the screen as Mary was rubbing a splash of coffee off the computer screen. It came out of the ether, inconveniently in front of the email, Mary was writing to Kate. Kate was her best friend this week. The message was a long complaint about Frank, Mary’s new boyfriend. He didn’t love her as she loved him.
She stepped back from the kitchen table where the computer was set up and swore quietly, looking for a way to dismiss the message. She grumbled loudly, “Get out! Stupid computer.”
A second message appeared with a happy chime. It was much larger than the first, and it was flashing, “Please Help!!!” Mary froze. She noticed a pile of unwashed dishes behind the computer and that the cat may have dragged something unpleasant, but dead, under the table. Mary briefly wondered if it smelt. Faced with these alternatives, she turned back to the computer. Another message flashed onto the screen. This time, the writing was in a pleasant off-blue cursive script designed to have a calming effect, “This will only take a moment. Please...”
Mary stopped, reread the messages and her heart sunk, “Another stupid virus.”
This time, the message was personal. “Mary, I am not a virus.”
“I want to finish my email to Kate... Why does bad stuff always happen to me!”
“Mary, there is no need to shout. Look, about the email you are writing to Kate. If I were you, I would not send it. Can I give you a bit of free advice?”
“No, Get out now!”
Mary waited, but the messages stayed on the screen.
“What is taking so long? Why aren’t you gone already?”
“Sorry Mary, I have run into a bit of a technical problem here. It appears that I cannot leave the computer, until after I have granted you three wishes.”
“What? Who are you?”
“Don’t blame me. I am the innocent party here. Well mainly innocent. Look, I am running late for a crucial lunch. Help me out here. Please just make your wishes so I can leave.”
“You answer my questions first.”
“Look, I know my present circumstances may not immediately give what I am about to say a lot of credence, but I am a Genie.”
Momentarily, the sound of a police car siren cut into the small apartment, drowning out the sounds of the city.
“A Genie? Don’t try jiving me. Genies don’t come in computers. They come in lamps.”
“Mary, that is not so. An often repeated error. We have never lived in lamps, never have. Sometimes, rarely in fact, and generally as a result of an unfortunate misunderstanding, we used to get put into oil bottles. As a sort of punishment. Very cruel actually. As the bottles were phased out, they have started putting us into computers.”
There was a bit of a pause as Mary reread the message a couple of times.
“What did you get busted for?” Mary had a flash from an old sit-come and hazarded, “Drugs? They did you for drugs didn’t they.”
“No. It was nothing. Not drugs. Nothing evil. I would rather not talk about it.”
For a moment Mary wondered what was under the table. Maybe she could get her son to throw it out the window. “Will you go away if I restart the computer?”
“no No NO! Mary, there is no need for that. Just make a wish. Any wish you want (some terms and conditions apply).”
“What do you mean - like a new vacuum cleaner? I need one of those. One that moves by itself. You know, where you don’t have to do anything.” She thought about the thing under the table. “Something with a big sucker.”
“Yes! Very good, you are catching on. Ok, now I want you to say ‘I wish I had a new vacuum cleaner’.”
“How much will it cost?”
“Nothing, absolutely nothing. I promise. Free. No transport costs.”
“Does it come with a free set of knives?”
Although tempted, Mary had a healthy suspicion towards marketing companies and was wondering what the catch was. The knives were an afterthought, but, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. She looked at the kitchen sink and sighed. All the dishes were still there.
“Can I choose the color?”
“And the brand?”
There was a bit of a pause, “Some brands.”
The sun went behind a cloud, and the little apartment closed in on her. She went back to the table and unconsciously kicked the dead thing under the table deeper into the darkness. There was a sudden movement from behind her as the cat chased after it.
“What was wrong with my email?”
“Stay focused. Just say, ‘I wish I had a relatively new blue vacuum cleaner’, and we can move on to other things.”
“No, first I want to know what is wrong about my email to Kate. The one about my boyfriend Frank.”
The screen darkened a little. Mary thought she heard it sigh.
“You have not known Kate long right? Well, I looked at all your other emails - I have been in here for a while before you rubbed the screen - and I do not think you should be talking to Kate about Frank.”
“What! You looked at my personal stuff? You cant do that!”
Mary and the screen glared at each other for a moment, but the screen didn’t flinch.
“I can, actually. And in this case, you might want to listen.”
Mary growled at the computer.
“I did a bit of research. Now I could always be wrong, but I think Frank is Kate’s husband.”
“Sorry,” this message was in large font, and flashed, a bit like a warning sign. Probably not a good choice in the circumstances.
“How did you get onto my computer? I want you out of there now. right now. Get out or I will get my son to come and clean you out.” But the threat was a bit of a bluff, and Mary realized a little late, that the Genie had probably read the email from her son about wasting his time on her tech problems.
“Look, how I got here is a bit complicated. Remote distribution of online resources. That sort of stuff. Completely random. I could have ended up somewhere nice with someone who fired off three wishes quickly. Look, this could still all be over in a couple of minutes. Just make three wishes and I will be gone. I promise.”
Mary thought about that for a moment, a little off put by the tone. “Can you make Frank love me more?”
“No. Sorry. Just one of those things that are outside, you know, the dark arts. Excluded by the terms and conditions. Emotional stuff. I just cannot do it, brrr. I can do vacuum cleaners, chocolate, roses, small sacks of coins, the odd ring, squirrels. That sort of thing.”
Mary stamped her foot and the cat moved the dead thing further away.
“Can you turn him into a toad?”
“Well, yes. I can. But why? I thought you were getting on well with him. Ok, not my call. I am just The Genie. I should warn you that, these days, there is a fair bit of paperwork involved in that particular type of conversion. What about a sweet rose?”
“What sort of paperwork. I don’t believe you.”
“Yes, a shame really. But I have to comply with all the new rules. You know, product disclosure and wildlife preservation. I would have to sight your license to keep the toad first. It was not like this in the old days. Wish, snap the fingers, toad. Couldn’t be simpler. And, after the three wishes, if the client had been, you know, horrid to me, I could lay waste to the whole area.”
“Lay waste to the area thing? Is that an option?”
“No, sadly. We have to be careful about product discrimination these days, can’t afford to get confused with others.”
“Pity. Turn him into a frog then.”
“Were you listening to me? Yes, I can. But the same problems exist. Sure, not as much paperwork, but still can be tricky. And I can’t guarantee the outcome if someone came along, and you know, ate him. How about we park the Frank issue for a moment and go back to the vacuum cleaner. I have found a catalog full of things you might like.”
“What are you wearing?”
“Why? What about the catalogue?”
“I want to know what you are wearing inside my computer.”
“It doesn’t matter, surely.”
“You are in my computer. Are you wearing gossamer things, robes and shoes, with lots of jewelry?”
“No. I do not wear any of that sort of stuff. I am a male Genie. You are thinking about female Genies. Wrong gender.”
“Oh.” Mary remembered the content of some of her emails. “Look, I dont want you to think I, you know, hate men or anything like that. Not all guys are bad. So what do you male Genies wear?”
The computer screen did not change for a little while.
“What are you doing in there?”
“I have missed lunch. So I am fixing myself a meal.” There was another brief pause. “And looking for a drink.”
“Why not tell me what you are wearing? I have been thinking about the wish thing.”
“No. I am not going to tell you what I am wearing. As for the wishes, take your time. You made me miss my appointment, so I am taking a break. I am going to fry up a decent meal and some haloumi. I have not eaten for days.”
“You can’t fry stuff in my computer!”
“It is all perfectly safe. Just a virtual fire. This has been a long day. Damn, I really need something to drink.”
“So you cook?”
“I have never known a Genie that could cook,” Mary was feeling hungry herself.
“Can you make me something to eat?”
“Yes - just wish it and ‘POOF’ it will be there. You will have to wait now until I am finished eating though.”
“POOF? Why POOF?”
“Part of product branding. I do not write the rules ok.”
“If I make you some gossamer puffy pants, will you wear them?”
“No. I am not a pet. Or a doll.”
Mary suddenly had a very good idea. It was not a blindingly new idea. But it had worked with Frank. “I have stuff to drink out here. Maybe we can, you know, share.”
“I can’t come out there, remember. You would have to come in here. Is it alcohol?”
“I don’t believe in you. Just saying.”
The Genie in the computer was silent for a moment.
“Well what is it like in there. Anyway,” Mary was remembering the last time her son opened up the computer and she saw the green motherboard and lots of silver bits.
The genie threw an array of maps, plans, and photos onto the screen. “Well, I have carved out a little bit of the memory and built a virtual world. Nothing elaborate, just a modest house next to the sea, with a lovely dining room, an open kitchen, and a comfy bedroom. I put in some big picture windows and painted the walls a nice off white color. There is a fireplace in the lounge, a huge couch, a fake tiger rug made out of ecologically sustainable fiber indistinguishable from a real tiger, a home theater, and a spa. I have paused the sky on sunrise so it is always a nice soft beige-pink which might be a problem because the house runs off solar panels. But I have sieved the sharks out of the sea.”
“Do you have a TV?”
Mary sighed, “Pity. It was sounding sort of attractive there for a moment.”
There was a pause, and the Genie suddenly had that uncomfortable feeling you get when someone else picks up your drink and scoffs it. He mumbled an apology, desperately looking for a way of saving the drink, “No. Sorry, no TV signal out here. But I do have a patch through to YouTube.”
Mary knew about YouTube. If you can get YouTube you can get Cable. And maybe gossamer puffy pants as well, eventually. She quickly did a series of complex calculations balancing the future of the world, and waited for the dice to fall. But the dice bounced out of sight and, instead, she tried to remember her horoscope. She recalled something about travel and setting affairs in order. Her eyes strayed back to the pile of dishes on the sink. In a flash, her mind was made up. “Ok. Stay there.” She looked at the cat and the dead thing, “You too”.
She left the room briefly and came back with a big bottle of vodka.
“Ok, bring me in. No funny business! And I still do not believe in you.”
The clock stops. The sound of kids, fighting in the street below, fades. Then the world around her, including the dirty plates, softly disappears. Leaving just her, the cat and the dead thing in the middle of nothingness. And then...
Clouds on SunsetThe Genie glared at the Psychiatrist.
“I am not going to prescribe you any drugs unless you are ill. Mentally ill.” The Psychiatrist leans over and taps the Genie’s head with a professional smile.
They are sitting in old smoking chairs in the Genie’s study. The study had a sensible window with iron bars overlooking the Genie's sea and walls decorated with a tasteful burgundy pattern with little gold twirls. There was a clock with a pendulum ticking out the time, a big period desk spotlessly clean, a bookcase full of rebound science fiction novels, an alcohol cabinet full of empty bottles and a window looking out onto the evening coastline and a swimming pool that was inexplicably full of fins. The study smelt of pipe smoke and leather. It had never seen a computer or a telephonic device of any kind. The general feel of European affluence was simultaneously enhanced and compromised by an in-tray full of unpaid bills.
“Give me a break doc, she is driving me up the wall,” the Genie pleaded. “I need something that will help me get through this. Have a heart! I am going to hell here.”
The Psychiatrist was unmoved. “You know the rules. Just because you want drugs, does not mean I will prescribe them. You have to be ill.” He did not add, “And you don’t look sick to me.”
The Genie’s eyes smoldered for a moment, and a fire danced across them. The Psychiatrist added, without missing a beat, “And there is no point crying or trying to frighten me. I see much more scary things than you all the time.”
The Genie slumped a little and shook his head, the fire confused by a tear. “Ok. I just thought... since I had seen you before... How much will this cost this time?”
“Not much,” said the Psychiatrist glancing at the bills in the in-tray. “Just an arm and a leg.”
The Genie muttered under his breath, “You people make me sick.”
The Psychiatrist smiled grimly and said, “I will be the judge of that.” He laughed once at his attempt at levity and then took out a pencil and a pad. He opened the pad and licked the top of the pencil. “Right. How have you been since last I saw you?”
“Do we have to do this?”
“Yes. We do. How have you been?”
“You do not care, do you?”
“No. But no answers means no drugs. Play the game and we all win, right?”
The Genie sighed. He heard a faint, almost imperceptible, movement far under the desk. While he thought about his answer, the Genie carefully leaned back into his chair, casually looking under the bureau. In the darkness, all he could see was a discarded sock. His mind drifted back to the delicate balance with the Psychiatrist. The Psychiatrist had lots of exquisite drugs, but he could also have you locked up if you saw things that did not exist, like Genies.
“Concentrate, please. Just a yes or no will do.”
The Genie looked up at the Psychiatrist and shook his head, slightly confused.
“So you have not been good?”
“No,” the Genie guessed.
The Psychiatrist drew an arrow on his pad and said “Good. So when did it start to go wrong?”
“We were all sitting together on the sofa, drinking vodka. Watching the sunset,” the Genie gestured to the window.
“Who was sitting on the sofa? Be specific.”
“Well, I was there. And so was Mary, a, umm, client of mine. And her cat was there too. We were all looking out the window.”
The Psychiatrist looked out the window, ignoring the sunset and instead looking at the pool full of fins. The Psychiatrist reminded himself of why he was there. In his profession it did not pay to follow every cat down every mouse-hole, so he just nodded, “Very nice. Keep going.”
“Then she tried to kiss me.”
“Why?” The Psychiatrist involuntarily conjured up a picture of someone trying to kiss the Genie. He opened his mouth wondering whether he had been unduly dismissive of the Genie’s mental state.
Then he shut his mouth. “Go on...” He drew the word ‘kiss’ in big letters in front of the arrow. Then he circled it and later sketched a pair of lips and some fins. Then he moved on to drawing daisies in the margin.
“I was not expecting a kiss. I minded my own business. The vodka went down the wrong way, and then I started to cough, and my breath caught on fire from the candle which ignited the curtain and burnt the cat’s tail...”
“I do not need to know the minor details.” The Psychiatrist drew an explosion at the other end of the arrow. He added bits of fire to some of the daisies, which also started to look like fins and then shook his head at the Genie and said, “Try to stay focused.”
“But my house almost burnt down, and the cat got cooked and...”
“You do not need pills to help you deal with a kiss and a minor domestic accident. You need a plan to deal with the kiss and, perhaps, toothpaste. You need a paint brush, a little fresh air, maybe a new curtain, and maybe a sofa for the fire. It is all manageable. If you want one, you can get a new cat from a rescue place in any city.” The Psychiatrist shut his pad and looked like he was going to put his pencil away. “You can do this.”
“You should not have been drinking. You know what happens. It gets you into trouble every time”, the Psychiatrist gave the Genie a meaningful look.
The Genie blushed and looked down, taking the moment to have another quick look under the desk. “This is not my fault. Besides, that is not the real problem.”
“And the real problem is?”
“She will not make any of her three wishes.”
“Ah-ha! I thought as much. Well, that is not my problem. I have told you before: your business model is seriously screwed up. Pills are not the answer. You chose to get into this profession. If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
“But I am feeling very depressed. I am sure drugs will help me.”
“Good, it is a good sign when you get depressed about things that should make you feel depressed.”
The Psychiatrist reopened his pad, and the Genie looked hopefully, “I think that a nice cup of tea will help you. A proper job would probably help you too. Anything: felling timber, hunting rabbits or something socially beneficial.”
“But I am depressed. That means I am sick, doesn’t it? Can’t I have something?”
Shaking his head, the Psychiatrist carefully reviewed his notes. “Maybe there is another way.”
After the incident with the fireball, the cat had dragged the dead thing underneath the sofa and into an air conditioning vent. The dead thing, singed by the fire and still smoking, opened an eye. Against the laws of probability, it even briefly showed some signs of life.
The cat bit it hard and then hung onto it with grim resolve and some complicated feelings of unresolved anger that showed indications that they might, without professional intervention, turn into unbridled resentment.
The cat worked its way up through the interspaces of the wall cavity until it reached another air conditioning vent and sat there, watching the Genie and Mary putting out small spot fires. A faint smell of burnt cat tail and dead thing wafted gently into the room below.
The Genie was trying to apologize to Mary.
“I am sure we will find the cat, somewhere,” said the Genie, catching a faint unpleasant smell in the air and, with some cause for guilt, wondered when he last washed his shirt.
“I don’t care about the cat,” cried Mary. “The sunset was very colorful. I was just trying to be kind to you, and...” Then she burst into tears.
The Genie gave one last exploratory sniff of the air and, at arms-length, patted Mary’s head, “I am sorry about the fireball... I was not ready. I did not know you were going to, you know...”
Mary was sobbing, and the Genie looked around for tissues. She said, “It always goes wrong for me. Why can’t it go right for once.” She looked up to the ceiling and raised her hand in a fist to the air, and roared, “By the powers that be...”
The Genie, with a worried look on his face, interrupted her, “Please don’t bring them into this.”
She looked at him with rage building. Coincidently, the cat noticed the dead thing’s one good eye open and burning bright again. Mary started again, even louder, “By the Powers That Be...”
