Pandemicameron: The First Week – The Gem-Trader’s Tale

There was the sound of an aggrieved tut from the Wong family balcony. ‘You make us sound like robots,’ said the eldest boy. ‘Pen-spinning human calculator clones, slurping our noodles and scurrying around like we’re all pulling rickshaws.’

‘It’s my experience,’ said Chen-Yao.

‘Yeah, but we don’t all want to end up in IT or doing beansprout deliveries to stir-fry places. Not every Asian has a vision of the future that’s littered with tech and high-density misery.’

‘It’s just a story,’ Sanath said peacably. ‘If you don’t like it, tell your own.’

There was a short, three-way conversation between father, mother, and eldest son, after which the boy said, ‘My dad’ll tell the next one – I’ll translate it for him.’

The Father’s Tale

This is a story about stones.

At the time I was a bit of a rolling stone: I’d been a pick packer in Shilin, then a labourer in Shitou Cheng. I wanted to leave China; back in 1989 it was an even unhappier place than it is now. All my low-grade jobs were stepping stones to Hong Kong eventually America or Australia. After the Tiananmen Square Incident there was a big operation to get anyone involved out of China to safety in Hong Kong or Malaysia. It was called Operation Siskin. I said I’d been a student leader – it wasn’t exactly true but I had once told one of the students carrying a banner that they were banging their heads against a stone wall. On the strength of having talked to one of the student leaders in a cafe, I got out and made it to Hong Kong. You might think this was a cheap scam, but I say that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

I was working as a chauffeur there when I saw her. A stone fox, you might say. Red lipstick, immaculate hair, sunglasses, murderous heels that carry them from the heliport to the car – the standard stone-cold Hong Kong businesswoman’s uniform. You might as well try to wring water from a stone as a smile from one of them.

I was supposed to collect the Fox on Stonecutters Bridge Viewpoint, near the container terminals. She was waiting for me, stony-faced. I’d picked up a sharp pebble on the road and landed a flat somewhere on the Tsing Sha Highway. I had to roll up my sleeves and change the tire myself, leaving me sweating and ten minutes late.

She was a stone-trader. Gemstones, I mean. I don’t know what she was doing down at Stonecutters Bridge, but I dropped her in front of a ritzy jeweller’s in Stone Slab Street, in Central. She told me to come back in one hour. There wasn’t much to do, so hung around the back for a while and hoped the cops wouldn’t tell me to move the car along. 

Something else that happened in 1989 was the discover of Paraiba tourmalines. They come from a tiny part of Brazil, and are so rare that only one Paraiba tourmaline was mined for every 10,000 diamonds. The gem market in Hong Kong went crazy for them. The Brazilian supply has long since been mined out, which makes them even more valuable, and in 1990 they were the only thing the Hong Kong tai tais wanted. 

Anyway, I was hanging around the back of Stone Slab Street when a girl came out of the back door to the jewellers. We got to talking, which is harder than it sounds, since my Cantonese was terrible and her Mandarin was pretty bad too. She was a gem polisher in the jewellers. I asked her about the Fox. She said that the woman had a guaranteed supply of Paraiba tourmalines, and could get them into Hong Kong without paying excise. I didn’t even know what a tourmaline was back then. She nipped back into the shop and brought out a brochure. It was the most fantastic blue I’d ever seen – a real neon blue, just like the ocean beyond Tap Mun.

‘And these are valuable? More than gold?’

‘Not at today’s prices for gold, but certainly more than diamonds.’

‘So how much will she make from the sale of one of these?’

The stone-polishing girl thought for a bit and then named a figure I couldn’t even believe was real. ‘And we’ll make more than that when we set and sell them,’ she said. 

‘Do you do that?’

She shook her head. ‘I just polish them. Maybe some day they’ll let me do the cutting, but it’s not really a woman’s job. The boss’s wife makes some designs but most of the designs come from the customers. And some of them…so ugly! Not suitable at all for the stones they choose. But money talks, and when you’ve got it you’re stone deaf to anyone else.’

She showed me a sketch of the final design for a stone she was polishing. I didn’t know anything about jewels, but I could see that she was right – it was a horrible design, and wouldn’t show off the stone at all. I made another sketch, of an entirely different shape and setting, which would allow light to strike the facets from the sides as well as beneath. ‘You’re good,’ she said. ‘You should ask the boss if he’d take you as an apprentice.’ She smiled winsomely. ‘You’d get to see me every day too. Kill two birds with one stone.’

I laughed, and then the Fox came out and I had to go. I dropped her somewhere near the Blue House on Stone Nullah Lane and never saw her again. 

I pinned the brochure on the wall beside my mattress. I was living in a coffin-flat in Sham Shui Po with another guy; we were hot-racking, like on a submarine. I had it at night and he came back from his job at 6am and needed the bed. 20 square feet where you slept like a stone, tried not to let go of your hopes and added to the smell of lonely men. I lay on the mattress and looked at the picture of the tourmaline. I wasn’t up for stone smuggling, like the Fox, but I thought I could probably do the polishing. What I liked most about the picture the girl had shown me was the colour. The same year, the little probe Voyager had taken a picture of Neptune; the stone was the same colour as that huge, unimaginable world so far away.  

I decided I had nothing to lose, so I went back to the jewellers and asked him if he’d take on a penniless Mainlander with no references who suddenly fancied the gem trade. The boss said no, naturally. Hong Kongers weren’t kind to Mainlanders then. They said we were poor, ignorant, the peasant slaves of a peasant government. But sticks and stones only stop you for so long – when you’ve broken everything else, there’s nothing left to lose. Dripping water wears away even the hardest stone and I dripped pretty hard. Eventually the boss gave in and took me on as a runaround. I was allowed to sleep in the tea room as some kind of security, because I was so stone-broke I couldn’t even afford the coffin flat any more.

Yanmi brought me food, and showed me how to polish stones when she had a few spare minutes and eventually the boss let me have a go at a stone myself. I polished like my life depended on it, even though it was the crappiest piece of schist I’d ever seen. It took five years of polishing before he put me to cutting. When I had a decent salary, I asked Yanmi to marry me. We lived in a tiny flat in the New Territories and started saving to emigrate. I did some gem trading on the side – nothing big, just little things – until one day I saw a Paraiba tourmaline at a sale on a quiet day. I left no stone unturned. I called in every cent and favour I was owed. I bought the tourmaline and took it home with shaking hands.

I said that I never saw the Fox again, but that wasn’t quite true. I cut and set the tourmaline in a ring of diamonds, and asked the boss if I could sell it through the shop. I guess he knew that we were trying to leave Hong Kong, so he let me do it and didn’t take a cut. It had been in the window two days when the door rang and the Fox came in. Ten years later, and still as cold as a stone. She admired the tourmaline, asked where it had come from, and seemed to accept my explanation that I did a little stone trading on the side. She bought the ring and I thought about the circles of fate as I slipped it on that long, unmarked finger with its red claw, and how the woman who had brought me into the business was now my ticket to a new life. Sometimes you think you’ve hit a stone wall when really you’re only a stone’s throw away from getting everything you want.

On the profits of that one sale, we applied to come here as temporary residents. The boss graciously let us go and made us swear to keep in touch, and I do a little business with him now and again. I had to work three jobs when we came here: I worked in a jewellery store during the day, then I drove food orders around for a restaurant until 10pm, and then I cleaned shops until 3am. I was stone dead by the time I got home every night. But there’s a time for everything, a season for stones and a season for mops and takeaway boxes. If you’re real, honest, eventually things will pick up. The trick is not to let yourself get worn away, eroded, before they do and to recognise when the opportunity, the right time, has come. 

Eventually I got enough money together to start trading in stones again. The gem trade here isn’t like it is in Hong Kong; it’s mostly diamonds in white gold (for the Chinese) or rubies in 24k (for the Indians). Other than that, it’s pretty small potatoes. People here don’t buy jewellery for fun, or for gifts. I tell that to my son, but he wants to go into the business and design things. He’s got a good eye and makes nice sketches, but I tell him you’ve got to have charm too. Got to kiss the Blarney Stone; talk up your product, your design. He’s a good boy, my son. He doesn’t go out and get stoned like other kids. He works hard; he’ll come good when this pandemic is over. Nothing is set in stone; you’ve just got to wait until the opportune moment, and then go for it. 

In Chinese, the word for stone is shi. But the word you say is quite different to the word you read. I could write all the words which sound like shi, but they would mean less to you than the footprints of an ant with inky feet. So take my word for it, that shi is also involved in words about time, reality, age, eating, recognizing – so many things! This is what lures people – stone cold sober people – to the beauty of gems. They are like the foundations of a world, the magic of chemistry and geology, our only chance to cut and polish reality until it looks just as we imagined. And when we’ve all sunk like stones, the jewels remain, until eventually they return to the same dark crevices we took them from, millions of years from now. 

Pandemicameron: The First Week – The International Student’s Tale

The neural interface had a yellow light. Glowing under the skin it made a deep golden spot just beneath the left trapezius which showed that it was on and active. When it transmitted, it blinked. During school exams, children’s left shoulders glowed and pulsed like pupae in their uniform cocoons. Because it was yellow, predatory, and the gift of Asian parents to their harried offspring, the interface was nicknamed 虎眼宝石, Tiger’s Eye.

Implanted shortly after the child became mobile, the interface monitored activity in the growing brain and relayed it wirelessly to parental devices. When the children were shackled to a desk for twenty years of educational striving, the Tiger’s Eye automatically uplinked to the class-activity display watched by some hapless teacher, programming a class of eight enhanced children. Users of the first generation of Tiger’s Eyes complained that there was no point in the real-time knowledge that a child was inattentive, confused, or insufficiently moved by the urgency of a test, if it could not be addressed immediately by parental intervention. To the critics who said that intervention was tantamount to mind control, proponents of a two-way link claimed that this was exactly what Chinese culture had been tending towards for five millennia, since they had begun to consider the will of heaven.

