The Quixotesque misadventures of unreconstructed Marcher Morgan Jones-Jones, who has probably not heard of the suffragettes let alone second- and third-wave feminists.
He exploded upwards, gasping and choking.
“Once,” crowed Kerridwins, her hand on the top of his head. “Want to stay?”
“Wait, wait—” Morgan did a quick check of his extremities. He was still entire. “No. I want to go home – but to my own time.”
His mouth and lungs were already full of water. She hadn’t waited. The cow hadn’t waited to hear the last part of the sentence. This was the end. He was drowning. Not a straw in sight. His whole miserable life was flashing before his eyes.
He had less than a minute to take stock of the current dilapidation of the place before something very hard whacked the back of his head. Morgan reeled, viewed Alpheratz, indulged in a brief perusal of the Andromeda constellation, shook his head and whirled to meet his attacker. She was tiny, probably no more than four foot ten in height, with wild black hair, rampaging eczema and a mouth full of teeth squabbling about which way to point. In spite of the distractions, there was something familiar about her appearance. If you disregarded the crossed eyes, took away the directionally challenged dentition, and tied back the hair—
She was gabbling at him, but so shrill was the diatribe that he couldn’t pick out individual words. At the same time a vigorous shaking of the large bone clutched in her fist indicated eagerness to launch further attacks. It was with a sense of déjà vuthat he found himself backing towards the wall where the chimneybreast wasn’t. Another vituperative earful followed him. This time he distinctly heard no, dirty, dog, my, and house spat in close juxtaposition. That was daft. He hadn’t even brought Mercher with him. Women! He laughed and cast his eyes up to heaven.
Laughter proved to be a mistake; the ensuing flurry of blows underlined that. Hunched over, arms protecting his cranium, Morgan scuttled towards the door. It wasn’t there. By the time he’d discovered the site of its reincarnation, straight through where the draining board should have been or would one day be, on the right of the window hole, she’d twice drawn blood. He squealed and raised his fist. The look of outrage on her face told him all that he needed to know about her social standing.
“Diafol!” she screamed. “Diawl! Infidel! Cur! Cawr! Dirty dog! Gogmagog!”
Morgan made it out into the enclosed mud patch.
It was raining. As usual. The farmhouse at his back was presently little more than a single-bay barn thatched over with mouldy reeds. Another, smaller one, stood a few feet away. Maybe this was the kitchen. Smoke seeped out from every unsealed orifice. A smell of bacon hung on the air. That this was no time for historical research was illustrated by a sharp blow on his shin.
“Leave it out, Mam,” he protested.
She hesitated, made irresolute by the term of respect. Morgan used the few seconds’ grace to make good his escape. Vaulting the palisade he plunged knee-deep into black treacle swamp that was part cesspit and part stream got above itself without making up its mind about career direction. Thick cloud pressed down on the valley, partially masking the heavily treed hillside, making it all but impossible to see where he was going. It didn’t matter. This was all Kerridwins’ doing. He knew the score. All he had to do was grope his way up to the stone circle and scream for a reprieve. She’d have him back like a shot. Then he’d show her.
Suddenly terrified that the Portal might have been destroyed, or simply ceased to exist, or even not yet come into existence, he began to run up the hill. He hadn’t gone far before he realised that the battle-axe harridan was close at his heels. Hitching up her rags, she resumed howling imprecations. Morgan increased his pace. He could sense the stones, was – he was sure – within minutes of reaching them, when answering cries from where the castle ruins weren’t stopped him in his tracks. Screams, howls, yells and yodels followed. Minutes later, a score of eldritch women streamed down the bank much as Lew and his cronies had done whenever it was in relation to now. And, O God Almighty, was this a/the man-free zone of nightmares? This time there was no pig, but it was soon all too apparent that Long Pig was deemed a reasonable substitute. Bawling and flailing his arms, he tried to fight them off. It was a dirty fight, such as only women could descend to. A hail of poppy-dipped elf-shot soon put paid to his struggles. Many hands made light work. Back down the slope they trundled, bearing his pin-cushioned carcass at shoulder-height, his trailing fingers brushing the dying bracken.