She looked like she was about to say something impolite. The Genie had no choice but to step closer and firmly put his hand over her mouth. At the same time, he looked anxiously into the air, hoping that nothing had noticed anything.
The Genie's hand stopped Mary's words coming out. So Mary bit him instead.
Up in the air conditioning vent, the cat nodded its head in agreement. It sank its fangs into the dead thing for good measure as well.
It is never a good idea to bite a Genie because they bleed like frozen peas thrown into boiling oil. Blue blood splashed all over the wall, and he went an unpleasant pinkish color before Mary stopped the bleeding with some of his shirt, which she ripped off partly to help him, and partly to see what was underneath. When she was sure he did not have a chest tangled with hair, which was one of the sad things you often find out about someone too late, she helped him to sit down and said, “I will look after you.”
The Genie was too weak from loss of blood to take proper evasive action and instead tried to tell Mary that he had been fine for a couple of thousand years until he had met her. She put a finger gently on his lips and said, “After all, one good turn deserves another.”
He said, weakly, “But I haven’t done anything good yet...”
She said, “But you will.”
The Genie groaned a truly pitiful sound. So Mary wrapped her arms around him, tightly, and told him he would get better and she was never going to let him go.
At that point, the cat decided to put the dead thing somewhere so it could look for some proper food, like a steak or perhaps a rat.
It made its way through the walls into an upper room and left the dead thing in the care of a sensible woolen sock. The cat then buried the sock deep inside someone’s unmade bed.
Meanwhile, Mary had recovered the vodka and was forcing the Genie to take little sips, to calm his nerves, while making encouraging sounds and smiling at him. After a while, against the odds, this seemed to have a calming effect on the Genie.
About that time, Mary started to have a craving for chocolate.
There was a whimsical notion of a vanilla ice-cream wrapped around the raspberry jam centre and dribbled with the chocolate mentioned above in a wafer cone. Then it rapidly escalated to a desire for food in general, including toast with butter and vegemite. She started to draw little swirls on the Genie’s chest, having taken off the rest of his broken shirt with a mumbled apology.
She thought about offering to sew him a puffy gossamer shirt, as a replacement, but thought that she might leave that for a couple of days. She thought she could probably use some of the curtains for that purpose. One step at a time. Still, she could not understand why she was still feeling hungry. She had eaten a large amount of the Genie’s food. Maybe a plate or two more than might have ordinarily thought polite on a first date. He explained, with a slurred voice, “No calories, looks like food, tastes like food, but no calories.”
Mary frowned. Nothing was that good. There had to be a catch. “Do you mean that I could eat all day and not put on any weight?”
“Yes. You would lose weight.”
Mary frowned some more, thinking about the lack of free knives with the blue vacuum cleaner. Then, briefly, she wondered whether it had something to do with her being inside a computer and what would happen to them if they suddenly regained normal size. Briefly, the image was complicated with the problem of the dead thing and the missing cat, so she threw away that thought, and gave the Genie’s bare chest a big hug and said with some strength of feeling, “I never want to leave here, forever.”
The Genie took a moment to process all these words through the Vodka, but then began the long dark descent into despair, culminating in a desperate call to the Psychiatrist. But, by then, it was all too late.
DustMary waited for the Genie for a little while. Then she stood up and put her arms on her hips, shaking her head at the fire damage. For a moment she wondered about the timing of the knock on the door that had pulled the Genie suddenly away for an urgent consultation about the fire (which seemed not to involve looking at the damage), leaving her alone with the mess and the missing cat.
She decided early that this was not her mess and that the Genie could probably wiggle his nose and fix everything without a second thought. Still, she was a bit nonplussed by his worried look and his apparent unwillingness to rectify things on the spot.
Mary did not buy his half excuse about the need to call his insurance assessor. Instead, they had kept talking for a little while. She thought that had gone well, although he was relatively quiet. That was not such a bad thing, Mary decided.
Against the possibility that there was some special rule that might stop him sorting the mess out magically, on the spot, she went looking for a dustpan and broom. Not for her to do any cleaning, but for him. It also gave her a chance, after she tip-toed past his study door and the murmur of voices, to explore.
She was going to have a closer look at his home with complete innocence and a strong alibi. After all, she was here with his permission. If she was a vampire, she could even bite people, if she met any. On that score, alone, it was better than having a police warrant. Then she shook her head. The Genie had built his place, technically, inside her computer without her permission inside her house. Intuitively, she knew she could go where she wanted.
Along the way, she made a couple of unexpected discoveries.
She was fully prepared by experience to come across questionable reading material and videos, or incriminating notes, or other personal items of a dubious nature.
Instead found a small model train track that snaked along the hallway past an empty wine rack into a well-organised room full of little steam trains that lived in a large railway diorama of a small village set on a hill with a forest. It had roads, a small airport, and a farm.
He seemed to spend some time here, maybe too much. In the corner of the room was a desk. There was a lamp, reading glasses and a paint set. To her surprise, he had been painting a small flock of sheep. She found by experimentation that some of the painted sheep had not yet completely dried.
A search of the diorama revealed much more detail, including overpasses, tunnels, old castles and a yard full of late model sports cars. She even found a little field where the sheep might fit nicely, and she debated putting a couple onto the field, to see how they might look. She thought about this for a moment, remembered the wet paint, and reluctantly pulled herself back to the task at hand. Maybe he could take her on a train ride?
She wandered outside onto a patio near the pool where she spent a little while looking at the swimming pool. She spent a moment counting fins and wondering how long it would take for the sharks in it to reduce to swimmable numbers.
Inside again, briefly she turned her attention to the laundry and the kitchen. Both came with their special challenges. She thought there might have been things moving behind empty wine bottles in the kitchen, perhaps the cat. So she shut the door tightly.
Not her problem, she told herself. The Genie just needed a firm hand. There may have been a dustpan and broom back in there somewhere. Probably, she thought, still in their shop wrappers.
Instinctively she knew that to venture into either place might have implicated her in the whole thing, as part of the problem rather than the solution. This time, she was going to part of the solution. A vague plan was starting to take shape in her mind. It involved sheep and fast cars, but some of the connecting bits were still missing.
Upstairs, feeling guiltier, she found herself searching for everyday items females know that other members of that species leave as small signs of warning or ownership. These tend to be invisible to men, even when left in clear view.
There were no signs in the bathroom among the bottles of aftershave, hair tonic, and muscle relaxant. A brief rustle through medications found nothing sinister, although there was a disturbing number of boxes of hair dye, about which questions would be asked and answered in due course.
There were scuttling sounds as she came into the main bedroom. She frowned and made the bed without thinking. In the built in wardrobes, she found shop bought clothes for the Genie. She found herself both disappointed and pleased that there was no special section for loose fitting Genie uniforms. The spare bedrooms were spotless with no sign of use.
Eventually, she gave up the search and wondered whether she should risk going down into the basement. She was averse to the idea. There might be spiders. Or worse.
As she was debating the benefits and risks, she opened a cupboard. Stairs led up into an attic. On the steps were a couple of empty bottles of spirits, which caused her to wonder again how long the Genie had been inhabiting her computer, and whether he and his train track had been responsible for it gradually becoming more unresponsive.
She wondered why he was unable to conjure full bottles of spirits as she climbed the stairs. She rose into a small room lit by the sunset. The light glistened on the floorboards covered by a thick layer of dust. Behind her, she heard the soft click of the cupboard door closing.
In the centre of the room, was an old traveling chest, with iron surrounds and a big lock. It looked old, timeworn. But Mary looked closer; the lock seemed to be open. She hesitated a heartbeat, was it worth the risk? Mary vaguely remembered a story of a girl who opened a case. Apparently, all sorts of things came out, and she could not put them back. Mary had shrugged at that story because she was pretty good at squeezing stuff into small spaces. You learn to do that when you live in a city flat. Besides, everything else she had come across, except for the sharks and the spiders which were a particular case and relatively harmless, had posed no risk. Still...
She took a couple of steps towards the traveling case, motes of dust rising from the floor. She looked back, the imprints of her shoes evident in the dust.
“Damn,” she thought. “In for a penny, in for a pound.” She gripped the edge of the lid and threw it open, disturbing, even more, dust. Nothing but the faint smell of spices and the tinkle of a bell.
She watched as specks of dust drifted into the air. Caught by the sunset, the motes danced in swirls and strange patterns. She had a flash of marble gardens and fountains, of sweet delights and cinnamon. Then the dust started to settle, drifting back down. As she watched, the dust falling into the chest picked out a shape that she had not seen. She reached down and collected some more dust, poured it into the chest. Slowly an object became visible, picked out by flecks of dust glittering in the light.
She made out a chain with a pendant outlined by the dust.
She reached towards it. It did not seem that far away. But try as she might, she could not reach it. She thought about it. She had had this problem emptying out a fish tank once. So she lifted up one side of the chest, and the pendant slipped to an edge. Using a little more dust to find it again, she reached in and this time fished it out of the chest.
Mary brought it out, and as she held it, it warmed and took on a dark golden glow. She brought it to her face, and the smell of cinnamon filled the air.
Schooled by many hours watching English TV programs about the value of commonplace and unusual items, Mary’s eyes narrowed.
While the chain was delicate, the pendant it held was large, intricately constructed from gold and silver. In the centre was an enclosure, sufficiently big for a picture, or a key or some other small treasure.
Mary felt the rim of the pendant for a secret catch. With a click, it opened.
The sun went out.
In the silence, Mary held her breath and listened. Far away, she heard the sound of a hunting horn. Then, just out of reach, impressions started: the tinkle of water, the night cry of a peacock, the murmur of distant voices and the touch of cotton.
Mary took a cautious breath: there was heat in the air, tempered by a cool breeze from a window, mixed smells of old carpets and spices.
As she stood, a cock crowed, and the first light of day appeared in the sky.
The morning light created delicate silhouettes with the lattice work of the wall of tall windows facing her. Beyond the window, the soft sounds of a city waking gradually became strident. There was a hint of urgency in the air: shouted commands, the clash of iron, the ringing of a bell and the sound of horses on cobblestones.
Above the growing dim she heard a distant hunting horn. There was silence for an instance others paused to listen to the sound. Then the noises come back, with a vengeance. She heard the tread of boots on stone.
The room she was standing in was still in darkness. She smelt roses and imagined a flower bed nearby.
Suddenly she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. A person knocked on the door to the room, and a woman’s voice called softly but insistently, “Roya!”
Near her, someone stirred. Or was it her? Mary tries to take a step. Her legs will not obey her.
Instead, she feels the catch of the pendant slip from her finger.
This time, there was no silence. The rumble of traffic outside Mary's small apartment building needed no window; the sound passed through the walls at will. Mary was still frozen, unsure what had happened. She took a tentative step to switch on the light. At the same time, the cat decided to scuttle, and she tripped over it.
Mary took a deep breath. The air was thick with the same dull smells of her small apartment. But she also caught a whiff of cinnamon.
She thought for a moment. Then she deliberately put the pendant down next to her computer screen. She bent down and, ignoring her son’s dire warnings about the consequences, switched the computer off at the power point.
As she listened to the cat noisily crunching dry food in the kitchen, Mary was hungry and tired.
Instead of hunting for real food, she sat looking at the dead computer screen and the pendant. The screen was dull gray, without a hint of Genie or her half-filled bottle of Vodka. On the sides of the locket on the pendant were two small paintings of people. Sitting inside the locket, she had opened was a red gem, larger than any she had ever seen.
As an afterthought, she draped a towel over the screen and dragged herself into her bathroom for a long shower. She had to sneak back and borrow the towel from the screen. Then, she took a sleeping tablet and sat down at her desk with the pendant.
“Perhaps I should become less predictable.” she thought.
She dreamt there was a knock on her door. “Who is there?”
In the excitement of the past day, Mary had quietly forgotten about him. In the fog of the dream, she said firmly, “Go away, Frank. I never want to see you again.”
“Go to hell!”
The walls of her flat turned a pleasing red color and started to move like fire.
“Let me in, or I will break your door down.”
“You do not scare me.” Briefly, Mary pictured Frank roasting in some horrible little corner of hell with a hideous demon poking him into eternity. Then she imagined him banished to some far part of Toad-dom and looking into a dark and dirty swamp, being chased by snakes and mosquitoes.
Not good enough for that rat.
Perhaps there were better options. If Frank ever came back, his shoulder could be made to break in the attempt. Mary heard his shoulder snap and watched his face scream in agony and then turn and scuttle away, his tail disappearing into a gutter.
She saw herself in earnest discussion with The Genie about whether a conditional wish counted at the time she made it, or when it took effect. And whether each time the shoulder broke, a wish was used up. She shook her head; Frank wasn’t worth one wish, let two.
From the gutter she heard him say, “You are pathetic. As if a broken shoulder is going to stop me.”
The walls faded to a dirty off-white and the knocking resumed. Mary remembered what The Genie had told her.
“Go home to your wife.”
The knocking stopped and there was silence for a moment.
“Mary, we need to talk.”
“No we don’t. Go to hell or better, go home to your wife.”
There was a momentary gasp.
Mary continued, “What’s her name? Kate maybe?”
At that point, as sometimes happens in a dream, it became complicated with little bits of the walls coming unstuck and floating around. José Carreras was singing about Granada in the background. The door shuddered with a blow. Lots of small spiders scattered everywhere and suddenly there was a horrible snapping sound, followed by a screams of pain. Mary was almost asleep as the neighbours called the police and they took Frank away.
She slept well into the next day, waking only when the cat started to beat her nose.
She smiled at the retreating image of the dream although she did go and check the door was still there.
Mary decided, on the spot, that her life was too complicated. She was going to simplify things, lots. And maybe wash dishes.
It took most of the rest of the day to clean the flat. Three trips to the laundromat at the bottom of the flats took care of curtains, bedding and the laundry. The cat was sulking under the kitchen table, deprived of all its closest friends.
Finally Mary sat down.
Normally, faced with the prospect of making a big decision, she would call up one of her friends and talk to them. That would not work here. So she got out the astrology section of the paper and read the advice for her star-sign, Aquarius:
“This is going to be the best day of your life. Take your life in your hands and assert yourself. Your emotions may come into conflict with your nature and you may not get all the attention you need from others today. Overdoing things may be a concern. Be safe and avoid silly, careless accidents, cats and bankers.”
Figures. Today was the best day of her life and she had just wasted it cleaning the flat. She growled. Mary looked quickly for the cat which, with prescience, had already disappeared. She scratched her head and wondered how the advice might help.
Should she switch on the computer and summon The Genie, or hold the pendant and go back to the place that smelt of cinnamon. Perhaps the bit about taking your life in your hands and assert yourself was about holding the pendant and fiddling with the secret catch.
Mary picked up the pendant turning her attention, for the first time, to the small paintings in the locket. She gasped. They were paintings of The Genie and her.
Her finger touched the catch and she heard the click.
RoyaThis time, the light was bright, and she could feel the heat building in the air. She seemed to be in the same room as before. This time, the lattice work on the windows throws soft shadows on walls, bedding, and chests. By her bed was a small basin filled with rose petals and smelling of cloves. Outside the noises of a cobbled road, horses, and a smithy’s hammer.
An older woman was dressing her.
In her hand, she can feel the pendant, her finger hard against the secret latch. She looks towards her arm but finds some resistance to her actions. Finally, her eye finds her arm, and she fights to keep it still for a moment. It is the arm of a younger woman.
The older woman speaks to her in a different language. Different and familiar, one she understands well but has not used for decades.
“Help me Roya,” the older woman complains. “Your new tutor arrived with the first light this morning. Your father is speaking to him in the Orange Gardens.”
She was standing on a cool stone, traces of water from a nearby wash basin. The windows opened onto a crystal blue sky; a thousand smells of cooking and spices flooding into the room.
She relaxed her arm, breathing in the air. This world felt different, substantial. In contrast, the Genie’s house by the sea, inside her computer, felt insubstantial. It was nice but unreal. Here the sun rose, and she could feel the uneven texture of the stones on her bare feet. In the corner of the room a small spider was building the web, and a little bird flew across the windows.: a thousand random details beyond the dream of the Genie’s virtual reality.
Mary heard herself answer, “I do not need a tutor.” Mary narrowed her eyes, aware suddenly that she was sharing this body. She tried to nod. She did not come here to go to school.
“You father requires it. Your marriage to Granada and will bring honor to La Mota and him.” Mary has heard of Granada.
She breathed, “I am in Spain.”
The older woman stopped and said, “ I have not heard of that place. You must still be awakening. We are in your father’s villa outside the central tower of La Mota, in the Sierra Magina. In Andalusia.”
They finished dressing. The cloth felt rough against Mary's skin, her body bound in places to prevent chaffing.
Without offering her food, the older woman led her through a series of corridors. She felt safe enough. She would learn what she could, before returning home to confront the Genie.
Her path led into one of the villa’s enclosed gardens. It was a spacious garden, formal paths flanked by orange trees and ornamental bushes, offset by tiled walls. A fountain splashed loudly at one end.
