The Quixotesque misadventures of unreconstructed Marcher Morgan Jones-Jones, who has probably not heard of the suffragettes let alone second- and third-wave feminists.
The visible universe could lie on a membrane floating within a higher-dimensional space. The extra dimensions would help unify the forces of nature and could contain parallel universes.
listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go
—e. e. cummings
Psychics have long suspected the existence of one or more parallel universes, and have often speculated that there may be doorways or portals in certain areas that allow entities to travel into our dimension and vice versa.
—J. Magonia, Worlds Unseen, 1999
What with his legs getting tangled up in the voluminous folds of the rather stylish rose-pink cloak thing he’d been lent to cover his shameful half-nakedness, Morgan was initially down more than he was up. Fashion of any sort being a covert hobbling device, what else did he expect? Away from the houses it became easier. At least there was less to bump into. But he still had difficulty in keeping up with his companions: better night vision on their part, perhaps, or maybe they were used to being perpetually in the dark about everything.
Then the moon heaved itself above the hilltop. Even the Man in the Moon had suffered a sex change: head thrown back, eyes closed, her mouth gaping in unrestrained orgasmic fervour. The countryside was now bathed in murky, cabbage-water light and Morgan no longer needed his hand held, as it were.
They’d reached the pond. The stone circle was already in sight, only furlongs away. With the exception of the two boys carrying Sernunnos, the rest of his companions dropped daintily onto their stomachs and began squirming up the bank. Morgan floundered after them, hampered by the cloak, which for decency’s sake he’d promised not to take off, and which trailed behind him like the draggled wings of a wounded fruit bat.
He was almost there, almost home. The minute he got back, Mam or no Mam, he’d have a quick wash and brush up, spray on half a pint of Brut, iron the front and cuffs of a shirt and coax the mini into Hereford. Tonight, it would be enough just to walk the streets, through the crowds, among his own kind, observing all the relatively normal people of that fair city as they tried to pull or to pick a fight. He could have a curry or a burger or something bizarre in the Church Street meat-free zone. He’d admire the phallic qualities of the church steeples – even the one down by Tesco which used to have the pronounced kink. Maybe he’d even slip a grateful quid or two into the cathedral begging box.
For the first time in hours, Morgan managed a smile.
Seconds later both daydream and stealthy silence were shattered by a burst of yelping, screaming, squealing and barking from above. Morgan froze as six or seven men stampeded past, uttering wild howls of disbelief, fleeing the pale bulk of an enormously distended Venus, squealing protestations of friendship.
“Lub you all lub this lubbly lubbly place lub you all lub this lubbly lubbly place lub you all lub this lubbly lubbly place.”
Close at her trotters bounded Mercher, nipping, yipping, yapping, swerving, doubling back and egging-on; mostly joining in for the sheer bloody hell of it after hanging around for several hours, bored witless, with nothing to do or smell, ever since managing to lose the kids.
Sernunnos verbally rounded everyone up and calmed them down. “The fat one’s a swine,” he assured them, “and the hairy one’s a hound. Hundreds of thousands on them live on Hertha. They’re harmless – most of the time.”
“Can we get on with this, please?” begged Morgan, hearing distant voices.
“Bugger,” squeaked Rowan, pointing downhill. “It’s too late.”
Several large figures loped effortlessly up the hillside towards them. Morgan gulped at the nightmare size of these Amazons on steroids, bogey-woman emasculators, and strong-arm feminists. No wonder the small crowd melted into the darkness. He dumped the cloak and decided to make a run for it. Not a chance. A determined flying tackle, with the applied optional extras of nail-digging and hair-pulling, and he was done for. One sat on him, adding injury to insult: fourteen stone if she was an ounce and all muscle.
“Hello, what’ve we got here then?” she enquired, in a voice which gave him the willies, being just about tenor, dipping to C on the bass stave, but definitely female for all that. He could tell by the size of her backside, for a start. And she was busily smoothing the crumples out of her fatigues.
“It’s a man,” replied her thick friend.
“Of course it’s man, dipstick. Who else would be out here breaking curfew and causing trouble at this time of night?”
“No, I mean a MAN not a man, a Man-man – a real low-down bastard scum MAN from Hertha. Feel his legs. They’re all hairy and big as tree trunks. And just you feel here and here and here.” Two pairs of hands did a quick running inventory of all the not-sat-on bits.
“Gerrorf me, you fat cows,” wheezed Morgan. “You’re breaking my back. Get your hands off my legs, you dirty depraved bitches. Leave me alone.”
“Watch your mouth, cock. That’s no way for a man to talk. Proper unmasculine, that is. You know what happens to men what try and behave like women. They grow boobs and muscles then their bits shrivel up. Is that what you want? Hertha, you say? Yeh, I think you’re right. He’s bloody hairy all over.”