And, yes, it was an external kitchen. Or rather, smokehouse and kitchen combined. Dozy and resigned to his fate, Morgan lay supine on the massive central table regarding the fine joints hanging from spikes in the rafters, unreal exhibits in some ghastly unoriginal modern art gallery, listening to the excited whickering, the strop of knives being sharpened, the crunch and grind as lumps of rock salt were pestled to corns in mortars hollowed from raw quartz.
It was only when a grubby hand started marking him into sections with a stick of charcoal – neck end, hand, fore loin, belly, hind loin, leg – he corresponded with the real thing fairly well, all things considered, that survival instinct took on the opium and won. Jumping down, he made for the door, found it guarded and did the next best thing, grabbed a knife and holed up in a corner. It should be possible, he reasoned, as goblin sisters closed in on their bonus winter food supply, to kick out the infill panels of a timber-frame hovel and escape that way. In the best of buildings, these were little more than cleft oak basketwork daubed over with a mixture of clay and shitty straw, and then given a few coats of lime wash. Here, there was already daylight showing through in places.
“Death before dishonour.” Morgan kicked. They lunged.
It was hopeless. As was so often the fate of mortal man, he was outnumbered by feral females. The hand clutching the knife sliced the air. The other closed into a fist. Something small and round urgently pressed itself into his palm. Glancing down, he saw that a tiny fern seed from the hillside had stuck to his skin. The gods were with him.
Ferns have undoubted magical qualities. Although it was a dangerous business, to swallow the seed confers immediate invisibility. Even Shakespeare knew that. In a perfect world, the seed should be gathered on Midsummer’s Eve, in silence, and on a pewter plate. On no account should it be touched by human hand. Do that and you might stay spellbound, in the same place, unable to influence what was happening in the world around you, through all eternity – undoubtedly a woman’s punishment, not a man’s. Bend over the fern feather with a hazel twig – the hazel’s power is stronger than the fern’s; let the seed fall in its own time. But that was in a perfect world and there were no men here. In the circumstances therefore, any risk was worthwhile. Morgan swallowed. Reasoning that he was now safe to turn his back, he demolished the base panel with two massive kicks, a jab and a straight left, and slipped out into a late afternoon downpour.
It took him a minute or two to realise that his footprints were clearly visible in the mud. The decision to make for the grass came just too late. Already they were swarming after him, so sure of locating their prey that they threw themselves forward into empty space, clinging to his limbs, hooking into his hair, and digging in with their feet. He was down. No, he was up again. And down…and staying down. Knife blades flashed. Morgan lifted his face from the clay soup just long enough to scream for deliverance. It was demeaning. He hated doing it, but what other options were there?
“I WANT TO COME BACK!”
And exploded upwards again, gasping and choking and coughing mud globules.
“Twice,” jeered Kerridwins, her hand already tensed to press down again. “So? Now do you want to stay?”
“Hang on.” Visible again, Morgan quickly checked his torso for markings and puncture wounds. There was nothing. He was clean. “Look, can’t we discuss this? All I want is to be sent back to my own time. That’s not too much to ask, surely?”
She smiled suddenly all sweet reasonableness: “Fair enough.”
This time, everything was just as he’d left it. Better, much better. But was it?
He took a deep breath. Practically everything in the kitchen oozed with the foul residua of Mam’s reign of terror. The parsley planter on the windowsill only partially concealed a jar of assorted nit combs and the highly carcinogenic delousing shampoo kept on hand for Saturday-night spot inspections. The large magnifying glass on top of the old black Bible wasn’t an aid to reading uplifting texts, but for examining fingernails for dirt, and index fingers for nicotine stains. The Book itself had served forty years’ hard time as both weapon and part of Mam’s Bell, Book and Candle ritual bringing down of curses on her idle, good-for-naught menfolk, though occasionally she forgot herself and hid fivers between Jeremiah and Lamentations. That nicely blacked agricultural implement hanging from an ornate brass hook next to the riddling sieve was actually the dreaded gelding iron. The scabby rag rugs in front of the Aga, were products of her demented economy drives, as were the costly devices for using up every last transparent slither of soap, for squeezing one final metallic-flavoured helping of toothpaste from the tube, for rolling electricity bills and magazines nicked from the doctor’s surgery into paper logs that smouldered unhappily for hours while giving off no heat whatsoever.
