There were once three sisters who lived on three different hills. They loved one another very much, but because the hills were so steep, they seldom visited each other in person. So when they wished to speak, they would beseech the wind to ferry their voices across the valleys, over woods and marshes. When all three spoke together, Aeolus would blow his gyres, circling, visiting each dwelling in turn.
Though the sisters shared an indelible family bond, their temperaments were very different. The eldest sister loved nature, its colours and smells and cycles. She loved living things and watched minutely their scurryings and feastings and conversings. She wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by its beauty, and so she had built her home of earth, threaded with insects and mosses and fungi and worms. The sighs of her bedroom walls lulled her to sleep each night.
The middle sister, on the other hand, saw life not as a torrent of ephemeral personal experience, but something deeper, connected to the wider universe. For her, life was an opportunity to participate in eternity. And so she made great overtures to future existence, and in building her house lavished her efforts on the austere grandeur of cold marble, rutilant bronze and darkest mahogany. It could be seen for miles, its spires glinting in the evening sunlight, a castle to outlive us all.
The youngest sister was possessed with a vivacity, a hunger for life’s marrow. Her joys and her sorrows and her furies followed one another on fleet foot, impatience matched only by fierce irrepressible imagination. She grasped the world around and within her, and still demanded more. Ever raging, flickering, writhing, crackling, consuming: her life was entirely her own. So it is only natural that she built her house out of fire.
“Hey there buddy, welcome to Litig bookies.”
“Hi. I was wondering what odds you’re offering on the EPA versus Hottotak Nation case?”
“Just on the verdict?”
“Yeah, just the verdict.”
“Okay, let’s see… At the moment it’s four point two to one in favour of EPA. But it looks like we’ve got another records analysis in the processing queue… It should be done before closing time today provided there are no hold-ups with the other datajobs. You wanna wait for the updated odds?”
“What new records are being analysed?”
“Give me a sec… Ah, a tertiary judge was just selected, and I guess we’re cross-checking her background. For the moment it’s low priority because the case will be open for another couple of months at least. You in this for the long haul, eh?”
“Yeah, I’m kinda interested in the case. Let me look up the new judge myself and I’ll get back to you on that one.”
“D’you want to make any other bets?”
“Um, maybe. Have you got any decisions coming in today – like in the next hour?”
“Aysh, nothing very high-profile, I’m afraid. A couple of alleged labour violations, corporate bankruptcy, tenants’ suits. What kind of thing are you interested in?”
“How about the family court? Divorce settlements, say?”
“… Yeah there’s one which should be done in the next thirty minutes. Ceong-la versus Ceong. No kids, husband’s been accused of alcoholism. Their net liquid worth is a milliard duckets, thereabouts; and at the moment we’re saying it’s gonna be a sixty-forty split. You want the catalogue number to look up their details?”
“Sure. Actually no, whatever, I’ll just put a fifty on sixty-forty. Here. It’s plus or minus two, right?”
“Yup, plus or minus two. Thanks, here’s your receipt. We’ll update it when the decision comes through. And here’s our catalogue number for EPA versus Hottotak in case you want to follow it.”
“Bye! And thanks for betting with Litig bookies!”
[Written on the 1st June 2017]
The first of June 2018 marked twelve months since the United States announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.
Governments of the world, some of them at least, responded with a steely resolve to fill the void of economic and political leadership. But even together they were not powerful enough to compensate. Their economic turbines trembled under the load. Their break-neck progress was powerless to halt the creeping thermometers.
Everywhere, people succumbed to a toxic trifecta of apathy, greed and despair; they calcified into comfortable delusions that the world was a simple place.
The waking world wrung it fists in the twilight; among them were those who had been betrayed by their country, those unlucky spermatozoa who had grown up to weep and wail “Not in our name. Not in our name.”.
Models of international diplomacy which had preserved the twentieth century had failed in the twenty-first. And so, with the blessing of the United Nations’ Secretary-General, the UNFCCC launched a radical initiative to give the Paris deal one last gasping chance.
They opened the agreement to the only actors powerful enough to temper the tantrums of unruly governments. Corporations.
Corporations, acceding to the demands of their shareholders and their PR departments, compiled climate commitments into four-page “N”DCs, and submitted them to the UNFCCC public database. In early March 2019, swarms of CEOs and COOs gathered in Mexico City* to thrash out an agreement, and to embolden one another to strengthen their pledges. Petty rivalries were set aside; everyone knew this was the beginning of a new reality for global business. The universe grew soggy with hand-shakes.
It was indeed a consequential moment. For centuries, private interests had wielded their influence over governments in order to ease the blood of society’s industry into the pockets of a few. They had done so firmly, audaciously, but always quietly. Ever vampiric, they feared the antiseptic qualities of sunlight.
