new short stories

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

15.4 (Fall 2015)

 

New Short Stories

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Clean Muses
David Z. Crookes

Episode II: Behind the Tower

Herdie Thistle, an amateur occultist who works in the art college, regards me with a mixture of curiosity and dislike. He manages to discover some dark hermetic subtext in everything that I write or paint. Three months ago he invaded my garden, and showed me a mostly-white photograph from the local paper. ‘A model of Isabella Tower, made from sugar cubes!’ he explained. (Isabella Tower is a little old building which I once tried to purchase.) When Herdie caught sight of the aerial-wires that ran along my garden fence, he began to talk about ley lines, Rosslyn Chapel, and the Satanic cartography of Washington. At one point he revealed that MASONIC LODGE was an anagram of ADONIC GOLEMS.

These dull thoughts afflict the chronicler while he acts in a farce absurde.

I am wearing academic dress over my football kit, in case anyone notices the viola-case. Delia Benn is wearing gold sandals, complicated calf-straps, forearm gloves, and a two-piece bat-girl swimsuit, so that any revellers who cross our path will stare at her, and ignore me. Both of us are masked. Down in the harbour Caroline and Cornelia, made up like Vampire Mermaids, have already attached listening devices to the hull of a happy-looking boat.

A former colleague of mine, who helps to keep everyone safe, is acting as project manager. Rockets are shooting up into the sky all around us. A new year has begun, and so has my new tale.

The tale really began two weeks ago. It was a dry windless night. Having completed a drawing of Greta Hegans, whom you have yet to meet, I was listening to the sixteenth string quartet of Beethoven. (Herdie Thistle used to have a murky mystical passion for Greta.) On the stroke of eleven, after exercising for an hour, Delia came into my painting shed. Before she could put on her walking coat, two high-rise delphiniums made an imposing entrance. Each delphinium wore a two-piece swimsuit of red cotton.

Caroline looked with approval at Delia’s two-piece swimsuit of green canvas, and spoke. ‘You’ll do the way you are,’ she said.

Cornelia looked thoughtfully at my ensemble of camouflage trousers, lumberjack shirt, and heavy pullover. At length she spoke. ‘Go and put on your football kit, dear,’ she said. ‘Be as quick as you can. You should wear your running shoes.’

I went away to change.

Four minutes later, three beach girls and one footballer got into the Twinmobile. An enormous black object was moored to the roof-rack.

‘Don’t speak until we tell you,’ said Caroline.

It was warm in the Twinmobile. Hoping that our journey would be long, Delia and I fell asleep. Sixteen minutes later we were brutally roused, and forced to get out of the car. We found ourselves on the Seafront Road in Cultra (pronounced Cull-TRAW). Already Caroline and Cornelia were removing hooked elastic ropes from their enormous black object. The object turned out to be a shallow dinghy, dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern, as the cheerful Tennyson writes in Morte D’Arthur.   Cornelia pointed three times: first to me, secondly to the boat, and thirdly to the pavement. I reached up and took hold of the dinghy. It was astonishingly light. At the bidding of Cornelia’s right forefinger, I lifted the black vessel over the low sea-wall, and carried it down the concrete slope which rose from a narrow strip of beach. Caroline and Delia followed me. Behind them came Cornelia, bearing a black oar in each hand.

Still resenting the murder of my sleep, I marched into the sea, and committed our craft to the waves. When the dinghy was floating in twenty inches of cold water, I took hold of its stern with both hands. Caroline got in first, received the oars from Cornelia, and sat on the middle of the rowing-bench until Miss Benn was safely installed in the bow-seat. A street-lamp allowed me to discern that our vessel bore a nice reassuring name (THE ISLAND OF THE DEAD). Once Cornelia had joined her twin on the rowing-bench, I climbed aboard, and established myself in the stern-seat. Two sisters plied their black oars. As our dinghy glided gently on its course, I stopped hanging members of a press-gang from the imaginary yard-arm, because Delia was sending me a message in flagless semaphore. (IF MRS HERRING WAS HERE, SHE WOULD CRY ARTHUR AND THE THREE QUEENS.)

