5. Good Grief

“Is this John Shannon?” Cameron asked.

“Aye, John Shannon speaking.”

“Mr Shannon, do you live in 63 Full Moon Crescent in Melbourne, Australia?”

“Aye, that’s me. Who’s this?”

“Mr Shannon, I have some bad news.”

“Bad news?” came the predictable echo. At once confusion and apprehension entered the man’s voice, heightened by a momentary lag on the line.

“My name is Doctor Robert Ozan,” Cameron said. “I’m calling from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Bridgetown, Barbados.”

“Hospital?”

“Yes, Mr Shannon.” Uncomfortable pause. “Your wife Belinda Shannon has met with an accident.”

“Oh my God.”

“Are you sitting down?”

“Uh, no,” came the uncertain reply.

“I have to ask you to sit down for this, Mr Shannon,” Cameron said solemnly.

He could hear the man quaking on the other end. “I, uh… okay,” John Shannon wheezed. “I’m in the garden,” he heaved. “I’m heading indoors right now.”

An awkward minute passed as Shannon grunted and cursed and heaved on the other end of the line. Cameron could hear him exerting himself horribly as he crashed up a flight of stairs, and through a set of swinging ranch doors.

“Yes?” Shannon shouted out eventually, breathless. “I’m here, sitting down.” There was a palpable sense of panic in his voice.

“Well, Mr Shannon,” Cameron said, “I’m afraid the news is as bad as it can be. Your wife had an accident – on a Jetski, here in Barbados. It happened at 4pm yesterday afternoon. It was a freak, unforeseeable event. She collided with a boat while she was looking the other way.” Pause. “She could not have prepared herself for it. It hit her like a freight train moving with unstoppable force.” Pause. “Are you still there?”

“Yes, Christ, of course.”

“I’m afraid she required urgent surgery, Mr Shannon. This morning, we had to make the decision to operate. The procedure had a 50-50 chance of success, but not operating would have meant losing her during the night.”

“Oh my God.”

“I’m sorry to say – your wife didn’t make it.”

“Oh my God. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

“I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry.”

On the other side of the line, a great crescendo of silence was building. Cameron could hear it rising in pitch, becoming more hysterical in its intensity. There’s nothing as frenetic as sheer silence. From where he sat, Cameron thought he could hear John Shannon’s heart imploding.

“There’s one more thing, Mr Shannon.”

“Yes?” John Shannon croaked despairingly.

“Before she passed away, your wife said…well, she said…”

“She said what? What? What?” Shannon yelped.

“She said she forgave you.”

“I see,” Shannon wheezed. “She forgave me,” he echoed flatly, as if he could not quite comprehend the words.

“She didn’t say what for,” Cameron said gently. He waited just a moment before saying: “I get the feeling that maybe you know.”

Silence.

“I will leave you to come to terms with this, uh, terrible tragedy. Again, Mr Shannon, I’m so very–”

The phone went dead.

Cameron sighed, and put down his handset. It was never easy having to make calls like this, but it had to be done. And, unfortunately, of all the people in Good Grief Incorporated only he had enough ice running through his veins to be able to do it without faltering.

He fumbled on his desk for his packet of chewing gum, and sat there, staring into the middle distance. He’d have to phone Shannon back eventually, of course.

How long should he wait?

A day?

Two days?

There was no fixed time in these matters – at least, nothing in the company guidelines. It was all down to his professional intuition. It all depended on how badly the recipient had taken the news. One didn’t want to leave it too long – not if the person seemed likely to do something stupid, like swallow a bottle of pills.

Cameron sighed.

John Shannon definitely seemed like the type to do something dumb. He could picture the bereaved husband already stumbling over to his liquor cabinet, reeling with the sheer enormity of the news he’d just received.

A day would be more than enough for John Shannon. A day would give him all the time he needed to renew his perspective on life, and contemplate just how lucky and blessed he had once been.

What a pity people could simply not appreciate exactly what they had before they lost it. What a pity people became insensate – incapable of seeing things that were right in front of them. What a pity it always took a dramatic change in circumstance for people to see that life is too short to be mean and vain and selfish.

Would the experience change Shannon?

Maybe not.

But for one day John Shannon would be consumed with sincere regret for all the things he had done, and had not done. For one whole day John Shannon would be the best version of John Shannon that he could be. And even if he reverted to type, for one whole day he would be in direct communion with the angels of his better nature. And that, at least, was something.

