Son of Man

      It was eight o'clock by the time Constantine Rudman arrived at Lucian's apartment.  He knocked on her door, but Lucian could not answer back.  After doing this for several minutes he went up a floor and knocked at Vanessa's apartment, who promptly opened the door.

      "Hello, Constantine.  What are you doing here?"

      "Is Elizabeth here?"

      "No, she's with Charles."

      "Could I use your telephone?"  Vanessa let Constantine come in and he called Charles' apartment.  There was no response, and he hung up the receiver.  "Vanessa, my sister has suddenly developed a total infatuation for Charles, and I have to find some way of getting her out of it.  But unfortunately, she's already left her apartment."

      "Perhaps you should sit down for a few minutes.  There's no reason why you can't stay here and call back later."

      Constantine sat down on the couch.  "Ordinarily, I would have thought this was another one of Lucian's strange jokes.  Like the time when we were just kids and she wanted to scare me by putting a tiger cub in my bed.  Of course, she couldn't get a tiger cub, so she had to do with a stray cat that she painted orange and black.  But, not surprisingly, the cat ran away and she had to settle with painting me orange and black while I was asleep and then holding a large mirror over me and awakening me.  She had a habit of losing the point of her jokes, so she tried to change the subject and played the soundtrack of "South Pacific" very loudly.  She always said that Ozzy Osbourne's great problem was that he never gave that musical the appreciation it deserved.  Many years later she tried the same trick, only this time she painted Adrian orange and black."

      "Is all your family like this?"

      "No.  The rest of them tend to be dead.  There were some other weird things she did.  Like the time we visited Rome and she wanted to leave graffiti in the Sistine Chapel.  Or the time she held an illegal fireworks show to announce the loss of my virginity, which was extremely embarrassing because I hadn't actually lost it yet.  And there was the time when she was seven years old when she wanted to get married by proxy to the octopus in a city zoo, and forged half a pound of documents in crayon in order to do it."

      "Constantine, that's ludicrous."

      "I know and the octopus was a woman to boot.  And not even Lucian's type either.  In a way, she wanted to be like Kafka, but she was too lazy to read him, and she wanted to be enthusiastic at the drop of a hat.  She's taking up acting as a hobby, and wants to play Charles Ryder in the next adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.  Speaking of strange women, what are we planning to do about the conspirators living upstairs?"

      "Oh them.  Ms. Van P--- and her maid went out a few minutes ago.  The only thing we have to worry about is this new fertilizer they've got dripping on our heads.  Otherwise, they won't be bothering us at all tonight."

      As it happens Ms. Van P--- was walking towards the Harding apartment, completely unconcerned about the temperature.  She had left Chattenden Passey with a large number of fake furs and convenient coats, while the maid was dressed only in the waistcoat and accompanying suits.  However, it was a cold evening and Ms. Van P--- had given most of her furs to her maid as they stalked the city streets.  As it happened, the maid had only the vaguest idea what Ms. Van P---was going to do with her once they forced their way into Harding's apartment.  She also wasn't sure if they were actually going to reach the apartment, because although the route was a fairly short one, about eighteen blocks, Ms. Van P--- made so many backtracks, detours, "short-cuts," and she even went so far as to circle one block, which held a rather unpleasant laundromat, two drunken beggars and some very poor housing, three times.

      At the moment the two of them were crouching outside a video rental station.  The maid had bad memories of video-rental stations, because she remembered the time when they were in some small Texas town and Ms. Van P--- had gone into to rent some X-rated movies.  Having gotten four of them, she found the revolver the owner kept for safe keeping, forced it into his hand, and made him fire a bullet through the four cassettes.  "Oh, dear.  Your gun seems to have went off accidentally.  Can I choose another four cassettes?"  The petrified owner eagerly agreed, but the exact same thing happened another six times, and Ms. Van P--- announced she was so annoyed at the service she would never come back again.  The maid was rather glad that they had left the dagger of St. Francis of Assisi back at home:  it was kept in a special place, and Ms. Van P--- had only taken it out to frighten the Thai consulate official, by slicing off the trunk off the embassy car.  The maid had trouble placing the furs around her properly.  Ms. Van P---'s furriers believed cloths should be placed on naturally, without crude conventions of forms, so none of the cloths and coats had anything like sleeves, or holes for one's heads; it was quite a miracle that Ms. Van P--- put them on properly at all, indeed she even had an evening prayer thanking the woman who wasn't really her patron saint for telling her how to put her stoles on properly.  At the moment, Ms. Van P--- was in her favorite defensive position; crunched up like a hedgehog trying to do sit-ups while rolling down a flight of stairs.  As she expertly maintained this position, her maid couldn't help but ask the obvious question.

      "And where is Aquilla Rogers?"

      "Back at her apartment, of course.  She can't be allowed to go out on a night like this."

      "If I may be pardoned for asking, why can't she fight her own battles, and why are we fighting them for her?"

      "To answer your first question, Aquilla Rogers would be a hopelessly weak person to challenge Charles Harding.  In fact, if it was up to her she wouldn't bother Charles at all, but fall in unrequited love with him.  Now with Harding married that simply can't be allowed.  The worst thing she would do was merely denounce him before the world as a lecherous hypocrite and hound him and his wife for the rest of his days.  Now that is clearly not what Charles Harding deserves, so we are going to ensure that what he gets is much worse."

      "But why do we care what happens to her?  I mean there must be thousands of completely callous men in the city with thousands of heartlessly abandoned girlfriends.  Maybe millions.  Why do we care about this one, particularly as she keeps trying to have us thrown out into the street?"

      "You're not being fair about Aquilla.  The reasons she submits all those petitions is so that she can forge them before they're presented to the relevant authorities.  I can therefore raise pertinent objections and delay any final decision for months.  Why if it wasn't for the many patently false complaints she raised we'd have been thrown out months ago."

      "So she's on our side after all?  But why?"

      "Because natural ties compel her to do a good turn, and natural ties compel me to help her in return."

      "I don't understand?  Are you saying you knew Miss Rogers before she came into the apartment?"

      "But of course I did.  I knew her when she was still a little girl and still called herself Aquilla Roget."

      "Aquilla Roget?"

