Party Pepper Politics

       For the past three years one of the closest companions of Adrian Verrall was a large azure coloured sphere who liked to hop up and down merrily and who had appeared one bright summermorning in Adrian's room.  Soon the ball got to know one of Adrian's friends, a nervous young mathematics student named Constantine Rudman.  So about every five days the ball wouldsuddenly pop into view in Constantine's apartment, and start singing to him.   If Constantine was gloomy, which he often was, the ball would bounce a very soft and pleasant patting onConstantine's head in an attempt to soothe him.  Sometimes the ball would appear when Constantine was cutting his arm and using his own blood to spell "Katyn."  "Why are you doing that?" asked the ball in a completely innocent and non-judgmental tone.

       "Because I feel guilty over Soviet atrocities."

       "In what way?"

       "Well for a start I feel guilty because I know so few Soviet atrocities that I keep using Katyn.  I probably spell it because it has only five letters, and I'd faint before I could spell out all of the words that GULAG stands for.  I mean this is embarrassing: I can probably name a dozen Nazi concentration camps, but after `Koloyoma' everything's a blank."

       "What do you think you should do about this?  And incidentally, it's transliterated 'Kolyma'."

       "Do you remember that scene in Gandhi,"--the ball didn't, it rarely had the opportunity to go out to the movies--"where a fasting Gandhi tells a Hindu rioter who has murdered a Muslim child that he can still achieve salvation.  All he has to do is to take a Muslim orphan and raises him as a Muslim.  Well, I think if I ran a lot of good reviews of Robert Conquest, something similar would happen to me."

       "Do you like Robert Conquest?"

       "I think he's a mediocre poet, that he's posturing and self-serving and just a bit fashionably paranoid, and there are serious questions on whether he knows how to count.  Still, I suppose Czeslaw Milosz wouldn't say he was such a wonderful person if he was only in it for the money."

       "Who is Robert Conquest anyway?" asked the ball happily.

       "Robert Conquest.  British citizen.  Former member of British intelligence, propaganda, I think, but I may be wrong. Sender of pornographic magazines through the mails to his friendthe late Philip Larkin.  Translator of Solzhenitsyn's Prussian Nights, author of a The Great Terror, a respected work on the Great Purges, author of The Harvest of Sorrow, a slightly less respected work on the famines of Collectivization, author of about twelve other books on Soviet atrocities, and co-writer of a book called What to do when the Russians come."

       "Oh.  What do you do when the Russian come?"

       "I don't know, but I strongly suspect that 'Wake Up' isn't the first thing, and 'Stop taking hallucinogenic mushrooms' isn't the second.  That's Robert Conquest for you, writer of twodozen books on Communist crimes, of which I have not read a single sentence."

       The ball paused, and simply bounced up and down for a minute.  Then it spoke.  "Well, if I just popped over to Robert Conquest's and said how very sorry you were, I'm sure he'd be anice chap and tell you not to worry so much."

       Constantine was stupefied.  "You know where he lives?"

       "No.  Does he lives far away?"

       "He probably lives across the Atlantic Ocean."

       "Which is what?"

       "Ummm, I don't think you can find Robert Conquest.  Ummm, he's kind of unavailable at this time of night."

       "I'll just ask someone else then, and you'll all be forgiven."

       "I don't believe I can be forgiven.  It's part of my complacently decadent Anglican past."

       "Nonsense, everyone can be forgiven."

       "I don't have the right to be forgiven.  Everything I've done is full of bad faith.  I deserve to be vomited on for the rest of eternity, which is probably what is going to happen tome, so I better get used to it."  But the ball had already vanished and reappeared in the home of Vivian Chelmnickon, who, alas, was out for the evening.  His wife was there, but she was in a drunken stupor, which did not prevent the ball from singing "When the Saints come Marching In" for fifteen minutes in a pleasantly futile attempt to get her to wake up.

       Constantine remembered that incident when the ball reappeared to him for the first time in a week.  It was the second Friday after the death of Senator Veniot and Constantine was rapidly collecting his books before he went off to class.  He had just taken some hamburger out to thaw for his dinner that night when the ball appeared.  "I wish I could help you cook something, but I don't have any hands, so I'll just sing instead."  The ball bounced around in a strange sort of circle, careful not to get in Constantine's way, or bump anything onto the floor.  Constantine soon left and forgot the ball, but oddly remembered the incident and the previous one a few minutesafter his class with Professor Chelmnickon.

       Chelmnickon was walking down the stairs followed by a man whom Constantine later realized must have been Oliver Corpse, but whom he failed to recognize because he had gained so much weight recently.  "I've had this strange dream last night."  said Chelmnickon.  "It was about the old colonel that I 'converted' to Buddhism back in 1968.  It was all very high-minded and austere,like a Poussin painting.  It's just that I had similar sort of dreams ever since Veniot died."

       Corpse wondered for a second.  "Well, it sounds better than my recent dreams."

       "Really?  Have you been having nightmares Oliver?"

       "No, something more dangerous.  Teschen and Kielce."

       "Oh." and Chelmnickon immediately changed the subject.  "I see the local left groups are complaining about the Intafada again.  The same old shallow crap as usual.  Did I ever tell youabout the time back in England, just before the Yom Kippur war, when I was talking to a former British Communist Party intellectual.  Undoubtedly a humane and sensitive fellow, if somewhat unrealistic.  Anyway we were talking about Israel, and I pointed out how Arab propagandists used the same 'Zionist-Nazi' collaborationist garbage that Khrushchev used in his Jew-baiting campaigns.  And the poor fellow cleared his throat and said, yes, this was very disturbing, it might lead people to conclude that the Palestinians didn't really like the Jews.  And I said wasn't this sort of garbage prima facie proof that the Arab were simply anti-semites?"

       Constantine happened to be just walking up the stairs and he only caught the tail-end of this passage, but he felt moved to protest and opened his mouth to say something.