“Hirsute – that’s the word. Feel under this armpit. You could plait that.”
“Or bead it. Roll him over. Let’s have a proper look. Ooooh, I say. Yes, we’re in luck. Watch those little fists though, bless him.”
“We have to take him down, unfortunately. Still, while we’re here we’d better see if he’s he got everything he’s supposed to have, ten fingers, ten toes and whatnot, just to write in our report.”
“Has this one got a navel?”
“What are you hiding down there, darling? Turn over properly. Let’s have a feel. Big boy, aren’t you? Don’t be shy.”
“He’s got a navel. See – in that little nest there.”
Morgan slapped the air. “Get your filthy paws off me, woman. What gives you the right to lay hands on me? Stop that. How dare you?”
“Calm down, dear. Calm down.”
“Help me!” Morgan screamed into the night. “Where are you, you bleeding pack of cowards? What happened to solidarity?”
Not that they’d all managed to escape. When Morgan finally emerged from the mini-scrum, the first thing he saw was Rowan, and then Mosaic, both hunched up and pretending to be past anything. Rowan’s eyes were out of focus. Held by the scruff, he was attempting to blow bubbles with a minute amount of saliva and twitching uncontrollably.
“Please, ma’am, can I go, ma’am?” Mosaic clutched his genitals, dancing from foot to foot as he darted anxious glances at the nearest bush, his face creased with the apparent agony of an over-full bladder.
“Aw, get out of it! Call yourself men?”
“Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. Really sorry, ma’am.” Both scuttled off into the darkness without a glance in Morgan’s direction.
So much for Brotherhood: he’d really hoped – but now he had something worse to worry about.
“Nobody would know,” insisted the second voice. “We really should check it all works.”
“Not worth the risk. We’ll have him later. Don’t worry: they soon tire of them. A seven-night from now he’ll probably be on the rota anyway.”
“You know the score – it’s about his mind, not his body. It’s about how he sees things, not what you see in him.”
Well-mauled, trouserless, and humiliated to the nth degree, Morgan was deposited on a marble floor like some awkward, over-sized package. For a moment he lay still, winded and trying to get his bearings. Women twattled on like starlings somewhere in the background, but he’d been left alone, suggesting a confident belief that escape was impossible. Because the large room or hall or chamber or whatnot was perfectly round, with wide passages leading off the quarters, there wasn’t even a corner to hide in. Above him arched a vast painted ceiling, prototype of Michelangelo’s puny effort, depicting the The First Judgement, featuring a dejected Adam being banished from an Eden looking remarkably like the landscape outside, by a strapping female with inadequate clothes and a great crest of moon-silver hair. There were cats everywhere. And flowers…or butterflies. Even the artist didn’t seem too sure. But all the uncouth animals – dogs, pigs, apes, blowflies, et al – were being kicked out two-by-two with Adam.
Footsteps approached, two lots – an out-of-time quick-march double act and a stop-and-start shuffle – and from different directions. The shuffler, being closer, arrived first: a pair of well-worn tartan slippers slid to a standstill inches from his head. Morgan shifted uncomfortably, picking up a certain smell that he associated with school changing rooms. After everything else that had been endured, he could do without athlete’s foot of the left earhole. A tall bloke, unmistakably human, with a false orange moustache and a matching wig, both slightly askew, bent over him.
“You all right, old chap?”
Morgan clutched at his tweedy turn-ups. “I want to go home. For God’s sake, get me out of here.”
“No can do, I’m afraid. Buck up. Not the end of the world, you know. We Brits went through worse in the war. Anything else I can assist you with?”
Raising a feeble hand, Morgan pointed at the ceiling. “Who’s she?”
“That’s Lilith, dear boy. First wife of Adam, don’t you know. Woman kicked him out. She wouldn’t shave her legs and couldn’t stand the dogs scratching.” The arrival of two pairs of hefty boots signalled the return of his captors and the fellow hastily disentangled Morgan’s fingers. “Ah, time for the off, I fear. Be seeing you.”
“Wait!” screeched Morgan, clawing at the tiles.
“Up you get, darling.” The fractionally smaller of his captors yanked him to his feet. Morgan looked about in vain for Mr Tartan Slippers. He seemed to have vanished off the face of the wherever it was they were stranded.
“That bloke I was talking to. Who was he?”
“What, Lord Lucan?”
“How should I fucking know? He’s just a figment. We call him Useless Lucan. Every time he comes, he disappears.”
“Here, darling,” said the other harridan, going ferociously maternal on him. “Let’s get you tidied up.” Pulling a large rag from one pocket of her combats, she spat copiously on a corner and began rubbing the mud from his face and knees. And undoing every one of the jacket buttons he’d so carefully done up. Not so much tidying, as arranging the goods to better advantage.