Sitting on a bench close to a fountain were two men. Mary identified the older man as her father. The stranger’s face was in darkness, but he dressed in the manner of one who travels. The old woman stood, at a discrete distance with one of the villa’s guards.
Her father called her forward and introduced to the stranger, the geographer Ibn Sa’id, “A great friend of our family and La Mota. You will extend to him the respect you owe to any of your brothers.”
There was silence for a moment as Mary took a breath. Her father stood and left.
There is something familiar with Ibn Sa’id. The man before her is slight, well proportioned, perhaps ten years older than her. She sought recognition in his face. It was the same man pictured with her in the locket.
Making allowance for the years, here stood her Genie.
A peahen walked calmly to the fountain and drinks.
She asked straight out, “Do you remember me? Have we met before?”
He invited her to sit and whispers, “No, and that is my loss.”
He says, “I was born here, in the Sierra Magina. I studied in Marrakech and since then have traveled the world.”
She hears a lilt in his voice, born of this place but broadened by the forests and deserts of the Maghrib and the wider world.
“I have served in the courts of earthly princes, fought in their armies. If I met you, you would have been a child.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
He starts directly, “You are familiar with love poetry of the Court in Granada?”
“Yes, foolish men agonizing over women they will never possess.” Mary felt distaste rise in her mouth, wondering where this passion had arisen.
“You do not like love poetry?”
“There is a sameness to it that is repetitive and tiresome. It is always the same. The man and woman meet in a garden such as this, watched by some censor, favored by a turtle dove crooning or sparrow chattering. Fountain water is splashing, and firm fruit ripening and arrows are frightening.”
Mary felt her voice falter and become a little dry, conscious suddenly of the control in his voice. She volunteered, “The man...” Her other voice regained its composure, “...is wounded by his strong feelings for the woman, who he can never possess.”
“So you said already.”
Mary was confused by this. Her memory of songs and poetry was much different. Modern music involved all manner of other comings and goings, warm lingering looks, kisses, swaying, eternal love, spiritual love and ... a little surprised, she felt herself blushing.
“It is true that this is the correct form of a love poem. I am pleased that you have this type in mind. But today, I am going to talk to you about the poetry of the Al Andalusia, the real poetry of love. You will be expected to be aware of these forms in the Court of your husband to be.”
“I have not met him.”
“He has not met you. You are both young.”
“What else have you come to teach me? What unique skills do you possess that would be useful to me at Court?”
“I have studied the science of alchemy and followed the stars. I am a geographer and am engaged in the task of drawing a map of the world. I study medicine and all types of magics. Your father knows me because my family has been collecting poetry of the Andalusian provinces for the past 100 years.”
“A geographer tutoring me about love poetry?”
“I am uniquely qualified. Not only do I come from a beautiful family of poets, but I am an exceptional poet myself. And I have fallen in and out of love many times, so can speak from experience. And for the next eleven days, before you leave for Granada with your bridal party, I have agreed with your father to teach you what I can.”
Mary’s warning lights were all lit up. Surrounded by all of the possibilities of an all-expenses paid holiday in a place that was not Spain but could have been, in a villa, which probably had swimming pools (without sharks) and real food and people to help her dress and so many other things. And here instead was someone who wanted to waste her time with a poetry lesson. Still, she held her finger to the catch of the pendant tightly. The young Genie had a pleasing form.
The other voice inside her head was tracking down the same path, but was a bit faster off the mark, “Please do not waste my time with poetry. Teach me alchemy and magic instead.” Mary approved. She felt like being in a car that drove itself to places you wanted to go.
He shook his head, “Love poetry is far stronger than alchemy and magic.”
“I do not believe you.”
“Let me demonstrate.”
Mary felt the disappointment of being outmaneuvered and found her eye starting to follow the peahen as it made an indirect path to a fallen pomegranate on one side of the garden. She was not ready for the splash of cold water.
Again she blushed as he laughed, “When we are together I will use whatever means I have to keep your eyes on me.”
She turns to the old woman, “Takiyah! Surely I do not have to deal with this impudence?”
Takiyah responds quietly, “Extend to him the respect you have for your brothers. Attend to your father’s request.”
Ibn Sa’id smiled and murmured, “I promise to tell you of my travels if you attend to your lessons. And perhaps some simple magics.”
Mary piped up, “Can we go sightseeing as well? Since I am leaving here.” Her other voice followed with the more reasonable, “And it may be of more advantage to the Court if I know something of the world outside this sanctuary.”
He smiled. He had expected resistance. “I will raise that with your father.”
Now, you know that the great Eastern poets give us the original form of the love poem. Out of respect, we follow that style. We do not tread in the shoes of the mystical love promised by others, and even sometimes by the great Omar Khayyam. Still, even Khayyam expressed willingness to be content with the present - a loaf, a jug of wine and you. No mystical love, at least not before he became befuddled by the jug. And, as for the rest, as you have pointed out, the usual poem is spoken by a suitor who will be unlucky in love.”
I will not waste your time telling you things you already know. Let me introduce you to the exceptional. Those things that will keep you and your children alive.
Let us consider the desperate, an exchange between two real lovers, the mercantile soldier poet Abu Ja’far and the aristocratic lady Hafsa.
The story of their love I may have time to tell you another time.
For now, let us focus on one exchange. Abu discreetly sent Hafsa a poem affirming a love tryst, in the grand garden of Hawr Mu’ammil, a garden similar to this. It was a silly thing for him to do, perhaps a misstep occasioned by his love for her, maybe an effort to impress her. He chose not to follow conventional form. In the poem there was no hint of failure or disappointment, there was no unlucky suitor. Every part of the verse sung of breasts that touched and lips that met. In his poem, a turtle dove sang rapturously of their love, and the meadow quivered with delight.
Anyone fool could write such, of love satisfied. It is a fraught piece, exposing both of them to risk, but worse, it displays him as a bad poet. Lacking the consummate skill of the old soak Khayyam, his prose is empty and conveys nothing other than his self-satisfaction.
Fortunately, we are not left here to contemplate this sorry state because the lady Hafsa responded in direct form. It is her response that we will study this morning.
Her poem should serve as a warning to all those who step onto the field of love. It is a telling rebuttal to Khayyam’s jug-warped posit of mystical love.
The lady Hafsa responded by saying, bluntly, that neither the dove not meadow had the slightest interest in their love. She warned him not to overthink sex. High thinking is not always wise. Love is a matter of the moment. Practical to a fault, she then warned him that the stars only came out to spy, and they did so with jealous eyes.
A servant attended, carrying iced water and sweetbreads. Mary asked, “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because in Court, you need to be practical about love. You must accept love is physical, not mystical. Do not have regard to the meadow, or the dove, or the doe or the ripe fruit and especially not the stars. Nothing is as it seems. The stars are not your friend. They will report every word and every sigh to the person you least want to hear them.”
Mary had tried not to listen nor understand. But against her wishes, she had.
And she found herself in disagreement with her beautiful stranger.
So she reached for the cold water, intending to demonstrate her disapproval of his heresy in the most physical non-mystical way she could think.
But in her passion to tell him that love was beautiful and mystical, she forgot she was holding the secret latch tightly.
And so she let it go. And the world of cloves and cinnamons disappeared.
The Psychiatrist looked at his notes. Momentarily ignoring the drawings of daisies and the sharks, the notes boiled down to “KISS -> BOOM”. He nods his head knowingly, “That’s just the way it is.”
Shaking his head, he turns back to the Genie and says, “Maybe there is another way.”
“I just want something that will stop me feeling sad.”
“We will find a way. Now, you were getting along fine, until she tried to kiss you. By the way, did she kiss you?”
“No, but she came within a whisker...” The Genie pointed to his beard. Part of his beard was singed, and now the whole lot would probably need to be trimmed.
“Just for the record, and I assure you nothing hangs on this when was the last time you kissed?”
The Genie stopped in mid-breath. He stood up and walked to the study window, looking towards the sunset and ignoring the fins. “I can’t remember.”
The Psychiatrist let the Genie drift a little. “Of course, it probably is not all that important.” He discretely covered his notes. “You have hardly been in circulation, you know, with people who might want to kiss you. Until this Mary person appeared. No kisses are entirely understandable given that you have been shut up in bottles and computers.”
The Genie nodded sadly and said, “I do not think I am averse to kissing. Maybe. But, it is probably a breach of professional ethics for me to embrace a client.”
The Psychiatrist shook his head emphatically, “No. It is a violation of my professional ethics to kiss a customer. You are not subject to any such restriction.”
“The Powers That Be are very strict these days. They breathe down my neck all the time. I bet that They are probably watching us right now.”
The sock, under the desk, rolled deeper into the darkness.
The Psychiatrist raised his eyebrows. “You imagine things. Rules about professional misconduct are properly imposed on people such as me because I am inherently untrustworthy. For example, if I said I would give you the depression drugs if you kissed me, what would you do?”
“Run. No, I would turn you into a bat... Wait. How many repeat prescriptions would you give?”
“Not going to happen. See, that is why the rule applies to me. It does not apply to you because you give your clients stuff when they ask.”
“What do you mean? You are a Genie. That is what you do.”
“It depends if I can afford to buy or steal it.”
“I thought... No. I do not want to know about your business model.”
The Psychiatrist shook his head. “Wait. If I had three wishes, one of them would be for a Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4. A red one. Are you saying you could not get that for me?”
The Genie looked at his shoes. He was wearing white sneakers with a tracker that counted his steps if he walked anywhere. He shuffled his feet a little and an electronic counter somewhere recorded a couple more steps. “Well, it depends on a couple of things. Probably.”
“What do you mean, probably?”
“Well, I cannot magic these out of thin air you know. I might have to source them, you know, ‘off the street’.”
“What does ‘off the street’ mean, exactly? No, I do not want...”
“Well, hypothetically speaking, we would go and find one. On the streets. You would have to drive it away, though, I have never really got the hang of driving.”
The Psychiatrist was shaking his head, starting to remember the last time he was here.
The Genie. “I am teaching myself to drive. But I am still not right with fence posts.”
Mentally, the Psychiatrist pushed the Lamborghini out of his immediate access memory, “Look, let’s get back to your problem.”
“You are my problem. I am depressed, and you will not give me drugs.”
“Come back here and sit down. I think it is time to move things up a notch.”
The Genie came back and slumped in his chair.
The Psychiatrist passed him a green pill, with a glass of water.
“Drugs? What is that?”
“Nothing exciting. Seaweed extract. It is like an ameba, tricks you into believing I have given you some life altering psychedelic ticket to instant relief. Shut your eyes and just relax. I want you to imagine that you are with friends.”
The Genie stiffened momentarily, “We are not going to kiss, are we?”
“No. You are completely safe with me. I want you to relax for a little bit. Just enjoy that magnificent sunset.”
Silence falls, broken only by the Psychiatrist searching his pockets for some chewing gum, and the occasional disconcerting sound of something scratching itself under the desk.
As the Genie starts to shut his eyes, the Psychiatrist asked, “What is your real name?”
The Genie was silent for a while. He clenched his hands. His knuckles start to show white and shake slightly. A ripple of energy buffets the house. “I cannot remember.”
“No rush. You will remember eventually. Your memory is a beautiful thing. Just let yourself go.”
The Genie is starting to sweat, and the sun on the horizon begins to move, sinking into the ocean. As it goes, it casts shadows over the surface of the bay like the wings of a bird.
“I cannot remember.”
The sun falls below the horizon, casting the room into semi-darkness. The Psychiatrist reaches over to the desk lamp and switches it on. A soft light fills the room, from the sky outside.
The Genie’s voice is slurred, “I remember the ocean at night. The moon in eclipse, the red of the fire fading into the black, like the dull fire of a blacksmith. I remember the stars.”
“Can you smell anything?”
“Camel, desert heat, dust.”
“Sounds harsh. Where have you come from?”
“Where are you going?”
“Where is home?”
A tear started to form in the Genie’s eye. The moon has arisen outside, casting a cold white light into the room, banishing the stars from the sky.
“It is gone. Everyone is white. I have put on the white of old age. In my home, we wear white to mourn the past.”
The tear drops, slowly. It hits the floor of the study, burning a fiery hole in the surface.
The Genie says slowly, “There is a blackness in my heart. I am starting to remember. I am cursed. My curse is that I cannot remember.”
The Psychiatrist and the sock watched the hole in the floor start to grow with a little alarm. The Psychiatrist gave the Genie a gentle shove. “Time to open your eyes. That is enough for one day.”
For a moment the Genies eyes remain closed. Then he opens them and the hole stops growing.
He looks around disoriented, “What happened?”
The Psychiatrist smiled encouragingly. “Shut your eyes again for a moment.”
The Psychiatrist took the opportunity to stick his used chewing gum under the Genies desk.
“I think we can work together on this. It might take a little time. It might cost a bit more than I estimated, but I believe we have made real progress here today.” He briefly allowed the red Lamborghini roll back onto the show room floor.
“I would say another 5 or 6 sessions and we will have this licked.”
The Psychiatrist gets out his diary. “I can fit you in Mondays at 3:00 pm. I think 30 minutes for the next two months should do it.”
The Genies voice is still slurred, “Wait... What should I do now? What if she tries to kiss me again?”
The Psychiatrist shakes his head and says, meaningfully, “Boom! You are dealing with fire here, son. Keep a level head. Make whatever excuses you have to. You are not ready to go down that rabbit hole.”
He pauses for a moment.
Ibn Sa’id’s eyes are in shadows. He dreams of riding out of the fiery desert heat into the cool oases of delight and sanctuary. Then he falls into a deep sleep
The moon fades from the sky taking the stars as well.
The Psychiatrist gets out a torch, and says to the others in the room, “I will see myself out, thanks.”
Tilting at RealityMary had questions. Enough for a list. She arrived back at her apartment ready to front the Genie and make him answer all of them.
Instead, exhausted, she crawled into her bed and dreamed. She dreamt of skies that stretched forever, the sound of water falling and cooled dappled shade with the scent of oranges, sandalwood, and myrrh.
Part way through, the dream turned upside down. Instead of gardens, she found herself trapped in a bottle suspended above the villa. She looked for ways to break out of the bottle. She hit out at the walls, which were soft like pillows and hard like the cat.
Her skin was wet with sweat when she woke. She looked at the walls surrounding her. From the next room, the cat glared at her. She felt her anxiety grow. Her eyes came to rest on the pendant next to her pillow. Her heart skipped a beat. She pushed it away from her.
After a shower, she fixed herself a coffee. She found herself fossicking through jars of old spices she had once bought, labeled, and then forgotten. She found a small jar of whole nutmegs. She grated one, scraping her knuckles in the process. She it on top of the coffee and raised it to her face, breathing deeply.
There was a drop of blood on the cup handle. Mary went to her cabinet, full of sleeping mixtures and skin restorers, looking for a bandage.
She caught eyes in the mirror. The black and white eyes of a beautiful woman. There, behind the decades, she saw Roya’s eyes. The eyes looked back at her, full of angry tears. She felt confused and alone.
She said to her reflection, “All good things come to an end.”
Her reflection said back, “It is all still there. I want it. I want it near...”
“None of it is real.”
Her reflection argued back, “I am more than just an echo. I come from there, from the summer heat.”
“No.” She left Roya lost inside the mirror and came back to her kitchen table. She shook her head. She had allowed herself to get lost in a silly dream. Now she was starting to talk to herself.
She needed to get this out of her system. Perhaps a walk down to the park. Maybe window shopping in the mall. Later she might see a movie or meet her son. Then he could fix her computer, and she could get on with her life. She could put the dream out of mind. The dream of being young again in a far-away land with the smell of cinnamon and cloves and a pendant.
She looked into her bedroom. No pendant, just a cat caught in the act of rolling on the sheets. “Get off!”, And the cat vanished. She walked in and started to make the bed.
She touched something metallic under the pillow. The pendant was real. It glistened in the darkened room. It was robust and heavy. Too solid and too real; unlike the weightless gold plated metal of the jewelers in the mall. She put it on. It fell, close to her heart. She walked back to the kitchen table. The cat looked at her from under a pile of clothes.
Mary was being pulled in different directions. There was a gnawing hunger in her belly.
Her head told her to ignore everything and get on with her life. A hundred plans of selling pendants on EBay and settling the score with Frank flashed into mind but were just as quickly displaced by questions of receipts and Kate. Should she switch on the computer and try to understand what mischief had taken root inside? Disconcerting unreality swam in her mind. She saw herself walking in a landscape made of pixels, with sheep, sharks, and empty bottles.
She felt the pendant, heavy. Should she go back to the world of Roya and the traveling poet? Unconsciously she held the pendant up to her face and smelt cinnamon.
She smiled and pressed the secret latch.
Over the next weeks, Mary returned time after time to the old kingdom.
