Amongst my halfhearted attempts to be productive on my gap year, I did send random tales off to a bunch of short writing competitions. One did make it through to Hammond House publishing (having a little book nestled somewhere in our living room bookshelves with my name inside is pretty exciting, although I have since then decided to shed the extra ‘e’ from my surname – hopefully it still counts as mine).
A bunch of friends asked to read it, and since it wasn’t made available online, I thought I might as well post it here, albeit 2 years late (as you can tell I’m in the depths of revision, thinking back to a time when I could write about things I actually enjoyed…)
It is pretty weird, I won’t lie. My slightly morbid fascination with life after death definitely filters through.
This is also the unedited version – I’m really, really lazy when it comes to reading my own work through, and got an email afterwards admitting that someone else was thankfully going to smooth it out before publishing. It is also about 4000 words, and I don’t have any cute pictures to break it up for you (still half one of the essays I have to do tonight).
For anyone who read the Spiderwick Chronicles as a kid, I think the strange, grouchy soul creature is definitely a Thimbletack inspiration.
Meeting your maker
Christie’s Auction House, 1905
Sale; ‘Assemblage of Items of Unknown & Unexplained’
‘A collection of writings on pieces of worn parchment, supposedly produced from the mouth of Teresa Yearnet at birth (Wyoming, 1823) and held in possession of family since’
There must be a backlog on today’s order. The wheeze and groan of the Vivifium suggests the ominous possibility of a shutdown. The last time so many orders cam through was international chaos, as I recall. A national outrage, a mad whirl of blame and urgency to find someone to point the finger at, politicians scarpering left right and centre in a desperate bid to shift any question of their own faults. Terrorists were an unlikely choice as the perpetrator in this case. Unfortunately, global warming provided an equally unsatisfying option. You couldn’t string Global Warming up in public and give him a good lashing. You couldn’t pierce Global Warming’s ankles and drag him around the city, leaving pools of ashen cloud in his wake. Global Warming couldn’t be hung, drawn and quartered on national television, in front of the faces of millions of wide eyed viewers, kipped back on sofas across the world with a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits. Fists would curl, biscuit paste momentarily forgotten beneath the pallet as the executioner drew closer. The people wanted bloodshed. They wanted pain, the pain of others, to pay for the pain of their children and the pain of their mothers and fathers and semi forgotten aunts who – as they were alerted to by delayed air mail -had suffered an extensive and prolonged death when trapped beneath the falling rubble of a three story flat in some far off country. Reduced to the misery of starvation from the barren, dry fields of the East and the rising supermarket prices of a loaf of bread in the West, the people wanted to objectify something tangible, a name spat with anguish over the dinner table discussions, a face plastered with crude graffiti slurs through central cities. This barbaric witchhunt, the striking of torches and savage idealisations was always the more appeasing option against blame on their own shoulders.
Now where was I? My mind’s constantly slipping. Everything else operates like the machinery I’m surrounded by. The smooth slip of the cogs and bolts on a low order day, allowed to lean back and appreciate coherence of the machine. Everything fitting together in unification, moving slowly and smoothly in a way that humans could never possibly fathom. Like I said, today doesn’t seem to be a low order day by any means. The machine already groans and heaves with the weight of the souls being poured through to the left. My heart aches a little for the lost critters. On the quieter days they can float through, the transient and peaceful experience narrated in picture books for the young in a bid to educate them on life after death. The gift and curse of eternal vitality means that I’ll never personally float through the Earth and this place myself. I’ve contemplated asking to experience the ride, perhaps as a late birthday gift or raise, perhaps? I’ve studied the teeming office buildings clogged with corporate humans, the conflict and rivalry in desperate bids to reach the top, feeding of office bonuses to find the newest car model and weekend getaway pool house. He might find my request amusing, endearing even, and let me float through the tubes for a few peaceful moments in reward. He might also double the orders and jack up the heating in scorn if I asked, so I relent. You see, the journey doesn’t always seem quite so peaceful. I pity the souls, the impermeable vapour like substance which constitutes their half time bodies packed together like goggle eyed sardines. They wriggle and inch along the tubes, looping through the last section of my bureau, mouths stretched in wretched open O’s. He hasn’t given them eyebrows, not for this section of the journey, but if they had they would most certainly be downcast, furrowed in fury or quivering in blinding fear. Occasionally, one will end up wedged right against the glass of my bureau, jammed into position while a steady stream of souls drift on behind it. I’m not entirely sure why I was given the small section of viewing glass into the pipes. An aquarium of my own, I can watch the listless life drift by. Perhaps the glass section was installed in case of emergency, a blockage of some sort. I suppose my role would include the part time plumber, ready to leap in and usher the half dead along. Thankfully his technology has proved flawless thus far, for which I am grateful for heaven knows what I’d find to use as a plunger.
