End of the Line

Officer Peter Densus, sitting in his patrol car, stared at his watch. 8.30. Half an hour to go.

He was parked in an alley, lights out. He wondered if he should simply stay here, wait it out, watch the time crawl away. Fuck it, he thought. One last drive-around.

He started the engine and pulled out into the street. There was almost no traffic. And there were only a few people about, just some knots on street corners, doing not much except waiting for possible customers. Not likely, not until the day after tomorrow, when the welfare checks arrived. Until then, no-one in Los Través had any money. Except the gangers. They had plenty. Whatever cash dribbled in flowed relentlessly upwards.

He turned a corner at random, and then another. It had become second nature as a safety precaution. Don’t go on an obvious route, don’t go in a straight line for more than two blocks. Doing the predictable thing was how blues got killed. He glanced at the two bullet holes in the windscreen: ambush fire from a fortnight ago. Had there been another cop in the passenger seat they would have taken the bullets, but two-man patrols had ended a long time ago. Budget cuts.

And there was no money to make repairs to the car, either. There were other holes in the doors, and the lights on the top of the car had been shot out. Aside from that, there were innumerable dents and scratches in the cruiser from where people had thrown rocks and garbage. He smiled grimly: the car would make it to the end of the evening, probably, but that would be it.

He swung around another corner and for a moment could see the lights of the Big City in the distance. Long way away. Seemed to have got even further in the past few years. There had been a bus route that linked Los Través and the Big City. Had been.

He passed Angelo’s Pizza. It was once a good place: he remembered going there as a kid. It had had big glass windows then. But they had been smashed by one of the gangs, he couldn’t remember which, about five years back. So Angelo had put in new windows, with decorative metal bars. Which had been stolen within a week. So more bars, heavier and tougher, and a grill. Which went down to a ram-raid. Which had also seen Angelo lose one of his hands, for refusing to pay protection money. So Angelo had boarded the place and gone … somewhere. Somewhere else. Anywhere else.

There was still the sign: NO DELIVERIES. That was because the delivery boys kept getting shot. A gang-banger would order a pizza, and then shoot the delivery boy, if he was white, in the face. Like in that rap song by … was it Menace Clan? Wrong place at the wrong time, white boy. So Angelo took to hiring black guys and Hispanics. That worked for a while. Not for long. Apparently, working for a white guy made you a sort of white guy, so … well, there it was.

Densus wondered if there were any businesses left in Los Través. The last one he could think of was the pawn shop on Seventh Street, and that had been burned down a year ago. There had been a bail bondsman – did that count as a business? – on Fourth but that had been robbed so many times it had folded. There had been a Social Security Office on Fourth as well but that had closed because no-one would work there, not after three shootings in the space of a month and the publication of the clerks’ home addresses. Same with the school. At some point staying around to try and make things better was merely foolish.

So the only commercial activities that were left were drugs and hookers. And even the dope business was getting too dangerous, with gangs multiplying and splintering and mowing each other down. Being a cop had actually been easier a few years ago, when there were gang leaders. They kept a sort of order, just wanted things to be reasonably quiet so they could turn a profit. But either they had got too greedy, trying to expand into some other guy’s territory, or had been displaced by some radical up-and-comer tribe with new-gen tech and heavy-grade firepower. Some of them had RPG7s, apparently.

Densus turned another corner. This was a street of old apartment buildings. He knew there were people still living in some of them, but there were heavy curtains drawn across the windows. No point in letting anyone know you were in there, it was like asking for someone to kick your door down and take whatever you had left. He wondered when the electricity company would get around to turning off the town’s power, because no bills were paid. Pretty soon, probably.

He drove around a pile of smoking garbage in the middle of the street. The collection service wouldn’t come here anymore, so people threw their garbage into the street, and eventually someone put a match to it. It was effective, in a way, if you could ignore the smell. At least the fire gave the homeless junkies something to sleep around, wrapped in cardboard or rags.

There was a burst of machine-gun fire a couple of streets away, followed by an answering burst, and then a whole fusillade. An explosion. Densus shrugged: nothing to do with him. Intervening in a firefight was an invitation to your own funeral. The gangers would stop just long enough to turn their guns on the blues. Then someone would grab the badge to claim the bounty. And then they would go back to their war. It might be over some turf infringement, a minor insult, or a … well, it didn’t matter, did it?

He saw a hooker standing on a corner, just up ahead. He knew her, had busted her several times when doing it still made sense. Her working name was Diamond but her real name was Tilly. She had had a pimp but he had ODed a few weeks ago so now she was freelance. Not much future however you sliced it. Best-case scenario: one of the gangs might scoop her up, put her on a measly commission until someone decided to cut her a new one.

He stopped the car and got out. The street was nearly empty. No trade for a working girl tonight, probably, especially one that was starting to get the strung-out shakes.

“Hi, Til,” he said.

She nodded and did her best to smile. “I thought you would have gone by now,” she said.

“This is my last shift,” he said. “Ever. Half-an-hour, I’m done and get my pension. Then I’m out. But I thought I should say goodbye.”

She nodded again. “Out,” she murmured.

Densus dug into his pocket, pulled out a twenty. “Here,” he said. “Get yourself some food, Til. Looks like you could do with it.”

She took it. She started to kneel, but he gently pulled her to her feet. “It’s … on the house,” he said.

She stared at the note in her hand, and then at him.

“Look after yourself,” he said. He got back in the car and drove off. In the mirror, he saw her walking away, holding the twenty, heading for whatever dealer was closest.

Another firefight had started, coming from another part of town. Sounded like a big one. He turned to avoid it, and then turned again to avoid Callister Park, a little patch of ground with some straggly grass. It was known these days as Bounty Square, after the incident last year when a cop – Sancini had been his name, Densus remembered – had been taken down by a sniper in a third floor window. The two cops that had tried to collect the body had also been shot. Eventually, the Big City cops had agreed to lend the Los Través department an armoured car to retrieve the bodies. It had done the job but had been so badly shot up that the Big City cops had quietly said: don’t ask again. Seemed they weren’t used to having garbage thrown at them, either.