       "Oh hello, Rudman.  Were you going to say something?"

       Constantine breathed deeply, managed to say a few words, and then fainted.  Recovering quickly, he lied desperately about having a minor neurological condition, that he just wanted to say hello, and then left apologizing effusively.

       Constantine brooded on that encounter as he made preparations to leave for a party that evening.  He had been invited, along with his sister and Adrian, by Charles Harding.  Theparty would take place at the apartment of Elizabeth Concrete, Charles' girlfriend.  For the past six months Constantine had spent Friday evenings at Sabbath services, and was therefore notenthusiastic about seeing Charles.  And he also thought that if he did not go to the synagogue he would be giving in to his disgust of the strange ghastly smell that he encountered there in the past few weeks.  But he also thought his enthusiasm for going to Synagogue was really caused by his never entirely absent envy of his best friend, and that going to temple was just an excuse to avoid Charles.  The second rationalization was stronger, and at seven twenty four he left his apartment and hailed his sister and Adrian.

       Everyone who knew Adrian Verrall closely knew that he was a shy, sensitive person capable of great empathy.  When Constantine first met him in their first year of university he noticed howeasily Adrian could charm pigeons and squirrels into resting into his hands.   Constantine envied this, as he envied so many other things, for one of the more frustrating things of his twelve years of grade school was that despite many efforts, he could never catch a bird or any other wild animal.  For that matter tame animals were hostile in Constantine's presence, and even the family cat would not let Constantine touch it.  Animals were never close to him, nor were people for that matter.  But Adrian could charm the snakes down from the trees, because he could also charm them up into them, thinking that they should enjoy the view.  He kept one as a pet, attracting Lucy Rudman'simmediate attention, and he could sing locks open when he forgot the combination, and he would always help his friends with their assignments, even when he hadn't a clue what they were about.

       But despite his empathy Adrian was completely unsuccessful around women.  Constantine was only slightly better, though he didn't try nearly as hard.  Adrian's erotic failures were generally viewed as the result of his obnoxious father's upbringing, though when Constantine was feeling particularly petty, he would blame Charles for it as well.  Regardless, Adrian thought that his rather boorish father must know something about attracting women, and he used his example as well as what he could copy out of pornography.  It made Constantine wince whenever he saw Adrian make one of his attempts at seduction, which usually involved Adrian dropping some incredibly awkward phallic symbol into the conversation as an attempt at risque banter.  Using an image like "candelabra" was either all too vague, or all too grotesquely clear, and it did not help that Adrian really meant "candle-stick."  And the more Adrian considered the metaphor the more his thoughts turned to candle-wax and "Clue" and so mudding the erotic train of thought even further.  Was it Professor Plum, played by the great Christopher Llloyd who used it, or was it Miss Scarlet?  The resulting confusion gave Adrian an extra two and a half minutes to embarrass himself as he tried to clarify what he was saying.

       The only woman who wasn't thoroughly pissed off by Adrian's clumsy innuendoes was Constantine's sister, Lucy.  But she hardly counted, first, because none of the innuendoes were directed at her, and second she was hardly a woman at all.  She was Constantine's younger sister and her eccentric personality had been evident since childhood.  For the past few years she haddecided to be known to the world as Lucian, to have her hair cut short, to drink a mixture of charcoal and milk of magnesia in order to lower her voice, and wear stylish cocktail clothes sothat she would in her words "look like an Evelyn Waugh character trapped as a suspect in an Agatha Christie novel."  Now that both of their parents were dead Constantine was the only person whostill called Lucian by her original name; she had special revenges for anyone else who did.  And indeed, she had been remarkably successful, people had forgotten her original name almost as much as she had forgotten the many times that Thomas Edward Harding patted her on the head.

       There was no doubt that she possessed creativity, charm and wit.  As a child she had written songs like "I saw my Mommy giving Santa the Heimlich manoeuver," "(Dangling)Midge overTroubled Waters," "The Star Spangled Spanner" and "God Save our Spleen."  She had written skits with titles like "Long Night's Journey into the Next Morning and the Following Afternoon,"complete with alexandrine septameter and a host of showgirls; "The Penthouse of the Western World," which could only be performed if all the female parts were played by adolescent boysin drag; "The Heart of a Frog," a story combining a shocking expose of totalitarianism with popular characters from a well-admired children's show; "Rosie Krantz and Gilda Stern are in Bed" which was an example of performance art where two girls in decent lingerie tried to read as much Hamlet as they could while the other one was tickling her: "Waiting for God" in which the Lord and all his Hosts came down upon the stage and told Estragon he could really use a bath, and finally "Look!  Back there's Unger!" a fine example of kitchen-sink drama which ended with the stage being flooded with soap and hot water.  She wondered whether you could turn "Troilus and Cressida" into pornography, and then wondered whether you could turn pornography into "Troilus and Cressida."  She thought that you could pull it off if you used blackmail, cocaine and acts of parliament, but then got bored with the idea when she realized she actually had to read the play first.

       Lucian had been so attracted to Adrian and his ability to charm reptiles out of the trees that she announced that she was going to accompany him on a special visit.  Four days earlier John Seinkewicz had asked his nephew to go as an emissary to the local Progressive Conservative Party in Medicine Hat, Alberta and help prevent the Reform Party from conquering the riding in the next election.  Verrall was not a Conservative, and neither was Lucian, but when he decided that he should go out of loyalty to his uncle, Lucian instantly offered to come along.