Cameron picked up the phone and pressed a number on his speed dial.

“Yes?” A woman answered.

“Belinda, please don’t leave your room for a day or two. Don’t phone any family, or friends. Just watch a little television, or read a good book. Just lie low until I give the all clear.”

“I see.”

“Our invoice is on the way, disguised as manicure treatment. No one will ever trace this back to you. It will be over before you know it.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Cameron sighed as he put down the phone. Sometimes it took the devil to the Lord’s work. He sat there for a while, just chewing gum, before making another call.

“Yes?”

“Hello, is this Mr Francis Key?”

“Yes, speaking.”

“Mr Key, my name is Doctor Robert Ozan.” He paused. “Are you sitting down?”

 

 

 

 

4. The Bone Demon and The Ruby-eyed Snake

A great weariness seized the little bone demon as he lay by the side of the ruby-eyed snake. For any artefact, auctions can be trying, but for the bone demon they were agonising beyond measure.

You see – he’d been through far too many auctions. He’d seen far too many markets. In fact, at 5000 years of age, he’d now been bought and sold more times than he could remember.

Worse still, with every auction, he feared that he might lose the ruby-eyed snake forever.

The bone demon and his little ruby-eyed silver snake ring had been together for over two generations – in fact, since the reign of Edward VII, at the height of the British Empire, when curiosities were being looted from all over the world, and somehow finding their way to England.

So far, in a dozen auctions, he and his ruby-eyed love had managed to stay together. For the first six auctions in a row they’d been sold in the same lot, and bought by the same buyer. For the last six they’d been returned to the vendor, who had unreasonable price expectations on both. Back they went, both of them, to the same old and established London collection.

Tonight, however, was different. Tonight they’d been placed in separate lots – for the first time ever. He was in lot 89, with a bunch of other bone fragments, mostly of middle eastern origin just like him. And she was in lot 90, with a chipped mediterranean bowl and a carnelian intaglio of Roman lineage.

Of course, from an antiquarian perspective, that made absolute sense, but it also made the horror of separation virtually inevitable, unless the unlikely came to pass – and one buyer bought both lots. However, that was just too much to hope for. Not for the first time both artefacts felt the noose of circumstance tightening around their necks.

The bone demon, who’d been carved by hands older than history, felt weary to the…well, to the bone. Even the relatively young ruby-eyed snake, said to be Parthian, and not quite old enough to remember the Late Bronze Age, was still more than ready to settle down to the quiet life with her little bone demon in the bottom drawer of their little walnut filing cabinet in their cramped Soho apartment.

Millennia before, she had been invested with real power, and great magic. She’d been no mere accoutrement back then. Even a casual collector of antiquities might deduce that she’d once had real juju. But old age can make you vulnerable, and now she too was just a curiosity, appreciated only for her novelty value, and the crudity of her manufacture.

“Lot 89,” the auctioneer called out, “a collection of bone idols from Assyria, Babylonia, Uruk, Palmyra and Elam.”

Silence.

“Do I hear 190 pounds?”

Silence.

“Do I hear 180?”

Silence.

“Ladies and gentleman, 170 pounds. Come on! This lot features some quite remarkable antiquities, including a little bone demon thought to hail from Mesopotamia, and conservatively dated to about 5,000 years old.”

Silence.

“Okay, no sale. This will be returned to the vendor. Moving on. Lot 90 – three delightful classical antiquities, including a bowl of Mediterranean manufacture, a carnelian intaglio with an erotic scene, and the most delightful silver snake ring. The eyes are rubies, ladies and gents – not glass, genuine rubies. The silver, however, is likely to be electrum, or silver of a relatively low grade. Still, a wonderful and elegant piece, with obvious votive significance, in a wonderful lot. So, do I hear eight hundred pounds?”

Silence.

“700 pounds?”

Silence.

“600 pounds, ladies and gentleman. It’s a steal?”

Silence.

“Okay, no sale. It will be returned to the vendor. Moving on. Lot 91 – a collection of Levantine fishing hooks. Very rare, ladies and gentleman. Do I hear 100 pounds?”

The bone demon heaved a sigh of relief. The little snake ring with the ruby eyes seemed to uncoil for a second, as if freed of a great burden.