The room began to fill up with big old women, most of whom should have been well past what they so obviously had in mind, all dressed up to the nines and obviously living in ignorance of the significance of the words mutton and lamb in juxtaposition. They smirked. They simpered. They giggled. They peered and they prodded. They pulled back his jacket lapels to look at his chest. They salivated. And coyly batted cats’ fur false eyelashes. It was all an act. Every bit of power was in their hands. He hated the lot of them.
“How cute. It’ll wash up nicely.”
“He’d look lovely in blush pink. I simply adore the contrast between barbarian savagery and gentle masculine shades.”
“Lemon yellow, I feel.”
“Do you think we could get his hair to grow long?”
“Slim him down a bit?”
“Or fatten him up?”
“Are you sure he isn’t meant to look like that?”
“What – a bit of rough, you mean? Could be.”
“Where did you find him, Diana?”
“Wandering about on the plain in the dark,” said Di, readjusting Morgan’s boxers, the legs of which had been tweaked up and down once too often. “We don’t know what he was up to. It’s probably another accidental – we’ve had quite a few oddities coming through recently. Fall-ins are getting more frequent now that the fabric’s being weakened by all the playing around with radio waves in Hertha – Goddess help us if it rips apart – we’d be overrun.” She looked at him dubiously. “He could have been sent, I suppose.”
“Where are you from?” demanded the nastier one, giving him a shake.
“Marches? Never heard of it.We haven’t got anybody there, have we?”
“Where is it?” A meringue blob in apricot took Morgan by the arms and enunciated, kindly and very slowly, “Where-is-Mar-Ches, dear?”
“Be-tween-Wales-and-Eng-land, you ignorant, bloated old—”
“That’s enough,” snapped Di, smacking his legs. “Nice boys don’t talk back. Have some respect for your betters.”
“Well, if he wasn’t sent and you just found him, who’s going to have him?”
“It’s my turn,” insisted a quadruple-sized vision in green.
“It’s jolly well not. You had the one that fell through from the Bermuda Triangle.”
“He doesn’t count, Nepenthe. That idiot was no good to anyone. He didn’t know whether he was fact or fiction.”
“It was better than nothing, my dear Grrrrmaine. I’ve had nothing exotic since the Mary Celeste.”
“NOBODY’S HAVING ME,” bawled Morgan. “I’M NOT FLAMING PROPERTY.”
“Did he say something?”
“Nothing important. You learn to ignore their noises.”
“HELLO, HELLO, ANYONE LISTENING?”
“Shh, sweetie, this is woman talk.”
“Tut tut. Excitable, isn’t he? Touch of hysteria, perhaps?”
“Time of the month, I expect. Listen, darling, you just concentrate on keeping your hormones under control. We’ll decide what’s best for you.”
“But the poor fellow’s got rights, too,” murmured the smallest and youngest of the newcomers. Not bad-looking either, Morgan thought, slim, by comparison with the rest, and with a faint golden sheen to her hair and skin. She reminded him of someone. He wondered if she was of mixed origin. If so, she might have remnants of proper womanly feelings like compassion and knowing her place, together with an inbuilt directive to boost and nurture the bruised male ego. She might take pity and help him escape. He tried smiling.
Instead of responding, she patted his head. “Poor ignorant creature – perhaps we should see what he’d prefer to—”
“We’ll have none of your equality nonsense tonight, Thorns, thank you very much. This is supposed to be a party.”
“She’s young. She’ll learn. Still getting used to her Regen.”
“That’ll do, Thorns. Goddess’ sake, leave off the psychology, just for one night. Don’t you ever get tired of being so wishy-washy unfeminine?”
“Now, now, Thorns, let’s not spoil tonight over a man. You know they’re never worth it.”
Thorns nodded. “You’re right, Nep. He’s not worth falling out over.”
“Rosie—” pleaded Morgan. Everyone gasped. Thorns looked affronted. He had a sense of déjà vu as her eyes flashed, the smile tightened into a snarl, her fists bunched menacingly. He took a step backwards. She came after him.
“What did you call me? Do I look like a man?”
Di slapped him. “How dare you address a lady in that way? Keep your foul mouth shut. Now apologise.”
More bodies crowded into the space by the minute, most were carthorse-sized women towering over the few human – the latter carefully avoiding meeting Morgan’s eyes. He took advantage of the crush by backing slowly towards the least busy passage. Di firmly brought him back.
“Look, sweetie, I’ve had enough of this silliness. Behave. You came of your own free will.”
“I damn well didn’t.”
“Well, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, you did, so here you’ll stay for seven years and a day at the very least. That’s the law. When on Mars do as the Martians do. Get used to the idea, chum. Why all the fuss? Look around. Lots of other Hertha-men here. They’re all happy enough. See the one in the bright green? He’s Thomas the Rhymer, our resident poet, been here for aeons. He plays the lute, too. And the black-skinned twins: stunning, aren’t they? Romulus and Remus – none of us can tell the difference, but we don’t have to. They come as a pair. There’ll be plenty of company for you when you’re not working.”
