It’s nothing really, just
a way of treasuring
things, a feasting
on the bright
world that borders
on the pathological,
on the unseemly
maw of wet nerves,
the gape that swallows
every spine, tingles even
in the absence
of signal, lusts for
every fluke of noise
and particle alike
coming home drunk
or high and falling
asleep in that deep
where all our seemings cross
where the overspill
was the light under
overpasses, was the solace
and deep kissing
where the numbers
of your birthday
were—write this down—
and something like honey.
The other lives are closest
in the heat. When we unshutter
the house, when sleep comes
and goes in the skin warmth
of the garden, even barefoot
and in its lightest shift.
There is a passing between.
Somewhere in the close fugue
of musk and clockwork.
Somehow, the spored dark
is punctured—a tiny syncope,
the merest finch-heart lull.
The knowing bursts in us.
A seed-split, then a tender
vining of lobes, the fibres
tonguing upwards, shudder
to completeness, unsealing us,
in surges, from elsewhere.
How else do I know,
like the nape and milk-breath
of my dreaming child
what it was to bear peonies
for all those last miles?
In the silvering dead
of the waded spate, to hold
still and nurture a goblet
of unexploded softness
to weaken almost enough,
but at her father’s door,
even with unraised eyes
to see, at last, her unseen white
to taste her rust
her deep and vanished red.
I improvised this piece on Twitter. It’s about an unfortunate incident involving Satan’s horse.
In hindsight, of course, Satan seems an obviously poor choice when forming an owners’ syndicate for Cheltenham. I’m too trusting, I suppose.
Quite aside from being an archetypal cock, it turns out that Satan knows, in his own words, ‘perilously close to fuck-all’ about horses.
‘Take this early exchange, for instance.
‘Satan? Paraic. What ho?’
‘Oh, you know. One ducks, one dives.’
‘It was ever thus.’
‘So, Satan, old thing. Someone’s dropped out of our syndicate, and the leg of a very promising mare is going a-begging. What say you?’
‘A horse? It’s sweet of you, but I’ve been mostly vegan since Annette Bening joined us.’
‘Annette Bening is dead?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
These misunderstandings being overcome, a suitable bargain was at length struck in respect of said promising mare. Satan was in.
It wasn’t long, however, before fresh cracks of mistrust appeared in the edifice of my partnership with the Lord of the Flies.
The horse’s name, for instance, soon attracted Satan’s displeasure. He was resistant to the notion that a degree of whimsy is de rigueur.
‘What the fuck kind of name,’ Satan wondered aloud, ‘is Belinda’s Dimples?’
‘You dislike the touch of gaiety?’
‘Generally speaking, yes.’
‘Whimsical names are quite the done thing, I assure you.’
‘Perhaps. But there is my position. One requires a certain…gravitas.’
‘Well, what would you suggest?’
‘The Splendour of Agony.’
‘Mmm. The thing is, Satan. It isn’t normally done to change a mount’s name.’
‘The Lodestar of Despond, then.’
‘Punters, in my experience, will tend to shy away from a runner called The Lodestar of Despond.’
‘I am as ancient as silence. I have dominion over every crawling thing. I am not appearing in the parade ring with ‘Belinda’s Dimples’.’
‘She’s named for Belinda Carlisle, you know.’
‘Shut up. Seriously? My chambers have been immeasurably brightened by Ms Carlisle’s arrival.’
‘Belinda Carlisle is dead?’
‘Again, not what I said. I do get to Vegas now and then, you know.’
We let the matter drop.
The real trouble, though, began when Belinda’s Dimples was felled by a sausage roll at a RoadChef off the M5.
This latter incident has, of course, come to be known as the Sausage Roll Heard Around the World.
Everyone has a theory about how that sausage roll came to be lodged in Belinda’s Dimples’ visual cortex. The truth is that we’ll never know.
What we do know is that when news of the untimely passing of his Cheltenham hope reached Satan, his demeanour was other than sanguine.
‘What the actual fuck?’
‘Satan. Yeah, hi. Listen–‘
‘You listen. I dropped two hundred large on a now-deceased lady horse. Discuss.’
‘Look. About that–‘
‘About fuck. I gave you a block of euro notes you could kill a dolphin with. I want it back. 48 hours.’
‘Satan, please. I lost a friend today.’