Artefacts are bought and sold endlessly over the course of their lives. Most collectors get bored with an object, or run out of money, or switch from one collecting hobby to another, from Middle Eastern antiquities to South American art, from Napoleonic militaria to old maps from the Age of Exploration, always searching for the promise of some new rarity, always seduced by some new bauble with the promise of great collectability, but holding onto it only till they’ve sucked the life from it, like vampires feeding on the past.

And so it is rare for a bond to develop like the one that had formed between the bone demon and the ruby-eyed snake.

Whatever their divergent origins, way back in the folds of time, they had a common past, even if it was recent – in relative terms. They no longer saw themselves as being from a particular archaeological site, or epoch. Like all immigrants, they were now naturalised citizens.

They were British – not Parthian, not from Jericho or Ur.

For years they’d sat in the same museum storage facility, in adjacent boxes, listening to one another breath. By some curious chance, they had both been subject to the same deaccession, and sold on to a collector without much money – a collector shaking with collector cold turkey, in desperate need to buy something, anything.

Sooner or later, it was inevitable that fate would tear them apart.

Sooner or later, the law of impermanence would prevail on them, as it prevails on all things.

Sooner or later, like every artefact, and every sentient being, and all manner of entities living and dead, and conscious creatures and inanimate things like rocks and stones and ancient flints and arrowheads, in fact like all conditioned items subject to causes and conditions, the bone demon and the ruby-eyed snake would have to endure the suffering that comes with being separated. You see, unfortunately, things just become attached to other things, quite inexplicably, without even knowing why.

Fortunately, there’d be no separation today.

Today, they’d be returned to the same old and established London collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Punk Poet

While I’m waiting for divine inspiration, I’d like to make an announcement. In some circles, I’m better known for my music than for my literary efforts. I’ve been writing songs of a highly lyrical nature and publishing them under my own name – Ron Lawrence Anderson – for several years. You may (or may not) be wondering why all this material has suddenly been withdrawn from the internet – from the videos to the album to the MP3 downloads. At the moment the only outlets offering my music are Russian internet pirates.

You’re more than welcome to download one of these pernicious bootlegs if you really can’t wait, but rest assured – the music is about to be re-released. I am rebranding. My debut album will now be released under my new name The Punk Poet. All the URLs are in place, all the necessary artwork has been completed, and a new chapter is about to commence. Not only will most of the songs from the first album be available, a second is soon to be released. I will also be spearheading a program to publish and perhaps distribute work by similar poets/performance artists and musicians.

While I’ve had a tiny cult following for some time, I felt I needed an approach with more cut-through. I appear to be big in Russia. It’s time to go global. With The Punk Poet you get what it says on the box. It is literary protest and scathing social commentary set to music.

Anyway, it’s all on the verge of coming to pass.

You can view the work in construction at punkpoet.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. The Piece

When Jonah came upon the artefact he didn’t have the foggiest idea what it was. It was oblong but symmetrical, and ornate in a crude sort of way. At the summit was what looked like the lid – in the form of a carved gecko figurine that slid neatly over a rectangular hole. The inside was hollow and smooth – no small engineering feat as the vessel had been crafted from a single piece of wood. What’s more, the hole at the top was small – too small for even a child’s hand. At best it might accommodate three adult fingers. So then – how did the carver get into the body of the vessel to carve it out, then file it down? The entire piece was a mystery.

Gingerly, Jonah lifted the tag.

Borneo, it read.

“It’s a gorgeous piece, innit?” declared the dealer, a weary-eyed woman who’d been on the antique circuit far too long.

“Mmmm,” Jonah replied noncommittally. “What is it?”

“I dunno,” the woman shrugged. “Maybe it’s for water, luv.”

“No,” Jonah said sceptically. “The lid’s in the wrong place. Who’d carry water that way? You’d carry it this way,” he said insistently, using his hands to illustrate the object standing portrait, rather than landscape.

“Well,” the dealer shrugged, “as I said, luv – I don’t rightly know. It’s just a lovely piece, that’s all. I fell straight in love with it.”

“But now you’re selling it?”

“Well, that’s life, innit?” The woman shrugged. “You can’t keep ’em all.”

“Well, well, well!” someone gushed, just over Jonah’s shoulder. “Now what is that? Good Lord!”