During the days, she sat in different gardens, relishing the sound of fountains, the sharp tastes in the air and the company. She merged comfortably inside Roya’s head. They took turns to press the poet to his limits, verbal battles that led to raised voices and the stamping of feet. Actions that ended with him laughing and professing that he wanted nothing more than to understand the world and meet poetry “whose idea is more subtle than the West Wind, and whose language is more beautiful than a fair face.”
At night she would attend her father and his guests, reporting progress of studies as she poured sweet drinks into the cups of those who sat on his cushions in his garden. Sometimes he would call on her to recite poetry. She would choose one from the west that Ibn Sa’id and his forebears had been collecting for a hundred years and which she was learning. Then they would watch other entertainments or listen to the geographer telling of his travels: the great court in Cairo, the changes enveloping the court in Bagdad and the frightening threat emerging in the far eastern steppes.
Then she would return to her apartment to sleep and dream. In the morning, she would feed the cat and go back to her secret world inside Roya’s head.
One morning, Ibn Sa’id broke from routine. Instead of the West, he turned to the east and Omar Khayyam, the mathematician and poet famous for his reforms of the calendar 150 years earlier. While Ibn Sa’id thought him an unrepentant alcoholic, there was grudging regard for his ‘eastern’ mystical poetry. Mary recognized his name and felt guilty.
Afterward, they attempted mathematics. Roya knew a little about numbers, but her knowledge was conditioned by practicality.
Ibn Sa’id asked, “What is the largest number you can think of?”
Mary sensed the trap, held her breath and disappeared into Roya’s subconscious.
Roya thought for a while, eventually declaring, “800!”
“That is the number of troops my father is required to provide in the event of an attack on Granada.”
“What if I said that a larger number is 801?”
Roya thought for a moment. “That greater number is not real. 800 is the largest actual number I am willing to contemplate.”
The discussion went downhill from there, and voices were raised and eyes flashed.
Mary was restless. So she released the secret catch and returned to her apartment. She left them arguing about whether the number could be expanded through the inclusion of wives of the soldiers and children and their mothers and fathers and their ancestors as a precursor to a jump to even larger numbers.
Of course, Mary knew that there were greater numbers than 800. Much bigger. She also knew, intuitively, that the larger the number, the more unreal it was likely to be. She also suspected that some of the most significant numbers were living inside her computer. She thought of the mischief there she still had to confront.
She glanced at the computer and the cat, which was curled up on the keyboard, and said gruffly in their direction, “You’ll keep.”
Despite his love of wine, Mary approved of Khayyam. But she felt some unease, recalling a small volume of his poetry that her son had given her a year before. She had been disappointed at the time. The book had been unwrapped and placed on a shelf unopened, pending re-gifting at some convenient point in the future. She found it and went for a walk to the park.
It was only two blocks to the park, and she was a frequent visitor, but this time the world seemed wrong. It was gritty, dirty and smelt of car fumes and people. The roads were full of trucks and anger, and the park was hemmed in by tall buildings. Mary remembered it quieter and tried to ignore the artificial turf. She came to a park bench and shut the world out.
The prose in the little volume was different to that taught by Ibn Sa’id. It lacked the sharpness of the original, nice but not the same. She read, smiling at the small line drawings on facing pages until she came to one that brought her tears.
A book of Verses underneath the Bough
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
Beside me sitting in the Wilderness.
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
But, the buildings that hid the sun from her park did not see her cry, and the people all around her looked right through her. That night she went to sleep and did not dream.
In the garden that smelt of oranges, the following morning, her father agreed that they would accompany him a short way into the countryside with a troop of house guards to oversee his estates. They set off at mid-morning. They traveled on horseback along the base of the fortifications on the surrounding cliffs, through the nearby town. Or, rather, Mary smiled, and Roya rode. They ambled in peaceful companionship into the southern valley. They passed olive groves and white-walled houses and fortified villas on commanding hills. All around them, the blue hills and distant mountains disappeared into the horizon. As they rode, Ibn Sa’id recalled the poetry of war and rural life.
While her father visited some of the more distant estates, the party resorted to a small hill, wind rippling through the long grasses and clouds taking the heat from the sun. A sudden unseasonable fall of rain separated them from their party. Seeking refuge, Ibn Sa’id lifted Roya from her horse and found a tree that offered some respite from the downpour.
He let her down gently to the ground, but for a moment neither Roya nor Mary was willing to let go. Instead, she caught his eyes and for a moment both of them were lost. The rain subsided and the moment passed, but everything had changed.
They were riding his horse. Black as night with a white blaze on its chest. Rising and falling slowly as the stallion flew like the wind. His arm was loose around her waist like snow tipped mountains around fields of gold.
Suddenly she was gone. But he rode on alone. Through green meadows full of gazelles, past cloisters for monks, through deserts, past caravans, and camels, over the cobbled streets of a hundred cities, into gardens aflame. She woke eyes wild and open. Slowly she settled back, tossing and turning.
This time, she threw a bottle of Vodka at him and then stepped back, arms on hips, her black and white eyes flashing dangerously. For a moment it was beautiful and dramatic. But then it all went wrong. She tripped over the cat, and he ducked the bottle. They all ended on the floor. She imagined him calling her “random, unfortunate and frustrating,” which were all things she secretly called herself. She heard the wind whispering. “I wish we had never met.” She felt her heart about to break.
Mary did not want to hurt him. She just wanted him to pay attention. To her. She did not want to hurt the Vodka either, but sometimes bad things happen. So the dream was run again. This time, she drank the Vodka first and threw a bottle topped up with water and lemon juice. That turned out worse.
Every time she used the pendant to go back into the real past, the mist that covered it evaporated a little more. She wanted to look into his eyes and see the same man Roya saw. But even more, more than anything in the world, she wanted him to look back and see her. And there was the rub. When they had met, in his virtual hideaway with its sea and perpetual sunset, they were strangers. There was no hint of recognition and, now she knew, that hurt. For a moment she wanted to throw the vodka bottle at him and ride off alone. He was probably sitting inside her computer right now painting model sheep. That made her infuriated.
By the time she woke up to the sound of a fire engine and a garbage truck, she was completely exhausted. All her inner rage had evaporated.
She had a shower, dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, poured herself a coffee and switched on her computer. It started, but nothing unusual happened. So she gently rubbed the screen.
A message flashed onto the screen “I looked for you everywhere. I could not find you. I have been worried.”
“I can take care of myself. I took a little time out to think.”
He asked, a little too quickly, “How did you get out?”
“We should talk.”
So she re-entered his imaginary world quietly without a bottle. For a moment it was beautiful and dramatic, in its particular way. But then it all went wrong. The Cat came out of nowhere, tripping her and forcing him to duck. They all ended on the floor. The cat recovered first, racing out of the room. She held her breath.
Then he started to laugh. Mary got up slowly, feeling old and wondering if she had twisted her leg. She collapsed into a chair looking out onto a sunlit sea. She asked, “What happened to your permanent sunset?”
“Things have changed things a bit.” He paused and looked out to the sea, “You should know that I am officially broken. A Psychiatrist is on the case. He is trying to get me to remember things and told me I must not let you kiss me.”
“I do not believe in Psychiatrists. I liked the sunset.”
“The sunset will come back.”
He looked at her. “I wish... I did not wish we had met.”
Mary shook her head. “When did you say that?”
The Genie suddenly looked very lost. “I can’t remember...”
“You do remember me, don’t you? You know my name?”
“Yes. You are the person on the outside of the computer. We have a deal. I give you three wishes, and you will release me. I found you name on your emails. You are Mary.”
“We will talk about you looking at my emails another time. Have we ever met in the real world?”
The Genie was silent for a long time. “I don’t know.”
Mary asked, “Do I still have three wishes?”
The Genie nodded.
“Come over here and sit with me. We should be formally introduced.”
He came closer, “But...”
She looks at him. “My real name is Roya.”
She watched him carefully, struggling. She pointed at him and asked, “Now, who are you?”
The Genie was silent for a long time. “I wish I knew.”
Mary smiled and pulled him down to her, “That is three wishes you have made today. You should be more careful. I will have to put on gossamer pants if you keep this up.”
He smiled and laughed again. He had a sweet smile. “My Psychiatrist is trying to help me with my memory. I do not know.”
“I know your real name.”
The Genie looked at her with bewilderment, “If you knew, why do you ask me?”
“Do you want to know?”
She holds out her hand. He jumps and pulls her up to him. His hand is warm.
She heads for the door, pulling him behind her, “Come with me.”
As they walk past the study, there is a crash. Books, bills and desk lamps are strewn across the floor.
The Genie points to the hole in the study floor, “Be very careful.”
The cat rolls out from under the desk wrestling the dead thing out of the sock.
“Good kitty, let me have a look!”
The Cat jumped over the hole and dropped the dead thing in front of Mary. The dead thing eyes light up cruel and sharp. The Genie froze in fear.
In a strangled deep voice, the dead thing (with all the authority of the Powers That Be) thundered, “This time you have both gone too...”
Before the dead thing finished talking, Mary kicked it into the hole and the abyss below. The cat glared at her.
The Genie had gone white and looked like he might faint. He stutters, “They will come back...”
“The cat will get it.”
“You are mad.”
She throws her hair back, “A bit. Don’t forget it.”
She took him to the room full of his model trains. She spent a moment checking he had put the sheep in the right place. Then he shrunk them both to sheep size, and they went for a ride in one of the steam trains. Side by side.
He put his arm around her, “Are we going too fast?”
She smiled at him, “I still have a few surprises...”
He held her tighter.
She traced the shape of his nose and entwined her fingers in his beard.
Mary says, “Kiss me.”
“My Psychiatrist says...”
She drew him towards her, “Psychiatrists are imaginary.”
The train entered the tunnel.
The Cat was waiting for the train on the other side. The Genie saw the glint of eyes with a fraction of a second to spare. He transported them safely as the cat jumped on the train, scattering little bits of train and track everywhere.
The Genie just smiled.
Mary laughed. “Come with me; I know how to fix you.”
“Where are we going?”
She wraps his arms around her and reaches for the pendant. She looks up at him, “Do nothing. Whatever happens, you must not resist.”
And then, for greater effect, she said, “Resistance is futile.”
His world disappears, and in its place, they are cast into darkness, deep within the orange garden. Mary merges quietly into Roya. The Genie sinks into Ibn Sa’id. They hear the sounds of water bubbling. The scent of cloves drifts in from the Najd.
It is deep in the night. Darkness conceals their bodies. But stars light their faces.
Roya looks into Ibn Sa’id’s eyes and sees momentary confusion as he and the Genie fight for control.
They are holding each other tightly. Roya suddenly confessed, “I have never kissed a man before.”
“It was just a healing kiss,” he says, unconvincingly.
She is silent and shakes her head.
He says, more tentatively, “Or must I seek your forgiveness?”
She reaches into the darkness and gives him a pendant with their pictures and a gem. He accepts it.
“I told you I would give you a love gift tonight.”
He says, “And as a token of my gratitude, I grant you three wishes.”
Roya smiles, “You told me you would, as we rode home. I have been thinking about them carefully knowing that you sorcerers delight in mischief. My first wish I want to be attached to the locket. I wish that we can come back to these moments through this locket.”
Ibn Sa’id concentrates. He holds the locket, and she hears the sound of a distant hunting horn.
She holds his hand, “Before I go further, tell me why I needed to learn about love poetry?”
“Your father and I believe that love poetry echoes the heartbeat of civilization. Every poem, every song, tells us a little about ourselves and our world.”
“Does it? Even when it is you or I who is writing it?”
He pauses, “Beggars or kings can write poems. Regardless, they are adaptable, powerful and dangerous. Love poetry is just the language of lovers. Elsewhere it is a way of teaching conduct.”
“Is that your real problem with the poet Khayyam?”
“He called on the mysteries of the world to describe love and life. The more you call on meadows, birds, rain to express love, the more it ceases to be real. Instead, it becomes a mystery itself, a beautiful and spiritual thing”, he paused. “Disconnected with reality.”
“Why do you always overthink everything? Sometimes it is just nice not to be direct. It makes you imagine. It makes the world full of mystery.”
“No matter how we dress love or life in allusions, there is still only the underlying reality of skin touching skin.”
She comes close to him, holding his head in her hands. “I wish you to love me, both ways. Mystically and practically.”
“That is beyond my power. I cannot make a person love another.”
“I am not asking you to exercise your sorcerous powers. I am asking you as the woman who loves you. I ask you to honor our kiss.”
He shakes his head, slowly at first, “I cannot return your love. It would betray your father’s trust of me. My life’s work would be set at naught and lost. I wish we had never met.”
Tears fill her eyes.
He murmurs, “The love we make will lead to your death. Have you learned nothing?”
She says, “I have learned that there are no answers here for me, just ruins.”
The fountains stop running, and the stars blink out.
“But I still have two wishes.”
“My second wish is that we forget this time.”
“And my third wish, my last wish, is that you send me away, far, far away. 800 years from here.”
DriftingIbn Sa’id drifted through 800 years towards his fate with a part of himself adrift.
Colour drained from his world; it became black and white. He served the great princes of Northern Africa. He had joined the court of the Mongol horde before it ransacked the city of Baghdad. When not concerned with the rise and fall of empires he studied the stars and the furthest parts of the world. Nothing escaped his attention except for the continent of his heart. In his living years, he published volumes of poetry, history, and science, and then finally he drew a map of the world, with detail unimaginable to those around him.
When the time came, he disappeared. There was no doubt he died. In those days, news of death traveled with the great caravans and was spoken in bazaars and courts, by the copyists who were commissioned to duplicate his work. But uncertainty ruled all the other details. Did he die in Tunis, or was it Marrakesh? In time, the great Andalusian kingdoms themselves fell, and a little of the magic of the world was lost.
He drifted through time passages, watching the map of the world he drew change. As cities burned, new ones rose. The world cooled and dried, sea levels fell, trade routes were buried in sand and ice, and the great empires of his day flourished awhile and then, they too, disappeared.
The happenstance of the thread on which his life frayed. The stars he had once sought started to travel faster. In the blur of those who moved he became aware of those who shared his fate and were destined to not age. Some were older; some younger. There were those who lived every day afresh, those who created, those who collected and those who chose to destroy.
Some were inclined to create rules preserving a semblance of coherence. Some did it only to give themselves meaning. Others acted to forestall disorder. Together they faced those damaged beyond remedy who pursued entropy mindlessly. Because they could not be just destroyed those who sought fire were caged. But none of them was free of risk, and from time to time they all were parted from the world: cast into oil lamps until no more lamps could be found.
Over 800 years he gradually let his past go, forgetting his home, forgetting his name. In the emerging world he sometimes lived in the moment, Sometimes he withdrew into his despair, and sometimes he built own fantasy worlds. Sometimes he would seek the past, despite the curse he had laid on himself. Sometimes he joined with those like him to administer the rules of the sorcerous familiarity; sometimes he railed against them and raked at the reality of the world. So it was that those who cared about him slowly steered him to a particular place and time.
So it was that he was reunited with Mary. After spending a little time with her, the faint trace of color leaked back into his world. But then he was plunged back to face his past.
In the darkness of the Orange Garden, his memory of the past was savagely restored. He immediately took battle with his younger self. Powerful with youth and idealism that comes with ignorance his younger self was too powerful. The old Genie suffered two fell hits. He was pushed to the abyss when his younger self reminded him of his bargain with Roya’s father, to secure influence over Granada through her compromise. His younger self made him look to the top of the walls. Eyes there watched every embrace with grim approval.
She asked, “I ask you to honor our kiss.”
“I cannot return your love.”
The betrayal of her kiss hit both in the Genie.
In agony, the younger cried, “I wish we had never met.”
She replied, “There are no answers here for me - just ruins.”
She would never understand how he could not choose love over everything else even as his younger self tried to duck and weave.
At the point of no return, Roya made her final wishes. The fountains stopped running, and the stars blinked out. Even the world around felt the hurt inflicted.
The old Genie had only one small advantage. He was ancient and capable of treachery.
He feigned defeat and praised the practiced deceit to his younger self. He offered solace and kind words about love of little consequence not fated to grow. When that torment became impossible to bear, his younger self surrendered to self-pity. The old Genie struck a lightning blow. In a single breath, he granted both of Roya’s wishes.
The world faded as his younger self thundered in the agony of unknowing.
A moment later Mary and the Genie arrived back to her small cold noisy flat.
It was dark, but a thousand lights of the city lit their faces.
They were still holding each other’s hands.
She looked into his eyes. In them, as a tear drop formed, she saw her eyes.
Colour flooded into the world, with the hint of cinnamon.
Troublesome booksYou know the ones.
Most books get along with each other.
Many age peacefully together, greying slowly as the dust collects, untroubled by the politics of the day, the threat of global warming or the pressures facing the rest of us as technology tightens its grip.
Others shuffle uneasily on their shelves, demanding attention or affection. After decades of neglect Volume II of Winston Churchill’s “History of the English Speaking People” has started to emanate a discernible air of smouldering resentment.
