Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The SB-19R [2/4]

[This is the second part of a four-part short story, See Part 1 here.]
The SB-19R
Tony arranged for a crew to pick up Maja from Sector 14. In his work report he made the usual declarations about restoring lines of code without being too specific, assuming correctly that nobody higher up read them with any serious intent. He brought forward a mechanical service, four weeks early but acceptable given her presence in the workshop and the frequency and adverse conditions under which she operated. Even he had been surprised at the evidence of wear and tear, and thought not for the first time that the lack of support for more refugees to Europe had a point.

Although Tony recommended Maja be rotated out of Sector 14 earlier than usual, Francine overrode him and so within thirty-six hours she was returned in an SFA Toyota four-by-four to a brothel where even chopped bots exhibited turnover and failure rates akin to ordnance disposal units.

On the day after Maja was returned, Francine asked, “What’s the matter with you?”

They were seated around the big table in the meeting room, waiting for Uzoma, the only local on the SFA’s management team, an ex-civil servant who had been employed as a liaison officer. Habitually late but impeccably connected, he spent most of his time in bordellos with local dignitaries, or on overseas jaunts to workshops and conferences.

“Nothing, just tired,” he replied.

“Servicing synths is hard work, right?” said Arya, rolling her eyes.

It had been like that from the day he arrived, a thin but constant drizzle of putdowns from people who spent their time massaging figures for donor agencies back in Europe. Arya’s title was Research Coordinator, which entailed writing reports explaining why the SFA required more funding while pre-empting conclusions that might result in the opposite. She was in Nigeria for no other reason than to keep Francine’s bed warm at night, a fact rarely alluded to even in private conversations among staff. Tony had learned long ago to smile and nod. They might not like him, but they needed him, and ducking his head and staying low had been his key to survival.

Within days, one of the custodians came to him again with a report that an SB-19R in Sector 14 had failed.

“It’s Maja, right?”

“How did you know,” said the custodian, his eyes bulging with disbelief.

At the brothel, the madam hinted there were dark forces at work, and told him she had secured the services of a shaman who would rid her premises of anything untoward. Tony worked with her looming in the passageway outside, her boots thumping on the carpeted floor, until he lost patience with his remote toolbox, a power brownout, and Nigeria in general and called for Maja’s removal to the workshop.

“I don’t get it,” he said to Kurt, a German about to start work on a PhD in Hamburg but interning for SFA for six months. “There’s nothing.”

Kurt, who had been scrolling through reams of code and data, shook his head and murmured something in German.

“There’s been no malfunction at all,” he said abruptly, raising his eyes from the screen. 
“What do her self-diagnostics say?”

“That’s the thing, isn’t it?” said Tony. “It says absolutely nothing.”

There was nothing for it but to reboot and hope for the best.

“I’m starting to think the madam’s right,” said Tony. “There’s a malevolent spirit at work in that brothel.”

“There’s a malevolent spirit at work in the whole country,” said Kurt with an uncharacteristic stab at humour.

In June, when the days cooled and the rains came, Francine and Arya departed for a month-long trip to northern Europe. Francine was scheduled to meet with donors, deliver a keynote speech at a United Nations-sponsored conference on the role of mechanised sex workers in reducing African migration to Europe, and visit Renwick, where she would present a report by Arya’s team on the sexual and emotional preferences of the Nigerian male. Upon seeing a draft, Tony drafted an email querying the data on downtime and software fixes, but decided he no longer cared enough to put his neck on the chopping block. With Francine’s renewed threats of cutting the tech department’s budget, he derived no small amount of glee from how Arya’s data, fudged or incompetent he knew not, would be received by Renwick support.

In mid-June, Maja went on the blink again.

“It’s not possible for a Renwick to function in this manner,” said Kurt. “There is no cause for her failure.”

Tony agreed. Each malfunction had been more complex than the previous, with the root cause in this instance impossible to determine. His original idea of a disgruntled coder at Renwick throwing sand into the cogs was inconclusive with the latest breakdown, but was now proven incorrect with this latest failure.

“It’s as though she’s doing it to herself,” Tony said after a long afternoon of reviewing code.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Kurt. “You sound like a fetishist.”

“Not at all. I’m a coder getting sick and tired of an also-ran machine.”

A report arrived from Europe. Francine’s keynote at the UN had been a success of unusual magnitude. The secretary-general herself had invited her for a tête-à-tête, and there was a rumour about the development of a new commission to explore robotic manufacturing in Nigeria.

