The Cheat

In which I present a loving homage to Pratchett

The 33rd High Lord of the Eternal Worshipful Brotherhood of Cheats was having a really bad decade. With his back pressed against a dubiously stained wall in a dubiously shadowed alley, he took stock: limbs intact, all digits present, eyes and ears functioning, lungs and heart a tad wobbly but getting the job done. Left sandal lost; robe torn; hood still covering face. And so far, so not followed. Things were looking up.

It had been fine at the beginning. Life had been simple: follow the Five Commandments[1] and reap the benefits of being born with a scrupulously honest face. He went from being the eternally hungry and perpetually grubby 15-year-old Billy Druthers, to the smugly sated and only slightly shabby, Brother William.

The only catch in the whole deal was Commandment Number Five, ‘Thou shalt Cheat Death’… And even there he’d had some roaring good luck: he’d drawn thirty years, a far longer reprieve than that of his brothers. Thirty years peace of mind and exemption from accidental death (brothers still had to be wary of death at the hands of others.)

As the bottom rung of a very creaky ladder, Brother William had only the vaguest interest in the politics of the brotherhood, but even he had begun to worry as High Lord after High Lord toppled from their lofty perch. In the space of two years, the brotherhood raced through High Lord #2 to High Lord #27; they’d barely had time to compose adequate welcome speeches before the next body turned up. Deaths #2 through #10 were all unfortunate results of the Fifth Commandment; the brothers became High Lord just as their time ran out.

The other deaths, however, were of brothers with plenty of time left on their slip. Hale and hearty High Lords started to suffer curious accidents – one was bitten by the rare and highly poisonous Kitten Spider[2], and another was believed to have smothered himself to death while sleeping (he was succeeded by High Lord #24, his roommate).

In his 15th year in the brotherhood, as the eldest brother, Brother William became High Lord #33. With his easy-going nature, decided lack of interest in power or politics, and thanks in part to the awe inspired by his 30 Year Fifth Commandment draw, Brother William was allowed to become the longest running High Lord in the history of the brotherhood.

But over the years, as his hair greyed and then abandoned scalp, strand by strand, it seemed that he was losing his enjoyment of the cheating game.

He had never had the slightest bit of trouble with the Second Commandment in his younger years; ‘Thou shalt never pay for food, shelter or clothing’, was an easy task for an angel-faced youth with puppy dog eyes. As a middle-aged man with an overly well-known face, the High Lord was now finding it decidedly troublesome.

The Commandment demanded that The Cheats were never to pay for a meal, and the more nefarious the plot to attain food, the more devout the Brother. The early years had seen the High Lord clothed in a well-patched dinner suit, his voice wrapped in earnestly plummy vowels, tied up with crystalline consonants. He would plead entry to the gilded, marble arches of elite restaurants, the maitre d’ would inevitably decline, only to be swept up in a tale of sorrow and disaster (or sometimes a tale of hope and triumph, if the mood took him).

When the maitre d’s of all the best restaurants had grown sick of his tales, he started visiting the second best restaurants, but they too soon grew wary of the man with the rapidly sagging angel face. Gradually, he saw his evening meal turn from stuffed quail a la Contessa, to bangers and mash a la Kevin-what-works-down-the-pub. The doormen and barmen of the lesser establishments were also less inclined to believe his elaborately woven tales and so getting dinner had become a nightly trial.

The other Commandments had grown equally frustrating as time had passed – cheating on a young naïve girl was one thing, but Thou Shalt Cheat on Thy Partners was a damn sight more risky when your only option was your twenty stone, rolling-pin wielding landlady. After being turfed out of three different bedsits, the High Lord had decided to nullify the Third Commandment by avoiding the company of others. This had made his life easier, but hadn’t improved his mood.

Tonight though, it was the Final Commandment that was causing him trouble. The High Lord closed his eyes, quieted the thundering of his pulse and opened his ears to the sounds that filtered into the alley. A cut-off shriek from two dubious alleys along, the clicking sound of a mouse gnawing on rotten wood, footsteps, the sound of knuckles meeting cheekbone – footsteps.

