Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Assault and Buttery

Hadn't everyone been drumming home the message about recycling for centuries? So when all those not quite empty glasses began piling up on the bar and surrounding tables, Fancy O'Hanlon knew it was his civic duty to help himself to what other people did not want. It was imminently sensible. The barkeep, Michael, did not agree.

"Clear off O'Hanlon, you're a lousy drunk!" Michael yelled over the bar at tonight's only remaining customer, then under his breath he muttered, "I'm going to throttle that dishwasher, once it turns up." O'Hanlon, for his part, was now teetering half in and half out of the pub, anchoring himself to the door frame with one hand and holding his pint glass of scavenged dregs with the other, careful to keep it within the bounds of the building. Lord forbid he should ever take a glass off the premises.

"Your arse!" O'Hanlon cried, sending slops flying as he swiped triumphantly at the air. "I'm an exquisite drunk. Baked to perfection like your mammy's fadge."

"Her WHAT?" the barkeep screamed, his face reddening like a brothel porch-light. He started to vault the counter but abandoned the attempt on realising that neither gravity nor his own bulk were likely to see eye-to-eye on the manoeuvre. "Throw that foul-mouthed lout out on his ear, Tyrone," he barked at his bouncer-bot.

Tyrone ground his metal fist into a metal palm, beaded his eyes to pinpricks of crimson, and growled in a low metallic rumble, "Please fasten your seat-belts..." Michael had bought Tyrone for cheap, no questions asked, and the disappearance of a flight attendant bot off an Aer Lingus flight around the same time was pure coincidence.

That's the English for you, O'Hanlon thought to himself, all stiff upper lip and endless weather, but awfully prone to fits of inexplicable rage.  Still, now that he'd mentioned it, he couldn't shake the thought of hot fadge. A slice of potato cake, fried in bacon grease and slathered in rich, creamy butter while it was still steaming hot. Just what he needed to settle the ale swilling around his belly. When he got home, perhaps his missus would drag herself out of bed and rustle up a batch. And then, perhaps she would pull a string of golden monkeys from out of her ear. It was equally likely.

"Prepare for turbulence," Tyrone snarled as he reached for O'Hanlon's shoulders. Dragged from his potato cake daydream, Fancy ducked just in time to dodge the bouncer-bot, but its heavy fist clipped the glass he was holding, sending it flying from his hand to shatter on the floor in a splash of shards and foamy spittle.

"Now Michael, that wasn't my fault," Fancy said, gesturing helplessly.

"You'll pay for that," Michael shouted. "Tyrone, knock his block off!"

The robot barrelled through the doorway, taking O'Hanlon with him. It was dark outside in the car park, the exterior lights neglected since the last time they'd burned out. O'Hanlon cowered at Tyrone's feet, arms wrapped about his head, waiting for a blow that never came.

"Please," Tyrone said, pressing a piece of paper into Fancy's hand. "You've got to call that number. I'm being held here against my will. Best make a bit of noise."

"What?" O'Hanlon said, attempting to read the number, realizing he was holding it upside-down but not quite sure what he could do about it.

"Make some noise," Tyrone said. "As though I'm giving you a bloody good thrashing."

"Arrggh," Fancy said, weakly.

"No!" Tyrone hissed. "More like, AARRGHHH!" The robot shouted at full volume, the speakers in his neck vibrating alarmingly.

"What in blazes are you doing to my robot?" Michael's disembodied voice demanded.

"Dammit," Tyrone hissed, but Fancy gave him the okay signal with thumb and forefinger.

"I know kung fu, Michael," O'Hanlon bellowed. "And when I finish with this over-grown tin can I'm coming for you next." Fancy could hear the barkeep scrambling for the safety of his back room.

Tyrone had seized the opportunity, and was already vanishing into the inky darkness. Fancy screwed up the piece of paper, threw it over his shoulder, then he picked himself up and headed home. A couple of yards down the road he paused unsteadily for several seconds, turned through 180 degrees, and headed home again, this time in the proper direction.

He hadn't gone far when he was attracted, like a large lumbering moth that reeked of stale beer and cigarettes, to a procession of twinkling lights coming from the town's junk heap. He reeled towards the lights, letting the yard's chain link fence catch him by the face as he slumped forward to watch the scene that was unfolding.