       But that was four days in the future, not the Friday evening which is when Constantine met Adrian and Lucian.  Constantine was still in a gloomy mood and Adrian was still surprised that Lucian was going with him to Medicine Hat, so that left Lucian with the most exuberance.  Lucian loved to play video games, and one of her recent favorites was "The Smurfs play Lord of the Niebulungs."  Neither Smurfs, nor Hobbits nor any rather unpleasantly virile German swordsmen appeared in the video game, which could be, and was, played for hours on end.  The player wasa green smudge at the bottom left hand corner of the screen.  First the green smudge had to go attack various blue smudges and eat them.  The blue smudges were completely harmless; that's whythey were attacked, it gave the player the opportunity for hundreds of extra points.  After having gorged himself (or herself, in Lucian's case) on about twenty innocent blue smudges, the green smudge entered a maze full of gold and deadly scorpions.  The green smudge could either hop over them, which was tricky and difficult, or he could just machine gun them all, which was easier and took much less time.  However there was always the strong possibility that the computer screen would blow up for no well-explained reason, so that had to be taken into account.  In the following twenty-seven screens there were dancing trolls, unicorns with a poor sense of humor, special time games where scantily-clad princesses had to be rescued from deadly serpents (so that parasite eggs would not open in their legs and greedily wolf them down), horrible snowstorms, hail the size of billiard balls, billiard balls the size of hailstones, ferocious dragons, mild-manned dragons who wanted to audit your taxes, lightning that could strike the green smudge and roast him to a crisp (the special effects for that lasted a whole three minutes), an orchestra run by deadly penguins, large amounts of treasure and even larger amounts of innocent people who could be massacred for extra points, big breasted sphinxes who had to be chopped in half with axes, gardens of luscious fruit that had to be bulldozed in order to get at the treasure beneath, and then there was Lucian's favorite screen, where you had to kill the assassins stalking the halls of the Congress of Vienna.

       Lucian was still acting this screen out as the three of them walked over to Elizabeth Concrete's apartment.  She darted furtively across the freshly frozen ice, snuck down low beside parked cars, and looked for special trapdoors by the lampposts.  "Halt!" she said to her brother.  "Do you see over there that foul assassin of fair Mettenrich?"  She pointed into the distance for emphasis.  Constantine glanced to Adrian, who nodded that he should play along.  So Constantine, feeling slightly like an idiot, looked very deeply at nothing in particular, while his sister sneaked deviously around him and pushed into the first snowdrift of winter.

       "You deserved that, foul miscreant!  You, who would dare to slash the throat of that Valiant Viscount, Lord Castlereagh.  You Irish cur!  Your pre-modern radical chic!"  Then Lucian dropped very low and dashed over to a garbage dumpster.  Hiding behind it, she summoned Adrian to come beside her.   Adrian did so, while Lucian pestered him to stoop lower and be quieter.  "Quick now.Do you think they will attack Talleyrand or Chateaubriand first?"


       "Sucker!" and she threw a cunningly concealed snowball into Adrian's face.  She then dashed ten metres into the open, and then suddenly stopped, and craned her neck to try to seesomething far above her in the air.  "Hey Guys, look at this!"

       Constantine was just getting himself out of the snow, and trying to warm up his ears.  If he had been a rougher and crueler man, he would be forcefeeding snowballs down his sister's throatby now.  But because Constantine was a gentle, passive person, and also because he barely knew how to make snowballs, much less know how to aim them properly, he satisfied himself with makingsure his head didn't freeze.  "Did you say something Lucy?"

       "Guys, I saw this really neat thing up there in the sky."

       "The stars I saw when you pushed me into the snowbank?"

       "No, guys, it was something else.  It was this strange thing, it was beautiful, kind of transcendent, it was, it was...vaguely rectangular."


       "Yeah.  Vaguely rectangular.  But with wings.  And arms. And possibly a head as well.  Wearing a sort of lingerie, like the sort in Adrian's Playboys except you can't see the tits through the fabric."

       "You mean like an angel?" asked Adrian.

       "Yes.  Like an angel.  For a few seconds I saw this big rectangular block floating up in the sky, and then it started to raise it wings up and for one instant the moonlight shone on it so bright, that all the sky was filled with the light of the wings.  It was stunning."

       "You're pulling our legs, aren't you Lucian?" said Adrian.

       "Huh.  Oh yeah.  Sure.  Of course.  Of course, I'm pulling you guys legs.  Sucker!  I mean what the hell is an angel doing floating up in the sky near the end of November.  Perhaps it's here for Ramadan, but it got its appointment book mixed up.  Come on, lets get over to Chuck's."

       The three got over there quickly, and as Charles Harding opened the door to Vanessa Wilentz's and Elizabeth Concrete's apartment, Constantine reflected on seeing him that it was times like this that he wished he was homosexual.  He felt that a passion completely incapable of being fulfilled would be morally superior than the thoughts of petty envy and spite he held against Charles and the extraordinarily beautiful young woman that he was holding in his right arm.

       "Hi-Ya Chuck." said Lucian, and she pulled out another cunningly concealed container and gave it to Elizabeth.

       "What's that?" queried Adrian.

       "It's the food that we're supposed to bring to the party."

       "I didn't know we were supposed to bring any food."

       "Well now you know you were, and don't you feel like chumps for not doing so." interjected Elizabeth.  "Just kidding.  Thanks for coming.  What is this Lucian?"

       "Pepper surprise." said Lucian, and Elizabeth moved to place it with a number of other containers on the dining table.  The three guests took off their coats and joined the party.  Asidefrom Elizabeth and Charles, there were a number of other guests.  Aquilla Rogers had come over from across the hall, and Charles had decided to invite Adrian's cousin, Giles Seinkewicz.  Therewere five or six other people here as well, none of whom are of the slightest importance except for Sheryl Monagham, who in the daytime served as an assistant police inspector.  And, of course, as Constantine gravitated to the first place he always went to in a new house, the bookcases, he saw Vanessa Wilentz sitting in an adjacent chair.  He had known Vanessa for several years now, ever since Charles had been Elizabeth's boyfriend, and they occasionally chatted with each other.

