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Issue number five




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The happy medium by A.R. Lamb

One day she woke up to discover that she wasn't a charlatan any more.

"I was before," she said to her researcher. "But I'm not now."

"You mean when you said you weren't you were but now that you're saying you aren't you aren't? Expect me to believe that?"

"Just listen to this."

She held her cupped hands to his ear.

At first all he heard was the sound of the sea. Nothing remarkable in that, seeing as the sea was less than ten miles away. Then a voice said:

"Have you seen Belski's braces?" Paul started back; began a thorough search of the room; couldn't find the source of such a clear male voice; returned to the cupped hands:

"... he keeps falling down without them. He's down there messing about with that woman right now."

"What's the matter with him? He knows she's a fraud. He'll land us all in it."

"Shush a minute. There's someone listening."

"So there is. I don't like it. I don't like the way that ear feels."

"I know what you mean. It's twisting everything we say."

"Oh, yes. Ergh--it's disgusting."

"Put your scramblers on. We don't want to get snarled up in a character like that."

The voices were drowned by the sound of the sea.

Paul shook his head.

Flora came out of her trance.

"Well?" she said.

"I don't know."

She leaned forward, as if to convince him with her irises; but he was too rational to look, and anyway all he could think about was the pair of braces which were now revealed hanging over the back of her chair.

"Whose are they?" he spluttered.

She turned round, apparently astonished by their presence.

"Good lord!... They must be Belski's."

"Who's Belski?"

"Just a lover. I mean, just a friend."

Paul went green, that peculiar greenness which only a born-again sceptic can feel. She'd always told him she was celibate, for professional reasons; otherwise he'd have been the first in the queue.

He sulked.

"It's not what you think," she declared. "Nothing's ever what you think. I was alone, but I'm not any more. That's all there is to it."

"Where is he?"

She shrugged, gestured round the room:

"He could be anywhere. He's a free agent."

* * *

The researcher, withered and deranged by jealousy, went upstairs to use the bathroom. It was already occupied by an extremely old man: he was holding up his trousers with one hand whilst shaving with the other.

"Sorry," said Paul.

"Feel free," said the old man, gesturing with his razor towards the toilet.

"No. I'll wait till you're finished."

He ran downstairs, feeling much more optimistic. If that was all the competition he faced ...

"It's amazing how simple it is," remarked Flora. "Who'd have thought it'd just be a matter of cupping your hands--as if you were holding a butterfly. You try it. Perhaps it'll work for you. Perhaps it works for everyone."

The old man appeared in the doorway, grinning from here to eternity.

Flora stood up with a groan. She remained on her feet for a second or so, then collapsed.

"Maybe I shouldn't have shaved," he said.

He squatted down beside her and began to stroke her hair.

Paul, knowing that he was now more redundant than he'd ever been, resigned on the spot from his faculty and decided to leave. He also decided, without any clear motive, to take the braces with him.

* * *

The team was getting desperate. Belski's defection had deeply affected its spirit. He'd broken the fundamental rule upon which the game was based.

Somehow they had to get him back. But before they could get him back they had to get his braces back to him. But before they could get his braces back to him they had to get Paul to listen to them. But Paul just lay on his bed all day in a fug of unbelief.

The team wasn't without its ingenuity. After a fortnight of the most rigorous thought, during which time a rise in the air temperature made their eventual solution possible, they went out and commandeered a moth, its wings hardly dry, brought it in and landed it on Paul's chest.

Paul sat up. The moth remained motionless. He nudged it with his forefinger. Still it refused to fly. He was forced to pick it up. In other words, he was forced to cup his hands.

"Thank God for that," said a voice, as loud and clear as mistletoe.

Paul was so shocked that he jumped. His hands flew apart. The moth fell to the floor, apparently dead.

The team screamed with rage and frustration. As if it wasn't enough to have to go through all this handcupping nonsense they now had the moth's soul to contend with.

The soul, which had been expelled from its body by the violence of their acoustic assault, now demanded instant compensation for having been shorn so prematurely of such a promising life.

