[1] The Cheerleader

The cheerleader had a God-given talent for cheerleading. On days when the wind cracked stones she smothered herself in Vaseline and cheered on the cold. Boy could that girl cheer. She cheered in nursing homes and funeral parlours and empty football stadiums, sucking up negative ions like sweets and handing out smiles like candy. Every morning she ate cheer for breakfast. When bits of her began breaking she worried that people would notice but they never did. What matter a stump for a leg or a wire hanger where an arm should be? Red skirt + white socks + pom-poms = cheerleader.

[2] The Show Trial

I went to see the show trial because someone said it would be fun. They said it would be fun because no one ever knew what the show trial was showing and only rarely could you figure out who was guilty and who was innocent. It was against my sense of identity to attend such an entertainment but I went anyway. At the booth I haggled with the girl until she gave me a discount on a return ticket to the end of the night. The girl came out of the booth carrying a small flash lamp and led me to an opening in a large blue tent. She wore knee high white boots that made a sound like a kiss when she walked and I was glad I had come. Inside the tent words from the microphone threw shadows on the red walls and I had to stoop to find a seat. A woman was on trial. She was extremely fat and people around me laughed inconsolably. In the tradition of the court procedures the woman wore only her underwear. She was delighted with the attention. People spoke to her and called her by her name and touched her to show that they were not afraid of her. Their words echoed through the microphone and lengthened darkly on the red walls. The woman was found guilty on two counts of poverty—real and imagined—and taken reluctantly from the dock. There were many other show trials that night but you know how it is, a man only remembers his first.

[3] Orwell’s Nose

George Orwell had a very large nose. It jutted out from between his eyes like a gigantic keel, making his eyes appear small. When he changed his name from Eric Blair, Orwell secretly hoped that his nose might change too but, if anything, it grew larger. At the outbreak of World War Two, Orwell was declared unfit for military service on account of his nose. So humungous was it that it had developed the ability to smell normally odourless gases. As you might expect, Orwell felt it his duty to report his findings, both to those in positions of power as well as to ordinary people in the street. This was a mistake. There are some gases that nobody wants to know about, especially in times of war. Orwell continued smelling anyway. With a nose like that he had no choice. Of course, you won’t see an incredibly large nose in any photographs of George Orwell. They were airbrushed out years ago. We need to be able to love our heroes.

[4] A Love Story

There once was a woman who loved her husband’s cock so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox. It was early in the marriage and the husband had not yet decided what his wife could have and what she could not—they were still in love—and so he went along with her little peccadillo. In the mornings, after the man had showered, the wife would take the cock and wrap it in cling film and put it in her lunchbox alongside her bratwurst sandwich, portion of fruit, and chocolate biscuit—everyone needs a treat! In the evenings when she returned from work the wife would matter-of-factly return the cock to her husband before preparing their evening meal—venison stew or beef casserole or sometimes the husband’s favourite, the French dish called chicken-in-wine. It was no doubt an unusual arrangement but right up until the husband filed for divorce it seemed to suit both parties. Of course, the divorce lawyers went to town about a cock in a lunchbox and there was some unsavoury press coverage. When it was all over the wife got a new job in a new town and took up pottery. She became very good at it and exhibitions of her work were held biannually. The husband married the woman he had fallen in love with. She was young and modern and had no need of his or anyone else’s cock, thank you very much. The funny thing was that years later, when the husband occasionally put his hand to his crotch and found his cock firmly in place, he experienced an intense but short-lived nostalgia for the good old days.

