Monday, July 07, 2008

Scorpio's Jewels (Part Four)

The sportsman leant back in his chair to let his servant wipe the puddle of milk from the tabletop. He had considered cleaning up the mess himself as it was only a moment's work, but his servant had heard the glass being knocked over and rushed into the room within seconds. Shooing the man out would have appeared strangely out of character for the sportsman, so he sat back, trying to give the man as much space as possible, and suffered the slight awkwardness of the situation without complaint.

A moment later the servant straightened, extricated himself from the sportsman's personal space, and left the room as quickly as he had come. The sportsman looked down at the rest of his breakfast, the same food he had been eating in the mornings for as long as he could remember, even from the days before he had amassed his fortune. But the food was not the same – the fruit was imported from half way across the country, not painstakingly picked out by his grandfather on his usual morning trip to the local market; the boiled egg was perfectly formed and white as ivory, not misshapen and blackened like the vast majority of the eggs consumed by the local populace.

With a sigh the sportsman pushed away his plate and stood. His appetite had quite deserted him, but he still felt the urge to consume. Almost inevitably, he gravitated towards a buffet-table at the back of the room, where a great assortment of sweets lay arranged as if plucked straight out of a schoolboy's daydream. To the sportsman's shame, this was the place he had begun to spend increasing amounts of time, during the days and sometimes even during the nights. To him, not even his choice of drug was honourable – he did not drown his sorrows or float from them like smoke; instead he chose to stuff himself with the most expensive and delectable of sweets in an attempt to quell a hunger that was anything but physical.

Feeling disgusted at himself, the sportsman reached for one of the juiciest sweets on the table, but just as his fingers brushed its sticky surface, he froze. A bead of sweat appeared on his forehead and his eyes widened in shock. Inches from his outstretched fingertips was a huge jet-black scorpion, its wicked sting hanging ominously above its gleaming segmented abdomen, seemingly ready to strike.

To be continued

Friday, August 17, 2007

Scorpio's Jewels (Part Three)

The next day dawned slowly but surely, as a pale sun struggled its way upwards through swathes of rolling blue-grey mist. The city streets were oddly quiet - all that could be heard was the occasional cry of a wandering salesman, hoarsely advertising his wares. It was one of these that finally returned the shopkeeper to his bed - "Sugar, get your sugar!" was the call, and suddenly the shopkeeper was awake, with a peculiar sweetness on his lips and a new-found sparkle in his eyes.

With a burst of energy he threw his ragged bed sheet from his scrawny body, and moved swiftly to the narrow slit of light that he called his window. What he saw made his heart leap in the fragile confines of his chest. The rising sun had somehow caught the mist like a prism, and its weak rays had shattered into a multitude of colours that shimmered and flashed in the morning air like the twinkling movement of fish in the ocean. The effect was almost magical, and it seemed to the shopkeeper as if all that he could see - all the crumbling houses with their wearing brickwork - had in some way been reborn, and a little of their old dignity had briefly been restored.

This impression even stretched to the pedestrians shuffling by - the weathered lines on an old woman's face went from betraying her senility to becoming marks of her wisdom, while the lacklustre flowers on a young girl's skirt suddenly appeared to bloom with life. It was as if all the mystery and romance missing from the streets had come flooding back, and as the shopkeeper stood by his window, drinking it all in, his spirits rose for the first time in months.

* * *

The businessman that the woman had mentioned in the shopkeeper's dream was in fact a sportsman, who, in years gone by, had been one of the very best in the land, and whose name had at one time resounded in chants of slavish devotion around every stadium in the country. But that was many years ago, and now, when all that remained of the esteem in which he had been held was the wealth that it had given him, he had decided to return and retire to the place where he had grown up, a place just down the road from a certain dusty little bookshop.

In his old age, the sportsman had tried, and mostly succeeded, to replace the thrill of the game he'd left behind with the risks of business. Where once he had carried the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, now he held the fortunes of many a small business in his hands, or, more specifically, in his overflowing coffers. The influence this gave him over those less fortunate than himself was intoxicating. Sometimes, when a venture of his performed beyond expectations, he relived, for an instant, the feeling he'd had when he strode out onto the playing field, and heard the admiring roar of ten thousand fans erupt around him.

