Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Leonardo Mind for Modern Times

Web knows my brain seemed glisterly surfaced like a frosted turnip in furthest Buchan & Strathbogie, at that moment of a winter eventide when the thoughts of bullocks and farming lads alike turn darkly towards Maggie the buxom kitchen maid. But, my mister, I struggled onwards through the gloomy mud, always hoping.

Finally to your door I arrived, impressions careening around my Megamacranium Pro 7.1, slidy sensations insinuating themselves from all sides and several dimensions into the streams and torrents of my consciousnesses. A Charlie Parker clone was singing inappropriately in a microtonal scale, and I could hear a Schubert playing very badly in an upstairs room. Another day, another Schubert....  The oceans on a far planet heaved and crashed as I embarked on that dubious quinquereme with my poor family for distant lands, in hopes of betterment. No sooner were the sails bellying out in the scorching wind than for the seventh time I was giving birth, that old familiar pain reappearing as if the intervening three months hadn’t already passed in soft forgetfulness.

Consequentially as I draw fluently on the blessed Nitrulous, shapes rise up kaleidoscopically lit with flaming colours, each one an ethereal love, a visceral stab of anger, a frightening shock, twining and gyring, sighing, roaring, shivering like the newborn Tibetan on a summer plateau I now become, born even while giving birth, my entire long life fast-forwarded through careless youth, disciplined study, hard graft, recognition, exponential inner growth, chaotic turbulence, travel to all parts of the observable world and in my meditation to the centre of the galaxy where finally I pass into a different lightbody, ever thankful for the stabilising effects of upgrade 3.2.

Briefly I was again in Greece, feeling as though for the first time that early sunshine in the cool air, the precursor of summer-day heat. I felt the old rising tide of excitement at the prospect of entering Delphi, seeing the precious columns static in the morning air, the green wooded slopes shimmering in the distance beyond the sanctuary.

Then all these become once more the immobile sepia photographs in a folded album, snapped shut as I summon up my swimming emotions, all bottled and rendered into this poor creature now at your service, my mister. Your environs was green as glass in my infra-ready, then even in my haste I managed not to cock over the kmilk as I knicked, downlidding my instracted toxt to your iDoor. We Xchanged grittings, Allo, also, thank for opening, have a nice, don’t forget the next i-Hinge-oiling in 315 days, Webwilling.

My mister, I am coming.

Leonardo Mind for Modern Times
I take refuge in the works of Leonardos 1-3 and of J. S. Bach first edition naturally and in the paintings of the Cro Magnon Artists. I take refuge in the very first Beethoven and the Original Sibelius and in the Works of Ur-Shakespeare. I take refuge in the depths of my esoteric mind and in the arts where progress comes from unremitting pursuit. The arcane über-skills, to project bright lines on paper for drawing, to rotate three-dimensional images in my interior imagination or re-mix Charlie Parker and flamenco on a guitar of my own making. I take pleasure in the ceaseless procession of images, sounds, words and invented scenarios that flood into the creative light of Leonardo Mind for Modern Times.
May this meditation be to the benefit of all, although it probably won’t, bearing in Mind how fucking frightened we all are of achieving anything some vacuous cunt might term élitist.….

Out loud, Memus44 says, “Mrs. Wolfbane, how’s the schedule looking this morning?”

“Coffee-Detox. Sticky Bun. Mr. Bogindollo. Dr. Wolfbane, No Relation. Curare Jim Justinhaugh. Pitifully Small Lunch.”

Mrs. Venezia Wolfbane can be remarkably provocative at times.

“Then downloading. Research for your book…… ah, ‘Wank Yourself Slim’, is it?”

Again that mischievous violet flash from the ocular semiotics department.

“Incidentally, Dr. Memus, Scintilla is getting ever more unstable, and that’s saying something.”

“Yes, I don’t think I can put off the journey to Aberdeen any longer. In fact, I spoke to Professor Strellitz a couple of days ago, so we have an appointment on Thursday afternoon.”

“Fine, I’ll get Mr. Wolfbane to make sure the MG is working by then.”

Parking at the Intitute of Medical Sciences wasn’t as difficult as Memus44 had anticipated. The attendant, (Northern Philosophy, First Class Hons.), found a space for the MG without difficulty, and the only problem then was to get Scintilla across the paved area and into the stairwell unmolested by students, who were powerless to resist the cloud of pheromones released by Scintilla’s wildly oscillating parasympathetic circuits.

Somewhat out of breath, his knuckles bleeding from fending off amorous youths, but still grasping the gyrating and gibbering Scintilla by her aluminium wrist, Memus44 reached the 5th floor, and knocked on the door marked Professor W. A. Strellitz, Director of Anthropomimetics.

“Wolfie, nice to see you!”

“Well, now, Memus,” said Strellitz, his big gray moustache bristling, while reflections of the corridor lights twinkled from his massive domed pate.

“Bring her in, then. Oh dear, I see. Actually we’ve had a bad run recently with some of our sentiency algorithms. When meaningfulness generation is taken to the sixth layer, the quantum phenomena break down. We need to review how multi-dimensional contextual stability and orientation are ordinarily homeostatted in mammalian brains – it’s the key to so much, and not only in anthropomimetics.”