       But as for the bookcase, ah!  It was a genuine antique, made of real oak, but coated with brown-black varnish, and having a special panel setting celebrating the British victory in theBoer war and the simultaneous coronation of Edward VII.  It was the last thing that Daniel Raymond had bought before he died, and he specifically bought it for the five year old child he incorrectly assumed to be his grandchild.  It had taken quite a long time for Alice Concrete to fill it with books, since she wasn't really "a book person."   And when Elizabeth Concrete first came to Carleton for graduate study the shelves which had once been stuffed with Christian comics and an unopened copy of The Screwtape Letters, were now filled with horror novels and cheap romances composed of equal parts sentimentality, cliche and sex.  But now the bookcase had a far more respectable line of books.  Trying to look around a rather sour Vanessa, Constantine could see that Elizabeth had the complete works of Margaret Atwood on her shelf.  There were important works on globalization, feminity, sexuality and spirituality.  There was a copy of the first volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality, which Elizabeth had never read, and some books by Camille Paglia, which she also had never read but had read enough of.  There were books in favor of technological progress, and Constantine recognized a couple about space age exploration that Lucian had been infatuated with.  Looking at this collection he thought to himself that behind the hardcover bindings and the temporarily hip bookcovers, authors like R. Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler, Abraham Maslow, and especially Marshall McCluhan were gestating, to burst forth like the undead zombies they were, only with excellent table manners and Conde Nast condoms.  At times Constantine had been in houses and thought to himself it was such a pity that the bookcases didn't have Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble so that he could be properly contemptuous.  Elizabeth had neither author either, but she did have a copy of Alice Walker that was once so popular but would be gone in three years; it would not last the night.   A similar fate was destined for a Margaret Laurence; faced like Yagoda and Yezhov for the memory hole.  There was a copy of Alexa Comfortable's The Joy of Witchcraft, and several bold new anthropological works which spent a lot of time showing how Christianity had ruined the status of women out of simple spite, as well as showing what chauvinist sots the Jewish patriarchs were.   Father Matthew Fox was present, as was a copy of "Bleak House," which Constantine found Vanessa had given to her.  There was the higher superficiaility of Dominic Crossan, of which Elizabeth had read just enough to confim her superiority to her mother, there were female several comic novels that would eventually be made into movies starring Renee Zellweger, there was an Olaf Stapleton whose origins were lost in the mists of time, and on the final shelf filled to the brim, there were the complete, unexpurgated diaries of Anais Ninny.  "It's depressing how little of this I've read."

       "Well don't feel too depressed.  She hasn't read most of it either."  And with one bold movement Vanessa swallowed the entire contents of her glass down in one gulp, a task made considerably easier as she had only filled the glass quarter-way in the first place.

       "Isn't it odd that with all these female writers there isn't anything by Virginia Woolf here?"

       "Oh, do you like Virginia Woolf?" asked Vanessa.

       "Not really.  I've only read To the Lighthouse and I found it hopelessly confusing."

       "Well, if you did like her, you could have read some of mine."

       Constantine looked at Vanessa.  "Yes, you're just the sort of girl who has A room of One's own by her vanity.  But no thank you.  I'll think I'll go get some food."  Constantine stood up and went over to the table; there he scrupulously avoided Lucian's pepper surprise and instead looked at a very strange box.  It was made of metal and when Constantine first looked at it he thought it was just a lunchbox or a simple container that you used to keep muffins that nobody wanted to eat.  But on closer inspection the tacky yellow framing was actually gold, real gilding, and there was a bewitching pattern of turrets on all the corners.  In the centre there was circles of green and blue and as Constantine studied them they seemed to shimmer and there was a strange smell of turquoise, of burning emeralds, and as he looked closer Constantine thought he was looking at rubies in a vast well of cyanide when his hands were abruptly slapped by Charles Harding.

       "Sorry, Constantine.  There's no food in there."

       "What is it?"

       "It's an heirloom from my father."

       "Then what's it doing here in your girlfriend's apartment?"

       "My father let me borrow it.  It originally came from Czarist Russia.   Don't you admire the craftsmanship?"

       "Well yes, but I don't see what you need this box here for."

       "I'm going to be giving Elizabeth something very special tonight, and this box happens to be carrying it.  It's a bit complicated Constantine, but I'll make things much shorter and simpler by saying that it's an old family tradition to use the box for special occasions."  By this time Vanessa had come to the table.  "Haven't I seen that box somewhere before?"  she asked.

       "Yes, you did." said Charles coldly.  "You saw it last Thursday, when you kicked me in the shins for no reason at all." That was enough to cool Vanessa's curiosity while Charles placed the box somewhere else.  Constantine looked around the room and moved over to where Adrian was talking to Elizabeth.  One of Elizabeth's girlfriends had just asked her whether she was the daughter of Alice Concrete, Reform party MP.  Adrian had always vaguely known that the answer was yes, but now that it had been brought into the open he asked the most obvious question.  "Doesn't your mother object to you having the son of an NDP MP for a boyfriend?"

       Elizabeth smiled sweetly:  "Not as half as much as she would if she knew Charles was fucking me three times a week." That shut Adrian up and he turned to the more pleasant task of gorging himself on crackers.  Constantine in the meantime decided that perhaps he should look around the apartment a little more.  He was just entering a rather dark room when Vanessa turned on the light.  "If you want to look around it would be easier if you could see."

       Constantine turned around and as he did so, a drop of something fell on his head.  "What on earth?"

       "Don't worry.  It's only fertilizer."

       "Why is fertilizer dripping from your roof?"

       "It isn't.  It just falls from the holes made in the floor by the people who live above me."

       "Why are they putting fertilizer in their floors?"

       "So they can grow Marigolds in their carpets."


       "Don't worry about it.  The woman who lives above me is completely crazy.  She lives with a Siamese maid and every now and then she raises a lot of noise.  She's actually well-behaved tonight.  The only thing she's done today was to throw an official from the Thai embassy down a flight of stairs for visiting the maid too often."