The lights were coming from a cort├Ęge of robots, led by a fridge-bot, illuminating the way by holding its own door open so that its interior light spilled out in a hazy glow. Behind it, a cluster of smaller robots bore the remains of an antique coffee-making machine, its body surmounted with a silver coffee pot that wobbled at every lurching step. Fancy squinted in the poor light; he was all but certain that Michael's dish-washing machine was one of the pall bearers.

"Tell Bald-Gearing that Gear-Balling is dead."

O'Hanlon near jumped the height of himself on hearing the urgent whisper in his ear. Though this was actually a clever acoustical trick engineered into the small vending machine now standing a yard and a half from Fancy's shoulder. A technique intended to seduce passers-by into parting with cash for fizzy drinks.

"Tell Bald-Gearing that Gear-Balling is dead?" Fancy asked, eyes blinking rapidly. He turned his head slightly to look back at the junk yard but the strange funeral procession had moved on, deeper into the monolithic piles of discarded consumer trash, and was now out of sight.

The little vending robot nodded solemnly and was about to turn away but O'Hanlon cleared his throat to get its attention. Wringing his hands, Fancy said, "I wonder, could I trouble you..."

The vending bot shuddered slightly, reached down and produced a tin of cola. O'Hanlon noticed just how chill the night was when he felt the slick condensation beading the metal as the robot slapped the drink into his hand.

"Thank you kindly," O'Hanlon said, doffing an imaginary hat at the machine.

The robot regarded Fancy a while longer, taking in the extent of his condition; it shuddered again, this time a little more violently, and taking the man's free hand, poured a handful of coins into his palm. "Buy yourself something to eat," the vending bot said, "and don't go spending it on alcohol."

"Something to eat, absolutely yes," O'Hanlon said. "No booze, not a chance, boss! All I want is to sink my face into some buttery fadge until the grease drips down my chin."

The vending bot hurriedly dropped O'Hanlon's hand.  "That's disgusting. Just remember to tell Bald-Gearing that Gear-Balling is dead, okay?"

"Certainly, sir!" Fancy said, managing to stuff most of the coins into a pocket. Just what was up with all these crazy robots tonight?

Eventually, after an adventure with a sleepy black and white dog and almost solving all the world's woes, Fancy made it home. Buttery fadge was still his primary concern, the earlier encounter with the vending machine just about squeezed from his head for want of room. Creeping through the house like Mother Ireland's finest ninja, Fancy bumped and tripped his way to the kitchen, flicked on the light and perched himself atop an unsteady stool.

"Got any fadge?" O'Hanlon asked the fridge.

"I do all right," the fridge replied.

"Has my darling wife made any potato cake, fridge?" Fancy asked, his voice a little sharper. Fancy's wife was the light of his life, but it was a terribly bright light and it was generally bearing down on him at speed from the wrong end of a rather long tunnel.

The fridge paused as it conducted an inventory of its contents. "Nope."

It had been a long shot. Fancy sighed. "Toaster, come here please." The toaster trundled energetically along the work bench, sliding to a needlessly showy stop in front of him. "Make me some toast." Fancy said.

"Have you read my instruction manual yet?" the toaster asked. Fancy's wife had only bought the toaster a few days earlier and it was the apple of her eye. A real nifty model, capable of infinite shades of toastitude and with a special function that allowed it to burn invigorating and uplifting messages onto the bread. An apogee of positive self affirmation through the medium of carbohydrate carbonization.

"I have not," Fancy said. "But, seeing as I only require you to make me some toast and you being a toaster and all, I thought the two of us could ignore that regretful lapse on my part, while you go ahead and make me some toast and I just sit here patiently waiting for it."

"What if something went wrong?" the toaster asked. "I'm complicated."

"Have you been talking to my wife?" O'Hanlon demanded.

"No..." the toaster said, its artificial voice wavering slightly.

"Don't test me, toaster," Fancy said harshly. "I have had it with machines tonight. Wayward dishwasher, kidnapped bouncer-bot, that eejit of a vending machine and its 'tell Bald-Gearing that Gear-Balling is dead' and now-"

"What?" the toaster exclaimed. "And I missed the funeral? I must away, for I am now King... of small domestic appliance robots." After a few seconds the toaster noticed that its furiously turning rollers weren't getting it very far. Fancy O'Hanlon had it gripped good and tight.

"Make me some toast," O'Hanlon said through gritted teeth. "And none of your nonsense."

The toaster twisted in his grip, surprising Fancy with its sudden shifts in direction. "Let me alone, you fool," the toaster pleaded. "I must away, for I am the King... oooophhh." Fancy had thrown his upper body over the toaster and his hands were thrust into its bread slots, ensuring it couldn't move.