“That bitch,” said Tony to Kurt as they sat in the canteen one evening, “is setting herself up to run some UN boondoggle here in Nigeria. You watch. In a year she’ll be breaking ground as the CEO of Okanga Inc., purveyors of the best sexbots in the country.”

“Who would utilise a Nigerian-made machine for gratification?”

“Nobody, Kurt. That’s the point. Apart from the zombies out in Sector 14, nobody’s interested in a dancehall girl with a chassis like a tank.”

When Maja came in for the second time in as many days, Tony ran a cursory diagnostic test, set her to converse, and sat across a testing table from her. The solution he knew was not going to be discovered in the usual places.

“I’ve had about enough of you,” he said, sipping coffee from a mug.

She cocked her head and said, “You’ve had enough of what?”

“You’re failure rate is unacceptable. There are fake bots from across the border, some that look worse than Syphilis Suzie, with better operational uptime rates than you. And they’ve got all the sex appeal of a hole in a concrete floor.”

“Do you need to fix the hole in the floor?”

“I’m just ranting, ignore the floor. Ignore everything but your failure rate. Why do you malfunction so often?”

Maja tilted her head to the left. There had been a lot of cross cultural research on what Nigerians considered attractive when it came to yaw, roll and pitch of the head, and Tony presumed her movement had been carefully calibrated at equal to or less than twenty degrees. She blinked and scratched her right earlobe, then folded her hands on the table.

“You have run my diagnostic function?”

“It would have been very remiss of me had I done otherwise.”

“Remiss can mean negligent or forgetful. Which do you mean?”

“Both,” he said, putting the mug on the tabletop with more care than it warranted. “Listen. I want you to listen carefully. If you come back in with some sort of unexplained glitch, the root of which neither Kurt nor I can identify, then I will decommission you. Decommission can mean deactivate, or shut off. Do you understand?”

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The SB-19R [1/4]

[This is the first part of a four-part short story.]
The SB-19R
One of the custodians rapped on Tony’s door sometime after one o’clock, less than an hour since returning to his room from rebooting an NR-15X, and in a fog resulting from sleep deprivation initially thought he was being called out for inspection. Only when he stood at the door, listening to an obsequious apology from a man whose skin sagged like frog skin from his cheekbones, did he realise there had been another malfunction, an SB-19R, in one of the brothels in Sector 14. He told the man to wait while he dressed, only remembering his toolbox when the custodian asked if could pinpoint the cause of the problem remotely and without a visual examination. Cursing under his breath, he retrieved the box, locking it before he left the room, and followed the custodian down the alley to an awaiting jeep. Nobody was awake in the dormitory zone, or nobody Tony could see, and they made good time to the blockade, passing through with barely a sideways glance from the duty guards into the district bounded by the inner ring road. The cool air had stirred him to attentiveness if not vigilance, and he felt the stirrings of anticipation that accompanied every early morning callout into one of the sectors beyond the third ring road, territory into which few of his colleagues dared, nor possessed official clearance, to enter. Approaching the control point, he opened his toolbox, the custodian turning at the click of the locks to see what he was doing. In an earlier time, during the first few years, he might have swung it around for a custodian, or even a provincial, to view. But he had long since outgrown any notion he could integrate into the local community, or that, perhaps more to the point, it would integrate with him. Tony stared into the old man’s eyes, his sclera yellow from jaundice, until he relented and turned around to face the road ahead. While they sat in a short queue at the gate, Tony located the SB-19R and initiated a preparatory scan of its major systems. Finding nothing obvious, he accessed a deeper level, thankful for no obvious sign of malfunction, which often resulted in either total failure or entire rebuilds, neither of which were to his taste in his current state of mind. So engrossed was he in diagnostic code the checkpoint warden, a man with the facial scarring commonplace for jihadi militia these days, prodded him with the muzzle of an AK-47 to ask for his identity tags.

Arriving at the brothel, having lost their way in an unlit crosshatch of dusty streets where the GPS deteriorated, Tony climbed out of the jeep and without a backward glance of acknowledgement strode to the front door, flashed his tags, and ducked inside. The madam, hurrying towards him along a passage so dark he might not have seen her were it not for the thud of her boots on the floor, summoned by the doorman as soon as the jeep stopped in the street, wore the face of a proprietor counting her profits before they materialised. Upon seeing him, clad in a jacket with the SFA logo on his breast pocket, she visibly deflated.