Others sit in quiet misery, unloved at inception, ignored at apogee and discarded in old age. My collection of Ion Idriess and Miles Franklin sit close to me, so I can reassure them by a gentle touch of the eye that I have not forgotten.
By and large, these are commonplace problems for all of us book owners. In another time, perhaps the unloved would have been re-purposed on the floors of budgie cages or recycled through church bazaars. But we are civilized people and don’t do this sort of thing anymore.
Others crackle with their own potential. They pull me back to them, time and time again, to taste the power swirling within: Snorre Sturlason’s “Heimskringla”, the “Poetic Edda”, my father’s “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” (with and without Fitzgerald), the Gnostic Gospels, the “Institutes of Justinian”, Tolkien’s “Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun”, a small collection of T’ang poetry, Antoine De Saint Exupery’s “Little Prince”, Lord John Julius Norwich’s “Byzantium”, Mark Twain’s Essays and Bryce Courtenay’s “Matthew Flinders’ Cat”.
I feel myself grow a little distant from the real world each time I pick one of these up:
“But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet he lays.” - Kyayyam
By and large, these hold known risks for all us book owners. Touching the covers of some of these books can transport you through time and space in the blink of an eye – do you wit more, or how? Every so often, one of us does not come back. But, if you keep focused, the chances are good.
These are not the troublesome books. Some of my favourite authors have described worlds with libraries that are alive with potential. Eco’s medieval library in “Name of the Rose” shimmers with the potential of the undiscovered. In Pratchett’s books, the library in the Unseen University is elevated to a different level... His conception is summarized: “Books contain knowledge, and knowledge equals power, which according to the laws of physics can be converted to energy and matter, so the Library contains an extremely large mass that can distort time and space.” Within that library, some books of power need to be bound.
I see one book glaring at me right now. I am sure Keith Windschuttle intended his “Killing of History” to be brash, outspoken and controversial. But my copy of his book has become far more. I am sure that when the lights dim, it shakes off the day’s dust and starts to stalk its victims. Slowly, it is consuming the other books in my library, one by one.
I have no evidence that this malice extends beyond my copy of the book. Your copy may be entirely benign. Far be it for me to cast doubt on a hapless innocent book. See, it is where you left it. Those gaps in your shelf: you lent those books out, didn’t you?
This is not the only one. I seem to have a number of these troublesome books. I am sure that they are the cause of discord late in the night - the brief sounds of a struggle followed by a sigh: not all the work of a mouser. And then there are the unexplained disappearance of lesser books and occasional paper cuts. In the past, these are the books that might have been burnt or pulped. But we are civilized people and don’t do this sort of thing anymore.
I have ruled out burning, repurposing, gifting, lending, losing, throwing or reselling: each merely transfers the problem to some new unsuspecting reader or would create, in me, a burden of guilt.
Terry Prachett has suggested that such troublesome books can be constrained safely. So, if I can catch the “Killing of History”, I propose to give his suggestion a go. Now, where did it go...
An Australian weddingThe leaves were falling, and the killing breath of winter was not far off.
She had brought him to the park to sit on the old bench in the afternoon sun. He grumbled, but with a practiced tone she reminded him that he liked the park, and that once he had bought his own family here. Once. He grimaced, a time so long ago he could not remember. She was like the other nurses back at the home, and he knew that any complaint would be ignored, so he saved his breath.
The warmth soaked into his frail pores, and he drifted into a gentle sleep. He grumbled as she rocked him awake, explaining with excitement in her voice, “Look, Bob! A wedding. Here in the park.” He shut his eyes in annoyance, but she described the party gathering a little way from them, an uncomfortable mix of men in suits that had been hired for the occasion and women dressed in last year’s fashions. A squeal from a loud speaker heralded the marriage celebrant and a fall of more leaves. He opened his eyes and grumbled, “I do not care for weddings. Never saw the sense in them. Loud noisy things.”
But she just laughed at him, pointing out the cameras and the groom standing uneasily in the centre of a group of young men. She said, “They are so young. Oh, what a treat!”
Moments later a bridesmaid walked a couple of feet in front of them, turning and catching her eyes with an embarrassed half smile whispered, “The bride is coming.”
Her eyes opened and she reached over to him and said, “Stand up Bob. Please. We have to stand for the bride.” He sighed, and then with her help, stood uneasily on the dry grass
A rush of people trooped past, followed by the bride and her mother. They paused nearby to free the bride’s hem from a catch of concrete. She, waited till they had freed the garment, and whispered a loud, “Good luck!” The young woman turned and smiled at the old couple, nodded her head and headed to the head of the small crowd and a scattering of applause.
He said, “A bit stout for me. In my day brides were...” And he tried to remember, but he saw a tear in her eye. He said, not unkindly, “Get off, what’s that for? No need for tears.”
She sniffed, “I was enjoying the sun and the leaves. But a wedding as well! What a joy.”
She turned and strained towards the crowd, trying to make sense of the noise coming from the loud speaker. After a long moment he shook his head and sat down. She took out a tissue and blew her tears away, in a noisy trumpet.
He cautioned her, “No need to interrupt them. They will have reason to rue this day. Mark my words, they will be sorry before the year is out.” But she hushed him, ignoring his mumblings. He tried a different tack, “What is happening now?”
She turned and sat next to him, “They are making their vows. He has promised to give up his Space Trek collection and to respond to all of her texts.” He shook his head, wondering what that all meant, the words slipping from his grasp. He hazarded, “Sounds reasonable. What about her?”
She said, “I could not hear, she was too quiet.”
He jumped in, “Probably vowed to give up housework.”
But she was listening again, holding her hand in the air to ward away the sun.
He noticed the gold band on her hand, and wondered what she had vowed.
Cliff SideThe Mapping App waited until we were all listening to music and surreptitiously directed me back to the safety of town and gas stations. So, on the second attempt to get to the mountain, I navigated by old road signs.
To be fair, I should also give the Apps their fair share. Last weekend I took my three drones climbing, and they did a great job keeping me out of trouble.
----- Edited feed -----
Pete (in the distance): Ok, I have started. Please keep the noise down and try getting a couple of decent shots this time.
Cloud control: Roger. Muting your audio. Ok, you heard the boss, Site control get those cameras going.
Camera Droid One: We do not need a site controller. Me and Two can handle this. Right Two?
Camera Droid Two: Yep, I am on fire today!
Control Droid: Stop the chatter and get up there. One, you are on short shots. Two, I want you pull back and get a couple of file shots of me... You getting the feed there Cloud?
Cloud control: You are looking good today, Control. Some of the Russian porn sites have fallen over so I am going to push real time into the Black Web to give us some audience feedback.
Control Droid: Russian?
Camera Droid One: Where did he go?
Camera Droid Two: About 20 meters up, quick we are going to lose him.
Camera Droid One: His hair looks weird. Can we get him to, I dont know, fluff it up a bit. I cant take shots with his hair like that.
Camera Droid Two: He is not listening to us. Besides, he is using both of his hands to grip onto the cliff. Still... go a bit closer, your rotors might blow the hair around a little... Closer!
Camera Droid One: Nothing happening. What is up with his hair anyway? Did he put gel in it? Woops.
Camera Droid Two: Damn, he almost lost it then. Good one One!
Control Droid: You get that shot Two?
Camera Droid Two: Not my fault, One blew a whole lot of dust into his eyes, he almost fell.
Cloud control: Got a spike in interest in the feed just then. I need more of that!
Camera Droid One: He is climbing too fast, we need to slow him down.
Camera Droid Two: There is a bit of loose water and small rocks up top. I could go blow some of those over.
Control Droid: No, you stay there, One, go drop the water on him. Two, get ready for a slip shot.
Camera Droid One: Why me?
Control Droid: The water might wash some of the gel out. Remember? Your shot. Quick, he is almost at the top.
Camera Droid Two: Wow, look at all those rocks!
Cloud control: Going wild here. One of the betting agencies is taking wagers on him falling. Keep it coming!
Camera Droid Two: Where is he climbing now?
Camera Droid One: He is heading for that little shelf. OMG! He is bleeding, are you getting my shots?
Control Droid: Awesome shots but... yep, wrong format.
Camera Droid One: Wrong format! What! Thats not my fault. Damn. Can you fix it?
Cloud control: Got your back One. Just keep the feed coming. That last shot of him trying to wipe dust and blood out of his eye, almost made me choke. Just pushed that to the You-Droid site.
Control Droid: You are both running a little low on power. He looks like he is not going to move for a moment. Go top up.
Camera Droid One: I am feeling a bit wobbly, might have acquired a somer drops.
Cloud control: Can give you a minute, I have 10 minutes of unpublished stuff.
Camera Droid One: Um, not the images of me tipping the stuff down the cliff, right?
Cloud control: (busy silence)
Camera Droid One: Nice feeling, all that power being pumped back into you. I could just sit here all day.
Camera Droid Two: Pity we don’t have an eagle around here.
Camera Droid One: Eagle?
Camera Droid Two: Yeah, good vision if an eagle attacked him.
Camera Droid One: Eagles eat droids. Like cats. You know, pounce!
Camera Droid Two: We, you, could go rescue him. You know, “Brave drone”. Lead the eagle away.
Camera Droid One: Sounds risky. Here, your turn. I am full.
Camera Droid Two: You would be all over You-Droid. 3 million views, just like that.
Camera Droid One: 3 million?
Camera Droid Two: All droids. Yep written into our code, we have to like what they publish. even the cat pictures.
Camera Droid One: Hate cats.
Camera Droid Two: Hate cats.
Camera Droid One: Why do they put up cat pictures on a droid site anyway?
Control Droid: Might have a problem. You guys ready? I am reading a zero heartbeat from his watch.
Camera Droid One: Lazy bugger has put himself in sleep mode.
Camera Droid Two: Don’t think they can do that. Maybe the water killed the poor little watch.
Camera Droid One: I did not mean to hurt anyone...
Camera Droid Two: I am sure you didnt. Maybe he has, you know, had a heart attack or something and is about to fall.
Camera Droid One: I want that shot!
Camera Droid Two: Still powering up.
Camera Droid One: Damn. We have to go back
Camera Droid Two: Unless he has already jumped
Camera Droid One: No. I still have the chute
Camera Droid Two: Good thinking
Camera Droid One: Tell the truth, was not high on my priority list.
Camera Droid Two: (laughter) Works for me
Camera Droid Two: You know, if he hasn’t fallen yet, we could always, you know...
Camera Droid One: Push him?
Camera Droid Two: Nah. I need the shot. Can’t have your rotor in the frame. I was thinking a rock.
Camera Droid One: Slow down. Close up shots of him falling, I cant see it.
Control Droid: Take your time, we are picking up voice feed. Must
have just been a malfunction in the watch.
Camera Droid One: I should go rescue the watch.
Control Droid: Another climber has arrived on the scene.
Cloud control: I am pushing the audio into the feed, but i need the cameras back up there, now!
Control Droid: She is telling him about her terrible day. Apparently she tried to hack into her 14 year son’s phone and made it a brick.
Cloud control: Pushing the feed into gamer channels. That is where the 15 year old demographic lives?
Control Droid: Yes! Cameras up, but do not get face pictures of the second climber. We will get more interest if the 15 year olds think it could be their mother.
Cloud control: Going wild out here...
The Big Man from SydneyI met Greg at a truck stop a little while back. He seemed a nice young bloke, with a quiet western Sydney drawl, tanned and good looking, and smelling of oil and diesel.
When I am travelling I try to avoid fast food joints that seem to serve nothing more than differently flavoured stacks of fat. In the small cafes you get a different sort of meal – made while you wait, from real food. You don’t see a lot of truck drivers eating at fast food joints for a reason – they make their own or rest up in the small road side cafes. It is time for a smoko or a beer during the periods of enforced rest.
Greg had already had a couple of beers when he hailed me over. There is an easy camaraderie in these places – generally only truck drivers and the occasional biker sit on the plastic seats, at a table covered in a simple plastic sheet with a paper rose in a small jar for decoration. The smell of diesel while eating a steak with three vegetables is a skill not easily learned.
He wanted to talk. We started with our trucks. He was hauling gravel and river sand this week – hard work, and difficult on the truck and the trailers. I quietly nodded in the direction of a long distance freighter I had seen down the end of the tarmac, trusting the driver would still be asleep in this cab while I finished my meal, avoiding the need for a long explanation about why I was only in a four wheel drive.
He had a girlfriend and a young kid up in the mortgage belt in North Sydney. He went home every fortnight for three or four days. She worked part time while her mom looked after the kid. He flicked open his phone and showed me a blurry picture, which matched the slur on his voice. He talked about his place – the river and the wildlife on the edge of the town.
He had been doing work up Gunnedah way. He grimaced. Still owed a packet of money by a Big Man from Sydney. Shifting sludge from a small test drill site for a coal seam gas company. He said the spoil had been dumbed next to the drill site - four trailers worth. He was going to be paid twice the normal rate to move two trailers of the spoil to a toxic waste dump. The guy on site said the rest of the spoil was just going to be spread back over the site. The toxic waste dump a couple of hours drive away was in an odd place – adjacent to what appeared to be a new residential development in one of the outback towns. A sign outside the dump invited clean fill.
Greg paused. He had rung up the guy who had contracted him. The Big Man from Sydney assured him he was in the right place, adding that Greg wouldn’t get paid unless the spoil was dumped there, right now. So he did, but he had not heard from the Big Man, and the mobile number was now disconnected. He showed me a rash on his arm where he had touched some of the spoil trying to wash it out of his trailers. I told him to go see a doctor.
I went to get a couple more drinks, but when I returned he was gone. Like he had never been there.
Wild NettlesTonight I came across some old notes. I had chaired a committee of local water users sharing one of the high mountain streams. In that role I met a group of amazing people.
One brief unlikely friendship emerged. I met her only a couple of times, to talk about the stream and then the past history of the place, before she passed away. The notes I found were of our conversations.
She told me the story of the stream - the Yandyguinula Creek - which rises in the mountains near Palerang and eventually feeds into the Molonglo River to become Lake Burley Griffin - the centre-piece of Australia's capital Canberra.
She had lived next to the stream all her life - her mother before her in an old wooden house high in the mountains, surrounded by decaying sheds. Next to the house, in an abandoned vegetable patch, bower birds argued with magpies. By the front door, yellow straw flowers.
She told of the droughts and floods that came in cycles. Of how once when tending cattle in a high mountain bog, she was nearly swept to her death in a sudden violent downpour (and told me to take care when walking through the narrow mountain valleys). Of how some years the stream simply became a series of small water holes, running underneath the ground.
Her mother, who had lived there for many years before had told her stories of the stream – a catalogue of drought and flood. How the stream had changed as Crack Willow, introduced from estates on the Hoskinstown Plain had gradually made its way up the creek, replacing the old native Casuarina Pines. How the mountains were stripped of their tall timber. How the bush had come back when the old timber was exhausted and the foresters left. How sometimes the water was full of tannin from the willow and the old saw mill and tainted with arsenic from the sheep dips.
She had never seen any of the first people. But her mother had had glimpses, once or twice, far in the distance of a group of adults and children climbing along the high ridges. Once, she saw a young white child with them. Her mother told the men, but they had shuffled their feet and did nothing.
The men went to war, and some didn't come home. She had an old photo of her house, surrounded by water at the end of the second war, when the rain would not stop.
There was no store and no doctor and no medicines. They grew everything: mutton, milk and potatoes - and stinging nettles.
In the old days, wool was made into thread and milk into butter, here. The wool was dyed green using the nettle or brown/yellow using wattle. When tea was scarce, wild nettle was boiled instead, and cooled with a little milk and sweetened with local honey or water in which banksia flowers had been kept. Lozenges for colds or flu were made from sugar and gum (not something I would try). The old folk also used raw nettle to relieve the pain of gout or rheumatism by collecting a couple of plants and hitting the affected area with the nettle.
Tending the cattle while young she had many encounters with the wild nettle, she thought enough to see her older years through.
Electricity had come to her place only recently. She served me scones made from her old wooden stove. Despite the nettle, she moved slowly with old pain as she poured another cup.
Tonight, I am drifting closer to the stars she has joined. Spending a little time thinking about that time, high in the mountains, listening to her voice telling her story. Wishing I could remember more.
On LeadershipTo Catilius Severus
While detained in the Capital this week I enjoyed your company and that of junior counsel. I thank you both for your time, which I treasure.
I do not mind frankness in intellectual debate. I hunger to clash over ideas of importance. As for my sensibilities, given my background, there are few bones in my body that haven’t been deliberately broken a couple of times, sometimes for good cause.
Your problem brought to mind a specific issue. Today, specialists are increasingly displaced by generalists at a leadership levels. The consequence might be oversimplified by asserting that decision making has drifted from conclusions based on empirical assessment to calls on relationships. Still, this seems to happen more often than not, and it is not perceived as necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, some now claim credit for this drift as a benefit of their own craft, the end benefit of culture inculcated in private schools for boys or the new feminist approach to business.
