Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Another fictional post ...

It's just like unearthing a time capsule ...

I've been going through an old directory of short stories that I wrote and turning up all sorts of stuff I'd quite forgotten about. So I thought I'd share some of them with you over the course of a few days. Frankly, I don't know what else I'd do with them. The market for short stories is very small and quite tetchy.

I wrote Extraction in 1991 and I tried submitting it to UK magazines like Bella and Best that were popular at the time and featured a short story page. As is often the case, the rejection letters I got back didn't go into any detail why it was turned down. I'd like to think that I'd misread what they were after or didn't understand their market. But chances are they just didn't like it. I eventually self-published it under James Murphy's and my Bigger Betty imprint in 1996 (of which I have talked in earlier posts such as here), along with several other vaguely sci-fi, fantasy or horror short stories.

It's a bit longer than Man of Hunger but is still only 1600 words. Grit your teeth. It won't last long.


Bernard stormed out of the dentists, upsetting several people in the waiting room with his creative use of Anglo-Saxon. One hundred and fifty pounds! One hundred and fifty pounds for having a wisdom tooth pulled. It was outrageous. It hurt. And in more ways than one. Bernard was not a rich man. As his Auntie Maureen continually pointed out, he didn’t have a ‘proper job’. He'd tried arguing that being an inventor was a proper job. But then his aunt would point out that inventors actually invented stuff and the conversation would degenerate into argument and several hours of seething resentment for each other. Auntie Maureen had a point, he knew. To date, not one of his inventions had been manufactured or sold. This was why he was not a rich man and also why he still resided with his aunt in a shabby Council house in Wembley and spent much of the day trying to avoid her.

Auntie Maureen was feeding one of her many over‑fat cats when he arrived home. As he opened the front door, the fierce Autumnal wind roared into the house sending newspapers flying and cats leaping for shelter. The cold wind made Bernard's mouth ache even more and he forced the door shut. He noted that even the storm force winds hadn’t shifted the perpetual smell of boiled cabbage, litter trays and embrocation.
“Where’ve you been?” asked his aunt.
“Dentiff”, said Bernard. "Ftill a bit nub fwom the novocaine.”
“You sound drunk.”
"I'm fore."
Auntie Maureen laughed unhelpfully. So loud and raucous was her laughter that several of the obese felines at her slippered feet, waddled as quickly as they could in the direction of the lounge. "Ith vewy windy out there,” he said.
“Something went crash outside earlier”, said Maureen. “It might have been some roof tiles.”
“Want me to have a look?”
“What would be the point of that?” said Maureen. “You’re useless at anything practical.”
Bernard frowned lopsidedly and walked upstairs to his 'laboratory'.

It was, in fact, the upstairs lavatory; which was handy as he'd only had to alter one letter and add two new ones to the brass plate on the door. The room’s normal function was obsolete as Auntie Maureen never took a bath for some strange pseudo-gynaecological reason she’d invented that Bernard naturally didn’t want to know the details of. She washed herself using the hand basin in her bedroom and preferred to use the old-fashioned outside lavatory.
“It's not healthy to sit in your own smell” , she would say, “Fresh air's what you need Bernard ... You always look so pale.”
Bernard was happy to claim the room as his own and had modified it for dual usage. When he wanted a bath, he simply had to lift the cleverly hinged workbench that sat over the top of it. It was the same with the old stained and cracked hand‑basin, which was now incorporated into a computer desk. With the addition of an L shaped foam cushion and a little repositioning, the toilet and cistern had become his chair. Bernard sat down and rubbed his aching jaw. Damn dentist. Yes, they did valuable work repairing the damage wrought by their customers' penchant for sweet tea and Mars Bars. But he didn't like his dentist. Mr Clootie was odd. He dressed oddly and his accent was unplaceable. And it was an odd sort of name, he thought to himself. It made the man sound like an extra from some dire Scottish medical soap opera. He sighed, rubbed his jaw again and switched on his computer. It was time to concentrate on tonight’s instalment of his life's work. Soon, he was sure, he would be able chatting to aliens.

It had always been his ambition to be the first person to make contact. That there were aliens, he had no doubt. He had avidly watched Star Trek and Dr Who his whole life and had grown up an Earthling possessed. They were out there some­where, just waiting for him to contact them. He knew about the Drake Equation. He knew about the Fermi Paradox. These two theories pointed to the fact that the universe was teeming with life, much of it possibly in possession of technology way in advance of Earth’s … but, for some reason, they hadn’t yet made contact. It was a puzzle; a paradox. But that didn’t matter to Bernard. There was obviously a good reason, he surmised; he just didn’t know what it was yet. Maybe they didn’t trust our politicians (who did?). Maybe they’d seen our history of warfare and had decided that we were unworthy to join the greater galactic community. But, whatever the reason for their silence, Bernard was sure that he could persuade them to talk to him. He was worthy and he was a believer. So, for the thousandth time, he loaded his contact software and switched on his transmitter. The toilet light dimmed as power surged into the roof-mounted dish outside. He placed his lips to the microphone and pressed the transmit button.
" Gweetings fwom Earf ..."