‘For a good extinction, I might get popcorn. Might. You and your she-pony? Do me a favour.’
And that, as it were, was that. We were cut off when Satan’s Range Rover went into a tunnel. And that wasn’t a euphemism. Not this time.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Just pay Satan his 200 k. Or, if you’re temporarily embarrassed, make it good on the gee-gees. Chin up.
Under normal circumstances, I might have steered just such a course. In this case, however, matters were complicated by Pippa Middleton.
I was obliged, for the preservation of Ms Middleton’s honour, to purchase a poultry farm near Tewkesbury. More than this I cannot disclose.
Given that I was over 150 grand to the good by Ladies’ Day, the acuity of the tragic contours will not escape the reader.
This is not to mention that the ‘poultry farm’ near Tewkesbury turned out to be a lay-by inhabited by three chickens and a poltergeist.
It was not, then, entirely unforeshadowed that I might be bundled into a crossover vehicle and conveyed to Satan’s ranch near Navan.
I say ‘crossover vehicle’. You’d think, if anyone has a Range Rover Evoque, it’s Satan, right? But no. A Nissan fucking Qashqai.
‘A fucking *Qashqai*?’ I managed. ‘This is the respect I get? And what the fuck colour do you call this? Rubex?’
I come to in a pine-effect jacuzzi. I become aware of a number of hysterical spaniels immediately to starboard.
‘Darling,’ says Satan. ‘You look amaze. Where’s my fucking wad?’
‘Mwah,’ I say. ‘About that.’
The world becomes pain.
I regain consciousness amid a dainty flotilla of spaniel turds.
‘I can do this all day,’ Satan says. ‘Render unto Lucifer.’
And there, mortifyingly, I remain to this day. Internet access is permitted because Satan wants me to ‘crowd source’ the 200 large.
I never hear from Pippa.
An improvised tweet sequence about ballooning with Dolly Parton. I’m afraid I have no idea.
Ah, these evenings. One thinks of the vanished summers, of the receding glories of youth. Like the time I went ballooning with Dolly Parton.
Yes, I still think of it with tenderness. I was a keyboard roadie for Jean-Michel Jarre, and Ms Parton’s LearJet was grounded in Biarritz.
I suppose that sounds terribly glamorous, but Jean-Michel, in those days, had 87 keyboard roadies and a substantial flotilla of balloons.
In fact, I rarely glimpsed the great man. My job was mostly lugging Moogs and keeping the condensation off while crossing the Alps.
Thus it was that I came to be casting disconsolately about for Mah Jongg partners in the foyer of the Hôtel du Palais.
Jean-Michel was unveiling a fourteen-hour concerto for laser glockenspiel at a local festival and I had finished my Danielle Steel novel.
There I was, then. Alone with my Mah Jongg set and my pistachio habit, a figure hardly likely to trespass upon the sphere of a goddess.
‘Why, honey,’ said a voice from within a nimbus of Chanel and zirconia, ‘if that ain’t the loneliest Mah Jongg table I ever did see.’
I stood, scattering pistachio shells and lurid paperbacks.
‘Ms…Ms Parton? Do you–?’
‘Play? Oh, surely. Well, normally leastways.’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘So, you wouldn’t care to–no, I’m sorry, I’m sure you’re–‘
‘Aw hush. Like I said, sugar. Normally, I would in a heartbeat.’
At this point, Ms Parton sank morosely into the armchair opposite, a reproduction Louis XV.
‘Can I offer you–perhaps a little–?’
‘That’s sweet of you, darling, but–ain’t they dinky, these little Barbie chairs? I’m afraid I’m a little preoccupied, as you might say.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Yup. Having myself a regular off night. But what am I doing, unburdening myself on a strange gentleman?’
I was momentarily dizzied by Ms Parton’s turn of phrase.
‘No, please,’ I said, recovering. ‘Feel free to–I’d be happy to help with your burdens.’
Ms Parton put down her handbag. It was mesmerising. Like a diamond-encrusted badger.
‘Well, the thing of it is, darling, I’m grounded.’
‘Grounded. Old Tertius, you see, my LearJet pilot–‘
‘Tertius Culvert. He’s from Tampa. You know him?’
‘I don’t think–‘
‘His daddy worked for 3M, I think it was. Invented some kind of shorthand robot. Fine people.’