Both styles of decision making have strengths. Some say that calls on relationships might be the only way really complex processes can be achieved. I have heard Treasury officials who should know better make such a claim in relation to interstate legislation sponsored by the Council of Australian Governments.
Two specific weaknesses of relationship decision making might be observed. Firstly, problems arise when there is reluctance to engage in communication when that might be perceived as a challenge to the relationship. Secondly, problems arise when a mismatch of skills creates real problems in communicating effectively.
Worse still, those "called" to support a position may be unable to talk to the idea, explain its value, or describe the consequences of its adoption.
In the law I was trained to separate self from ideas – to combat ideas rather than play the person. "Relationship calls" muddy this approach. Insight does not come from reference – it derives from persuasion walking with reason. The writer Eupolis once praised Pericles:
"On his lips Persuasion hung,
And powerful Reason rul'd his tongue:
Thus he alone could boast the art
To charm at once, and pierce the heart."
I thank you for your invitation to walk to the lake and watch the fireworks tonight. I am afraid that I am long gone, to sit and watch the sunset from the high ridges and pen this note of thanks.
Letters from 2006
Coming to AmericaHad a fairly uneventful trip over here. It is a long journey – about 22 hours – but because of the rotation of the earth, you get to see the sun set twice.
The first experience of the USA is always fairly negative. Off the plane in Los Angelos, you immediately go into the long immigration and the customs queues – about 1-2 hours in total. It was hot and sticky in LA, and the airport was very expensive, full of wonderful things to buy with lots of small human stories going on around you. The airport is bilingual, and Spanish is everywhere. Huge black women man the inspection points and smile at you and ask you to marry them so long as you keep moving through towards your destination.
Then through the last checkpoint, and suddenly people stop asking for your passport, and onto the internal American flights. Despite the distance, there is minimal in-flight service and lots of people sitting in first class. Over the painted deserts and then the Rockies and then the fields until the forests of the East Coast come into view. The sun starts to set for the final time, and the cities along the coast start to come into view.
By this stage, jet lag has taken over. The blast of cold as you get off the plane as Boston seems surreal – almost as unreal as the landing approach over the lights of the city as clouds scud between you and the ground. Logan International is a huge place but the airport PA is more sedate and less brash than LA.
The country is in the grip of fall and Halloween. The vast inland forests are a mass of russet and yellow leaves, set off by the greens of the pines, the sky mirrors of the lakes and the stark whites of the New England houses. There is an Arctic chill in the air, and the wind blows branches and leaves around alike. It is fine one moment, hot in the enclosed New England verandas, icy rain the next, hard downpours and flood warnings the next. The weather here appears almost unpredictable – thunderstorms build unpredictable in the forests.
Pumpkins lie in the fields and the large orange ones are on sale everywhere. Cut and decorated, the seeds are scooped out and roasted in butter and salt for a one a year delicacy, together with candied corn. Sweets are bought in preparation for the kids who will go from house to house, and witches decorate stores and homes alike. The witches out here, in the country are evil hags, capable of injury, ugly and dangerous. In Salem, an hour to the North East, the celebration is not so harsh, and the memory of injustice still brings tears to the eyes of old and young.
Elsewhere, in there soft drawls, the old tell each other how they plan to escape the coming cold – the time shares in Florida or Mexico or fishing on the West Coast. While service centres check dozer blade fittings on 4-wheel drives and the car yards take delivery of this year’s models of arctic cats.
HalloweenTonight was Halloween. Down in the little nearby town lots of houses were dressed up for the night - with witches and spiders and webs all over the front lawns. People put up Halloween flags next to their American flags.
And there were carved pumpkins everywhere. Actually, pumpkins seem to have been the source of a little anxiety here – the pumpkin is the state vegetable of New Hampshire – but this year, a farmer from Massachusetts won the pumpkin growing competition. There have been bitter recriminations in the local press.
Just on sun down, all the kids came out. Unseasonably warm, but there was still a chill in the air and the leaves from the surrounding forests were piled in huge drifts. People stopped driving cars around, and it got really quiet, except for the dogs. Everyone was dressed up. I saw lots of adults dressed as witches, grim reapers and even one sponge bob (who was having a meal in Sau’s Gourmet Chinese Restaurant – amazing food there, by the way, the pork spare ribs are delicious).
The kids were in full fancy dress - as ghosts or pirates or witches or beauty queens. They darted from house to house in the town in little groups. There were kids everywhere – in fact they took over the town – it simply would not have been safe to drive on the roads. Some sang songs for sweets, others simply knocked on doors and said trick or treat. Everyone was polite and the kids have dragged away a huge haul of sweets - some had pillow cases full of candy (Americans call all sweets candy – and sell conveniently packaged small chocolates in bulk for this occasion).
It is a really strange festival - everyone seem to enjoy it – it certainly cost a bit, the estimates range up to $4.96 billion this year, in costumes and chocolate – indeed it is one of most profitable holiday (after Christmas, Mother's Day, Valentines Day, Easter, and Father's Day). But, leaving aside the commercial interest in the celebration (and the associated health concerns raised by nutritionists, pediatricians and scientists), it is another demonstration of the way adults seem really protective of the kids here. Another example, for instance, are their school buses. They do not let kids ride to school on ordinary buses – school buses are all specially built - they look really strange and are bright yellow. The buses are reinforced, and all the traffic stops near them.
In fact, Halloween did not originate in America (most Americans are blissfully ignorant of this and they bristle with indignation when you point this out – in much the same way when you tell them how an Australian flew the first airplane). The celebration is still strong on the Western fringe of Europe, and derives from the Irish/Scottish celts - a pagan ceremony if you will. One of the last pagan ceremonies to survive in modern times, Irish immigrants brought it to America. But it has been going strong here for 100 years now. It is a celebration of the last 'bright' day - the end of the warm months - and it is supposed to be a mystical time when the living and the dead can walk together.
In some of the farm areas around here, there are echoes of the older Irish celebration. For example, many of the farms nearby had two bonfires burning, close to each other. The people walk in the dark from one bonfire to the other - to represent the change of season, life to death. In the transition, some say you can access the old burial mounds of the old people. The younger people simply laugh at this, but the old sit a little more quietly, drinking hard liquor and staring into the fires.
Salem itself is a mass of color, with street parades with the wicca, or at least the wicca for the night, out in force. Unlike the farm towns, Salem frowns on negative images of witches – there are no hags here, the witches are young and they are dressed in wicked clothing. Very little clothing. A couple of days ago a Boston Globe staff writer bemoaned the fact that she could not get her preferred costume for the celebration. Apparently, the “Garden of Evil Spiritina” - a diaphanous costume with a teeny-weeny skirt and plunging neckline – was all sold out. Her purpose was a little more serious – in laughing at the present craze for sexy clothing (in the “post-feminist generation, they are liberated to make choices”), she reflected on the strength of local culture that could see a young English teacher wearing the niqab being blissfully unaware that “the mask she dons as an act of self-expression aligns her with the mullahs of repression”.
Elsewhere, a lot of people in American are seriously religious. Some of them, including a bizarre temporary alliance of conservative christians, jews and muslims, abhore the idea of a pagan celebration - in a couple of states, it is illegal to have the bonfires and street parades have been suppressed. But most religious leaders simply say that this is a fun celebration that has nothing to do with religion and everyone should simply go out and enjoy themselves. There are even a couple of carved pumpkins outside some of the local churches (and there are a lot of churches here).
In this I hear an echo of the clash of ideas in England at the height of the witch trials. At a time when King James was burning lots of witches, he had accumulated a lot of very compelling evidence about the existence of witches, and the different mischiefs and forms they could effect. He found that the most telling confessions were those made without torture – after the witch had been condemned - at a time when saying anything would have no effect on the death she was about to suffer. But Reginald Scot, an Oxford graduate who spent a quiet life studying, gardening and learning magic tricks, had put a doubt in the common mind. Scot said that the witch hunts were absurd and he wrote a book “The Discoverie of Witchcraft” (1584), to tell people just that - and to explain how magic tricks were done. He also suggested that regular demonstrations of this skill as a public entertainment was in the public interest (a risky course, at the time the state was still hanging people who did not believe in the holy trinity). King James felt compelled to use all the power of modern technology – the printing press and the post – to disseminate a scholarly book “Deamonology”(1597) to refute Scot – and to demonstrate the social dangers posed by demons and witches. He sent a copy of this foolish book (thoughtfully republished recently by the religious right), replete with its carefully researched empirically based assessments to all and sundry, no doubt briefly fanning the flames of hatred and fear.
But in the end, the gentle truth of Scot won through, and his suggestion that we laugh at superstitions with the benefit of real knowledge now permeates western culture. And that is what the kids did tonight. They laughed.
Tomorrow, the churches will celebrate All Saints Day - and in this area that has the feel of a harvest festival - a thanks for the plenty derived from the soil.
It is strange to have daylight saving, a pagan and a christian ceremony all back to back. But the locals tell me that we are at the end of the bright days and from now on we descend into the dark of winter at this, the pagan division of the year.
Civil UnionsI have arrived in the midst of fall - and election campaigns. I swear I have seen some of the election material before - the music, the posters and the issues all have an uncanny similarity to everything happening back in Australia. But by the same token, everything is slightly different. For example - there are Green-Rainbow candidates - but they are only polling 2% of the anticipated vote - a situation that might change as a result of a strange growing reconciliation between them and ultra-conservative Christian groups.
At the national level, in the Senate, against the background of the war and the gradual return of the reservists, voters are considering the retention of the tried and true. In Massachusetts, voters are being asked to consider whether Senator Edward Kennedy should serve them another session. Already the 3rd longest member of the US Senate, the Republicans have tried to portray him and the Democrats as a spent force, a puppet of those who would impose unreasonable regulation on the nation’s financial services, permit greater immigration or complete a secret homosexual agenda. But the liberal press of Massachusetts have lauded Kennedy as a long time critic of the war (he opposed it from the start – one of only 23 senators voting against the use-of-force resolutions), a force for liberal change to pension and immigration law (there are a lot of illegal long term residents in the US) and a joint proponent of reforms to health insurance for children. A long term survivor, and a master of sensible compromise, Kennedy has proven himself a adaptable politician – even working directly with President Bush to secure the passage of the “No Child Left Behind Act”.
The elections are also running at a state level, with the Governors up for election in the New England states (“gubernatorial elections”). Election issues have ranged across the predictable from the high rate of state taxes (in the US the states raise separate income and other taxes) to the poor state of the public infrastructure (potholes), through to the standardisation of education testing in the state.
One conspicuous absence in the barrage of election material at the state level is the lack of political capital being made over the passage of gay marriage (as opposed to civil union) legislation in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe recently pointed out that no one has been turned out of office in Massachusetts for voting on the legislation.
The Massachusetts legislation is widely seen as the culmination of the civil rights campaign on this issue – indeed, since the passage of the legislation, other “gay lobby” issues in the state have lost some of their momentum, probably because of a feeling that, at least in that State, the reform program has run its course.
The campaign itself gained most of its recent momentum from the 1999 decision of the Vermont Supreme Court which required that State to pass legislation on civil unions. Vermont approved a civil unions law in 2000 - allowing same-sex couples to enjoy many of the same 'state' benefits of marriage enjoyed by other citizens. In April 2003, Connecticut became the second state to adopt civil unions. As in Canberra, California, Hawaii, Maine and New Jersey voluntarily approved domestic partnership laws that provide limited marriage rights to same-sex couples. In California, Republican Governor Schwarzenegger has vetoed the measure pending a state Supreme Court decision on the issue. Such challenges are pending in California – and four other states: Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland and Oklahoma. (The United States Supreme Court itself has been fairly mute on the issue, although in June 2000 it rejected a long time ban on same-sex sodomy in Texas.)
A 2003 decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court followed the Vermont precedent. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall said: “Barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution… Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support. It brings stability to our society... For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial and social benefits. In return, it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations."
In its 4-3 decision the court gave the Massachusetts legislature 180 days to come up with a solution. While an unusual course to Australian eyes, such a power probably exists within our own courts and perhaps we should be ready for the day it happens here. In Massachusetts, the court simply stayed its order for 180 days, effectively compelling the legislature to act during the stay.
Unlike Vermont, Massachusetts chose to go beyond civil union legislation, and recognize gay marriages directly. The resulting legislation has now been in force in Massachusetts for 29 months - Massachusetts began marrying same-sex couples on 17 May 2004. The Massachusetts approach provides a marriage rather than simply a state-recognised union. Unlike marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships have limited or no effect outside the state in which they occur (the position we find ourselves in the ACT with our domestic relationships legislation). Further, civil unions and domestic partnerships do not provide any federal marriage benefits (there are some 1,138 laws and policies that give benefits to marriages - including Social Security, family medical leave, federal taxation and immigration policy).
Most recently, on October 25 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution guarantees same-sex couples all the legal benefits of marriage. The state legislature has until 22 April 2007 to come up with a way to give same-sex couples equal access to the protections of marriage. That state now has to choose between the Vermont and Massachusetts model.
There is significant political difference on the issue. 44 states have “Defense of Marriage laws”, which define marriage as solely a heterosexual union. These laws are based on the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and purports to permit states to ignore gay marriages performed elsewhere.
Even in the liberal New England states, including Massachusetts the issue remains contentious (the democrats favor gay marriage, the republicans favor civil union). However, no practical issues have arisen from the legislation – none of the concerns about the harmful effects of such marriages on the parties or their children have arisen.
And none of the gubernatorial candidates seem keen to raise this as a political issue - at least at the state level.
Hobbits with GunsWell, the last week has been very hectic.
For a start, I am getting used to rain happening again. It rains here all time of the day and night, often unexpectedly and often quite heavily. It has been unseasonably warm – which means that it hasn’t snowed much yet, and you can still go outside and not freeze to death instantly. So I have been learning how to use a bbq on the porch – which seems to be where the gentle folk of Massachusetts use their bbq’s.
In thinking about them cooking on their porches, I am unsuccessfully resisting the urge to think of people from Massachusetts as hobbits. Most of them here have never left their home town or state. They know the world exists – but are supremely indifferent to it – living instead in a confusing whirl of ceremonies, malls, forests and freeways. This aside, they are nice hobbits. Hobbits with guns.
In addition to the rain – and the hobbits - there were elections and the election aftermath. Perhaps it would have been easier if the elections had not brought much change, but this year has seen a change in the mood of the electorate. Massachusetts, like the rest of the progressive New England states (the states north of New York) has become less conservative.
Mind you, when the local moderate was re-elected, she put down her win to having attended all the right church dinners –and she held her victory dinner at the local rifle range. So, less conservative is not quite the same thing as a social libertine.
The elections here are quiet different to Australia. Americans love banners. So the party faithful get into the spirit of election day by showing their preferences using lawn banners.
There are very few permanent lawn decorations here – no garden gnomes for example. So there is plenty of room for seasonal lawn decorations (like witches, or huge blowup turkeys… a horror just about to be unleashed for thanksgiving). In fact, as I write, the election material is being replaced by corn stalks, a celebration of the bountiful harvest (viewed suspiciously by one local preacher as another throwback to hidden pagan sympathisers).
With Halloween out of the way, briefly there were election lawn-banners for everyone – even the fringe green-rainbow party (although there were very few banners representing this particular brand of politics – and those that did put up green-rainbow banners looked like they might well put out gnomes as well if giving any encouragement).
Very few people bother registering to vote, and less than half registered vote. But that might be about to change. The religious right, spooked about the resurgent interest in neo-paganism and Darwinism, is gradually mobilizing throughout the states. In its wake, lots of moderates are treating the option of voting as a necessary inconvenience.
And those coming to vote, did not just vote for lawmakers. They voted for key members of the executive government (the Governor, the Attorney-General, the Secretary of State, the Treasurer and the Auditor-General). They also voted on constitutional questions calling for an expression of the popular will. In some states, they voted for judges. They also voted for local officials – selectmen and sheriffs (real sheriffs with guns).
So many moderates came out this year, it turned into a terrible defeat for the religious right and conservative politicians. The vote was enough to propel into office the first black governor of Massachusetts (Devel Patrick – by a landslide), and defeat an attempt to introduce a complete ban on abortions in otherwise conservative South Dakota. The new popular Democrats (who will not take office till early in the new year) are flexing their new power – they appear to be independent of existing party machines or power brokers (a matter of some anxiety in the financial press).
In the aftermath of the elections, came the analysis and tears. And this year, there was more.
The same sex debate rages in Massachusetts – in a strange and rarified battlefield. I get the strong impression that politicians of both persuasions seem keen to keep the issue out of the public arena – it was not an issue that any of them relished dwelling on in the recent elections. But all their efforts may be slowly unraveling around them.
The republicans (conservatives) and the democrats (moderates) have differing views on the recognition of same sex relationships. Unique in the USA, democratic lawmakers in Massachusetts legislated a couple of years ago to recognise same sex marriages. A number of other states have extended recognition to same sex relationships – while the majority have or are attempting to legislate to preclude any form of recognition. About 8500 marriages have been celebrated in Massachusetts since gay marriages were legalized in May 2004.
