Another Change of Plan

Les Sklaroff

Serendipity at work in Snoak City.

Registered simply as the Trox Bequest, the extraordinary object identified as the wine cup of Relf was now on permanent display at the City Museum. The cost of ensuring the security of this fabulous exhibit had been considerable, but was easily outweighed by the sustained increase in sightseers and researchers from near and far, come to marvel at the survival of an object known for so long only from ancient records.

Following his fortuitous discovery, Scanthan had sought to avoid unnecessary publicity, but he did not regret his decision to make the exquisite little bowl available to public view, rather than let it fall into the predatory clutches of Morton Quanderpyre. Had he delayed donating it to the Museum, he suspected he might have put himself (and possibly his sister Riadne, who had granted it temporary sanctuary) at risk of being burgled. He knew that he must have incurred the entrepreneur’s displeasure by rejecting the offer of an inordinate amount of cash, and was mildly uneasy for the following few weeks, fearing a ghastly retribution which (whether the result of inertia, belated concern for reputation, or legal advice) fortunately never materialised. He now felt safe enough to venture out without resorting to camouflage.

Garrible Park was a popular venue throughout the year. There was sufficient shelter under the many exotic trees to attract people even in inclement weather, but the lure of sunshine proved irresistible to Snoak City residents and tourists alike. There were meandering paths to suit the solitary walker, glades where couples might find some privacy, plenty of open space for those more gregariously inclined.  On that early afternoon in late summer many lunches had already been unpacked and consumed. People lay, sat or sprawled in the warmth, children gravitated to the exuberant shrieks and yells of the dedicated play area. Seemingly oblivious to their noise, on a perimeter bench perched a gaudily-hatted woman whose face was set in an expression of wary truculence. From the south-east came a faint aerial chiming, as kite-flyers gathered atop Thrissop Hill, striving to catch the thermals rising from the lake-shore on the far side. This year most of the kites resembled multicoloured jellyfish, their long tendrils festooned with aeolian bells.

Propped on one elbow and squinting through his unruly hair against the light, he took another ruminative sip from the flask of soup Riadne had considerately provided. Not unwillingly, he had become one of her test subjects. Definitely prawn and possibly courgette, he thought, with hints of paprika and lime, and, as usual, a subtle aftertaste of mingled flavours designed to surprise and satisfy the palate. Scanthan grinned in admiration of his sister’s undoubted culinary skill. A few metres away, a young woman happened to look up from her book, and instinctively reciprocated what she took to be a friendly smile directed at her.  Caught unawares by her attention, Scanthan promptly choked on his mouthful of soup. It was not the most romantic of introductions, but Myris Prell was charmingly solicitous, and once he was composed enough to apologize, any initial awkwardness was forgotten, as they fell into an increasingly absorbing conversation, initially about soup and sisters (she was the middle one of three), which continued as they gathered up their things and he found himself heading west with her towards Welfage Road. It was not on his usual route back to the hydro lab and his carefully-tended plants, but that did not seem to matter.

They parted opposite the entrance to Greeming & Trulph, having somewhat bashfully exchanged contact details, and Scanthan turned right into the maze of lanes leading through the street market towards the domed octagonal complex of Central. He was feeling strangely light-headed, and had to resist an unexpectedly childish impulse to skip. It was not like the predictable hormonal surge that usually accompanied proximity to a girl he found attractive. In the short time he had spent with this total stranger, he had simply felt so much at ease that had she asked, he would readily have trusted her with whatever he held precious. How could he reconcile being at once so vulnerable and yet filled with a dreamlike sense of invincibility? Unearthing that iridescent bowl and verifying its authenticity had been as exhilarating as anything in his experience, but this ambiguous sensation was puzzlingly new to him.

Myris had no time for such introspection, as she was startled to see that through the elegant glass-panelled door (etched in masterful calligraphy with the firm’s name) the shop appeared to be on fire. Swirls of bluish smoke shot through with flickers of vermilion filled the interior. She reached down automatically for the sinuous twist of the antique brass handle, but jerked her hand away at the last moment, realising firstly that it might be too hot to touch, and more importantly that there could be a danger of creating a fire-feeding draught. She could hear coughing. Suppressing panic, she cautiously felt for the handle again. It was still cold! As was the surface of the door. Despite the thickness of the smoke the fire must have started recently, but it was odd that an alarm had not been triggered. Another peculiarity, it occurred to Myris, was the coughing, which had a very distinctive timbre, familiar to all who worked at Greeming & Trulph. It held no suggestion of distress, but was uncannily like the punctuated wheezes habitually expelled by Mr Pellet while vouchsafing one of his anecdotes.