      "Oh yes.  She was named in sort of honor of the grandmother I never knew, a sailor's wife.  So she was named after the sea."

      "Does that mean she's related to Dr. Roget?"

      "He's her second cousin.  Much as he is my second cousin, much as Giles Seinkewicz and Elizabeth Concrete Harding are my and Aquilla's first cousins, which is the exact reason we have spend the past eight months watching over their apartment."

      "But that would mean?  I'm sorry, I'm a little confused."

      "Of course you are, and that's perfectly understandable.  My mother is Catherine Jeanette Roget Vovelle.  Her second child was Aquilla, who became the best trigonometry student New Brunswick ever saw.  But her first child was none other than your present employer.  You are the first person aside from my mother and my sister to learn that my real name is Pandora Vovelle."

      "Charles was always a very understanding person.  When Lucian was still Lucy and she was just my annoying younger sister, she would try to train the cat to attack strangers.  She had a lot of success, and the cat managed to scratch Charles once or twice, but he was never held it against her.  Mind you that might be because the cat attacked me even more.  But he was always very tolerant, he was the first person I ever met to (briefly) have a black girlfriend.  When we were teenagers he was the natural leader, he was the president of most of the clubs he belonged to, and some of them he'd let me be the secretary.  He was always bright, full of charm, very competitive and always willing to do what was necessary.  I remember him as the boy who could always listen to women, and offer them his understanding.  I remember being in the study hall and looking outside and there was this poor, rather stupid girl, crying in his arms and him saying 'It's all right' and 'things will be better,' and the next day she was amazingly cheerful.   And I always envied him a little, envied him his success, his lack of guilt, his popularity, and every now and then I wished that something very nasty would happen to him."

      So said Constantine, in a mood of what would have been boozy pathos if he had actually been drinking.  In fact it was a poor substitute for the bloodlettings that he had stopped permanently one week ago.  He had already forgotten trying to call Charles again, and he was trying to avoid Vanessa's gaze as she sat in the chair adjacent to the couch.  "What's really disturbing are all these conspiracies.  We have all these questions and we are no closer to having any of them answered.  And with this league of strange pianos and with Mrs. Chelmnickon dead, I mean I don't like this at all.  Tomorrow there's going to be this crucial meeting, and we have no real idea of what we're supposed to be doing.  I keep feeling that Charles is out of his depth, but then I just feel impotent and helpless without his advice."

      "How's your story going?"

      "Rather well, actually.  I mean I'm no closer to actually finishing it, but I have managed to get another paragraph which does push the story in a new direction.  The real problem is that I have so little time to write, mathematics takes so much of my time.  So I only write down the most brittle thoughts that come to my mind, and they all shatter on a close reading."

      "Perhaps.  What have you got now?"

      "Well it goes something like this.  And so the townspeople got used to the grove of thorns, and so the leaders sneered at those who thought the grove could ever be removed, they even held official festivals that honored the thorns for the good job they did, and some townspeople began to beat up those who thought that the grove should be removed, and then there would be beatings just to be on the safe side, and these beatings went on for so many years that everyone believed that they too were inevitable and they had always existed, just as the grove had always existed.  Then there came one day in June, when the weather was not so hot, when the robins sang almost as clearly and harmoniously as they did before the thorns drove most of them away, when the flowers smelled almost as sweet as they days before the thorns drained away all the water, when the sky was almost as clear and sweet-swelling as the days before the thorns sent up a miasma that clouded the air and gave off a sinister unidentifiably pungent odor, when the light shone on everything almost as beautifully as it had the days before the lead and the dust that came in the attempts to destroy the thorns.  On this day everyone rose with just a bit more hope than usual, just a bit more hope that everything was somehow more attractive, before they remembered that they had to work harder to get less food, before they remembered they had to sweep harder and clean harder to less effect than ever before, before they remembered that the grove of thorns existed as it always had, and as it always would, and as it always should.  So the people got up, and by the time they were dressed, by the time they had all washed up, by the time they had gotten through their meager breakfasts, they felt exactly the way they felt every other day for the past few days weeks months years decades centuries.  But this day was different, because not everyone believed that the thorns were indestructible, that the thorns played a useful and valued role, and by the time that everyone was in the kitchens, in the blacksmiths, in the fish-markets and the meat-markets, in the clerk's office, in the tinkerer's and the artisan-shops, in the churches and the small parks, a rumour began to spread, a rumour that a strange, fantastic, wonderful and completely useless thing was about to occur.  For all over the village, the children of the townspeople announced that they were going out of the village to destroy the grove of thorns."

      "And that's all you've got."

      "Yes.  I'm not exactly sure what should happen next.  I mean if Lucian were writing this the thorns would kill all the children in the most grotesque way.  I can imagine it now; all my nice little vain Faulknerians convolution turned into Bargain Hemmingway.  `Blood.  Blood.  Gouged out eyes.  Major organ [you can insert anyone you please]  pierced and bleeding.   Intestines everywhere.  Bleeding like rotten pus-filled sausages.  Hanging around like napkins that everyone forgets to put back in the sideboard.'  Actually Lucian would kill me if I made that comment on the screenplays she writes.  So obviously hideous tragedy is out of the question.  I just don't know what to do next."

      "Well do you want them to defeat the thorns or not?"

      "Well I'm not sure.  I mean, in my heart of hearts, I would like them to win."

      "So why don't you?  It's your bloody story."

      "Well, for a start I'm not really sure how to do it.  I seem to have shown that there's no possible way to get rid of them.  And besides, I feel that some sort of pessimism is required for my fiction, that some sort of general unpleasantness is needed, to say some great misanthropic truth with appropriate dignity, and stoic courage, etc, etc, etc.  Maybe I should be like the political scientists who say 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon' is fashionable and who have orgasms reading De Tocqueville."

      "Well, what's the bloody grove supposed to stand for?"

      "I'm not sure.  When I started, it was supposed to be fascism or Nazism or something like that."

      "Well, you're not just going to let them win."

      "Well, they could mean something else, and perhaps there could be some sort of nice compromise, with the thorns more or less in control, but providing something of great value."

      "Like what?"