Not surprisingly, in time, this power went to the sportsman's head. He began to fancy himself as a master strategist; a business angel that had climbed through the heavens and achieved almost Godlike status. Eventually, it began to be said that he had become, or perhaps always had been, a man whose pride was so bloated that any attempt to swallow it would have left him choking.

This overblown sense of grandeur manifested itself in the ornate mansion that he built himself; he became like an old feudal lord, living in a castle surrounded by slums, the filth all around making his marble walls gleam in a way his cleaners could never manage.

Under his much-adorned roof little was different. It was said by many of the sportsman's downtrodden servants that the extravagance of his bed compensated for the loneliness inside of it.

The fact was that the sportsman had too much money to attract a woman of integrity, yet too much pride to fall for one that had none. And no other kind of woman ever presented herself, no-one who could see past his riches and mistake the fundamental ugliness of his nature for a thing of beauty. If such women existed in dreams they didn't in reality, so he spent his nights yearning for a love he didn't deserve, and, as his treasure-hoard didn't happen to include a genie's lamp, his wish remained unfulfilled.

Yet the sportsman refused to accept this - he believed that to be loved was his unquestionable right, and maintained that the cause of his deprivation lay not with him, but instead with everyone else. After all, he thought that he was perfect, in both personality and looks, and the fact that no-one ever thought (or dared) to tell him otherwise merely confirmed his opinion.

Every time he glanced in the mirror, as he was wont to do (far more frequently than necessary), the refined visage of an ageing nobleman looked back. And surely, the sportsman reasoned, in rare moments of lucidity, even if his opinion of his looks was ever-so-slightly inflated, the truth couldn't be all that far removed from it. But unfortunately for him, this was exactly what had happened.

The truth was that there was an underlying asymmetry to the sportsman's face that made him undeniably attractive in the mirror, yet downright ugly in real life. The curve of his cheekbones and the turn of his nose appeared so elegant in his reflection, but in the eyes of others, who saw the mirror-image of the image in the mirror, the elegance was flipped for coarseness, and all that had been beautiful was now repulsive.

But the sportsman remained blissfully oblivious to all this, as he possessed no camera, so the only idea he had of how others saw him lay in the many portraits that stared back at him from various parts of the house, all looking just as handsome as the sums he had paid for their painting.

The most impressive of his collection hung opposite the main entrance to the house, carefully positioned to be the first thing seen by any guests that had been invited inside. The sportsman glanced at it as he passed by on the way to his breakfast table, and the sight of it made his spirits soar as high as the shopkeeper's had, earlier that morning.

With an air of perfect self-satisfaction, the sportsman sat down to his morning meal.

* * *

At that very moment, the shopkeeper stumbled smartly out of his house, and slammed his door shut behind him with a flourish. He stood by the roadside in the remains of his best suit - a pair of ancient trousers that had the texture of dried parchment, below a stiff white shirt that was mercifully hidden by a threadbare blazer, which itself had not only seen better days, but by the looks of it, seen a better century too. Yet just like the man he was going to see, the shopkeeper displayed an almost perverse ignorance of his own appearance; he wore his ragged clothes with pride and walked with a dignity that the sportsman would have killed to call his own.

* * *

With a grimace, the sportsman looked down at the milk he had inadvertently spilt over the tabletop in a moment of clumsiness. His distaste was not at the mess - that could be cleaned in an instant - but at its implication; that was a stain that would last far longer. It reminded him that his grace was leaving him, that his days of complete mastery over his body were over. In the past, such an elementary failing of hand-eye co-ordination would have spelt the difference between victory and defeat on the pitch. Now all it signified was the difference between a full and empty glass of milk. And things would only get worse. Above all, in that instant, the sportsman was suddenly reminded that his bones creaked now, and they would not stop creaking, not until the day he died.