“But just let me page my senior lecturer, Dr. Flugelpik. He’s on secondment from Kylie St. Petersburg at Genetics, and he does the gynaecoid stuff for me at the moment. Big F will take care of Scintilla while we have a wee catch-up. I’m sure the stability patch he’s developed will do the trick.

“Maybe I can offer you some Chasse Spleen ’22? The University managed to corner the market in this particular vintage, by great good fortune the Principal was doing some research in Bordeaux at the very moment the balloon went tits up.”

“Splendid, thank you.” Memus44 replied. “This really takes me back! But you seem to be doing quite well for yourself?”

“Mustn’t complain”, replied Strellitz, turning business-like. “Now, while Scintilla’s in the Lab, I need to know how things are progressing with the relationship. Where are you now on the compassion-anger spectrum?”

“Look, Strellitz, there is a problem, actually,” said Memus44. “See, when it comes to vulnerability, certain things penetrate to my hard-wiring level. I clearly remember the expression on a child’s face at the circus – must be fifty years ago and more - when he hears sweeties being unwrapped and turns round to look at the people in the row behind him. I’m a sucker for hungry beggars on the street too, specially if they’ve a lab with them, of course. And Scintilla does project a certain attitude-set, which makes me feel protective more than anything else. Towards a Gizmo, for heaven’s sake!”

“Mm, hmm,” Strellitz replied, wincing visibly at the term, but continuing to pour from a decanter, “I see. Maybe the real issue is your antipathy towards misuse of position, then. How to handle the dynamics of a power differential?”

“Even if the problem is my own hang-up,” retorted Memus44, “that doesn’t change the necessity for the software to be able to evolve behaviours to deal with it.”

Strellitz’s response was the slightest of gestures, signifying receptivity.

“Maybe you can imagine…..,” continued Memus44, sipping the Chasse Spleen appreciatively and relaxing in an armchair, “….looking back on how I missed out on quite a few opportunities, for no reason other than that I was free to do so. Didn’t consider the hurt. Mis-use of situation, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well, well,” put in Strellitz, “We’ve all been there, in our youth, haven’t we? Who knows the springs and origins of our genetic predisposition to be attracted to one rather than another? And remember, in those times it was possible to affect a quasi-ethical antipathy towards carnality most people today would find completely unintelligible.”

“That might have been an element, sure enough,” replied Memus44, “and so too might have been that toxic little hang-up which inhibits action where the outcome seems too easy: ‘Only pursue the unattainable’. Of course, you’re right, there could also have been an element of intuition, in that I discerned an ultimate incompatibility; or, to put the best possible face on it, that I was constitutionally averse to taking advantage.”

“And, what was her name, though? Eloïse, Adéle?” Strellitz put in, with a slight twinkle.

Alpha Romeo to O, Mega
“Oh well, that was different,” said Memus. “Oh, okay then. If you really must, the story of Adrienne.”

“Hang on a moment,” said Strellitz, “I’ll turn on the audio recorder.”

Memus44 paused reflectively.

“I would have been in my second year of ancient Greek and Comparative Philology,” he began.

“She was a student of engineering, a pretty girl, with a lop-sided grin and dark hair flecked with golden-brown. Sometimes she would tell me really interesting things about the forces wind can exert on walls, or how to calculate the maximum permissable snow-loading on roof structures, and I would try out the latest theories my studies were sparking off.

“Mmm. Reading his Symposium I had become convinced that Plato must surely have been influenced by contemporary ideas in sculpture. At the time he was writing, the marvellous achievements of Pheidias at Olympia and in the Parthenon had only very recently been unveiled, and they could hardly have failed to have had an immense impact on intellectual life right across the Greek-speaking world.

“I was thinking about this as I parked my old Alfa soft-top in the woods one Friday night, and while Adrienne and I did some preliminary fumbling. Unhooking her bra and disengaging my tongue for a moment, I happened to mention that there are quite a number of useful clues in Plato’s writing. For example, his idea of perfect forms could quite credibly have drawn its origins from the sculptor’s wax model, which becomes the original for a plaster mold, which can then be used to make subsidiary waxes, and so multiply the original model any number of times, even if the secondary models are always slightly less detailed than the original or “perfect” form.

“Slipping the thick winter coat off her shoulders and sliding her thin woollen jumper upwards, over her nipples, erect and solid in the cold car-air, I described my view of the Symposium as a marvellously structured novelistic work, with distinct layers.

“‘Each successive speaker, as the focus moves from one individual to the next round the party-room, has a particular angle, as well as his own idiosyncratic way of missing the point. Appropriately enough for a book about metaphysics, there are seven of these layers in all. One could compare it to one of those Russian dolls, each set of ideas constituting one babushka layer.

“‘And, at the centre, the Priestess of Apollo, who actually seems to have read The Upanishads.’

“‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard Plato’s Symphonium’, Adrienne whispered, ‘Is that by Berlin Phil?’