The Mexico City Agreement, this last-ditch addendum to Paris, was a pivotal attempt to nudge the world away from catastrophe. Yet it was also a pivotal nudge toward legitimising corporations as custodians of the public interest. Never before had their prerogative to the power of governments been so explicit.
Centuries of effort had lifted corporations high above the heads of the people, ever closer to the glorious Sun. Finally they could bask in its warm light, and be loved for it.
* The UN denied that this location was chosen out of spite.
[The day after I wrote this story, the European Union announced its intention to cut Washington DC out of climate negotiations and speak directly with individual states, cities and businesses. The plot thickens.]
Marica, four years of age, clutched her daddy’s warm hand as he waited for the Q-train and she waited for him. Her voluminous babble had buoyed their walk; but now she was silent, contemplative, her gaze absorbed by the train tracks’ vast dingy cavity. She had once seen an empty swimming pool being scrubbed by wobble-bellied men in paint-spotted jeans; and though she didn’t consciously remember this image, or even the event itself, the tracks elicited a similar thrill of unnatural foreboding, of something dark and dangerous. She held her father’s gentle hand and felt a surging love, inarticulable and hardly registered. In a moment she would be distracted and would tug and scamper and say “Daddyyy, come oooon”. But for now she was consumed by love, her mind boiling with half-categorised impressions.
Her father who knew everything said, absently, “You know darling, if you come here late at night you sometimes catch a glimpse of a railshark.”. What. The world had been filling her like a balloon, and now this detonation of possibility. She didn’t budge but her grip slackened slightly as she struggled to take in both the sheer magnificence of reality and the magnificence of being able to take it in.
Across the platform, Mike rattled in his body, yearning for something, perhaps to gambol across a glade and lie on a spring mountain and put his hand in a chortling brook. But none of that was available, so he took out his smart-phone, spinning it the right way up with a well practised flick of his wrist, and off it sailed into the void, over one rail and into the groin of another. A heavy clatter. This was what the automated voice had warned him about almost every day.
Thankfully it turned out that the station staff had an extendible gripper in their fish tank; all the other would-be passengers were secretly glad of the spectacle as the balding man in uniform retrieved the phone and returned it to Mike richly smeared with subway grime – the kind of thing that never washes off, at least not in your mind. Mike’s relationship with his phone was changed from that day onwards, infused with heroism and pollution, and the lesser costs of hubris. Though he never explicitly thought about it, the event still water-coloured how bloody provisional it all was. I think this would have been liberating for him had he actually realised.
“I could stay here all day and convince the soil to drink me in.”, said Rose, “And this drinking would quench my thirst too! Sometimes we just need a dose of passivity.”. So she stayed, and her friends stayed with her for a while, speaking amongst themselves, letting her melt in the sunshine and dribble through cracks of the earth, until all that was left were her smiling teeth. And even they were soon commandeered by the ants which flocked around and lifted them up and away, for who knows what purpose. Thus the number of teeth was diminished even as their shadows lengthened, from thirty-two, to thirty-one, to thirty, to twenty-nine, to twenty-eight, to twenty-seven, to twenty-six, to twenty-five, to twenty-four, to twenty-three, to twenty-two, to twenty-one, to twenty, to nineteen, to eighteen, to seventeen, to sixteen, to fifteen, to fourteen, to thirteen, to twelve, to eleven, to ten, to nine, to eight, to seven, to six, to five, to four, to three, to two, to one, to none.
I first met Quyol aboard the HMS Battar, a whaler converted for light freight and well overdue for decommissioning. I was then an apprentice seaman, second class. The captain, a scowling man named Kransky and nicknamed “Cranksky”, had put us in for an unscheduled supply stop at Cardilo, a reasonably-sized harbour town in the southern tip of Portugal. We needed to re-stock on fresh meat, which had abruptly disappeared from our meals when rats chewed though the cables to a refrigeration unit. I was tasked with throwing the thirty kilos of rancid chicken and minced beef overboard. Nobody offered to help.
A party was sent to Cardilo to negotiate the purchase of supplies, and to locate a replacement cable for the fridge unit. Cranksky told me to stay aboard because the engine’s cooling pipes weren’t going to check themselves. They were fine. When I finally returned to the galley, nursing a small burn on my arm, a product of my incompetence, a man wearing two calico neckties and patent vellure sandals was fitting a new cable to the back of the refrigerator. This was Quyol. Standing, he flipped a switch and it spluttered to life. “All done!”, he said to me. “Hey, wanna see something cool?” with a wink. I followed him behind the fridge. There was a great lion there, a lion who’d been waiting a long time to meet me. I knew him. He had accompanied me in my childhood dreams. “Aslan?” I gasped.
No. It was an ordinary lion. It sprang at me, knocked me to the ground and, impervious to my desperate blows, tore out my throat, leaving me to suffocate and drown in my own blood and heaving agony.