The Callister Park thing was the first time Densus had believed in the bounty on blues. There had been talk but Densus had, like the other cops, dismissed it as evil gossip. But now he believed it. Damn, the shooter who had made thirty thousand dollars that day put it up on his Facebook page, a picture of himself holding the cash, and his scoped rifle, and grinning. #killallcops.

One way or another, the Los Través Police Department pretty much disintegrated after that. There had once been fifteen police and ten support staff. A couple of the cops transferred out, and so did some of the support people. When the remaining supports learned that there was also a bounty on them – only five thousand, less than for the blues but still good money – they simply stopped turning up. Couldn’t really blame them. 

And no new staff appeared, either supports or uniforms. There were reports of Academy graduates refusing to accept postings to Los Través. So between the casualties and the walk-aways, the number of badges had shrunk from fifteen to twelve to eight to four to … him.

Fifteen minutes left. He wondered if he would be paid his pension. It was no secret that the City Council had no money. There was no tax revenue, and ever since the mayor quit a few months ago no-one knew who was running things … if anyone. The City had been operating on emergency loans from the Big City council but that well would run dry soon, as soon as someone realised there was no way the money could ever be repaid.

Fuck it, he thought again. He turned the car for the station. On the way, he passed a few groups of people, silently watching him, standing under the few streetlights that were still working. They knew that he was the last one, and this was his last run. This time, they didn’t throw things or shout insults at him. They were on their own now. Got their wish. If they wanted to tear what was left of the place apart, they were free to do so. No more blue line. Put it in the should-have-thought-of-that-before category.

He turned into the basement car park of the boarded-up station and parked and got out and went up to the deserted administrative area. He logged onto the computer on his desk and sent a message to the Council saying that he had finished his final shift, so his resignation was now effective and he qualified for his pension. He didn’t know if there was anyone on the other end to acknowledge it, but at least he had done his last bit of paperwork.

“Hey,” said a voice.

In a moment, Densus’ gun was in his hand.

“Easy, buddy,” said the guy. “I’m just here to say goodbye.”

Densus relaxed a little but did not put his gun away. “Hello, Clarence,” he said.

Clarence Jefferson nodded.

“I would feel a lot better if you unloaded,” said Densus. Clarence shrugged and took a pistol out of a shoulder holster and put it on the desk. But Densus did not put his own gun down. Clarence shrugged again and took another gun out, and put it down. Then another.

“Happy?” he said. “Or is that a stupid?”

“It’s a stupid,” said Densus, although he put his gun away. He gestured for Clarence to take a seat. He took a bottle of whiskey from his desk drawer. There was just enough left for a glass for each of them.

“I was trying to remember,” said Clarence, as he drank, “when it was that you first busted me. Six, seven years back?”

“Something like that. And you served … was it two years?”

“Time off for good behaviour.”

They both laughed.

Clarence said: “Where are you going?”

Densus shook his head. “I’m not going to tell you that, Clarence. Especially since my wife and kids are already there. And the last guy who told people where he was going, as soon as got there the place was fire-bombed.”

“You know that it wasn’t me that ordered that, right?”

“I know, but still … ”

Clarence nodded again. “Yeah, I get it. Truth is, I’m looking at getting out myself. You know I’ve got two kids, right? Four and six. I don’t think they’ll make it to eight. May as well have targets painted on them. But … where would I go? The only thing I know how to do is … what I do.”

“Yeah, well, this is probably where I’m supposed to say something about sowing and reaping, but it’s not really necessary, is it?”

“No, it isn’t. Say, you wouldn’t consider staying on, would you? Some of the other guys and I, we got together, thought we could pay you to keep doing the cop deal. And we would get rid of the bounty thing. Looking back, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. And maybe we could get people to show a bit more … respect. You’d work for us, of course, but you’d still have a badge.”

Densus gave a little laugh. “Sorry, Clarence, I wouldn’t stay for any amount of money. There’s no place for me, not now. For years, everyone here has been saying that they don’t want cops. There’s no-one who wants to be protected by us, there’s no-one worth serving. So, okay, you win. Congratulations. No more cops. Everyone has got what they want. Los Través is yours. Enjoy.”

“Yeah,” said Clarence. “Yeah, that’s what I thought you would say. But I wanted to ask.” He finished his drink and stood up, and took his guns back. “By the way,” he said, “you probably shouldn’t go along Lawson Avenue tonight. Take another way.”

Densus nodded. “Thanks, Clarence,” he said. “And good luck.” They shook hands, a bit stiffly.

After Clarence had left, Densus sat for a while, thinking, finishing his drink. Then, eventually, he left the office. He turned out the lights. He went to the basement garage and got into his car and drove away, leaving the town where he had once lived, that he had once loved, to the future that it had chosen for itself.

END

Möbiuseat

1

Many people think I am a manipulative bitch but that is only because I am much, much more attractive than they are. Those people think that I only got my well-paid job in a design-and-decoration firm because I am sleeping with Jared, the CEO. Well, maybe. But I would point out that I also have a degree. It’s in, um, well, I forget exactly, something designy.

Jared, of course, has a wife, Helena. I’ve met her a few times. I didn’t like her, she didn’t like me, see above.

The company is ludicrously successful, mainly due to Dr Pandapaws, who is as close as you can get to a genius in the area of furniture design. He largely keeps to himself, until some piece of overpriced must-have rolls out of his studio/laboratory. I’m about the only one he deals with, perhaps because I do him little favours of a certain type. It’s a living.

Anyway, this is all back story. What I have to say really begins when I got a call from Dr Pandapaws saying that he wanted to show me something. What, again? I sighed and went to his lab.

But what he had wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was a new chair. Only about a foot high. Odd-looking hole in it.

“It’s a bit small, isn’t it?” I said.