[5] History Project: Topic—The Great Crisis

The first case was that of a young boy in Venezuela. Santiago Enrique Pedroza, then aged fourteen, was out gathering firewood with his sister and a friend when he disappeared. As his sister later recounted, Santiago walked ahead of her and the friend and had just crossed a little stream beside a wild rose bush when he appeared to lose his balance and ‘fall’ off the surface of the earth. The story soon faded from the press. People said the children were on drugs and anyway, quite a lot of people disappear in Venezuela. The second case was not so easy to dismiss. Inga Steinhaus was a woman in her fifties who lived in the suburbs of Frankfurt with her husband and three sons. She was walking home from the bakery one day along a busy street when, according to witnesses, she appeared to stumble and ‘fall’ off the earth. Her screams could be heard for a full minute. One witness managed to take a photograph before Frau Steinhaus disappeared from view. The image shows a middle-aged woman ‘falling’ upwards into the sky, her mouth agape, her trench coat flapping around her. The loaf of bread and bag of pastries that she had bought in the bakery were found at the scene. They had dropped from her basket as she ‘fell’, as did her keys which, it was deduced, slipped from her pocket. The media reported the Frau Steinhaus story and within twenty-four hours the photograph of her ‘falling’ became the most viewed photograph in history. There were many conspiracy theories—that Frau Steinhaus was a computerised blow up doll, that NASA had developed a VACWEP [vacuum weapon] that malfunctioned, that aliens had become more brazen in their abductions—but the grief of the family seemed real. And that was that for over a year. I wouldn’t say Frau Steinhaus was forgotten—a band called themselves after her and she had an entry on Wikipedia—but the story faded. The third case was that of Nancy Millar from New York State who was out bicycling with her boyfriend one Sunday afternoon. The boyfriend heard the crash of a bicycle behind him and turned around to find Nancy had disappeared. Looking upwards he glimpsed something red in the blue sky and later confirmed that Nancy had been wearing red shorts. The media covered the story in great detail and a cross nation expert scientific committee called CNESC was set up to investigate the three incidents. No sooner had they met but all hell broke loose. People began ‘falling’ off the earth in droves. In the following days, ‘incidents’—as they were called—were reported in Scotland, Alaska, Nebraska, The Netherlands, Fiji and Paris. ‘Incidents’ were reported during the night as well as during the day. As its homepage, Google created an interactive map of the world with red dots where ‘incidents’ occurred. Soon there were red dots everywhere and Google was ordered to take down the map. It put up a picture of white flowers instead. For a while people stopped going out unless they were poor and had to, or they went out in armoured cars. Companies who got in early on ‘incident-proof-products’ made a fortune. Lead boots were particularly popular. CNESC worked around the clock to find an explanation for the ‘incidents’ but could not find one. Religious mania increased, as did nihilism. And then the ‘incidents’ stopped. Days passed, and then months, and then a year, with no reports of anyone ‘falling’ off the surface of the earth. Gradually things got back to normal. During the Great Crisis—as it came to be called—the death count from starvation, illness, violence and suicide far exceeded the total number of ‘incidents’ but no one talked about that. In fact, soon no one talked much about the ‘incidents’. That is all.