Back in the two-thousands, I was strongly of the opinion that to try to understand another person was among the grossest violations of their privacy – empathy as a form of violence. I was convinced that everybody was deeply delicate, that the blinding light of another human venturing too close would bleach their feathers and scorch their eyeballs. So out of respect I kept my distance; I responded to those around simply as they appeared to me; I tried not to let their past get in the way of their present. And I hoped that they would extend to me the same courtesies of staying well away. Do unto others…
Sometimes one can only protect a fragile thing from menace by shielding it; and when the greatest menace is in fact one’s self, the righteous path is therefore to shield it from one’s self. What is this fragile thing? It is also one’s self! Interaction of the self with itself is a small act of self-destruction; and barriers to prevent this are so hard to maintain. I felt –I knew– that a mere touch of my tender flesh would condemn me to a rolling nausea.
In consequence, I cultivated a stubborn ignorance of who I was. All my motivations were shrouded, such that my being comprised merely a collection of behaviours and ambitions to behave. Indeed, it seemed to me that to insert some “person” underneath it all was superfluous. The orchestra could get on without the conductor. Besides, we attend the concert to hear music rather than watch the pompous man at the front. We don’t need him; maybe we shouldn’t have invited him in the first place.
But usually the conductor is already there, waving his little stick with a supposed grandeur that is as earnest as it is preposterous. In this case, I thought, it was perhaps better to leave this gremlin to his thing than to try to dislodge him – to do so might be too painful, and of course he would be bloody thrilled at all the attention.
Similarly, I decided the best course of action was to leave the person who I (presumably) was undiscovered, unpredictable, potentially deep, a natural phenomenon external not only to everyone else’s minds, but to my own consciousness as well. A chandelier that no-one has seen. Thus I would be inscrutable. Thus I would be invincible.
This routine of carrying little with me and leaving little behind me, of being an person-like entity but aspiring to forget the person, this did not lead me to dehumanise other people as some might expect. But it kept me from enjoying humanity, its mess and its swelling and its soaring. For sure I was less interested in others for who they were. And I certainly didn’t need them to legitimise me.
Thus it was alone that I walked across the great moor, with the undergrowth jittering at the sweeping gusts which blew my hair from my eyes as I leaned in, and thrashed it around my face as I turned away. Few birds braved this wind. even the hardy heather seemed shrunken and shivering. Finally it was time for me to turn back; back to my little cottage for a nice cup of Assam tea. I would order from Amazon more tea and a gas bottle and three new quills; and for the rest of the day I would busy myself with doing things rather than being anyone.
I opened the wings of my coat, and the wind blew me home in great kite-bounding leaps. I had to judge my trajectory carefully to avoid the marshy areas; but my shoes did not leak and my body was light, free from the cumbersome baggage of emotion and vulnerability. I was back home in a jiffy, a little lighter from the energy I’d burned. There was no baggage. I had brought nothing with me save the mud clamouring around my boots, and an intention. I cleared my throat. “Hello Alexa. please order more tea and a gas bottle and three new qui–.”. I was wrong. Carefree though my jaunt had been, I had nevertheless brought something back with me, and my sturdy boots were quickly overwhelmed by the bog that had appeared in my floorboards.
As a child, I played alone on the derelict train tracks sandwiched between the dreary damp expanse of Wormwood Scrubs Park and the stoic rise Wormwood Scrubs Prison. This abandoned parcel of land had been thoroughly colonised by hardy fragrant buddleia and treacherous bramble, such that you had to know the right path through the thicket, using as landmarks the feeble struggling plastic bags that might in ten thousand years finally die there. The scape, blanched white by infinite stratus, seemed to have banished even the shadows, except of course for those under the eyes of junkies who traipsed raggedly in the afternoon chill to hunch over their worn spoon, until, one by one, they were transformed and the angels came and kissed their blistered lips. They always kept a respectful distance from me, the dawdling seven-year-old; but the echoes of their braying and their sighs crashed around the gully in monstrous admixed polytones, blending with to lyrical blackbirds and gutsy robins, and the dull fitful rain which rusted the steel tracks and battered those scattered plastic bags who almost seemed to breathe with the wind as each drop struck. Hopping between slimy wooden sleepers in Wellington boots, crunching the grey dusty pebbles, I recited the songs we’d learned in school, I told myself the story of my own life, so that by repetition it would be true. And of course I thought about SuperCat, my invented hero and whose name shared such strong kinship with my own. I realise now that SuperCat had no definite form; he had neither powers, nor nemeses. He was a notion so obvious that he needed no introduction, no superficial trappings of tangibility: he was a hero, and that was enough to personify my longings and childish ambitions. Stories need such little “substance” in the mind of a child who is content for them to exist for themselves only. Adults are obsessed with communicating, organising their minds into paragraphs and lacing them with meaning and wisdom and comedy and a twist. But this is entertainment for them. The child has his own logic and value and priorities, uunshakableuntil adults wear his down to a mere recapitulation of themselves. On one occasion that I remember vividly, I was throwing stones at the tracks, marvelling at the sound of made contact, picking the next stone with care, in my woollen mittens, to avoid shards of green glass. Clang. Clang. Tschpbtck a tumbling when my aim was false. Clang – and this one bounced back at me so I could pick it up and throw it again. Dissatisfied with the concentration required for my game, and with the interruption to my hypnosis, I found a ruddy crumbling tailpipe and hit the tracks directly with that. The clanging came from two sources now – the metal of the tracks and of the tailpipe, and a rattle, as my august gong spoke to the world: Clang. Clang. Clang.