“It’s a scale model,” he said. “I call it the Möbiuseat.”

“Huh. Might catch on. Umlauts are big this year.”

He sighed. “Where did you do your degree again?” he said.

“Uh, somewhere reputable, I think.”

He stared at me. “Your superficiality goes down for miles,” he said. “Anyway, a Möbius strip is a surface with only one side and only one boundary component. I’ll show you.”

He picked up a strip of paper. Then he turned one end over. Then he linked up the two ends and stapled them together into a kinky-looking loop. He ran his finger around the inside, and then his finger moved to the outside without going over an edge.

I yawned.

“When I turned it into a three-dimensional construct, I found that it had a very unusual property,” he continued.

He picked up an eraser and placed it on the model. It began to slide sideways. Then, suddenly, it vanished. Down the odd-looking hole. I looked behind the model, thinking it would be there. Nope.

“Do that again,” I said.

“Can’t,” he said. “I’m out of erasers.”

“Do they come out the other side?”

“As far as I can tell, there is no other side. Well, there might be. Not here, though. Or there might not be.”

I took a closer look at the model. To tell the truth, it was kind of hard to focus on.

“It’s a miracle of design science,” he proclaimed.

“Whatever.”

“Humph. Well, now for the full-scale prototype.” He picked up his tools and started to do whatever it was he did.

I returned to my office, slightly bemused. Then I sent a memo directing someone to send Dr Pandapaws a new box of erasers.

2

It was a few days later. When I breezed into the office, there was some sort of commotion going on. I asked Manager Maggie what was happening.

“It’s Dr Pandapaws,” she said. “We can’t find him anywhere.” She looked at me with a certain degree of suspicion. “Say, you wouldn’t know anything about it, would you?”

“Why should I?” I said innocently. Not a no, exactly.

Later, I went to the lab. Yes, there was a full-size Möbiuseat there, in a quite acceptable Alternate Sienna fabric. No Dr Pandapaws. Not here, in a very literal way.

I told the muscle guys to deliver it to my apartment. He would have wanted me to have it, I told them.

I took the model back to my office. Then I spent the afternoon making paperclips disappear. And thinking.

3

It actually didn’t go too badly in my apartment, although whenever you looked at it it seemed to have changed position slightly.

I needed a test subject. Damned if I was going to stick my hand into it. Might not get it back.

And then my cat came up to me, with that awful feed-me meowing noise they make.

Let me say that I have never really liked this cat. I only got it because women in sex-and-shopping novels usually have one. Of course, their cats don’t leave a trail of disgusting hair behind them.

The cat glanced at the Möbiuseat. It gave a little hiss.

I picked it up by the scruff of its neck. It began to snarl. Stupid cat.

“Don’t be such a pussy,” I said.

Then it was on the chair. The cat stared at me for a moment, with an expression of feline puzzlement. It began to slide sideways. Going, going, gone.

“Bye,” I said.

4

The next day was Wednesday. Jared and I usually got together on Wednesday night. I took the day off work.

I called Helena. We need to talk, I said. Come over.

When she arrived, she was clearly not a happy camper.

“Did you know that I am banging your husband?” I said. Just to get the conversational ball rolling.

She started. “Uh … I suspected … that is … sort of,” she said. “Do you … love him?”

“Who?”

“Jared.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t dislike him. He seems to be a pretty good fellow. Aside from the unfaithfulness thing, of course. Anyway, he wants us to be together. On a permanent basis. I’m alright with that.”

“Ha! Some hope, bitch! I have a pre-nup that says if he divorces me he loses everything, the money, the company, the lot.”

Ah. The pre-nup. Bimbo kryptonite. Although I will have to ensure I have one when I marry Jared – which is to say, marry Jared’s money. To ensure that any of my, you know, little transgressions are forgiven.

Helena was getting antsy now, pacing in angry circles.

“You should sit down,” I said.

“I don’t want to sit down!” she shouted. Then she looked around. “Do you have a cat?” she said.

“Not any more. Really, you should sit down. How about here?”

“I don’t want to sit down!”

“Yes you do.”

“No I don’t!”

I put two fingers on her chest and pushed. “Sure you do,” I said.

She sat down on the Möbiuseat.

She looked up at me with the same quizzical expression I had seen on the cat.

“What … ?” she started to say.

“Search me,” I said.

She started to slide. Funny, she didn’t try to get up. Now I thought about it, neither had the cat.

“And there you go,” I said.

5

In the evening, Jared came over. We did some pretty good sex, and then we were going to go out for dinner. I went into the bathroom to fix my lipstick.

“Say, what’s this?” he called from the living room.

“What’s what?”

“This brown thing. Looks comfortable.”

Uh-oh.

I ran back.

He was not there.

Son of a bitch.

I sat down on the couch opposite the Möbiuseat.

What a shame. Oh well, plenty more where he came from.

It occurred to me that there might be some official questions, what with several non-existent people around. I could imagine a policeman saying: do you know where they might be? And me saying, with complete honesty, I have no idea. Could be anywhere.

I collected Jared’s things. They went onto the Möbiuseat, and then they were no longer a problem. Damn, this thing is handy.

Anything else? Ah, Dr Pandapaws’ model. Could be a little incriminating, if you had a really suspicious mind. Which reminds me, I must invite Manager Maggie around for coffee sometime.

I put the model onto the Möbiuseat. As usual, it began to slide sideways. Then there was an odd little pause. Then it continued to slide. It vanished.

From somewhere, there was a strange rumbling sound. I looked around. Everything in the apartment seemed to have changed position, moving closer to the Möbiuseat. Furniture, walls, even me. And it was continuing.

Possibly, putting one Möbiuseat into another was not such a good idea. Like dividing by zero.

Yes, some sort of weird sucking vibe was definitely under way. I had a feeling that trying to run would be pretty useless. Like it or not, I was going … somewhere. Maybe a galaxy far, far away. Maybe nowhere.

