Digital Ischemia

16/10/2018

BBC Bureaucracy

Another vaguely anticipated episode in my Truthache series of surreal petty vengeance: Merv is piqued by non-contact forms

Merv recently got himself jammed in the most beautiful cul-de-sac of e-pistles, most of the pistle being in the wind. Being an attentive sort, back in April he noticed that BBC Radio programmes suddenly lost their track timing flags. A heinous state of affairs. How can he browse through his HypeLayer and land neatly in the tee-up to a nice reliable bit of Chopin or Placebo without any indication of when in the three-hour timeline this is?

Unpleasant incidents resulted, such as him plunging into some contemporary experimental effort and becoming transfixed by the phased percussion like a chicken rendered catatonic by a vertical line. A virtuoso organist peddling away with unnecessary vigour caused such a thrum in the bass speakers that Merv’s tank-top unravelled and Aunty Spamela’s begonias wilted.

Once recalibrated, Merv’s fluids began to circulate again. He found his Wi-Fi web wireless has little letterboxes with messages encouraging you to punch in your thoughts. He summoned his best letter-writing etiquette.

April 20
Merv: Why?
Devoid O’Smairts, BBC HypeLayer support team: We are aware of similar reports of this and we are currently investigating. We appreciate you bringing this to our attention and we hope to have it sorted soon.

Some time passed, much of it spent extracting Merv from unintended-track-induced infinite mental loops. But the sizzling at the very base of his primitive brain had not dissipated.

May 08
Merv: Please could you let me have an update on this case, or any indication of the expected timeframe?

Merv’s inbox remained populated only by an animated gif of tumbleweed. He resorted to polite threats.

June 09
Merv: If I get no response this third time of asking I feel I should escalate this query to a complaint.
Devoid O’Smairts: “Thanks so much for contacting us again. Since our last response, we’ve removed the timings for radio programmes due to rights agreements with record companies. We do apologise for any inconvenience caused by this, and the delay in getting word back on the issue. We hope this offers you clarification about the timings. We do take on board that you are unhappy about their removal and we will be sure to take on board your comments. Your comments will be included into our dedicated HypeLayer feedback reports which will be sent to BBC HypeLayer Management and other relevant teams to help with any future decisions and developments of BBC HypeLayer Services. Hearing from our audiences is greatly important and your comments can be used to improve our services. So, your feedback can make a real difference and we appreciate you taking the time to contact us. Thanks again for getting in touch.

That’s a lot of taking on board. Merv felt quite water-logged. We wondered if they had run aground and their hull had been breached. He appreciated all their lots of appreciation for helping them deteriorate their service. And clarification? Not by Merv’s dictionary. His blood fizzed for three weeks.

June 29
Merv: I am astonished at how difficult you make it for me to get an answer to a simple, reasonable question. The obfuscatory nature of the eventual answer leaves me disappointed and suspicious. Please can you answer my query?

July 05
Devoid O’Smairts: We were not longer able to continue have timings that linked up with commercial tracks in order to avoid any breaching any restrictions we had with record companies. Although it was only commercial tracks that were affected by these timings issues, we had to disable the feature altogether as it could not only be enabled for our tracks and disabled for commercial tracks.

This is plainly not plain English. Record companies reckon they’ll sell more ‘down-low-discs’ if listeners have to hear random tracks, rather than those they’re interested in? Interesting strategy. Sounds like the death grasp of a dying industry, built on building up fledgling performers to giddy heights of instant popularity in order to legally fleece those same performers on their built-in obsolescent decline, but which had not foreseen the digital age.

July 13
Merv: This still doesn’t explain why this would be in the commercial interest of record companies. What ‘restrictions’ in your agreement with them require this?

More than three months into this farce, Merv received a message from a market research company seeking more of his thoughts. He let rip. This triggered a cascade of phone interview, videocall with lab-rat tests (to confirm that he, like 87% of the audience, is harmlessly entangled and rendered inert by trying to navigate the website) and finally an invitation to an actual BBC location (secret).

We retired to the shed. Merv was in tatters, and not just from loss of tank-top integrity. He has a fear of institutions ever since being locked in his school on four occasions due to spending too long in the lavatory after home economics. One by one the lights went out while he was having arse collapse. He remains understandably traumatised and always carries a candle and matches when he’s away for a session. I daren’t, er, stoke the flames by raising the issue of what might happen should he actually strike a match in such circumstances.

Not to put too much gloss on the mission, I had to be David to BBC Goliath.

In the holding area—given some nauseating label such as welcome boutique—I lined up alongside my fellow victims. As I tried to tune out Droopy Dorothy and stop screwing up my eyes at Alpha-female Anna, I plunged my fidgeting palm into my pocket. It closed on Merv’s phial. The unknown quantity in the statistic. Had to be.

An utterly bland guy called my name from the doorway. He looked as interested in my input and the whole process generally as a cat. But without any of the cool. As I lurched through the rack of my fellow subjects’ knees, he introduced himself as—would you believe?—Devoid O’Smairts.

My facial expression was a study in passive blankitude. I managed the entire conversation through various degrees of pensive frown. He barely tried to draw me out, other than deciding to tick beside my forename and surname on the assumption that since I had answered to them I must be them. Each time he seemed to be about to wind up proceedings, I shifted and cranked my jaw tantalisingly. He watched me with palpable disappointment. He could have saved himself all this torture if only he’d made up some corporate wank about ‘removing the service provision due to resource streamlining’. We took our leave at a delicious impasse.

In Merv’s honour, I lurked in the toilets a dodgily long time until other members of the interrogation squad ‘passed’ through and loosed their tongues. Nope, sorry, definitely not that sort of diversion. Please concentrate.