      "I don't know.  You know how you are supposed to disarm your enemies by being nice to them?  Well Nietzsche once said the real thing you should do to your enemies was to show them that they had done you some good.  So I could try something on that."

      "And what are you thinking up?"

      "Oh, something like having the thorns read Flaubert to the townspeople, or maybe they could read The History and Limitations of Hegelian Analysis."

      "Oh, you actually cracked a joke at Chelmnickon's expense."

      "Yes, I did.  Which is actually rather cruel of me considering what just happened to his poor wife."

      "Oh come on.  If you're going to be this deferential, you shouldn't take political science at all.  Why don't I help you with the next paragraph?"

       "Hold on, Deja vu."

       "About me helping with the next paragraph?"

       "No, about De Tocqueville and orgasms.  Did I say something like that about Isaiah Berlin?  Popper?"-------------------

      "Pandora Vovelle?"

      "Yes.  As you could probably guess, or you would if your spelling was better, Roda Ellen Van P--- is an anagram, with one less v and an extra n."

      "And your sister has been helping us spy on this Concrete woman.  Aside from the fact that the woman below us is your cousin, why are we so interested in her sex-life, and her life in general?"

      "Very simple; my cousin was born from a virgin.  Therefore, close examination of her is crucial."

      The maid stopped for a minute.  "Excuse me, through all the countries we've been through, when you were changing passports like others would change their shoes, I have seen many unusual things, things that are very different from the Bangkok slum that I grew up.  And I have gradually learned that there are many different things in this world.  And yet there are still times when I think you are absolutely crazy.  I know extended families generally aren't the rule in Canada, but the idea of one's cousins sneaking around your apartment hiding their identity is really weird.  And I know that there is no country in the earth where virgins give birth to children."

      "My aunt Atala is the exception, and my cousin Elizabeth is the result of this exception."

      "But why did you change your name?"

      "Good question.  I want you to imagine, ten years in the past, a grand ball.  In London.  One of the members of the royal family is there, but she's not doing anything important, or indeed even relevant to this story.  Focus on a couple, man and wife, in their first five years of marriage I would think.  They're rather rich, and they're attractive, and charming.  And for some strange reason both of them are unhappy.  Both of them feel a certain emptiness in their life.  They have a lovely daughter, three years old, who plays every day with a large collection of teddy bears.  The young man is destined for the House of Lords, and even though he only comes from Northern Ireland he already has a lot of friends in important places.  The woman is a fashionable society woman, works with charities, has unexpectedly intelligent things to say about Coleridge and has everything she could really ever need.  Particularly travel, she can go anywhere in the world she wants with her husband; she can go to Rio de Janeiro for the carnival, Athens, Abidjan, Malaysia.  She can even enter the most isolated communist countries with no problem at all.  Pyongyang, Tirana, the two of them can go there.  And in the past five years they have made four visits to Beijing alone.  But even in the full flush of immersion in another culture, there is something dark at the center of their life.  Or is it something light and hollow at the center of their life, the unbearable lightness of Beijing?  I don't know actually, I didn't pay much attention to the problem.  Regardless, they're just sweating ennui.  And they are dancing in endless pirouettes and circles, they can not bear to leave each other and to rejoin the world where reality awaits.  The woman is pregnant for the second time and she feels..., well, actually I don't know what she feels, but she certainly looked depressed.  And as the final song, well, actually it may have been the penultimate song that was supposed to go on, or the song before the penultimate song, I wasn't there when it all ended, but regardless, when whatever song came on and they looked fearfully into each other's eyes, a strange woman wearing the exact same suit that you are wearing right now came into the room...."

      "You mean that was you..."

      Ms. Van P----, or Mademoiselle Vovelle, as I suppose we must call her, was very disappointed.  "Of course it was me, but don't interrupt me in the future.  Anyway when they saw this young woman, they were so surprised, they briefly thought that she might actually be a man.  The woman came right up to them, and for a few seconds she did nothing but stare..."

      "Why do you refer to yourself in the third person?"

      "Be quiet!  And she began to speak, and before the entire ballroom she accused the husband of having had an affair with her, of having jilted her, of having left her pregnant."

      "You never told me you had a baby!"

      "That's hardly surprising since I was never pregnant."

      "Did you somehow think that you were?"

      "By him?  Certainly not, I never met him before in my life."

      "Then why did you say that you were?"

      "Well, if you had waited a few seconds I would have told you.  The reason that I falsely claimed I had been impregnated was that so when I took out a small, genteel and very lady-like revolver, and shot him to death at point-blank range the authorities wouldn't think that I killed him because he had used his position to assist and then cover up grotesquely sadistic murders committed by the Ulster Defense Association.  They would think that it was a crime of passion, and admittedly I was a very good actor.  I mean until I killed him, no-one ever thought that an Ulster tory could be involved in a crime of passion.  Consider it an example of breaking down stereotypes."

      "How could you do such a thing?  You killed a man with two little children behind him, and you left his wife think that he had betrayed her."

      "My dear sympathetic maid, when I shot my victim he was dead before I leaped out the window and onto the back of a passing taxi.  It took him less than five seconds to die.  There are many members of the UDA who would consider it a dishonor if they didn't inflict a baker's dozen on their victims.  Now ordinarily I am not a believer in vigilantism, but it's one thing to be merciful to the miserable, the poor and the meek, but we can't tolerate this sort of thing from the rich, the happy and the powerful.  It corrupts society."

      "But what about his family?  They didn't do anything wrong."

      "My dear maid, collective guilt, the concept that people should be punished for actions beyond their control or responsibility is one of the founding principles of civilization.  If people thought only poor weak people were gratuitously massacred, or poisoned or worked to death you would breed nihilism, possibly even Marxism.  A few murders at the top, and people are much more likely to view their elites more sympathetically.  You could say my act was quite socially constructive."

      A pause.  "What did you do next?"

      "Oh, I changed my identity to the one you know, met representatives of the Flannery O'Connor Brigade who agreed to accept me and absolve my sins if I swore a vow never to eat meat again and to plant marigolds in apartment carpets all over the world.  There was always a Brigade member willing to give me a valid passport, so I went all over the world collecting them.  I made money translating secret documents my country's government needed, since I have a positive flair for languages.  And then I met you, I rescued you from a life of poverty and degradation, taught you English, cured your fears of poisonous snakes by putting cobras in your dress, and brought you to Canada."