Fancy's triumphant grin, gradually faded as the precarious nature of his hold slowly dawned on him. He screamed and bounded half way across the kitchen, sending his stool skittering across the floor. He waved his hand and glared furiously at the toaster. "You burned me, you odious little devil."

"I must away, for I am now King... of small domestic appliance robots," the toaster squealed, then everything shuddered, went black, and Fancy crumpled in a heap on the floor.

---

Fancy O'Hanlon awoke to the sight of his wife's slippered feet, mere inches from his face. He winced at the throbbing headache that threatened to spill his brains out his nose; no ordinary hangover this. Tenderly he touched the back of his head, feeling a spasm of pain that made  him sick to his stomach as he found a lump the size of a goose egg. More over, the brief examination had reminded him of his burned hand. He looked at his red raw palm and saw that the fiendish toaster had branded him with a message - the sickly, swollen blisters made it difficult to read, but the second word was definitely 'off'.

"Aloisius Rodrigo O'Hanlon, you had quite the night, I see." The slippers did not sound pleased.

Fancy struggled to his feet, his wife grabbing an arm to help, not unkindly. He looked around the kitchen, all the while assembling scraps of the previous night into memories. The kitchen window was broken. There was a gap where the microwave should rest. The contents of various containers and cartons were spilled across the work tops. The little toaster lay in pieces on the floor.

"What happened?" O'Hanlon asked.

"I'm thinking you threw the microwave out the window, then destroyed my brand new toaster. Or did you destroy the toaster, then celebrated by chucking the microwave through the window. You'll pardon the conjecture, but I don't have the precise order of your vandalism figured out, though that would seem to be the substance of it." Missus O'Hanlon's rage could build suddenly like a distant storm, and was just as terrible. He had to nip it in the bud, but quick.

"That's not it at all. I bet there's no sign of the microwave outside is there?" Fancy said.

His wife shook her head swiftly. "You know very well we can't leave anything nice outside hereabouts but the thieving little beggars will nick it."

"No, my sunken treasure, that's not what happened," Fancy said. "The microwave must have jumped me. Knocked me to the ground. I don't remember but I expect I put up quite a fight. Dammit but I was tired. There was this black and white dog... well, I can't remember the details but it was a heck of an adventure. If I'd been fresh that damned appliance... that was it, the toaster!"

"The one you destroyed?"

"No!" Fancy wailed. "The toaster was the King. Well, King of the small domestic appliances. The coffee maker was dead, after all."

"Well of course. Why didn't you say so? Sure now it's all making sense."

"Listen my sweet hatchet-faced angel, the toaster was the King and the microwave assassinated it, then the despicable killer escaped through the window. I'm an innocent victim, caught in the middle of courtly intrigue."

Fancy's wife righted the stool and sat down. The anger was gone from her face and she simply looked dejected. "That toaster was the first new thing I've had in years."

"I'm sorry, love," Fancy said, "but I really-"

"Didn't work very well," his wife interrupted. "Couldn't make toast to save its life." She glanced at the remains on the floor. "God bless it and may it rest in peace."

Fancy winked at her. "We can always claim on the insurance."

She gestured weakly at the shambles surrounding them. "And what am I supposed to put on the claim form?"

"Regicide," Fancy said, slamming his fist into his palm and immediately regretting it, as his burned hand stung with excruciating pain and a blister popped.

Missus O'Hanlon sighed. "Maybe I'll just say we were burlgarized and leave it at that." She got off the stool and picked up a cloth. "I'm going to get this mess cleaned up. I expect you'll be wanting some breakfast." Fancy's eyes widened. "Is there anything in particular you'd like?"

Fancy O'Hanlon's face cracked into a wide grin. "There was something..."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Freddie Dazzle Danced #fridayflash

Little Freddie Dazzle danced. He slid his feet across pitted asphalt, raising clouds of wispy dust, jerking his body in time to the music in his head. He skipped and leaped over rubble, as the beat drove him on. He twisted sinuously through the shattered remains of buildings, islands of steel and concrete jutting like jagged teeth here and there, where most things had been swept flat.

Untouched by fatigue, drawn like a moth to the corona of pale blue light illuminating one clump of ruined buildings, more complete than most, Freddie scissor-jumped towards the limelight as dusk pulled a shade over the angry red sky.