‘I’ve heard of 3M.’
‘You have? Well, bless you. Anyway, Tertius had himself a big old aneurysm and he ain’t exactly airworthy.’
‘That’s terrible. Is he–?’
‘Oh, he’s going to be fine. But the doctors say he can’t go above giraffe altitude for six weeks.’
‘Not high enough?’
‘Well, honey, I got to get to Trondheim by morning, and you can’t do that at giraffe altitude without hurting a bunch of folks.’
The next moment was one I still look back on in wonder. I stood, and with awkward ceremony, I offered her my elbow.
‘Ms Part–Dolly. Your balloon to Trondheim awaits.’
She regarded me unreadably. Then she slapped her hip.
‘Why not, gosh darn it? Chocks away!’
As we crossed the foyer, a dowager countess and her Pomeranian entered, admitting a breeze. Dolly’s hair stirred.
Such nights as those are given to us only once. Over Luxembourg, Dolly offered to jettison her Fabergé cardigan as excess ballast.
‘I won’t hear of it,’ I bellowed, dumping pieces of synthesiser overboard. ‘This is the spare Moog Modular. He’s never even played it.’
Of course, there were things I might have done differently. No one chooses to behead a pregnant zebra with Frenchman’s keyboard amplifier.
But those were different times. We were over Hamburg and there was no GPS in those days. I thought it was an S&M theme park, not a zoo.
Over the North Sea, we warmed ourselves around a promotional sparkler. I attempted ‘Jolene’, may God forgive me. Dolly giggled benignly.
As we neared Jutland, Dolly retired for the evening, bedding down without complaint among the propane canisters and the flight cases.
‘I do have a show tomorrow,’ she said sleepily. ‘But y’all carry on. I like it.’
And I did. I carried on. Softly but resolutely, I sang.
I sang to the sea, to the cold that only gulls know. I sang to the oil rigs, to the scattered birthday of flames in all that mortal grey.
Actually, I’m thinking of pitching some hard-boiled children’s fiction to some people. I’ve even got my first title.
The Big Nap Time.
Once, there was this kid. Doesn’t matter what his name was. Call him Kenny, if you gotta call him something.
So, anyway. One night, Larry’s mommy comes to check on him and–what?
Yeah. What did I say? I said ‘Larry’?
Okay, Kenny. Kenny’s mommy.
Like I said, the kid’s been up for seventy-two straight hours. His name could be fucking Trixibelle for all he knows. Try to focus here.
Where was I? Oh, yeah.
So, Kenny’s mommy comes to check on him, and Kenny’s sitting there bolt upright, speed-reading The Gruffalo.
Kenny’s mommy is like, Kenny, what the fuck? Go to sleep already.
Kenny just looks at her with these big, googly eyes.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Can’t sleep?”” Kenny’s mommy says. “What are you talking about, you can’t sleep?”
Kenny’s all, like, I’m scared. Boo fucking hoo or whatever.
“Scared? Scared of what? You’re eight, for Christ’s sake. What do you got, a scary pattern on your jim-jams. Go to sleep, seriously.”
“I can’t,” Lenny says. “I just can’t sleep.”
“Bullshit,” says Lenny’s mommy. “You lie down, you close your eyes. Boom.”
Then Lenny’s like, there’s gonna be an explosion when I fall asleep?
That’s what he says, I swear to God. Half fucking nuts, this kid.
So Donny’s mommy, she does what any mother would do. She gives Donny a Jim Beam and Coke, just to take the edge off.
Then she takes off her name tag from the waffle place and pins it on his jim-jams.
“There,” she goes. “It’ll be just like Mommy’s here.”
Then she tucks Johnny in and turns out the light.
“Goodnight, sweetie. I got a shift. There’s Nicorette if you get hungry.”
Next night, it’s the same thing. When his mommy checks on him at 3 a.m., little Bobby looks like he’s put a whole fucking kilo up his nose.
She’s like, the fuck, Bobby? I thought we talked about this. Go to sleep.
Bobby gives her the googly eyes.
“I’m scared, Mommy.”
“Scared of what? Is it some kid at school? Because your daddy can make things happen, even from a federal prison.”
“It’s not that, Mommy.”
“What, then? Because Mommy has a monster rush coming up and needs to take some other medicine.”
“A monster is going to come up here?”