An hour later, he made himself a cup of tea. The numbness had finally worn off and he could risk a hot cuppa. It also meant that he was no longer lisping at the stars. Suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door.
“I'm going on to bed”, shouted Auntie in an unnecessarily loud voice. “There's something wrong with the telly. The picture's gone all rubbish and snowy.”
“Goodnight Auntie”, said Bernard and he listened to her heavy foot­steps thudding along the uncarpeted landing. Auntie's bedroom door slammed shut and he turned again to his transmitter.
" Greetings from Earth ..."

Another hour passed.

Bernard leaned back on the toilet seat and sipped a fresh brew. A slight static hiss was all that had emanated from his speakers all night. He yawned and decided it was about time that he turned in for the night.
“Hello Earth... Hello Earth ... Do you hear me?”
Bernard dropped his tea in shock.
“Hello Earth ...”
He scrabbled to brush the scalding hot tea off his legs before it soaked into his trousers and grabbed the microphone with trem­bling hands.
"Hello ... H‑Hello ... This is Bernard ... Er... Bernard on Earth. Er ... Who are you?"
The voice at the other end of the transmission became frosty. A diabolical laugh reverberated around the room.
“Hello Bernard”, it said, “This is the Devil here.”
Bernard sighed.
“Whoever you are, get off the air!" he shouted. "This is an important scientific experiment you're interrupting!”
He peered out of the window, expecting to see that the wind had realigned his dish onto the house of one of the local kids. He was a little surprised to see that it was missing. In fact, it was lying on the ground, dish facing downwards, in the back garden where the wind had thrown it earlier in the evening. The television aerial lay next to it, also ripped from the roof by the unusually violent winds. No wonder Auntie Maureen’s picture had gone.
“Are you still there, Bernard?” said the voice.
Bernard sat down.
“Y‑Yes”, he said into the microphone, “I'm still here”.
“Good”, said the Devil, “I'm pleased. Now, you'd better brace yourself for some bad news."
"Bad news?"
"Well, quite bad. I'll be coming up there to take possession your soul in a short while.”
“My soul?” said Bernard.
“Yes ... your aunt has sold it to me for a Rollover win on the National Lottery next week.”
Bernard gaped at the speaker.
“B‑But you can't take my soul! I... I need it! Don’t I?”
“What for?” said the Devil.
“I … don’t know. Anyway, haven't I got to sell it to you myself?”
“Not if I am given some part of your body as a token”, said the Devil, “I can use it to gain possession of the whole.”
“But I have all the parts of my body. You'd know that if you were really Old Nick”, said Bernard, feeling slightly more confident. “I haven't had so much as my tonsils out.”
There was a foul sulphurous smell and Satan materialised in the lavatory. Around his neck, he wore a necklace of human teeth.
“Oh really?” said the Devil with a decidedly pointed smile, rattling his macabre bling. “Old Nick … such an old‑Fashioned name. I haven’t heard it for decades. Did you know that I was also once known as Old Clootie?”
“Bugger”, said Bernard.

In her bedroom, Auntie Maureen was stirred from her sleep by what sounded like a long, loud scream. But then, she rolled over and got back to dreaming about the bevy of heavily muscled, bronzed sailors that she’d recruit for her yacht in Bermuda.

There is, dear reader, a surprisingly happy ending to this apparently tragic tale. Dealing with the Devil is never a good idea. While it is true that Maureen Prentice did scoop the £12 million Rollover Jackpot the following Saturday, she was dead within six months from a completely new kind of superbug that she picked up by not washing her bottom thoroughly. They even named it after her.

And while she languished in the fires of Hell, doing her eternal penance for the wickedness of her life on Earth, Bernard enjoyed the relative luxury of working for the Devil as a cataloguer. Not all the denizens of Hell are there to be punished. It seems that the Devil, or Old Nick, or Old Clootie just likes collecting souls in the same way that others collect stamps or beermats. For these souls – who have mostly led good lives – there are roles to fill, rather like trustees in a prison community. Bernard enjoyed his work. He got to meet some terribly interesting people. He even found himself a girlfriend; a former policewoman from Australia.

And he got to meet his aliens at last because, in a universe of infinite possibilities, it turns out that even aliens have souls.

He catalogued them under ‘Foreign exotics’.

Copyright (c) 1991 Steve Colgan

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