Jonah’s heart dropped. Antique hunting can be a cutthroat business. There’s always some scavenger lurking over your shoulder, ogling the thing in front of you, likely to grab it if you don’t.

He turned around wearily. The newcomer was about sixty, with a leathery complexion.

“It’s from Borneo,” said the dealer.

“Not, it’s not,” the old man grunted. “Not Borneo.”

“Well, where’s it from then?” The dealer frowned.

The old man bent forward to examine the object, his eyes gazing inwards as if he were flipping through a large mental encyclopaedia in search of a matching entry. “Well, I don’t have a clue,” he said eventually, “but I know it’s not from Borneo.” Then his finger flew to the carvings on the base. “Oh, look,” he noted, “spirals.”

Jonah groaned, unable to hide his annoyance. “Spirals are a universal motif. You’ll find them on artefacts from all over the world. And they all look exactly like those spirals.”

“How do you know?”

“Books,” Jonah said contemptuously. “You should try opening one some time – they’re an endless source of insight.”

“Now, look son, there’s no need to be rude.”

“Rude?” Jonah hissed. “You’re the one who interrupted.”

“Okay,” the old man grunted, chastened.

“The fact is, spirals are just spirals – whether you’re talking about African curios, Polynesian carvings or Viking amulets. They’re all just squiggles. There are only so many ways you can depict a fucking spiral.”

“Point taken.”

“Now, old man, if you don’t mind, kindly bugger off. I saw this thing first, you know.”

“My, my!” the old man noted, his eyebrows rising. “You seem to like this item.”

“Maybe,” Jonah shrugged.

The old man eyed him for a moment before turning to the dealer. “I’ll give you three hundred dollars for it.”

“What?” Jonah balked. “You fucking jackal.”

“Three fifty,” the old man grunted, ignoring Jonah.

“Four,” Jonah countered. There was no point being coy now. The battle was on.

“Four fifty.”

“Five!”

“Five?” The old man smiled. “Well, it’s your money son,” he chuckled, before walking off.

“Thanks, luv,” the dealer blinked at Jonah. “It’s such a lovely piece. I hope it makes you very happy.”

“Yeah yeah,” Jonah grunted, his heart now heavy with buyer’s remorse.

He carried the piece back to his apartment in Glebe and cleared a place for it on his bookshelf, shunting aside his other eclectic tribal artefacts – the Polynesian god stick, Fon fetish and cassowary headdress. And there it sat, the centrepiece of his collection, for many, many years.

However, no reference book ever shed any light on what it actually was. There was also no record of anything remotely like it having sold at auction – ever. Over the years, it plagued him incessantly that something so unique and curious could elude categorisation so completely. Sometimes he wondered if it had some religious significance. Had it sat in some shaman’s hut, or was it just a mundane household object? Was it a map of the cosmos, or merely a vessel to hold grain? He never did manage to embrace the mystery – not until decades later, as he lay dying.

“What’s that?” A man asked, just out of his vision as he lay on his bed, his life ebbing away.

“I don’t know,” a woman replied. “But what a lovely piece.”

And at once he was overcome with horror at the thought that something with such inestimable significance could be reduced to nothing more than a lovely piece, for the bland consumption of ignorant Westerners. Only then did it occur to him that this artefact had come from a world that had recently been smashed to atoms. Just one of countless worlds obliterated by a monoculture that was spreading across the planet like a dementia, gouging out great chunks of humanity’s collective consciousness without anyone even noticing. This cultural Alzheimer’s had already taken away almost everything that made the human species unique and beautiful, turning the meaningful into the meaningless, and uniting humankind in ugly and formless uniformity. There were now just a few pieces left, mysterious objects like this, sitting on mantelpieces or in museums somewhere, to suggest that anything had ever been any different.

And with that realisation Jonah’s heart suddenly stopped and he went kicking and screaming into the void.

©Copyright Ron Lawrence Anderson

 

Tiny truths (an introduction)

Welcome.

Over the next few years I plan to publish a series of 50 super short stories. The genre is known as ‘flash fiction’. My stories will be 1,000 words or less, and will come completely self-contained, with everything a good well-told tale needs – including plots, themes, conflicts and compelling three-dimensional characters.

So why a thousand words?

Well, first off – why write anything of any length? Why write haikus? Why write sonnets? Why the hell write novels or trilogies? To be frank, why is a completely arbitrary question. I have no answers to why, other than the obvious – that brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and that shorter short stories are better than longer short stories. You can read them in the time it takes to skim a newspaper, and draft them in the time it takes to have a long polemical argument on Facebook.