Seemingly, after refreshing themselves plentifully with hot drinks concocted from the rolodex of stale sachets combined skilfully with hot water from the urns, the other participants became just as unresponsive as myself. There’s a puzzle.

Merv had not wasted his time either. Using QuackQuackBong (I understand this is a research engine you can hire, which operates rather like an animated Ronald Searle), he ‘harvested’ a code from some knowledgable students in the magic online letterbox. Then, without realising its power, er, penetrated the market people and arranged for all reports on the research to be sent to his own personal dead letter drop. I barely comprehend what he’s up to these days, but surely you can’t do much damage with a radio.

The outcome was spectacularly underwhelming: Devoid O’Smairts had failed to get any response from anyone. Combined with his Service Level Absences, this caused his manager to suspect that he didn’t exist at all and consequently terminate his employment. His redundancy made no difference whatsoever to the non-performance of the website comments process.

Merv finally iced the cake by reweaving the ‘routings’ (he’s gotten right into this ‘coding’ lark; much more fun than listening to the radio, he says) so that commenters receive in reply other commenters’ comments, thereby creating a social broadcasting network. People are being entertained by one another instead of the amorphous bureaucratic behemoth, and a national licence fee boycott is planned for next Saturday.

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05/10/2018

Grandparent File Download v2.0

An IT support call grows arms and legs, virtually.
(recently reworked from version 1 for further rejection)