She reasoned that a conflagration of whatever size in such safety-aware premises would be unlikely to provoke mirth, even from the ever-cheerful Mr Pellet. The situation was therefore probably not what it seemed. Taking a deep breath, Myris decided to open the door. At that very moment, as if a switch had been thrown (as indeed it had), the smoke vanished completely, revealing, quite unharmed, several of her colleagues, including the irrepressible Ched Pellet, clustered around an adjustable cradle in which there slowly revolved a compact holotoy, the kind favoured by performers and partygoers alike as “lending the atmosphere of your choice to any event.”

“Ah, Miss Prell,” ventured Harvis Drile, evidently flushed with success, “we’ve just been testing this little hoto. If you’d like a demonstration…”

Myris summoned a ruefully placating smile, and explained that she had already spent a good few minutes just outside the door in a state of mild terror, and would really appreciate having a little quiet time to recover, if nobody minded. As she tried to adjust her thoughts back to the working environment, she reflected that “hoto”, even though it was a modern contraction, was one of those words that reminded her of a particularly intense period of her childhood. Unbidden, curious fragmented phrases sometimes drifted back into her thoughts, mostly long bereft of any original significance. “Carrely slat. Yemi. Sneps. Hif hak haroam.”  

At quite an early age Myris Prell had become concerned about the names of things. This was not an aberration in her language development, which was demonstrably above average, but a sudden realisation that what something was called was not the same as the thing itself.  Why ‘bottle’ or ‘feather’ or ‘sky’? Who had decided on those names?  Having no knowledge of etymology, she had both amused and perplexed her parents by building up an alternative sing-song vocabulary of her own devising, finding the most instinctively pleasing sounds to match qualities such as size, smell, whether hard or soft, attractive or ugly, important or useless.  It was no mean achievement for a six-year old, even though Myris had tended to treat it as a private game, practiced with a few admiring friends. The only word which had retained its meaning over the years was “Froosh”, signifying something she really liked.

When it became clear that no-one she knew was really troubled by the issue, it gradually ceased to preoccupy her, but the experiment certainly seeded the ground for her later linguistic studies at Sparagulan College. In any case, a spirit of enquiry was always encouraged at Greeming & Trulph, where, as any of her co-workers would confirm, there was hardly ever a dull day.

Ebby Blates had once been in the same class as Myris, but their paths had soon diverged, and subsequently intersected only by chance. Her need to know was of a different order. It was less philosophical, more of a salacious itch to find out about other people’s foibles and possible transgressions. In the classroom her inquisitive behaviour only rarely related to her lessons. Among her peers, some found her entertaining, while those of a more sensitive character regarded her as a busybody. At length she found a suitable niche bagging goods at the Multimart, where she could exchange snippets of gossip and embellish them creatively in the re-telling. A minor injury might blossom into a near-death experience, an accidentally observed meeting could easily betoken a furtive drug-deal. Anyone spotted away from their usual haunts (perhaps innocently visiting a relative, or seeking to buy a pedigree fish) could give rise to whispered speculation that they were looking for sexual favours of an unusual nature, or even working for the Quanderpyre Press (Ebby would breathe such allegations in a hoarse undertone in which admiration and disapproval were indistinguishable).

Incautiously pursuing her natural curiosity, Ebby Blates was eventually rewarded by becoming pregnant twice in successive years, and was now the mother of two rather unsociable small boys, Gerrit and Ursen, named, in each case belatedly, after their respective absent fathers.  Although Snoak City provided nursery facilities, the boys were adept at exhausting the tolerance of those entrusted with their care. Ebby knew that when the morning’s toll of damage to person or property threatened to exceed normal limits, she would receive an emergency call, firmly suggesting that her sons would benefit from a change of venue. On such occasions, partly in an attempt to tire them out, and on the strict understanding that they would cause no further distress, she would take them to the park, where they would duly clamber, whirl, bounce and slide on the apparatus provided. It was also an excuse for her to settle on a bench for a spell of observation, under the apotropaic shelter of one of her elaborate hats. These hats were typically vivid and often complex abstract collages, lovingly fashioned by her own busy fingers with very little sense of style. Ebby would have scoffed at the idea that this was a form of art therapy, but there was no doubt that while under construction her bizarre millinery afforded her a kind of respite from anxieties, and thereafter furnished a range of protective headgear which she felt certain was teasingly provocative.

The eyes of Ebby Blates flickered into scanning mode from beneath a spray of brightly-dyed pigeon feathers set with metallic beads and pleated tufts of material that looked like the desiccated carcasses of sea-horses. She could see no-one she knew, but was content enough to eavesdrop on passing conversations as people drifted along the path.