Now I was close enough to the Möbiuseat to see into the hole. But there was nothing to see. You looked in, you saw the floor on the other side. Except that there was no other side. I thought: is this just my apartment? Or was everything on its way down … there? Okay, so I’ve destroyed the planet. Well, damn, I’m sorry. Not my fault, really. Or maybe it’s not just the planet. Maybe I’ve screwed up the entire univ

END

I, Viridian: Supervillain

Viridian graphic coverThis is the story of Viridian: supervillain, fan of Shakespeare, owner of many sexy shoes, carefree and irresponsible at the competitive level, bearer of a mystical and powerful gem.

Raised by thieves to be a thief, she was never really a child, or never really grew up, she doesn’t know which. When she washes up on the shores of Oklahoma City, pursued by shadowy forces and an unknown enemy, she links up with a peculiar gang of would-be supercriminals: mastermind Monk, samurai Tantō, strongman Cave, and the remarkable Flux.

And through them she discovers what it is she is looking for: a reason to fight, a reason to stay, a reason to care, and, most of all, a reason to love.

 

Available through Amazon

 

 

Our Town

Our town has long been a place where not a great deal happens, and that is how most of us have always liked it. There are the locals, some of whom have been here for several generations, and an itinerant population of holiday-makers who come here to enjoy our pleasant lake and interesting forest. The two people, a young woman and a somewhat older man, who caused a certain amount of disruption to our little community were in the second of these groups, and they took a lease on a holiday house on the edge of the town, where there was an overgrown path that led down to the lake beach. They had been living quietly there for about a month when word passed around that they could fly.

At first this notion was dismissed as the gossip of those people who spent a bit too much time in either of the town’s two bars, or those who engaged in distractions of a less traditional variety. But gradually the number of claims grew. The local librarian, Miss Hudson, a person of extremely sober disposition, said that the young woman had landed in the parking lot to return a borrowed book. Mr Pearson, who had taken a morning jog along the lakeside beach every day for perhaps twenty years, stated that he had seen the pair sitting on the high branch of a tree that could not possibly be climbed; they appeared to be having some sort of breakfast picnic.

There were those in town who were dismissive of such suggestions. After all, they pointed out, the couple had often been seen walking around the town, holding hands and carrying bags of groceries. Even more, they had been noticed waiting for the bus, which would hardly be expected of people who could fly. True, they were a little odd, friendly enough if engaged in conversation but apparently inclined to keep to themselves. The age difference, perhaps fifteen years between them, was unusual but hardly a cause for recriminations, and our town has always prided itself on its open-mindedness. And finally there was the obvious argument that human beings could not fly. To this group of our people, this constituted game, set and match. End of discussion.

The problem was that sightings of the flying people – sometimes together, sometimes alone – continued. Some townsfolk took to walking around with cameras while looking upwards, in the hope of taking a photograph. Only one photograph was, in fact, taken in this period, and it was so vague and blurry that it was not accepted as solid evidence even by people who swore that they had seen the airborne pair.

The situation became such that one of the town’s police officers, Patrolman Hilda Turner, said that she would pay a visit to the couple and sort the matter out. She did, indeed, set off to interview the couple in their rented house, and returned an hour later, wearing a somewhat puzzled expression. When she was asked whether the couple could fly she answered, yes, I believe so. But she emphasized that she had not actually seen either of them leave the ground. The man was on the roof of the house when she arrived, replacing some broken tiles, although there was no evidence of a ladder or any other means by which the roof might be reached. While Patrolman Turner was engaging the man in friendly if stilted conversation the young woman suddenly appeared beside her, and greeted her warmly, asking if she would like a cup of coffee. Patrolman Turner had not heard her approach, although the ground was littered with dry leaves that made a cracking sound with every footstep.

Over coffee, reported Patrolman Turner, she had asked the young woman point-blank if she and her companion could fly, and the woman had replied, why yes, yes we can, and would you like an oatmeal cookie. Patrolman Turner said yes, she would like an oatmeal cookie, and at that point the man entered the room, saying that the roof repairs were complete. Patrolman Turner asked the man if it was true that they could fly, and the man confirmed that it was. The policewoman asked how was it that they could do something which appeared to defy the laws of physics. The man responded that it was an issue of belief. He had once met someone who could fly and had therefore realized it was possible. When he and the young woman met, a few years later, she had seen him fly and had likewise realized it was possible. So there it was.

Patrolman Turner subsequently returned to the police station where she filed a short report, and later answered a few questions put to her by the editor of the local newspaper.

The resulting article caused, by the quiet standards of our little town, something of a stir, and there was a growing movement for the mayor, Ms Thompson, who ran the popular café in the main street, to become involved. Ms Thompson called a public meeting for that evening, to be convened in her café, where beverages, scones and cakes could be purchased. There were questions as to whether the flying – the allegedly flying – couple should be invited, but after discussions with Patrolman Turner the mayor decided against it, although she left the option open for a later time.

The meeting, as it turned out, attracted most of the local population as well as quite a few holiday-makers. Patrolman Turner was asked to reiterate her report, which she did in such a clear and steady manner that even some of those who had previously rejected the possibility of flying people as a hoax or a series of mistakes began to acknowledge that there might be something in the idea.

The questions and opinions that arose from the meeting fell into several categories, namely:

  1. Could the flying couple be witches, or perhaps aliens.
  2. Was there a way for the business people of the town, always on the lookout for additional sources of revenue, to make money out of this.
  3. Should the Department of Defense, NASA, or perhaps some other agency of the national government, be informed.
  4. If the ability to fly stemmed from the belief that one could fly, was it therefore possible for other people to learn to fly.

A number of people expressed considerable interest in this last point. After all, if gravity could be overcome by simply assuming that it did not exist, then it called into question many concepts previously taken for granted. Several of the younger townsfolk remarked that they would be very pleased to take flying lessons, and would be quite willing to forgo a belief in gravity and whatever else was required in order to get off the ground.