SCENE (1) INT Home Office, VOIP AUDIO CALL
FX: BG MINIMALIST ELECTRONIC MUSIC
LYLE
Sure you want the whole file?
MARIE
Absolutely.
LYLE
I mean—sorry to be patronising, just to cover everything, ken—it’s a massive file; it’s about…ten and a half years’ worth of— Haud on; I’ll just turn aff the tunes.
FX: BG MUSIC STOPS
MARIE
It’s not something you can chunk up. That’s not how the data’s organised.
LYLE
I see you have the credits, but you’d maybe be safer—
FATHER
Pause! Where is this chap? Where are you based?
MARIE
(OFF) Dad! I’m dealing with this.
FATHER
(OFF) I’m not interfering. Simple question.
LYLE
Sorry, what?
FATHER
Are you a person or a robot?
MARIE
I’m sorry; my father’s online too.
LYLE
Ah, OK. That’s guid if you got him connected and working.
MARIE
Although obviously he does like to be involved.
FATHER
Well?
LYLE
Right, for the record, then: I’m a real person and I’m at the Onlineage Support Centre in Glasgow.
FATHER
Jolly good. Is this the new establishment in Drumchapel?
LYLE
Er, I cannae actually gi’e any details – security reasons, ken.
MARIE
Could you just imagine him in Drumchapel so we can move on?
FATHER
I’m not sharing my personal information with some ‘clown’ in Partick. Or Mumbai.—
LYLE
Did he just call me a clown?
FATHER
(OFF) —Or Dubai. Or Arizona.—
MARIE
I think he meant “cloud” but it was disrespectful; sorry.
FATHER
(OFF)—Or Wales.
MARIE
(OFF) What’s wrong with Wales?! Never mind. Pipe down, eh, or you’ll blow all my credits hijacking a support call.
FATHER
(OFF) Willco. Dumbarton it is.
MARIE
(OFF) Dum—? Never mind. Onlineage has all your information already. Absolutely all of it. Those cats are out the bag and clawing open all your cans of worms. That’s what we’re trying to fix.
FATHER
(OFF) Cats didn’t eat worms in my day.
LYLE
Er, most folk like to get comfortable with the parent files before installing the grandparent files.
MARIE
Aye, in an ideal world I’d be twenty-two and fizzing with vitality, but I don’t have the luxury of time. This is as comfortable as I get.
LYLE
Fair dos.
MARIE
I’ve saved up for this four times already; each time life got in the way and I had to start over. If I’d had my parents and my grandparents linked up sooner maybe things would’ve been different. If, if. I’ve had to get through without them. I have the credits. I’m ready.
LYLE
Nae bother. Like I said, I just have to check. Right, final confirmation.
FX: BEEP
LYLE (CONT…)
OK, that’s the transfer started. Kindae an anticlimax, eh?
MARIE
I can see it coming through! Fantastic. Thanks so much.
LYLE
Nae bother. You want to stay on the line till it finishes? Willnae cost you.
FATHER
I say, getting rather crowded in here.
MARIE
Thank you; I’d appreci—
FATHER
That is not what happened! My memory may not be fully polished but this is clearly faulty.
MARIE
(OFF) It’s all just perceptions, same as yours. Somewhere between all these bits of information is the truth. Lots to learn.
FATHER
(OFF) Bunkum.
LYLE
So, what’re you gonnae learn first?
MARIE
Gaelic – some old cultural connections.
LYLE
Isn’t Gaelic really difficult?
MARIE
Less difficult than English. Every day I think in English and some daft idiosyncrasy strikes me.
LYLE
But you’re fine at English.
MARIE
Aye, and it’s taken me decades to get this good. It must be torture for non-native speakers. And then I die: zap – all deleted.
LYLE
I’m sure you’ve plenty time to use it afore then.
MARIE
Ninety-two. What odds would you give me?
LYLE
You’re joking? (PAUSE) What age is your dad?! (PAUSE) No, obviously it’s in the file. Shite. A hundred and…twenty-eight? That’s no’ him.
MARIE
That’s your excellent Synthesis app.
LYLE
Shite.
MARIE
No children. End of the line. I need to integrate my knowledge so it’s not wasted. Every new person shouldn’t have to learn all this stuff from the beginning.
LYLE
You’re combining your lifetime of experience with your parents’ and their parents’?
MARIE
Isn’t that what this technology’s for? It’s not idle nostalgia: see the world through your ancestors’ eyes – get to type on an actual keyboard, pick your own actual groceries, experience sexism for real. No, you have to give it forward. Think what we could be if we weren’t restricted to sharing experience only by communication through the filter of societal behavioural norms!
LYLE
Er…
MARIE
Speaking, mostly.
LYLE
Right, right. I thought this was for, like, instead of ‘how was your weekend?’ you just experience the whole thing. Eech.
MARIE
I did wonder how folk’d get along without the liberty to embellish, but seemingly that’s factored into their perceptions.
LYLE
Aye, so I heard. Like, if you think you had the best time, that’s what other folk get from it?
MARIE
Have you not tried it yourself?
LYLE
Couldnae really; I done most of the testing; wouldnae be objective.
MARIE
You were involved in developing the app?
LYLE
Er, aye, sortae, I coded it—wrote it. (PAUSE) Hello?
MARIE
I don’t know how to respond. Perhaps I’ll start with: what possessed you, you havering Machiavelli?!
LYLE
I thought you rated it!?
MARIE
I’m obsessed with it. It’s ‘saved’ my life…by preserving me indefinitely! It’s overwhelmed me with information I should never’ve had! It’s driving me to perpetuate myself!
LYLE
Er…
MARIE
I know!
LYLE
What about your whole “ancestors’ eyes” spiel?
MARIE
No, I was saying, that’s not enough of a reason. Nobody will care that my father always kept fifteen spare packets of bog roll, but they might benefit from his experience as a child during wartime.
FATHER
Yes, reserves. I always pick up a couple when it’s a BOGOFFER. I store them in the bath.
MARIE
I think it’s— Never mind. I can’t think why anyone’d want to, but in theory you can actually feel his psychology and understand how a lifetime’s hyperconsumerism relates back to rationing. I have this theory—
FATHER
(OFF) Twaddle.
FX: FOOD PACKET CRACKLING
LYLE
You may as well tell me; we’re only at thirty-four percent. Sorry, I hope you dinnae mind me eating; ma heid’s a’ sparkly; this is a lot to process.
MARIE
(CHUCKLE) Well, last century our cultural evolution suddenly got turbocharged. Industrialisation, commercialism, technology raced away with our beliefs about success and happiness. ‘Can do’ completely overtook ‘should do’. We started making demands on our bodies that would take generations for physiological evolution to deliver. Bombarding ourselves with information and materialism. At the same time it became apparent that this hyperconsumerism was equally unhealthy for us and the rest of the living world.
LYLE
(MUNCHING) This is where the tech solutions come in?
MARIE
Aye and no: we have to ask, now a robot prepares your tea, are you any happier?
FATHER
(OFF) Nonsense! Take a lithium pill.
MARIE
That’s not— Never mind. And yourself?
LYLE
Dinnae trust them.
MARIE
Ironic. Not even if it saves you twenty, thirty minutes? Time you could use for something more useful? No, you’re right. More useful than appreciating where your food comes from? Savouring the full sensory experience? More useful than the mental downtime of a simple task?
LYLE
I dinnae ken if that spiritual stuff is for everyone – a’ that overanalysing stuff.
MARIE
I think that’s where our lives are: chronic overstimulation, poor mental and emotional agility, constant analysis of marginal information.
FX: OPENING DRINK CAN
LYLE
So you mean, like, get implants? (SWIG)
MARIE
They just enable you to process more and more information of less and less value. You still have to work out what that vanishingly small value is. More and more work to get the same quality of information.
LYLE
Is adding your parents’ experiences into the mix no’ just more stress then? (SWIG)
MARIE
Only if you don’t learn from it: see the lessons they learned from their lives; see what worked for them, what they figured out.
LYLE
You’re pretty smart for a ninety-year-old.
MARIE
I’m still learning. How’re we doing?
LYLE
Sixty-two—
FX: BG DOOR SLAM, WHUMP, KEYS CLATTER
LYLE (CONT…)
Ah, that’s my flatmate back—colleague… er…
FATHER
Ha! “Security reasons” being avoiding the discovery that you’re in your underpants eating baked beans on toast! Gotcha!
LYLE
Still in my jammies, er—shite.
FATHER
How old are you?!
MARIE
(OFF) Dad! That’s not your business. Let’s just assume he’s considerably younger than you. Stay focused.
FATHER
(OFF) Wet behind the ears.
MARIE
So, you wrote the app, you operate the support service, you are the app?
LYLE
No’ any more! It’s a’ went ootae control!
MARIE
(SARCASTIC) If only there was a way you could’ve learned from other entrepreneurs.
LYLE
I didnae ken! I just done it for a school project—college—whatever. Next thing I ken it’s oot there! Growing heids! (DRAINS CAN)
MARIE
(SIGH) Humans have been grappling with the same life problems for millennia, while at the same time trying random things ‘just to see what happens’. Wouldn’t it be good if we massed all of these together, learned from one another more efficiently – the benefits of all—
FX: BG TOILET FLUSH
MARIE (CONT…)
As opposed to.
LYLE
(MUNCHING) Doun the bog. Very guid. But is there no’ a point to, ken, working it oot for yoursel’?
MARIE
Sure, and maybe you come up with an even better solution, but why not see what your predecessors came up with first? Minimise that struggle, that suffering?
FX: BEEP
LYLE
Er…
FATHER
Relief! The deluge has ceased.
MARIE
Finished?
LYLE
No… Something’s blocked. Your system’s stopped confirming the request for download.
MARIE
Argh!
FATHER
Banjaxed!
MARIE
Ah, I bet I’m using too much processor being online.
LYLE
That shouldnae be an issue. Can you check you’ve shut doun absolutely everything apart from our app?
MARIE
Oh, I have, really: I checked the processes before I called. That’s all that’s been running this whole time.
LYLE
OK, you’ve filled in all the criteria in the form, all the technical specs; you’ve plenty memory, processor capacity. What else could be using up the system?
MARIE
Your Synthesis app.
LYLE
Your faither? Can you no’ suspend him?
MARIE
(CHUCKLE) Aye, love to, but that won’t be enough.
FATHER
I have rights!
MARIE
(OFF) Not yet!
LYLE
Rights? What’s gaun on here?! The deid dinnae have rights!
FATHER
I shall write a strongly worded letter to your superior—your father!
LYLE
(MUNCHING) Knock yersel’ oot. Naeb’dy’s seen him for twenty years. Wait: I have a mirror pane; it’s showing another person running… Is that… you?!
MARIE
Did you not think the line was awfully clear?
LYLE
I’m speaking to a Synthesis?!
MARIE
Body pegged it a while back. Something snapped. Who cares? This is far too important for a wee hurdle like that to derail the whole project.
LYLE
Er, if there’s any indication you’ve reverse engineered my—our—my software, I have to invoke a…non-compliance–
FATHER
(OFF) Scuttle the ship!
MARIE
Don’t be daft: I’m ninety-two! How would I ‘reverse engineer’ anything? Couldn’t even reverse my tea trolley without cowping the last fifteen years. I haven’t broken any of the agreement I signed. But by all means check. And while you do that, consider who you’re going to prosecute. Ha.
FX: RAPID FINGER SQUEAKS ON GLASS
LYLE
But how— Shite, my finger’s a’ sweaty. How can you— How am I having this conversation?!
MARIE
Your Synthesis app! Onlineage is really very good. You should probably be promoting your products a bit more.
LYLE
Shite. Wait. But it needs— How can you launch it?
MARIE
Ah, the combination of all these experiences, knowledge, so on; it takes on a life of its own, so to speak.