After about four hundred strokes of the oars, Cornelia spoke. ‘Thanks for coming! Our new hollow vessel is made entirely from sixteenth-of-an-inch plywood, and so are its hollow oars.’ She paused. ‘In each case we laid strips of plywood over a complicated ribwork of the same material. We cut all the bits and pieces to size on a bandsaw. After that our only tools were a glue-gun and a sander.’

‘Is the plywood marine quality?’ I asked.

‘No,’ replied Caroline. ‘That’s why we’ve given everything three coats of bitumen paint.’ She and her twin shipped their oars, and sat astride the rowing-bench so as to face each other. ‘Now listen, dear. We’re talking here so that we can’t be bugged or overheard.’ Caroline paused. ‘Delia’s here because she knows what a catwalk is, and you’re here because Dad has told us about The Work That You Used To Do. Listen to my sister for a minute.’

‘Gather round,’ said Cornelia, as from nowhere she produced a laptop computer. Miss Benn and I moved from our seats in careful concord. As we knelt by the rowing-bench, a male countenance materialized. ‘This man is head of security in the university’s department of mechanical engineering,’ Cornelia explained. ‘We’ll call him Mr W. He has two mobile phones, but during his lunch-break he sometimes uses the payphone in an alcove of the lobby. One day we overheard him coming out with the sentences that I’ll show you now.’ Yellow words, set on a green background, replaced the pink face.

crookes3‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘Are you certain that he said Herdie, and not Herbie?’

‘Yes,’ the twins replied una voce.

‘Then we can identify Mr W’s interlocutor,’ I said. ‘One of the banes of my life is a technician from the art college called Herdman Thistle. His friends call him Herdie. He was named after the Herdman Channel of Belfast Lough, and he claims that his forename is unique. Herdie is immersed in every imaginable species of verbal voodoo.’

‘This exceeds anything which I could have imagined,’ said Cornelia. ‘Well done, dear.’ She paused. ‘We thought that Mr W might be involved in some kind of witchcraft, so we bugged the payphone, and waited for him to use it at lunchtime. Yesterday we managed to record a one-sided conversation. Read the transcription.’ Cornelia pressed her PAGE DOWN button.

crookes4Delia spoke. ‘I reckon that Mr W is talking neither to Herdie, nor to any other man,’ she said. ‘He’s talking to a woman. Men do appear on the catwalk, but in barbarian speech the verb strut is always reserved for female models.’

(Miss Benn has done a good deal of modelling in her time.)

‘The fellow’s language,’ Delia continued, ‘is neither cold nor peremptory. Look at the word festooned.’ She paused. ‘Mr W is addressing a lady whom he likes.’

‘What about Lobelia Waters?’ asked Caroline. ‘Is her odd name genuine, like the name of Herdman Thistle?’

‘No,’ I answered. ‘Lobelia Waters isn’t a person. Mr W says Same place, and he tells his interlocutor to arrive there. He doesn’t say arrive at her house, or even be with her. He says arrive there. So Lobelia Waters must be the codename of an exact location.’

‘Water lobelia is a plant,’ said Cornelia. ‘It used to grow in Lough Neagh.’

‘What does the viola-case contain?’ asked Delia.

‘Not a musical instrument,’ replied Caroline. ‘I mean, if the thing which had to be picked up was a priceless viola, made by Stradivari, it would be called a viola, and put in a case whose existence would be too trivial to mention.’

‘So it would,’ said Miss Benn. ‘Does the case contain documents, then? Or a weapon?’

‘I don’t know,’ answered Caroline. ‘It would be brilliant if we could find the place, and pick up the viola-case, before Mr W’s accomplice arrives. Then we could go to the police.’

Cornelia touched me on the left shoulder. ‘You haven’t said much, dear,’ she murmured. ‘How can we find out what Lobelia Waters means?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I replied. ‘But I know how Herdie Thistle would address the problem. If we could get on the internet in mid-ocean…..’

‘We can,’ said Caroline, producing a mobile phone from nowhere. ‘Give me a moment.’

Laughter came to our ears. Merry persons were enjoying a late promenade.

‘Fire away, dear,’ said Caroline.

‘See if you can find Andy’s Anagram Solver,’ I said. (Herdie’s favourite tool.)

‘Is that ay-en-dee-wye-apostrophe-ess?’

‘Yes.’

‘Right.’ More laughter from the shore. ‘Got it! What shall I do now?’

‘Ask the solver to give you two-word anagrams of LOBELIA WATERS.’