The second generation of Tiger’s Eyes, then, had a receiver as well as a transmitter. Parents could compare their offspring’s neural activity with the recommended parameters and send the child a reminder of parental love and expectation encoded as an electrical impulse which reawakened them to the magic of learning. The dream of many parents was thus realised – their children had no secrets from them and could be brought, wirelessly, to their full potential in every basketball court, swimming pool, art studio, piano recital, and public examination. The western world nicknamed these enhanced children X-Boxes, and laughed at their parents for treating their children like household appliances. The eastern world pointed out that those problems with which western philosophy had struggled endlessly, like individual will and the anxiety of influence, and now been most satisfactorily resolved. Apart from anything else, several Asian governments intimated, it might not be wise to mock countries with a two-billion-strong remote-controlled army. The west fell silent, but the devices were banned and the sale of video games dropped off in response to a communal nausea at the face of humanity 2.0.

Once a few legislative tweaks had been made – making the devices inaccessible during the mandated seven hours of sleep and public examinations, and a hard limit of one parental ‘nudge’ per day after several children’s brains literally short-circuited under the intensity of parental motivation – the Tiger’s Eye seemed a great success. The technological nexus of collective expectation and individual effort, the Eye had circumvented most of the problems which composed the human experience. Although the device required the consent of the bearer themselves when they had reached adulthood, many children chose (as much as they were capable of that dubious action) not to remove it, and even continued with the uplink to a parental device as a demonstration of truly Confucian 孝顺 xiàoshùn.

Admittedly, the Tiger’s Eyes were not without their share of embarrassing incidents, of which the most notorious was the Katherine Reeves episode. Reeves was a young teacher on a short exchange in Taipei, organized by Enhance Teaching, a body of western votaries for the use of enhancement technologies who placed teachers in Asian schools for brief durations.

As the transcripts of the official inquiry show, Reeves was a teacher of English who had admitted to experiencing previous difficulties with enhanced children when she moved beyond the teaching of language. It had been explained to her that the practice of literary analysis had been rendered largely impossible due to the Tiger’s Eye’s homogenizing effect. Literature in high school was a matter of the comprehension of facts about plot, character, figures of speech, and reasonable inference exercises in which conclusions were licensed by communal approval rather than creative insight. The creation of new works was, unfortunately, impossible and, since these creative pieces were resistant to any kind of metric, useless and so omitted.

In the unfortunate encounter between Reeves and the male student known as Student Yeh, Reeves had asked Student Yeh what he thought about a particular line from the play Othello: Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. Yeh responded that it was clearly a metaphor. Reeves agreed and then asked whether he agreed with the sentiment.

At this point, there is a perceptible increase in Student Yeh’s amygdalan activity, who replies that Iago says the line because Roderigo is in love and claims he has no control over his will.

Yes, says Reeves, but what do you think? Do you agree that it is impossible to control your will in such situations?

Student Yeh’s amygdala continues to register output suggestive of anxiety, activating a cortisol-release command by the hypothalamus. He remains silent, with an elevated respiration and pulse.

Reeves then asks whether he, Yeh, has ever been in love, or not in control of his will.

Student Yeh’s parents are alerted by the sudden elevation of cortisol and, perceiving that he is in a test-situation, send a ‘nudge’ to override the natural mediating effect of the HPA axis, thus increasing and prolonging Student Yeh’s experience of acute stress. (It was argued in the inquiry that, since enhanced children were exposed to chronic stress as a result of parental and social pressure, including repeated neuro-electrical interventions, they were less able to tolerate an acute stress event).

OK, Reeves says, do you think Iago believes that? After all, it seems to suggest that the choice to love is a willed one, and that Othello has therefore chosen to love Desdemona. Does it take the shine off his passion if we think it’s been willed?

At this point, Student Yeh’s brain releases significant glutamate. He says, ‘What do you want me to say?’

Reeves replies, ‘I want you to think for yourself about the line. Or to think as Iago, if you can.’ There is an abrupt silence, which Reeves explained by saying that she had recalled the impropriety of asking enhanced children to think for themselves or to empathise with someone else. She acknowledged that the line was indeed a metaphor and returned the class to a task identifying figures of speech. When the class finished, Student Yeh asked whether questions like the ones he had failed to answer, would be on the semester exam. Reeves laughed and said no. Student Yeh then left the room with the rest of the class.

There followed a period of nearly twenty-four minutes, during which Student Yeh completed some notes on his English work, checked calculations on a popular website called https://www.gigacalculator.com/calculators/terminal-velocity-calculator.php and spoke to friends who were eating lunch in their designated area. At half-past one, Student Yeh climbed the stairs to the roof of the science building and threw himself off, landing in the school forecourt, beside the flagpole. He was pronounced dead by a paramedic team who arrived 14 minutes later.

Katherine Reeves offered her sincere apologies and condolences to the school and Student Yeh’s family. The family did not enter any remarks in the official record of enquiry, which was likely due to shame from the stigma attached to perceived mental weakness. In a lecture sponsored by Enhance Teaching, Reeves was asked what she recalled most about the experience of teaching enhanced children. She said that when Student Yeh’s body was placed in the ambulance she noticed that the Tiger’s Eye was still blinking.

Image: Choi Xooang

Pandemicameron: The First Week – The Tattooist’s Tale

We all cooed. On their balcony Sanath kissed Kenneth’s hand. Shelley snorted. ‘It’s not as if she had much of a choice. Brown girl and a white man a hundred years ago.’

‘He married her,’ said Dave Sharma. ‘He woulda copped some flak for that.’

‘That’s not the point,’ Shelley said. ‘She didn’t even know she had a choice.’

‘But was that because she was brown, or a woman?’ I said.

She thought for a bit. ‘Brown,’ she said finally. ‘White women knew they had no choice, but they knew about choice. It wouldn’t even have occurred to her. White guy says, ‘We’re getting married’ and off you go. You get married.’

‘I don’t think it was like that for them,’ said Kenneth.

‘It’s always like that,’ Shelley said. ‘But what do I know? I’m just an uneducated single mother. I do tatts and I bring up my kid.’

‘You’d do better to bring up your kid without smoking all over him,’ said Jenni Sharma’s hard voice. ‘We can smell it up here, and it absolutely stinks. You might not care ab…’ She was cut off by a sudden scuffle as her husband marshalled her back inside on behalf of unilateral peace.

‘Are you really a tattoo artist?’ said Harry.

‘Yeah.’

The Tattooist’s Tale

No colour is absolute until it’s under the skin. When white ink became popular, people came back angry that, after the healing, it had changed. On black skin it was barely noticeable. On almond and olive skin, it looked yellowish. Even on the palest white skin it had a faded, ivory tinge. I tried to explain that you see the ink through the skin’s tinted screen. Like perfume, like scars – it takes on your character. I thought that was the whole point of wanting to get inked. I’d explain before I started, they’d nod, and come back unhappy a year later when it had yellowed.

I think we were always talking about something else.

He asked what colour white the ink was in the bottle. I told him it was called Oriental White. He hesitated, and then laughed. I felt him looking at me, the way youse all do – trying to work out what I was. ‘Nobody’s really white, are they?’ he said. ‘Or really black.’ I told him about that story of the courtesan in Ancient China who had herself tattooed entirely white so that she’d always be beautiful. The ink faded beneath her skin and because they got the whiteness from lead, it poisoned her. All her vanity had done was cause her a lot of pain, before it killed her.

I did a little dog for him, just under his left arm, where the bicep and tricep merge. He didn’t explain why and I didn’t ask. We talked about what skin would be like in the distant future, when we’d all become the same colour through racial blending. He called it Golden Sugar. ‘Turmeric latte,’ I said.

‘Marigold,’ he said. ‘Yam, or sandstone maybe.’

I said it would be cheaper for tattooists if we only had to use a single colour palette. Duller, too, though. Handing your art off to the life that someone else lives, that’s what makes it alive. It can wear you out, though. The endlessness of people, their variety, their baggage. They give you the screen of their skin to ink beneath, but you need one of your own to stop it spilling onto you. Strangers bare themselves before you, lie down, and ask you to write incredible things – the beautiful and terrible, strange, revolting, ugly, tacky, tragic, hilarious, the astonishing, the ravishing – onto themselves. They tell you the stories that go with the ink, and then disappear. You just handle the reverberations.

Nobody ever gets inked because it’s cool. When it comes time to face the needle, they stop and look inside themselves. And nobody ever gets inked for themselves. It’s always for other people to read, even if that’s themselves with the eyes of the future. Why write the name of your child on your shoulders? Or your lover’s name across the small of your back? Why put the flag of your country, the marks of your tribe, on your body? You are that tribe, that country. You’re saying to other people, Read me, see what I am, how I declare myself. Tattooing is optimistic; it takes for granted that we’ll always want to tell other people about ourselves.

When they know I’m a Koori, people always ask two questions. The first one is why we didn’t have tattooing, just scarring. As if I bloody know. The second one is why I tattoo if my people didn’t. Because only we, of all the peoples in this enormous country, are supposed to have stopped developing two hundred-odd years ago. I’ve got a little flag over my heart, but that was more because I got pressured into it. I don’t have tatts because I don’t want people reading me. I’ll ink others, but I don’t want to be out there, shouting about myself on my own skin.

He came back a couple of times. I did names on his right arm, beginning deep in the coracobrachialis. I told him it would hurt like a bastard, because it’s such a slender muscle and the skin’s thin. Two women’s names, a single name that sounded like a dog or a cat, then the third name was a man’s. I said, ‘I hope these aren’t your kids, cos you’ve got long arms.’ He just laughed and asked me out.

We were good for a bit. He asked me how I thought about the screen of my own skin. I said I was bi-racial. I only started saying that after Megan Markle said it. I hadn’t even heard it before. Before, I said I was a Koori. I got sick of explaining that, so now I just say bi-racial. He nodded and that was the end of it. I got no family left, so the human side of it never came up. It’s funny how you can live with something shouting so loud in the background that you never hear it. It was only a problem a couple of times, in country pubs, and with one of his drunk friends, who said shit things about boongs who banged like a broken door and petrol-sniffing savages. I gave them the finger and told them to eff off, but Ben looked like he’d been shot.

He told me the stories of his ink. The dog had been his, and he’d fed it the wrong stuff. Killed it. The names were people he’d hurt somehow. I didn’t get it. ‘You’re writing your sins on your own skin?’

He shrugged. ‘Sometimes you need to atone. It’s better than a hair shirt and a chain around your waist.’