“It’s a fixture of speech. Now tell Mommy what you’re scared of.”
“Who the fuck is Mr Naptime?”
“Ssshhh! He’ll hear!”
So, it turns out Danny thinks there’s this creep called Mr Naptime who wears purple pants and lives in his dreams. Kid’s a straight-A wacko.
Jimmy’s mom is thinking, Jesus, this is some Stephen King bullshit up in here. Why me, where did I go wrong, eck cetera. Chick’s hysterical.
So, next morning–well, technically it’s next afternoon–she brings little Jimmy to this bar she knows called Actual Fucking Nicky’s Place.
The bar’s got some other name, but everybody calls it that on account of there used to be some other Nicky’s place where the guy was dead.
She marches little Ricky up to this booth right at the back where there’s this cybernetic biker called, I swear to God, Ding-Dong Micky.
I say cybernetic. He had this arm and like a quarter of his face that some MIT guys made him after he got back from Afghanistan.
And Ding-Dong Micky was because his buddies wanted to test whether the arm was bulletproof. Turned out he was and they weren’t.
She lets little Benny get a load of this guy, then she takes him by the chin and she goes, well? Is Mr Naptime scarier than Ding-Dong Micky?
Benny just nods. Real slow like.
She thanks Ding-Dong Micky for his time. “And bless you for what you did for our country’s independence.”
So then, Benny’s mom is thinking, who the fuck do I know that’s scarier than Ding-Dong Micky. Then it comes to her. Connie Five Stars.
Connie Five Stars pretty much says what goes in the what do you call it now? The Asian community or whatever. Runs a serious crew.
The way she got her name was, she opened up this Cantonese joint to give her nephew a start, who was apparently this fucking wok genius.
Be that as it may, Connie is a family-centric kind of boss and she wants to do right by this kid. So she works her press contacts.
And everybody does their piece, except for this one smart-ass. Runs a blog called Eat, Pay, Leave. You believe that shit? Fucking prick.
This asshole puts up a hatchet job on his blog, and it’s like 14,000 words. You could starve reading this shit. Connie reads every word.
Now, Connie’s not what you might call the letter to the editor type. She likes to be probiotic. Boom, get it done.
What does Connie do? Call her publicist? Get some juice? Fuck that. She hosts another press night. Only this time, there’s a shark tank.
Now, everyone is standing around sipping Grey Goose and there’s an an actual visible fucking shark in a tank in the room.
They all got “issues” with eating shark, but nobody wants to say nothing in case it’s racist or some shit. Connie likes that just fine.
Long story short, Mister Tofu Weekly Dot Com gets lowered into that shit at a key juncture. Everybody claps. Isn’t this place refreshing?
And what do you know? Eat, Pay, Leave feels the time is right to take a “second look” at Connie’s nephew’s joint. Hallelujah.
Now, here’s the other thing about Connie Five Stars. Apart from she likes her leather a lot, how this chick looks pretty much checks out.
You might even say, if you had reached a point in your life where you wanted to end the suffering, that Connie was verifiably fucking hot.
Thing was with Connie, you might be sitting in front of a hot woman, but all your lizard brain saw was this fucked-up fish from a mile down.
So, Tommy’s mom is like, is Mr Naptime scarier than Connie Five Stars?
Tommy looks up.
“You mean the Charlie’s Angels lady?”
Tommy’s mom is all, Jesus, I’m so sorry. What do I do with this kid?
Connie shushes her. She knows Lucy. It’s cool. Ease up.
Timmy shakes his head.
“Mr Naptime is scarier.”
Then he pees his pants, right on the fucking Siberian tiger rug.
And that’s it. The story don’t got no satisfying décolletage or whatever.
There ain’t no moral either, except that life is basically a cocksucker and maybe you should hug your kid once in while.
The fucking end.
I met a Robin named Keith once. I wrote about him in a series of tweets.
Oh, I almost forgot. I made friends with a robin. His name is Keith. You’d like him.
Keith comes and perches on the spade after I’ve been digging in the garden. Robins do that. And my friend Keith is one. A robin, I mean.
Keith is ‘well hard’. His words.
‘Aren’t you brave?’ I said, the first time he perched on the spade.
‘I’m well hard, me.’
‘You ever had a sparrow perch here?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Not that I recall.’
