The Outsider

The guards let only one of them down the passage to Socrates’ room; it had been promptly decided that the merchant Crito would be that one. A stern warder left him outside the barred door of the sceptic’s cell.

Socrates sat huddled in the corner of the candle-lit room, but the old man jumped up when the door opened. “Crito!” he said. “I’m so glad to see you. But what are you doing here?”

Crito closed the door behind himself. “Hush,” he told his friend. “Gather your things, we need to go.”

“Go? I don’t understand —”

“I’m here — and Simmias and Cebes too — to buy your freedom. Come, the guards will let us pass if we go quickly.”

“No Crito, I’m not going. Not like this.”

“Come now, Socrates. We can’t let it be said that Crito was too cheap to buy his friend’s escape! We must hurry.” Crito reached to take Socrates by his tunic’s sleeve, but the sceptic pulled away from him.

“I can’t, Crito. I can’t.”

And so Crito went alone to the exit of that place; and he faced Simmias and Cebes and told them, “Socrates is too stubborn for his own good.”

“What did he say?” Cebes asked.

“That when he came to this City he agreed to abide by its rules, even benefited from them. Leaving now, he thinks he’ll damage the state and society. Injustice cannot be answered with injustice.”

Simmias sighed and shrugged and said, “His always been wiser and stupider than everyone else.”

“Let’s go,” said Crito. “I need to rest, then. I want to be with him at his execution.”

The Secrets of the Great Library

The ground hit hard. Sadie lifted her body off the stony floor. Checked for broken ribs. No. Just painful. Ouch.

She looked around. A small room, tall like a well, lined with shelves. Books.

Good.

Books on… ornithology. Not bad. Level 48 would be… up and east from here, she was pretty sure. There was no door, but she knew what to look for – “Stork Mating Habits” looked too well thumbed for its own good. Sadie pulled the book gently. Sure enough. An irregular section of the wall swung back.

The corridor outside was broad, well lit. A main thoroughfare. Reddish of all sizes scuttled this way and that, carting piles of books and looking very important, very busy. Without a thought, Sadie scooped up “Avian Adventures”, “The Poetry of Great Owls – Early Sonnets II” and a slim volume on reading the future from migratory flight patterns. Thus equipped and purposeful, she joined the traffic, muttering “Excuse me” and “Beg your pardon” in just the right hurried tones. With her red hair and hand-knitted overalls, no Reddish gave her a second glance.

Sadie loved the library. She could have been a Reddish: She could climb well, she spoke seventeen languages, and she was a competent knitter. But she preferred to sneak in. That was just who she was.

Here was Level 48. Easy peasy! Her fingers ran along the long shelves, reading carved instructions. Up there! She scampered up, one two three. 48-BTW-318-d, just as her client instructed. Sadie frowned as she read the title: “The Secrets of the Great Library – Passages, Shortcuts and Genuine Reddish Knitting Patterns”.

Gently, she pushed the tome back into its place. The client would be disappointed. But some secrets were worth keeping.

Entry Dome

My armed escort and I have been sent to this suburb to investigate reports of an Entry Dome. The image from the air recon team that I’ve got stashed in my backpack is noisy, but it certainly looks like a Dome. Right size, shape, relative position. We walk down the middle of the deserted street, past the empty husks of houses, shops, offices. I’ve been three months on this job and I’ve never spotted anyone.

I scan the device on my wrist to clarify directions. Left here, then two more blocks up, on the right. I turn to the trooper and nod. She nods back and double-checks her weapon. She doesn’t talk much. She sits on her own in the mess hall. But I trust her. Something about her approach to the job.

We round the final corner and the Dome comes into view. It looks pretty much like the others: like the top half of a big, rusted, diver’s helmet. I spot the access hatch, and take quick, short, steps to the keypad. I crouch down, get out my makeshift tools, and gingerly start prodding at the keypad. Some of them are rigged, booby-trapped. Just last week someone in Team 3 lost a hand.

After a few minutes of sparks and cursing under my breath, something unexpected happens: the door actually begins to slide open. I fall over backwards in shock; my escort brings her rifle sharply up and at the door. On the other side are two humans: a techie, crouched by the other side of keypad, looking as surprised as me; a trooper, standing taut, their gun aimed out at us.

Book Club

The ladies of Upper Westing met for book club every week, alternating hostess duties. This week it was May Tolman’s turn and she had provided an excellent tea. The table was laden with fresh cucumber sandwiches, hot currant scones with lashings of creamy butter and tart jam, and delicate finger biscuits dipped in cinnamon. There were also several teas, infusions and home-made lemonade. The ladies were now engaged in animated social chit-chat, the real reason for book club’s popularity.