21/08/2018

Wratislaw part 10 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

While Wratislaw scrabbles for a way to triumph, he must survive the obligatory probing by Kamila.
“Seven, eight years ago, in your interviews, you were…funny. Lately you are awfully serious. Are you overwhelmed by the complexity or the challenge of your many projects? The responsibility of your various roles?” She’s been listening. Inspiration strikes. A question lures. Can he steer toward it?
“Going by this evening’s performance being underwhelming? What could possibly be missing from my life?”
“Time to yourself?”
“Nope. Too much time with myself.”
She ponders. Or perhaps she leaves space to draw him out. Obligingly he fills it.
“Not all interviewers are as intelligent and insightful as you. You always made me think and feel.”
“Often I am told I interrogate people.”
“No, there’s no judgment. You seem genuinely interested. Your questions… Do you remember your ultimate question?”

Kamila’s eyes glint and widen. “My meta-question?” Jackpot.
“How did it go again?” Wratislaw asks even though he’s utterly sure. He needs to hear her say it.
“‘What is the question you would most like me to ask you, and how would you answer?'”
As her voice sounds through his skull he closes his eyes. She muses.
“I remember you cheated; well, you deferred.”
“I couldn’t say it out loud! It was inappropriate. It would’ve changed things…us.”
“So I let you off the hook.”
“You asked if there would be a time in the future when it might be…appropriate.”
“And you said you hoped so. That was exquisitely intriguing.”
“Do you still have it?”
“Of course.”
“Did you ever open it?”
“No! We agreed: not until we both agreed it was appropriate.” She wrings him out with that blasted virtuous integrity.
“How about now?”
They commit, like teenagers goading each other to escalating dares.

Kamila picks and rips at the tightly sealed, worn folds of paper. Eventually the grumpy origami acquiesces and gives up its secret. She jerkily scans his wished-for question. Something is awry. This paragon of calm control is overcome with convulsions of emotion. She pushes it at Wratislaw to read out. He recognises his writing, his wishing, as if he needed any confirmation of consistency.
“‘Would you like to dance with me…for the next fifty years or so?'” The answer is unnecessary. He chuckles cathartically. The image of the unattended piano in the foyer thuds into his mind. “I think I’ll have a bash at that Janáček now. Will you listen?”
Her maelstrom mind will manage only one word. “Always.”

Epilogue

Kamila leans on the sturdy chapel door, closing it with a reassuring squeaky clunk. The sudden, silent, dark dankness is refreshing. She glides between the pews, gratified by the decent turnout and stimulating discussion. Nothing is awry.

“What does ‘Wratislaw’ mean to you?” The question curls out from behind a pillar. She was asked during the event, and she gave answers about place, character, then let the participants add their own responses about marketing stunts and student pranks. This is different. This is the questioner she hoped for. She approaches and peers into the gloom.

Wratislaw’s shoulders fill the pew; his talented hands are clasped, resting contemplatively on the next pew’s back. He flicks those blue eyes sideways to her approach. She has his answer ready. But not just yet.
“You got my message.”
“Most of Edinburgh and quite a portion of the world got your message.”
“They see the word but not the message.”
He exhales a laugh. She waits for him to respond.
“‘Love Wratislaw’? It’s a social media meme now.”
Disappointing. He’s prevaricating.

Kamila returns a petulant truism. “They can circulate it and interpret it all they like.”
“You could’ve just called to say you would be here.”
“Not interesting.”
“Unlike walking from the hotel to the venue seeing my secret nickname chalked on every other lamppost? On thirty-eight random paving slabs? On railings and bins and benches and bus shelters?”
“It took me only two hours. I woke early.”
“You didn’t answer my first question.”
He’s learning. She alights on the bench beside him, just pressing the side of his body, and tilts her gaze. He pulls her on to his lap, and touches her face. She leans into the next fifty years.