‘But…to have it there, all the time – doesn’t it make you miserable?’

He patted the flag on my heart, underneath my t-shirt. ‘Could say the same for you.’

We left it alone and I was just happy that he didn’t get any more ink. I told him I wouldn’t do it for him, and I didn’t want him going to anyone else. He’d have to deal with his shit like a normal person; get drunk and talk it out.

Then I got pregnant. He seemed happy. We were building the crib in the baby’s room and he said it was too much in the sun. I said the kid would have a bit more melanin than he had, because it would be bi-racial. He just looked at the IKEA diagram and nodded.

He came back that night with new ink. He’d gone across town and got a huge blackout circle on his left pectoral. I suppose it looked OK. He had good muscle tone and skin like suede. It gave the needle something to hold onto but didn’t split or drag. ‘What’s that for?’

He took my hands, among the leftover wooden dowels and spare hex-head bolts, and said he wanted to take on some of my blackness. For our child. I jerked my hands away. ‘You what?’

He said it killed him when I got shouted at, or when people asked retarded questions about Kooris. ‘When I get shouted at in some fucking nowhere little town? By people who can’t tie their own shoes? You think that’s some kind of huge burden? Something you should ink up next to your bleeding heart list of minor shitty things?’

He looked like I’d slapped him. ‘I’ve got plenty of burdens, but being black isn’t one of them. I’m just who I am. Like you. Like everyone. I don’t need to wear issues from the bloody news on my skin.’

‘What about your flag tatt?’

‘Fuck that! That has nothing to do with this. I haven’t gone and got myself reverse-tattooed because I feel sorry for white people, or I want to share the burden of whiteness. Jesus Christ. You shouldn’t be let near crayons. Don’t bring this shit into the kid’s life.’

‘But it is part of their life. It’s part of their heritage. Part of something they’ll have to face.’

So I found my own place and he comes round every so often. We do OK here, where the writing’s on the bloody wall, not on us.’

Pandemicameron: The First Week – The Husband’s Tale

‘That’s wicked,’ said Aerith, standing beside Spider on their balcony. ‘That’d be a great game. An infinite prison.’

‘What would the object be, though?’ said Chen-Yao, ‘I mean, if you can’t get out?’

‘Exactly,’ Aerith said with a sepulchral laugh. ‘You play and play but there’s no point. You don’t find out that you can’t win until you’ve been stuck playing it for years.’

‘Not likely to be a commercial success, then,’ said Chen.

‘Sounds like playing Monopoly with my in-laws,’ said Glen Farmer. There was the sound of a slap on well-ironed polycotton.

‘Can’t someone tell something…I don’t know, romantic?’ said Joy. ‘What happened to love stories and romance?’

‘They collided head-on with everyday life,’ said Dave Sharma.

‘But love’s what makes everyday life worth it, isn’t it?’ said Shelley suddenly.

‘Love – the kind that does the dishes and takes the puppy out at 2am – isn’t the same as romance. Romance is love with its best knickers on. And you know how uncomfortable that is,’ I said, thinking about my own best knickers, mothballed long ago. ‘Anyway, what does a love story have in it nowadays? What’s left that we haven’t parodied or second-guessed?’

‘A man and a woman,’ said Joy. Then hurriedly, ‘Or two people, anyway. And sacrifice. There’s always got to be someone giving something up.’

‘And family,’ said Sanath, unexpectedly. ‘Two people in love is fine, but love stories never talk about family. That’s always there in the background.’

‘I once saw this film where a man, who really loved this girl, had her whole family tree painted on one of her walls,’ I said. ‘She came home from work one day and found it, and she had no idea who’d done it. I thought it was the most romantic thing. She didn’t even know he existed.’

‘And then what happened?’ said Joy eagerly.

‘He abducted her. She woke up in some harem in Saudi Arabia,’ I said. ‘That bit wasn’t romantic, obviously, and he had a lot of issues, but the family tree thing was beautiful.’

‘It’s true,’ said Kenneth. ‘It can be a great act of love to tell the story of your lover’s family.’

‘Do you know anything about my family?’ said Sanath. ‘Except that my parents think we’re abominations.’

Kenneth laughed. ‘I know some beautiful, romantic stories about your family, my love.’

The Husband’s Tale

The regiment had been two years in Colombo when they were sent to the hill kingdom of Kandy. They arrived in August as the jackfruit trees came ripe and the kingdom turned out for the procession of the Lord Buddha’s tooth, which Nicol knew was the key to holding Ceylon.

He stood, with Crompton and Lyons and Gamini, the battalion’s boy, on the corner of Temple Street and Sri Dalada Street, and watched the final leg of the procession which had been two weeks of continuous noise, elephants, and fallen petals. Gamini, and Anura, the battalion cook, and Reverend Millais, had all tried to explain the theology of the perahera, and foundered on soldierly determination to scorn religion, and find faults in the thinking of the brown-skinned faithful. It made slightly more sense to Nicol, because he was Catholic – a Roman Catholic, the Reverend said, since the news of the Oxford Movement had reached even Kandy – and thus understood relics, processions, and syncretism in ways that the low church officers did not.

Nicol had been inside the Catholic chapel in St Anthony’s college once, and found it a cool, pleasant version of the damp parish church at home. Still, on Sundays he told the Anglicans he was attending mass, and the Catholics that he was at the service, and sat alone in the college gardens, glad to be away from men and their gods. But he did understand the principle of the perahera more than the others, and accepted more easily how the Hindu entities Vishnu, Natha, Skanda, and Pattini could be accommodated in the vast saffron bosom of Buddhism.

Gamini bumped his elbow. ‘The tusker come, Captain Nicol, sir!’

In the constant clash of cymbals he saw her, dancing behind the tusker in a sari the colour of a padparaschah sapphire, blushing lotus and sunset. She danced among other women with the curious poses that managed to be fluid and angular, stiff and natural at once, and the whipcrack acrobats and drummers framed them with a deafening racket to which she alone seemed oblivious.

Crompton said something crude about dancers and drummers being of the lowest caste, but Nicol was caught up in the dance of the girl in the blush-pink sari and ignored him. There was a sudden blast of the horanawa, and the whole thing halted, the tusker’s trunk reaching up to touch the sacred tooth in its reliquary of solid gold. In the whole procession the only thing moving was the beautiful dancer’s heaving chest. Then one of the acrobats swung his fireball in a wide crescent, and as if in a swoon, Nicol felt the curve of heat pass across his face, his lips, and connected it with the girl. He blinked, and it all came alive again.

The earsplitting display of the relic tooth was entirely opposite to the hallowed silence of the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He thought of that display of a pallid wafer, the body of a dead god encased in gold and glass, the target of wishes that this sinful life would at least justify the inevitable burning of the life to come.

Before him she bared her palms to the air, struck the ground with her bell-chased foot, and squatted fiercely in a position which would be crude in anyone else. He felt breathless. Some calculating part of him whispered that, if this defiance was embedded in the dances of their lowest caste, Ceylon would never be securely held. We live, we live, dance, crash this bronze, the dance said. We process behind elephants, we crack whips and spin fire to show the tooth of this holy man – keep us this way, O Pattini, protectress, deity, beloved! He different it was from the desiccated whispers to the Virgin, he thought.

The procession moved off. Gamini led them back to the mess and drew ale for them through the rest of the hot afternoon. He might have forgotten the girl in the padparaschah sari if he had not seen her later, in the cool of the evening among the disbanding crowd. She was leaning against a wall by the regimental cemetery, resting. The thick paint on her face was smudged and she had lost an earring. They smiled wearily at each other. He noticed that the heel of one foot was bleeding and that she seemed diffuse now, without the moving finger of holy fire.

Thus approximate, dishevelled, expended, Captain Nicol fell further in love with the resting dancer, your great-great grandmother. He resigned his commission, weathered the disgrace of marrying a low-caste native dancer, and took her to a plantation in the foothills where they grew tea, cinnamon, and sons.

Pandemicameron: The First Week – The Gamers’ Tale

I woke in a pool of light. Shading my eyes, I looked up and saw a circle of blue sky and the shadow of a man receding from the manhole through which I had been dropped. Standing, I looked around, held my breath, and observed the silence and the three colours which compose this subterranean world. I knew that the prison extended, perhaps infinitely, perhaps only beneath the desert to the next town. This city is one of flat roofs, minarets and cupolas; it is customary for men who have visited it to remark that they can only remember the moon shining here. Since I could neither see nor hear anyone else, it was impossible to ask.

I wandered for some time. It was not unpleasant, since it was autumn in the city above, and in this intestinal prison the walls had ceased to act as the walls of an oven. The place had been built as a granary and extended many times, perhaps as many times as there had been sieges. Then, following the cycle of civilization, what had stored grain was put to storing men. The piles of wheat were replaced by shackles, since men had given up on exile and favoured detention as a unique punishment.

Because of its tremendous extent, the prison needed no cells. There was a single cell, of which I shall speak presently, but the cherifs understood that the concept of infinite expansion was sufficient to imprison most people – who are, after all, prisoners of the mind more than they can be corporally restricted.

There were a thousand manholes by which the prison was peopled. As I wandered I followed the streets and alleys, parks and plazas and souks of the world above which overlay the demimonde below. I imagined people being tipped, like refuse, out of a family argument, a disagreement at a market stall, a game of plaka, down one of the holes which are legion in order to remind the cherif’s subjects that they could disappear at any time, and that it was therefore expedient to live not only lawfully and amenably, but lightly, leaving no matter undone at the end of the day, amassing no large store of possessions or affections.

The knowledge that the prison is always a possibility lends a characteristic cast to the behaviour of the prison, just as a distinctive accent or dress does to citizens of other places. It makes them no less morose about their condition, but the lack of surprise palliates it. Most prisoners do not go mad, and since there is no process of appeals, they choose an untenanted bay of shadows and set about making a home of it with the many cats which alone may come and go between the worlds.