* * *

As he walked, the shopkeeper rehearsed what he was going to say - the speech that would hopefully save his business, and his life as he'd known it. Words weren't easy to come by, after all, the last few months had seen his charm engulfed by a flood of angst and self-pity. But little by little, bits of it returned, and a plan began to form in the shopkeeper's mind. The sportsman's reputation for arrogance was common knowledge, so he knew that careful flattery was the most direct route to his pockets. Sycophancy embellished with wit was the order of the day, and the fact that his words would be deliberately chosen purely for their emptiness did in no way diminish their significance. This speech would be the shopkeeper's very own humble little masterpiece; it would not be one that could ever rank among those that lined the shelves of his shop, but it was nevertheless the only thing that could save them all from destruction.

Revelling in the magnitude of his task, the shopkeeper hurried on.

To be continued

Friday, May 11, 2007

Scorpio's Jewels (Part Two)

When night falls, most cities in the West become reflections of the starry skies they lie beneath, full of grounded artificial constellations that coldly shine far brighter than the age-old stars they compete with. The streets of these cities are almost as silent as the unimaginable expanse of space above. In most of the East, this is not the case. In the East, the nights come and go like a fever, and beat to the sound of life.

Rickshaws squeak through dusty streets, lurching through both the sluggish stream of traffic and the thick blanket of smog that envelops it every hour of every day. The blaring of horns that accompanies each near-collision coalesces into a dense wall of sound, which, together with the swirling dust and the stifling heat, forms an almost overpowering attack on the senses. And through it all flows a steady trickle of people, walking slowly in single-file, as close to the edges of the street as possible. Some of these people are short, some are tall; some wear silk while others are dressed in rags. But in some way, they are all the same: they each have black hair and brown skin, and that is all there is as far as the eye can see. Yet every so often, there is someone who is different.

It was on a winter's night that she came to him; the daylight had fled long hours before, leaving in its wake a trail of soft firelight that glimmered in every doorstep and at the side of every road. Her sari shimmered as she walked, and each step she took brought to it a different hue, until she seemed to glow with an ethereal beauty while moving with an otherworldly grace. Nothing at all seemed to touch her; she was like an island of calm amidst a turbulent sea of activity, and not even the sudden cry of some night bird in the shadows could cause a flicker of reaction to cross her beautiful face. It was almost midnight by the time she reached her destination.

With practiced ease the woman entered the old bookshop, and slipped into the shopkeeper's dreams. It was not the first time she had visited them, but that night would be the last. This time the two of them were sitting side-by-side on a wooden bench, overlooking a vast lake that stretched out into the horizon. The great expanse of water was nearly entirely covered in a blanket of green algae, and was almost perfectly still, but for the occasional movement of fish under the surface of the water, or the activity of insects on top of it.

Birdsong coloured the sultry air, while bright sunlight warmed it. There was even a slight breeze, which billowed gently through the shopkeeper's clothes and caressed the woman's hair. After a moment, she moved closer to him on the bench, and then leant against him. Instinctively, he put his arm around her, and smiled as he felt her body melt into his.

"It's good to see you again," he said.

She looked at him curiously. "You're not surprised to see me anymore."

"Why should I be?" he asked.

"You used to be, at first."

"True. I'm not sure why really. Maybe it was because you seemed so real for someone in a dream, " he said hesitantly. "Or maybe you were just so dreamlike in reality."

She smiled. "Don't go confusing yourself now. It looks like you've got enough on your plate as it is."

He started. "Does it now?"

"Of course it does. You never used to have those shadows under your eyes.." She laughed softly. "This is your dream; your world. I thought you'd have gotten rid of them somehow."

The shopkeeper shifted his weight slightly. Sensing it, the woman turned so she could look him in the eye.

His voice was hoarse when he spoke. "All this time you've never noticed anything like that. You've never asked how I am or noticed what's happening to me. And we spend so much time together, in the shop during the day and here during the night. I thought you were ignoring me."

"And the moment I do notice, you complain."