       "How very strange." and then Constantine looked to Vanessa's much smaller bookcase.  "Oh, I see you have The Essential Gesture.  And you have some of her short stories.  And you havesomething by Walter Kaufmann!  From Shakespeare to Existentialism; you don't expect to see a book like this in the library of a female college student."

       "Why do you say that?  Have you seen it substantially more often in the library of male college students?"

       "Well, no..."

       "Then don't make stupid assertions about what you don't know about."

       "All political correctness aside, why do you have it?"

       "My uncle gave it to me as a Purim gift.  He told me I wasn't mature enough for Adorno."

       "Oh, have you read any of it?"

       "What, me-the-stupid-female-college-student-with-out-a-thought-in-her-head?"

       "I'm sorry, it's just that a collection of essays on German intellectuals isn't normal light bedside reading.  What parts have you read?"

       "I've read the first essay.  And I've read the two essays that criticize Arnold Toynbee.  I've always wondered what was so special about him, and now I can say that there's nothing specialabout him at all."

       "It's useful to know these things, but Toynbee's been dead so long, nobody cares.  Killing old middlebrows is an unappreciated business.  You can use chainsaws, or multiple stilettos, or subtly understated ways involving strychnine, but nobody gives a damn. "

       "I also read the essay on the Hegel myth, so when Pr. Chelmnickon gets really annoying, I can tell him what a prat Sir Karl Popper was.  Poppercorn, as it were."

       "Yes, I noticed you shouting at him last Friday."

       "Yes, I noticed you turning white as a sheet when I did so."

       "I find it so difficult to confront him."

       "Why?  He's just a man.  Nothing more."

       "Considering what he's been through, I feel it would be out of place to make petty criticisms."

       "Well my parents have been through far worse."  She paused, considered her thoughts, and looked at her pillow blankly for a moment.  "I suppose it's nice to have a convenient genocide in the family to buck up your spine for cases like this.   If I drove a car, maybe I could use it to avoid traffic tickets.  Anyway it doesn't stop my brother from whining about my parents whenever we meet.  I don't have to worry about it."

       "Read any of the other essays?"

       "Not really. I've skinned through some, but I've never gotten around to looking at the one about Rilke."

       Constantine paused.  "Rilke runs through my head like a freight train.  He's always stuck in my Adam's apple.  I should really read some of his poems."  Constantine then looked closer into the bookcase, and smelled something odd.  He pulled out F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, smelling of bleach.

       "What's this book here for?"

       "Oh, my brother gave it to me.  He's an accountant. Personally I think Hayek's a crock of shit, but I don't dare throw it out.  I tried getting rid of a copy of Menachem Begin's memoirs--the bleach was fouling up the whole apartment --but when Peter came by a few days later and noticed it was gone, he wasted everyone's time pretending to have a heart attack.  Could you put it back before everyone else notices the smell."

       "Why does it smell of bleach?"

       "It's just my brother.  He's completely anal."

       At the same time just nearby Elizabeth was talking to one of her girlfriends about a certain bold, inspirational, original work of the new age about the eternal feminine.  "Too much in our dayand age is barrenly scientistic.  We have to understand the role of mystery and intuition in our lives.  The role of the feminine and the masculine transcends the petty positivist dogmas that rule our world.  I mean there are some things that science just can't explain.  Consider why the ratios between men and women are approximately equal.  Wouldn't it make much more evolutionary sense for there to be nine women to the man, thus increasing the total number of children by 80%?  There has to be some kind of deeper reason for this balance, for I can't see how Darwinism can explain this at all."

       Lucian just happened to catch the tailend of this conversation.  "Oh, actually the solution is very simple and quite elegant.  Supposing there were nine women to the man.  That means a man who would have nine times as many children as a woman.  Anyone who had a genetic factor favoring the production of male offspirng rather than female ones would be likely to have much more descendants.  As the descendants increased, the proportion of women would decline, until the factor spread through the entire population and the sexes were equal."

       Elizabeth nodded and said That's Quite Fascinating in her most charming and euphonious voice and You Sure Know a Lot about Biology while her charming smile and bewitching eyes clearly toldLucian to Get Lost.  And even Lucian could not resist Elizabeth's firmness on this position.

       "Do you like reading fiction?" asked Vanessa.

       "I wish I liked it more.  It's a lot more interesting than Mathematics.  I've spent eight years studying mathematics, and it's incredibly boring."

       "Why do you study it then?"

       "Partly out of frustration, really.  When me and Charles were children he was better than me at practically everything.  The only area where I was substantially superior was math, because Charles didn't care enough to make the effort.  And I found it so easy, and it took so little of my time, that Ithought studying it and getting a doctorate would ensure me of a reasonably high-paying position."

       "But you don't really like it."

       "Not at all.  What I wanted to do as a boy was to write stories, but I could never get around to putting them on paper.  I tried writing a few of them one summer a couple of years ago, but they all failed.  Everything was violent and cruel, with fashionable mutilations.  Or else I was trying to be like some incredibly great writer, like James for instance, and I would try to be very clever and subtle, but instead just turned out to be obscure and pompous.  And I could never get dialogue right, and my sentences would be awkward, and basically I just didn't have any experience on the subjects I wanted to write about."

       "What do you want to write about?"

       "Oh, the obvious things.  Fantasy, betrayal, death, totalitarianism, conspiracy.  Nothing real, of course.  I have a few friends, but people write about their circle of friends all the time.  And they never say anything interesting.  Who reads 'The Group' nowadays?  I don't."

       "Perhaps you lack seriousness.  One of things I believe is that to be a great writer you need some sort of intensity, some sort of definite direction on one emotion or another.  Do youunderstand what I'm saying?"

       "One one level, yes, it's excessively simple.  On a practical level, no, not exactly, no.  I need an example."