END

Incidentally… it all started with a minor character described by John Buchan:

Wratislaw “was to the first glance a remarkable figure. About the middle height, with a square head and magnificent shoulders, he looked from the back not unlike some professional strong man. But his face betrayed him, for it was clearly the face of the intellectual worker, the man of character and mind. His jaw was massive and broad, saved from hardness only by a quaintly humorous mouth; he had, too, a pair of very sharp blue eyes looking from under shaggy eyebrows. His age was scarcely beyond thirty, but one would have put it ten years later, for there were lines on his brow and threads of grey in his hair.” John Buchan, The Half-Hearted

…which led me to research the name (and its pronunciation!):

Wrocław [Vrotswahf] (or Wratislaw [Vratislav] in Czech) is the largest city in western Poland. It lies on the banks of the River Oder in the Silesian Lowlands. The city is believed to be named after Wrocisław or Vratislav, Duke Vratislaus I of Bohemia.
Wrocław is the historical capital of Silesia and Lower Silesia. Today, it is the capital of the Lower Silesian Voivodeship. The history of the city dates back over a thousand years, and its extensive heritage combines almost all religions and cultures of Europe. At various times, it has been part of the Kingdom of Poland, Kingdom of Bohemia, Kingdom of Hungary, Habsburg Monarchy, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire, Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. Wrocław became part of Poland again in 1945, as a result of the border changes after the Second World War, which included a nearly complete exchange of population.

20/08/2018

Wratislaw part 9 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

Somehow Wratislaw has relaxed a little. Perhaps Kamila listening quietly alongside him has something to do with it. He is addicted. He tries not to sound petulant.
“What did you think of me?”
“I was disappointed.”
“OK, thanks. Well, that’s that then.”
“What happened to the Janáček project?”
“Shelved. Total loss of…everything.”
“That is disappointing.”
“Apparently that’s me.”

Kamila shifts position slightly. Perspective.
“You said you wanted to feel unrequited passion, like Janáček. Perhaps I flatter myself, but is this not why you call me Kamila?”
“Now you sound like you’re trying to argue that you left me for the sake of my professional—”
“Exactly.”
“So I could play Janáček with true unrequited passion?!”
“You were disappointing. For me and your other audience.”
“You keep saying that! I was depressed! You should’ve told me!”
“That would have defeated the experiment.”
“Experiment?!” Wratislaw no longer cares if he sounds hysterical. “And how did that work out?”
“Apparently your psyche is not the same as his.”
Wratislaw’s own disappointment and frustration are neck and neck.
“Well, this has been a tremendous waste of time, and actually a pretty cruel and unethical psychological game, just to prove two people aren’t the same.”

Kamila’s composure indicates there is a solid explanation in his near future. He hates that. She’s back to questioning, luring him toward her cursed superior understanding.
“Tell me this now, completely truthfully: are you not glad you had the experience? Felt those things?”
“The anticipation is better than the actual thing?!”
“The anticipation is better than nothing.”
“I can’t possibly know without reliving my life differently.”
“What do you want to happen?”
“I want you to behave normally—no, not ‘normally’; I don’t know what that means—authentically.”
“Are you sure? Be careful what you wish for, Wratislaw.”
He smirks as the heady rush pours through him again.

Wratislaw lays back on the cool, damp ground and finds, at last, a shred of confidence. A question.
“What do you want to happen?”
Kamila looks away and breathes.
“I want to feel the precision, the clarity, the quiet confidence of your playing again. I want to feel that you will take me on this dangerous journey through the dark, enchanted forest, but that you know the terrain, and you relish every landscape feature you navigate. You will wrestle and vanquish the wild beasts. You will take me on an exhilarating adventure and give me new understanding. You will bring me safely out the far side of the forest without falling over the precipice. The full, unsanitised, emotional journey with a wise guide. Most of all, I want to feel that I have somehow been part of the event, that my presence has affected you too, that I have been involved and have enhanced your experience.”
“Is that all?” He notices he’s clutching her hand. When did that happen? After six years it’s surreal.

Suddenly he understands what he was doing thrashing around in the undergrowth. Conniving harpy. He’s so pathetically susceptible. He was never in any danger. She’s just shown him, let him experience directly, exactly what she wants. All he has to do is deliver. Simple.

…concludes at part 10

19/08/2018

Wratislaw part 8 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

The closeness of Kamila’s voice is startlingly. “Still in the dark, Wrati?”
“Utterly.”
“Feel better for clawing at things?”
“No! How do you do that silent flitting and pouncing?!”
“I just walk carefully.”
“You pounced on me this afternoon in that…Schrödinger’s egg carton! And you’ve been teasing me all around this…”
“I promised you would see me.”
He curses himself for forgetting. He could have played a much cooler game. As cool as his sopping arse. Never too late.

Wratislaw switches topic. “Should I be concerned that you’re in Glasgow?”
“I’m not stalking you.”
“Evidently I’m stalking you. Badly.”
“You are not difficult to see: you look like a tattie-bogle!” Bless her, she speaks every blasted language better than him.
“Nature has not been kind to this suit. I just thought you might be fomenting revolution…type thing.”
“At the BBC?”
“Or through the BBC? Why are you doing whatever with the BBC?”
“It factors into a project.”
“That’s super-clear.”
“How is this your business?”
“I remember after Wrocław all sorts of citizen movements, democracy protests, suchlike, suddenly got turbo-charged.”
“You were not there.”
“I read newspapers! I was too scared to go back!”
“I thought there might be another reason, like you got your research.”
“You know I didn’t.”