The meeting adjourned without a clear conclusion, although nearly everyone agreed that the flying couple were probably not witches or aliens but ordinary people who had somehow acquired an extraordinary ability. Notably, there remained a hard core of non-believers who argued that human flight, aside from the airplane variety, was simply impossible and that was all there was to it.

The faith of the non-believers was severely tested the next day when, quite suddenly, the couple landed in full view of many people, outside Petrucci’s Famous Pizzeria. They then ordered a pizza, pepperoni with extra cheese, with a side of potato salad, as carry-out.

There were a few people who huffed that descending on a public street in this way was tantamount to showing off but most of the townsfolk were merely curious, and put a series of polite questions to the pair while they waited for their pizza.

Yes, said the couple, we can fly, and have been able to for some time. No, flying itself is not difficult but landing requires a certain amount of practice. Yes, it is a matter of belief. It requires putting aside everything you know, or think you know, about the world and how it works, and instead substituting the knowledge, the sure and certain knowledge, that flying is possible. This leap of faith becomes much easier when you have seen someone do it, said the man. No, we do not know how the first person to fly achieved the feat. The young woman mentioned that, even after she had seen her partner fly, she had spent many hours standing in a park thinking about it. And then she realized that it could be done, because it had been done. And then she did it.

The pizza and potato salad arrived, and the couple ascended to return home. The ascension was, in some ways, not particularly impressive. There was no sudden leap into the air with arms outstretched, Superman-style. Neither was there any magical incantation or puzzling ritual. Instead, it was more like a steady drift upwards, off the surface of the planet, and then at a certain height the couple, pizza and potato salad in hand, turned towards their house. The only impressive aspect of the entire process was that it happened at all.

With the phenomenon of human flight now confirmed, our community grew strangely quiet on the issue. There was an unspoken consensus that, given that the couple had been as forthcoming as possible in their explanations, and seemed to be a pair of pleasant individuals, to notify government authorities might be an invasion of their privacy. Neither was there any further talk of ways to monetize the matter.

And then, one day, they were gone. Their rented house was empty; the real estate agent said that the lease had expired, according to schedule, and they had not renewed it. He did not know why or where they had gone but he said that, when they had returned the keys to his office, they had not expressed any ill-will towards the town or its people; quite the contrary. The most likely explanation was that their extended holiday had simply ended and they had returned to wherever it was they had come from.

But their departure did not mark the end of the story. For several weeks, a number of townspeople could be seen standing on cliffs, or by the lake, or in their yard, looking across the water or into the sky. It was a month after the departure of the couple that the first sightings of flying people began. Since then it has been a slow but steady trickle.

Over time, we have largely returned to the view that ours is a town where not very much happens. Yes, some people can fly, in that drifting, undramatic way; and others can but generally choose not to, for reasons of their own. We accept it because, putting it simply, we cannot do anything else: it is what it is. We do not find it remarkable, and we probably never will.

 

END

Person flying

The Bear

1

My earliest memory is of the day when my father brought a bear home. I must have been only four or perhaps five, counting by the Korean method, and my brother must have been only two or three, and my sister was only a baby. The bear was only a cub, I remember thinking that it looked like a ball of black fur, and it made a strange mewling sound.

My father told us that he had found it when he was leading a platoon of his soldiers on a training exercise in the forest not far from where we lived, which was in turn not far from the military base that he commanded, on the eastern edge of Seoul. He said that the bear’s mother had been killed by hunters – this was not uncommon in those days. The soldiers with him had said that the merciful thing to do would to shoot it then and there, as it would not be able to survive on its own, it was too young, but my father would not hear of it. But he agreed that, yes, the cub would soon be killed by another bear or some other creature of the forest if it was left. So the bear came to live with us.

My mother, needless to say, was not happy with this idea. It is a wild creature, she said. It has claws and teeth and when it gets bigger it will surely have a very nasty disposition. And we barely have enough food for ourselves.

You must realise that at this time, the early sixties, Korea was a very poor country, even in the area around the capital. Memories of the war were still fresh, and even though my father was a respected figure in the military – and as a colonel he had a significant role in the administration of our part of the province – there was often just enough to go around and not much more. Having meat in a meal was a treat, let me put it that way.

But my father was adamant that we would take in the orphan bear. And once my father had made a decision there was not much point in further discussion. He said that he would build a little cabin for it from scrap wood in the backyard, a bit like a cave, and the bear could live there in the warmer months and could eat leftovers.

There aren’t any leftovers, my mother said. But then she looked at the little ball of fur, and it made that mewling noise, and, well, she accepted that we could not simply throw it back into the forest. She shook her head and muttered something about another mouth to feed but the bear stayed. Somehow she managed to find food for it. Occasionally, later on, when my father was not at home, and when the bear could sit up, I would see her feeding it little bits of radish while she was cooking. She would see me watching and hiss that I was not to tell my father under any circumstances.

My father gave the bear a name but I cannot remember what it was. My mother, my brother, my sister when she could talk, and I just called it ‘the bear’. In fact, I believe that the first word my sister could say was 곰.

2

I should tell you a little more about my father, I think. He was from a town that was now in the North, but he had fought for the South in the war, and had been decorated and promoted. His medals and letters of commendation, along with his photograph, are in the glass-fronted case that we bow to on New Year’s Day and other significant occasions.

Like many soldiers he could be very stern and strict, and you could sense the steel in him. But there were times when he spoke in a softer voice. He would tell us stories about the war, about the Battle of the Han River and other incidents. He called MacArthur ‘the American general’ but he used the term ‘the General’ for another man, Park Chung Hee, the man who was now leader of the country. He had been a general but had recently assumed the title of President. My father knew the General, they had been in the same class at the military academy, we have a photograph of the graduation ceremony that shows the two of them.

I suspect that they also had had something to do with each other in some part of the war, although I am not sure what. In any case, there was some 정 between them. I suppose that battlefields create those sorts of connections.