“Working at what?”
“Silly boy.” Di laughed and patted his bum. “Not another word.” Morgan opened his mouth to argue and her benign expression instantly changed to a lethal I-mean-it Mam-type glare.
“I’ve just had a wonderful idea,” said Grrrrmaine. “Why don’t we give him to Kerridwins as an extra birthday present? He’s Welsh—”
“And you know what a thing she’s got about Celts.”
Everyone beamed at her. “Brilliant! You have such wonderful ideas, Grrrrmaine.”
“Oh, go on,” Grrrrmaine nonchalantly re-pinned her wild green hair, “not really. I’m simply pragmatic – and philosophically flexible. You know how generous Kerridwins is, though. Struth – we’ll probably all get early regeneration.”
“That’s a thought. And you have so many.”
“We ought to dress him up like a Celt.”
“Don’t they go round like this normally?”
“Something on the legs, I think.”
“What – like greaves? That would be a shame.”
“And I think there’d be loads of white clay in the hair.”
“Ugh. No, leave him au naturel. Let’s gift-wrap him.”
Morgan flinched as someone produced several yards of a diaphanous pink fabric. A dozen hefty women advanced on him.
“Quick, she’s coming.”
“Bugger that,” said Morgan, bunching his fists “Hands off. I’m not being wrapped up like a thing.”
“Don’t you enjoy giving pleasure?” asked Di. “Goddess, what sort of man are you? Hold his arms, Pickup.” The nastier one stood on his toes and effortlessly clamped his arms to his sides. “Great. Now, we’ll simply twist this round here, and through there, between these, and over there. That’ll do.”
The crowd parted and through it sailed a massive woman. Morgan’s eye widened with horror. Even through the gauzy material he recognised her. It was that woman – BB, big as a bus, all done up like a Christmas tree. And if it wasn’t her, it was her even uglier sister. The more he struggled, the tighter Pickup and Di twisted the fabric. His squawks of protest were drowned by a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’growled in voices artificially lowered to somewhere near bass to match the importance of the occasion.
The wraps came off.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have. Oh, bless! Just what I’ve always wanted.”
For God’s sake, it was even her voice.
“Where’s he from? Where are you from, cutie-pie?”
“Down under,” said Grrrrmaine. “Oh, you mean him? An outpost called Wales.”
“Oh, Grrrrmaine, you always produce the right answers, right on cue. Wales is my absolute favourite. And what’s your name, sweetheart?” Kerridwins gave Morgan’s arm a playful little slap which left a row of rapidly purpling wheals. “Come on now. Out with it.”
“Morgan? Isn’t that a girl’s name? Bless. Never mind. We’ll find you a more appropriate one. Welsh, hum. Daffodil might be nice – Oh, got one, have we? Violet? No. Daisy? Tulip? No. King-cup? Not really. Something tall and green perhaps. Hemp? Reed? Leek? How about Hemlock? What’s that in the Welsh? Tegid? Cegid? Cegit? Git for short. Yes, Git it shall be. That’s nice. I simply love everything Celtic. We’re going to get along just fine. You can do bookkeeping, can’t you, Git? I’m sure you can. You shall be my secretary.”
“I BLOODY WON’T.”
She bent towards him and whispered: “It’s just a euphemism, dear.”
“Don’t care what it is, the answer’s no.”
“Now you know you don’t mean that.” Kerridwins chucked him playfully under the chin. “Everyone knows that when a man says no he means yes, oh, yes yes ye s– yes, please. It’s in his nature. He just can’t help himself.”
“I said NO and I meant bloody NO.”
“Oh, go on with you.” She turned to Di. “Show the dear little fellow to my suite. He needs cleaning up a bit. He’ll soon settle down when he’s been given the drink. You will, won’t you, dear?”
“Not a chance. Let go of me, you ugly bitches. Leave me alone.”
“No need to be coy, dear.”
“If I’m supposed to be employed by you,” he bawled, “this constitutes gross sexual harassment in the workplace.”
“No such thing,” Kerridwins calmly assured him, throwing open a hitherto concealed door. “This is exactly what you hoped would happen. Silly boy, you know you wouldn’t have come here dressed like that if you didn’t.”
It’s often said that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t put a pudding into a gatepost – or a gatepost into a pudding for that matter. Of course you can. At least you can when it’s sexual imagery. Next morning there was her majesty flitting around a room that was nearly all bed looking pretty smug and him black as a thundercloud still with his socks on.
“Oh,” Kerridwins purred, “don’t worry about it, my little kitten. You’ll improve, I dare say. And don’t forget we’ve got seven whole years to get it right. Well, can’t hang around all day reassuring you. Fragile male ego, or not, we women have important work to do. Tidy up a bit, there’s a good blossom. Pick up my clothes. Make the bed.”