"Have I been expecting too much?" he asked quietly.

"No, no." She sighed. "But it's complicated. With me, it always is."

"I don't really see why it should be. I mean, I think I've made it pretty clear what it is I want... Is what you want so different from that?"

"What do you want?" she asked, tilting her head to one side.

The shopkeeper pulled his arm from around her shoulders and gestured across the landscape. "I want this," he said, simply. "I want all this and everything in it."

"Please, don't say that," she said sadly. "You're asleep, remember? Everything here is a fantasy, a figment of your imagination."

The man leaned closer to the woman. His voice became urgent. "Then maybe I shouldn't wake up. Listen, I spend every waking hour surrounded by fantasies; sure, they're all neatly bound and shelved, but they are fantasies nonetheless. I sell them, or I'm supposed to sell them, for a living." By now he was closer to her than he ever had been while awake. "What difference does one more make?"

Gently, the woman took his hands in hers. "Oh God... It really shouldn't be like this." She sighed.

"But it's all I've got," the shopkeeper replied, in a voice choked with emotion.

She gazed into his eyes, and for a second, they seemed to connect like never before.

"Listen to yourself," she said. "What do you think you sound like? More importantly, what kind of a man do you think you sound like?"

"A tired one."

"A beaten one. You used to be so full of life... what went wrong?"

"You of all people should know the answer to that," the shopkeeper said, with just a trace of bitterness.

The woman looked at her lover tenderly. "No person, no emotion, has the right to reduce you to the state you're in right now. Remember that."

"That's easy for you to say. You've never been on the receiving end, have you?" And then, for the first time that night, he dropped his gaze, and stared at the ground.

Suddenly, the woman moved closer to him, and began whispering in his ear. "Tell you what, I'll give you a helping hand. There's a businessman that lives at the end of your street. He's rich, so rich that he doesn't know what to do with his money. So sometimes he gives out loans, to struggling businesses or people that he thinks really deserve them. Go and see him tomorrow. Make something of your life."

Then she stopped, abruptly kissed him on the cheek, and then, without a flash of light or even the twitch of a perfectly shaped eyelash, she was gone.

To be continued...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Scorpio's Jewels (Part One)

I was told this story in a house that my Mother had lived in as a child, in a room that her Father had studied in, and on a bed that his Father had slept in, countless years ago. At the beginning of this story, the edges of the sky outside were beginning to flare with the red of sunset, and by its end the stars had come out, twinkling above the flickering lights of the city below. A story like this could only have been told in that one place. Imagine yourself there, if you can.

* * *

There once lived a man who ran a ramshackle old bookshop, situated in the middle of one of the many dusty, narrow streets that snaked through the less affluent part of the city. Despite its dilapidated appearance, or perhaps because of it, the shop exuded an old-fashioned charm that many of its newer competitors lacked. But business was not good, and the lightness of the shopkeeper's pockets weighed heavy on his mind.

He was still quite a young man this shopkeeper, maybe half a decade out of university, where he had filled his head with noble ideals and ageless philosophies, which, despite their undoubted worth, had left him not penning a masterpiece of his own, but instead selling those of others. Yet his youthful enthusiasm had stayed with him - he made sure never to throw an irritated glance at any of the men and women who would stray by chance into his shop, spend an age flipping through the pages of a crumpled paperback, but then eventually walk out again, their rupees jangling unspent in their pockets.

Why this happened, in the end, came down to a matter of principle. For reasons unknown, the shop had always dealt only in books of fiction; in flights of fancy and feats of the imagination - that was part of its charm, and it was a tradition the shopkeeper was loath to break. In most places, this would have been admirable, but in that part of the city it was inappropriate. Such a shop could have blended in perfectly in the alleyways of Paris, but in a part of Kolkata where the customers were as poor as the shopkeeper, works of the imagination were luxuries that few could afford.

So people treated the shop like a library - a place to waste their time but not their money, and all the while the shopkeeper looked on, and every passing month saw his stomach grow tighter and his clothes grow more threadbare. Sometimes he cursed the fact that he could only charge for the pages he sold, and not the dreams they evoked.