“The tops of her silky nylon stockings made a marvellously soft trapezium with the short suspender-straps, and a couple of fingers could enjoy that little window of smooth opportunities, eventually moving caudally to a yet more comforting zone.”

“Steady on, now,” exclaimed Strellitz, although his grin had been getting wider for a while.

Memus44 went on: “Anyway….. ‘Ah, Socrates’, I mumbled.

“‘Mmm, mmm mmm, mmm’, said Adrienne.

“‘Always patrolling the limits of his knowledge, and acutely aware of his own ignorance of what lies beyond.’

“‘Mmm, yes, mmm, yes!’

“I continued, ‘Then there is the very interesting incident of the Silenus of Alkibiades. Alkibiades arrives at the Symposium party rather late and a bit drunk, but still highly articulate and percipient.’

“Adrienne was become ever more interested, her hands adeptly unbuttoning and unzipping.”

“I’m beginning to see your philosophical point”, said Strellitz, a touch dryly, although it occurred to Memus44 that his comments might be aimed more at the Recorded Research Assessment people than himself.

“I endeavoured to explain to Adrienne, whose attention I must say never wavered, how intrigued I was by the idea that the Silenus figures mentioned by Alkibiades might refer to technical processes in sculpture.

“I’d observed that the term ‘Sileni’ refers to water spirits in the ancient Greek world, with characteristics or connotations of ‘water bubbling as it flows’, and from my experience of sculpture-casting, that's a recognisable description of molten bronze being poured into a mold.

“You may recall that other attributes of the Sileni are said to be horse-like. Now, in the lost-wax method of bronze-casting, the receiving cup of the ceramic mold is like an upside-down hoof in appearance, and its runners & risers are like a horse’s legs and tail.

“‘So you see, the term ‘Silenus’ used by ancient craftsmen in referring to a ceramic mold, which is central to the lost-wax method and which is subsequently broken open to reveal a cast figure, seems, according to my theory, to have had its origins in a reference to the water-spirits, the Sileni. In the Symposium, Plato has Alkibiades make a multiple pun based on Socrates’ physical similarity to the satyr whose name was Silenus. And he says that although he has an ugly and off-putting exterior, once you get inside his outer layers there is something beautiful to be found.’

“’Yes yes YESYES!’ Adrienne exclaimed at this point in my description, which was delightfully insightful of her”.

“Yes indeed, Memus,” said Strellitz, poker-faced.

“‘Could you maybe just hold me,’ Adrienne was murmuring, as I segue’d into another theory of mine, the one that describes how the Greek alphabet is actually a series of pictograms or little diagrams showing how the sound of each letter is produced by the lips, teeth, tongue and palate, viewed either from in front or laterally. The extraordinary thing is, every single one of the 25 Greek letters in lower case is recognisable in this way as a pictogram.”

“Oh, interesting,” said Strellitz, “so it’s not actually an alphabet after all!”

“It can be difficult to keep the thread,” said Memus44, “when you have to disentangle arms from legs and legs from gear-sticks and steering-wheels, find discarded items of underclothing under car-seats in the dark, all the time trying to avoid snagging a finger on sharp bits of under-seat-mooring, replacing fascia parts and so on dislodged by an incautious foot. Getting rid of squishy wet articles too, that can be a problem if you’re determined not to sully and degrade the environment by chucking things out of the window through a process of extraordinary defenestration.”

“Yes, I’m with you there. So apart from those little trips in the car, how did things go? I’m assuming not entirely well?”

“Oh, no, everything was fine. But then, one day she didn’t turn up in the Students' Union Bar as we’d arranged.”

“Oh dear, had you fallen out?”

“No, there wasn’t any particular reason why she would go off like that.”

“And so you never saw her again?”

“No. Well, yes, but ….I found out she’d been sectioned.”

“Oh no! Acute psychosis?”

“Um – no, not exactly….”

“Go on, Memus, tell me,” said Strellitz quietly, swallowing a hefty bolus of his Moulis-en-Médoc as pre-medication.

“Well, you know I gave up the language studies after a serious disagreement with the Department of Ancient Lore. They had seemed to think very little of my suggestion that the ending of The Symposium was the first fade-out in the long history of media studies, and marked me down accordingly in the exam. Going from an average of 97% in the course-work to 61% in the written was a bit of an insult.

“Anyhow, a place had unexpectedly become available in Medicine, and I decided to go for it. At the time I had the idea that Hippocratic medicine and modern pharmacodynamics might have something in common that could lead to a unified system which could assimilate selected parts of both ancient and modern medicine, and I was keen to follow it up. But developments in the curriculum, in what you specialists call nowadays paedogogy, meant that I had to put these ambitions on the back burner for a while.

“A couple of years later, after the standard course in botany, still around in those days as the foundation for materia medica, I joined the mainstream medical school and began my studies of physiology, medical physics and anatomy.

“At the start of term, a small group of us were being shown round ‘The Drain’, as the Anatomy Department at Marischal College used to be called. You won’t have forgotten the pervasive smell of formalin that used to come from the dissecting room. Anyway, I noticed that on the upper shelf of a display cabinet in the Departmental Museum stood a series of glass jars, each containing a preserved human head.