“Fuck that. Where are my clothes?” Morgan demanded, in a voice several shades more petulant than he would have liked. He was a MAN. How dare she expect him to perform on cue, when she fancied a bit. Men didn’t solely exist for providing sexual gratification for the opposite – or adjoining, abutting, vicinal, conterminous, near enough, real or imagined – gender. As for doing domestic work, was he some sort of slave? This wasn’t on. It really wasn’t. What sort of a world was this?
“Now, Git, as I’ve told you a hundred times, drink your tonic and you can have some nice new clothes and go outside for a little walk round. Here you are. Two big mouthfuls that’s all. Be a brave boy.” He lashed out, trying to knock the goblet over but she was too quick for him. A single drop spilled onto the crumpled bedclothes. It sizzled. At that Kerridwins went all mean and nasty. “Get it down you before I come back, buster, or else.”
Tears of frustration blurred his vision. “Hŵr,” he yelled at the closed door. “Butain, gwrach, buwch, gast.”Thus he exhausted all the approaching rude words he knew in the Welsh.
“Oh, Git,” she said, reopening the door, “I do love it when you talk dirty Celtic. Try and remember some more.”
Kerridwins smiled. She lingered.
Morgan swallowed hard and decided to verbally prostitute himself. “Why would a beautiful woman like you want to keep me prisoner?”
“Oh, my sweet little Git, when are you going to realise that I’m doing this for your own good. You know what I want from you. Not much, is it? In return I offer protection – from the other women, some of whom are quite dangerously predatory, my dear – and enormous privilege. Only within the secure framework of matriarchy can a real man like you develop his full potential.”
“If you really cared,” sighed Morgan, fluttering his eyelashes and quoting verbatim from a women’s magazine he’d just happened to glance through last time he went to the dentist’s, “you’d set me free. Free to follow my heart and live my life. Free to come back to your loving embrace of my own accord.”
“Right,” Kerridwins looked slightly taken aback. “It isn’t as simple as that though, my little pleasure craft. Even if I’d let you, no human can leave A-noon before time without Lilith’s say so.”
“Then let me see her.”
“Lilith hasn’t been back for a while. All requests have to go through Eve.”
“Then I demand to see her.”
The mood changed abruptly. “Demand? Demand? You can’t. She’s away. Eve hasn’t been here in living memory. And that’s a long time let me tell you, because we’ve mastered regeneration. Play your cards right, sweetie, and you too can live forever.”
“I’d rather rot in chains. I’d rather from my nose unto my chin have the worms crawl out and the worms crawl in. I’d rather—”
“That’s enough of that. Get that tonic down you. Pick up the goblet. Do as you’re told right now. That’s better. I’ll talk to you again when it’s taken affec— when you’re feeling better.” Bang.
Morgan sniffed the stuff. There was an overpowering smell of honey, so far so good, he quite liked mead. But this particular sample looked a bit green about the gills, all murky and moithered, with a faint odour of valerian, which is a pretty enough flower used in love philtres from time immemorial. Cats like it. Rats, too: forget the piping, a pocketful of valerian was the key to the Pied Piper’s success. Maybe it also contained mandrake. Kerridwins was keen on all things Welsh and lover’s mandrake figured in Celtic magic. Gwyn eu fyd y pridd, y gwreiddyn a’r noson hon. Women with all eternity at their disposal wouldn’t be put off by the lengthy rituals of exhumation, naming, reburial, and re-exhumation of its man-shaped root.But there was also the little matter of the fag-burn-sized hole in the bedding where that drop spilled. Morgan poked his finger through it.
“Ninety-nine per cent unmoderated testosterone,” he conjectured, “plus two dollops of Viagra, a pinch of Spanish fly and a little something to scrape the memory clean for good measure. Better than leg irons. I’ve got to get out of here effing quick.”
Humming the best bits from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Morgan launched himself feet first from the window, discovering in the process an eternal truth: it’s always much further down to solid ground than expected. Although the flapping of his voluminous improvised toga slowed him down, he still landed badly, right in the middle of a bed of highly perfumed raspberry-pink flowers which immediately sprang away and clung to the walls. The leaves trembled. Their sharp red talons hooked into both sheet and skin. Morgan rolled away, moaning as quietly as possible, onto grass which was too green to be normal, and as tightly curled as pubic hair springs. Luckily the courtyard was empty with the exception of Thomas the Rhymer, who was sauntering backwards and forwards scribbling erotic verse with a bright purple quill. Morgan limped up to him.
“Thomas Learmont, I presume?”
His greeting was acknowledged with a stiff bow and a supercilious flare of the nostrils. “Thomas of Ercildoune at your service.”
“Tom, do us a favour. Tell me how to find Sernunnos.”