The High Lord held his breath, the owner of the footsteps was making no effort to silence his feet: his heels hit the ground first with a click muffled by the grit that lined the cobbles, the toes twisted as the foot lifted away, a grating sound that punctuated each step.

HELLO BILLY. The voice boomed inside his skull.

FANCY. MEETING. YOU. HERE. There were hesitant pauses between the words, as though read from a script by someone with no idea of their meaning. The footsteps splashed into the entrance of the alley.

IT IS TIME FOR OUR GAME. At that, High Lord Billy of the Eternal Worshipful Brotherhood of Cheats opened both eyes and bladder, and stared in horror at the robed figure.

“Oh, uh, hello. Is it that time already? I was sure it was next year – are you certain it isn’t next year?”

The robed figure did not respond, but withdrew a glowing timer from his robe and set it carefully on the uneven slabs at the High Lord’s feet. The sand in the top bulb was draining into the bottom half at a somewhat alarming rate.

“Right, right. Well, I get to choose the game, right?”

THE 32ND HIGH LORD CHOSE THE LAST GAME. THIS TIME I GET TO CHOOSE.

“Ah. So – so what’s it t-to b-be?”

I THINK… YES…  I RATHER THINK I FEEL LIKE A GAME OF ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS.

The High Lord reared backward, affronted,

“You want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors for my soul?! That’s hardly respectful! What about the almighty game of Kha-Lan? The reverent game of Shin-sou? What about a bloody game of chess?!”

THEY TAKE TOO LONG. I’M IN A RUSH.

“You’re in a rush?! I’m about to die and you’re in a rush?”

YES.

The High Lord’s indignant bluster fell away with a huff.

“Fine. Let’s get this over with.”

WAIT… HOLD ON, I NEED TO GET THE WORDS RIGHT… WHERE WAS I… AH, YES:

33RD HIGH LORD OF THE ETERNAL WORSHIPFUL BROTHERHOOD OF CHEATS, ALSO KNOWN AS BILLY, I GREET YOU.

ACCORDING TO THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE FIRST HIGH LORD AND MYSELF, I CANNOT TOUCH THE BRETHREN EXCEPT BY APPOINTMENT.

TODAY I COME TO YOU TO KEEP OUR APPOINTMENT.

IF YOU WIN, YOU WILL BE GRANTED ANOTHER 15 YEARS OF LIFE. IF YOU LOSE, YOU FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO YOUR SOUL.

The robed figure paused and then held out a skeletal hand, bones so white they seemed to glow in the dimness of the alley, fingers curled into a fist.

Shaking, the High Lord raised his own hand.

ONE.

The fists came down.

TWO.

The High Lord met a pair of glowing blue eyes.

THREE.


[1] 1st Commandment: Go Forth and Cheat

2nd Commandment: Thou shalt never pay for food, shelter or clothing

3rd Commandment: Thou shalt never trust a brother

4th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat on Thy Partners

5th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat Death

[2] The Kitten Spider is covered in grey striped fur. It tucks its legs underneath its hairy abdomen and mewls like a cat until another creature approaches, whereupon it sinks two inch deadly fangs into its target.

The Taste of Lies

In which we hear about pies and lies

The Taste of Lies Part I

She tasted lies young. Much younger than most other children of the town, who were strategically warned by mothers and nursemaids that if you lied, a four-headed serpent with teeth as long as your arm would bite your tongue clear off. And you would also be sent to bed without supper. 

Guppy had no mother, no nursemaid, went to bed without supper more often than not, and never encountered a four headed serpent.

What she did encounter was taste

The first time had been after she swiped a particularly fine looking meat pie left cooling in the baker’s window. Belly full of evidence, she had widened her eyes in panic at the baker’s wife and hurriedly denied any knowledge whatsoever of meat pies in general, let alone this specific pie (it had been remarkably buttery and crumbly, with a firm meaty middle, riddled with chunks of apple). 

At her bumbled denial, Guppy’s mouth had flooded with eye-drenching sourness, a taste that seemed to be dissolving her teeth as well as her tongue. 