“In each specimen, the scalp had been incised and folded down over the forehead, and the upper part of the skull had been removed so as to expose the brain. The faces were pallid and shiny-skinned, the expression either entirely vacant or worried-looking.

“Each jar had an old-fashioned hand-written label indicating the details, thus:

Age 43

Age 56

Age 29

“Reading between these sparse lines, one might understand how for these people the days of freedom and lucidity had flooded past, until suddenly the realisation had dawned within each brain, now beautifully fixed and preserved in a glass jar on a green-painted shelf, that time’s flux had reached an end, that summer was finished and all summers too, beyond recall.

“Perhaps a happy childhood had changed imperceptibly into a perplexed middle-age, succeeded not by resolution but by a terrifying slide into dementia. For others, maybe life had always been a desperate struggle against people and circumstances, with never an inkling of what it might be like to live free of the control of some monstrous predator.

“With my mind rapidly filling with these sad reflections, I almost bumped into a large glass jar standing on the floor, directly facing the mad collection of insane heads.

“With a shocking chill, I realised it contained the body of a young woman preserved in formalin. She must have been quite a find, for there were no obvious signs of injury or disease to explain her demise, and her terminal circumstances must have been such that the anatomists were able to take complete possession of her dead body.

“Some of the students thought the girl was a suicide, to have died so young, yet evidently not in childbirth. Maybe she had cut her wrists, or rather her left one, for there was no way of telling, since the jar contained only her neatly prepared right sagittal section.

“Kneeling as if to fit more comfortably into the confined space, with her internal components displayed for our education, anal canal, vagina, pelvic organs, diaphragm, vertebral bodies and spinal cord terminating in the delicate cauda equina, the great vessels and vital organs in the thorax, heart, lungs and their coverings and attachments, her long, dark, gold-flecked hair floating lightly in the preservative fluid, she had been consigned to a cold and permanent womb only a couple of decades after leaving her mother’s warm interior.

“‘No photographs survive,’ I was thinking, leaning for support against the glass, despite the looks of alarm from the others, ‘of you looking out from a sepia interior with cheerful or optimistic face, bright and intelligent, or downcast and fearful, lately sentient of some chill diagnosis. No letters arrive, addressed c/o Aberdeen University Anatomy Department, no text-messages pile up in your mobile phone, carelessly abandoned somewhere in a girlish bag, no e-mails accumulate on a run-down laptop.’

“That evening as I leave the Anatomy Department, the white-coated technician turns out the lights, with a series of loud jarring metallic clicks from the brass switches. The gallery of insane heads look down at Adrienne, who stares back across the darkness with one eye and a half-smile.”

Comparatively Linguistic
The dense silence is broken by a tap at Strellitz’s door. He turns off the recorder and Dr. Flugelpik enters, closely followed by a radiant Scintilla.

“Hi fellas!’ she cries. Her accent seems to be Australian, and her hair is darker and longer. “C’mon then, Memus, what are we waiting for?”

Memus44 and Scintilla rattle down the steel-stepped stairs of the Institute and out into the sunshine, where the parking attendant is polishing the MG’s headlights.

As the car leaves Aberdeen and heads north, Scintilla begins scribbling. She passes the note over, and Memus44 reads: “Pssst. Urgently need discuss position of Gothic between ancient tongues & modern Doric. Stop in woods after Oldmeldrum.”

They arrive home very late that evening. Mrs Venezia Wolfbane has long since departed for Fraserburgh’s bright lights.

Copyright © Donnie Ross 2010
An alternative stand-alone version of Scintilla  first appeared in http://www.rammenas.nl/

Sunday, 28 March 2010

In the Swim

I was desperately tired by the time I turned at the deep end of the pool, striking out in vain pursuit of the others, who by now were nearly at the finish.

Four years earlier, when I was about eight years old, I’d decided it was past time for me to learn. All the other boys my age could swim, some could even dive very neatly off the pier into the deep waters of the North Sea.

I went down to the harbour with a few friends, and we changed into our navy blue swimming trunks on the crumbling pier. It was high tide, and the other boys swam around shouting as I walked gingerly down the steps. When the water was up to my shoulders, I pushed off as hard as I could, striking out at the chilly water and plunging forwards… and down! As it turned out, this wasn’t swimming after all, but fortunately a couple of boys managed to drag me back to the safety of the steps.

By the end of the afternoon I could swim, after a fashion. Only much later did it strike me that skinny little chaps like me couldn’t build up much endurance swimming in the sea, since the water was far too cold to stay in for more than a few minutes at a time.

And so, a few years later, when pupils were asked to volunteer for the swimming gala I responded, “Oh yes, sir, I can swim!”

We all appeared at the swimming pool on the appointed day. The water seemed unnaturally warm. When the race started, I was immediately left behind, and by the end, all the other contestants had scrambled out long before I got to the shallow end of the pool, still over a length behind. I could hear the laughter and some sarcastic shouts from the crowd of watching schoolboys.