       "Well most fiction is just trash generated for profit.  People think up situations that aren't real to them, like stupid cowboys or murder mysteries, or exotic romances, or strange aliens, or horrible ghosts, and they manipulate them to appeal to the reader's most obvoius fantasies.  But the authors have no real interest in the characters or their plots.  That's the most obvious kind of shallowness.  But when you look at more serious writers, you sometimes see a sort of meretriciousness, a failure to look beyond the superficial and the incongruous.  Too often they only write puzzles and games for their own interest."

       Constantine pondered this for a minute.  "You're probably right.  I once tried writing a story about a grand civilization that lived in darkest Africa.  It was an incredibly advanced place; the first line of the story was 'One of the most annoying problems in the study of European history is the widespread and irrational prejudice that regards Dante as a great poet.'   The place was so advanced that while Germans were muddling with alchemy they had discovered a completely different periodictable, in three dimensions, with a nice hat on top of it."


       "Quite.  Now this great city was so advanced that its highest science was the study of immortality, and that's where the story really started to go wrong.  I mean if you write aboutimmortality, obviously you're not writing from personal experience and more likely than not you're just parodying the whole bloody idea.  So for about thirty pages groups of wackos went around barbarically torturing people to get information about immortality which was, of course, completely worthless, until the assorted factions destroyed the entire city.  Cheap and petty anti-clericalism."

       "Was there nothing good about the story?"

       "Oh, there were some interesting factions I thought up. There were the Tannhauserites, who locked people up in caves so that they could encounter Greek gods and goddesses, and actuallymanaged to talk 147 times with Mundania, the goddess of double-entry accounting.  And there were the Hannibalities, who believed that only Mastodons were immortal, so they tried usinggenetic engineering to turn people into elephants, and had some success in creating some short-lived rhinoceroses.  And there were the Deathists, who mostly used the power of death to killpeople, but some of them thought that the death-force might make a good pet, so I had scholars walking down streets with large black cold cubes of death on a leash, and saying 'I'm just taking my death out for a walk.'"

       Vanessa laid back on the bed, and Constantine was struck by the figure made by her long dark hair, her black dress, and the shadow she was in.  Vanessa wasn't half as struck at the wayConstantine looked in the light, as a drop of fertilizer hit her in the eye.   Another drop of fertilizer hither forehead and she spoke.  "I've actually thought up some stories myself.  I once created a story with all sort of heresies.  I can't remember the story itself, just the heresies.  There were Abellites, named after Abel, who said that all humanity was infected by the blood of Cain, the son of Eve andthe snake, as well as the blood of the demons of Lilith, so that in order to redeem themselves, they must have all their blood replaced with ice water.  There were bialists, a Zorasterian heresy, who claimed that God was both pure evil and pure good, and that all people would spend half their time in heaven and half of it in hell.  So for six months of the year couples would be rutting like sanctified pigs, and the other six months they would be tearing each other's eyes out.  And there was a heresy which believed that when you died, you went back to when you were born again, so that you lived your life over and over again unable to change it.  All very pleasantly morbid.

       "I also wrote some other stories.  When I was just a teenager I wrote a story about Uruguay."

       "Why Uruguay?"

       "Oh, because it had a horrible and brutal dictatorship at the time; it was once a Switzerland-like place but now it was being punished for having generous pensions and for not giving V.S. Naipaul the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Anyway, the story was all about a lost treasure on an island tower off the Angolan coast, revealed by a sort of angel called a Xavier.  When I first met Elizabeth, and laterCharles, I sort of revised it in an way that was unflattering to myself.  I had a sort of female librarian, who was sexually repressed, and who kept getting strange letters.  She came to this tower, and she has sex with this nice colleague of his, and then she is symbolically stabbed, while the colleague is actually stabbed.  Some other characters are brutally disposed of, and the Xavier explodes into flames and the woman is trapped on the island.  It never really worked, because I wasn't sure about the symbolism of the librarian's sexuality, so everything just went 'boom' at the end of the story."

       Constantine ruminated on all this.  "I have an idea for a story, but it's so difficult to get everything started.  It's sort of a children's story; it begins like this.

       "Once upon a time, there a little town far away from every city and state, where everything could have been kind, loving, and beautiful.  But that was not to be.  It had not existed forever, but for as long as the people could remember, there was a vast grove of thorns that surrounded the town.  The thorns were as sharp as razors, and their twistings and convolutions could somehow grasp and smother people who came too close.  Every day the grove grew larger across the countryside, rose higher into the air and bore deeper into the ground."

       Constantine stopped.  "Go on," said Vanessa.

       "I can't.  I haven't a clue on what should follow this."

       Vanessa sat up and considered the matter for a second.  "As the grove grew larger and more threatening, some of the villagers would form groups and go out to destroy the thorns.  They wouldgo out with axes and swords and caustics and fires to smash the thorns root and branch.  And they would spend days, weeks, months without resting, without sleeping, not even daring to eat, because the grove could grow from any sort of nourishment.  For the slightest nourishment made the thorns stronger than before, though by far the most effective nourishment was the humanblood that dropped on the ground as the townspeople cut themselves.  And finally whole swatches would be cut, would be burned away, would be destroyed with acid, and for a few weeksthe grove would die down and sort of wither into dust.  But only to return, as the thorns grew from special dark damp places within the earth, as nastier, more subtle, and more dangerous weeds grew, while even the destroyed and cut away ruins seemed to regain their vitality and grow back into the earth."

       She paused.  "Your turn."