‘That’s right. Ain’t got the bottle.’
Keith let that hang there. Let me take it in. Then he continued.
‘Ain’t many birds got my kind of bottle. Got to go up a few sizes, innit.’
‘Up a few sizes?’
‘Till you get to one as hard as me. Next one’s an eagle, mate.’
‘A fucking eagle. With talents.’
‘Talons, do you mean?’
‘Ooh, Bill Oddie over here.’
‘I’m sorry, I–‘
‘I’m perched here with actual feathers and he’s correcting me.’
‘I really didn’t–‘
‘Here’s me wolfing down a worm, right? A fucking worm? And I’m getting an orthography lesson.’
‘You mean ‘orni–‘
‘Ooh, excuse *me*! Made another faux pair, have I? Another gap in my bird knowledge, is there?’
‘I mean, what would I know?’
‘Look, I’m sorry.’
‘I mean, I was only born in a fucking egg, weren’t I?’
‘I really do defer to your expertise.’
‘Oh, no. You carry on.’
‘Keith, I’m sorry, okay?’
‘Currently resident in a nest, innit.’
‘I’m sorry, Keith.’
‘That’s more like it.’
‘What was I saying?’
‘About the eagles.’
‘Oh, yeah. You’ve got to go up to eagles, normally, to get this hard.’
‘Mind you, some of them sea birds can handle themselves. Your gannet would come off respectable in a bout. Fucking weirdos, though.’
‘Oh, yeah. Known fact. Sea birds are head cases, most of them. Stands to reason.’
‘You ever had two weeks at the seaside?’
‘Once or twice.’
‘How’d you feel by the end?’
‘Keen to get home, I suppose.’
‘Exactly. Two weeks at the seaside, you start cracking up.’
‘I see your point.’
‘Whereas your herring gull, say–he’s doing a life term, innit. Imagine, whirling round a fucking pier, rest of your natural.’
‘I’ve never thought of it that way.’
‘Oh, yeah. Twelve fucking Monkeys material, the lot of them. Suicides ain’t unheard of.’
‘I saw this gull once, he’s nicked a cap gun off a kid on the pier, right? And he’s only tried to shoot himself in the face with it.’
‘Oh, yes. Tragical event. Mind you, you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh. Gulls ain’t that good at pointing weapons at their faces.’
‘Christ. What happened?’
‘Dropped the cap gun on the roof of a chip van. Went and bashed his head off some rocks for a bit.’
‘Did he live? Oh yeah. You can’t kill them gulls. Course, he’s lost his memory, so he ends up trying it again. Vacuous circle, innit.’
‘You having that?’
‘That worm. You having it?’
‘It’s all yours. Look, Keith–‘
‘Don’t mind if I do.’
‘So, Keith, I’ve enjoyed our chat, but I’ve got quite a bit of gardening to do.’
‘Oh, don’t mind me. You’ll hardly know I’m here.’
‘Right. Well. I’ll just–‘
‘What you planting, anyway?’
‘Er, ferns mostly.’
‘Right, then. I’ll just–‘
‘Ferns. Useless, innit. Can’t perch on them. Fuck all insects. Why can’t you plant some nice trees.’
‘What? Everywhere. There’s a magnolia just over your head. I’m underplanting it with ferns.’
‘Eh? What for?’
‘For. Why, like?’
‘I’m not following, Keith.’
‘Birds, mate. Where do we fly?’
‘You do know your stuff, don’t you? That’s right. The sky.’
‘I really don’t–‘
‘And the sky is?’
‘Above the ground. It’s basic Geoff-physics, innit.’
‘Geoff-physics. Which, I’m sure you’ve got a Ph.D. and everything, but I know what I know. Ferns get in the way.’
‘In the way?’
‘Your ideal configuration, right, would be sky-tree-worms.’
‘I’m not saying don’t be creative. But yeah, basically.’
‘Oh, no. I’m a simple creature, me. My needs are few. A bird bath, maybe. And you might SkyPlus David Attenborough.’
‘Such production values. And he’s doing a special on the condor. Useful in a fight, your condor.’
‘I imagine so.’
‘Oh, yes. You want a condor or two around you when a fricassée develops.’
‘Technical term. Mind you, apples and oranges.’
‘Apples? Keith, I’m finding it–‘
‘Weight advantage, innit. Scale me up to condor size? Oof. All bets are off. Apex predator. End of.’