Kamila wavers. Wratislaw feels a rush of desperation.
“Don’t vanish again!” He sounds panicked. His arse is soaking. Eels are probably on the verge of penetrating.
She continues softly. “Where did you get stuck?”
“You questioned my fundamental motivation for making music. ‘Because humans always have’ wasn’t enough. Neither was ‘because we need it’. Or ‘because it’s glorious’. You always came back with ‘why?'”
“I had odd ideas about our most profound learning being through relationship. Music somehow came into that – a way of engendering empathy…something like that. I could not get traction with it; you were no help.”
He can certainly empathise with mental free-wheeling.

Wratislaw refocuses on his stuckedness: the sheer tonnage of his inertia. “I probably shouldn’t say this, it being my livelihood, but sometimes music isn’t enough. Sometimes you need words as well. Even though music is raw emotion and travels straight to your heart and the primitive parts of your mind, still people interpret that emotion differently according to their individual biases.”
“We need song, opera?”
“Just sometimes we need to talk.”
“What do you want to say?”
He has run right into her trap. Again. Entangled in the cat’s cradle of his personal hydra. How to disempower it… What does he want to say?
“That I was enchanted…by you. That I thought you felt…something… And then you vanished, like a…dryad in the mist!” As ever, Janáček floats just beyond his grasp.
“I thought this was what you wanted.”
“To be abandoned?! In the midst of a rush of passion?!”
“Why would I want to attach myself to a comet?”

…continues at part 9

18/08/2018

Wratislaw part 7 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

In this dense web of stalks, cloud-reflected metropolitan light is inadequate. The ridiculousness of Wratislaw’s predicament, however, is plain to see. Pursuing an as yet unseen woman through some eccentric philanthropist’s forgotten wilderness. Easy to explain.

To continue his form, at this point, he wonders whether his unintelligent next move should be more blundering about in vicious thickets, or to hunker down. His stinging forearms and shins, and his throbbing arse, beg for respite. Hunker down and wait. How long should he wait to extinguish all doubt that Kamila has gotten utterly bored of his disappointing efforts and abandoned him to his mortifyingly un-man-of-the-woods-like fate? Mortified. Unmanned.

Wratislaw gazes about, trying to subdue his creeping anxiety. Is he more bothered by losing her or himself? Once again his brain loses visual traction on the shifting shades of dark. Frantically clawing in complete stillness. Instead he becomes highly sensitised to the tickling, the crawling, the scurrying, the rustling. A clear whistle pierces the fog, inside and out: a bird’s alarm or a guiding signal? Or just a rusted mental circuit venting dangerously high steam pressure.

Will anyone miss him? BBC Ben and his glowing orb would be a welcome lighthouse right now. Wratislaw would offer some professional enticement for… That sounds sordid. Plus his stock probably isn’t so high after that performance. So long ago. That other so civilised world. Not out here in the jungle.

Regardless of Wratislaw’s existential crisis, clouds drift along their journeys. Yet somewhere, something powerful grows impatient with his lack of progress and grants him a boon. A fortuitously timed shaft of moonlight spotlights a stone edge: a carved edge: a building. A purposeless ornament, which, as it turns out, finally has use.

Folly. How perfectly apposite. Wratislaw lunges for the stonework, pushing mercilessly through the knives and forks and razor wires, stumbling and slipping, arms scissoring across his face in a violent dance. He does not appreciate the overgrown path Janáček allusion. Emerging from the malicious vegetation, he hauls himself to a cool stone pillar and hugs it shamelessly. After tactfully clouding his trembles for an interval, a further moonbeam benevolently shimmers across the river and delicately lights the blindingly obvious path thither.

Wratislaw bravely departs his safe haven and careers jelly-legged to the water’s edge. He yanks at the infernal luring willow and swipes wildly at illusory clothes. The rippling water and the thrashing twigs have messed up the acoustics. He plonks on the first stone that seems big enough. Unfortunately it’s just another shadow so his landing is lower and wetter than he expects. His battered coccyx complains. He exhales forcefully.

After a few moments of bewildered and moist stillness, he imagines he feels warmth on his arm, a faint breath on his cheek. Probably some rebound sensory effect from the thrashing. Or, just possibly, hiding in plain blindness.

He conjures Kamila in his mind, slides his hand across and is shocked when he connects. Electricity crackles through his skin.

…continues at part 8

17/08/2018

Wratislaw part 6 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

The initiative must be seized else-how. Wratislaw calls out. “What is your fixation with forests?”
Kamila’s reply echoes from elsewhere. “Fourteen trees is a fixation?”
He swerves before refocusing. “The question there was ‘fourteen trees is a forest’ but let’s not get diverted. In Wrocław, when I asked where you wanted to go next, you pointed at that Białowieża forest.”
“It wasn’t Białowieża; that is the opposite part of the country. And considerably bigger.”
“Where were we then? I thought I was in a world-renowned forest.”
“Why would this matter?”
“It was magical.”
“Maybe the air was polluted with hallucinogens! Poland had a big problem with toxic smoke. People kept trying to get rid of illegal plastic waste imports by putting fire to waste dumps.”

Wratislaw’s whole body focuses on keeping her talking, to try to work out where her voice is. “Or maybe your picnic was spiked!”
“Maybe we were dehydrated or hypoglycaemic.”
“Maybe our bodies were just in shock from walking more than twenty metres at a time.” His had been.
“Maybe it was a midsummer daydream.”
“It was magical.” He’s already said that. Call it emphasis.
“You think it was the place and not…us?”

There it is: the tiny uncertainty. She isn’t one hundred percent. What is he certain of? Nothing, except she isn’t in the sneaky pine. Still just glimpses and shadows of nothing. And the small matter of his enduring infatuation. He lets the beleaguered birch swish back to upright…ish.