      "And so now we're helping Aquilla."

      "Of course we are.  She's my younger sister and despite what you may think, I care for you and her very deeply.  It's just how families work, like the way an aunt looks after one of her more obscure nieces.  I will never let anything happen to you, and once my mermaid soap is universally practiced you need never fear seduction again."

      The maid was not pleased at this, she had grown up in a miserable slum, and until she had met Pandora Vovelle seduction was probably going to be one of the few bright spots in a generally wretched life.  But she kept quiet, and followed Mademoiselle Vovelle after she got up from her hedgehog position.

      "When they heard the desire of the children, a few of the parents offered their best wishes.  Most of them thought that they were not serious, others thought that a confrontation with the grove would show them the limits of what could be done, and a few, a very few actually thought that somehow, someway they could destroy the grove.  But most of the parents thought the children were mad, foolish, and their wish was generally evil, ill-thought out, completely irrational, and they wondered who they should blame for this hideous state of affairs.  And so the beaters were sent out, first to spank their own children, then the children of other parents and then even the children whose parents were packing them lunches for their expedition, and then they spanked the parents and a few other completely celibate people just to be on the safe side.  And so after a hard morning's work, the beaters could go back to the mayor and the councilors and the clerks and said that they had done a good job chastising the children, and everybody was so busy congratulating each other that they only noticed when it was too late that all the children had left to go out to destroy the grove of thorns.

      "Naturally some of the beaters were sent out to round up all the children so they could be really chastised, but the children found a special way of going to the grove, and the beaters spent the whole day getting lost.   So when the children reached the grove, there was no-one there to stop them.  They stood before the solid wall of thorns, shared the little food that had been allowed to them before the beaters had hit them, played a few little games and then looked at the enormous grove.  And when they saw it, all their hearts sank, for it really was an enormous grove, and many of them thought they should turn back and never go near it again.  But there were some strong boys, and girls, children who were used to ordering all the other children around.  'Courage,' they said, 'With a few determined hearts, we can get rid of the grove in a few bold strokes.'  And before the rest of the children they walked boldly before the groves, rolled up their sleeves (those who had sleeves), and grasped the stems---and then stepped back, their hands a mass of blood and welts.  In a few seconds, the bravest of the crowd were nothing but a mass of cowardly children, shouting for all to hear that there was no way to destroy the grove of thorns.  And by this time the beaters had finally found them, and all the children were forced to go home.

      "But that was not the end of the matter.  For the next day, a handful of children returned to the grove.  These were the small children, who could be allowed to wander away because they were too small to do any work.  They walked to the stems that fed on people's blood, urine, bile, lead, and looked down to the very roots.  Then they sat down and together they started to pull out one root after another.  It was a very slow job, since they were so small, and they often pricked themselves on the smaller thorns at the base.  Bu they gritted their teeth and managed to pull out all the little nettles and put them in a pile where they would dry to dust in the sun.  And finally they managed to uncover one root and slowly disentangled it from the rest of the enormous grove.  But just as they put it by the needles to dry out as well, they heard a strange, soft and very quiet crying.  The sun had already begun to set and it was very hard for the children to find where the voice was coming from.  But then they turned back to the giant root they had extracted, and heard the voice coming from it.  As they looked over it and peered into the giant thorns they saw at the very base, very little flowers, which were actually very tiny roses.  It was they that were crying, and the children asked them 'why are you crying?'  And the roses replied that once there had only been vast bushes of roses, but all the townspeople did was pick them bare, so that in order to survive they began to grow thorns, and in order to survive even the roses grew smaller and smaller, while the thorns grew larger and larger, until they completed overshadowed the roses.  'And now we are dying.' and so they did die, and all the children could do was to cry.

      "Actually that's a little too much," said Vanessa, "but I think this gets the plot rolling along.  Don't you agree?"

      "Oh yes," said Constantine, "it's wonderful.  It actually provides everything really, a clearer metaphor and a wholly different way of resolving the conflict."

      "Fine.  Your turn."

      "You mean right now?"

      Giles Seinkewicz was in the hospital room with his father, who had not woken up since the assault.  All Giles could do was pace the floor, curse himself for not having swiped better magazines from the reception area and curse the hospital board of governors for not ordering better magazines.  He looked outside the dark window.  He thought about the prime minister's typically unctuous condolences.  All he could feel now was the gloom, the absence of his wife and the possibility of his father's death.  Naturally, this inspired him to talk to his unconscious father.

      "I have a new idea of how to find my wife.  I can't use the signed statements that Dramsheet occasionally sends me to find where my wife is, because the address is always smudged.  But there is a consular official always there signing and dating the statement.  All I have to do is track down the consular officials, and I can trace Natasha's path across Europe.  I have been doing that, but I keep running into problems.  For example it's never clear if Natasha signs the statement in the country the official comes from, or if she signs them in the embassy of that country in another country.  And the officials are always either Jewish or Muslim, so I can't necessarily be sure which country they come from anyway.  And I've been told by some of the people who help my inquiry that a disproportionately large number of the very few consular officials I have been able to find the slightest clue about are over eighty years of age and have the unfortunate habit of dropping dead shortly after they sign Natasha's papers.  And the initials are often confusing as well; I have a name called Judah Goldblum, which could mean that he is French, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Swiss, Belgian, British, Dutch, Canadian, American, Australian, New Zealander, South African or Israeli which means that he could be working in any consulate in Europe, and his first name could be "Judah" or it could be "Yehudah" or "Hehudah" just to be confusing, and "Chehudah" just to be annoying, and it could be "Gehudah", in case he's in Spain.  And Ted Ahmed, could mean either "Edward" or "Theodore" or some completely different Islamic name, and "Robert" could be "Bob," and William could be "Bill" or even "Guilliame" if he's in France, and "Evelyn," and "Leslie" could be female as well as male, and often you can't tell because there's only a first letter, and the real name could be in Arabic, or Hebrew, or even Yiddish, and even maybe Cyrillic, and just possibly Greek if they're from Salonica or Cyprus, and even Maltese just to be more confusing, which means there's all sort of transliteration problems, and invariably there are.