‘OK.’ After about ten seconds, Caroline showed me the screen of her phone.

crookes5‘Oh, ho.’ I shivered with joy. ‘Look at the third line, ladies.’

Miss Benn was first to react. ‘It must be!’ she said.

‘What do you mean, dear?’ asked Caroline. ‘Is there such a thing as Isabella Tower?’

‘Indeed there is,’ Delia replied. ‘It’s a small tower in Ardglass, which is a coastal village with a harbour.’ She paused. ‘David took me down to see Isabella Tower three years ago. He wanted to buy it, but there was some problem with the title deeds.’ Miss Benn inhaled slowly. ‘Cornelia, can you go back to the first passage that you showed us on your computer?’

‘Yes.’ Cornelia struck her PAGE UP button. ‘There you are.’

crookes3‘What a sublime indiscretion!’ said my neighbour. ‘Isabella Tower has only two storeys. The lower storey is octagonal, and the upper storey is circular.’

‘Ooohhh,’ said Cornelia. ‘That is incredible, Delia.’ She closed her computer. ‘Let’s get back to the car. You and David can row. I’m going to look up Isabella Tower on the internet.’

Caroline spoke into her phone. ‘Mum, David and Delia are helping us with a job. Don’t wait up for us. Cheerio!’

Once we were back in the Twinmobile, I took over. ‘Drive to Downpatrick, by way of Saintfield,’ I told the twins, ‘and head for Ardglass. Wake me up when you arrive.’ I was tired, and Delia was falling asleep on my right shoulder.

Fifty minutes later, Cornelia shook me out of a glorious dream about old-fashioned English meat pies. ‘Is that it?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ I growled, referring stupidly to a torch that some clown had placed in my left hand. Then I saw the Tower.

Four informally clad characters emerged from their vehicle, and walked for a short distance behind a line of modern houses.

We had reached our destination. Or almost, because the steep grassy path which led to Mr W’s occult power-house was blocked by a forest of brambles.

‘Time for a bit of nocturnal horticulture!’ said Caroline. From the Twinmobile’s arsenal of tools she procured a pair of garden shears and a pruning-hook. Subsequent events were beheld by Delia and myself from the relative safety of the lighting desk.

Several ‘publicly available sources of information’ exaggerate the dimensions of Isabella Tower, which consists of two tiny rooms. (The nineteenth-century nobleman Aubrey Beauclerk built the Tower as a place of convalescence for his daughter Isabella.) Early on the morning of 17 December, the building looked strong and innocent.

Now, early on the morning of 1 January, it appears not to have changed. Everything has gone well. At 11.35 pm a begowned footballer and a spectacular bat-girl concealed themselves behind Isabella Tower. At 11.53 a lantern-bearing Anubis left an oversized viola-case in the Tower, close to its only doorway. At 11.55 a begowned footballer lifted the taped-up viola-case, and replaced it with one containing a solid cut-to-shape block of poplar-wood. Then he rejoined the bat-girl. At 11.59 a lantern-bearing Nefertiti arrived at the Tower, and picked up the substitute viola-case. She made her exit to the accompaniment of fireworks and boat-horns. My former colleague is following Nefertiti down to the harbour. Caroline and Cornelia, much to our relief, have done their cold and dangerous work without being detected. It is six minutes past midnight. Bat-Girl and I are back at the car.

Before we quit Ardglass, the Psycho Twins decree that all of us must authenticate our lunatic cover-story by swimming for three minutes. (‘You young agents have been seduced by your own legend!’ declares a gloveless Delia.) We leave the precious whatever-it-is in the car, covered with an academic gown. Two white-bodied girls with Bride-of-Frankenstein eyes gallop into the sea. Mindful of our dignity, Bat-Girl and I follow at a decorous pace. After swimming for the prescribed period of time, we run back to the Twinmoblle. No one gets dried, but Caroline and Cornelia improvise protectors for the back seat of their vehicle.

‘You have to feel sorry for ordinary people,’ I remark. ‘Lying paralyzed in bed, sweating under their heavy duvets, glutted with unsalubrious luxury, and loathing their own incorrigible self-indulgence.’

‘I know, dear,’ replies Cornelia. ‘You are so like us.’