My father’s responsibilities meant that he often had to stay at the base, but I recall warm evenings when he was with us in the little house. He would sit on the porch and drink 소주 and my brother and I would sit on the ground and listen to him talk. Aside from stories of the war he would tell us about the little town where he grew up, about planting rice and cabbages, and praying that the rain would be not too little, not too much, just the right amount, and that the winter would not be too cold.

The bear would be with us, sitting on its bottom and listening to the stories as well. I remember my sister sitting there but often, since she was very young, she would lean against the bear and fall asleep. I assume she liked the bear’s soft, warm fur. I mentioned this to her many years later but she said she could not remember it. Well, she was not much more than a baby at the time.

3

The bear had a remarkable talent for mimicry. When it heard my mother singing while she cooked or cleaned, in her sweet clear voice, it would make a crooning sound as well. My mother told me that it liked to sit and watch her putting on her makeup. One day, she said, she found that the bear had got into her cosmetics drawer and had put makeup on its face. I was there at the time, she told me, although I don’t remember it. I wish I could. A bear with lipstick and powder! Now that would have been something to see!

Maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. I think that not all the stories about the bear that my mother and father told us, a bit later on, were true. Maybe they were just stories for children. But I like to think that that one, at least, was true.

One thing I remember quite clearly was when my mother took me and my brother into the forest to look for berries and mushrooms. She carried my sister in a back-sling. Of course, the bear came with us. I guess that by this time it had been with us about a year, perhaps a bit more, so it was no longer a cuddly ball of fur. But it padded along behind us, on all fours, happy to eat berries when we found some.

At one point the bear stopped. It stood up and sniffed the air. That was the first time, I believe, that I saw it stand upright.

It looked around. It looked at us, my mother and brother and sister in the sling and myself. Then it looked again at the forest.

Then it went down on all fours again and came over to us. It nuzzled my hand, and I scratched its ears in response, as I usually did.

Someday, my mother said, it will have to leave. It is a wild animal, after all, and one day it will have to leave.

4

The bear had been with us three years, I suppose, something like that, when it vanished. It was not in its little cave-cabin and not in any part of the yard, and not in the house.

My father came back from the base that evening, and I remember my mother telling him, very softly, that the bear was nowhere to be found. My father said nothing.

I was surprised that the next morning a truckload of soldiers from the base appeared at the front of our house, and my father gave them a series of orders as he climbed into his jeep.

He saw me watching. He moved over a little to make space on the seat beside him.

Come on, son, he said to me. Let’s go and find our friend.

So I climbed in and we set off through the forest. My father knew where he was going, and eventually we stopped outside a little cave. My father got out of the jeep, and the soldiers climbed out of the truck and raised their guns. From within the cave there was a low growl.

Father, I said. We’re not going to shoot the bear for running away, are we?

No, my father said. But even though this is the cave where I found the bear, there might be another occupant. So stay in the jeep, son. To be safe.

My father walked towards the cave. He called out the bear’s name.

Being a boy, I did not stay in the jeep. I got out so I could see more clearly.

My father called out again.

The bear – our bear – came slowly out of the cave. On all fours, it went up to my father and nuzzled his hand.

My father stroked the bear’s head. The bear gave a soft growl. My father said something to the bear but I could not hear his words.

They stayed like that for a long, long moment. Then my father turned and walked back to the jeep. The soldiers returned to the truck.

My father saw that I had climbed out of the jeep. He gave a little nod, and then helped me in. He looked back. The bear was gone.

You have to go home, he said to no-one in particular. You have to go home.

5

It was early the next morning when my father shook me awake. Get dressed, he said. Don’t wake your mother and brother and sister.

I did as I was told. Then he took me outside and we climbed into the jeep.

We drove along the road that led to the military base. I had not been here before, or at least I could not remember being here, but I recalled him saying that it had recently been expanded.

We drove to the new section. There was a small helicopter on a concrete pad. My father got out of the jeep and talked to a guard standing near the helicopter. I could not hear what they were saying but at one point my father pointed to his badge of rank. Eventually, the guard saluted and opened the helicopter door.

My father gestured for me to come over, which I did. Together, we climbed into the helicopter.

I had not known that my father knew how to fly a helicopter but obviously he did, and he started the engine. He put a radio headset on and spoke to someone, using the words ‘on my authority’ several times.

Then we were off.

I asked him where we were going.

North, he said. There is something I have to see, and show you.

But won’t the Communists kill us if we go to the North? I said.

It’s not a long way over the border, he said. By the time they get planes in the air we’ll have seen what we need to see and be on our way back.

So we flew on, heading to the North. Seoul fell away behind us and we passed over a long strip of green forest.

The DMZ, my father said.

I nodded. Perhaps I should have been worried, even fearful. But my father seemed to be entirely sure of what he was doing, and so I was not afraid.

Occasionally he spoke to someone on the radio. Then there was another voice coming through the little speaker, a voice with a different accent. I realised that it was a Northern voice.

I just want to see my hometown, my father said into the radio. This helicopter is unarmed. All I want is to see my hometown, and for my son to see it.

The Northern voice continued to speak, even more stridently. My father turned the radio off.

Then we came to a town. We circled, and came in low. People in the town came out and looked up at us, unsure of what was happening.

My father pointed at a cluster of little houses. That was where I was born, he said. And my father was born there as well. Can you see the vegetable patch at the back? My mother was born at the other end of the town, in that house over there, you see? That one near the ricefield. They were killed in the war, as you know, but … that was where we lived. Before.

It was a town, like many other towns scattered across the landscape of the Koreas. A town like many others, but special. The town where my father was born.

Do you understand? my father asked.

I thought about it.

I understand, I said.

He nodded. He turned the little helicopter southwards. He was smiling.

6

Years later, after my father had passed, my mother told me that she had been very angry with him, but the way she said it made me think that she understood what he had done, and why.

My father continued to hold the rank of colonel but it was made clear to him, according to my mother, that there would be no more promotions, no more medals, no more letters of commendation. I said that it was surprising that he was allowed to stay in the military, let alone keep his rank. She said: the General.