It takes the souls a while to wind round the tubes, up from the resting places of their material vessels and into the skies. The matter of time has always puzzled me; whether the looping tubes provide a ride lasting only seconds or thousands of years. Although I’ve no need for sleep, he’s factored in shifts for my working schedule, giving me a generous amount of time in each day for my own affairs. I’ve considered requesting a companion for my lonely little office, something to rub itself around my legs and curl up under the generators, but I’ve never asked what happens of the animate pets kept and mollycoddled by humans; whether or not there’s a bureau somewhere else, some other chamber with someone like myself returning them to the living. I suppose it would be rather a lot of hassle, having one little furry soul set aside to inhabit my office. My working hours are busy, endless. The duty of an entire hive of honeybees performed by one little tired bluebottle. Turning on all the generators is an issue of its own. He must have overlooked the height of the series of knobs and levers when creating my sturdy little legs, for I hardly reach up to half the height of many. Fortunately, my little bureau comes with a sturdy wooden stool. Convenient, perhaps he placed the stool there intentionally, and amuses himself at my scrabbling around, balancing on rickety legs to wake up the machines. Or perhaps just coincidence, for the stool matches the scarred wooden table in the centre of the room. On it sits a fist sized paperweight depicting a jolly panda bear wearing a festive hat, enscribed with ‘Happy Birthday Emily – Detroit Zoo’. God knows how it came to be here, the only possible solution I can think of is it somehow being dragged along by someone in the tube and deposited here. I hate to think of the blockages it might have caused for my predecessor.
Paperweight aside, I haven’t seen another soul – bear with me, I see plenty of souls but not necessarily of the living variation – since I was installed in the bureau. Since my own creation. The creation of the creator. By the ultimate creator. It all gets terribly confusing if you try and differentiate us, to ‘meet your maker’, so to speak. One could conclude that I run the real business around here, up all hours sorting out the souls and defining their features before posting them back down to the Earth. However, one could also ascertain me as a mere employee, though I’m hardly paid beyond the salary of my existence. I’ve pondered what happens when my time runs out, my wages finished. The average lifespan of a human may be 71 years but I don’t think I fall into the homosapien category and I’m sure I’ve already been around over ten times that already. I’ve had all sorts of peculiar fantasies about my demise. The tube might split open and suck me into the flow of souls. I’ve never checked the ceilings in my bureau, so maybe those will open and I’ll be plucked out from the room by some gigantic hand. It tickles me just thinking of the possibilities. No need to brood over what is to come, however, I have far too much to focus on at present. Like I said, todays orders seem to be particularly overdriven. The last occasion on which there was such a huge number of souls passing through was the result of three earthquakes and a tsunami within the space of a week. Natural disaster galore, I worked day and night to get the souls in ship shape condition for their return and rebirth. It was exhausting, both physically, for my little hooves tearing up and down between screens, and mentally. It’s awfully disconcerting knowing that you sent a soul back down to the living missing an earlobe just because you were a little tired that day.
My task is an arduous one, but generally consistent and wholly rewarding. I stand as the main pilot for the Vivifium, the largest (and only) life generator I’ve ever seen. In the hours of running, the machine rumbles and groans as if alive itself. It pulls the wayward souls through the tubes by methods of extreme suction, drawing them all the way up from the Earth to my workshop. The rest is up to me; wipe clean whatever physiognomy the living world left behind, and work with the clean slated soul left in its place. You could call it a form of art, if you like – although I’ve never been much of an artist. My creativity wasn’t encouraged with brand spanking new sets of crayons and felt tips, and the glorious freedom of being able to colour outside of the lines. I’m not sure I was privy to any form of childhood. I don’t appear to age and wrinkle like the human colonies below. Whoever made me just installed me in my prime, thinking it witty to mix my genetics with something strange and faun-like. Provided with no mirror in my little abode, the glass panels of the soul tubes provide a dappled reflection, bristly hairs running down my legs and furled horns on my forehead. I suppose having an actual human up here running things would be slightly perverted. Anyway, my artistry is an unusual one. In fact, I’m not entirely certain you could call it art, but I like to think of the creative flair I bring to my job. The Vivifium stands studded with multiple screens, with hundreds of buttons and levers jarring out from the wall, over five times wider than my menial height. Now you probably understand the conundrum involving my little hooves and the stool. The main screen is placed in the centre of the beast, an interactive display which allows me to ferret through possible features and physicalities and install them on to my soul.