      "But I feel I should be confessing something to you father, but I'm not exactly sure what it should be.  You always wanted me to read books, but you also wanted me to read particular types of books.  Maybe that's somewhat sinister when you look at it, but I don't feel resentful, because even if you were a censor on the sly, you always made sure that if I couldn't read one particular book, I should be reading something better.  I'm not quite sure that reading every major novel written in Polish this century is quite a substitute for not reading every major novel written in French in any century, but if it had been up to Uncle Sampson I wouldn't have read anything at all.  But though once when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child, ever since I started wearing these really dark glasses..."

      "Giles, please!"

      "Father, you're awake!"

      "Of course, I'm awake.  Why shouldn't I be?"

      "Well, you've been unconscious for hours."

      "What?  Good grief, I'm in a hospital."

      Giles briefly explained to his father about the deadly watermelon.  "Do you think you're going to be alright?"

      "Oh probably.  I suppose if I really was in a coma, I should stay in the hospital for a couple of days, but otherwise I feel fine."  Just then Avare Seinkewicz entered.  "But now I've just got this horrible headache."

      "So you're awake.  I came as quick as I could, but coming as quick as I could involved a six-hour wait at Edmonton airport."  She took off her hat with a solitary plume feather, and an lacquer of leaves, and absent-mindedly put it on Giles' head.  She took off her coat to reveal an orange calico dress, John's favorite, and sat on the bed beside him.  "We have so much to talk about."

      "God we do indeed.  Giles, why don't you leave us for a little while, say fifteen minutes."

      "Better yet, half an hour." said his wife.  Giles dutifully left the room, and as soon as he did so John directed questions about the United church vestry board to his wife's neck.  But then the door immediately reopened, and Giles returned with another man.

      "Oh, bloody hell Giles, what is it?"

      "I'm sorry, father," (Giles took off his mother's hat) "but this man insists on speaking to you."

      The man stepped forward.  "My name is Constable Coffighy."  He flashed his credentials.  "I have been instructed by Inspector Joseph Tyrone to watch you throughout the night."

      "Why?" asked Avare.

      "On the past three successive Thursdays a member of the Philhellenon club has died in suspicious circumstances."

      "What?  John, you didn't tell me anything about this."

      "It's not anyone you know, well except for Pr. Hermann.  But what does this have to do with your guarding us?"

      "Inspector Tyrone believes that all the members of the Philhellenon club are in danger, and he has therefore ordered that all of them be guarded."

      "Well," said John, "that shows considerable foresight, and we greatly appreciate it.  But my wife just arrived and I haven't seen her in two months, and we'd like a chance to be able to talk to each other.  So why don't you take a little nap and come back in a hour so you'll be so much more refreshed."

      "That is not possible.  My instructions are very strict.  They weren't very legible, but they were strict."

      "Couldn't you spend twenty minutes checking the heating ducts and the fire escapes?"

      "No need, sir.  I already spent the hour before doing that."

      "Great timing, John." hissed Avare.

      "You wouldn't mind taking a bribe to get lost for a few minutes, would you?"

      "No, sir, that would be quite impossible."

      Then John thought up something very clever.  "Why don't you start taking your coffee break now?"

      "You really mean it?  You won't complain to the Inspector?"

      "Not at all." said Avare,  "In fact, Giles, why don't you be a very good boy and take the fine constable here to the vending machines where he can get some coffee.  Not the ones right beside the corner, the ones that don't work."

      "Are you sure?  They worked fine earlier this evening."

      "Positive.  Instead why don't you take him to the machine on the opposite end of the hotel and down two flights of stairs?  That would be such a good idea."

      Coffighy agreed, and he and Giles were soon on their way.  "There isn't any real danger facing us, John?"

      "No, of course not.  As long as you're with me, nothing can happen to you."

      "Good," she said, as she started undoing the buttons at the top of her dress.  "I have so much to tell you about what the Rotary club has been doing."

      "You know that right this moment I don't really care what those morons are doing."

      "Well, it's not as if I gave a shit either..."  And she licked her lips.

      "Well not right now, if you can't think of anything.  You could always go back home and continue writing it."

      "Well, actually, I'd rather stay here.  Perhaps we could think of something else to talk about."

      "Oh, great, we could talk about my aunt Sarah."

      "Who's your aunt Sarah?"

      "My father's sister, who lives in Israel and just been hit by lightning, and has gotten mumps for the third time."

      "Is that possible?"

      "No less possible that getting chickenpox four times and getting frostbite on the hottest day of the year.  Imagine this, my aunt decided it would be a nice idea if she left the kids behind for a couple of days and visit Masada; but as luck would have it she missed a crucial stop when she was delayed by a very petty Arab civil servant.  As she tried to catch it, she just happened to stumble in the worst sandstorm seen in Israel for fifty years.  So she ends up in the desert, and it's the hottest day of the year, and she has a week heart.  She also has weak lungs, weak knees, weak arches, weak intestines, weak eyes, weak ears, weak spleen, even a mediocre thyroid gland, but it's the weak heart that counts.  And so when she tried to wander through the desert and find her way back, she simply collapsed.  She just laid down ready to die, when over her head flew an airplane of the Israeli air force, which by an unfortunate accident happened to drop a canister of liquid nitrogen two meters from her.  It broke and as a result, she nearly froze to death."

      "That's horrible."

      "No, it was horrible when she had to prostitute herself in order to survive the Holocaust.  After she was raped for the sixth time by the same nearsighted misogynist Arab pederast, it was silly.  And so was the stroke she got when she tried to protest the honorary degree the same Arab got from the Jonathan Institute.  And the small nervous breakdown when the still same Arab got a medal from Benjamin Netanyahu."

      "That's still very horrible."

      "Well you should read her letters, all 2,021 of them.  In every one of them something utterly horrible happens, like the time one of her daughter's weddings was interrupted by a group of terrorists who demanded that the entire Ring cycle should be performed right of the bima."

      "And what happened?"