When they had dispensed with Sarah Hillin’s youngest and his lack of discipline (“just needs a good whipping”) and Tory Manley’s frequent visits to Dr Barham (“obviously a budding romance”), conversation turned to the newest resident of Upper Westing.

“John told me he’s a retired colonel. Rich as sin and nobody knows where the money came from.”

“Molly down at the grocers says he’s had builders at the old Foster place for days, tearing out all those beautiful Victorian fittings.”

“My Tom knows one of the builders. He says there’s some pretty strange things in that house – like books in German and foreign coins.”

“I heard he was the only survivor of his regiment. They all died in suspicious circumstances and he only reappeared after the war. Its all rumour of course, probably false, but where there’s smoke….”

****

May smiled to herself as she cleaned up. It had begun. The next bit was out of her hands, but she knew her friends well. Soon, the titbits she had passed on would spread throughout the village. Another few hints in the right ears and he would never be accepted here. He would always be an outsider. That would teach him to slight her, calling her a busybody when she was only trying to be a good neighbour.

Desk

The desk is like any other in construction.  Sturdy wood that had been worked into legs, drawers and a smooth flat desktop.  It had been painted or vanish at one time but was now sanded and painted again.

On the one end of the desk there is a digital clock, it reads the correct time in red light.  There is an out tray next to digital clock.  It contains bills, paper for drawing, photographs not yet in frames and a charged iPod.  The iPod is blue but a lighter blue than the digital clock.  Next comes a battered mug full of pens, pencils and highlighters.  Some of the pencils aren’t sharpened.  There is sticky tape in a holder and a blue telephone – it is the worst blue of the three.

And then there are books.  Animator, anatomy, rigging, timing for animation, 3D, cell – so the list goes.  They are propped up against a black shiny PC with a flat screen.  The books are for the programmes on the PC.  There is a tablet next to the keyboard as well as a charger for camera batteries.

And in among all the digital art there is little music box.  It sits very quietly, lost in the modern world but older than all of it.

 

The Outsider

The Outsider is always with me. I’ve never seen him but I hear his voice in my head.

His voice is kind and brimming with a quiet, wry humour. His is the voice of the lithe old man who has seen the world and found even cruelty beautiful in its way. His is the voice of the curious child whose perfect naiveté grants absolute clarity.

The outsider is my trusted companion: constant, calm and true. He is unaffected by me, by how I feel, by shit that happens, by what they think or by what they say. He sees honestly and often narrates.

Imagine me, 23 years old, driving home late at night in the rain. Just as I felt the wheels losing traction on the slick tarmac I hear his voice: “You’re never going to make that corner you know” (He ends a lot of sentences with “you know”). “You were driving too fast; pretty stupid”.

As the car spun through its first rotation and clipped something with a dull crunchy thrup, the outsider chuckled. “Not a bad way to die – young, fast and fearless – good narrative overtones”: he seemed almost proud.

Three or four revolutions and another jarring crunch later the car stopped moving. I was mostly unharmed and deeply surprised by it. The outsider said nothing more that difficult night, but I knew he was nearby: I could his feel his infectious joy in the world, in the richness of it all, in the sheer variety and complexity.

The Outsider is always with me. Perhaps he is me. Perhaps he is all that is me.

Outsider

She stands out in the crowd of teenagers under the late summer sun, her demure cotton dresses and hesitant gentleness odd against their casual obscenities and tight jeans. The books clutched to her chest press her crucifix painfully into her skin. In those initial weeks she retreats often into the oak-panelled solace of her room, its medieval stone walls muffling the loud beats of their music.

At first she was startled by the looming shadow outside her window, but after her first fright she leans out to examine the statue more closely, to lay a hand against the ugly not-quite-dog face which twists around to look in through the glass. Its eagle claws and monstrous bat-wings cannot entirely undermine its air of homely, canine protectiveness.

The stone face watches while over the weeks her nun-like solitude is slowly invaded: quiet young men and women study Bibles or class notes with her, linger to chat. Someone gives her chrysanthemums in a blaze of autumn bronze.

This particular young man has a more assured charm, and her responses to him are glowing and fluttered. They return to her room together on an evening when the gargoyle’s head is capped with a comical covering of snow.  Their low-voiced conversation gives way to tentative embraces, a drawn-out kiss.  When his hand moves, however, in a practiced motion down to her breast, she struggles free of his insistent mouth with a muffled protest. Their argument is brief and bitter; he bangs the door angrily behind him, leaving her in tears.

When his battered body is found in the snow, scored with great raking slashes, the medieval monster on its high perch has bloodied claws. It will never be suspected. But it will wear forever its slow, stone bewilderment as she weeps on her bed in exclusion and loss.