7

So that is the story of the bear. For many years I did not really think of it, but these days, as I approach the age that my father was at that time, I think of it often. I wonder how the bear fared in the woods, what sort of life it lived. And I wonder if some day I might be able to visit my father’s hometown, to talk to the people there and see the fields of rice. But when I think of this I realise that I do not know the town’s name. My father had never told me, and I had never asked.

bear paw

The Journey Within

Appearing in Sunlight Press magazine, October 2019

 

The White Book

By Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

Random, $12, 160 pages, ISBN 9780525573067

 

If you want a novel with a clear, three-act narrative and an all’s-well conclusion, then this book by Korean writer Han Kang is not for you. In fact, it does not even look like a novel, written in short and seemingly unconnected snatches of prose. It is more like an extended meditation on life and death, on what might have been and on what once was. And that is enough. More than enough.

White book coverIt is unknown how much of The White Book is autobiographical but it feels as if a good part of it is drawn from lived experience. Han has no lack of courage as a writer, in that she was willing to make such a departure from her previous book, The Vegetarian, which won the Booker International prize in 2016. That novel – actually three connected novellas – followed the increasing detachment of a woman from the real world when she announces she will no longer eat meat, and then eventually stops eating altogether. Significantly, we never really find out why: the three novellas are (effectively) centred on her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister.

But we know that she is on a journey that leads to the most innermost part of the soul – something we find again in The White Book, and an idea that underlies much of the dynamism of the current Korean literary scene. The narrator of the book is in search of herself through an examination of the past, reflecting the way that South Korea is itself looking for a way forward (a theme, interestingly, often taken up by Han’s novelist father, Han Seung-won). It is a culture looking for the elusive balance between past and future, retaining what is most valuable without a trace of bleary-eyed nostalgia. The path has not yet been found but there is a sense that it will be, eventually.

Make no mistake: making one’s own fate is not an easy process, just as The White Book is not an easy read, despite its apparent brevity. It requires a certain level of engagement, and the reader has to be willing to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. The story that weaves in and out of the book centres on the premature birth and death, after only two hours, of a baby that would have been Han’s older sister (eonni is the Korean term). Han imagines the heartrending scene of the mother holding the newborn close and begging: “Don’t die. Please don’t die.”

But the universe decided otherwise, and the tiny corpse is taken into the forest for burial. The white swaddling cloth became a funeral shroud. It is this image that leads Han to examine the white things that punctuate her life: rice, pills, salt, waves, a bird on the wing, an empty page where text should be. And snow, a connection that leads Han to reflect on “the city” where she lives for a while, a place where snow disguises and then reveals the past. It is Warsaw (although never identified by name), a city which, like Seoul, has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, a cycle in which Han sees an image of her departed, un-named eonni and herself.

For she eventually comes to realise that if the baby had lived then she, Han, would probably not have been born. It is a duality, a balance, that provides Han with a comfort, with a sense that things worked out as they were supposed to, as they were fated to. In the book’s final passage, Han bids her ethereal sibling farewell: “Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath that you released.”

There is a toughness in Han, a sense of resilience and a willingness to peel back layers to find the core of being. This book could easily have become a mawkish plea for sympathy but the restrained, poetic writing provides a sense of moving from mourning to acceptance, a completed circle. It is a limited emotional pallet but the right one. It is no surprise to learn that the book took a long time to write and almost as long a time to translate.

The White Book is not for everyone but those who accept it on its own terms will find that it offers beauty, poignancy and resonance, a knowledge of what is lost and what is gained, and how one becomes the other.

Han Kang

Tales from the strange North

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/ask-a-north-korean-defectors-talk-the-country-we-love-to-hate/news-story/c741207924085b5b012bc5eb88284a92

Appearing in the Weekend Australian, Review magazine, 5-6 May 2018

 

Defectors spill the beans on starving Hermit Kingdom

 

Ask a North Korean: Defectors Talk About Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation

By Daniel Tudor

Tuttle Publishing, 288pp, $29.99

North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate

By Loretta Napoleoni

UWA Publishing, 250pp, $19.99

 

It seems to hang on the hazy horizon, communicating by way of bizarre ­announcements and occasional explosions.

North Korea is such an unlikely country that it might be a parallel dimension, and would even be faintly comical if nuclear weapons were not in the mix.

The recent thaw in relations has shed some light on the power structures, but ­little is known about how ordinary people lead their lives.

Daniel Tudor’s remarkable book is a start on changing that. It is based on a weekly column, Ask A North Korean, published by an American online newspaper based in Seoul. The column invites readers to put questions to North Kor­ean defectors, and it is hugely popular in South Korea. The book is a series of in-depth interviews with four defectors, covering everything from politics to fashion.

Ask A North KoreanOne surprise is that so many people have ­escaped from North Korea. There are more than 30,000 living in Seoul and many more in China and elsewhere.

Perhaps it should not be surprising: a central theme of the book is the raw toughness of living in North Korea. Outside the major cities, hunger is an everyday reality; in the cities it is a little better but there is still not much food security.

The good news, such as it is, is that the economy is slowly improving. The famine of the 1990s was a turning point for the country. Shortages of everything brought the black ­market into the open, and a wave of small businesses sprang up to provide what the lumbering state-owned enterprises could not.

The government tolerated the move, knowing there was no alternative. Eventually, something like a private-sector economy running parallel to the state-managed system developed. It was enough to keep the country afloat, at least, and it has continued to grow.

One of the biggest businesses is the trade in television programs and news from South Korea and China, mainly on USB sticks, which has undercut the government’s monopoly on information. Another booming activity is the sale of home-brewed liquor — a way to escape from the grinding reality, presumably. Second-hand clothes from Japan are also big sellers.

For its part the government does not seem to be particularly interested in economic management. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, sometimes talks about “juche”, a loose idea of national self-reliance, and he seems to see small private businesses as fitting into the framework. He also says, according to several of the interviewees, that nuclear weapons are more important than food.