      "Well they had to compromise.  They played Aida instead, and one of the tenors sang off-key in just such a way that it aggravated an extremely painful rash that my aunt endemically suffers.  And then there was the time when there were in this apartment building, and every time she and her husband tried to have sex, a group of Trappist monks would burst into song."

      "Don't Trappist monks have a vow of silence?"

      "She's sure they did it deliberately.  And the worst part of it is that they would only sing songs from Carousel."

      "Let's talk about something else."

      "What about your story?"

      Constantine took a deep breath, concentrated, and then began.  "The children could not return the next day, because they were being punished for having come the day before.  But the day after they managed to sneak out of home and return with a few more people.  There they all looked at the base of the groves very closely, and saw little roses on all of them.  They tried to talk with them, but it was very difficult, because the roses had long refused to talk to people, and the thorns would find ways of jabbing the children when they got too close.  But after a few hours the children managed to get a few of the little buds to talk to them.  'Why do you have to be so small?' asked the children?  'It is best for us to be small and out of the way, for that way we will not be attacked.  It is good to have to struggle and survive.  It is good that we should sacrifice light and air and water for the thorns, for they protect us from the humans, and it is good that we should grow smaller and eventually die out, because we serve no useful purpose, and are just parasites for the thorns.'  'But the thorns are supposed to serve you and not the other way around surely.'  'We can not live in a world where this could happen; there is no alternative to us being anything other than a grove of thorns, and there is no alternative to our death.'  'Perhaps there could be some way of making you grow.'  'Patent nonsense.  There can be no way.  And the only reason you would want to do it, was so that you could pick our flowers and prevent the grove from destroying your village.  There is no way we can accept that.'

      "And this depressed the children very much, and many of them felt that there was nothing to do, but surrender.  But they decided that they should not stop thinking of some way to help.  And after a few weeks, the children returned to the grove.  By now their parents had either gotten resigned to this, since the children were no longer trying to destroy the grove.  It was now a very hot day in late July when..."

      "Excuse me" interrupted Vanessa, "but fertilizer keeps dripping on my head."  And indeed it had been for the past five minutes, so Vanessa moved away from her chair and sat on the couch beside Constantine.  Fortunately there was a copy of The Citizen handy to put on the chair.  The two of them soon saw a small puddle form on the classified section.

      "It was now a very hot day in late July when the rosebuds saw the children returning.  They saw the children go to each of the plants and to their surprise they heard singing.  The children were trying to sing to the rosebuds.  They sang nice little songs for the whole day, even when their throats had been parched dry by the heat.  Then the next day they came back with little bows to tie around the rosebuds, and the day after that they came back with all the perfumes and nice smells they could find and sprayed them at the roses.  And they did all three things this day after day, hoping that this would help the roses grow larger and happier.  But that is not what happened.  For the songs were really rather silly, and they were annoying when they were repeated again and again, since they were the only songs the children knew, and they were often sung out of tune.  And the bows which looked so nice to the children, were too often dull in color, and when the children tied it around the branches, it often choked the rosebuds.  And as for the perfumes, the children really didn't have much discrimination in this area, so many of the smells were really rather ugly and nasty, and anyway the rosebuds didn't like them at all.  And to make things worse, when the children came to the roses, they often fought, had petty quarrels, and they often left a mess all in front of the grove.  So it seemed that nothing had been improved at all."

      At this Constantine stopped.  "And that would be that."

      "Really?  Do you mind if I add something more?"

      "Go right ahead.  You've been adding whatever you wanted to the story for the past two weeks."

      "And to make things even worse for the flowers, every day there were more and more children.  It seemed the rosebuds would go mad with the awful toneless singing, and so one day they could only yell at the top of whatever they used for lungs 'If you have to sing to us, try to sing this way!'  'Is that not the way we are supposed to sing?'  And with evident impatience the rosebuds spent a lot of time trying to teach the children to sing properly.  It was a very long and trying task, and it appeared completely hopeless, for each of the children had these ghastly inharmonious quirks, and though while the rosebuds could help improve their singing somewhat, they could not never get rid of those hideous sounds they kept making.  So it was with considerable surprise that the rosebuds heard the children one winter day when there was snow all over the ground, and they heard those quirks again, but for some reason they were not horrible.  Indeed their voices, while hardly perfect by rosebud standards, now had a strange beauty that the rosebuds could not have previously imagined.  And as time went on and on, they found the new songs fascinating, more complex, richer, and finally pleasurable.  And then the roses, who had now grown large enough not to be buds anymore, no longer found the bows as stupid and cheap as they previously found, and began to appreciate the affection with which they were put on, (though they did tell the children to stop tying them so tight).  And they began to find in the perfumes intriguing contrasts, and new scents and each day they were more interested at what new smell the children would bring to the grove today.

      "And so the roses grew larger, and now everybody could see them on the thorns, but the thorns had also not stopped growing larger, and every time a new rose was found, the thorns dug deeper and deeper into the earth, and some people were now accusing the children of having provoked the thorns, of upsetting the natural compromise.  And indeed, at the rate the grove was growing, the whole village would be destroyed in a very few years.  And perhaps that is what would have happened.  But then the roses tried to talking to thorns.  The thorns could speak just as well as the roses, but they had long realized that silence is the most effective form of communication for their kind of plant.  But they were astonished to find the roses were actually paying attention to them, were actually suggesting, hinting, cajoling, threatening the thorns not to be so cruel and intransigent.  The thorns heard the roses out, until they were finished.  Then they said they would do nothing of the sort:  the village must be destroyed."

      "Wait a second!" said Constantine.  "I think I've got an idea!  I know how to end the story!"

      "Really? well that's nice to know.  You can tell me after I've given my ending."

      "You can't do that.  It's my story."

      "How is it your story?  I've told half of it."

      "It was my idea.  Basically.  And I'm going to finish it."

      "Tthh.  Suit yourself, Constantine."

      "It was only then that someone got the bright idea of singing to the thorns.  Now this was very strange to the thorns, who thought they existed only to hurt people."

      "Just a second, Constantine, but what about your bright idea of showing what good the thorns have done to the community.  Seems like old sickly Judeo-Christian compassion to me."