Verbose ironies are wasted on the twins. Why complain? In less than a minute, we’re on our way home.   I can relax. Someone else is driving. Behind and below each of us is a sheet of polythene covered with a blanket. My wet football kit doesn’t annoy me. The car heater is roaring, and a paradisal narcolepsy is waiting for my acquiescence.

(Elsewhere, inebriated celebrators of the new year are posing for photographs in hackneyed attitudes of vulgar imbecility. They stretch out their arms, open their mouths, widen their eyes, and raise their eyebrows to the limit of possibility. Poor creatures! They don’t know what fun is.)

Two ghoulish maidens, a bat-girl, and a footballer get out of the Twinmobile at one thirty-five. Car-designers ignore the sonic dimension of door-closing, so the four little bangs that ensue are unavoidable.

As I feel for the key of my painting shed, mellow newborn light draws our eyes to a bedroom window across the road. Merlin Rhodes Byatt, clad in yellow pyjamas, is watching us through his telescope!

The shed is warm. I breathe a prayer of thanks, and pull up the blackout shutter, which is made of eighth-inch plywood. Miss Benn fetches four pairs of polythene gloves from a little cupboard.

Caroline and Cornelia, like the porters in Akhnaten, are silent.

‘Listen, dear.’ Delia is holding the viola-case in her gloved hands. ‘I’ll keep our Egyptian mummy parallel to the floor while you pull off its linen bandages.’

Four minutes pass while I strip away an eternity of parchment-coloured masking tape.

The entity that emerges is both inscrutable and importunate. When Miss Benn sets down a lockless black viola-case on my painting table, I raise the catches, and lift the lid.

Inside the case lies a long trapezoidal box made of polished sheet brass. I take it out. Delia puts the viola-case on a vacant shelf.

The brass box is about three inches in depth, and forty-two inches in length. At its broad end it is nine inches wide, and at its narrow end it is four inches wide. I set the brass box on the table. Its top horizontal side, unlike its bottom counterpart, projects about a sixteenth of an inch beyond three of the four vertical sides. Is the top side a hinged lid?

Yes, it is!

Under the lid I expect to find some intricate piece of engineering, like the Antikythera Mechanism, but in the event my eyes are greeted by a number of beautifully wrought simplicities.

Ten lines of thin insulated wire run between twenty little black domes that are mounted on each long vertical side of the box.

‘Like the crystal-set aerials on your garden fence, dear,’ whispers the bat-girl, articulating my own thought even as I think it. (British aerial is American antenna.)

A ponderous paragraph of officialese has been laser-engraved in upper-case letters on the inside of the lid. Whoever wrote it has mentioned four expectable things: a certain university, its department of mechanical engineering, the British Ministry of Defence, and the British Official Secrets Act.

Two pairs of bright golden strings, rigid as steel rods, are stretched about an inch above the floor of the box. The unequally long members of each pair are set half an inch apart. One pair is close to the left vertical side, and the other pair is close to the right vertical side.

Between the pairs of strings a narrow screwed-down copper panel sits on eight one-inch-tall silver pillars. This panel bears an inscription: SELF-TUNING AND DIRECTIONAL CONTROL. Bat-Girl hands me a jeweller’s screwdriver, brass-handled and blue-bladed, which is exactly the right instrument for my present purpose.

With frank trepidation I extract eight fine-threaded screws. When I remove the copper panel, I discover that there is nothing underneath! Is the inscription a lie? Is the box an unfinished work? Or is there something here that I can’t see?

After screwing the panel back on, I decide to measure the lengths of all four strings in millimetres. The left-hand long and short strings have lengths respectively of 1000 mm and 729 mm. The right-hand long and short strings have lengths respectively of 729 mm and 512 mm. (‘All cubes,’ Delia whispers.) Near the wide end of the box a little plastic wheel, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and a quarter of an inch in width, is set under each of the four strings.

Having examined the wheel that is set under the 1000 mm string, I try to make it rotate by brushing it with one finger. My attempt is successful, and surprising in its consequence, for the string begins to sing an opulent note, suggesting a mixture of bassoon and cello, midway between C natural and B natural. The little plastic wheel is behaving like the large wooden wheel that acts as a circular bow in a hurdy-gurdy. I wait for the plastic wheel to stop moving, but it doesn’t. Where is it getting its energy from?