None of the men I saw flittering in and out of the prison’s cloister-shadows were surprised to be there – not because they had lived evil or unlawful lives, but because it is accepted here that such imprisonment is always a possibility, and no sane man resents or questions it. That being the case, there was little to talk about, and after exchanging a few words about their conditions, whether they had enough food and water, and what was occurring in their particular corner of the city, I kept wandering. The world of people above and that of slanting shadows and interminable passages below are quite different, although causally connected. Each prisoner had, with a kind of innate behaviour, marked out for himself a territory roughly equal to an insula of the upper city, and rarely left it. He thus knew intimately the sounds, scents, and shadows of that peculiar area in which four families lived. Some went so far as to have the shadow thrown at the hour of the evening prayer tattooed somewhere on their body. Since the manholes are circular, each man’s tattoo resembled a different stage of a solar eclipse.

Of the prisoner whose unique custodial arrangements I have mentioned, I can only say that he was not of that resigned ilk. For several days I had been wandering further southwards (the walls of the prison are scratched at intervals with quiblas, compasses, orthodromic circles and simple arrows which allow you to navigate), when I came suddenly upon a cell. The principle architectural element of the prison is, for the most part, the vaulted arch, with columns leading off into multiple vanishing point of darkness. The previous day I had begun walking along a solid wall which extended at right angles, enclosing a space with at least one regular corner. After sleeping beside the wall and continuing the next day, I heard a faint sound. I had long since passed beyond the walls of the upper city and was traversing a space beneath desert. The only sounds were the wind, sand, and the high weirdness of the stars turning in their brittle orbits above the empty quarter.

At length I came to a door in the wall, locked tightly and with enough rust around the lock to suggest that it had not been opened for many years. There was a sliding panel at the height of a man’s eyes; I attempted to open it but rust had sealed it shut too. The noise of my struggle with the door prompted a frantic series of noises within, as if a bat were fighting off a dog.

A shout stopped me. A man, of similar age and appearance to myself, emerged from the shadowed cloisters.

‘You agitate him with the noise,’ he said, sounding neither hostile nor surprised to see me. ‘He has heard you approaching for many days now and has been restless. He can hear your footsteps, perhaps even your breathing. That noise you’re making with the door must sound like a mountain cracking to him.’

‘Why is he in there?’ I asked.

The other prisoner shrugged. ‘In my experience of this place, such restriction is only appropriate for those deemed harmful to others.’

‘How does he eat? Drink?’ I said. ‘Has he no one to talk to? And light – how does he see in there?’

‘His cell has a single manhole in the roof. Food and water are delivered to him weekly, and the hole closed again. He has no other light. He lives in pitch blackness from one feeding to the next. Indeed, he has become so sensitive to light that the deliveries of food can only happen by moonlight.’

‘And he has no other source of company? No entertainment?’

The prisoner paused and said, ‘He amuses himself by tossing a button from his shirt into the darkness and crawling around until he has found it. He has been in there since before I came; this has been the only activity I have ever known him to have. It can take him many days to find the button. Only once did I fear for him, when the button became lodged in a crevice high up on the wall and could not be found.’

I shuddered to think of the madness signified by a button’s loss. ‘Another button was given to him when he next received food,’ the man said.

I stayed in the environs of the locked cell for some weeks, talking with the man, whose knowledge of the prison, its design and history, was immense. We discussed the famous prisons of the past – the Mamertine, the Tower of London, the Bastille, the Chateau d’If, the Panopticon – and those prisons of the so-called modern world – Urga, Carandiru, Hoa Lo, and Pitesi, and speculated about the necessary and sufficient conditions which transformed a space, both chronological and geometric, into a prison. He too bore the characteristic air of resignation about the prison, and never mentioned any hope of release, or sense of grievance at his confinement, and we did not discuss which long-forgotten act had resulted in captivity.

One morning I woke and he was gone, having determined that he had no more to say on the subject of prisons. My solitude began to oppress me, so I too left the area of the locked cell and the sound of the man within warding off blind insanity with a single button. At some point the sound of the desert gave way to the clanking of goat-bells and smallholdings, then the hammering of metal, and a song that I recognized from the town some hundred leagues south of the city where I had begun. Still the prison continued. I realised that it was, in all probability, coextensive with mankind’s settle existence on earth. It had been alluded to in our affirmation of the ancient duality as above, so below.

I felt an immense melancholy and anxiety at this point, and spent many days at the outskirts of that other city trying to recall the act which had consigned me to the infinite prison. If the straitness of our confinement is commensurate with the scale of the crime, mine had been of titanic proportions. For a long time I sat in one of the quiet arches and considered my life, and what I might have done to be consigned to this interminable custody. I ate the food periodically dropped from the world above and spoke when they passed me, to the few prisoners I saw, who now spoke with the accent of the southern towns.

Eventually, and still in ignorance, I recrossed the desert and came returned to the parts where I had begun. I saw prisoners who now looked familiar and, from their own deterioration, understood that I had been many years exploring the prison. One day I came to the manhole beneath which I had awoken in this second life. A prisoner emerged from the columns as I stood beneath it, weeping and amazed at how many years had passed, and how little I understood of my sentence of the years of durance left. He hailed me with some trepidation and I tried to collect myself.

‘I wish you would tell then,’ he said hesitantly, ‘that we need water more frequently in the heat.’

I agreed that more water would be pleasant, but asked him how I was any more able to communicate this than he to the blind and immense force which had placed us down here. ‘I am, after all, just like you, although I have been away from this spot for some time.’

At this, he began to laugh incredulously. What did I mean, he said, when the whole prison knew, having seen me lowered down thirty years previously, that I was no mere inmate.

‘What do you mean?’ I said faintly, although the roar of thirty wasted years denounced my ignorance.

‘You are not a prisoner,’ the man said, astonished. ‘You are the jailer.’

Pandemicameron: The First Week – The Personal Trainer’s Tale

‘Yeah, probably should choose another job,’ said Kenneth, after a pause. ‘You’ve got to be a real estate agent from balls to bone. Can’t really fake it.’

‘Half my family’s estate agents,’ said Rony unexpectedly. ‘One of my ex-mates said they’re the moral equivalent of Al Capone’s masseur.’

‘This is murder, being cooped up like this, listening to each other’s neuroses,’ said Glen. ‘Can’t someone tell a happy bloody story? Or at least an inspirational one? This…God, you can see why hermits go nuts. Like those mad saints who lived in the desert and didn’t speak for forty years. Or the Buddhists who sleep standing up. It’s enough to drive you potty.’

‘They were very holy people,’ said Rony. ‘My teta used to tell us those stories about the saints and holy hermits. They were in lockdown for, like, centuries. Made them close to God.’

‘Right, then you can tell the next one,’ said Harry.

Rony sounded doubtful. ‘I’m not that good at stories.’

‘It’s the same principle as weightlifting,’ I said, annoyed that my tale had had such a lack of reaction. ‘Fill your diaphragm with air and explode upwards.’

The Personal Trainer’s Tale

So, in Lebanon, which is the best country in the world, there was this beautiful girl called Tecla. And, I’m telling you, this girl was stunning. Like, the kind of beautiful that buries you. Just totally spill-your-coffee-down-your-shirt beautiful. She was born into a pagan family not long after Jesus returned to Heaven and Paul began his long spiderweb of travels around the Levant. And she’s from a good family – not just good people, but top people in their town. And she’s down to be married to this other rich guy, whose name was Zift. It was a good match, but not in terms of personality because she was a nice girl and Zift was a bit of a dick.

So St Paul comes to this town, and he’s preaching in a house next to Tecla’s family, and she’s sitting by the window, just listening to this voice (because they had the same planning problems that they do now, which means that you can hear the neighbours unzip their fly but you can’t see nothing). And he’s saying stuff like the Blessed are the…stuff like what Jesus said. He said:

Blessed are the pure in heart, cos they put up with everything and think the best of people, even real scum. They’re the kind of people who really believe their car gets keyed by accident.

Blessed are the ones who don’t fu-sleep around, cos they treat themselves with respect and keep it special until they’re married and want a big family. And if they do mess up they don’t call her back or answer her texts and they just delete her off their phone or pass her number to a bro who wants that sort of thing.

Blessed are people who’ve renounced this world, which means they’ve given up and stay at home and don’t treat every night like it’s Saturday on Hamra Street. And they drive Toyota Corollas and don’t do upper body days, and just click their misbahas and look into the sun like old cats.

Blessed are the guys who have wives but, like, don’t have wives, which means that they watch what they wanna watch on TV and go out with the boys when they wanna go out, and don’t ask the wife.

Blessed are they who fear God, and if they do have to sell absolute crap and tell lies about the merchandise its only because they have a wife and kids and those things cost.

Blessed are the virgins because they’re the most special to God, and he looks at them and knows they’re as clean as when your car’s had a hand wash and polish with the interior detailing and it’s fully gleaming with T-Cut. And God looks at that and goes, ‘Mukheefe.’

So Tecla, she’s sitting at the window and she’s just hypnotised by what she’s hearing, and she knows, in her heart, that marrying Zift isn’t the way to go.

So when her mama comes in and says, ‘Yallah habibi, Zift’s here so we gotta get you looking bt’a’ed’, Tecla says, ‘No, mama, I’m not gonna marry him now. I’m gonna be a holy virgin and be pure for God.’

And she runs out of the house and into the neighbours and she throws herself at Paul’s feet, and he’s like ‘Shu mishen?’ and she says she’s heard the voice of God in him, and she wants to go with him and be a virgin.

So her mama and Zift, they come to the house to drag her back because they think she’s fully crazy, and they see St Paul, who’s this little balding sheresh with a monobrow and bandy legs and they go, ‘La walaw! She must be out of her mind!’

And the mama’s wailing and then all the other mothers come out of all the other houses and have a wail because we like to share that stuff, and she’s like, ‘Dakhil ijrek, why can’t you just be a good girl and come home?’

But Tecla just sits there with her arms crossed, tossing her hair and going, ‘Le, le, le, virgin. I wanna be a virgin.’

So they get a big crowd together, cos nobody does anything alone or quietly in Lebanon, and they drag Paul out and they drag Tecla out and they all go to the rabb’s house and they say, ‘Execute this man, ‘cos he’s making our women want to be virgins!’

And her mama’s so angry with Tecla for rejecting Zift that she says to the rabb, ‘And execute my daughter, cos I got four more and I don’t want no bad girl. Just burn her, and then we’ll see who’s the mama!’