But in spite of his troubles, the grateful smiles that he received never failed to touch him, especially when they came from children that had just spent the last half an hour entranced by the many picture-books and fairytales that filled the lower shelves of the shop. On the good days, when the sun shone through the smog, they almost made it all worthwhile.

As time passed, the happiness of the children led to the friendship of their parents, and before long the man found that the loneliness of the counter had been replaced by the effusive companionship of a sari-clad mother or a genial father. One woman in particular caught the shopkeeper's eye. In fact, she caught the rest of him too, though he did his best to hide it.

It was on a perfect autumn day that she had walked in, with tiredness radiating from her slight frame, but curiosity burning in her brilliant eyes. She had seemed younger than he was; her long dark hair had shone brighter than the dazzling saris that she wore. Her skin had the colour of chocolate; her voice had its texture, and the time they spent together had its taste.

He fell for her that day, although he only realised it afterwards. But when he felt so empty on the days that she didn't come to his shop, yet so very alive on the days that she did, he knew. When just her push on his door set the butterflies in his stomach a-flutter, he knew. And when he ached just to talk to her, about Gods and politics, about his life and hers; about everything and nothing, they both knew.

But she never did a thing about it. She never seemed to acknowledge the effect she must have known she was having on him. She just smiled instead, and every time, it melted his heart and crushed his resolve. Eventually, her visits didn’t serve to take his mind off things; instead they became the very things from which he could not take his mind off. She turned from a distraction into an obsession, and in the end, he fell for her so hard that he forgot all his problems. He forgot to worry about where his next rupee would come from; eventually he stopped worrying about the source of his next meal.

Still, she made him happy, even as she consumed him. He was like a ship tossed on the sea of her will - on the good days he would scale the crests; on the bad he would plumb the depths. Her presence lifted his spirits and her absence tore apart his heart. In short, Love caught him in its vice-like grip, and there was nothing he could do about it.

The decline in the shopkeeper’s appearance and bearing soon became plain to see, but perversely, it affected least the person to whom it should have mattered the most. There was never a trace of pity in the woman’s voice when she leant over the counter to talk to him. She kept looking into his brown eyes, but she never saw the changes in his face. Maybe that was what he loved about her, but it was that same thing that was killing him. The fact that she didn’t notice his condition kept him from doing anything about it. After all, he thought, if he tried anything different; if he tried to change the course of his life, wouldn’t he just be risking the only thing that kept him coming to work in the mornings? When she was the only ray of light in his life, he wasn’t exactly eager to alter his position. In his fragile state of mind, such a risk wasn’t even worth considering.

Weeks passed, and slowly but surely the shopkeeper began to fade. And as he grew frailer, his shop grew colder, and the promise of his shelves was replaced by the sad reality of decay. His visitors (one could not call them customers) became fewer and fewer, disappointed as they were when they saw that the dreams they had come for had all melted away. Soon the woman was the only one left. But of course, you could say she came for something else.

Something had to give. Things simply could not have gone on the way they were. But a few nights later, something changed.

To be continued..

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport

The Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport is as much an assault on the senses as its name is on the tongue. As I walked into it, my legs rejoiced at their new-found freedom, while my eyes complained at the sudden influx of bright neon light. But despite themselves, they opened wide.

The farther you are from home, the stranger the first few moments in a foreign land seem. I noticed more things in those first five minutes in India than I did in the whole eight hour plane journey before them. I saw in pin-sharp detail the dirty whitewashed walls from which all of the buildings in the country are made; I noticed with a smile the scraps of out-of-place tinsel that hung from various stern-looking statues; and I observed with a sense of impending doom the line of viciously bored, sleep-deprived bureaucrats that sat at passport control, with their pens, papers and questions at the ready.

Yet in spite of all this, it took something else to make concrete in my mind the fact that I had truly arrived at my destination. In the end it wasn't the rapid Bengali chatter that suddenly surrounded me; it wasn't the humidity (though it was the middle of the night); and it wasn't the slightly metallic smell in the air (though it was distinctive), that told me that I was where I was supposed to be.