“…nodded off before the end of the second act, but at least we saw Heb Trogan…”
“…the one who plays the slatted ghalk?”
“The very same. He’s so good.. And you’ll never guess who was sitting behind us…”

“Crusel, stop dawdling!  Yes, you are! Hurry up. If we miss the pod, it’s a long wait until the next one, and then we won’t even have enough time for ‘Hunt the Wugget’ with Manzy.”

“… but by then it was so hot that the seeds exploded, and the poor girl had to spend the rest of the morning scuttling about on hands and knees like a demented crab…”

“… of course I said no. My uncle’s a Detech, and you know how hopelessly unreliable Zole can be. I told him if that’s his idea of a sensible plan, take it to Smatparrox and feed it to a biotap! In any case, what’s…”

“… at the back of the neck, and all down the legs, especially if I’m sitting near a window, but you know I’m not one to moan. Wish I hadn’t worn these wretched shoes, though. They’ll give me blisters the size of poached eggs …”

“… decided yet, but definitely a pool of opalescence deepening to indigo, and a hint of menace as the dark bulk of that enigmatic structure rises like a gigantic cactus, fringed on one side with minute points of light….”
“…coinciding with the faint swell of the basso profundo, before the start of  Hetmoot’s aria…”
“…which reminds me, we’ll need to arrange a meeting with Aurelian before the next…”

“Yes you did!”
“I’m telling !”

From behind her ornamented head the petulant cries of her progeny rose unmistakably above the background hubbub.   With a resigned sigh Ebby detached herself from the bench, and prepared to collect them. She rummaged for a couple of placatory biscuits. Fortunately she had a good stock of quikpaks at home – one of the perks of working at the Multimart – so there would be minimal fuss over lunch. As she turned, she happened to notice silhouetted against the sky a vaguely familiar figure stooping over a seated fair-haired man who looked as if he was having some sort of fit. She was still trying to remember the woman’s name as she opened the gate to release the boys, but was sure it would come back to her.

Far above their heads a stray kite, caught by crosscurrents, began falling in slow lazy swoops, billowing and shrinking by turns, finally coming to rest, as if spent, in the upper branches of a Japanese maple, from where its intermittent chiming continued to trickle like an uncertain benison over the park’s inhabitants.

Scanthan managed to navigate his way through the rest of the day without causing accidental damage to delicate equipment or interpreting any readings incorrectly. He was disciplined enough at work not to be distracted by his feelings, conscious that he was responsible for the health of all specimens under propagation, and was scrupulously vigilant when it came to detecting unwanted pathogens. He also routinely supervised regular checks of nutrient supplies and pH values, while ensuring the labtechs maintained pumps, drainage, lighting and temperature at optimal levels. At the hydro lab the results of their research was of potential benefit to several agencies; horticultural, agricultural and pharmaceutical.  One of Scanthan’s predecessors, Eo Ormert, had inadvertently introduced a trace of soil into the nutrient flow, resulting in the catastrophic loss of an entire crop; a disaster from which necessary lessons had been learned. The lab was now equipped with phytoalexin-inducers (to stimulate plants’ natural defence systems), along with a range of anti-microbial compounds, surfactants, ultraviolet lamps and slow sand-filtration units.

He looked up into the early evening sky.  A couple of stars were already visible. Across his line of sight a lone airship glinted, fiery orange against the darkening blue, heading north-east, probably to Platport. On his way home Scanthan considered his options. Outside the controlled environment of the lab it had been a warm day. He needed a shower and a change of clothes, then a quick snack before seeing whether his friends Jaunx or Boddo wanted to join him for a drink at that new place in Prossing Street. If they felt more energetic, there was always the glider track, or they could go for a swim. Alternatively, he could have a quiet night in; there was no shortage of home entertainment, and there were a few things he had been meaning to catch up on. Reaching home, he stood irresolutely before his door, key in hand, knowing that he wasn’t being entirely honest with himself. He let himself in, thumbed his e-screen.

“Myris, hello!”

“Oh, Scanthan! Is everything all right?”

“Um, yes.. Look, I didn’t intend to… I mean, well, the truth is, I can’t stop thinking about you…”

There was a pause, during which he had time enough to wonder whether the lovely face on his screen was looking puzzled, amused or discomfited. One hand briefly obscured her lips as she said something which he thought he had misheard. It sounded rather like "Froosh!"

© Les Sklaroff 2016 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 12:02 Thu 25 Feb 2016
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