You didn’t think you were just born naturally did you? Goodness gracious no. Someone laboured away up here to make sure that your heart shaped face has slightly slanted eyebrows. The trill of your laugh, why I could easily have granted you a hoarse cackle but I was feeling pleasant that day. One blue pupil, one green – why, maybe my fingers slipped, or I was feeling a little adventurous that day. I made you tall. I made you small I gave you those slender legs you thought you inherited from your mother’s side, and widely bridged nose which I know you hate, and have decided can only be a curse from a distant great Aunt. The Vivifium displays indistinct silhouettes of the parents to whom the next soul is being delivered, which I make effort to incorporate in my creations. I can’t help it, though. Sometimes my little fingers run astray. God knows how many marriages I might have broken up, sending an albino down to dark haired parentals. The expression ‘gingers don’t have souls’, is in my eyes really the pinnacle of human wit. Of course they have souls! I installed the damn things. I watched the little quivering soul on the screen take shape and form, the transient particles of whatever they’re made out of up here take form as I flicked through the hair colours on offer, deciding on a darkish russet red with a few streaks of gold. Every being has a soul. Or humans, as far as I know of, I’m not personally responsible for the mammals, or the fish, or the plants, but I’m sure someone around here is putting in the work to differentiate each and every being.
Some will demand my method of choice and selection highly unfair, but I do try my best. That little girl in the playground will descend on her classmate during break time, cornering her and yanking her white gold plaits in frustration. Those glossy curls that all the little boys keep an eye out for in kiss chase, dainty little fingers and a high pitched trill of a voice she pulls out for morning hymns, the little nightingale. Little do they really know that gifts often come accompanied by a variable curse. In this case, I have the little nightingale the most vicious temper imaginable to man. The sort of horrifying temperament that goes off like a shot at the slightest irritation. A hot fired disposition, one that will cause a wave of apologetic glances round the monthly dinner party table to the occupational parents, after the shrieking and the hurling of a plate of peas at the wall. Doors will be slammed all through her teenage years, and young suitors might be frightened off by her orchestra of insults upon ordering the wrong bottle of house red. Her temperament may even be her downfall; where her beauteous voice might carry her career, her temper may well be her undoing, as she flounces off stage from an early performance after someone admittedly turned up the aircon a little high.
Whom shall be granted the greatest gifts, and who shall be born with a fated curse? That is a question which drapes itself over the Vivifium, a great weighted cloak of death in its own right. Whereas the decision is ultimately left to my own bristly little fingers, I was left an ambiguous set of instructions. Sitting on the table you see, beside Emily’s paperweight, stands ‘Percival’s Guide to the Formation of Souls; a Guide to the Course of Creation’. Quite a hefty hardback, I doubt it scooted along the tubes and rather like to think that someone left it here for me. My predecessor’s hand’s probably brushed the worn pages, following the minute cursive writing. It all comes out fairly formulaic in the end. Once every so often we have to ship out a great man – distinguished from the ‘common herd’. Seneca seemed to know what category he had been folded into. You didn’t think that Achilles just happened by chance? Although that wasn’t entirely of my era or creation. My predecessor favoured the philosophical gifts, and I assume can be thanked for the likes of Pythagoras, and Plato. Who made Herodotus, well I’m not entirely sure. The guide presents a keen link between gift and curse, so, like my little songbird, no human will appear too blessed. Glorified, but to a conservative level. Achilles, for example… well, we all know the tale. A stroke of genius for whoever worked the Vivifium before me. I would never have thought to incorporate the tendons. I’m a little less creative in my intertwining of gifts and curses. Stevie Wonder, for example; I swapped everyday sight for a flare with lyrics. Cruel you might say, but look where it got him.
Of all the gifts I could give, you might very well question why I choose music. It’s a little lonely up here, you see. Percy’s handbook and my paperweight make for listless compatriots. A little furred friend to keep me company, now that wouldn’t go amiss – I do wonder who takes care of all the little souls of the cats and the dogs of the planet. Probably a little gremlin near here, in a bureau very much like my own. Surely redirecting one animal soul along the pipes and dropping it off in my office wouldn’t be too much to ask, but then again I’m not sure how I would care for the creature – if it needed care, unlike myself. In the absence of companionship, I do yearn for music. Sometimes, a little humming noise can be heard transcending the glass panels of the soul tube. A music festival having jacked up the speakers a little high, or a concert upon which the police have not yet descended in a desperate bid to turn down the volume and for heaven’s sake let the locals sleep. If I can’t be granted a phantom feline friend to curl around my legs and get in the way of day to day Vivifium runnings, I would wish for a set of pipes. Isn’t that how the folklore runs? A fawn and his pipes. I could yodel and jig, and send out a stray accordion of notes whilst keeping the Vivifium running at a smooth pace, sending out my allotted souls. It sounds wonderfully romantic, don’t you think?