‘No question. Mind you, I ain’t eating llamas. No chance. Like you come home from the pub and assembled an Ikea sheep.’
‘Keith, I’m going inside now.’
‘And yaks. Don’t get me started on yaks. Like Pat Butcher hiding under a bleeding rug.’
‘I’m hard, me.’
‘Yeah, you go, mate. I’ll keep an eye on things. Fuck off, thrush. This is Sparta, innit.’
An improvised series of tweets about a minor deities conference in Luxembourg.
Ghal, the Sumerian god of irrigation, leaned back in seat 15E and sighed. That is, he adjusted his uprightness minutely. And sighed.
‘Hey, do you mind?’
The passenger immediately to Ghal’s rear, a large, pink man in a perplexing shirt, seemed irate.
‘I beg your pardon.’
‘You’re jiggling my iPad, man.’
‘I have no idea what you are saying,’ Ghal replied.
‘Hello, Sumerian. How do you do?’
Ghal was distracted by an insurgence of pain beneath his tray table. The small child to his right was decanting noodle soup over his lap.
‘This vehicle contains only suffering,’ Ghal observed. ‘I knew this was a mistake.’
He attempted to slump in his seat. His spine squeaked.
A tanned and immensely tall man leaned across the aisle.
‘Hey, buddy. MD13, right?’
‘Are you talking to me?’
‘MD13? The minor deities conference? You’re a delegate, right?’
‘Oh, yes. How did you–?’
‘You got quite a nimbus going on there, man.’
‘The nimbus. Of course.’
The man extended a thickly muscled hand slightly smaller than a cereal box.
‘Hveldar. Norse god of friction.’
Ghal introduced himself. ‘Friction?’
‘You’d be amazed at the stuff that needs friction to work.’
‘Like carpet burns?’
‘Not the example I would have picked. But for instance, yeah.’
‘You don’t,’ Ghal ventured, ‘sound very Norse. If you don’t mind my saying so.’
‘Nah, man. My family moved to Venice Beach when I was two.’
‘I see. And what does a young god of friction do in Venice Beach?’
‘Oh, you know. A little lifeguard work. I was a paralegal for a while.’
‘But no outlet for your talents?’
‘Not a whole bunch. People in Venice Beach moisturise a lot.’
‘Ah,’ said Ghal. ‘Rather limiting.’
‘How about you? How’s the irrigation thing working out?’
‘I help out at a hydrotherapy centre three days a week.’
‘Gotta keep busy, man.’
‘So, do you know any of the other delegates?’ Ghal asked.
‘Well. There’s Qzlotl, he’s the Aztec god of utensils.’
‘They had utensils?’
‘And Officinus, the Roman god of casual trading, he’s a keynote speaker again. Dude had, like, 102 slides last year.’
‘How very dull.’
‘Oh, and Anyssa, the Egyptian goddess of storage solutions, she–‘
‘I know who she is.’
‘Ooh. A little history, huh?’
They touched down at Luxembourg Findel, where they were greeted by glum outbuildings and a noncommittal drizzle. Hveldar was excited.
‘Luxembourg, huh? I’ve never been to this part of France.’
Ghal regarded him carefully, but said nothing. Hveldar unfolded himself hugely.
‘They’ve got us in a Novotel. Is that good?’
‘No. There will be pictures of muffins at breakfast. And a pianist with a criminal record.’
‘Hotels are awesome,’ Hveldar enthused. ‘Do they have beef here?’
‘I imagine so.’
‘I’m gonna get like eight steaks and a pedicure.’
An elderly lady tapped Hveldar’s hip.
‘I’m afraid I can’t reach my bag. You’re a fine, strapping young man. Would you mind awfully?’
‘Of course, ma’am.’
With calm gallantry, Hveldar picked the old woman up and slid her carefully into the overhead bin.
‘You reach it now?’
‘In the taxi, Ghal turned to Hveldar. ‘You like to ‘use your powers for good’, don’t you?’
‘Sure, I do what I can. You don’t practise?’
Ghal stared out at the traffic, and at the quietly baleful suburbs of Luxembourg.
‘There was a time,’ he said, ‘when I tried. I tried.’
‘But you’re the Sumerian god of irrigation, man. There’s gotta be tons of folks you could help.’