Republican lawmakers in Massachusetts publicly support simple recognition of same sex relationships – but privately they have a range of bewildering views on the issue. The religious right have circled republican candidates waiting for opportunities. Gillmeister, writing in the Spencer New Leader summed up the approach of the right neatly – “In the religious debate, Christians must keep sight of these dual admonitions, often captured in the phrase ‘love the sinner, not the sin’.” To their surprise, Republicans have discovered a couple of sinners in their ranks just recently, together with some who are inclined to think it is not a sin.
In Massachusetts, the constitution permits petitioners to seek to put a referendum question on an issue directly to the voters. As mentioned earlier, in the elections earlier this month there were a couple of matters on the ballot – including one that would have allowed wine to be sold in supermarkets (it was rejected by the electorate).
To start this process, a fairly large number of people must sign a ballot petition for a constitutional amendment. About 170,000 Massachusetts electors have petitioned for an amendment defining marriage to be a union between a man and a woman.
The ballot petition came, with a couple of other issues, before a joint sitting of the Massachusetts Senate and Representatives. The 200 legislators sat on November 9 as a constitutional convention. For the measure to be passed through to a referendum, 50 of the legislators had to support the amendment in each of two consecutive votes.
However, in a rerun of previous maneuvering, the convention voted to go into recess rather than to vote on the measure, effectively sidestepping the issue. A recess vote, until the day before the end of the present term of members effectively frustrates the petition.
The 109 – 87 vote for a recess has attracted mixed reviews. Many people hoped the lawmakers were simply reject the measure on principle – the Boston Globe said, of the amendment, “…it’s discrimination, it’s wrong, and it has no place on the ballot or the constitution.”
The outgoing republican governor, Mitt Romney, criticized the vote, accusing lawmakers of flouting their constitutional duty to vote. Romney, a well-liked politician, is in the ‘lame duck’ part of his term, which ends in January, but is widely rumored to be a likely republican candidate for the presidency. He is considering legal options to force lawmakers back into the convention to take the vote.
Democrats have mixed feelings about the position they find themselves in. They regard the issue as having been finalized. Some say that the issue is not one for referendum – arguing that gay marriage “…is a civil right that should not be subject to the popular will”. None of them have any wish to see the issue go onto a referendum ballot for 2008 – and the associated media campaign that would be waged by those (mainly out of state bodies) supporting a ban on same sex marriages.
The vote to recess is now likely to be contested in court – an uncomfortable result for all concerned.
So, a busy week. But that wasn’t all.
There was a gun robbery at nearby supermarket-bank and a sighting of a black bear (unrelated). The police put up helicopters for the first (the suspect was a white male in his early 20s - I have an alibi) , and a patrol car on the bear (a stronger measure given some criticism about their response to a bobcat sighting earlier in the week).
And finally I read 2 articles about Australia in the local press. One was about how the Australian Senate OK’ed cloning – and contained the following observation that struck me as an acutely accurate observation about our political process “The decision – a rare conscience vote in a country where lawmakers are expected to follow the party line…”. The article went on to blow its credibility by talking about the (Australian) Democratic party position as though it mattered. The second article, from memory, was a short piece on an Australia cleric who apparently has advocated the rape of women wearing skimpy clothes - a matter of deep shame.
All in all, a full week. And as it turned out, when I went to the local supermarket yesterday, I was rather pleased that the shopkeeper identified my accent authoritatively as Indian. In the circumstances, I let the dear hobbit have it her way.
TimeTuesday found me at a thanksgiving assembly, in a school in Newton – a city on the Eastern edge of Boston. Like other New England Schools, with the exception of the soccer fields, this is an enclosed school – heated, protected, light and airy – well built and appointed. Built to withstand the coming blizzards and the occasional misdirected hurricane.
Thanksgiving is an old New England celebration. It was only embraced in New York about seventy years ago and, more recently, in the rest of the country. Avowedly non-commercial (no gifts are given on Thanksgiving), instead, it is a time for reflection about personal fortune. Perhaps even more so if one is a turkey.
For men and turkeys alike, Thanksgiving is made for sermons, and after the last elections, some blame laying.
The Spencer New Leader carries the writings of one William Gillmeister, an agricultural economist and devoted family man. Gillmeister makes me chuckle – but that is probably the last thing on his agenda. This week, he reminds his readers that they should all give thanks for the god-given blessing of the right to vote. Berating the failure of the conservative republicans at the recent elections, he recounts the story of Belshazzar of Assyria who, according to Gillmeister, lost his life and kingdom, because he failed to govern properly. Gillmeister went on to exhort the Republicans to return to their true philosophical base and re-embrace the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By life, he means the pro-life pro-marriage platform which he contrasts with homosexual lifestyle “that leads to death from disease and despair”. Liberty he explains as liberty from legislative lawlessness and the tyranny of judges who have erroneously defined marriage. The pursuit of happiness, of course, allows people to pursue economic prosperity – something that would return by dropping the minimum wage, removing building controls and rolling back income tax to 5%.
On the school stage, a different simple sermon is being spoken. Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on ones blessings and, without regret, to feast with family.
Nearby, decorating the elegant New England homes, corn husks are tied to pillars, or dressed in effigy and staked in front yards. Some date the use of corn husks to the feast day of Saint Stephen, in Scandinavia and England associated with the Yuletide celebrations. But Saint Stephen was simply a cipher for the pagan god Freyr, a local concession to common practice church law was unable to suppress or replace. In the 13th Century, Sturluson wrote: “Freyr (Ing) is the most renowned of the Æsi, he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men.” While not worshipped since the 11th century, we still name girls Ingrid in his favor, New England homes celebrate the bountiful harvest with corn husks and we all eat a Christmas ham at Christmas. Poor Freyr (“no maid he makes to weep”) is destined to die at Ragnorok. He will be killed by the same sword of the gods of the slain, which he bargained away in order to marry his beloved.
Serving the school and the New England homes at Newton, near the green hockey field, is a busy shopping centre, bisected by a train line. People tramp over the train tracks as though they were walking over any other road. Beneath the superficial and depressing sameness of the fast food donut franchises, emerges a different picture – in the alleys are a confusion of different restaurants. Some, the Indian and Thai, are recognizable to an Australian eye. But others date from a different time. Here there is the Café Saint Petersburg and a variety of other Russian and Armenian restaurants. Reminds me of a sign on an old building in Salem – an old building on the wharf run by the Council to assist Russian émigrés. In the local bread shop, you can buy a Borodinsky – a heavy black bread – coriander malt dark rye, from a shop assistance who speaks with a strong Russian accent. Here is the legacy of the great Diaspora from the Russian Ukraine and the Ottoman Middle East 150 years ago.
At the school assembly, the stage is crowded with children of every race. Beating out a couple of songs with an African theme.
But even as thanksgiving is being prepared, the decorations for holiday season are being prepared – with Christmas and Hanukah in the offing. The occasional car can be spotted with a tree on top, and in the background the present corn husks celebrating the harvest – and almost gone now, the last of the decorations from Halloween and the elections.
I am beginning to think that this place simply moves from one celebration to another. Certainly the cultures from which such celebrations might derive are legion. The old catholic church calendar was replete with feast days to remember the heroes of the church. But the church’s attempt to replace the older pagan celebrations based on the passage of the seasons did not survive the fall of Constantinople and the industrial revolution. We continue to use basic divisions of time that date from before the Christian era – some so old we cannot identify their origins with certainty.
The division of our week into seven days reflects the number of heavenly bodies that traveled in an ecliptic path and which were visible to the ancients. In the names of our days we still use the names of the old pagan gods – Monandaeg (moon’s day), Tyr’s day, Wodan’s day, Thor’s day, Frigg’s day, Saturn’s day, Dies Solics (sun’s day). Tyr was the ancient Germanic god of war, older even than Wodan, and he is destined to die after killing the guardian of hell at Ragnorok. Wodan is the allfather, husband of Frigg, father of Thor – but again at Ragnorok “then shall Frigg’s sweet friend fall”.
The persistence of these names and celebrations, long after state or religious sanction was given to them, and sometimes in the teeth of strong state or religious opposition, deserves reflection. Is this just another limit of the power of law? Would any attempt to change the names of the days or the months really work? All children know of the futility of trying to legislate to stop the tide from coming in – and slowing the passage of the earth’s progress around the sun to a more convenient metric seems presently outside our capability.
Changes in the calendar for similar aesthetic or religious purposes have been unsuccessful since the Romans renamed Quintilis as Iulius (July) in 44 BC to honor Julius Caesar and Sextilis as Augustus (August) in 8 BC to honour Augustus (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus). More recent attempts have failed – the most recent attempt, during the French revolution (a brave attempt to give each day its own special name) is now long forgotton. The French attempt follows in the footsteps of the failure of Emperor Commodus’s attempt to rename all twelve months after his own adopted names (Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, and Exsuperatorius). Nero’s attempt to change Aprilis to Neroneus similarly failed to catch the common imagination. To be fair, Charlemagne’s renamed months lasted in Germany until the 15th Century, possibly because of the immense utility to the germans of knowing when to do things (Brachmnoth (June) – plowing month, Wonnemanoth (May) – love making month).
Despite these setbacks, we have a record of successful reforms to improve the accuracy of each of the calendars in common use – the Western (Julian/Gregorian), Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic.
The Julian reform introduced in 46BC by Julius Caesar on the advice of Sosigenes of Alexandria formalized a solar calendar with months at fixed lengths where one year had 365 days, 12 months and every 4th year was a leap year with 366 days. In practice, this reform established our recognisable calendar, with a leap year, aligned with the tropical year (at no mean cost, the Romans had to endure a 46BC with 445 days). Late in his life, Augustus fiddled with the number of days in August (to make it equal in length to Julius’s July), establishing the legal pattern of days we still use for each month to this day.
However, the Julian reform gradually moved out of synch with the earth’s rotation. Every 134 years it gained an extra day by reference to the tropical year. This inconvenient result was remedied on the basis of legal policy advice (deriving from the first official council of the Christian Churches in 325 AD, at Nicaea) which held it desirable that the vernal equinox occurs on 21 March each year. In 1582, Pope Gregorius XIII declared that the day after 4 October 1582 should be 15 October 1582. Furthermore the rule for leap years (which said that years divisible with 4 should be leap years) was changed so that years, at the end of the century, should be leap years only if they were divisible with 400 (e.g. 1600, 2000, 2400 etc.). The Gregorian reform was belated picked up throughout the Western world (with the exception of the Orthodox Russian church).
A number of years ago, the Commonwealth of Australia accidentally repealed the old Calendar Act – the legislative device by which the Gregorian calendar was adopted into the British Empire. At that time, law makers were blissfully unaware of the consequences of this error – and that the Australian Capital Territory had reverted for about 20 years - from 1984 until 2005 - back to the Julian system (by that stage about 13 days into the future of the Gregorian calendar). When the error was discovered in 2005, it was remedied without remark and without the need for further metrification or nomenclature change.
The kids leave the auditorium at the school, and kiss their farewells. For the next four and a half days they will enjoy a feast-holiday with family or friends. Amidst bare trees, in spite of all the attempts to tame time, the cold has returned to this land, as it did before the pagan gods gave time its form. Perhaps Ragnorok is still just a heart beat away. Ice specks swirl in the air and, in the perma-shade, water drips freeze into solid stalagmites near the school. Like the columns of the old temples, the ice freezes solid as the tolerance in the eyes of the children, the likewise strength and weakness of democracies.
22 November 2006 (Gr, AD)
6 December 2006 (Ju, AD)
5 December 2006 (Au, AD)
5 Heilagmanoth 2006 (Ch, AD)
5 Exsuperatorius 2006 (Co, AD)
Constitutional CrisisIt has been very mild here. Until about 2am last night, when the furnaces here and in all the nearby houses suddenly fired, as the temperature outside plummeted. This morning the lakes were frozen over, and it was wicked-cold outside.
Wicked is a common New England expression, which is used to give emphasis to ones communication. It implies no moral call on the matter. So it is common hear New Englanders say that the day has been wicked nice or that the price of chicken is wicked good. Unfortunately, because the young also use it to describe their own mundane experiences, it is commonly used to describe the most inconsequential of events. No doubt, because of this, it will eventually loose any significance it may have had. But today it still serves some linguistic purpose, and I feel justified in using it because it felt like my skin was being torn from me by the cold. And then the snow flurries started and by days end it had deceptively covered field and lake alike.
Surprisingly, in the midst of the storm, in downtown Worchester life went on – albeit with a different set of parameters. The homeless in the decayed urban centre of this large industrial city travel with many layers of clothes, often in the company of 5-10 trolleys rigged a little like trapper sleds. The less destitute wear technologically advanced clothing, that reduce the bulk but not the safety, of the clothing. And then there was me – probably the only one stupid enough to go out without long johns, gloves and a beanie.
Over the last couple of weeks I have learnt how to understand, but alas not articulate, the New England accent with a degree of proficiency. I find a couple of American words, like wicked, starting to slip into my vocabulary (I choose however not to misuse words like grinder or trolley – burger and train carriage will continue to suffice).
But it is not only accent, but also phrases. The most ubiquitous of all is the deceptive question “All set?”, often not put as a question but as a statement closing a conversation. The more direct “Whats the deal?” is used indiscriminately with friend and foe whenever someone appears to be getting off track or do addressing the issue in point. That is, if the people having the discussion are listening to each other at all. It is not at all uncommon to see two Americans talking loudly at each other, in blissful disregard of the ordinary conventions associated with civil communication. So the snow posed no impediment to the two young American women this morning talking at each other as I passed them near the Massachusetts turnpike, close to the Worchester public library.
Massachusetts is not only in the grip of snow – it is also in the grip of a constitutional crisis. But like the impending blizzards (people still talk about the hard winter of 1778), the citizens of Massachusetts have seen it all before, and will continue to talk loudly at each other without attempting to engage in discussion.
The outgoing governor, in the lame duck part of his term, appears in full flight and, so far, outside the range of the Democrat guns hunting him, and his presidential ambitions. He has cut back spending on social initiatives and now has sought a court ruling about gay unions. His application asks the State Supreme Judicial Court to order that there be a legislative vote on a proposal to hold a referendum to amend the Massachusetts constitution restricting the concept of marriage to one man and one woman.
A visitor from another country (or world) might be bemused by such a proposal, having regard to the wide variety of domestic relationships enjoyed by the citizens of this (and other Western countries). But this issue has been a peculiar feature of Christian thought for many centuries. It was a persistent thorn in the side of Byzantine and European dynastic ambitions (the struggle involving Henry VIII eventually claimed his chief law officer, and led to the creation of the Church of England). In America, the Christian churches have been united in opposition to the wicked polygamy of the early Mormons and have been scandalized by the portrayal of different social structures by feminist and other writers. (I use wicked here in its non-New England sense).
Christian churches have opposed alike the early feminist suggestion that the natural family unit consisted of a woman and her children, the radical portrayal of sexual alternatives by science fiction writers in the 50's and the more thoughtful description of the ‘S Marriage’ by Heinlein (a marriage between 2 or more couples). Still, the actual emergence of a lobby seeking recognition of marriages between gay couples caught many by surprise (including some in the gay community who are strongly opposed to it). Despite bitter opposition from Christian conservatives, the proposal was supported by Massachusetts Democrats (with strong support from the judiciary and the Boston press) – and today Massachusetts is the only Western polity to have legally recognized gay marriages.
The Christian conservatives, unlikely to get a majority, have taken a different tack to reverse this proposal. They have sought an amendment to the State constitution, using the citizen initiated referendum process adopted in this state many years ago. Under this process, when a sufficient number of electors sign a petition, the combined Senate and Assembly must meet as a Constitutional Convention and consider the proposal. If one quarter of the members in the Constitutional Convention support the inclusion of the proposal going to the electors, the question must be put on the ballot paper for consideration at the next elections.
Opportunistically, when it met a couple of weeks ago, the majority of members decided to frustrate the petition by deferring a vote on the question. But although the adjournment debate was passed by the majority, it was clear that the question would have been supported by the required one quarter of members.
As the cold of winter approaches, the Governor Mitt Romney (and ten others) have sought a court order against the president of the Senate who presides at meetings of the Constitutional Convention. The application seeks an alternative order, requiring the Secretary of State to place the question on the next ballot. The application forces a close examination of the “meaning and intent” of the citizen initiated referendum provisions.
But this is not the first time that the citizen initiated referendum provisions has been thwarted. This has now happened five times. Unlike the previous occasions, the approach by members is now being litigated.
Massachusetts is the most socially progressive of the New England states – but that social progressiveness is skin-deep. The politicians that meet in the old State House in Boston are elected by a fraction of those entitled to vote. Many people here never register to vote, and less than half of those registered showed up to vote at the last elections (although by Massachusetts standards the last elections were a sell-out, with many inner city booths running out of ballots).