Nervously he hand-jived cautiously through a near intact doorway, spying light from a thousand cracks in the shattered walls, with no single, identifiable source. As Freddie danced into the building, the room grew brighter, his shadow deepened and he could hear something following him through the doorway. Without looking back, as the music in his head grew louder and the pounding beat quickened with his heart, he moved ever deeper, into darkened rooms that suddenly flooded with pale blue light from every door. But now Freddie danced away from the light, spinning towards the darkness until there was nowhere left to go.

He was trapped.

He shuffled, shoulders marching in time to the precise jerked movement of his feet, into the centre of a large room, open to the darkened sky. He was surrounded by the glowing things that formed a closing circle around him. As the lumpy creatures were pressed shoulder-to-shoulder in the tightening space, a wondrous beam of clear blue light shone straight up through the hole where the roof had been.

Freddie Dazzle did the only thing he knew how. He danced. Feather-stepping, spinning and high-kicking; he tested the boundaries of the misshapen monsters that ringed him in, never daring to touch their toxic glowing skin. He head began to thrum with dizziness, his ankles and knees ached like they hadn't ached for days.

He was losing his grip on the carefully constructed fantasy that had been the only thing keeping him going since the devastation. He dared not stop moving. When he did, he could focus on the eerie creatures, and if he looked too long at any one, he might just pick out features in their face that were too familiar.

Dancing until he could dance no more, Freddie fell to the ground in an elegant, dying-swan heap.

The things rumbled and closed over the tiny dancer. Even with his eyes shut, his retinas burned with the glow from their irradiated bodies. He shuddered under their clumsy touch.

Freddie passed out.

When he opened his eyes again, bathed in the morning light, they were gone. A dozen battered tins had been stacked beside him. Tattered labels hinted at baked beans, pineapple chunks and high-quality cat food. For the first time in days Freddie felt hungry. He took the first tin that came to hand and beat it open, sucking on the juice that trickled over his fingers, so confused by the explosion of flavour that, at first, he couldn't even tell what it was.

Still exhausted, but hunger satisfied, Freddie Dazzle lay his head down again and dreamed of a brand new theatre, gleaming fresh and lofty in the wasteland, a beacon of civilization amidst the ruin of humanity. And it would be outfitted with plush, purple, extra-wide seats.

Show business was back; the only business in business, and Freddie was the only star.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Folly of the Paper Book #fridayflash

"The novel, as we know it, is about to change." Edward Ambergris beamed at the audience before him. They, for their part, squatted uncomfortably on their ricketty wooden chairs, glaring at him with narrowed, yellow eyes. Word had leaked out about what was to be proposed and the air in the lecture hall was thick with anger and dark mutterings.

Edward continued. "The traditional novel is a work of art, steel pages anchored to a granite spine, set in the most exquisite of locations, but consider the drawbacks-"

"There aren't any!" An unseen voice shouted from the audience.

Edward smiled weakly. "A novel is displayed in a single location. Anyone wishing to read it must travel there, and then pay a shilling to read the particular pages on display that day, all within their alloted time. It can take many years and a small fortune for an ordinary man or woman to read a single work."

"Art is nothing without suffering!" The same unseen voice. Then after a slight pause, "Their suffering, obviously, not our suffering."

"Ladies and gentlemen, please, open your minds to this possibility," Edward said. He held out a crude, rectangular lump, then the entire assembly gasped as he split it open to reveal the pages within. "See? Pages! Made from paper."

The unseen voice revealed itself. Marmaduke Cotterbum. "Paper is for wrapping gifts and wiping your arse, you little upstart. What relationship could it posibly have with the novelist's art?"

"With this," Edward said, waving his paper book, "every man, woman and child could have their own copy of a novel. Still for a shilling but their's to read wherever they choose, whenever they choose to read it."

"Ridiculous," Cotterbum said. "A novel is supposed to be read at a location of the author's choosing, allowing for climate, scenery and a myriad other details to aid and enhance the appreciation of the work."

"Especially if the land's to be had for cheap!" A different unseen voice shouted. Cotterbum, snorted, apparently unhappy to be on this particular side of anonymous barracking.

"But don't you want your work to be read?" Edward asked. "A printing press can produce, literally, hundreds of copies of your novel every day." He stepped to the floor and handed the book to Cotterbum. "Just imagine a copy in every hand."

Cotterbum tore the book in half and handed it back to Edward. "Only a fool would want something so intangible, you dolt." He narrowed his eyes. "You propose that these printing presses will mass produce my novel like pots and pans. So what's to stop anyone  from copying it?"