“You’re here for Maja,” she said, a matter of fact rather than a question.

He nodded. She turned and led him along the passage to the staircase at the back of the house where, testing the wooden balustrade's limits of structural integrity with her mountainous stern, they ascended to the second floor. Tony could smell machine oil, the tell she was using chopped bots from pirate fabricators across the border, technically illegal but cheaper than the real thing and so in widespread use beyond the third ring road. The admixture of oil, alcohol, burnt charcoal, body odour and tobacco was something to which he had never developed the stomach, and he held his breath until he could hold it no longer, after which he opened his mouth to inhale. A girl behind one of the cardboard doors squealed, which set off a Rube Goldberg sequence of noises; grunts, whistles, moans, shouts, curses and screams. And then as quickly as it had begun, there was silence again.

“Here,” the madam said, stopping in front of a real door, wooden and solid.

How a Swedish blonde ended up here was beyond Tony’s comprehension, although he had seen the likes of it often enough not to raise questions. Francine would have something to say tomorrow, today rather, he thought, looking at his watch as though he had forgotten his eyes stinging from want of closure, but she would have something to say too had he not responded. An SB was an asset, and even a brothel out here played its part in anchoring the locals, as the SFA euphemistically put it. Damned if he did, doomed if he didn’t.

The door was well oiled, but Tony felt the heft of it as he pushed it open to reveal a room the likes of which one occasionally saw in Abuja, a city whose inhabitants had long ago learned to conceal wealth by surrounding it with filth. Most revelatory was the smell of sandalwood and musk, a freshness banishing the shit and semen enveloping the rest of the house. He stood for a moment inhaling through his nose, then took a step forward. The madam flicked on the lights, and the four-poster bed in the centre, against the window, shone like a marble headstone in a thunderstorm. Tony might have taken time to appreciate it except laying across the mattress was Maja, a generation six model from Renwick guaranteed to be indistinguishable from biotics in every way save the one that mattered most.

“I need to do this alone,” Tony said without turning to face the madam, who in like fashion left without a word, pulling the door closed behind her.

Maja was on her back, her breasts replicating the downward arc of the genuine article, without the accompanying stretching of ligaments and skin, which caused women so much anxiety. Her pale tanned skin, bikini-lined in the way Nigerians had grown to admire, absorbed light like a naturel epidermis. Tony plugged in his toolbox, and connected it to a socket in her ear. The SB-19s were all modelled on ordinary girls, from students to shop assistants, all sharing a positive outlook on life one might find in the well adjusted but adventurous citizens of rural Sweden. Tony brushed some strands of hair from her face, then sat on the bed, put the screen from the toolbox on his lap, and set to work determining the root cause of Maja’s malfunction. It took him longer than usual to work his way down through her levels of artificial consciousness, and when he found it he stared for a long time at her profile. The only conclusion for which he could find any logical support was that someone back at Renwick was playing a little prank, and not a very funny one. He put the screen to one side and stood up, stretching his arms as high as he could. When it took longer than normal to patch, Francine would blame him for it, complain again about tech support fees, and cut more from their budget. He had half a mind to submit a one-sentence report: SB-19R Maja, attaining sentience, sabotaged her own software for the purposes of extracting herself from sexual scenarios only an inanimate machine could endure. He laughed. It was going to be a long day.

[Read Part 2 here.]

Monday, 11 December 2017

Bliss [4/4]

[This is the final part of a four-part story. See Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.]
Bliss
When Edward opened his eyes, the bedroom was filled with light and he could smell toast downstairs. He rolled over, looking towards the western window. The door to the balcony was open, and the muslin curtains fluttered in the breeze. He heard the hollow rasp of a dove from somewhere far off, the sound barely audible. He wondered how much farther away it would have to be for it not to exist.

He tugged on the sheet, untucking it from under the mattress, and swung his legs over the side. The floor was cool under feet, and when he stood he felt the faint vibration of the harmonious heart in his chest, something that often eluded him. Someone, Melanie he presumed, was piping an isochronic tone through the house. He stood, and for all the world he was gazing across the steppes, the sun at his back and the horizon so far in the distance that the stretch of whispering grass in between seemed to go on forever.

“I’ll have two pieces,” said Edward, as he entered the kitchen, fumbling with the cord of his dressing gown.

The maid smiled, which revealed her small pointed teeth.