‘You’d think so, wouldn’t you?’
‘What, you couldn’t end a drought or two?’
‘You know what happens, Hveldar? When you irrigate a place that couldn’t grow crops before?’
‘They get to eat?’
‘They get invaded. A war starts. Oh, yes. Maybe not immediately, but give it a year. Roving bands. Raging hordes.’
‘Because they have some corn trees?’
‘Something like that. They never had food, so they didn’t have weapons. Now they’re a fucking buffet.’
‘Sounds harsh, man.’
‘It is, Hveldar. Everything is.’
‘Dude, what the fuck? There’s a shop that sells pain?’
‘That’s a bakery.’
The sign, in the foyer of the hotel, had been carefully composed.
INT. SOC. OF MINOR DITTIES
A goddess with eight arms and a clipboard accosted them.
‘Gentlemen,’ she scanned them briefly. ‘Good trip? I’m Ajita, events management.’
‘Totally,’ Hveldar said. ‘We had pretzels on the plane. There were like four in each pack, it was insane. We’re jazzed, right, Ghal?’
‘There are mistakes on the sign.’
‘I’m sorry?’ Ajita said.
‘The welcome sign,’ Ghal pointed. ‘Minor ditties’? And that apostrophe?’
‘Ditties?’ said Hveldar. ‘Is that a word?’
‘Yes, but it’s the wrong one. Unless we’re double booked with the tiny songs people.’
‘Tiny songs people? You mean like pixies?’
‘I should remind you gentlemen that this is a drug-free event.’
‘I’m just going to check in.’
In the hotel bar, he ordered a dry martini. The irony, even now. Outside, there was Luxembourg, scoured of glamour by efficiency and rain.
The pianist, pockmarked and glossy-suited, leered at Ghal in greeting before plunging into a rashly-ornamented Billy Joel medley.
‘You know any Bach?’ Ghal interrupted him.
‘He is no working tonight, sir.’
‘I see. Tell him I said hello.’
Hveldar ambled massively into the bar and equipped himself with a jug of margarita.
‘Dude,’ he said, taking a seat. ‘You won’t believe it.’
‘So, I go for a walk around, right?’
‘Where did you go?’
‘Strasbourg, Brussels, around town.’
‘You walked to Brussels?’
‘I was stretching my legs. Never mind that.’
Hveldar glanced around, then hunched over the table. ‘I saw things.’
‘Nah, man. It goes deeper than that. They’ve got this whole secret government thing here.’
‘Secret government? Hveldar, I think you–‘
‘Seriously, man. I passed this, like, ‘parliament’ building?’ Hveldar’s air quotes could have torn down a stadium. ‘And a ‘secretariat’?’
‘Hveldar, those aren’t hidden. The buildings are enormous. It’s the EU.’
‘Eeyoo? Like a secret owl thing?’
‘What? No, the European Union.’
‘The European Union? Right. So, who’s in this ‘union’?’
‘France, Germany, Finland–‘
‘Wait up, there are mermaids in this thing?’
‘Maybe we should talk about something else. Did you do any shopping?’
‘A little. And I got a tattoo.’
‘I meant the other where.’
‘Oh, right!’ Hveldar laughed colossally and drained the margarita jug. ‘It’s on my left pec. Wanna see?’
‘I suppose so. What’s it of?’
‘You got a tattoo of an accordion in Maastricht?’
‘I was trying to fit in. Check it out.’
Hveldar tugged up his pink Lacoste polo shirt, exposing a tectonic chest and a sub-prison tattoo.
‘Pretty outrageous, right?’
‘Hveldar, that’s an anaconda.’
‘Right. What did I say?’
‘Europe, man. I should have got a Rough Guide or something.’
They ordered more drinks. Hveldar picked up the fresh jug of margarita. ‘So what about you, man? What did you do?’
Ghal sipped his martini.
‘I thought of home, Hveldar. Of Uruk and Kish, heaving and rainless. The rust-bright bricks. The wailing.
‘I thought of the times when I was called for. A widow and an unweaned child, far from kin and comfort. The small things I could do.
‘We mattered then, Hveldar. We were mighty. We were regent over every delta, every locust.’
‘Far out.’ Hveldar crunched the ice cubes from the margarita jug. ‘Did you get the wi-fi password?’