[6] Another Love Story

This story happened twenty years ago when the world was very different from today. For one thing, morals were looser and people engaged in acts of depravity without so much as a by-your-leave. And for another thing, everyone was ignorant and believed in strange happenings beyond the here and now. I tell you this so that you will have some sympathy for the main character of this story—a farmer —and not judge him according to the good and high sensibilities of our time, but cut him some slack on account of the backward age he was born into. The farmer was a young man—he was in his prime—but, on account of the depopulation of the countryside, he had no wife. So, after a long hot summer of ploughing furrows and stemming dykes and planting rods, he came up to the city with a handful of cash and a hard cock. The farmer, as I am sure you can understand, was looking for some action and, after conferring with the hotel concierge, a small man with a large moustache and a knowledge of the ways of the world, the farmer—showered, shaved and togged out in a new shirt—headed off in the direction of the cabaret. There he found, as you can imagine, an establishment exactly congruous to his needs. With its velvet curtains and dark furniture, the cabaret was perfectly aligned with Eros and straightaway the farmer found himself in a red booth choosing hungrily from a menu that came with a free cocktail. Handing over his handful of cash to a smiling madame, he went straight for the complete works—Full Body incl. Head—and had, as soon as his order arrived, as again I’m sure you can imagine, the meal of his life. And yet, when the farmer returned to the countryside, a slow dissatisfaction grew in him. And grew and grew. He lost the ability to conjure the memory of pleasure and could taste only his own hunger. Through a long winter of foul weather the farmer came to believe he had been a fool to eat so greedily and then be left to fast all year. He determined to return to the cabaret, but this time to nibble, to graze, to put a morsel in his mouth and savour its taste, to remove one note at a time from his handful of cash, and thence to visit the cabaret every season so that he might keep the sensation of fullness all year around. And so, when the farmer next went to the city—showered and shaved and togged out in a nearly new shirt—he exchanged words with the hotel concierge (this time as a man about town and not a bumpkin), went to the cabaret, sipped his cocktail, perused the menu and eventually, after the madame had cleared his glass and wiped his table and coughed loudly twice, he ran his finger down the list—past Full Body incl. Head and Head/Neck/Shoulders and Full back and Bikini and Hand—and finally ordered Full Leg. The madame was furious and tugged the menu from the farmer’s hand, but the farmer did not care. He waited patiently and before long the leg arrived. Soft rounded thigh, strong kneecap, plump calf running to a thick ankle and broad foot. The farmer was ecstatic and, just as he had planned, he proceeded to commit each tendon and muscle, each arching of instep and pointing of toes, each callous and hair, deep into memory, and so returned to the countryside a different man. All who knew him said so—the postman, old Josie, his aunt on his mother’s side. They spoke of a new maturity, solemn in its way, dignified. They all said that if any woman ever came to live in the countryside, he would certainly win her. And that was that. For years the farmer, at regular intervals, went to the city, stayed in the hotel, chatted to the concierge, visited the cabaret, ordered the leg (always the same one, mind), pleasured himself (and the leg, or so it seemed from the curling of the toes) and grew to exist in a rose-coloured haze, a plateau outside of reality, the realm of those who discover that most elusive of cycles— anticipation, climax, dream. Marked are such people by beauty, even in old age. The only giveaway is the shyness of their smiles in abstracted moments. And so it was with the farmer. Besotted, he took to buying the leg small, but expensive gifts from time to time—a silk garter, a silver anklet, a nail lacquer made from gold—all beautifully wrapped in tissue paper and ribbon. And, though never sought or expected, they were appreciated by the leg. Until one day the leg was gone. Have another, the madame said. But the man could not. Where was the leg, he cried. How could this happen?

I’ll save you the rest… all love stories end the same way. The farmer returned to the countryside. He ploughed, he stemmed, he planted. He was the same, but he was bereft. He hardened his heart against love and lived happily ever after. A woman moved to the countryside. She was a great catch—a big car and not at all bad looking—and the farmer wooed her and caught her and married her. When interviewed for this story, he said he never thought of the leg anymore, and his wife said she believed him because there were no secrets between them, although she seemed a bit surprised when I mentioned the gifts her husband had given the leg.

[7] The Enormous Baby

Mr and Mrs Klotz were delighted at the birth of their son, Nicholas. After three daughters—all lovely—a son was an unspeakable triumph. They put a notice in the best newspaper and looked forward to having no more children:

Klotz, Louis and Gretta (née Rattray) are delighted to announce the birth of Nicholas Tiberius on March 1 in the NMH, a brother for Honor, Emilia and Rosamund.

The notice in the newspaper would become the first of many primary source documents later poured over by historians, cultural anthropologists and even novelists.

Nicholas was a good baby. He sucked heartily at breast, emptied his bowels regularly and slept easily. For a brief period of time (about a week) the future danced before the Klotzes in all its golden glory.

The first report of Nicholas’s extraordinary growth rate appeared in the best newspaper in early April. People thought it was a seasonal joke:

Baby Breaks Record
Nicholas Tiberius Klotz, the only son of Louis and Greta Klotz, has broken the current world record for weight at one month old. The baby’s weight was officially recorded as 20kg and will be entered in the next edition of The Guinness Book of Records.

After three months Nicholas was the size of a chair, at five months he was the size of a writing desk, and by seven months he was the size of a bed. The headlines in the worst newspapers were not pleasant:

Mama Mia, what you Feeding the Fella?