“Medium plus,” he said over his shoulder as he strode off towards the dining room.

“Melanie,” he called, walking past the Klum, its great orange circles conveying grandeur verging on divine right.

“I’m in the conservatory.”

“Just the morning for it,” he said, pausing when he saw Dr. Schumer seated at one of the four cane chairs arranged around the table.

“Edward,” he said, standing and brushing some loose crumbs from his pants. “How are you?”

He might have extended his hand, but Edward had stopped some distance from the table. There was a pot of apricot jam in the centre, a spoon handle dipped into its gelatinous orange essence. A stick of butter languished on a white dish to one side, and near two coffee mugs, both empty.

“I doubt I’ve ever felt more alive,” said Edward.

“Good,” said Dr. Schumer, “good. Melanie was worried yesterday’s session had not concluded with … with absolute success.”

“Pish and rot,” said Edward, pulling out a chair and sitting down. “I’ve never felt better.”

“It’s just that Melanie contacted me,” said Dr. Schumer, “because you hacked her phone.”

Edward slid the butter tray back into the centre of the table, aligning it with the jam pot. The maid entered with two slices of toast in the rack and put it on the table, along with a plate and knife. When she had gone, he leaned forward and sliced off a triangle of butter from a corner.

Dr. Schumer withdrew a small, flat device from the breast pocket of his jacket. Edward noticed for the first time how well the doctor cared for his nails.

“It really is quite unfortunate,” he said, placing the device on the table. “Two more visits would be preferable, but we’ll have to make do with what we have. Which is unfortunate, because I’d–”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Melanie. “Just get on with it, you quack.”

Dr. Schumer tensed, the muscles of his jaw bulging under his tanned, closely shaven skin. But he regained control of himself and with a smile focused on the apparatus he had withdrawn from his pocket. He tapped on the screen, which glowed with numbers and letters too small for Edwards to decipher.

“Now, let’s see,” Dr. Schumer said.

In his mind, Edward began to count the number paintings hanging on their walls, and had tallied six when he overcome by a burst of euphoria so profound he started to tremble. Some crumbs of toast adhered to the knob of butter enlarged in his vision to the size of boulders jutting from the side of a mountain, and the tabletop turned into a vast white plain. His knee, which started to twitch, banged on the underside of the glass surface.

“Don’t fry his brain,” said Melanie, her voice rising an octave.

“I know what I’m doing,” Dr. Schumer snapped. “Sorry, but I need to focus.”

Edward awoke, taking a moment or two to orient himself to his surrounds. A machine beeped softly to one side, a wire from it running under the sheets. He looked at the ceiling, watching a glimmer of light from outside pooling around an air-conditioning duct.

“You’re awake,” said Melanie. “I was beginning to think you were going to sleep forever.”

“What happened?” he asked.

He felt the mattress subside as Melanie sat down beside him. When she took his hand, he felt her warmth.

“You shouldn’t talk too much,” she said. “Dr. Schumer says you need time to recover.”

The light on the ceiling made a shape that reminded him an oak leaf. Melanie had tied her hair in a tight bun, and he was reminded of her mother.

“I’m not in trouble, am I?” he said.

“Why on earth would you think that?”

Edward had thought of something, but it receded out of his reach, like a leaf drifting into the middle of a river where the water ran deep and fast.

“I honestly don’t know,” he said, squeezing her hand.

He slept again, waking to the smell of toast. When he came downstairs he asked the maid for toast.

“Medium plus,” he said, before walking out into the conservatory. Dr. Schumer was sitting in one of the wicker chairs, buttering a slice of toast. Edward watched him spoon out some apricot preserve, a sizeable dollop he spread evenly.

“Ah, Edward,” he said. “It’s good to see you up and about.”

“Have I been dreaming again?” Edward asked.

Dr. Schumer nibbled at one his pieces of toast, a pearl of jam dribbling onto this finger. He wiped the corner of his mouth with a napkin.

“Nothing serious,” said Dr. Schumer. “I was on my way to the surgery and thought I’d drop in.”

Edward sat down as the maid come in with his toast on a rack. He had never felt better. 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The slut’s last gasp: Chéri by Collette

For over half a century, feminists have spread the lie that independence for a woman entails cutting the chains of marriage and freeing herself to sleep with whomsoever she wishes. What a glorious life awaited the 1960s and 70s free thinking woman, they cried. Cast off the patriarchy, they said, and a new world awaits.