I touched the tiles, turned clumsily, and set off back down the length of the pool, which by now seemed very far away. The crowd fell silent, and I plodded on with my slow breaststroke, becoming ever more exhausted. Soon the crowd was applauding and cheering, but I scarcely heard anything, as I concentrated on keeping swimming.

When eventually I completed the required number of lengths, I had to be helped to climb out of the water. At the start of the gym class some days later, the episode even got a mention from the teacher.

Copyright © Donnie Ross 2010


A few summers ago, Strellitz decided he would celebrate the solstice by using a large catapult of ancient Greek design to hurl a hundredweight of molten iron half a mile into the sea just off the harbour. The trajectory would pass above the rusty old caravan belonging to Troutie and his paramour Dr. Bratwurst, and although it was unfortunate there would be a launch on the same day from the Forbes Boatyard nearby, mathematics is mathematics. Gravity isn’t going to change, said Strellitz to himself, so I just have to make sure the wind speed and direction figure in the calculations. And to back up his optimistic view, there had been a whole series of successful test-flights, properly documented, each trial involving a payload of breeze-blocks, with no greater problem than a skewered Russian trawler and a moderately surprised whale.

In a bungalow just a couple of hundred yards down the shore road, Curare Jim pulls on a frayed pair of black ankle-wellies and bounds off his armchair, inadvertently dropping last week’s Sunday Post, open at The Broons, on the floor, where Bruno immediately seizes it and rips the entire paper page by page into a neat pile of quarto sheets all within the space of 25 picoseconds. Jeepers O’Reilly, says Curare Jim, but does nothing to stop Bruno from running off with all the news including The Doc Replies and Holiday on Nothing into the little patch of garden and round the back of the polytunnel, a wonderful source of lettuce all summer long, though to Bruno that was a matter of little import, he being more interested in positioning an object of contention between himself and another person in such a way that the latter would be unable to perceive exactly what he was up to, except that it would be both inconvenient and disreputable.

Are you coming, demands Memus44, looking back as he opened the garden gate. Curare Jim shouts on the dog and they all three take their time walking down Shore Street towards the boatyard, Bruno enjoying the many olfactory surprises encountered at almost every step, while the two lads comment on the way the full tide is coming right up to the old road itself and surging with a wonderful magical glassy power against the land, like a metaphorical ram and yowe.

Up ahead, the new trawler on the slip is silhouetting itself attractively against the sky, and the crowds on the Old Harbour pier can be made out, their shouts and cheers audible. Over to the east, the New Harbour is engaged in a project all of its own, gradually sliding down into the cold North Sea over an extensive period of a century or so, but nobody is cheering. Or if they were, thought Memus44, the sound would be very very low indeed.

Strellitz hauled the wire bowstring back and caught it on the cocking-lever. He’d constructed the bolt from a purloined telephone pole, and not far from the catapult, an electric fan was sending a blast of air into the furnace. Once he judged that the melt was at the right temperature, Strellitz carefully aimed a heavy pinch-bar at the base of the furnace, where the exit-hole was stopped by a large lump of clay.

We’re late, says Curare Jim, for the ship is moving slowly. Then it gathers speed, and the harbour waters break in every direction like a herd of jumpy stirks. After a while the displacement spreads all round the harbour, and, says Memus44, although Curare Jim looks dubious, probably the gravitational effects will swell right out to the stars.

Bruno gives a little flick of the eyes towards Memus44, the kind of gesture dogs do when they need to check on your mood and current intentions, and somehow Memus44 gets the impression that Bruno knows perfectly well that people are writing articles in New Scientist about us all being a holographic projection in numerous dimensions from a point somewhere outside wherever it is we are now, or as some wits in the village were wont to put it, up Mac’s hole in America.

By the time they join the crowd, the new ship is still bounding up and down in the old harbour, but the surge and slap of the green glassy water is beginning to quieten.

Aye aye, Fyvie, shouts Memus44 to an ancient fisherman calmly puffing away on his pipe, one of those jobs with a silvery metal cap on the bowl, from which a vast blue cloud of Bogie Roll smoke is rising over the pier, enveloping a flock of geese passing overhead. The old man grins silently in reply. Nobody has the slightest idea what Fyvie thinks; people just see the way he walks calmly up and down the village street, and conclude he’s probably happy enough not to be aboard some pitching deck in stormy weather, with fish and fish scales and fish guts underfoot and seawater blowing in from waves six times the height of the wheelhouse.

The fired clay shattered, and immediately a glowing, sparkly gush of iron jetted out under pressure, splashing into the payload container. The wooden bolt immediately burst into flames, and while the iron was still bubbling violently, Strellitz slammed the lid shut in a shower of sparks, ran over to the string-pull, took a final glance at missile’s intended arc of sky, and yanked on the trigger.

With a mighty thump and swish, the thick wire ropes jerked into frighteningly fast action, impelling the bolt high into the air, trailing a thin plume of smoke from the burning tarry wood that mingled with the bogie roll cloud rising from the pier.