“Are you tired of having to eat food all the bloody time? Three times a day, every single day: the drudgery of shovelling squidgy sustenance into your face! Well you know, it doesn’t have to be that way. Science shows that our bodies extract only a tiny fraction of the energy stored in food – if we could just access the other 99.99%, a single banana could keep you going for decades! Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to you an all-new cutting-edge innovation, RADOMEAL! Radomeal is designed to liberate some of that extra energy locked up in our food. By carefully tinkering with atomic isotopes, we’ve concocted a foodstuff that will sustain any human, no matter how active or high-metabolism, for the rest of their lives!”
“So let me ask you, who doesn’t want an army of minions? And moreover, wouldn’t it be extra convenient if they were already distributed to do your bidding all over the world? At GagaHertz Labs, we’ve perfected the technique of broadcasting directly to the minds of one-year-old children. If we tune the transmission to the sound of their mother’s voice, they become extremely suggestible and we can implant a whole host of ideas. It’s your own personal infantry!”
“You were a beautiful light, so I sailed towards you, desperate to know your flashes of brilliance, your impeccable rhythms…”
“May I ask who is speaking?”
“The gods who see.”
“It was a lighthouse.”
“The Koran is said to be the word of God. But importantly, it sees itself as the beginning of knowledge, not the end. Hundreds of suras reflect on the importance of reason and critical thinking – on investigation and examination of the natural world.”
These were the words of a man who had listened to a podcast. Now he held a court of rapt listeners.
An hour previous, when the night had been not so deep as his thoughts, he had chewed gum. It was not something he often did, but for those glorious moments he became a gum-chewer, puntuating his sentences with a wet self-satisfied slapping. Slap slap. The dull taste buoyed his love of who he could be: a gum-chewer. Slap slap.
“Evenings are unobtrusive,” he proclaimed to a group of strangers. Slap slap. “They creep up on you, on their cat feet, with assurance and languid desire, yet light and padding, muffled by powder.”. The pleasure of arranging his words mid-flight grew and grew, and he expanded and a billowed. “Not like mornings – no, mornings tend to bound up to you all at once, an excited dog” (oooh, nice), “all activity and rush and multitudes. The cat of the evening,” (in case they didn’t get it) “are purposeful, serene…”.
At this point all those who had not yet winced joined the ranks of those who had. The Earth spun in its grave which for now was merely its cold blank home (it would die where it had lived—nowhere).
Arka Bbosaro interrupted the wincing like the most eccentric of mornings.
“These babies eatin’ up their caviar,
And cryin’ that it died,
An ant crawls up my collar with a limp,
With a limp.
She’s one hell of a gal
Like a cannonball with a fist —yeah—
Like jazz with a method and a drink
And a drink.”
You had to be there, to see his peppered hair, and the twitches and gesticulations which were, perhaps, his equivalent of gum. His words weren’t so important, it was more the molten intoxication of his sound, of free-willed molecules coaxed to dance. That night he would leave the party with cheeks singing red from lipstick and slaps and heady honey wine.
“Did I tighten up the screws?
And beg outside for metal?
And use chiffron to wipe blood off my Chinos?
Flick a sickarette butt through the air,
‘Cos you ain’t even half a fool:
Here’s a hurricane to outwit your neutrinos.”
Life started about forty-three minutes in to the first intercollegiate inanimate-notion cricket test match. The two of spades was at the wicket, and the pan-dimensional representation of the wafting enervating smell of a meal that is bound for another table was bowling. It also started twelve million years in the future, when great channels of oil become the blood of the mother goddess, unifying all sapience into representations of being. It also starts right now, somewhere, where vapourised lignite and the faultless grey sky fall into a pattern that they’ll later realise was obvious all along.
The delicious breeze of perhaps passes us and passes everything at each moment forward and backward, as we stand with our pens and notebooks in hand, waiting for a metaphorical dawn. Life can start anywhere, you just have to look at it the right way.