Now the rabb, he’s not Christian or nothing, but he wants to be a bit careful and Paul’s a ghurayb, so he says Paul should be whipped and kicked out, but Tecla should be burned at the stake. And there’s more wailing but the mama, God forgive her, she’s set on giving up her own daughter to the fire, which is what happens when you don’t obey Lebanese parents.

They build a big pyre and they strip her naked, God forgive them, and the entire place is in an uproar. She’s like the sun – she could set fire to the pyre herself. Even the rabb hides his eyes because he values his peace of mind and he doesn’t wanna be clicking his misbaha for the rest of his life thinking that the beads are the notches of her beautiful spine. Anyway, they put her on the pyre and set fire to it, and what happens? God sends rain, and then hail, and eventually the fire’s out and it’s obvious that when the angels arrive the demons leave.

So they let Tecla go and she goes off to find Paul and she finds him eating lunch in a grave with some friends, which shows that you shouldn’t judge people by where they eat, and that even the holy saints ate lunch and that manouche is in the bible. And she says, ‘I’m gonna stay with you and be a virgin, and you can baptize me and we’ll spread the holy word together.’

And he’s surprised, because he knows that really beautiful women aren’t always the most stable, and because she’s really beautiful she’s probably off her chops. But he reckons that, for the love of Jesus, maybe he can put her somewhere in the next town where people will take care of her, like an asylum. But a nice one. A women’s one for really holy beautiful women who have mental problems. So they get to the next town, and it’s Antioch in Turkey – which is now a nation full of lunatics, may God forgive them, but it totally shows that God hears things upside down.

And they’re walking through the town, and this total hmarr sees Tecla and he spills his coffee down his shirt because he’s just, like, breathless with how beautiful she is. And he calls Paul over and says to him, ‘Habibi, I’ll give you anything for this beautiful woman.’

And Paul says, ‘I don’t know her, habibi. She’s a holy virgin and I probably wouldn’t get involved with her, but it’s not my business and she’s not my wife.’

And the man, who was a rabb, he had seen Paul and Tecla together and he knew they were really khosh bosh. So Paul gets kicked out of another town, and Tecla gets another hmarr going, ‘You bury me! Just sleep with me and I’ll marry you! I’ll do anything! Min ouyone! I die!’ cos we Lebanese don’t do passion by halves.

Anyway, Tecla fully loses it and starts laying into him in the middle of the street and she’s like, ‘Bi sharafak? You’re araf, ya hmarr! You’re, like, spelleh, just… I. totally. cannot. You are a total kalb. You reckon you’re some kind of jagal! Zahhit! Farjeenii ard ktaafak!’ And the whole street’s laughing at him, and he gets really angry. And he grabs her and drags her in front of the governor, and demands she be executed for assaulting him.

So they put her in the arena with these tigers and bears and sea lions in this big tub of water. Then the rabb, may God forgive him, he releases the animals on Tecla. But this lioness, who’s been moved by the finger of God, protects Tecla. And everyone’s shouting, like ‘Ya wayleh! We paid good money to see the virgin get eaten! What’s she doing? Get eaten or get married!’

And then the finger of God reaches down and touches Tecla, and she’s like, she’s fully sorrowing, habibi, sorrowing cos the animals haven’t been baptised. So she climbs into the tub full of sea lions and sea tigers and stuff and baptises them. And then they all eat each other, but they go to sea tiger heaven, mashallah.

So they let her go and she goes off to find Paul again, but he’s skipped because he’s got mates who tell him when she’s coming and he’s gone to spread the word in quieter parts where the women aren’t so full of drama —-

Words between the Personal Trainer and the Residents

The laughter had grown so loud that Rony could no longer be heard. When it had died down, he said plaintively, ‘Why are youse all laughing? This ain’t funny – she was a very holy woman.’

‘It must be the way you’re telling it,’ said Kenneth ‘You make her sound like a twelve-cylinder turbo-charged holy woman. The Virginity, by Maronite.’

‘OK, OK,’ said Rony. ‘I’ll tone it down. Tell it like my teta did, like a proper hakawati.’

The Personal Trainer resumes his tale of St Tecla

So Tecla moves into a cave and does holy virginity in the mountains. What’s it like? Cold, is what. And quiet. Every day she sees the sun turn the world red, then gold, then blazing white, whether it’s from summer heat or winter snow. The first year she’s there, she’s so in love with God that she’s like a spider clinging to a web and everything, everything that moves, or is in the very world is like a shiver along a strand of the web. It is evidence of the immense love out there which turned her ear to Paul’s voice and, through him, called her. This lockdown is the beginning of a long, private conversation with God and her own inner recesses, a conversation of an intensity most people couldn’t bear.

It takes bravery to face the silence and the knowledge that now there is only you. You can’t lose yourself in the racket of other people, and you can’t hide from your own scrutiny. There’s nothing to read but yourself, no one to consider but yourself. You’re bumping into yourself every minute of the day, so you may as well accept that this is the revelation you’ve been waiting for your whole life.

Can years go by before you realise that you haven’t spoken a word?

Can you overcome the anxiety of not seeing your face reflected in a mirror, or the mirrors of your maids, your sisters, your beloved’s face?

Can you be as beautiful as Tecla knows she is and not regret the chance to bestow it on a lover?

Yes, and yes, and yes – if the object in the scales’ other pan is God.

And then one day some shepherds minding their goats, dotted over the mountains like freckles, see her and hail her as Umm, and she knows that her beauty is gone. Is she sorry? More surprised, that so much time has passed while she has been in deep conversation with God. And then she’s glad, because losing your looks is like putting down a baby: sweet to hold, but heavy. Now, she thinks, this set of lines and planes and shades and tones doesn’t bother anyone, and they won’t bother me.

And then they come: the sick; the desolate; the ones with questions; the ones with answers; the ones who want to stare; the ones who want to sip the holiness from the air around her. They want healing; she becomes a healer. Mostly it’s just common sense, and the bravery that comes from knowing that life is not such a big thing to lose. But she’s a good healer, and people begin to prefer her to the doctors in the town.

When the doctors hear they start to murmur against her. Who is she? How does she heal these hopeless cases? How can she survive if she takes no money? How much longer can we keep going if she steals our custom?

They decide that the secret lies in her long-preserved virginity. The purity of the doctor must cleanse the general scurf of the patient. If she loses that, they think, she’ll be just like the rest of us, soiled by the world. So they hire a band of thugs and tell them to go up to the caves, find the holy virgin, and make sure she’s not a virgin any more. Even if she is in her nineties.

Even at 90 years old, Tecla sees them coming in the twilight. It’s hard not to, when they’re twelve alcohol-fortified would-be rapists all shouting to the canyon walls about how they’re going to fuck up God himself. They’re within eyesight of the cave when she turns away from them and walks to the rock wall. They’re laughing, tripping over themselves, reeking alcohol fumes in the evening air, and so they don’t trust their eyes when the rock wall opens, just wide enough for an old woman to slip through, into a place of darkness and safety and tight, close communion – closer than the conversation which has lasted all through her seventy-year self-imposed lockdown – and close behind her.

She is there still.

(With thanks to Mark Hachem’s hilarious Youtube channel, which has some really interesting stuff about Lebanese Arabic.)

Pandemicameron: The First Week – The Teacher’s Tale

There were murmurs of sympathy and sadness from the balconies.

“But is it true?” said Jenni Sharma.

“Oh, don’t be so bloody Australian,” I said.

Harry snorted. “It coulda happened. Probably did happen in lots of homes. Maybe not the Torana. I’d have loved a Torana. My old man told my sister that she could go out with anyone as long as he didn’t drive a Torana.”

“When I think about what people my age have seen,” Joy said. “Vietnam, and the Cold War, and the recession, and now this.”

“You’ve done pretty well,” I said. “Isn’t your generation supposed to be the richest in history? And the longest lived?” There were noises of assent from everyone under fifty.

“We worked for it,” said Glenn defensively. “Got a job, got a mortgage, started chipping away at it.”

“Even if I did the same thing, I’d still be chipping when I’m well past your age,” I said. “I’m not sure why the government’s trying to prevent us all from dying when it’s definitely the cheaper option.”

Joy sniffed audibly from above. “That’s just morbid. That’s what’s wrong with young people today – they’re all so morbid. All this anxiety! So things are expensive! Get out and work for it! Hard work never killed anyone, and you shouldn’t drag your unhappiness around, making everyone share it.”

There was a silence among the balconies. “Quite,” I said. “Harry, can I tell the next one?”

The Teacher’s Tale

Gordon had told him to leave his own car, which was an aged Toyota Corolla bought from his sister, and take Gordon’s new Audi. The cars of real estate agents displayed their capacity to achieve seven-figure sales, along with their clothes, handbags, and haircuts. Matthew had taken the keys, but at the last minute, left them on Gordon’s desk and had gone to do the valuation in his own car.

He sat in the Toyota a few doors down from the Wells’ house and looked at the street. Once it had been government housing; wooden bungalows on quarter-acre blocks built after the war to house the returning men who were breeding nuclear families like demented rabbits. They paid low rents throughout the fifties and sixties and then, when the housing scheme was being folded up in the seventies, they were given the option to buy the property for a nominal payment. The house was valued, the rent paid over the years added up and considered installments, and anything outstanding was what you owed. By the 1990s the area, which had been bush, then the bare-earth breeding-ground of fifties homemaking, was becoming desirable. By the 2020s the same houses which had cost peanuts were worth millions. There were a few original owners left; you could tell them by the flagpoles and gardens informed by northern European ideas of planting, but many had sold up and moved into manicured retirement villages on the proceeds. Now their grandchildren and great-grandchildren were locked out of the property market, working at jobs whose salaries lagged far behind anything that could buy a home.

He got out and went up the path of number nine. The driveway had a prosperity-convoy of Landcruiser, boat, and RV. Matthew was wondering where the obligatory Mazda runaround lived when the door opened prematurely. He had not quite pasted on his professional mask of hard-nosed optimism; he felt that the man in the doorway had witnessed his general animus to the driveway dollar parade.