In a short time the geese, their senses compromised by inhaling bogie roll smoke at anaesthetic concentrations, dimly realised they were squarely in the path of an incoming missile with insufficient time to take evasive action. Knocked completely off-target, the telephone pole and its warhead of molten iron, accompanied by a dozen sizzling geese, slammed into Troutie’s caravan. The impact immediately drove the burning vehicle over the pier-edge into the chilly sea. Wails emerged, but the flames rapidly turned to a welter of steam and hissing bubbles as the vehicle turned turtle and sank. Spluttering and evidently not pleased by this sudden interruption of their domestic life, Troutie and Dr. Bratwurst popped up at the surface and struck out for the weedy shore.

Shaking his head sadly, Strellitz picked up his clipboard and ticked another box.

Copyright © Donnie Ross 2010

Friday, 26 March 2010

Sky Blue

Mason Rourke was a jolly little boy of maybe three, full of bounce and sparkling fun. I used to pass his cot every time I went to Ward 25 to pre-med my patients for the next day’s surgery. The nurses were divided sharply into those who loved the child dearly and those who couldn’t stand the sight of him. Mace the Face, they called him, and his problem was Hurler’s Syndrome. Mason’s eyes were the colour of the northern sky, but protuberant and divergent, so that his face resembled a gargoyle’s, with a cleft palate and microscopic nasal passages for good measure. His fingers were fused like lobster-claws, and to complete the picture, a tuft of bright orange hair grew straight up from the apex of his pointed skull.

One day Mason’s name appeared on my list, so I went to chat to him and make friends, and write him up for the usual pre-med of a mild sedative and a suitably small dose of atropine. As I scribbled on his chart I glanced up at his crazy-looking eyes watching me, his figure outlined against a window through which the clear winter blue sky seemed to be laughing, “look at me, look at me!”

The surgeon, Mr. C, was one of those rather arrogant people who concentrate on their own skills but find it difficult to listen to any other point of view. He was reasonably good with his hands, though, which is always a start when it comes to surgery, although I would put judgement and clarity of thought quite far up the scale too. At the end of the procedure, Mason’s cleft palate was well repaired; maybe a bit too well, in fact, because the closure and tightening of his soft palate, in combination with his reduced nasal airway, was now making it hard for him to breathe.

“Naw, he’ll be fine”, was Mr. C’s response when I pointed out the problem, although not before I’d had to make him aware that in my opinion the cause of the difficulty wasn’t some anaesthetical deficiency.

Mace the Face wasn’t fine, though. He had to struggle to breathe, and for several months got repeated chest infections. And just as Mason couldn’t get over this obstruction to his upper airway, neither could anyone get Mr. C. to revise either his opinion or his surgery.

At three o’clock one morning I was called in to certify a death in the high dependency unit. A nurse took me through the dimly-lit ward, where a dozen ill children were sleeping, monitors blinking and bleeping quietly. She opened the door to the side-ward and turned on a light at the bed-head, to show the little humped figure of a child. Turning back the sheet, I saw the orange hair and gargoyle features of Mace the Face, his complexion no longer that of a healthy active child, but turned a deep blue, like the summer sky he would never see again.

Copyright © Donnie Ross 2010
This story first appeared in www.rammenas.com.nl

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Opportunity Costs

Nineteen Sixty-Three. The summer I went to Sweden, hung about Stockholm, gave a blonde a lift, I had my home-made guitar with me, she said, “Let’s go to Kaos”, that was the name of a night-club, maybe her name was Margerita, I played a kind of flamenco in those days, they offered me a contract, a Spanish family thought I must be Spanish too, what happened next?

Customers got a cloakroom ticket on entry which entitled the holder to a 300ml glass of soapy liquid with zero alcohol content, so there was nothing for it but to surf the adrenaline and give the situation a bit of hyper-arousal. Afterwards, the night-club owner was impressed enough to offer me a contract to play for the rest of the summer, and there was a little queue of people wanting to speak to me, including the homesick Spanish family and a slim red-haired girl of about 18. The lacrimose Iberians were surprised and disappointed when they realised a Scotsman was responsible for all those rasgueados and rapid sequences in phrygian mode. The girl didn’t say all that much at the time, although we communicated pretty well, later on.

Ha ha. I wonder, was there anyone there from the future EBBA, an 18-year old Eva perhaps, watching from the crowd, ripping off my techniques? I try to recall the scene, the faces in the crowd. I remember tables, maybe fifty or sixty people, but a spotlight is blanking out most of the faces.

Remember Eva on Super Trooper, beams are gonna blind me? Or Winner Takes It All, Agnetha’s incredible face looking like a smacked bap…. but now, watching on YouTube, I’m thinking about the forms of the human mouth, how meaningful they seem, yet maybe women see womens’ mouths in a different way from men, maybe the information rather than the forms?

But Anni, as ever, is looking out to sea. I don’t know what she’s thinking about any more, nor why her suitcase is already in the rowing-boat. But as I hear the words I admire the beautiful shapes, smooth elisions of form and phrase, glossy warm surface over nimble muscle, orbicularis oris, filtrum, nasalis labii superioris, how sweet the expression of emotion, the semiotics of meaning. Any one of these gliding moves may be what flips that switch, that circuit of love or desire that connects us to all humanity, as it connected Anni-Frid and me that night in Stockholm in 1963.