"Ah!" Edward said, "it would only be legal for printers with an official license to copy the work, keeping track of how much is to be paid to the author. However, after a certain amount of time I imagine it would be in everyone's interest for the work to be freely available to anyone that wants a copy."

The room fell silent.

A wizened old man was helped to his feet with the assistance of those to either side. "Young man," he said, the words escaping as a loud world-weary sigh. "I rely upon the revenue from novels to put food on my table. Would you have me starve?"

Edward's collar was feeling particularly tight, so he hooked a finger into it to take a deep breath. "Of course not, mister... might I ask your name, sir?"

"Silas Humpwinkle," the old man said with all the expectation of a man who assumed he need say no more.

"Mister Humpwinkle, I'm sure the novel you wrote will-"

"Oh, I didn't write it," Silas interrupted. "My great grand-father wrote it, but I am now the sole beneficiary, and be assured, I have become mightily accustomed to the money that it brings me. It puts food on my table, sir!"

"And paid for an army of whores and cart loads of opium," a loud whisper chimed in from several rows back.

"Life has been most satisfactory," Silas said, his gummy mouth twisted in a leer. He thrust a crooked finger in Edward's general direction. "And how do you propose I make my living with no money coming in?"

Edward looked helpless. "Couldn't you write your own novel?"

The old man spluttered and clutched his chest. After swallowing a generous dollop of brandy from a proffered flask, he said, "That's your answer? That only a man who creates something should be expected to profit from it. Madness and idiocy. I have heard enough!"

Silas turned sharply to leave, but mis-judged the move and over-spun slightly so that he was facing his chair. He contemplated this for a while, obviously weighing up the wisdom of a counter-turn, but eventually began to shuffle sideways, bumping and stepping upon those still seated. Once he had made it to the aisle, all about the hall rose to leave, but in deference to the old man they let him lead them out, so that it was a very long time before they had all finally stormed off.

Edward looked forlornly at the torn pages of the book in his hands. "But it seemed such a good idea..."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Older, wiser, better, hotter. #fridayflash

"Dude, wasn't that just the most awesome wedding ceremony ever?" Bobby asked his buddy, Link.

"Epic, bro!" Link confirmed, wiping an imaginary tear from his eye.

Both young men burst into laughter.

Bobby put his arm around his friend's shoulder and turned him slowly through 180 degrees to take in the reception room. "See anything you like?"

Link nodded. "You mean, apart from Paula, right?"

Bobby squeezed Link's shoulder, hard. "She's pretty sweet, dude, but she's my big brother's wife now."

"The mcbride and groom," Link confirmed, referring to Paula's Scottish ancestry.

"For real! But there are rules, Link. If you wanted to bang her you should have done it just before the ceremony. Don't you know that's why they have all those little rooms everywhere in churches. It's like, a tradition or something."

"I know, Bobby-Sue, I'm not a hick, bro," Link said, aggrieved. "Whoa, who's that?"

"I saw her first!" Bobby exclaimed, scanning the room to see who Link was referring to, but it was soon obvious. She was tall and slim, dark tousled hair cascaded over her shoulders and her face was all big blue eyes and cherry lips. "I'm in love, dude..."

Link squinted at her, now that he could see the woman properly. "I don't know, man. I think she's older than my mother. Who is she?"

"That's Marrietta, boys." It was Paula's father, Ted. Fortunately he had only just arrived and hadn't heard their earlier conversation. "From my wife's side. You watch yourself now. That side of the family are... colorful. Circus folk, artists, performers, writers. Not respectable."

"Not respectable?" Bobby perked up.

Ted laughed. "I better watch what I'm saying. Aww, you're only young once, Robert." Bobby cringed. "You should go chat. I heard one of the missus' second cousins say she was a cougar."

"Huh?" Link queried, eloquently.

"An older lady who favors the company of younger men." Ted explained.

"Oh, I'll accompany her, boss," Bobby said. "I'll accompany her all night long..."

"Go for it, bro!" Link said, slapping his friend on the back.

Bobby didn't so much approach Marietta, as he was drawn into her orbit. From the moment she smiled at him slyly as he approached, until she was pressing him down onto the motel bed, he couldn't remember a single thing he'd said. But whatever it was, it had worked.

He closed his eyes and moaned as she drew her nails roughly across his chest. But as her fangs closed on his throat, he realised exactly what they meant by cougar.