‘Matthew?’ The man was of that impressive physical robustness which signified good food throughout life, a mental diet of football and manly pursuits, and an emotional existence propped up by a wife who did the worrying, childrearing, and social lubricating for him. He would likely be loud and hale until felled by a heart-attack while out on the boat.

‘Bill?’

They shook hands as a woman, of an age and level of upkeep that Matthew had already guessed, appeared in an aura of white linen and mimosa perfume. This was June, Bill said, as if she was the vanguard to the wheeled chattels in the drive.

The ground floor was mostly an open plan entertaining area: a white shrine of throw pillows and comfortable sofas backing onto an open plan kitchen full of sleek surfaces and well-maintained steel. The whole thing gave onto a deck framing a garden done in Tuscan style. It was suitable for large people who lived largely.

‘And you’re letting this go after…?’ he guessed thirty to forty years. Probably bought in the eighties for not much and now being sold to fund some single-level brick behemoth on a choice plot up the coast.

‘First time on the market since it was built in 1952,’ Bill said, tugging at the football sweater looped over his shoulders. ‘Parents left it to us. We’ve been here since 2011, but we’ve got a place up the coast. Time to let this go.’

Matthew nodded and busied himself with a clipboard on which he usually recorded adjectives useful for the online copy. Without even seeing the interior, he could see it would make seven figures. You could sell a brick outhouse for seven figures in the area. Three generations of mainly Anglo middle-class families had produced quiet streets, tidy and unimaginative low-maintenance gardens, ever-larger houses, good schools and pleasant shops. The Chinese, Indians, Persians, and Sri Lankans who came later were desperate to get away from their own and into the schools set up by the white families who were now moving up the coast. Matthew wrote down Rejuvenated classic and easy living, then family home. It was boring copy, but Gordon had reminded him that his previous life as an English postgraduate was dead and buried, and that most of his writing would be Google-translated into Mandarin.

They went through a den, complete with a television so large that anyone shown on it would have frightened Matthew, and several bedrooms. The bathroom had been recently renovated, and several children’s toys sat on the bath. ‘My grandchildren come over a fair bit,’ said June. ‘We look after them when my daughter’s at work.’

In the master bedroom, which was a temple to beige overlooking the Tuscan fountain in the middle of the small sunken lawn, he saw pictures of a blonde girl in a wedding dress on the arm of a stodgily good-looking blonde man about Matthew’s age. Beside it was a picture of the same couple, augmented by a fat blonde baby. ‘She works for my company,’ said Bill. ‘ ‘Was a builder. Now we do project management on homebuilds. Son-in-law does the hard yakka and Gail keeps the books.’ For a moment Matthew thought he was going to be offered a business card and prepared himself not to laugh incredulously. His last payslip had shown only a small increase over what he had earned as a grad student of English literature. He shared a house with his girlfriend and his younger brother, who were struggling to find their way out of formal study and into jobs. The problem, his girlfriend had said miserably the previous night, was that she didn’t understand half the job titles, let alone what the jobs involved. ‘Project manager’ had been given as an example.

He was imagining the photo of the house, with all the lights on, complete with the pink-purple sunset that Gordon insisted be photoshopped into each image, when they went into the garden through the french triple doors. ‘Didn’t the old Chelmsford hospital back onto this block?’

‘ ‘Sright,’ said Bill cheerfully. ‘Asylum. Back in the nineties they wanted to extend the buildings over there -‘ he gestured beyond the fence line. ‘They were going to build some kind of treatment centre for depression. We fought it with the council. Didn’t want a bunch of zonked-out miseries just over the fence. No telling what they’d do.’

‘Then the hospital closed,’ said June. ‘They subdivided everything and built the apartments on it.’

‘Looking right over our bloody pool,’ said Bill.

‘From madness to suburbia,’ Matthew said, refraining from pointing out that the apartment buildings had increased the desirability of their own property. ‘Lovely garden,’ he said, taking in the sunken lawn, the short avenue of oversized terracotta planters leading down to the pool, and the little fountain. ‘Did you do it yourself, June?’ It was quite obvious that June’s forte was throw pillows and beige knee-rugs, but it seemed polite to ask.

‘I was a teacher,’ she said, ‘before the girls were born and homemaking took me away.’ Matthew, whose mother had worked full time, always wondered at this statement, as if motherhood was an Oz-like land complete with winged monkeys abducting women.

They sat on the sofas on the deck and surveyed the kingdom. Matthew noticed a small plant climbing up a trellis. ‘Gooseberries,’ he said. ‘I haven’t seen those for a long time.’

‘I planted them because they reminded me of a short story by a Russian writer called Anton Chekhov,’ June said coyly.

‘Mr. Chekhov,’ said Bill, expanding both arms along the back of his sofa. ‘Aye, aye Captain. Beam me up.’

‘I think I know that story,’ said Matthew. ‘It’s the middle one of the Little Trilogy. Kryzhovnik, I think it is in Russian.’

‘I knew you were a reader!’ she said, looking at Bill with a kind of happy reproach. ‘Not like all those other young people who go to university and do computer things.’

‘They make phones work and airconditioning,’ said Bill. ‘Can’t pay your way with Russian Star-Trek stories.’

‘Don’t I know it,’ said Matthew, looking down at his clipboard. He had to bite his lip to stop himself from saying something about wasted degrees and a country which heroised the plumber over the teacher. Not that living without sewerage was attractive, but plumbers had to read, and it took a bloody lot longer to teach a child to read than to fit a U-bend.

‘I just loved it so much,’ said June, ignoring Bill. ‘It’s about a man who just wants a little place in the country, with a little gooseberry bush, because he grew up in the country and he knows that it’s the best way to live, close to nature. So he saves and saves and works hard, even though his brother thinks he’s stupid. And he gets his little place in the country eventually and plants a gooseberry bush so that he can enjoy his own fruit, whenever he wants.’ She clasped her hands together in rapture at the vision of the simple life. ‘I just knew exactly how he felt – it’s just how we feel about moving away from the city and up the coast. And so I planted gooseberries.’ She gestured at the bush as if it were a co-star receiving an encore.

‘They need a lot of sugar,’ said Bill. ‘Bit tart, to me.’

Matthew frowned. ‘I’m not sure…I think the story’s a bit different.’

She leaned forward. ‘Oh?’

‘Well, I think it’s about how blind he is to the real nature of life. Just as long as he gets his place in the country, he doesn’t care about the unhappiness that’s around him. That’s what his brother disapproves of. His tunnel vision; his belief that owning this country estate will make him happy. When unhappiness is everywhere.’

She sat back and threw her hands up. ‘That’s so like your generation!’ she said indulgently. ‘Always looking for the darkness, the miserable side of things! I don’t see that in the story at all. It’s just a nice story about a man who wants something and works hard for it, and enjoys it when he gets it.’

‘Here, here,’ said Bill heartily. ‘Nothing wrong with that. ‘S what life’s about.’

Matthew tried to remember the story clearly. ‘The two brothers did have a country estate, I think, but their father gambled it away.’

‘That’s right,’ said June.

‘And the older brother has to get a government job which he hates, and he saves and saves and…doesn’t he marry a widow for her money? That’s right – he treats his wife so badly that she dies, and he manages to get a mortgage for an estate with the inheritance.’

‘I don’t …not sure I remember that bit,’ said June, doubtfully.

‘And he lords it over the peasants who come with the estate.’

‘Well, everyone did that then,’ she said, smoothing the pale blue linen over her knees. ‘It was just how things were then. Especially in Russia.’

‘Shifty bastards, the Russians,’ said Bill. ‘That was one thing the Cold War got absolutely right. And now we’re at it with the Chinese. It’s a rotten system, communism, trying to stop people making a profit. Bloody unnatural.’

Matthew snapped his fingers. ‘That’s it – I remember now. A happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence. The other brother, who’s telling the story, thinks this when he visits the new estate that his brother has got through his misery, callous obsession with a country property. He’s finally got the place, with his gooseberry bushes, and he’s completely happy, and his brother visits him and is just disgusted by how much misery he’s caused to get it and is causing in owning it. And he thinks this is true of people generally – they’re so focused on their own happiness that they refuse to see the misery everywhere. I think he says something about the silent protest of statistics – so many people going mad, or children starving, or deaths from drink. Every happy person should have someone who follows them round with a little hammer to remind them that there are unhappy people, and that when he’s unhappy, no one will want to hear about it, just as they don’t want to hear now. That’s why Chekhov uses the gooseberries. They’re thin-skinned and sour.’ There was an awful pause. ‘It’s a symbol,’ he finished, lamely.

There was a stony silence in the manicured garden, and no birds sang. ‘I don’t see any of that in that story,’ June said stiffly. ‘I just liked the bit about gooseberries.’

Matthew looked at the Wells’, reposing on their hardwood outdoor suite, amid pseudo-Tuscan splendour, and heard Gordon’s voice reminding him of his sub-par sales. ‘Well,’ he said lamely. ‘There are different ways to read a story.’

They showed him out, almost to the front door, and left him to find his way back to the Corolla, which had been sandwiched between an aggressive matt black GT and a BMW. His phone rang. ‘How did it go?’ said Gordon.

Matthew looked through the dirty windscreen at the street and wondered how many other gooseberry bushes were growing in other million-dollar gardens, unchallenged by literary critical estate agents. He could ponder it while he put his resume on some of the online job boards. ‘I think they may go with someone else.’

Pandemicameron: The First Week – The Baby Boomer’s Tale

So Harry ended his tale, which I liked greatly because I knew, unlike everyone else, that it was about Erik the Red.

‘Who?’ said Rony.

‘He discovered Greenland,’ I called up. ‘Or settled it, anyway. And his son, Leif Eriksson, discovered North America.’

‘I thought that was George Washington,’ said Rony.

‘It was Christopher Columbus,’ said one of the Wongs. ‘In 1492.’

‘Well, Leif got there first, but he didn’t stay long or make a big deal about it,’ said Harry soothingly.

There was the sound of a handclap and hands rubbing in satisfaction. ‘Well, we’ve kicked off,’ said Glen Farmer. ‘Harry, who’s going next?’

‘How about you?’ said Harry. ‘You owe us a story. But not about football. For everyone’s sanity.’