Bitter-sweet, Super Trooper. Heavy beat, a spangly jingly-jangle, then the voices misty, mixing and separating, the sound like a smooth matte surface shredded and re-joined, gleaming like sun that glitters between ice shards on water, the girls with tight Scandinavian vowel-sounds in close close harmony, the high male backing su-pa-paa su-pa-paa, strings in layers yingayangayangyayaya, bass dry and stringy rom papa, paparom papa, drums choonk choonk ting ting ting ting

As the music fades I hear her oars dipping in the freezing water.

Copyright © Donnie Ross 2010
This story first appeared in www.rammenas.com.nl


“I would have been in my second year of ancient Greek and Philology,” Memus44 told me. “Adrienne was a student of engineering, a pretty girl, with a lop-sided grin and dark hair flecked with golden-brown. She was always confiding interesting things about the forces winds exert, or the maximum permissable snow-loading on roof structures, and I would often tell her about my linguistic theories. Then one day she didn’t turn up in the Union Bar as arranged. We never met again.

“As you know I gave up the language studies. The Department of Ancient Lore had reacted badly to my suggestion that the ending of Plato’s Symposium was the first fade-out in all the long history of media studies, and they’d marked me down quite insultingly.

“Eventually I entered medical school, and began the course with physiology and anatomy. At the start of term, a small group of us was being shown round the Anatomy Department - you won’t have forgotten the smell of formalin? I noticed that on the top shelf of a display cabinet stood a series of glass jars, each containing a preserved human head.

“In each specimen, the upper part of the skull had been removed, to expose the brain. The faces were pallid and shiny-skinned, the expressions either entirely vacant or worried-looking.

“Every jar had a hand-written label:

Age 43

Age 56

Age 29

“Reading between the sparse lines, one might understand how the days of freedom and lucidity had flooded past, until suddenly the realisation had dawned within each person’s brain, now beautifully fixed and preserved in a glass jar on a green-painted shelf, that time’s flux had reached an end, that summer was finished and all summers too, beyond recall.

“With my mind rapidly filling with sad reflections, I bumped into a large glass case standing on the floor directly opposite the mad gallery.

“Chilled to the marrow, I saw it contained the body of a young woman preserved in formalin. She must have been quite a find, for there were no signs of injury or disease. Maybe she had cut her wrists, or rather her left one, for there was no way of telling, since the case contained only her neatly prepared right sagittal section.

“Kneeling as if to fit more comfortably into the confined space, with her internal parts displayed for our education: the pelvic organs, diaphragm, spinal cord with delicate cauda equina, the great vessels in the thorax, her sweet little heart and lungs, and with her dark, gold-flecked hair floating lightly in the preservative fluid, she seems to have been somehow immortalised, unborn again in a cold and permanent womb.

“That evening as I leave the Anatomy Department, the white-coated technician turns out the lights with a horribly jarring series of loud metallic clicks. The insane heads look down on Adrienne, who stares back across the darkness with one eye and a half-smile.”

Copyright © Donnie Ross 2010

The Sandhaven Mechanism

It is early. Steely light brings a cool gleam to the high tide lapping at the wrack-covered sand. Ari Noble closes the car door carefully, but it still sounds like an intrusion.

The store is full of nostalgic smells of creosote and engine oil. His net is not quite dry, but it will do.

Ever the outsider, Ari keeps his boat tied up in the old section of the harbour. Whole sections of the concrete pier are cracked and tilting, and the iron bollards are covered with thick flaky rust.

Ari steers his Zulu through the harbour mouth, then stops the engine and hoists the sail. Clear water with the ultramarine blue-green of depth. A solitary raven turns, its eye flashing in the sunshine.

Ari shoots the net over the starboard side.

The boat is drifting very slowly. Ari’s thoughts are becoming as glassy as the sea, and he feels the air cool with each breath.

A dreadful jerk on the rope, and the boat judders while the winch lets out a few coils. Ari can’t believe what he sees.

A golden hand breaks the surface, rippling through the water. Then the winch strains to bring up a life-size bronze figure. The fisherman carefully disentangles the statue from the net’s braided cords.

Exhausted, Ari leans back against the mast, dripping sea-water. Fortunately his iPhone has escaped a soaking.


Ari stares at his mobile in astonishment, realising he hasn’t yet pressed the button. He looks up to see the statue glaring at him.

His phone clatters to the floor.

“You have to die, Aristo!” the automaton cries in archaic Greek, then suddenly grasps his arm, and with inhuman strength thrusts him right over the side.

Darkness closes over Ari’s eyes and he becomes flaccid in the toils of the wine-dark sea. Suddenly the metal hand tightens its grip even further, the pain bringing consciousness back to Ari’s dying brain. He opens his mouth wide and takes an enormous breath, bracing himself for a final convulsion.


She lands him on the boat’s floor with a negligent thump, like a large but not very appetising fish.

Still gasping for breath but recovering slightly, Ari’s vision clears sufficiently for him to see the bronze automaton hunched over his iPhone with obvious enthusiasm.

