the enduring madness of the novelist

The novelist clattered through the streets in the wake of the poet and the Press.  He felt absurdly happy.  He had decided just moments before that he was mad.  That would excuse and explain any number of inconvenient truths—like the growling umbrella under his arm, or the slumbering furry creature inside the umbrella.

He considered—manically, he hoped—that his decision to be mad was not in the Script.  Whatever the Script was.  He had to admit he’d never seen the Script.  But the giant face  in the sky had seemed confident when it told him to confront the Scriptwriter.

The novelist felt a twinge of uneasiness.  How long had he been mad, really?

The city was oddly empty.  The occasional car rushed by, and a few anachronistic hansom cabs.  Once or twice the novelist saw a zeppelin trundle overhead, towing a banner declaring ‘AVAST!  ’TIS PILLSDAY!’ 

The novelist had expected people milling about.  He wondered if everyone had congregated in the parks to celebrate Pillsday.  He wondered still more what Pillsday was.

The primary impression the city left gave him was trees, juxtaposed against grotty sidewalks and expensive high-rises.  He wondered if that was how people found their way around.  This street, for instance, had tall trees, grandly spacious, and squat brick buildings.  Wheel round the corner, however, and high steel-framed buildings towered over stunted, ornamental trees.

It might be a sort of address system, the novelist thought.  ‘North High Building Street’, or ‘South Tall Elm Avenue’.  People wouldn’t have to bother with numbers at all—they could just recognize their trees.  ‘Oh, yes, we’re down in that scrunchy attached house, behind the fifth oak tree from the left—the one with the knot just under the fork, the rat hole in the roots, and the pair of shoes hung over the highest branch.’

By now, the three literary conspirators had reached a river.  It looked like badly brewed coffee with the grounds left in, garnished with an occasional duck.  The poet and the Press strode swiftly along the concrete embankment, heads tucked down against the cold.

The novelist clattered the umbrella against the railing happily, sending terrified gulls beating into the air.  He knew where he was now.  They were in Excessively Tall Glass Building Street, by the scrub trees along the river. 

Wherever that was.

What he didn’t understand was the extravagance of convenience stores on the ground floors of the tall buildings.  Each store had covered their display windows with shockingly bright posters advertising unremarkable grocery prices—except for one store, whose owner had stubbornly insisted on cramming his window full of every imaginable kind of cigarette box.

It began to rain, a grimy mist among the buildings.  An empty bus roared past over a bridge.  The poet and the Press stopped outside the store window, and were gazing ruminatively at the cigarette boxes.

The novelist hurried over.  The rain was pouring now, and he thought of opening the umbrella.  A warning growl, however, made him think better of it.

The Press wiped his nose.  He stared at the cigarette boxes reverently.  ‘So, er, this is the place, is it?’

‘It is today,’ said the poet.  ‘It’s never the same place twice, you know.’

The Press scribbled a note on his pad.  ‘Is that Committee policy?’

‘No.’  The poet sighed.  ‘It’s because we can never remember where we met the month before.  It’s very secret, you know.’

‘Ah?’  The novelist looked from one to the other in vague confusion.  ‘And what’s so secret, exactly?’

They glared at him.

‘It’s not like we can go telling people, is it?’ the poet demanded.

The Press scowled.  ‘You can’t go shouting secrets in the streets, you know.’

‘Er, sorry,’ said the novelist.  ‘I thought—’

‘This is the secret moot hall for the Committee for the Preservation of the Liberation Of,’ said the poet.  ‘We’re mooting now, I expect.  Come in.’

They pushed their way into the store, and stood blinking and dripping under the buzzing fluorescent lights.  About fifty folding chairs stood in chaotic rows, facing a a nervous man behind a music stand.  About ten disheveled people sat awkwardly in the second and third rows. 

‘Take a seat!’ the poet whispered.  ‘We’re horribly late!’

For no apparent reason, they sat in the farthest row back.

The nervous man coughed.  ‘Ahem, yes.  Well.  As we were saying—thank you, haha, for turning out to the second mooting of the Committee for the Preservation of the Liberation Of.’  He smiled weakly.  ‘And, ahem haha, yes.  Happy Pillsday, everyone.’


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