‘Oh.’ There was a thinking silence. ‘I don’t know any other stories. Not off the top of my head. And I’ve got this thing in my throat. And a headache. Can my better half do it?’

There was a snort from somewhere above us, which suggested that Jenni was out on a good behaviour bond. ‘Yeah, go on then,’ said Harry.

Come. ON.’ said a collective voice.


The Retiree’s Tale

Maybe if we hadn’t lived on a hill it wouldn’t have happened. But the driveway was a short steep slope giving onto the street, which was a long, shallow hill. So when he decided to dodge the Vietnam draft, my brother released the handbrake, let out the clutch, and slid away silently into the night with our dad’s brand new 1969 Holden Torana.

Dad had been a prisoner of the Japanese at Hainan Island. He turned twenty in 1940, married my mother, and went off to war. In 1942 Singapore fell. He was captured and spent three years in a Japanese camp. A thin, angry man came home to Australia, holding prisoner inside him the man my mother had married. War is like paint stripper. It starts by swelling the surface gloss, before breaking it down and causing it to flake off. Whatever’s left underneath is naked, scarred, and never holds the same finish again. None of those men really talked about it. You worked out what they had seen from what they couldn’t stand to have around them. Dad hated the summer heat and rain; he hated the smell of rice cooking; he hated late meals, wasted food, inactivity, and he loathed Asians in any form. Sometimes he yelled in his sleep. He roamed the house in the wee hours. Sometimes he smoked and wept angrily round the back of the garden shed where he thought he was alone. We were born after the war; we grew up with the idea that the father we knew wasn’t really himself but the victim of some ongoing accident, a war that had localized itself in 9 Wesson Road.

He was a carpenter and he made beautiful things in the quiet of the shed behind the house. He did precise, lasting work in the new houses around us. He wasn’t keen on going too far from home, but since the whole world was busy making babies and quick-build new homes there was always enough work close by. We never wanted for anything and it was Mum’s choice to take a job at the hairdresser’s when Nicky was five. When Dad bought the Torana in 1969, he started going to the races at Bathurst; I have a picture of him there, smiling. He could enjoy things, but that brief engagement never made it past the orbital road of his thoughts. The things he enjoyed – the car, his work, his family perhaps – didn’t convince him. Their pull wasn’t enough to draw him out of the sweat-soaked hut in Hainan where he seemed to remain a prisoner. Life’s only livable under two conditions: habit or conviction. Three years in Hainan had destroyed his capacity to be happy for the remaining thirty-eight years. Then the next war came along, in Korea, and then after that in Vietnam, and he saw that war was total, continual, demanding a debt from the generations, unavoidable by the living.

The Birthday Lottery made things worse for everyone. Men had to register for the nasho when they turned twenty. National servicemen went into a biannual lottery for active service overseas, which meant Vietnam. The odds were that you’d never see more than a dusty paddock at Wagga Wagga, but it was the only way to make things fair in a war that nobody wanted to fight. I think it was the randomness of it that Nick objected to. There’s something obscene about condemning your children to a state-organized lottery for war, even if that’s what a lot of life amounts to. Despite Dad’s tight, silent disapproval, he went to a few anti-war protests in town and made some pointed comments about not registering for the nasho when he turned twenty. Mum and I couldn’t say anything without upsetting one of them. We didn’t talk about Asia swallowing alive another man in the family and sending him home thin and silent and somehow amputated.

I asked Nick once what he’d do if he dodged the draft. He said he’d go surfing up at Byron with all the other boys who didn’t want to turn out like their old men. Either way, I’d lose – I was working with Mum at the hairdresser and I didn’t want to be left alone with Mum fussing and Dad looking over boys who came to take me out every Saturday. But Nick had only just finished his apprenticeship and he was stuck at home with Dad frogmarching him off to the barber when his hair touched his collar and threatening all kinds if Nick tried to be a bohemian. In my father’s house, the worse thing you could be was a bohemian. I don’t know if he ever knew that Bohemia was a place in Europe, and none of us were game to tell him. Bohemians lived in squats, smoked dope, dodged the draft and didn’t come round the cleared-scrub outer suburbs full of wooden bungalows and flagpoles where veterans lived. Round our way the world boiled down to those who surfed and went to protests, and those who worked and dreamed of Toranas.

Dad loved that car. The Torana was Australia’s first (and some say only) muscle car. The whole street loved that car. It was the closest I saw dad come to forgiving himself for living. We weren’t allowed to drive it, though he sometimes went to the pub with Nick in it – mostly so that he could drink and Nick could drive him back, but still. He kept the keys on his bedside table with his wallet. Even Mum had to take her shoes off when they went out in it. Eventually one night Nicky said that Dad loved the bloody car more than he loved us, and the car could go and register with the Department of Labour and National Service the next morning because he wouldn’t.

Dad put his knife and fork down. I could smell the Brylcream in his hair as his scalp heated with anger. I think I swore then I’d never marry an angry man. That smell, of male anger, and the ticking bloody silence as you waited for the dinner table to explode. I’d never, ever do it. It’s like sandpaper on your nerves, living with an angry man.

He said, ‘You’ll go, because I had to go.’

Nick said, ‘That’s exactly why I shouldn’t. Why I shouldn’t have to, I mean. What was the point of what you went through if it didn’t end it? Did you put up with all that shit so that your kids would have to do the same?’ 

Dad stared at his chump chops and peas. ‘It’s the way of the world. There’s always some bunch trying it on. Gotta keep them in line if you want to live the way you do, surfing and all that.’

‘If I come back like you, d’you really think I’ll feel like surfing? What’s the point of fighting for a life if you live it like something out of Night of the bloody Living Dead?’

From the corner of my eye I saw Mum briefly close her eyes. 

It ended with them both shouting themselves to hoarseness, saying terrible things, the kind of charges you can only lay on God or a whole people. My father reached a strange pitch of weeping from anger; my brother was wild with a kind of desperate hunger for life and the fear that war wouldn’t kill him but turn him into Dad.

Mum and Dad shut themselves in their room. Nick went out, and I went round to a friend’s house and listened to her records. I can’t think about that night without hearing the Bee Gees ‘I started a Joke’. Dinner went cold on the table; I think it stayed there all the next day. When I came back home around midnight my parents’ light was off. In the lamplight on the hall table were the keys to the Torana and some cash. Nick came out of his room on tiptoe. He froze when he saw me. I cried; he hugged me, then he took the keys and cash and went. I saw the door to my parents’ room close quietly and I scuttled off to bed.

Sometimes men have children to whom they can give no good picture of the world, to whom they can say nothing that isn’t worse than the silence of their own suffering. Nicky drove off into the night, away from the nasho and suffering for the nation in Vietnam. He stole Dad’s Torana and didn’t come home for twenty years. He could have taken the bus, but he took the thing Dad loved to screw him over and to remind him that choosing your own course is your only duty, because only you have to live your life afterwards. I never mentioned that Mum had left the keys out. Nicky brought them back eventually, and he left them on dad’s grave. 

Diogenes is having a little break

According to legend, Diogenes the Cynic died by holding his breath. This is impossible, obviously, and another, more plausible and therefore more boring, story says that he ate bad octopus and died of food poisoning. I have mentioned previously that I struggle with depression, and am struggling mightily at the moment and therefore will have a little break from Pandemicameron and the rest of the barrel. I hope to return soon. If not, remember that it’s impossible to die by holding your breath, and vegans don’t eat octopus – bad or otherwise.

Pandemicameron: The First Week – The Widower’s Tale

You are born twice: once when your mother expels you into the world, flower-wet and crying, and once when a single word in someone’s story propels you out of childhood and into the fires of individuation.

Erik Thorvaldsson was born the second time on a wave-sodden bench in the karve Uxi as the coast of Norway slipped over the horizon forever. He sat between his father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, and his father’s slave Skarde, and watched wind fill the red sail. Slaves, animals, his mother, brothers, sisters, and the setstokkr – everything was in the Uxi bound for Iceland. They were banished.

His stomach was singing the seasick song. Flat, green Jaeren, flat green Jaeren, flatgreenJae– and he scrambled over his father and puked over the side. The spew hit a wave and bobbed behind them. He leaned, shaking, over the edge and wondered if throwing himself in would be better. This was the world beyond home. Grey-walled waves, the thrash and tumble of everything that could not float or fly, and the awful feeling of something vast behind the dome of Ymir’s Skull, laughing at their pitiful size, their hope.

There was no end in sight now, not to anything. On the flat lands you could always see where you were going. ‘When does this stop?’ Erik muttered into the grain of the setstokkr, which were lashed along the length of the boat. A caving of Jǫrmungandr coiled around the beams from end to end and back again, biting its own tail.

‘Would you want there to be?’ his father said.

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Then this would stop.’ He made an up-and-down motion with his hand which made him feel sick again.

His father said, ‘It stops in time. When you’ve sailed it out of yourself. Then you come to miss it.’

Erik smiled thinly. ‘How far do you have to go before you sail the sickness out? Orkney?’

‘Further, I think.’

‘Torshavn?’

‘Further.’

Erik grimaced into his lap so that his father would not see it. Thorvald’s killings had got them all banished. Thorvald’s ship was carrying them; Thorvald’s kin would take them in at Hornstrandir. They would know that they were exiles. Erik wanted home, heat, and not to hate his father for this.

‘Will we not even stop at Torshavn?’ he said desperately.

‘What for? Erik – tell me what’s wrong. The new place won’t be so bad. There are others there, like us, who have left like us and had to settle somewhere else because Harald’s Norway hasn’t the room for all the pushing and shoving. It’s not as easy to farm as Jaeren, but we’ll be freer there. You will, when you’re a man.’

Erik nodded and shook his head all at once. Behind him the twins Liv and Sif were playing with the cat. He felt sick and exhausted and despairing and he could not speak the great fear that was worse than the nausea. ‘Tell me,’ his father said again, looking at the waves. ‘It couldn’t be anything I’ve not thought or feared myself.’

Erik took a deep breath. ‘It’s the–I mean, how do you…’ How did you say it? The limitlessness of it all, the distance, the size of the world and its unexpectedness. Like being a chick caught by a cat. ‘We’re going to the edge of …everything. There’s nothing beyond Hornstrandir, not even ice or Jotnar. How do we…I mean, what if…beyond Iceland is Jǫrmungandr waiting for us?’