No, it was the sign composed of bright pink letters on a dull brown background, proudly proclaiming that an "upgradation of the toilets" was underway, that proved beyond all doubt that I was in India. This just couldn't happen anywhere else.

For a nation that contains more English-speakers than any other, the level of language that I encountered on my trip was shockingly low. Lower even than in the intellectual slums of London. "Do Not Force Open Please" was politely written above the heavily guarded doors to the terminal's waiting lounge. Machine-gun-wielding guards stoically regarded it without a hint of irony. Sometimes I prefer to think that the average level of English here is actually very high, and descends into self-parody only to please the tourists.

Luckily, the signs weren't the only things in the terminal designed to please the tourists. A couple of dingy shops and kiosks lurked in the corners of the room, surprisingly open considering it was the early hours of Boxing Day. I watched as a couple of Swedes, who had accompanied us all the way from Stockholm, were drawn towards some rather unappetising snacks like spotless moths drawn to a particularly sooty flame. Unbelievably, one bought something. She'd learn. (And if you don't know what that means, so will you).

But unfortunately for me, these moments of morbid amusement were sandwiched in-between one of the most agonizing waits I have ever had to endure. It's not the flight that kills you, it's the wait at the airport afterwards. You see, we had to wait until sunrise to be picked up, as driving in the dark really wasn't worth the risk. So we waited in the lounge, and yet again I couldn't fall asleep. This time sleep buzzed around me like a mosquito, again just out of reach.

But I'd made it, in body if not yet fully in mind. And my stay had just begun.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Flying Into The Sun

Five hours in, it occurs to me that a long-haul flight is probably the only place in the universe a teenager has difficulty falling asleep. Try as I might, squeezing my eyes shut and leaning my head against the coarse headrest leads me nowhere. Sleep refuses to take me; instead it prances around the edges of my consciousness, waving and pulling faces. Much like the annoying toddler in the seat in front. Only not as noisy.

I think my tiredness is making me confused. Typical half-heartedness. I wish it'd knock me out for a few hours instead.

* * *

Just as I am about to fall asleep, I'm dragged roughly back from the gates of oblivion by a polite cough from the presence standing by my seat. It's one of the stewards. Tentatively, he offers me a cognac. Progress I suppose. Last time I flew to India, the cabin crew were asking whether it was a goodie bag that I wanted.

Despite myself I decline his offer with a smile. He deserves it. All the stewards and stewardesses do. After all, a planeful of South Asians is hardly a recipe for plain-sailing. Lesser men and women may well have been driven to suicide if they had to deal with the kind of treatment we dished out.

The cabin crew served us with all the food and drink we could possibly want; we replied with mild insults and strong complaints, all in the hope of somehow ending up in the heaven of first-class from the hell of economy. Looking back, it might not have been the nicest thing to have done.

But it worked. At least, sort of. We managed to swap two cramped aisle seats for two marginally less cramped seats by a window. It was a small victory that felt disproportionately satisfying.

And that's when I realised. Whether by accident or design, in hindsight I can say that this plane journey readied me perfectly for the experience known as India. It was overcrowded. It was uncomfortable. The toilet facilities left a lot to be desired. Black hair and brown eyes were all that the eye could see. All around, people were filling in meaningless forms. You had to complain to get anything done.

But my God, was the food good. Now usually, I'm no fan of vegetarian dishes - I'll only eat them if there's no meat on offer. Yet the meals served on board this flight, all Indian preparations, were unbelievably delicious, and still contained not a trace of any sentient being. I guess this is the real reason that so many Indians are vegetarians - religion doesn't come into it.

So there it is, most of India contained within an aeroplane. It's amazing. Almost everything's here. Looking around at my fellow passengers, I can even see a few cows.

* * *

A couple of hours later when I landed, I realised how wrong I was. Trying to fit India into an aeroplane is like trying to fit an ocean into a teacup, or a lifetime into an obituary. Trying to describe the sights and the smells and the sheer life of the place using something as feeble as words is almost an exercise in futility.