“I’m trying to get back through the whatsit, the portal. One of their old geezers, this Sernunnos, knows how to work it.”
“Sorry, chum, don’t know and don’t want to know.” Thomas sighed. “You know the trouble with female genitalia is that nothing rhymes.”
“Why don’t you come back with me? Being trapped here must be terrible for you, for any decent man.”
“Go back to Earth?” Thomas’s eyeballs, already somewhat protuberant, bulged dangerously. He had no eyelashes, Morgan noticed, nor eyebrows. He’d noticed the phenomenon before, in certain medieval paintings. “No chance. Not with a father who expects me to farm for a living. Overseeing shit shovelling on some miserable Scottish estate isn’t my idea of the good life. I like nature – in its place, in a poem, or through a window. But who wants a career concentrating on every aspect of a cow’s rear end? Would you?”
Morgan shook his head. The argument seemed familiar. “But how can you stand it here with females in charge? It isn’t natural.”
Thomas bridled, which was a fine sight. And, peering closely, Morgan observed that the poet had plucked his hairline to make his forehead look more impressive. “As a matter of fact, I can’t go back until Good Friday and Shrove Tuesday change place. Anyway, I like things the way they are. I’m kept pretty busy, what with one thing and the other. My art is appreciated here. And well rewarded. Everyone reads me. In fact they memorise me. And set my work to music. What more could a creative writer ask for? I suggest you go back inside like a good fellow, have a stiff drink, and leave well alone.”
“And I suggest you, Sire Lief-to-lyve-in-leccherye, take a long running jump up your own backside.”
“Take a long running jump / Up my own backside.” Thomas gave this due consideration. “Doesn’t really scan, does it? Is that what passes for poetry where you come from? Are you really sure you want to go back?”
“Hang on. Since you’re in the trade, or at least on the peripheral edge, can you think of a word to rhyme with labium majus?”
Morgan thought about it. Not finding a satisfactory answer, he contented himself with muttering, “You poor sad bastard,” and flounced away. The sight of the black-skinned twins, pounding the path in leopard-skin tracksuits and keeping fit with perfectly choreographed movements, stopped him. They also stopped. To examine Morgan’s sneer.
“Who are you staring at?”
“Who are you staring at?”
“Call yourself men? Look at you.”
“Look at you. At least we’re not wearing our beds.”
“Look at you. At least we’re not wearing our beds.”
“How can you stand it, being ordered around by women?”
By then they’d got their act together and answered in unison, running on the spot. “Leave off making waves, honky. We don’t want to go back. We’re onto a good thing here.”
“All right, don’t go back, take over. It’s only natural for men to rule. You could be in charge here – kings, emperors.”
Romulus and Remus looked at each other and smirked. “Hey, brother, you want to be king?” enquired Remus. “You want women all over you every minute of the day and night?”
“You want to be Emperor and live in ten-star luxury?” Romulus grinned. “You want everything you want even before you’ve thought of it?”
They gave each other ten. “Yeh, we do.”
“And you could have all that,” said Morgan encouragingly, “if you put women back in their rightful place and restore the natural order.”
“Don’t you get it?” asked the twins. “We have it already, man.”
As Morgan opened his mouth to deliver a sermon on selling, birthright, and messes of potage, one of the side doors opened. Two women emerged carrying trays of seedlings. One was chewing daintily on a yellow butterflower’s wing. Nobody said another word. Their eyes slewed guiltily away. Thomas strolled off, casually pacing between the flowerbeds and muttering to himself while cleaning his ear with the tickly end of the quill. The twins got up speed. Morgan slunk towards the nearest exit.
The street beyond resembled the back alley of a Turkish market. It was hot, dusty and dirty. It was also totally lacking in technology. One might be deliberately indulging in the primitive, as with the most expensive foreign holidays, for there’s nothing as good as a brush with galloping dysentery to make you feel you’ve had a good break, nothing like viewing real poverty at close range to make you feel warm and secure and glad to be home.
There were traders everywhere, pushing through the crowds selling everything from kittens to pastries to handicrafts to netted pots of the flying flowers. Weather-beaten old geezers squatted on the narrow pavements selling fruit and vegetables to house-husbands keen to haggle about prices. From the point of view of the female elite, it was a good system: everything directed towards lengthily servicing their needs; everyone kept so busy beavering away earning a crust they had no time to discover what idle hands and tongues could be capable of.
Clearly the women had no sense of fair play. It appeared that for the most part, men were expected to run homes in addition to engaging in low paid employment.