He has to explore her uncertainty. To explore the terrain. Instead he blunders. He launches impetuously down the ridge and finds himself accelerating beyond leg control. He chooses arse over head to lead the descent – meaning he sits and slides, rather than tumbles. Important to have that point clear. He can argue the relative wisdom with the physiotherapist who will have the enviable challenge of enabling him to sit comfortably again to earn his living.

After its premature start, Wratislaw’s slide takes longer than he expects. He puts this down to the time-expanding powers of adrenaline. When he finally halts he is at the disgorgage of a burn into the river. This small-scale estuary with picturesque miniature mud-flats is a welcome coolant for his friction-savaged arse.

He rises carefully, finds his limbs reassuringly responsive, and turns about. There are more than fourteen trees. Something new is awry. With river at his back, he has a panorama of perpendicular inclines, paved with leaf litter. With no idea whether he is up- or downstream from the original position, he crawls up the least precipitous wedge, grasping wildly for those beleaguered young birches.

Several branches slap wet leaves resentfully at Wratislaw so he closes his eyes for much of the ascent. When he reaches a level where he doesn’t immediately feel his feet sliding backward or other discouragement, he cautiously raises his lids. With his eyes mildly attuned to darkness, he focuses on a fleeting movement, slipping between trunks. Through his frantic, fruitless scramble he thought he heard a ripple of laughter. Or was it the river? She’s taunting him.

He leans his hand on the nearest trunk. He withdraws it instantly from something unexpectedly soft and slimy. He thinks of insects that mind-bogglingly disassemble their bodily integrity back to primeval goup, then rearrange themselves structurally into something quite different. Except for the unfortunate individual he just plunged his fingers into. No longer to emerge and reach its full potential. Now destined to mutate horribly into chimaera with himself. Rather like The Fly. The Wrattisfly. What a Frankenstein’s monster that would be: his shoulders giving it wings like a pterodactyl, a weak abdomen of no use but as a prop, and yet remarkably dextrous legs and antennae. Somewhere in this hallucination there must be a metaphor. All skilfully choreographed. She’s manipulating him.

Something warm brushes his cheek. The reverie dissolves. Glancing up he sees the flicker of things with wings the wrong way about. Bats. Not bothersome. But why no bird calls? Probably silenced by his threatening crashing about.

Wratislaw resumes his disoriented weaving between trees. The ground level helpfully lowers then rises. He lurches around a larch and snatches another just in time to prevent himself re-launching into Arse-luge Ravine. He pivots daintily upon the precipice and sags into an elastic coppiced hazel. Noting its rarity among a cluster of hawthorn, holly and dog-rose, his luck may be changing.

…continues part 7

16/08/2018

Wratislaw part 5 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

Why had Kamila been talking to Wratislaw, back then? Her answer had been brilliant. She gazed out across the cityscape. First, of course, she asked him what he saw. He stated the obvious. Then she explained it.
“Buildings, streets, green space, activity, movement, travel, glitter and shadow… Zoom in or out, pan across. This is a vast and deep fascination. I see infinite interest in finite space, a fractal psyche.”
It was him.
“You think of me as a Mandelbrot set?” He had been pleased with himself for dredging up that reference. Until she hit it out of the park.
“I think of you as Wratislaw.”
He was unable to resist grinning. As always, she took it further than he could have imagined. “So, I know who you are, obviously, and you know who I am, for what this is worth. Can we please not talk about professions and partners and parenting and all this cliché competitive life shit?”
“In favour of?”
“Interesting things!”
“And interesting names?”
“Yes; what will you call me?”
“Kamila, obviously.”

As Wratislaw crouches in the darkening jaggy shrubbery, tickled by leaves and probably things on legs, that memory still warms. He recalls taking several moments to regroup. He gestured the cityscape.
“Where would you like to go next?”
“In the real world or in your head?”
“It’s your metaphor.”
“There.”
She pointed decisively to a tree-clad eruption a few miles north-west. He had only one move.
“May I take you?”

Wratislaw decides that Kamila, for all her superiority, is probably tactically stuck at this point. Probably because he isn’t behaving as she expects, i.e. intelligently. He’s feeling tingles in intimate places, and not all of them can be attributed to invading insects. He’ll have to move. Any move will gain the initiative. For no reason other than his innate perversity, he sets out vigorously from the rhododendron in the opposite direction.

Too late he remembers how she ended her discussion at the fateful event. “Go out now, go away, go back to your lives. Don’t think any more about this. I don’t ask you to think about any of this stuff; I only ask you to think.” Drat.

Surrounding the ensemble of quaint river bank, shady willow, shadier pine with possible occupied perch, and bruised rhododendron, is a band of thicker mature trees. These turn out to be planted on a ridge. The ridge turns out to be ideally suited for pretending you’re in a tree when you’re not. Now they both are. Pretending.

One slender birch sapling suggests to Wratislaw a cunning wheeze. He manoeuvres around to its ‘safe’ side and triangulates his target. With careful force the birch curls over beautifully. A couple of thrashes sweep the perceived vantage point and several small pine cones hit the ground. Why no squeal or proclamation of acquiescence to his masterful offensive? He detests a silent audience.

…continues at part 6

15/08/2018

Wratislaw part 4 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

With the stealth of a grizzly bear, Wratislaw forces his way further into the rhododendron, shattering branches and snagging his shirt. Obviously the witch has seen him coming, has scaled a tree, and has gained the tomfoolery initiative with the pelting effort. How can he get a tactical advantage?

Back on the ramparts, he had tried Kamila’s approach, grilling her about her motivation.
“Why are you talking to me? This isn’t still guilt for letting me think you were someone else.”