Watch Out—Babyzilla About!

Kolossal Klotz Kid

Mr and Mrs Klotz became unclear as to quite how delighted they were with their son Nicholas. After all, they were not the kind of people that peculiar things happened to. All the money they had saved for the girls’ education, they spent on buying and converting an old sports hall into a new home. Friends and family chipped in to purchase a decommissioned lorry so that the family could take outings. Soon the government came on board, providing furniture for Nicholas made from zinc—functional but also light enough to move—as well as the use of the municipal swimming pool for bathing. The local Women’s League ditched their Quilts for Africa project, instead making clothes for Nicholas from towels and blankets. The local supermarket came up with a scheme they called Nosh for Nicholas. For every €20 spent in store 1 cent was donated to Mr and Mrs Klotz towards food for their growing son. Many photos were taken of the Klotz family at this time. They depict an enormous happy baby with his parents crouched in front of him and his three sisters barely visible in the background.

Gradually life in the Klotz family got back to normal. Nicholas reached his full size at thirteen months and Louis and Gretta began to realise how lucky they were to have such a special son. Nicholas grew up to be a charming young man. He followed his father into the family business and, aside from the occasional appearances on TV shows and the deluge of books written about him, he went to lead a perfectly normal life. As for the girls, they spent their lives trying to get out from under some huge shadow. The shadow of what exactly they could never say.

[8] The Cloud

One day a cloud fell on the city. People had been speculating that something like this might happen but no one really believed it would. Initially there was panic. Lines of cars left the city in a slow colourful snake. Some people stayed, stocking up on canned food and water, waiting for the cloud to shift or break up. But a month later it was still there.

Some days the cloud was thin and fairly transparent and people went about their business as usual. Other days it was fat and fuliginous, as though it had swallowed foul air, and everyone had to stay indoors. People organised a march and walked through the streets chanting, ‘Keep our cloud clean’. The government passed laws. No heavy industry within city limits. Everyone was happy, except the industrialists, who packed their bags and moved to another city. A year passed. The cloud became white and gauzy. People got used to it. They grew to like the misty view of the city, as though looking at the world through a muslin curtain. Those that had left the city came back and soon, apart from the closing of the airport and the reduced speed limits on the roads, everything returned to normal. Except it was a better normal. The cloud obscured the drabness of the city. All the ugly buildings and dark alleys were hidden in a veil. Children born at this time did not know that the world had ever looked different.

Every day the cloud changed in substance, shape and form. The changes were subtle, but people began to notice them more and more. Though it appeared to be a web of snow, the cloud was actually made of tiny droplets of ice crystals, so tiny that they floated in air. They could be clearly seen at sunset when, just for a moment, wavelengths of light scattered into a million colourful pieces before combining again to produce white.

Cautiously at first, and then with more confidence, people began making comments about the cloud. They said the same things, but in different ways. One man said that the cloud was a cotton honeycomb. Others said that the cloud resembled a leaf, or a spoked wheel, or the turrets of a castle if viewed from the side. A woman said that on cold days when the cloud wrapped around people on the street it gave the impression of halos. It was pointed out to the woman that this effect was caused by the refraction of the sun’s rays on the surface of the cloud, but still, it awoke a vague memory of celestial times. A boy said that on hot days the ice crystals twisted themselves into shapes that made a fishbone pattern on the underbelly of the cloud.

Life in the city went on. People went to work and came home from work and fell in love and fell out of love and won things and lost things. But life had a new meaning. Even on dull days there was something to talk about. Private observations could be shared. People allowed it. And they took pleasure in expressing themselves carefully, searching for words, and leaving quiet space around words, so that words could be heard. Some days the cloud was a chandelier, other days it was a sea of silver dew, or a net in which the dimly visible disk of the moon was caught (nicely put, that).