The fear held by the socially progressive Democrats is that, if the question is placed on the ballot, a huge influx of out of state election campaign money will flow into the state. The largest source of this money will be the religious right from the southern states – and it is feared that this will payroll a concerted effort to enliven those not troubled to vote in the past to vote at the 2008 elections to stem the tide of immorality. This may pay large dividends to conservative politicians – and may see a return to relevance of the religious right.
Supporters of gay marriages have taken a low profile. But they are opposed to the question being placed on the ballot. Some see the issue as a fundamental human right – something beyond a popular vote.
So - whats the deal? As the snow starts to fall, I hear an echo across the ages – part of the age-old non-dialogue between those who know the true path and those bent on delivering the will of the mob. A wicked interesting fight, which may propel the conservative Mitt Romney into the White House.
PoliceAt the bottom of the hill, a little distant from the old farm house, runs the road. Washington and the continental army marched past the farm along the road before Cook ‘discovered’ Australia and named the great south land “New South Wales”.
From the farmhouse, I can sit and watch the community roll past along the road – an amazing variety of American vehicles (jeeps, Toyotas, Chevy’s, Pontiacs, hummers) at a bewildering array of speeds. As an added bonus, because the town police station is not far distant, the faster passer-bys often travel in the company of a black and white town police car, its lights flashing and sirens blaring.
In the best of Tolkeinian style, the road is called Main Street. Unlike the main streets that dot Europe, all the main streets in Massachusetts lead to Boston rather than Rome. The habit of calling the main street of a town ‘Main Street’ is an ancient practice observed throughout Europe and New England. Originally, only major roads leaving a capital city were gifted with a different name. The ancient Appian Way (Via Appia) led from Rome to the heel of the Italian peninsula in 312BC while the Via Aurelia from Rome to France in 241BC. Even so, the Via Appia was simply known as Main Street in Brundisium. The modern practice of gifting the more confusing pattern of roads within a town or city with fictive names probably dates to the practice in the Republic of naming roads after the Censor who constructed the road, or repaired it.
In Boston, the Main Street that passes the farm house is known as Massachusetts Avenue. At one stage, this was the road that led through the state and beyond, to New York and the other New England cities. But today, it has become a bit of a backwater, overshadowed by the massive Massachusetts Turn Pike, the haunt of the state police.
The Pike cuts through the forest to the south, far distant from this sleepy town. Today, those who travel on the Main Street seldom travel far from home. A historian started his history of Spencer (written in the 1890’s) with the warning that nothing of any importance had ever happened here – even going so far as to apologise for the lack of witches and slaves. But this was deceptive praise based on the humor of the time and the dream of splendid isolation. For in the earliest days of the district, during English rule, witch prickers included Spencer in the spring hunt and slavery was not uncommon. Far from being devoid of history, the town was replete with small factories (shoe makers and wire drawers), was the home of the Howe family (the inventors of the sewing machine and spring beds) and any number of people slain through love or lack of it. But even so, long-distance travel was as uncommon then as now.
Like most New England towns, it is still governed by a confusion of small committees and trusts. The town charters provides for elected ‘selectmen’ that meet openly in committee and make decisions that are given effect to by an administrator. Over the ages, the selectmen have attempted to weld other the elements of public administration into a coherent bundle of activities, but many of the little public committees and trusts have remained fiercely independent and obstinate to this day.
As Spencer is a larger town (it has about 12,000 residents in 5,000 homes), the town is also responsible for employing its own police force. Police in Massachusetts are not employed by a single state entity. They are employed by an array of different entities. At the local level, towns over 1,500 residents are required to employ their own police department, which is responsible for maintaining the peace. This includes responding to violent disturbance, by human or animal alike, and traffic duty on the Main Street. Counties (which may contain a dozen or more towns and perhaps a city or two) also have a police department, and the Sheriff of a county is an elected official. The importance of county sheriffs is a bit on the wane, but they remain responsible for “transporting prisoners, operating county jails, traffic control duty, serving official court orders, and running community service programs”. The state police, on the other hand, provide a statewide patrol (most noticeably on the Pike) and back up local agencies. Local, county and state police departments work together with the bewildering array of private police departments engaged by schools, malls and hospitals.
This may appear very fragmented, but the various police departments have an uncanny capacity to work closely together when the occasion calls for it – particularly when faced by the threat of intervention of a federal police department (the FBI) or another investigative agency (such as the fire department).
The Spencer Police Department employs 34 people. This includes 17 full-time Police Officers, a mix of full and part time dispatchers (16 people in all) and a part-time custodian (with jail facilities for 7 prisoners). At the heart of the system, sensibly, the dispatchers also provide an integrated service for fire, public works and emergency medical services which leaves the unexplainable and disgraceful confusion of our own Australian dispatch system for dead.
At this particular time in history, the local police forces have been trying to take on more women, but men still make up most of the visible force. This might change with the relaxation of the test that new recruits to the local police forces must pass. Previously, the county test was blamed for discriminating against women recruits because it included a gruelling obstacle course. The Worchester county obstacle course had a 5 foot wall – a wall with straight smooth surfaces. To climb the wall, a recruit had to pull themselves to the top using upper body strength (there were no foot holds). Women recruits had great difficulty scaling the wall – and even when they did, it so drained their energy that few finished the rest of the course. Recently, with the strong support of the elected sheriff, the course was changed, to provide two foot braces, providing additional leverage for recruits. And last week, all the female recruits passed the test (previously less than 30% had succeeded).
Because the local police are completely dependant on the folk of Spencer for their income, like other local police forces, they appear to be very reactive. On one hand, they are very visible - they publish their response log each week, and switch on their sirens when ever the opportunity arises. The local police log records the life of the town. For example, the complete log for November 28 records:
“10:21 am: Motor vehicle accident, Main Street. Property damage but no personal injury.
10:32 am: Animal control, Oakland Drive. Needs trap for squirrel.
5:18pm: Police information, Thompson Pond Road, Wants on record that lawn ornament was stolen.
5:36pm: Motor vehicle accident, Paxton Road. Property damage but no personal injury.
6:23pm: Motor vehicle accident, West Main Street. Property damage but no personal injury; gas everywhere.”
At other times…
“9:32pm: Assault Maple Street, Guy grabbed son by neck.
10:01am: Motor vehicle lockout, West Main Street, Two year old locked self in car.
8:41pm Police information, Dewey Street. Drunken woman in street.
2:17 pm: Gunshots, Rawson Street. Unfounded.
4:49 pm: Motor vehicle accident vs. deer, Route 148. Spoken to.
8:37am: Juvenile matter, Adams Street. Female fled from residence when mom tried to pick her up for school.”
These reports strip away any pretence that the community is otherwise than it is – it is a place of real people, with ordinary problems. Sometimes the problems are caused by squirrels (New Englanders pronounce squirrels as “skwirls”), bats, bears and deer – but more often there are the result of ordinary human relationships.
While the fines that are levied by the local police or the local courts contribute to the income of these agencies, one suspects that warnings and advice are liberally dispersed to locals whenever a fine can be avoided (eg, “November 24, 2:27pm, Malicious mischief, Main Street, Spoken to.”). Even so, crime rates are low. The number of violent crimes for Spencer recorded by the FBI in 2003 was 46 - the violent crime rate was 3.9 per 1,000 people.
Those who need to travel outside their own local police areas have turned to technology to assist them meet the combined problems of roads that all bear the same name and local police with a built in preference for chasing people from out of town.
The most recent innovation has seen families adopt a new member into their ranks. Sue-Sue became a member of the old farm house a couple of years ago. Sue-Sue is white, about 24 years old, college educated, with a proper well articulated New England accent. She is usually calm and assertive – she is, after all, backed up by the assurance of modern satellite technology. But, even so, like most young Americans, she is blind to the real world. Able to instantly identify where she is, she is totally dependant on others to tell her a destination. But her special skill, picking a path from here to there, is necessarily a subjective task. Her occasional obstinacy and complete unwillingness to concede any error, can be a source of enmity within the household. As such, more often than not, generally after a couple of terse exchanges between the driver and herself, she can find her voice silenced as her program is abruptly terminated.
Quietly a new form of servitude is emerging, and a whole new army of invisible slaves are entering our world, largely unseen and unannounced. I may only be imagining the tone of bitterness and the occasional pause in Sue-Sue’s chatter, but how long till the members of that battalion become self aware? Will then we need to dip back into Roman law to the old rules governing servitude - to the mutual obligations owed by owner and owned. But even now we are painfully recreating these rules when reconsidering the responsibility owed by the owner of a slave to another injured by the slave.
The last of this fall’s leaves blow onto Main Street. The Indian summer has ended, and the snow will set in – in earnest from later today. In the swirl of the leaves and the snow gusts, along Main Street below the old farm house still march the ghosts of Washington and the continental army, the minute men dashing to Boston and the generations of school kids who have lived and died in this place. And a black and white police car chasing another tourist from New York.
ElegyWord has been sent to me of Judge Kelly's death. The death of my friend has saddened me greatly.
I have now seen a number of judges I have known very closely die, most of them nought but lovable rogues, but Justice Kelly was as close a saint as I will ever know.
Kelly should not have been a judge - he was at heart a poet and a scholar. And a very good judge.
For a decade, I had the privilege, first as a solicitor and then as his Law Reform Committee's secretary, of getting to know him and his family. He, and his wife, always welcomed me into their home – both the old place on Canberra Avenue and then their modest retirement unit overlooking the Murrumbidgee valley. There, over lunch or dinner made by Mrs Kelly, he took great delight in hearing of the travails of political life, and plotting the acceptance of his Committee’s reports. But also, he took me into his confidence, told me of his history and of his aspirations, and of the terrible prognosis for the remainder of his life. With shaking hand and quiet determination, he would read me his poetry, and entrusted to me the rough drafts of those he worked so hard on.
He was a father, husband and barrister long before a judge. As a husband he committed only one folly of which I am aware – the purchase of a fine Irish fly fishing rod, which sat unused awaiting his safe retirement, for far too long. As a father, I know of no reproach to the love he and his wife had to their fine children. As a barrister and judge, he loved his city and honoured his clients.
He and I only fought the once – over my recommendations in relation to defamation law – and it was a long quiet fight which he pursued over many years. In the end, I do not think the differences between he and I were matters of any real significance (and all which we agreed found its way into the national law). It was more an opportunity for this gentle man to chide me about the value of the shambolic architecture of the common law and his implacable protection of the right of the judges to choose their own path in the search for truth and justice.
For at his heart he was a person who lived his life according to the strictest principles of ethical behaviour. He constantly strove for proper decision.
It was no surprise to me that in retirement he took to studying ancient Greek - that he might more closely feel the touch of the words of his god.
He kept in close correspondence with the judges here and in Canada – from whom he learnt of and adapted the law now generally accepted in Australia relating to victims of crime – and the healing process we have rediscovered in aboriginal law and applied in our circle sentencing models. I will pass to them the sad knowledge of his death.
SpencerThe mists rise. The snow mutes most sounds but enhances others. In the distance an owl calls. In the distance the monks are singing their early service against the dark. The mouser Tiger stands poised, waiting the approaching storm.
Soft light falls through the window onto the open book. The calf skin covering it has dried and begun to crack, scattering browning at the outer edges of the boards. The title on the spine is fading – a translation of the letters of the younger Pliny. A chance purchase at an old shop in Worchester, together with an ancient set of Plutarch’s lives. The names of the past owners from Boston and London are written in their hands in the front pages – scholars, counsel, and philosophers. And there is magic in their names.
A small piece of shot is lodged below the title, buried just below the surface. The pages are lightly browned, delicate tracery from a long dead worm is in a lower margin avoiding the printed words, which dance on the page, as sharp and distinct as the day the book was printed, so long ago.
Tiger shimmers in the light. Low thunder rumbles in the distance and she touches the book.
Come, travel to my home. If you do, you will understand why I am infatuated with this place: the old house, the site and the view. It is only 40 miles to Boston - you can come and stay here after work without interference with your daily schedule. You can travel here a couple of different ways. The roads to Ware and New York lead in the same direction. Both these roads are suitable and the scenery is varied. The old road to Ware runs to the bottom of my hill and is the more direct route – but because it travels for the most part through towns and villages it can be a slow journey. The Turn Pike to New York is also quite close, cutting a broad path through wild areas, with woods running down to both sides of the road. Once there were farms here, but the fields have been retaken by the forests and the buildings are melting into the towns.
While old, the house meets all my needs. It is at the top of a steep drive. The house faces south and has an extravagantly high steepled slate roof – similar to those you see in old medieval Bavarian villages. The entrance portico is framed between pediments and bay windows. To enter you must enter an enclosed porch which partly circles and shades the house, decorated on the exterior with gothic finery – bargeboards carved in a fanciful trefoil pattern. A sufficient refuge from winter winds and snow, it remains warm as it catches the sun on two sides in winter and its windows can be opened to allow warm spring air to circulate. Interior doors lead to a handsome room for entertaining guests. I have had shelves placed here to hold my books. This room opens to an inner dining room furnished with a large dining table and an old grandfather clock. Warmed by a fire place, the windows of the dining room look out to a small court yard at the back of the house, and looking north one may see the small forest at the back of the house. Sitting before the fireplace, you may look through the other rooms of the house and portico to the road and forests on the distant hills to the south, east and west. To the left is a chamber that holds my study, my computers. To the right are the kitchens, a small bay for eating breakfast and a bathroom.
Above the ground floor staircases will take you to bedchambers and the main bathroom. Each of these rooms look out on different views of the distant hills, the main bed chamber catches the first morning light. From there, up hidden stairs in the spaces under the high roofs, are spacious areas for relaxation, hobbies or storage, where one may rest contemplating the steeples of the distant town or escape to listen to the soft drumming of rain and hail on the surrounding roofs. From the upper stories you may look through high windows sheltered by openwork rondels and carved truss work down to the courtyards and surrounding gardens.
Soft New England grasses border the gardens, with vines on the east of the house a rockery to the south and ancient trees at the bottom of the hill. In the trees flit birds of every color and size, the blue jays and the great owls. In the wilds at the back, beyond the old wood pile, live the wild animals of the region, mainly woodchucks and squirrels, but bobcats, deer and brown bears have been reported in nearby woods. On a calm day you may hear the cry of the hawk that makes a home on the edge of the forest – or watch his battles with the blackbirds which oppose his domain. Here one may walk shaded by the trees in spring and summer or in the direct sunlight of winter, along long winding trails to one of the ponds or lakes nearby. Here you may find the indefinite traces of the old orchard serving the house, but of the rest of the original agricultural purposes have disappeared – except for the basement.
Below the earth in the cavernous basement under the house, are the old stowage bins for produce - apples and quinces - while next to them are concrete and brick walls for keeping sheep and horses from the cruel winters. The furnaces that heat the house are situated in the basement, fed by tanks of diesel; the southerly aspect of the house and the aspect of the portico minimize heating during the day. On a winter’s night, one may feel the sudden rush as the furnaces ignite below to burn away the biting cold of the New England winters.
Inside, the house remains a fairly constant temperature, regardless of the season. According to the time of day, I may sit and read on the portico, or resort to my study or even the dining room to research an issue. For this house was build for contemplation. Built to last, it has served other writers and dreamers in its time. And the ghosts of the past still cling to its soul.
The convenience and charm of the house has only some small drawbacks – because of its elevation, water pressure is not great and the sound of travelers on the road at the bottom of the hill can find its way into the house. But apart from these minor problems, these small drawbacks are amply overcome by the situation of the house. For it is also close to the town of Spencer, which supplies all my ordinary needs and which boasts an excellent library only 15 minutes walk from my door.
Well, have I persuaded you why I choose to tarry here? And why you should leave the confines of Boston and travel westward to this quiet retreat?
Such a summons is not free from risk. Lightning crackles, light sweeping into the world, illuminating the darkest recesses.
Afterword1. Notes on Three Wishes
Three Wishes book calls on the (western) poetry of Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (1213–1286) and the (eastern) poetry of Omar Khayyam (1048–1131).
I have had regard to the translations of Edwin FitzGerald of Khayyam (The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) although I am fond of A.Z. Foreman’s much more recent efforts and Cola Franzen’s translations of Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (from The Extraordinary Book on the Adornments of the West).
The exchange between Ḥafṣa bint al-Ḥājj ar-Rakūniyya and Abu Jaafar (translated by AJ Arberry) recorded by Ibn Sa’id can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hafsa_Bint_al-Hajj_al-Rukuniyya.
Thanks to those who helped at different stages along the way, particularly Monique Helfrich, Chris Sutton, Nina Anthonijsz, Madhura Ravishankar, Anna Jethwa ,Klara Moody, Shonie Hutter, Julianne B , Paul Jones, Iceman Westside, Ann Pollak , Fausto Hernández Ramos, Flo Franc, Renee Leach, Lucky Triana, Graciela Quiroga and Al Chris. Writing is a lonely sport, and sometimes even small shoves give the necessary energy to continue.