Except it didn’t. Chat shows over the last decade have paraded a host of overweight cat ladies who were exemplars of sluttish behaviour, once beautiful and famous but in their last years eking a wrinkled, man-free existence between odd bursts of fan love. What makes a belief in the lie of female licentiousness as a valid life choice even more astonishing is the existence of stories like Chéri, which have thoroughly undermined whoring as a valid life choice for a hundred years.

The plot of Chéri is an object lesson in the perils of listening to feminist thinkers. A fifty-year-old slut keeps a toy-boy wastrel half her age (the titular Chéri), only to discover after six years he finds her repugnant. Shocking, I know. But there you have it. The truth. From an author apparently revered “as an important voice in women’s writing.

Feminism. You can’t parody these people.

I recommend this book to any father of a teenage daughter. The lessons are: i) stay away from wastrels; and ii) behaving like a prostitute has consequences. If she demurs, tell her even feminists think the author is the bee’s knees. Either way it’s a win.

Bliss [3/4]

[This is the third part of a four-part short story. See Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.]
Bliss
Edward came back to the kitchen and told the maid she was wrong about Melanie being in the garden. He walked out, passing Klum’s circles without glancing at them.

“Another two visits,” he repeated to himself as he took the stairs two at a time up to the master bedroom.

From the western window was a view of the fountain, but his wife was nowhere to be seen. Edward quietly opened the door onto the balcony, craning his neck until he had the fishpond in sight. The architect had referred to the triangle formed by the fountain, fishpond and oak tree as the ‘harmonious heart’, and as he looked out upon it he discerned, for the thousandth time, the principle behind the arrangement. Even when his mood map was on the brink of failure, he had only to spend a minute overlooking the garden to feel bliss descending.

“Oh, there you are,” said Melanie, entering the room. “I was wondering where you were.”

“I was just thinking how remarkably lucky I am,” he said, closing the door.

“What makes you say that?” she asked. “We’ve always been lucky.”

“Take today,” he said, walking to the bed and sitting on the edge. “Dr. Schumer was able to fit me in at a moment’s notice. You should see the equipment he’s got down there. And he doesn’t use needles any more. He’s got these suction caps now. It’s all non-invasive.”

As her husband talked, Melanie sat at her dressing table, a reproduction of a piece commissioned by Louis XIV. She surveyed her face in the mirror, an oval set in faux walnut, and lightly stroked her jawline.

“They say he’s one of the best,” she said, testing the elasticity of the skin under her chin. “It’s why Daddy pulled strings to get you onto his patient list in the first place.”

“And I appreciate it,” he said, standing again.

 “You’re my husband,” said Melanie. “It’s the least he could do.”

“How does Dad know him? I mean, it’s hardly as though he needs Dr. Schumer himself.”

“I have no idea,” she said. “You know Daddy, though. He knows everyone.”

Edward nodded. He felt drowsy, and swayed a little on his feet. An urge to crawl into bed overwhelmed him, and he changed into his pyjamas. He slid his feet under the sheets until they were wedged tightly against the mattress at the end of the bed. Melanie turned down the lights.

“This will be over soon,” she said, reaching across the bed to stroke his forehead. “You’ll see.”

“It takes more out of you than you think,” he said, letting his eyes close and his lips part.

He felt Melanie push herself off the bed, and heard her bare feet on the floor. He heard her humming as she turned on the shower. As the melodic sound of the running water and the soft hum of her voice merged, he drew his knees up and slid from under the sheets.

The relationship between mood mapping and bliss was still an imprecise science. Critics, of which there were few and whom in general tended towards hyperbole, rejected any notion that science was involved in any form, referring to it as a dark art. Although not strictly accurate, there was more than a grain of truth to it. Tinkering with malfunctioning neural circuits to shock them back into bliss required precision, but little else. The trick was to prevent other parts of the brain from overriding the algorithm for happiness. After all, who wanted a euphoric sociopath?

Edward was not a sociopath, but as he stopped to listen to the water falling onto the tiles in the bathroom, he did wonder if his wife was. Despite her efforts to keep the code concealed, he unlocked Melanie's phone on the first attempt. This was a benefit, he thought, of paying attention when others least expected it.

Dr. Schumer had excelled. The world that opened before Edward’s eyes would normally have drowned out any shard of well-being, but instead he felt neither despair nor anger as he flipped through screen after screen of erotic chat with strangers or images suggesting interests too perverse or morbid to spend more time than the microsecond it took to discard them. She had concealed her conversation with the good doctor under the sobriquet ‘Shoes’. Edward stifled a laugh.