       Constantine took a deep breath and started to pace.  "The villagers did not stop their efforts to destroy the grove of thorns.  Instead they would use all the fruits and plants in the countryside to make more potent and deadly weedkillers.  They used the berries of mistletoe and the leaves of nightshade to make pies out of deadly toadstools, and they mixed it with lime and potash to make a poison that would destroy the grove of thorns.  They worked long and they worked hard, and they made so many experiments that a noxious smell started to descend over all the village, causing little children to cry, making expectant mothers cough and spit, and ensuring that everyone's skin woulditch and bleed.  And after many futile experiments and after many good people had been fatally poisoned with the new noxious chemical, the townspeople were ready to use it to attack the grove of thorns.  One fine sunny day the men rolled barrels and vats of the noxious substance to the grove and with confidence and vigor they splashed the fatal substance all over the ground.  When the poison sank into the roots the grove seemed to stiffen; it was almost as if the thorns were screaming, and they rose almost six or seven feet into the air.  Then the whole structure seemed to falter, to collapse into the ground, and all the thorns decayed into dust, and then there was only the odor of stinking potash.  And so the men returned back to their sick and unhealthy homes, thinking that at last they had destroyed the grove of thorns.  And for one year, perhaps two, perhaps even four or five, the grove was not to be seen.  But it soon became clear that this was not because the thorns had been destroyed, but because the new more subtle and dangerous thorns that had grown in their place did not care to be seen but instead preferred that their slithering and sinuous movements should mesmerize the lazy guardians of the grove into gorging themselves on their razor-sharp points."

       "Well, that's a good start."

       "Not really.  All I've done is expand the story for another page and a half.  But it isn't moving anywhere."

       "Well, I'm sure you'll think of something."

       Constantine however could only look inadequately into Vanessa's eyes and say "Couldn't you think of something else?"  But before Vanessa could give her answer (which was "No, why should I?") Elizabeth Concrete popped into the room, and asked the two to come play some games with the rest of the group.

       For the past half an hour there had been some unfunny attempts at charades, some limpid suggestions to play spin the bottle, and even a feeble insinuation that everyone should play strip poker, before Elizabeth successfully prompted one of her friends to suggest that everyone tell one of their sexual fantasies.  On learning this Giles Seinkewicz got up to leave and Vanessa moved to get his coat.  "By the way, Giles, where is your wife tonight?  Peter would actually like to know."

       Giles laughed.  He actually laughed rather rudely, which was not normal for him.  "I haven't seen my wife since at least two months before I married her.  I would desperately like to knowwhere she is, but the only person who could possibly tell me refuses to give me the slightest help.  I find this considerably frustrating, and to spend another thirty minutes listening to a bunch of spoiled students pant and whine would only make everything worse."

       And so he left.  Vanessa returned to the party, and happened to sit by Constantine.  He had noticed that the main top of the pepper surprise had been removed, so he was now sitting as far away from it as possible.  Lucian was smiling nearby with a Cheshire cat grin, as she flipped through one of Anais Ninny's diaries.

       The girl who had suggested the idea went first.  Her fantasy was a piece of preposterous nonsense about being either on a hot boiling desert or on some south sea island beach (she wasn'tterribly clear) and being in the arms of some enormously strong and well muscled man.  She talked about cunnilingus for what appeared to be about an hour but was only three minutes in embarrassingly arch and childish language that bolstered her self-esteem before closing with a few platitudes about orgasm and spirituality.

       The next person to speak was Adrian, who with complete honesty said he would most like to have sex with the previous speaker.  He was just saying that thought hot mustard might go well  when the young woman swatted him very hard with her purse.  Vice-Inspector Sheryl Monagham, who spent much of her day adding subjects and verbs to Inspector Joseph Tyrone's laconic reports, was next and revealed that her ideal sexual fantasy was to rest nude in a hot tub in the arms of a man who might not be Irish-Canadian, who might not be Catholic, but who definitely did not share the same weight, height, build, eye colour, hair colour of Inspector Tyrone, who had a great sense of humor, who was not religious, who looked very much like the handsome young man who brought doughnuts to the police station, who never met unnerving Greek-Canadian lawyers about dead French senators and anonymous letters, who could not tell Finnegan's Wake from Finian's Rainbow and had never heard of either, who could not tell the difference between yeast and Yeats, whose idea of light conversation was not to discuss the rave reviews in the latest Times Literary Supplement given to the latest book of Professor Vivian Chelmnickon, who used you in every sentence, and who would spend six hours nude in a hot tub saying sweet nothings and sweet obscenities into her ear.  She also liked oral sex.  She believed herself to be a connoisseur of it, like she was of doughnuts.

       The next two fantasies were by a nice young couple; the girlfriend gave a picture that involved a surfeit of arch euphemisms and a climax involving one of her boyfriend's greatest phobias.  The boyfriend followed this with a patently unconvincing attempt to claim that his greatest sexual fantasywas to complement his lover's in each and every way.  He was considerably relieved to finish and flashed a vindictive grin at Constantine to provide his fantasy.

       Constantine stirred uncomfortably in his seat.  He looked to Lucian sitting beside Aquilla Rogers, and saw that she kept checking her watch and her jar of pepper.  He took a breath and stated one word.  "Monogamy."

       "Monogamy?" asked Charles jocularly.

       Titters began to foam across the room, and Constantine realized he needed something more.  So he added the name of a not unintelligent female movie star, an exotic location, and a bottle of the finest French champagne.   He did not convince Charles--he knew perfectly well that Constantine couldn't stand French wines--but it was enough for the question to be passed on to Vanessa.

       "In my fantasy there's this enormous library, filled with all the books that have ever been written and ever will be written.  It's a vast labyrinth in German Baroque and French Gothic windows and all the books have intricate Morris-Ruskin leaden craftwork on the bindings.  Here there are four thousand, three hundred and twenty nine books telling me everything that I ever wanted to know about Goethe.  So I get a cart and I go around and around and around in an endless journey to get all four thousand, three hundred and twenty-nine books and I place all the books with their Morris-Ruskin leaden craftwork on my table.  I look outside and its snowing outside and all the buildings in this enormous city share the same sort of German Baroque style."

       "It's sort of like of Prague, then?" asked Constantine.