Of course, there is the small question of human error when it comes to the creation – and recreation – of souls. Or not human, shall I say, but fawn error if we’re being precise. Percival’s manual unfortunately offers little assistance as to what to do in the event of natural disaster.The more the world seems to turn against it’s inhabitants, the higher the tides swell and the mountains shake. In turn, the more souls flood my walls, anguished faces pressed up against the walls. Terrorist attacks contribute to this, of course. I didn’t stop to sweat after 9/11, issuing out warm shades of skin tone against flighty characters against those with fat knuckles and almond eyes. All this palaver led the machine to shudder and groan, grinding to a halt. The central screen upon which I filter through all possible traits and qualities flickered and turned an alarming shade of blue. They don’t call it blue screen of death for no reason. Of course I dived into the depths of full blown panic. ‘Turning it off and back on again’ doesn’t really work up here since there’s no magical switch powering in through the backrooms and fuelling the reincarnation of my souls – I’m honestly not too sure how this place is powered. God-currents probably don’t need to be piped in through wires. Anyway, the threatening blue screen of death resulted in quite the anticipated outcome. I’m moderately grateful for the blue skinned gene to have turned out a dominant and inheritable factor, and must say I quite enjoy applying a washy shade of blue to my newborn souls whenever Kentucky pops up on the screen.
The humans can’t seem to blame themselves for the ever rising strain of the dead heaved upon the Vivifium. As I said, rather have the local deputy hung drawn and quartered. Splay the faces of the revolutionaries on live tv and blame them for the ever rising death roll. The shame of slowly polluting your own planet seems too true to bear, so like all of us, even the less-human residing in our little offices somewhere high in the sky, they shirk around the issue. Why, more might be dying but let’s have a round of applause for the birth rate now folks. One in one out would be a fair system I concede. Unfortunately, Fair and Square rarely turns up to Churchill’s meeting table on time – he’s always preoccupied with Vegas’ casinos, trying to keep the tables running at a marginally lawful rate. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, all that must die does pass to the ground below – the tangible composition, at least. I don’t suppose anyone has to supervise the slow degradation of the skin, the fingernails and those pretty gold locks I opted for on that little girl. I don’t like to think too much about material death, the wasting away of my masterpieces. Would Gaudi like to see the Sagrada Familia sink to the floor? Ashes to ashes indeed, or a great big pile of rubble. Or Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl, how would he appreciate his paint-strokes going up in flames. Let’s hope she would put up her dainty hands in defeat and flee off into that dark canvas before the flames really took hold. The art and effort I put into each of my souls, sculpting them, defining them. Even the everyday human, the Steves and the Plain Janes, the blank faces that slide out from under umbrellas on rainy New York sidewalks. Or the indistinct faces rolling past on the subway – did someone once said that all these strange faces make up the characters in your dreams. Praise be to my creativity, my ability to throw together a smattering of freckles, a stubbed nose and a tendency to inquire into overly personal beliefs, but you didn’t think yourself capable of matching and making and binding together a whole set of personas surely? You lot have far too much to worry about down there as it is, with getting your articles in by Monday morning in fear of your new boss, you daren’t comment on this nouveau hairstyle for what have you to know about the ebb and flow of fashion tides. Plus, the young ones always bite quickly, swift in sacking those old enough to cluster round the desks at lunchtime and cluck over the best current deals on washing powder. What else is playing on your mind… let’s see, I should know after all, I decided to give you a fear of sudden loud noises, and an aversion to raspberries. You have to worry about the world blowing up on Thursday, according to the tabloids, and the price of tea in China would be a more tolerable woe than the rising oil costs. The everyday fear of having not turned the hob down after cooking your porridge, and the whole house having burned down to embers by the time the evening bus rolls into your road gives enough stress as it is.
Quite overwhelming really, it’s lucky you have me to sort your dream faces out and give you one less thing to twiddle your fingers over.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing all of this, or who will come to read it. It’s not like I can post it off down the tubes in a bottle. Nor can I stuff it down the mouth of some unsuspecting soul, to ferry it down to Earth for me. Can you imagine the horrors, pulling out a wad of my scribbling’s from the mouth of some unsuspecting newborn. They would be heralded as the new Jesus, I’ve no doubt, the son of… well the fawn in the sky. They need something in which to place their faith, you see. Something to carry them through the dark days and someone to thank at tea time, and I just know that the Vivifium and my little hairy legs don’t exactly fit the bill for the saintly position. Imagine my face, splayed and worshipped on every street corner. I’m sure my unidentified master would have crafted in some form of communication with the world below, if he so willed it. A string phone, for example. Why, I could bestow my wit and witticism upon the population through the quaint connection of two rusty old cans. Soup, even. Although I’m sure my master’s technology is a touch more dexterous, considering the size and scale of the Vivifium. I’m assured means of communication would have been installed, had the broadcast of my voice to the people below been of necessary consideration. Thus, my job remains a quiet one, uncharted to the thousands of souls I let slip and slide back down to the world below.