As for why a thousand words specifically, well – a thousand is just a nice round number, that’s all. I like the discipline of a thousand words. But, of course, I might have chosen 981, or 1091, or 897. A straight thousand will do me just fine. The point is – I’m already writing longer literary works. I need a format that will help me get all the other ideas I have out of my system. Quite simply, flash fiction works best.

Let me say from the outset that I won’t be writing garden variety or <insert the cliche of your choice here> stories. These little stories will not be ordinary. I’m not doing this just to entertain you. Despite what you may think, I really wasn’t put on this Earth to relieve you of your daily drudgery. If my stories entertain you – I’m okay with that. But that’s not their principal purpose. My real intent  is to present you with some tiny truths about life – one tiny truth for every story. So there’ll be one profound reflection or cutting insight wrapped up in the lives of characters who inhabit no more a thousand steaming turds, or about four double-spaced pages.

I started writing fiction at the grand old age of 13. The author who first inspired me to take up my pen was Robert E. Howard – the creator of Conan. Those familiar with Howard’s work will know what a gifted storyteller he was, for even if you don’t take to his stories it’s hard to deny their power and immediacy. If ever there was a natural spinner of yarns it was young Robert Erwin Howard, who weaved together histories and myths in startling new ways. By the time he died at age 29, he had a body of work that writers twice his age would kill for – from classic short stories that established him as one of the most important pulp fiction writers in the world,  to poems with a rare  lyrical potency. It’s been close to a century since he died, and he still casts a very long shadow on the unique subculture he created almost single-handedly – the niche genre now known as ‘Swords and Sorcery’.

The other towering influence on me as a younger writer was Harlan Ellison – an absolute master of the short story. I discovered him only a year or two later, at age 14 or 15, through classic volumes such as Paingod & other delusions, and Approaching Oblivion. I wasn’t alone in thinking he was an incredible talent. This was a writer who had won more Nebula and Hugo Awards than any other. His story Repent Harlequin Said the Ticktockman (a personal favourite of mine and one of finest examples anywhere of early flash fiction) still remains one of the most reprinted stories in the English language.

Like Howard, Ellison never took to longer literary forms. While both writers wrote the occasional full-blown work, unusually they both achieved their acclaim through the short story format. In doing so, they were both purveyors of a very compact kind of truth. Somehow, these two writers were able to find some kernel of reality in every story, in spite of the fact that both wrote highly ‘speculative’ forms of  fiction – in Ellison’s case ‘Sci-Fi’, and in Howard’s case outright fantasy. Howard would access those core truths intuitively, directly from the unconscious, through the brute force of his talent. Ellison did so more consciously, and perhaps a little more artfully, through sharply constructed stories that achieved a remarkable degree of verisimilitude – stories that somehow made you question your reality, and forced you to reflect deeply about things you didn’t ever think about.

In the years since I first start reading these two great writers I’ve grown quite disdainful of fiction in general. I guess the cynicism has set in. There is just so much bad fiction around. Often I question the very point of fiction. Today non-fiction holds a much greater appeal to me, principally because  it’s so much more unself-conscious about telling the truth. At least, that’s what I sometimes tell myself. But if I have to be really honest – there’s a great deal of truth to be found in fiction, and a lot of untruth to be found in non-fiction. And the way I see it – unless we take the time to engage that fundamental contradiction, we’ll never truly understand either.

As my homage to Howard and Ellison, who’ve remained enduring influences throughout my life, these little 1,000-word stories will hopefully illustrate my conviction – that really good fiction tends to reveal the truth in some way, and doesn’t simply help readers to escape reality. That fiction can also give birth to incredible alternate realities, and truths we never even considered.

There will be a lot of hardcore truths in these stories. Some may even be what you might call ‘profound’. Some may be so challenging that you might not want to accept them as any form of truth. Of course, if you don’t,  you can at least console yourself with the fact that I didn’t waste a lot of your time, and that I was able to say what I had to say in less than a thousand words.

So please join me over the coming weeks, months, or years, or however it long it takes for me to complete 50 tiny stories – each with furnished with their own tiny truth. It should be a blast.

 

© Copyright Ron Lawrence Anderson