The team bowed and scraped in the moth's shadow:

"What difference does it make?" they whined.

"What's so good about all that biological staff, anyway?"

"Here, take a jacket."

"Take a shirt as well. Go on. Have yourself a feast."

* * *

Paul dragged himself back to Flora's door.

"Hello," she said. "I thought we'd seen the last of you."

Belski hovered behind her in his long johns.

Paul slumped down onto the settee. He was already little more than an ear, little more than a shell. Everything with which he'd once been filled had evacuated and fled--back to the books from whence it'd come.

Flora, who throughout her career as a charlatan had been pale and waif-thin, was now plump, voluptuous, rosy--her cheeks suffused with the residue from innumerable ecstasies.

Belski, too, looked fabulously younger. He was obviously making the most of his incarnation.

Even the room seemed brighter. Where once flocks of dust had huddled and sighed without hope, the surfaces now shone.

Paul observed all this juvenation, but could not partake. He felt sick. He had a headache. His nose was blocked, his throat sore. He'd lost as much weight as Flora had gained. He'd aged as much as Belski had youthed.

"I've been instructed to bring these back to you," he said, producing the braces.

Belski jumped and hid behind Flora.

"Oh Paul, leave him alone, please," she implored.

She turned and kissed Belski on the forehead.

"Go and wait upstairs, Frank. Don't worry. I'll sort this out."

When he'd gone she sat down beside Paul.

"Look at me," she said.

But he couldn't face her. He felt ashamed. Apart from his other ailments, he itched all over as though dirty, yet he'd bathed and changed his clothes for the second time that day immediately before coming here. He wept.

"There was this moth..." he mumbled. "Well, after that I only have to cup my hands and they're at me all the time."

"Don't cup them, then.''

"I can't help it. It's like a compulsion... They're so bloody coherent."

"But you mustn't believe any of it. They're all liars, you know. They're all trivia-merchants. I mean, did you ever hear of anything so silly? How could braces have anything to do with anything? You, of all people."

He shrugged:

"They join the fundament to the firmament--that's what they told me. And I believe them."

She shook her head; took the braces over to the table; opened the drawer; brought out a pair of scissors; cut the braces in two, or rather in four.

From upstairs a shout was heard. "I'm coming," she said.

Belski met her on the landing, in his right hand a horn of plenty.

He was now fully alive.

What they did after that was private, by which I mean no information could emerge from it; if you like, they became a white hole, sucking everything in, including Paul's last hopes.

Without any curiosity he cupped his hands and listened to the team shrieking at the destruction of their plan.

Had he not been so apathetic, Paul would have hated them. The hierarchy that they implied was horrendous. He would have longed for his old ignorance. He would willingly have had the old ring re-threaded through his nose.

When the panic had died down they began to discuss their predicament.

"What are we going to do now?"

"There's only one thing we can do. There's only one chance for us, or we'll be back to square one."

"What's that?"

"Ssssh... He's listening."

"So what?"

"Oh, you mean?..."

"Hoy! You down there."

"Mung bean man."

"Sceptic ulcer."

"Word brain."

"Yes, you. Could you uncup your hands please? We want a bit of privacy."

Paul shrugged; stood up; wondered where Flora had got to; went to the foot of the stairs; heard her and Belski in the throes of deliverance; departed.

* * *

A week later he hung himself from a tree in a wood, using a pair of braces bought especially for the purpose.

The team--rejoicing at the restoration of their numbers, their sanity, their prospects of promotion--welcomed him with open arms and a great deal of good-natured ribbing.

A.R. Lamb lives in Cornwall in the U.K., and writes as trancedly as possible, with practical help from various carbon compounds. A novel, DIVERS, is now available from electronpress.com. Other fiction has appeared in Unlikely Stories, In Posse Review, and Rose & Thorn, etc.; also poetry at ariga.com, Disquieting Muses, Big Bridge, etc. Most recent paper publication, In Many Ways Frogs, is a joint poetic volume with P.N. Newman, published by Abraxas. Sculptor by trade.

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