A few predatory women browsed, fingering lengths of homespun cloth, assessing art objects, desultorily chatting as they sized up the talent. Their eyes drifted in his direction. Conscious that he stood a good head and shoulders above the rest, Morgan opted for making himself scarce and dived down a squalid side street which opened out into an even more squalid square. This was clearly the economy pack end of the city. Rough wasn’t the word for it. Twenty or so ramshackle stalls leaned against each other, selling stuff that fell off the back of the day before yesterday’s handcart. Pushers offered phials of antidotes against the commonest aphrodisiacs. Small time traders hawked jars of one-hundred-and-one per cent guaranteed wrinkling cream, almost genuine syphilis certificates, fairly convincing stick-on boils, rampant halitosis gums, and sore-tattoo kits. The advantage of being in this area was that nobody looked closely at anybody else.
Morgan was just working up to ask for directions out of the city when a low rumbling began. His first thought was of an earthquake…or the local equivalent. Brasmatia, perhaps, like the three-day ambitious slide forward of Herefordshire’s Marcle Hill in 1575. A wave of homesickness washed over him. Then he realised that instead of running for their lives, all the traders were furiously packing away their wares and dismantling stalls.
“The fucking pig’s back.”
“Third time today—”
“Why in Goddess’ name can’t they get rid of it? Call themselves women—”
“I notice none of them offers to help clear up afterwards.”
“Never changes, does it? Dirty mindless jobs are men’s work – always were, and always will be.”
“Need some men in charge, Peony. They’d soon sort things out.”
“Right on, Hollyhock, but that will be the day.”
The rumbling rapidly grew louder. Another sound rose, a siren, a signal, a two-minute warning, a desperate ululation that contained within it the voiced race memories of millions of stuck pigs cut off in their prime.
And if pigs have had it rough, sows have had it even rougher. Grilled uterus of sterile sow was a delicacy in imperial Rome, soaked in brine, rolled in bran, served in a hot wine sauce. But this was as nothing besides a patrician dish of sows’ vulvas and teats. Pliny was of the opinion that those of sows who’d absorbed their first litter had the better flavour; others preferred the taste of virgin organs. Pigs were always valued – in first-century Gaul a piglet fetched five denearii, five times more than a litre of wine – but this business of porkers being held sacred doesn’t ring true. Jupiter might have been suckled by a sow, but that never stopped anyone enjoying a bacon butty.
Venus was almost upon him before Morgan realised that the bark and wail of despair was prompted by loneliness and not fear of the butcher’s knife.
“My brother, O my brother, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Shit. If it took one to know one, then she’d smell him out. She’d betray him. I’m not your brother, he wanted to scream, whatever they say, Morgan Jones-Jones is not a Pig. Nil suidae. Or mochyn.Not even a porcelet, thank you very much. Instead, he took one look at the massive dust cloud proceeding the thunder of trotters, flipped the acre of sheet over his arm and ran like hell from the mayhem and uproar, the screaming and cursing, the shattering of earthenware, splintering of wood, the oink and squeal of Venus denied, ending up bent double and breathless in a dingy courtyard hard up against an abandoned toadstool house. It was a collapsing Coprinus comatus – Shaggy Inkcap, Lawyer’s Wig – covered with creepers and almost strangled by encroaching trees. Black ink oozed from the deliquescing gills, outlining the rounded cobbles, the patches of viridescent moss.
Morgan sank gratefully onto the doorstep and closed his eyes. Birds sang. A few neglected flowers vibrated their wings. It was nice. It was peaceful. Somewhere nearby a particularly pleasant sound could be heard – the splashing cadences of some water feature, an artificial brook tumbling over rock perhaps, or a weathered nymphet pouring water from her lichen-stained urn. Feeling a sudden desire to drink, to splash his face, to cleanse himself of the veneer of terror, Morgan padded eagerly towards the shadowed corner from whence the sound emerged.
There was no fountain. No spring. No water feature.
Instead Morgan discovered a small gargoyle having a slash against the wall. His jaw dropped. He’d thought himself immune to the grotesque, but this creature, elf, imp, goblin, or whatever,was something else again, more really truly Other than any of these other truly Others. The face was older than Neanderthal nightmare, warped and twisted, resembling a frying mass of soft cod roes, a pickled walnut, or a section of coiled and convoluted intestine compressed in a jar of formaldehyde, even cervelle de canut – a cheese dish from Lyons known as silk-worker’s brains, but that’s another story. Morgan finally decided the creatures physog looked like its own head turned brain-side out – with cursory finger-modelling to provide an approximation of humanoid features. The nose was an off-centre spike, its mouth a lipless purse, and the ears were huge afterthoughts, bigger than its hands, flapping bat wings with tips so long they’d been looped up over its scarlet jelly-bag hat and tied together in a lopsided knot. It – he – was wearing an oversize emerald green Babygro, damp, stained, and fastened from crutch to Adam’s apple, with at least fifty unmanageably tiny buttons. The sudden appearance of Morgan made the creature jump like Hertha. His aim, already bad, was directed against himself.