It was like opening a novel in staccato.

“He’s not responding.”

“It takes time for new pathways to develop.”

“You said this last time.”

“I said it because it’s factually true.”

“Do I need to send him in again?”

“No. I’ll wind back his DX-12 levels.”

“And?”

“He’ll experience profound levels of dissatisfaction.”

“And?”

 “He’ll present as moody, perhaps on the verge of anger.”

“Then what?”

“Then you report him. They’ll flag me automatically and he’ll be required to schedule an appointment within 48 hours.”

“How many times do we have to go through this?”

“After the next visit I’ll have a clearer picture.”

“That’s what you said last time.”

“And each time I know more. I told you at the start, everyone’s unique. It takes time to get it right.”

Edward felt unreasonably buoyant, even though he knew he should be, in theory if not in practice, despondent with grief. Reconciling mood maps with reality was a topic on which he had furnished scant attention. Was it even possible to feel grief? He knew he could surmise it, infer the necessity of it on the appropriate occasion, but was unsure about feeling it. As he scanned Melanie’s chat with Dr. Schumer, he sensed he was bumping against an impression of it, but which resulted in no imprint on his sensibilities whatsoever.

Yet his sensitivities were not entirely numbed, because the absence of splashing water in the bathroom registered in his mind, and he replaced the phone on the dresser and scurried back to bed. He had tucked himself in, eyes closed, mouth agape, when he heard his wife’s feet on the bedroom floor again. 

[See Part 4 here.]

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Bliss [2/4]

[This is the second part of a four-part short story. See Part 1 here.]
Bliss
“I’m back,” Melanie said from the front door, which banged behind her as she entered the great room.

Edward knitted his fingers together behind his back, gazing into the orange and white blur on the wall. Where a moment ago he had felt an almost spiritual sense of elation, there was now a mild palpitation and a sense of drifting far out at sea, the land barely thicker than a thread between the white sky and water.

“Are you okay, honey?” asked Melanie when she found him. “How was Dr. Schumer?”

“Dr. Schumer,” Edward mumbled, his voice tapering off.

Instead of turning to his wife he kept his gaze on the great orange and white clumps. He had heard Klum was officially collectible now, an artist whose name was familiar to those outside the ranks of gallery owners and connoisseurs.

“Perhaps we should think about selling it,” he said.  

“What, honey?” he wife said, raising her voice so he could hear over the clatter of cutlery in the kitchen.

Edward retreated to the study, where he ran a finger over book spines, pronouncing authors’ names in the way he imagined they would be in their native languages. Losing interest after half a shelf, he sat at his desk rearranging stationery items alphabetically from right to left; arch folders, bulldog clips, calculator, correction tape. He wavered over the coloured pencils, eventually placing then between a transparent box of paper clips and a pen holder carved from wood.

When he was done, he opened a notebook and copied the phone message in block letters. He underlined it twice, then leaned back in his chair. He could hear his wife and the maid talking in the kitchen, their voices carrying along the passageway.

“Just make enough for the two of us,” his wife said.

Edward ignored the maid’s response. The mention by his wife of two servings drew his mind back to the message from Dr. Schumer. He circled the word ‘two’. He could not recall the doctor mentioning the need for more visits. To the contrary, Edward clearly remembered him saying the government would not hold his relapse against him. He wrote the words ‘expunged’ and ‘records’ in his notebook. It could not be simpler, he thought; the message was not intended for him.

Over dinner, his wife asked him again about visiting Dr. Schumer.

“I feel great,” he said, scooping a spoon of edamame beans from a bowl. “The best I’ve ever felt.”

“I hope it doesn’t affect our record.”

Edward looked over her shoulder at the Klum on the wall. He had forgotten how much they paid for it, or indeed if they had paid at all. He had a faint memory of Melanie’s father giving it to them for an occasion that slipped his mind. He ruled out their wedding. Perhaps it was for an anniversary, or when they moved in to The Sanctuary.

“He said they’ll expunge it.”

“Oh, really?” said Melanie, her mouth compressed into a perfect O. “Well, if Dr. Schumer says so, then I’m sure it’s true.”

Edward speculated on Klum’s market value. It was not as though they needed the money, but he was curious.

“I forgot to tell you,” he said, “I got a message from Dr. Schumer.”