      "Well, I've never been too uncritically fond of Nietzsche, and I think this will work better.  Anyway, not all the thorns were convinced.  Some of them were, and they began to shrink and to die.  Many of them were not affected at all, but for every thorn that died or vanished away another thorn grew larger and more horrible every day.  Soon there were hundreds of these thorns, threatening every one, and the roses, and the children, even the most optimistic of the children, felt that they had made a big mistake in creating these gigantic thorns.  But just as the thorns grew larger and larger and just as they were about to strike, they burst into bloom, as the largest roses anyone had ever seen.  And every day, more roses were born and bloomed.

      "But it took a very long time to convince all the middle thorns to go away and not to bother people, for there were still enormous swathes of dead thorns, the sheer weight of inertia of which were gouging into the earth.  It took many years for the grove to be properly pruned, for the thorns to stop threatening the children that had come to sing to them.  But one day, when all the children had their own children there was no longer a grove of thorns, but a beautiful bower of roses, and every day there was a different scent from the panoplies of memories, and a special sort of singing could be heard.  And for the rest of their days to the end of the world there was a world of singing and love, and it was only when there was a death that they remembered the thorns and the beaters.  Ta-dah, the end."

      "That's not bad, Constantine.  The thorns turning into the roses was a nice touch."

      "How were you going to end it?"

      "Much the same way, only with the thorns discussing the virtues of Athenian tragedy first.  But no this works rather well."

      "Why, thank you.  I'm sorry I snapped at you earlier.  I couldn't have finished this story without your help.  I mean, it does have an essentially feminine tone to it."

      "Oh?  In what way?"

      "Oh, the way everybody manages to save the grove by being nice and agreeable, and not by fighting each other.  That's very feminine?"

      "Getting your way by rational argument and humane conduct?  Don't be so patronizing, Constantine."

      "I'm not patronizing you.  I mean everyone says that.  Newsweek, Chatelaine, people who used to call themselves sociobiologists.  If Elizabeth were here, she would agree with me."

      "Of course she would, you would be flattering her.  But there's nothing feminine about this.  I mean, imagine Diderot in a tutu, or Voltaire saying 'I oppose what you say, but I will defend you to the death, and I'll give you an extra serving of ice-cream because I'm such a model woman.'"  Constantine laughed.  "I mean imagine Spinoza in his workshop making lenses, being shunned by good Dutch bourgeoisie and fine learned Jews alike.  Suddenly this woman comes in, orders some lenses for her children's spectacles and slips aside this secret message:  Being nice is really keen.  And lo:  it was a revelation!"

      Vanessa had stood up and made some sweeping gestures to illustrate this last sentence.  When she sat down again, both of them were laughing.  "But no, I really don't want to patronize you," said Constantine.  And then they kissed.

      "O.K, we're in front of Harding's apartment.  Now what?"

      "In a few minutes you will go up to the door and find an entrance into the apartment.  In a few minutes I will follow you, in my own way."

      "And then what do I do?"

      "Oh, nothing to worry about, my dear.  Nothing illegal at any rate.  Now just stay there in the background while I circle around the apartment for final reconnaissance."  The maid went over by a corner a little distance from the recycling bins while Pandora Vovelle walked in front of the apartment building.  She duly noted the trees that surrounded the building, which she might have to jump on in order to escape.  She noticed the wiring systems and the water pipes she might have to climb up in order to get away, and she noted the nearby buildings and the distance she would need to make a running jump from one roof to another.  She was just paying attention to the fire escapes she might have to use if it was necessary to set the building on fire, when she suddenly heard the maid babbling behind her.  She looked at her, covered in a pile of incompetently designed furs, and it occurred to her that she had never looked more silly in her life.  To make things worse the maid had unbraided her hair, completely destroying any resemblance she might have had to Lucian Rudman.  She was now singing an old Siamese nursery lullaby, which was just as nonsensical and sinister as the European ones.  Vovelle approached her wayward accomplice.

      "Isn't it so wonderfully warm?" said the maid.

      "Of course not.  It's minus fourteen degrees celsius.  Think, woman, what do you think you are doing?"

      "I'm singing a lullaby to my baby."

      "And what baby would that be?"

      "You, and you're so quiet and well-behaved."

      "Hasn't it struck you as odd that your infant is talking to you in complete sentences?"

      "But you're so precocious and intelligent.  Just like all my other children."

      "And how many other children are you supposed to have?"

      "Seven.  Five little boys and two little girls."

      "Do you really want to live taking care of eight children?"

      "But it's so easy to do it in the jungle."

      "But you don't even know what a jungle looks like.  You've spent all your life in a Bangkok slum and you're like those London slum children who didn't know what cows were until they were evacuated.  You didn't know what a cobra was until I put one in your dress, and when you first saw a tortoise you thought it was a strange sort of rock.  What you're thinking isn't real."

      "Oh, look.  He's come back home."

      "Who are you talking about?  Oh God, you mean that idiot from the embassy."

      "You shouldn't talk about your father like that."

      "Look, I regularly hope that my real father gets a non-fatal heart attack.  But this man is not your husband, and you have no children whatsoever.  Try and remember that.  I mean, how could you live in the jungle?"

      "We live in a giant treehouse, and there's lots and lots of fruit and water, so we all live very happily."

      "No.  This is an illusion.  Parts of your desires have been taken from your mind and mixed with the desires of another person.  This is not what you really want.  It is a distortion made by another person, to make you think this is what you want.  This is like the dream that Aquilla had before she was seduced, the dream where her horrible older sister who always dragged her to mass when their mother was away drowns in a freak hailstorm, and where Charles Harding appeared to her as her first boyfriend in a wonderful field.  What you want is a dream of paradise, and what you are being given is an illusion that takes your country and reduce it to a uncivilization of rotting stagnant smugly orgasmic sensuality.  Now listen very carefully.  I'm going to take out a pocket watch and I want you to stare at it very closely."

      But Pandora Vovelle's frantic attempts to try to break the strange spell over her maid were unsuccessful, the sort of failure that she ordinarily never confronted.  She tried to slap her maid into sense, who had now started vaguely unbuttoning her clothes.  "For God's sake, wake up.  If you take off your clothes you'll freeze to death.  Holy Mary, mother of God, please grant me my prayer and help me in this time of trial."