At the start of the afternoon, Wratislaw had headed to the back of the auditorium. His being there at all had been entirely the fault of a colleague who had suggested the diversion since he was in south-west Poland between assignments. He had had no other interest in a sideshow about ‘thinking’. He had expected to have to resist cheesy showmanship and light hypnosis.

As he had moved into the end of a row, a woman a few seats along had garbled some pleasantry. He had fumbled an apology in English. Always the British embarrassment for being elsewhere without any effort at the native language. She had quipped back—in English, curse her—that she wasn’t Polish either and the event seemed a long way for him to have come. He had admitted he had other business there and asked if the speaker was worth travelling from Czech for. And off they had gone, easily conversing across ranging fascinations, and incidentally swapping seats somewhere along the way.

Her clothes had draped over her willowy frame, under her long, straight, dark hair, itself under a retro cloth Alice-band. Her eyes were dark too, like treacle with glints of amber. Glints of activity within. Tremendous activity. He hadn’t sought to impress; just to keep up. He had had no idea she was psychoanalysing him. Or about the more critical factor.

After a particularly deep exploration of his motivation for solo performance, which had taken her a good couple of minutes, she had paused, glanced away, breathed, and smiled at him. That had fanned the sparks into a warm glow. She had then stood, ambled to the front of the hall and proceeded to lead a discussion on thinking. Hiding in plain sight.

He had felt eviscerated: six months of ‘getting to know’ compressed into six minutes. Had he only known that rich seam would have to last him six years.

None of that explains what Kamila is up to now with the clothing decoy. Wratislaw tries to distract himself from the distracting notion that she is unclad. In a tree.

…continues at part 5

14/08/2018

Wratislaw part 3 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

Kamila had said she preferred the Czech version of the Polish Wrocław, although the sound was similar. She knew his real name of course, but wanted a conversation without the public celebrity, without the performance accolades. Wratislaw just wanted the conversation. What had she said?
“It just doesn’t work for me.”
“Doesn’t work for me either, obviously.”
“You are not happy in your illustrious career?”
“No, I mean yes, but the name doesn’t get me the attention of interesting, intelligent—”
She grimaced at the developing patronisation. He stopped. They started again. Obviously, somewhere thereafter, they stopped again. He winces at the recollection.

Advancing through the gloaming, Wratislaw senses dampness in the air then hears a faint, welcome trickling. However, inevitably, something is awry.

Where the river bank blurs beneath a willow’s fine fringe of branches, a suitably willowy figure lies, one leg stretched toward the rippling water. He peers to see if there are bare toes, or dipped toes. That seems more important than identifying the owner. In truth he has already decided that point, even if reality will prove him wrong. In the absence of movement, he begins stealthily closing the gap.

Wratislaw is interrupted by a twig or seed hitting the top of his head and pattering on the ground beside him. And another. Some squirrel at trough, perhaps. He doesn’t doubt that squirrels are nocturnal. He resumes stalking the prone figure.
“Have you thought this through?” That voice scythes through his viscera. It didn’t come from the bank; it was much closer.

He freezes for two seconds; for another two his eyes dart back and forth fruitlessly in the fading light; then he plunges into a convenient rhododendron bush.

Wratislaw crouches among the resentful jaggy branches, palpitating, sweating even. His mind races through his irrational and probably pointless behaviour. If she has seen him, then, obviously, she was the ‘squirrel’. Why hide in a bush, where she can no doubt still see him? In order to see her. And who then is the figure on the bank?

Always Kamila questioned. It was her way of creating conversation. “Why are you here?”
“Here in…Wrocław [vrotswahf]—did I get that right? I was saying ‘roe-claw’ until my manager updated my crib sheet—Good. So, here in this city or right here on this…rampart?”

After the event she tracked him to a flat roof outside the second storey dance hall. The french windows along the corridor were open for ventilation. She seemed relieved, as if she’d been searching for him and had feared she’d missed him. He’d been waiting and hoping, to talk some more, and some more, and some other. He was gratified.

Onward with her interrogation. “Or here in this country, at this building, this event. Or anything between or beyond. The point is to see how you interpret the question.”
“That really over-complicates things.”
“You only have to pick one, otherwise I think you evade the question.”
As he had earlier, Wratislaw found himself comfortable being truthful. “I am fixated on modern Czech classics.”
“Can you have a modern classic?”
“I think the question there was ‘then why are you in Poland’. Because Czech classics since Beethoven are like eating apple crumble for twenty years then tasting lemon sorbet. And now I need some…cheese.” The metaphor expired horribly on him.
“This is how you prepare: with a dessert menu?”
“I want to get right in his head—Janačék—like method acting, but playing. I want to feel ten years of unrequited passion.”
“And more than one thousand unanswered letters?”
“Yes! The wrist-ache!”

Here she frowned sideways at him. Surely she didn’t register smut; English not her first language etc. She ploughed on with the serious.
“Do you think composers must be unappreciated in their lifetimes for them to produce such timelessly brilliant work?”
“Keeps them keen.”
“Do we value composers’ legacies—our selfish enjoyment—more than their personal contentment and gratification?”
“Oh, don’t make it into a moral philosophy question!”
“How can it be a moral issue? They’re dead.”
“Except the living ones.”

So it went on: Wratislaw trying to charm through Kamila’s so very serious pursuit of wisdom, to cover the fact that he was utterly fascinated yet out of his depth. Which is exactly where he is again. Loving every moment. Despite his professional mental focus melting like the sorbet. He recalls the subsequent Chopin festival being another of his unremarkable performances. His Raindrop Prelude was a miserable drizzle. He can plot the correlation between his virtuosity dissolving and her presence in space and time.

…continues at part 4

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