She’d managed a wavery smile convincing enough to send the baker’s wife off after another target, before sticking her mouth under a spigot and scrabbling at her tongue with dirty fingers. The taste of pie was long gone.

In a land where lying was accompanied by such unpleasant consequences, most everyday folk stuck to the truth, or at least as near the truth as would mitigate the risk of tongue scorch and public shaming. Guppy, however, began to try lie after lie, exploring the flavours and learning to tolerate the taste until she could keep all trace of the terrible mouth experiences from her face.

She discovered that white lies tasted bitter-sweet, less dreadful than bold-faced lies, but still with a lingering edge of after taste. Lies of exaggeration bubbled with rotten fumes akin to the smells from a dung heap. Lies of fabrication, including tales told to entertain, would result in an explosion of salt, as though your tongue were caked in crystals. 

She got away with it all too, until she encountered the boy.

He had been visiting the market for a week now. He looked about six or seven, with a painfully thin face that often had tear tracks streaking through the dirt. Guppy had watched him clumsily swipe food from several of the stalls, and was pleased to see that the stallholders who noticed his thefts kept quiet, eyes sympathetically watching his frail frame. 

Then the boy stole from the wrong stall. The baker’s wife set to screeching as soon as she saw her missing loaf, drawing the swift attention of a town guard, who hared after the boy and had him pulled up by the collar in a few strides. 

The boy had had the sense to ditch the bread as soon as the woman had started her howls, but the baker’s wife pointed one plump finger directly at Guppy, who had unfortunately been front and centre for the entire debacle. There was no time to dart elsewhere. 

The guard turned to her, the boy gasping in his grip.

‘Girl. Did you see this boy take bread from the woman’s stall?’

Guppy gulped. She could lie, but it was fairly clear that the boy was the culprit and she didn’t want it revealed that she could speak untruths. But if she told the truth, the boy was probably headed for a life of slavery. The boy’s eyes were huge in his haggard face, beseeching her with silent pleas.

‘I saw him.’ 

Guppy looked down, unable to meet his gaze. And as the guard whirled away with the boy in hand, she felt a curious burning begin in her mouth. Within moments, her tongue seemed to catch alight, scorching the roof of her mouth into blisters, and forcing a whimper to escape her well-trained lips. 

Later, as she lay with a rag dipped in cool water inside her mouth, she thought that this must be the taste of betrayal. The result of speaking what you know is wrong in your heart, no matter the technical truth. 

The boy’s eyes continued to haunt her. 

Swollen-tongue be damned. He wasn’t going to disappear on her watch.


The Taste of Lies Part II

Calliope speaks

In which we go down to the woods

Pencil sketch of a hare by Isla Kennedy - Medically Unexplained

*No muses were invoked in the writing of this piece

I find her in a shed. The directions I’d been given back in the town had been about as useful as a raw sausage with no fire, but it turns out endless ambling has won the day. 

The shed stands beneath a slumping holly tree, its walls scarcely visible beneath a mass of determined ivy in mortal combat with a trumpeting morning glory.

I left the footpath over an hour ago, giving in to an unwise spurt of hanger-born bravado, and I’ve been regretting the decision with every thorn/sting/mud-slide/spider-ridden step. 

Glimpsing the shed hadn’t exactly raised my spirits (I think my thoughts may have run along the lines of, if I see one more bloody shepherding hut, I’m digging out the matches). But beleaguered hope is restored when I see the sign hammered out front.

It reads:

Stop thinking so loudly.’

After ten minutes of tentative knocking that I tactfully escalate to a crescendo of hammering, I hear her voice for the first time. With the dulcet tones of a rusted car door, melodious as a corvid, Calliope speaks: 

“Can you not take a hint?”

The door shudders open. She stands taller than me, arms folded into taut cords across a wiry body, all angles and lines. Her skin is a papery brown and hangs loose around the strong bones of her face, the long arch of her neck. Old she may seem, but weak she is not. Power is writ into every inch.