While the 1000 mm string continues to sing, I activate the wheel which is set under its partner. The 729 mm string begins to sing an F natural. In terms of tone-quality and volume this note is a perfect match for the halfway-house note of the 1000 mm string, but for some reason the combination of the two notes is horrible.

Praying that our inner ears will not be damaged, I activate the wheels that are set under the 729 mm and 512 mm strings on the right side of the box. These strings begin to sing respectively another F natural and a high B natural, the left-hand neighbour of a piano’s Middle C. So hideous is the effect of the four strings sounding together that I close the lid of the box.

After a moment the polished brass box rises from the table, keeping its lid and bottom parallel to the floor. Within the space of five seconds it is pressing itself against the peak of the ceiling, as if it wanted to escape from us. The sound of its four strings has become tolerable. Am I the dupe of a delusion? No. Delia is squeezing my left wrist with her right hand. Caroline and Cornelia are standing taut and motionless, like swimsuited Josef Lorenzl figurines.

I am enthralled. The amount of energy that I communicated to the machine by activating its four little wheels was negligible! Time to speak.

‘How is it that the wheels are still rotating?’ I ask. ‘And where is the machine getting its energy from?

‘The engine which you kick-started with one finger, dear,’ says Cornelia, ‘is supplying its four wheels with energy siphoned from the atmosphere. That’s what the lines of aerials are for.’

‘Yes,’ says Caroline. ‘But the anti-gravity energy is being generated by the interaction of four precisely tuned notes.’

‘Orpheus and Amphion,’ whispers the bat-girl.

For thirty seconds all four of us look up at the brass box, and listen to its music. Then satiety engenders an advance. We have managed to start the engine. How may we stop it? I reach up, grasp the brass box in my right hand, and pull it downward, meeting a degree of resistance, as you might suppose. I set the box on my painting table, and lift the lid. Delia holds one hand over the middle of the box, so as to discourage it from doing another vertical take-off.

Ugly noise engulfs us.

Should I try to stop the wheels by using my right forefinger as a brake? Or should I use my right forefinger as a mute? The second idea strikes me as wiser, because it involves no rotating parts, and therefore no friction. I touch the 1000 mm string at its midpoint, and at once the wheel which is causing it to sound stops moving. That was easy! When I treat the remaining three strings in the same fashion, silence resumes her reign. The polished brass box is going nowhere.

‘If an experiment is to be credible,’ says Miss Benn, ‘it must be repeatable.’

Correct.

In the course of the next ten minutes Caroline, Cornelia, and Delia do everything that I have done. Each of the three girls, working on her own, repeats the experiment.

Caroline creates a comprehensive photographic record of the engine.

At half two we put the brass box back in its case. I happen to be aware that the idea behind this box comes from what people call ‘a publicly available source of information’, so I resolve to ignore the paragraph of officialese which is engraved on the inside of its lid.

When our project manager arrives, he tells us two things, one of which we didn’t know. First thing: Anubis, Nefertiti, and a fancy-dress Ancient Mariner, who believe that they are working for OTO, are the sorcery-crazed garden-gnome agents of a friendly power. Second thing: free energy is real.

My former colleague watches while we perform the experiment for a fifth time. Then, in the name of his ultimate superior, he urges me to divulge everything. (‘Ordinary people need this bag of tricks,’ he says, ‘so we want competent engineers to start working at it, right away, all over the world. Here’s a simple fact about modern life. Any such bag of tricks is bound to be stolen, sooner or later! Those who refuse to accept that fact are not patriots. They are idiots.’) At ten to three our project manager goes on his way, taking the machine with him. Delia and the cadaverous damsels leave four minutes later.

I push down the blackout shutter, and rub my eyes. A lacy-winged green little insect is dancing on the window-pane. I feel old, exhausted, and utterly miserable. The lofty desire to comprehend an experience departs from me as lower satiable desires assert their power. I want a hot shower, pyjamas, a heavy pullover, thick trousers, slippers, tea, and food.

Someone taps on the door. A fourth muse, whom I have already named, is here to collect a picture entitled Greta standing by a fire at night. Or so I mistakenly assume.

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David Z. Crookes is an extraordinary polymath (though perhaps not quite as eccentric as represented in the story above) who is dedicated to the life of the spirit, especially as preserved in Western culture.  He resides in Belfast, Northern Ireland.