“Nice, very nice, Aristo!” she croaks, looking up reluctantly.

Ari is shaking, but concentrates hard. “Oh, you’ve found my pictures of Delphi? We - we were there on holiday years ago.”

“Mm, a ruined place….. But this is wonderful – tiny screws! How did you make these?”

“Look… I need to catch some fish. Perhaps you would like to eat with us?”

She cackles. “Ari, you foolish man, I have no need of food!

She stretches over the gunwale and paddles one hand in the sea. Almost immediately a large shoal of mackerel surfaces, and Ari shoots his badly rumpled net overboard.

Soon he has a boxful of fish, flipping and slapping.

Copyright © Donnie Ross 2010
A shorter version of this story appeared in www.rammenas.nl in April 2010.

Academic Conference Number One

My uncle’s off to a conference next week. Says it’s terribly important, they’re going to be discussing structure and meaning in Proto-Indo-European. He says PIE is the future of communication. I told him in plain speaking, what a lot of bears’ bollocks! PIE in the sky, eh? Look - when I speak I know what I mean, know what I mean? No need for analysis, parsing, declensions, gender agreements, all that Auroch’s poop. It’s as plain as that thing in the middle of your face.

But there’s no arguing with my uncle. Not long ago he got into trouble at a feast, in his beakers and speaking in joined-up wordstream. Pretty soon the Team Leader was roaring, “There’s not going to be no fucking Aorist Subjunctive in my tribal community, or my name isn’t….. er, whatever!” Then he farted with such cataclysmic articulacy he nearly blew out the campfire. I know, it’s dreadful sacrilege to moon at the divine flames, but actually the only retribution was a herd of ibex fell off the mountain, so we were eating stringy meat and carving horn trinkets for months.

Laugh was, everybody here is either Mr. Ugg Hunter or Mrs. Fat-Arse Gatherer, so forgetting his own name wasn’t a brilliant move, although of course the farting was considered extremely witty. I thought some of the older people would die laughing, and come to think of it there did seem to be more thirty-somethings than usual lying stone dead by the fire the morning after the feasting.

But my uncle wasn’t put out. He just smiled that smile of his and said, “Well, of course, if matters had been otherwise I might have acted differently.”

So clever, him and his pals. They’ll be off junketing for seven solar cycles at the very least, and meanwhile who’s going to meet their flint-flaking quotas? Us! What’s more we’ll all have to subscribe bagfuls of cowrie shells and cult objects to pay for their conferring and whoring. Then they’ll come back full of intransigence and irregular verbs, acting all superior, insisting adjectives are better than axe-heads.

Worst of all they’ll look down on people like me who actually produce the things that are worth talking about, and try to teach us the stuff they’ve only just made up, calling it by their own names like my grannie’s gran-mére and my nephew’s Sin-Tax, who got that tag because he’s always having to pay ten or twenty cowrie shells to girls to compensate for unexpectedly falling pregnant, of course some of them try that one about virgin birth, and start new religions - there’s no end to transactional leverage and market share niche-innovation once you get started.

But here comes my old mate Wheelwright, how’s that for a meaningless name! Says he’s had a really good idea – what else is new? - so we’re off for a chat down at the Spring Bar, if we can drag his cart that far.

Copyright © Donnie Ross 2010


My uncle says one day there will be sharper axes than flint. He’s a funny old boy, must be nearly 30, maybe that’s why he gets these crazy ideas. Says the chthonic gods won’t last for ever, I said you need to watch out for the bolt from the blue, saying that kind of stuff. My uncle thinks the time may come when all the bears and aurochs will be gone, but that’s plainly nonsense, for the beasts are as plentiful as the salmon in the river, and the fish crowd in near the seashore just asking to be caught.

He can be quite frightening when he gets into that trance of his, though. No nonsense about the gods dying then! – looks like he’s in the grip of two or three at a time, throwing himself about until his nose bleeds, shouting and howling, what an embarrassment. Well, the people like it, although I must say I’d much rather be making arrowheads. At least you know you’re doing something useful, helping the hunt, making a beautiful weapon that’ll last for days.

But he says all these things will lie buried in the ground for as many summers as there are berries in the forest. Nobody believes that, any more than we believe anyone will bother digging them up again. It’s obvious that what has been for ever will continue the same for ever. I and my family will die, and our children will continue the hunt, and our spirits will be together again in the underworld. So it will be, and the gods of forest, river, earth and sky will never fail us, whatever my crazy old uncle says.

Of course, like quite a few people with the right connections, I’ve seen the paintings in the cave. But I can’t see into the rock the way the shamans say happens. That world, if it exists, is closed to me. It’s just mumbo jumbo, flickering lights, drumming, chanting, boring rubbish – I’d far rather knap flint.

Talking of which, I have my quota to finish, can’t hang around on this boulder all day looking at the vista. So you might as well get back into that flying box thing of yours and be off. Oh, next time maybe you’ll meet my uncle, he might be more interesting to speak to, if he’s not in some trance or up to his elbows in red ochre. Just try to avoid the solstice, he’s always got a lot of appointments that day.

Copyright © Donnie Ross 2010