“Leave me be. Leave me be. Bug off. I ain’t doing nothing wrong,” the bwca whined, hurriedly doing himself up and making a complete dog’s dinner of it. “Ain’t you a stud? What are you doing spying on me, hey, hey?”
“Who are you?”
“Who am I? Who am I? I’m Cupid, you silly ignorant sod.” He kicked Morgan’s leg with a dripping foot. “Bug off. I ain’t done nothing.”
“Cupid, my arse.” Morgan grabbed the creature by the scruff and lifted him up so that they were face-to-approximation-of-face. He sighed. Life was full of disappointments, but anything less like Arthur Mee’s depiction of the god of love, son of Venus, as a pretty, naked boy with wings and a quiver full of arrows, he had yet to see. “Where’s your wings then, you ugly little weasel?”
“Loki, then. I’m Loki, all right? I got to go. I got to go. Put me down. You’d better, or else I’ll be pissing all over you.” Dropped from shoulder height, the homunculus bounced twice – “Aw! Aw!” – before scuttling back to the wall to resume urinating. “Can’t help it, can I? No, I can’t. Not my fault I don’t hold water. What do you want anyway?”
“Have you any idea where I can find Sernunnos?”
Loki darted a sly glance in his direction. “I might have. I might have. Depends who it is doing the asking.”
Morgan hurriedly stepped back, avoiding the foaming spring tide, and explained his predicament as succinctly as possible. “So, can you help?”
“Maybe I could. Maybe I could if you made it worth my while. If you made it worth my while, I said. You got any cheese on you? Any cheese? I could murder a sliver of Cheddar.”
“Sorry, not a crumb. Now, can you take me to Sernunnos?”
“Or cream? A thimble of milk? Skim would do. You’ve no idea what it’s like, three hundred years without a sniff of Stilton. I still get the cravings. I still get the cravings, I tell you, and withdrawal symptoms. Don’t gawk at me like that. All right for you lot living in a land of milk and rennet, curds and whey, and junket. See, while you weirdos go for fungus – fungus, I say – all your mouldy-grape and rotting-grain brews, I get – used to get – my highs off dairy products. So, like I said, it depends.”
“Depends on what?” Morgan watched in disgust as the buttoning-up process began again.
“On you agreeing to take me back with you, of course.”
“You wouldn’t like it. Things have changed. There’s hardly any countryside left, for a start. Traffic everywhere, and low flying jets all summer. What with the noise, pollution, swine fever, foot and mouth disease—”
“Fuck you, then. Fuck you, I say. I’m off.” Loki glared, arms akimbo, and started to disappear from the feet upwards. The grey-matter face hung on the air for a few seconds longer than the rest, pia mater quivering, the two halves of frontal lobe executing a restricted jig as they bulged up and down on each side of the longitudinal fissure.
When he’d finally gone, Morgan stopped retching and took stock. Bad move. He should have said yes. Greed was the strongest motivating force that existed. And he could have fanned the creature’s dormant addiction with talk of Welsh rarebit. Who else would he find to risk his neck for what could be shovelled down it? Too late now – or was it? A stench of dried ammonia lingered. Small ripples were spreading out from the puddle as a splatter of yellowish raindrops disturbed its surface.
“All right,” Morgan conceded, “when I go, you go. Is that a deal?” Why not? Who cared? Back home, the undersized monstrosity could soon be knocked on the head.
Loki slowly reappeared, his approximation of a grin first. “Promise there’ll be Cheshire and Wensleydale, Blue Vinny, Coquetdale, Derby, and Sage Derby.”
“Plus Hereford Hop,” Morgan attempted to look pleasant. “Now which way do we go?” Sensing a slight hesitation, he added a few other cheese names gleaned from the supermarket deli counter. “And as much Lancashire, Red Leicester, Coverdale, Curworthy, Single Gloucester and – uh, uh, what else? Oh, and Double Gloucester as you can eat.”
“Down here.” Loki scuttled behind the toadstool and pushed through a gap in the hedge. Masses of flowers flew off in all directions. Several thorns felt moved to attack. Morgan fought back and emerged from the foliage to be confronted by endless rows of membranous egg-shaped houses, arranged in a neat grid, reminding him of Mam’s egg trays. “Straight on till we come to the double-yolker,” said the little monster, “then sharp right, sharp right, I say. Stilton, Stilton, yum-yum, I love Stilton. Come on. Come on, I say, what you waiting for? Dorset Drum, Shropshire Blue, Denhay, Yorkshire Blue—”
Eliza Granville embarked on a legal career before abandoning it in favour of a bohemian lifestyle. After coming to her senses some years later, she returned to university – BA & MA University of Plymouth, PhD Aberystwyth University – and began writing in earnest. Her stories can be found in UK, US, and SA magazines, and in anthologies. Of several novels published, the most recent are Gretel and the Dark (Hamish Hamilton) and Once Upon a Time in Paris (CentreHouse Press).