      Then Vovelle heard a very strange voice.  "Of course She won't help you.  Or any of the other saints.  Your life is as dry as dust.  Not for you the walls of dust."  And the next second, Vovelle found her mouth filled with a saltish swinish food, that she found she couldn't spit out, but had to swallow.  She gasped, she choked, she vomited and then stuffed her mouth with snow in order to wipe out the taste of what could only be semen.  As she got herself up she heard vindictive laughter behind her.

      "Of course, for you, emotions come to you with such difficulty.  Allow me to provide some for you."  And with that she found herself on what she realized other people called wave after wave of sexual pleasure, but which caused her agony and pain as her mind was invaded and her conscience bounded and gagged by a foreign entity.  Desperately she tried rolling around, muttering prayers, biting her own tongue in attempt to break free from these thoughts.

      "Amusing isn't it?  Just like everyone else, you are a slave to your desires.  You're just as much a whore as all the others."

      "No, I am not.  And I can prove it."

      "You shan't get the chance.  For all my other victims, I offered them love and desire.  But I think I shall let your stupid maid ruin her looks with frostbite and drive you completely mad.  And I know just how to do it."

      Suddenly Vovelle felt the touch of a dozen hands all over her body, in every place, for a very special torture.  "No!  I may not have brought the dagger of St. Francis of Assisi, but I still have something that will work."   She took out a vial of holy hydrochloric acid, lifted up her dress, and emptied half of it on the calf just below her right knee.  That was enough for her to assert her concentration, and she immediately rushed over to her maid, and rubbed the rest of the vial of her left leg.

      "Madame!  What's going on?"

      "Get dressed before you catch pneumonia."  Realizing both the cold and her half naked state, the maid immediately did so.  "It would appear that I have badly underestimated our opponent.  He already knows us too well, and we cannot force his way into the apartment.  Moreover, we need peroxide for these acid burns.  I'm afraid we have to go back to Chattenden Passey."  The two women got up, and hobbled away from the apartment, swearing vengeance and muttering about soft, sweet-smelling boa constrictors.

      By the time they got home, the maid was in so much pain that Ms. Van P--- did not pay any attention to whoever was in either Lucian's or Elizabeth's apartment.  Instead she took out her key, and used it to open the door.  In this way she prevented the booby traps she had cleverly set up from going off, such as the 220 decibel sound alarm that would stun people who forced the door into three weeks of deafness, such as the special mustard gas compound that would knock out anyone who came in (but leave the marigolds unharmed), such as the attack lemmings trained to attack anyone who came through the window.  She dragged the maid to a couch, and took out the peroxide.  After applying it to the maid's wounds she let her rest, gave her some Siamese tea, and gathered some marigolds and placed them between her sleeping maid's breasts.  She flipped through her address book, wondering what she should do tomorrow, and decided that the best thing was to have some other member of the Flannery O'Connor Brigade do some reconnaissance at Elizabeth Concrete's apartment, while she and her maid would be temporarily out for the day before she made her second attempt to confront Charles Harding.  She telephoned her sister and left a message on the machine to say that she should spend tomorrow following Adrian Verrall as much as possible.  Ms. Van P---/Pandora Vovelle had a very large and comfortable bed, but that was just for show and for occasional guests.  As a matter of fact she would spend her nights hanging upside down from a straightjacket as a penance for her guilt the death of a minor Ulster politician.  And that is what she did, with the Dagger of St. Francis of Assisi in a special sleeve.

      Because Ms. Van P--- was not walking around her apartment all night, drops of fertilizer were not pushed through the holes in the carpet into the apartment below.  As a result, after the dripping over the living room chair had stopped, nothing fell on Constantine Rudman and Vanessa Wilentz as they were sleeping together in her bed.  In his only partly innocent drowsiness Constantine said the stupidest thing he would ever say:  "You look so beautiful when you're not wearing any clothes."

      Vanessa pushed him out of the bed and onto the floor.  "By this sign you will conquer, indeed!"

      Sex, for Inspector Joseph Tyrone, was something he did not think about.  For Tyrone, sex was the reason why Vice-Inspector Monagham didn't concentrate hard enough to translate his perfectly logical and laconic style for the other blockheads to understand.  It was also the reason why she had very conveniently claimed to have come down with viral pneumonia on the same day the man who delivered the doughnuts had his day off.  So when it is said that sex was the last thing Tyrone had on his mind a few minutes before midnight Thursday evening, it does not quite describe the intensity of his anger or his panic.  At considerable cost in prestige and police-room party politics, he had managed to have all the members of the Philhellenon club kept under guard with two exceptions.  One, he had personally taken care of, but for the other, no-one could find his address.  Tyrone could only give the not very clear instructions to his subordinates.  It took considerable time to decode what he was saying, and even more time to realize that they had got it wrong, and that Tyrone meant something very different.  As Tyrone paced madly in the dark rooms of the house he was guarding, he could do nothing to expedite the pace and competency of his officials.  Meanwhile police secretaries tried to call the Philhellenon club in the hope they would find the address, but none of the members knew exactly what it was.  Only after several futile calls did one of them suggest that John Seinkewicz would know, but because of the half-hour coffee break that Constable Coffighy had taken the vital information that John could reveal was crucially delayed.

      It took more than an hour for Coffighy to phone a lock-up guard that John was awake, for the lock-up guard up to mention this to one of the secretaries, for the secretary to ask another secretary if they had any information on the address, for the other secretary to tell the first secretary to call John for the address, for the first secretary to call back Coffighy, for Coffighy to get John to give the address, and for Coffighy to call back the police station with the right answer.  Immediately a police car was sent out to Amritsar Vistas, but they managed to get lost down a one-way street.  By the time they managed to get out, to park the car, to break down the door of first the building and then the apartment, they were far too late.  What they saw would shock them for the rest of their lives; in its enormous black suit and white shirt it looked like an enormous melted piano.  But closer revelation revealed it to be the hanged body of Oliver Corpse; and because he was too large for any drop, a quart of cyanide had been shoved down his broken throat.

next: Book 4: The Compass of Death: The Dreams of Louis Dramsheet

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