“About your record?” she asked. “What do you think of the beans?”

“I’m not very hungry,” he said, putting his spoon down. He wondered how long he had been holding it. “No, not about my record. It was a mistake.”

“Your record?”

“No, the message. He sent it to me by mistake. It was for someone else.”

Melanie speared a broccoli floret with her fork and brought it to her lips. Even without makeup, she was attractive, startlingly so; the kind of woman men noticed. She had applied fresh lipstick, and ate delicately so as not to smear it. She chewed deliberately, then after swallowing took a sip of juice.

“It was odd,” said Edward. “Almost cryptic.”

“What was?” said Melanie, dabbing her lips dry with a serviette.

“Dr. Schumer’s message.”

“His message?” she said, her eyes round with surprise.

“Yes, I just told you. The one he sent by mistake.”

Melanie folded the napkin into a perfect square before sliding it to one side. She smiled at Edward and closed her eyes for a second. She often told him the happiest part of her day was after they ate their evening meal, and he knew it to be true.

“It’s not important,” she said, opening her eyes. “The only thing that matters is that you’re happy again. It’s frightening, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “The whole idea that we used to leave all this up to chance. That serenity or fulfillment were as random as the roll of a dice.”

The maid come in to collect the dishes. She had been with Melanie’s family since before Melanie was born. It occurred to Edward she must know more about his wife than he did. After the table was cleared, Edward went to his study. He read Dr. Schumer’s message again, circling the words ‘visits’ and ‘anything’. There was nothing more to be done. His wife had shown no interest and the message had been sent in error. He went to the kitchen and watched the maid fill the dishwasher.

“Where’s Melanie?” he asked.

“She’s gone out into the garden, I think,” the old woman said.

Edward went through the kitchen to the rear door. It was partially ajar, and through the crack he saw the oak near the back fence. It had started to lose its leaves, and the grass was turning brown. He stopped and listened, and hearing no sound pulled the door open and stepped outside. She was in the corner, near the fountain, and he was on the verge of calling to her when a noise like a hiss stopped him.

“And I’m telling you, you hack, one more mistake like that and we are done.”

[Read Part 3 here.]

Friday, 8 December 2017

“A cluster of mosquitoes”: The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

An elderly man who slept with his wife’s more attractive sister before they married has feelings he doesn’t understand for the wife of his son, a serial adulterer who visits his mistress on weekends, while his daughter – who has run away from her husband – returns home with her children. To make it more interesting, Kawabata houses them all under the same roof, and even has the father and son work in the same company. And there’s a mountain rumbling somewhere in the distance at night only the protagonist can hear, but we all know it’s not some exalted mound of dirt keeping him awake.

You could, and I wouldn’t blame you, just throw your hands in the air and put it down to everyone involved being Japanese. Symbolic, semi-opaque, and Stygian sexuality; it’s got Nippon written all over it. But that would be to deny what it does with those themes, because despite all the vague repression hovering above the surface like the wings of a locust (a cluster of mosquitoes – both of which are chapter titles), there’s something here that makes this tale worth the struggle.

It’s not the sort of book to take up in December if you’ve fallen behind in your yearly reading challenge. It’s not long – 276 pp. – but it has the feel of reading 5,000 haiku back to back. Let me show you. Here are some sentences from randomly chosen pages and a blindly pointed finger:
“A marriage was like a dangerous marsh, sucking in endlessly the misdeeds of its partners.” 
“A dog stood motionless by the road, its nose in the green grass.”
“Frowning, Shingo raised his chin to untie his necktie.”

Okay, I know what a haiku is, and these aren’t strictly speaking haiku, but they were not hand-selected to make my point. The entire book comprises spare sentences like the one here; short but pregnant with meaning. This reminds me, there are pregnancies and abortions. It’s not all fun and games.

This is the kind of book you want to tear in half about fifty pages in, are sold on by one hundred and fifty, and consider reading at the end. All without understand entirely why.

Consider this little gem:
The father to the daughter-in-law: “Embarrassing things and pleasant things often go together. Isn’t it that way when a man makes a pass at you?”
It’s a lot to stuff into twenty words. And it’s clearly not for feminist fascists, so if you’re that way inclined stay away.

Your mileage may vary for this one. You’re not very far from the beginning by the time you get to the end, and the whole ‘cherry in winter’ thing may wear you down. But there’s undeniable beauty here, and for that alone it’s worth picking up.