But I can only try.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Duel

An eagle circled low over the town, a lonely dark shape in a darkening sky. Below, desert sands rose and fell in the breeze, like ghostly veils in the twilight. This was a ghost town, and somehow its streets seemed emptier than the desert wastes surrounding it. Nothing stirred, not a sound was heard, not even in the bar that wore on its walls bullet holes from happier times. Now not a soul was inside, only rickety chairs placed precariously on top of creaky tables, and a film of dust covered each and every bottle behind the counter.

Somewhere a clock chimed. And from each end of the high street came a horseman. Both moved forward warily, and then both dismounted, their spurred heels hitting the dirt in unison. One threw off his coat, revealing the blue-gold finery of a musketeer beneath. The other smiled, slowly cast his gloves to the ground, and placed one hand on the hilt of his wickedly curving sword, half hidden by his coat.

By now the two men were only a few metres apart, and the hatred in their eyes charged the air between them. Finally they stopped and stood facing each other, right in the centre of the road running through the centre of the town.

“It’s not too late to turn around,” said one musketeer.

With the sound of rasping metal the other man drew. “I’ve always said you’d be a better man if you followed your own advice,” he replied.

“So be it,” said the first, and released his own sword from its sheath. Then, clasping it with both hands before his face, he bowed a swordsman’s bow.

The other man simply made a suggestive movement with his hand. And then, in less than a blink of an eye they were on each other, their blades flashing and biting, whistling through the air and cutting through the silence. As they thrust and parried their boots kicked up a shroud of dust that billowed around them, sliced now and again by shining quicksilver or a flying coat-tail.

After a while they spun, and the first man stood with the other’s horse at his back. But then they whirled again, and again and again, and soon they became one and the same, just another swirling dust devil in the desert.

But finally one man drew blood, and his rapier was flecked with crimson. The second musketeer looked down with surprise, and what he saw caused his stomach to turn and his grip to fail. He dropped his sword on the ground in front of him and sank to his knees. A slight wind ruffled his hair.

The victor gazed at the loser sadly. If anyone had been watching they wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart. He stood behind the kneeling man and raised his sword, an executioner in all but name. The loser swallowed and stared at the sky for the final time. There might have been a tear in his eye.

The winner raised his arm high… and then his phone rang. He cursed, but dropped his blade and frantically went through his pockets. Finally he found his mobile, and, walking away to a polite distance, answered it.

The loser sighed, half from disappointment and half from relief. At least now he’d be able to think up some suitable last words. But what to say? Here, in the closing moments of his life, the musketeer found himself with his last ever mental-block. The name of a lover perhaps, he thought. But that seemed so predictable. Besides, he hadn’t that many to choose from and they weren’t the most elegant of names. What about a promise of otherworldly vengeance? But then again, he didn’t want to seem like a bad loser…

Suddenly, the perfect words slipped into his mind. The man smiled. Last words like that would be remembered.

At last the winner returned, with his phone back in his pocket and his sword back in his hand.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

“No problem,” replied the loser. “Happens to me all the time.”

And so the executioner raised his arm again. The loser opened his mouth to utter his epitaph, and, tragically, his mind went blank.

“Hang on...” he began, and died.

The victorious musketeer looked at the body in front of him and sighed. That was the second piece of bad timing within the space of five minutes. Oh well, he thought. There’s plenty more where that came from.


Today I saw a girl sitting at a table opposite her boyfriend, a fork in one hand and her mobile phone in the other. Her eyes were distant when she laughed; his fixed studiously on the plate before him. The candle flickering between them went unnoticed.

He ate in silence and she never stopped talking. Until, that is, he finished eating, and placed his cutlery on his plate with an air of finality. Just then, by total coincidence, she finished her conversation, put her phone back in her pocket, and, picking up her knife, smiled at him sweetly.

There is a time and a place for talking on your mobile phone. Choose it wisely.