       "Yes, come to think of it, it would be like Prague" and she remembered the stories her father told her about the only undestroyed city in Central Europe ruled by a coalition of disingenuous communists and nervous liberals, who, by one of history's less fashionable ironies, called themselves the Czech National Socialists.  And she briefly remembered the story her father told her about Cracow, the city of despair, cathedrals, and the saviors of Europe, and about what it was like to be a Jew there on Good Friday 1944, where he had to pretend that he wasn't starving to death, and hoping no-one would smell him out, and just as a troop of soldiers were turning round the corner he saw near a convent what looked like a tropical..., but then one of the girls asked

       "What happens next?"

       "I take the books and I start reading them."

       "And then?"

       "And then after I've finished reading all four thousand, three hundred and twenty-nine books I know everything there is about Goethe."

       "What kind of sexual fantasy is that?"

       "It's called sublimation.  You should try it sometime."

       Vanessa then said her fantasy wasn't over; after you were finished with Goethe you had to start work on Kant, and then on Milton, and then on Descartes, but Charles tactfully cut her off.  It should have been Elizabeth's turn to tell her deepest desires, but Vanessa noted rather bitterly that she had subtly excused herself a couple of fantasies ago and hadn't returned yet.  So it was now Charles's turn to talk.  The boyfriend with the phobia grinned to see if Charles could successfully flatter his girlfriend.

       Charles smiled broadly and his eyes shone with pure confidence as he put away the book by Chomsky he was reading and began.  "Imagine a picture in a frame.  There's a beautiful bluesky covering the top half of the painting, and in the bottom half there's a field.  It's full of grasses, but try to imagine a number of objects that are scattered across the field.  A long bright red ribbon on the top of the grasses.  A toy trumpet left behind by a forgetful child.  A quilt that could be used for a picnic.  Grasses that had been plucked in order to make little whistles.  A bicyclist innocuously cycling down a side road into a shade of trees.  A small second rate book of surprisinglytouching and sincere poems.  Imagine yourself in this field that reaches out forever, and is covered in the sea of blue.  It's secure, it's far away, it's so far away from the real sea, the sea that's cold, where sailors' boats sink and innocent children drown, where only bad-tasting fish live, where the wind blows over the carnage of sharks and salt, and blows ships over the curvature of the earth, bringing men with smallpox into a cold ignorant blood purged land, where saints the color of blood speak to priests wearing the color of Satan.  It's not like the sea where cold latin cathecisms poison the living and torture the dead, where pregnant girls stab themselves to death in the night in the dead of winter, where everything is so cold and futile, where prattling accountants mutter cold parodies of deadly democracy, where crosses are shafted like daggers on public buildings.  It's not like the field, the field is so different, the wind that blows here only blows here, it blowsnowhere else, it doesn't touch anyone else, it doesn't touch anything dark or nasty, it only touches you, as it lightly messes up your hair, and gently cools your warm skin as you look upwards to the hot azure above you.  And there's a scent of heatherdown in the air, and you can feel the words your lover, and they are so tangible and you understand and everything is so clear and yet so sleepy and so warm and there's the scent of a natural and sweet perfume, not like a perfume bitter and pungent and flashily produced, and you can hear the birds and you can see them, but you never have to get too close to them, you need only see the colours as they fly and pirouette in the sky.  And you remember what your lover removed from your skin and you vaguely recall that the long red ribbon lies a few feet away and that there's no need for you to pick it up or disturb its pattern, and you remember the picnics that you were on here before, and you recall the sweet poems that you were just reading a few minutes earlier, and how sweet they seem to you, and everything is so natural, so innocent.  And as you are lying in the grass, there are no burrs, no weeds, no thorns, no dust, no dirt, there's just the smoothness and the untasted sweetness as you lie in the warmth,and as you are being held, it is in the field that..."

       Aquilla Rogers fainted, and thus broke the spell that Charles had woven on all the guests, that had even charmed Lucian and Vanessa.  Lucian looked over Aquilla and found that she was almost freezing.  "Good God, woman, you've got some sort of chill.  You should go and rest."  So they managed to get the almost comatose Aquilla to stand up, got her things together, and quickly bundled her into her room across the hall and into bed.

       Now that Aquilla was gone it was Lucian's turn.  She watched Elizabeth, who had now returned, and was now caressing Charles.  Lucian checked her watch, and smiled a large and cunning grin.

       "So, Lucian.  What turns you on?" asked one of the girls.














       At which point absolutely nothing happened.  The others stared at her for a few seconds, except for Constantine, and there were signs that Lucian was a little nervous, as her grinwas now larger and more confident than ever before.  Then one of the hapless girls spoke up and asked "What happens next, Lucian?"

       "Climax!"  And just at that instant a jack in the box jumped seven feet in the air, scattering the Pepper surprise over the whole room and causing everyone to sneeze, except Lucian, who hadan antidote, and Constantine, who had been far enough away. Lucian broke into moderately hysterical laughter as the others sneezed helplessly and by the time she recovered herself the party was essentially over.

       She and Adrian got up to leave, and were followed by the young couple.  It was now apparent that Vice-Inspector Sheryl Monagham had gotten quite drunk, as had another young girl, so a cab had to be called for them.  Vanessa and Elizabeth directed the two of them outside, Charles followed, and so did Constantine, who thought he would take the opportunity to leave, but soon had second thoughts.  The girls were properly placed into the taxi, and Vanessa gave competent directions for the driver.  The cab went away as Monagham started to sing a song about a lover who would chatter aimlessly into her ear.

       The remaining quartet returned to the apartment.  Elizabeth had already made plans beforehand to spend the night at Charles' place, but the two of them had to go backto her room first to get some things.  Vanessa followed them, and Constantine, feeling generally out of place, kept a confused silence.  Elizabeth had not bothered to bring her mittens and wasblowing on her hands.  She gave Charles the key to open the apartment, but as he was doing so two mysterious figures who had been lurking in the shadows suddenly made their appearance.

       "Don't anyone move!  We've got twenty-six volumes of the complete works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and they're loaded!"

Next: Book 2: The Secrets of the Flannery O'Connor Brigade: The Drowned Librarian

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