It takes over fifteen minutes to convince her that I’m not a) a salesperson, b) an Instagrammer intent on advertising her location, or c) a desperate writer. She pointedly drags the door closed and leans back against it, standing in silence for a long moment, one leathered hand tapping against an elbow.

“Back in the day, we took our pick of the desperate idiots clamouring for attention, all of them with too much money and time on their hands. ‘O Calliope, make me the world’s greatest poet!’, ‘O Calliope, do not forsake me!’” Her simpering falsetto rings with contempt.

“I’d spend a month, maybe a year with one, and find another when the spark dampened. They all made a bit of a racket, sure, but there weren’t too many overall so it was doable. Sometimes I’d hear someone so full of fire and raw talent that we’d end up working together for a lifetime: mutual inspiration, joy, creation.”

Her mouth twists.

“And then times changed. You know what it’s like to have millions of writers out there screaming for inspiration? The journalists, now, ha! Multiple articles each day and it never stops! I haven’t been able to hear myself think since the birth of the bloody internet!”

She stops. Forces her shoulders to relax. Huffs out a breath.

“It’s the same for all of us, of course. Well, except for Urania, she’s got a manageable flock of astronomers with the sense to use a bit of elbow grease rather than cry out for divine inspiration. She can actually live near people, just avoids the ones with telescopes. Me, I’m stuck out here in the bloody woods so I don’t get woken up at 2am by next door’s teenage daughter writing werewolf fan-fiction. Or her dad when he writes his Mills and Boon books while his wife is asleep.”

She gives a hoarse sigh.

“Gods, I miss the old days.”

Her gaze moves back to me. Hardens.

“And you. You come here with your I-was-just-curious line. But you’re just going to go home and bloody well write something, aren’t you? You can’t just keep it in your own measly skull, you have to go and get it all out there.” Her arms uncross to wave in exasperation. “You’re all the same! Wanting something for nothing, no effort, no learning, no time spent on the craft. Gods forbid you actually think before flinging wishes into the aether.”

Dark eyes bore into me.

I drop mine to the mud-splattered toes of my boots. 

The door scrapes open.

Slams shut.

S.H.A.M.E

In which we journey to a future far, far (and hopefully further) away

Pencil sketch of a cat by Isla Kennedy, Medically Unexplained

They brought in S.H.A.M.E four years ago.

It stands for System for Health and Monitoring Efficiency, and it took the government years of bullying, bribes and blackmail to force companies into implementation. It was going to ‘transform productivity’, ‘improve stakeholder engagement’, and had to be ‘actioned immediately’.

Workers are pretty damn engaged. But mostly because they’re scared shitless.

It works like this: sickness and absence stats, start and finish times, and hours spent on productive tasks are all monitored by a national system that ties data to your National Insurance number and Health Service number. Everyone – from the CEO to the handyman – has to wear a digitised display badge with stats and rankings, and it emits an ear-piercing bleep every time your numbers slip. Teams get rewarded or punished based on collective performances. Productivity is the only thing that matters.

Once your stats drop too low, you can’t work for a company in the same tier any more – you have to move down to a lower tier company. Less pay, same badges. The sleep at the factory kind of deal with no-break shifts, no daylight, and no real money.

If your stats slip too far, there are no jobs. No one can take on a dud in case they have to fork out for rehabilitation training. S.H.A.M.E Central Services take the offender somewhere for a few weeks and drill into them that they need to be less shit. Then they get their badge numbers bumped up just enough so they can work in the lowest tier. “Rehabilitation” costs way more than most people can afford, and more than most companies want to pay.

No badge means no money and no health services.

The government says that measures are in place for S.H.A.M.E to work for everyone. It says that those with a confirmed diagnosis receive an allotment of extra points on their badge. It says that you can get a badge with larger font displays. Or with digi-braille. It says that anyone who’s fallen out the bottom has chosen to ‘not be part of a successful system’.

The government says a lot of things.

They’re launching S.H.A.M.E in America now, and half of Europe is a S.H.A.M.E zone. Apparently the UK’s been an astounding success case.

It’s like they can’t even see all those people sleeping on the streets.