‘ Jǫrmungandr ?’

‘They say the fire in Iceland happens when Jǫrmungandr turns, out in the sea, and thrashes. If it’s the limit of things – if Iceland is the limit and Hornstrandir is the limit of Iceland – what happens if we’re banished again and… there’s nothing else. Just the serpent and death.’ Tears coursed down his cheeks and the wind whipped them back into his eyes. Erik rarely cried, and was hardy even among the boys at Jaeren. Very little in the world around him scared him; but this idea of the absolute edge made him feel strange, like someone playing with your spine. He felt a pull towards it and a panic at the same time. The Limit of all things – it was the kind of mind-spinning thought that terrified him, like the thought of Ginnungagap, or what lay beyond Yggdrasil, or what would come after Ragnarok.

Thorvald Erikson looked seaward for a long time, then told Skarde to go aft and mind the twins. He fumbled in his shirt and produced the hide thong from which his silver Mjǫllnir hung. He had added another thing to the thong, a piece of walrus ivory the length of a man’s forefinger, carved like a walrus floating, its flippers and paws folded along its flanks, its tusks resting on its chest. He gave it to Erik.

‘It’s fine work,’ Erik said. ‘From Iceland?’

‘No,’ said Thorvald. ‘From further than that. The man I had it from got it from a … man, I suppose you’d call him, in a skin boat from a great place far west of Iceland.’

‘A skin boat? In these seas?’

His father shrugged. ‘He said the man looked like the herders in the northern snows. Wore seal pelts and the fur of a white bear and he handled his boat with a single oar, double-bladed.’

‘And this place he came from, is it so far?’

‘There’s a story that Gunnbjorn Ulfsson went west and came to a landmass, but the winds were so bad he couldn’t get near it.’

‘How far from Iceland? A day?’

‘Further.’

‘Two days? Three days?’

Thorvald Asvaldsson bent his head to his son, closing out the wind and the spindrift. ‘The skin-boatsman said that he lived in a place with much ice, greater than little Iceland, and that beyond his home was a land which stretches for many seasons.’ He sat back.

Erik handed back the carving. The waves around him had acquired shape and proportion. The sickness had abated and he could see the curve of Ymir’s Skull now, and understand that there was more beyond the horizon – not sea serpents, but more lands and more men. The world was at once greater and smaller than the yawning fear of the absolute limit which had gnawed him. His father put his hand on Erik’s shoulder and felt in his son’s soul a tiny twitch of a pull away from him, towards something beyond, ever westwards. ‘There is always somewhere further, Eirík Rauði.’

Pandemicameron: General Prologue 6 – The Game

A message was sent to every phone in the building inviting us to gather on our balconies at 9am each morning, when Nice Captain Fischer would tell us anything important and could be told any problems.

The first morning was not an unqualified success. There were camera crews, as heavily masked as Capt. Fischer’s team, hoping to catch signs of tension and resentment, grief and hysteria, or at least some quality coughing. We stood on our balconies feeling foolish and listening to Capt. Fischer explaining what we already knew, and wondering if we could ask him for a quick tune on his trumpet. We could foregather like this daily, but physical contact between apartments was prohibited, as was exchanging any items by way of our balconies. From these vantage points, we could speak outwards, in the manner of nineteenth-century actors, but it would be sensible if we did not vocalize in each other’s direction. The Nice Captain asked if there were any questions.

There were no questions.

From the top floor there was an audible tut and the irate voice of Jenni Sharma expelling the build-up of an entire five minutes’ anger. ‘NO, Angus! I said NO! Just STOP!’

A small voice said, ‘I just want a story.’ He, and the rest of the news-watching country, received an explanation at volume as to why a story was unreasonable, impossible, and evidence of the strain she was under.

‘Poor little thing,’ said Joy Farmer, fatally. ‘It can’t be any fun for them at all.’

There was a silence like that preceding the electro-magnetic pulse which attends a nuclear blast. Looking out to the street, eight apartments’ worth of eyes cringed at the impact. ‘You stupid, selfish, careless, old people,’ bellowed Jenni. Joy flinched at stupid and Glen at old.‘I hope you’re happy, imprisoning us all so that you could have another bloody holiday. And DON’T TELL ME HOW TO DEAL WITH MY CHILDREN.’

A soothing murmur suggested that Dave was attempting to rein in the breakaway Thunderbird, and a tearful juvenile sniffle and the words ‘justwannastory’ were audible in the silence. If cameras could have whirred, we would have had audible evidence of the nation’s enjoyment.

‘WHY SHOULD I HAVE TO TELL THEM A STORY?’

Spider and Aerith vanished back inside in search of milder, simulated violence.

‘You’ve got an iPad each, and school’s fully online, and there’s the bloody television!’

‘But we want you to tell us a story, Mummy,’ said a small and remarkably brave voice. He was warned, in increasing decibels, not to nag.

‘It is part of being a parent,’ said Joy Farmer. ‘We’ve all had to do it.’

‘My dad told great stories,’ said Harry Barr, unexpectedly. ‘Your parents’ stories make you what you are.’

‘And in your case, that’s been such a success,’ bawled Jenni. ‘Renting a miserable one room unit with that disgusting dog THAT YOU SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO HAVE.’

Tabard whined and was assured by many voices that he was neither disgusting nor prohibited. There was a series of muffled comments from above, a door sliding and slamming, and a lightening of the atmosphere which said that Jenni had been removed inside.

‘The thing about stories,’ said Kenneth, ‘is that they can lift you out of the grim reality that’s been imposed on you. They might not be happier, but at least you can choose your grimness.’

Everyone laughed. Kenneth’s remark was translated for the older Wongs, and then they laughed too.

‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘By imposing a shape onto the seamless flow of events, stories help you to see – or invent – a meaning in them. And if they’re all that bad, at least a story tells you that events have an end.’

The laughter died away. ‘Eh, yeah,’ said a voice.

‘So you going to tell one, then?’ said Kenneth eventually. ‘Harry, I mean. You going to tell a story?’

‘That’d be nice,’ said Sanath, wistfully. ‘I love a good story.’

‘Yeah, come on – tell us a story, Hazza,’ said Glen Farmer, cheerfully.

‘I don’t know,’ said Harry. ‘I’m not really a performer.’

‘You can choose who goes next,’ said Shelley. ‘Please.’

The unexpectedness of Shelley’s voice, and the magic of that infrequent word, led to a general barracking, Tab barking, and Harry’s acquiescence in telling the first story.

Pandemicameron: General Prologue 5 – The Residents

At the top of The Canterbury were the penthouse three-bedroom flats. One was owned by the Farmers, who had brought the lockdown upon us, and the other by the Sharmas. Although possessed of an Indian name and a beard glossy enough for a rajah, Dave Sharma was only Indian in his belief that living amid screaming sons, an implacable wife, and the bills for endless home improvements was the only route to mortal happiness. He was a good-humoured and loving father who played football with his small, angry sons in the little park and was a model husband to a woman whom past ages would have called a beldam and consigned to the kindling. Jenni was an Irish-extraction human thundercloud. Like an old ferry whose virtue lies in its unstoppable forward motion, Jenni had only two settings: silent, and enraged. She had long relied on the conventional fiction that redheads were not responsible for their own temper to keep her out of prison. Practically everything enraged Jenni. Her children, her home, people’s temerity in living near her and desiring silence every so often, and many other things brought an incarnadine rush to both her heart and face. The mystery of Dave and Jenni’s unlikely pairing had been caused by an optimistic mistake: Dave had mistaken Jenni’s violent anger and low-browed hostility with energy, and Jenni had mistaken Dave’s good humour for approval. At night, Dave lay beside her on the high thread-count sheets and deluxe mattress topper and privately fantasized about a quiet, single life.

Had Jenni been intelligent, her talent for anger could have liberated the oppressed, redistributed wealth and frightened the Newtonian field into unifying. Instead it had gone to child-bearing and the acquisition of a home to which only the strong of heart were invited. Work, in the normal sense of a job among and at the service of others, was not for Jenni. A small army of tradesmen attended her, which she took as proof positive that her rage was puissant and productive. Upon those who pointed out that the constant improvement of her own home made theirs less desirable to be in, she vented her spleen in poorly-punctuated notes or, if Dave’s supervisory presence was absent, at volume. She was a thrawn, bawling red-haired brawler whom another age would have placed on a quayside selling herrings. Although her own therapist had privately given her up as a shrew and termagant, Jenni wanted to love her children, but the world got in the way by refusing to be what she wanted, and having to be bullied into submission.

Beside the upwardly-striving Sharmas were the downwardly-trending Farmers. Joy and Glen had retired and downsized to the newly-built Canterbury where they spent a quarter of the year. The rest of the year was divided between touring the country in their mobile home, living in their coastal property, and touring the world – anywhere Death could be beguiled and bought off. Death terrified them: they smiled often and with beautiful white veneers, but shivered at the sight of other sun-golden retirees who were only an ice-floe away from using up their superannuation and being abandoned to natural processes. They subscribed to Prevention Magazine, paid astonishing insurance premiums for the assurance that when the time came – if cryogenics did not perfect itself in time – they would be eased seamlessly out of one suburban existence into another, immortal one. Resigning themselves to the lockdown, they turned their wraparound balcony into an imaginary cruise-ship, spoiled only intermittently by Jenni Sharma’s un-nautical harridaning, and there would take orange juice, coffee, and a rainbow of statins, NSAIDs, digoxins, and assorted supplements. The only thing more frightening than death to Glenn and Joy was pain, which they went to childlike lengths to avoid. Almost every physical process had been enhanced, fixed, or prosthetized, so it was no surprise that, although they had contracted the virus and carefully nurtured it on their largely-synthetic selves, they failed to suffer any of the symptoms. (In her defence, Joy pointed out that she had suffered extreme anxiety for a whole evening when she realized the danger to which she had exposed herself). They displayed their self-care routines in the belief that everyone was as keen for them to live forever: Glen signed up for a virtual men’s shed to safeguard his mental health, and Joy subscribed to a yoga channel and ordered an assortment of yoga-wear, along with bulk packs of supplements.