Years passed, and then one day the city woke up and the cloud was gone. People had been speculating that something like this might happen but no one really believed it would. It turned out that each tiny ice crystal was in fact a piece of dust, around which water vapour had frozen, so that when the air warmed, all the tiny ice crystals simply disappeared, leaving behind all the pieces of dust. Initially there was panic. Lines of cars left the city in a slow colourful snake. Some people stayed, stocking up on canned food and water, waiting for the dust to shift or break up, but a month later the dust was still there. Children were amazed that the world could look so ugly. Everyone else adjusted. Heavy industry returned. The government created a Cloud Street from dry ice as a memorial to the cloud, but it wasn’t very good. The view was more foggy than misty. Some people searched for that brief shimmer of rainbow light in the evenings while others thought about moving to another city, maybe in the mountains or along the coast. In the end most people stopped talking about the cloud and got back to talking about the weather (winter came with a vengeance, as they say).

[9] The Moon Shiner

This is the story of a man who was the first person to shine the moon [and the last]. It all happened a long time ago before life was in colour. [In homage to the man and the time I am going to tell this story in black and white.] It started on a salty cold day in March. It was salty because the man lived beside the sea and when the wind blew—as it did in March—it drew the salt off the sea and carried it inland for at least a mile. There were never any cases of hyponatremia among people who lived along the coastline. I digress. That day—that salty day in March—the man was mopping the floor in the juvenile delinquent detention centre as was his wont [but not his want, he wanted to be a museum attendant] when he saw the reflection of the moon in a bucket of water. The water—in the man’s own words— was thin like cold coffee, but the moon—again in the man’s own words—was caught in it. Looking into the bucket the man had the distinct impression that the moon was a little dull, that it had lost its lustre, that it was not at all as bright as it had been when he was a boy. Holding his mop in his hand he looked up at the sky and it was then that he got the idea. The man—I probably should have mentioned this earlier—was very resourceful [when his wife died leaving a new-born baby he got a new wife straight away]. And so he set about collecting all the old broom handles he could find so that his mop could reach the moon. It only took him four years and seven months. He attached the broom handles together with bolts and laid them across the sea in sections so as not to bother his neighbours. The salt of the sea made the wood of the broom handles as light as air and so the man was able, with the help of his new wife and his neighbours, to connect all the sections of broom handles together and make an extremely long mop to shine the surface of the moon. At first the effect was subtle—the moon was a little brighter—but soon, with nightly shining and improved technique, the effect was noticeable— the moon shone as bright as bone. Across the globe people were thrilled. Lovers danced all night in great stripes of moonlight. Children skipped in the yards of empty schools. Old folks walked down alleyways at midnight just for the hell of it. The man became a cause célèbre and a sepia photograph of him holding the mop handle became instantly iconic. The delight lasted a whole month before the complaints began. At first just the odd cranky letter in a newspaper but soon there were BRING BACK THE DARK protests and strikes by night-shift workers. There was even an attempt by an extremist group to make a brush handle long enough to paint the moon black. In one afternoon, the President went from being an exponent of shining the moon to being a detractor of shining the moon. There were two separate press conferences. In the first press conference he said: The light of the moon will burn away darkness and fear for all people in all time. [It was quite rousing.] In the second press conference he said: All people in all time need darkness since only in fear can people feel safe. [It was very rousing.] When a reporter [a rookie reporter] accused the President of contradicting himself, he replied: I believe in the set and not the sub-set. The set is the moon. Shining is the sub-set. To focus attention on a sub-set instead of a set is to have a narrow view. I do not have a narrow view. [This was extremely rousing and many people began to wear T-shirts with amusing slogans on them relating to sets and sub-sets.] Then everyone forgot about the moon and life returned to normal. The man chopped up the broom sticks for firewood and was never cold again. He resumed his job in the juvenile delinquent detention centre and when asked by a bright sixteen-year-old convict [a bit too bright in my opinion] if the experience had changed him, the man said no, except that when he was mopping the halls he avoided looking into the bucket of water. According to the young convict the man also said: Confronted with the blackness of the universe man feels that which he cannot know as a dark emptiness in his soul. The white strings of the mop, pushing up into the firmament, were, for a brief time, an embodiment of that deepest of human desires, to reach the impossible—but I don’t believe this.

The End