That, and the raising of the Kim clan to near-divine status. The rules of their veneration keep changing, leading to a level of confusion on what is required.

This can be dangerous, as any hint of a lack of love for the leader can mean a one-way trip to a prison camp, not just for the individual but for their entire family. It is like Stalin’s terror as performed by the Keystone cops. Most people just keep their heads down, go through the ­motions, and bow when they are supposed to.

The defectors in the book have little to say about the North Korean elite, mainly because it is largely separate from the general population.

They note, however, that since the economy began to privatise, many people in the circle around the Kim family have become very rich, usually from skimming a portion of government business.

This group is known as donju — “masters of money”. It appears that no one believes in socialism or juche any more.

For the elite, the goal is more money. For the Kims, it is staying in power. For most of the population, it is surviving.

If Ask a North Korean is the view from the bottom up, Loretta Napoleoni takes a different perspective in North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate. She claims the book is ­“dispassionate” but this is hard to accept. In fact, she has never been in the country (according to the book’s publishers), even though she makes a variety of claims about what she calls the North’s “glorious” past.

Some are strikingly odd: in her account of the Korean War, for example, she somehow neglects to mention the 300,000 Chinese ­soldiers who came in on the North’s side.

There might be a reason for this: she sees the North-South conflict as a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union, and acknowled­ging China’s involvement would upset her ­paradigm.

This is not to say she wholeheartedly supports the current North Korean regime. She calls juche “the Scientology of totalitarianism” and points to the government’s involvement in the global drug trade and other illicit activities.

Nevertheless, Napoleoni seems to fall into that caste of European academics who take the view that any enemy of the US is at least ­worthy of a sympathetic hearing. She applauds Kim Jong-il (father of the current leader) for “outsmarting” Bill Clinton on a deal called the Agreed Framework, under which the US ­promised aid in return for North Korea freezing its nuclear program. In fact, North Korea reneged on the deal before the ink was dry, which Napoleoni sees as pretty clever.

Interestingly, she says sanctions will never be effective and any diplomatic contact is unlikely. Given this, it is hard to know what ­Napoleoni would make of the events of the past few months. She would probably say Donald Trump had nothing to do with it, that he just happened to bumble along at the right time.

It’s nonsense, of course.

Bellicose language, tougher sanctions, and a willingness to sit down to talk about nukes are the new elements Trump brought to the game, and the approach seems to have worked. How it will play out is still not known, but it might be appropriate to give some credit where it is due.

 

  Dine show displays breadth, versatility, and creativity

Appearing on Culture Concept site, July 2017

 

 

Jim Dine is sometimes categorised as a Pop artist but a new exhibition of his prints at the National Gallery Victoria (International) shows the real breadth and creativity of his work. Jim Dine: A Life in Print displays 100 works covering 45 years. The prints are part of a gift of 249 works donated by the artist to the NGV collection.

Dine originally became known as one of the group of New York artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960s, although he never saw his work as ‘Pop’. But the grouping is understandable, as Dine often chose everyday objects as his subject matter. He produced, for example, a long series of prints of dressing gowns, originally derived from an advertisement.Dine Robes

At another level, he also produced extremely realistic drawings and prints of tools, such as hammers, saws, axes, and even nutcrackers. This interest in mechanical processes, which also informed his precise attitude towards printmaking, stemmed from his upbringing: he was raised by his grandparents, who owned a hardware store.

However, as his work evolved through the 1980s he became more experimental, combining printing techniques to obtain certain effects and “interfering” (his word) in the printing process to produce one-off rather than replicated prints. He also began to use innovative materials. Blue Crommelynck Gate (1982) is a lithograph printed with black and silver ink on a surface painted with synthetic polymer, for instance. In this sense, Dine presaged the current trends of printmaking towards mono-prints and the fusion of commercial with fine art techniques.Blue Crommely Gate 1982

Along the way, Dine drew on subjects as varied as skulls, birds and the Eiffel Tower (he is now based in Paris) for prints and drawings. He has also produced portraits and self-portraits, usually as lithographs.

Even in his eighties, Dine continues to create prints, as well as paintings and sculptures. He has, he says, a wealth of ideas for new works and no plan to stop creating.

Dine self 2008 litho

 

 

The show Jim Dine: A Life in Print is on display at the NGV International until 15 October 2017.

 

I, Viridian: Supervillain

Viridian graphic cover.jpg

This is the story of Viridian: supervillain, fan of Shakespeare, owner of many sexy shoes, carefree and irresponsible at the competitive level, bearer of a mystical gem that gives her incredible powers.

Raised by thieves to be a thief, she was never really a child, or never grew up, she doesn’t know which. When she washes up on the shores of Oklahoma City, pursued by shadowy forces and an unknown enemy, she links up with an oddball gang of would-be supercriminals: mastermind Monk, samurai Tanto, strongman Cave, and the remarkable Flux.

And through them she discovers what it is she is looking for: a reason to fight, a reason to stay, a reason to care, and, most of all, a reason to love.

 

Published on Amazon • E-copy and Paperback • 140 pages • ISBN 9781533587718

To buy: https://www.amazon.com.au/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=i+viridian+supervillain

Children of Zone

Children of Zone

Children of Zone, published by Connor Court, 2015

In 1986 there was a nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, in what was then the Soviet Union. The area, over two thousand square kilometres, was evacuated and sealed. But 149 schoolkids are left behind, forgotten. Over time, they learn how to survive, and slowly they build a society for themselves despite the dangers – radiation, wolves, and winter – of the Zone. Twenty years after the Evacuation, a helicopter from the other side of the Wall appears – with a mysterious woman at the controls. That encounter sparks a chain of events which leads one of the Children, the hunter Isaak, back to the past – and towards a confrontation which threatens the future of the Zone itself.

To buy: http://www.amazon.com/Children-Zone-Derek-Parker/dp/1925138917