And the family photographs on the top shelf of the dresser told their own story. On one side were the wedding ones, with Dai cut off, all crooked, with curved nail scissors, of Grandma (distaff) Jones looking like an all-in wrestler, and Auntie Mererid the Moustache, bolt upright, dwarfing poor little Uncle Walter who’d twice hung himself. Bang in the middle were several of Mam beaming one-up-woman-ship behind various prize-winning Persian Queens. Shoved up in the other corner, behind the eggcups and the Coronation tin holding the Christmas pudding silver thrupenny bits that Mam always snatched back, were the snaps of her disappointing son and heir. Morgan at twelve months old, lacy bonnet over one eye, face contorted with rage; at four, reluctantly trailing a grotesque homemade rag doll called Esmerelda; at six, long-haired, truculent, and in a frilly dress, being forced to make daisy chains; at eleven, cowed and with two half-healed black eyes after the Ma Lacey incident; and at fourteen, gangling and gawky, still in short trousers, with spiteful focus on his galloping acne. It was time for some changes. Quick – before nostalgia set in.
Rag rugs, photographs, that manky fox brush that he’d hated since early childhood, the battalion of rosettes that represented long Mam-hours spent brushing and preening her inbred jumped-up moggies and neglecting him, fifteen years of seed catalogues, the lice inspection stool, the Book Itself – all snatched from their lairs and piled up in the middle of the kitchen table. He rummaged in the dry goods cupboard for matches, found none, but managed to knock a sack of dried beans from an upper shelf. They cascaded down, unstoppable, to lie in a pale circle round his feet. The sight of those beans worried him. At the same time, a cold draught circled his head at high speed and blew everything he’d gathered together up into the air. Rugs, snaps, tail, rosettes, catalogue, stool and Bible swirled around the beams and spiralled slowly down to settle in their time-accustomed places. The icy chill returned to hover somewhere around his middle chest.
Morgan gulped. “Is that you, Mam?” No, no, couldn’t be, unless metempsychosis could adapt a draught to its purposes. On second thoughts, since nothing had actually struck him, it was probably just an emissary. Squaring his shoulders, he marched across the room and repeated the process. The icy breath followed him, snatching up each item and replacing it each time his back was turned. And again; and again, when he’d spent several hours frenetically destroying everything: tearing up the rugs, plucking dead fur from the manky tail, yanking pages out of Bible and seed catalogues, breaking all three legs off the stool and splintering them, screwing up the photographs, smashing the delousing jar and maiming its contents. Even the leaf he’d torn off the courtesy-of-Cymru-Agricultural-Chemicals calendar had melted neatly back into place. He focused his rage on the date, once more doing away with October 31st, this time ripping the paper into minuscule pieces and tossing them out through the window. It made no difference. When he looked again, it was still the last day of October, Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, nos Galangaeaf, Samhain, end of summer, beginning of the Celtic New Year, day of the third, and final, harvest. And that was it. Damn bitch. She’d given him what he asked for. Let him come back to his own time to be stuck fast, poised forever on the liminal between two worlds, living and dead, real and unreal, human…and not. What was he to do? Forget the stone circle.
“I WANT TO COME BACK!”
“Thrice.” Kerridwins dried her hands on her skirt. “Welcome back, Git. That didn’t take as long as I expected. And now, lucky you – you’re here to stay.” She turned away.
“Don’t turn your back on me, bitch, I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”
“What a revolting concept. Typical, if I might say so. Put him in with the others, somebody.”
Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean. And every tongue, through utter drought, Was withered at the root, We could not speak, no more than if We had been choked with soot. —Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The place where Kerridwins deposited Morgan was stuffed full of men. Not just any men, she’d assured him, but a particular sort of men. No further explanation was offered. At first he’d thought it was a museum of statuary, a collection of hundreds of splendidly executed representations, though he could think of no rationale for the groupings. There was no sense to them – cavemen in skins side by side with Roman senators, Vietnam veterans almost nose to nose with both ancient Greeks and modern Iranians, gaitered peasants silently hobnobbing with mean-featured, ramrod-backed Victorians in stovepipe hats, men in gangster suits, or doublet and hose, in cloaks and tunics, wearing dhotis, periwigs, dungarees, Georgian excess, men of every shape and nationality and every time, sculpted in stone of every shade and flavour of grey – all arranged in quasi-conversational knots.
But what was the subject of their discourse? Why were they here?
Further back, there were statues in worse repair: pocked and lichened, with missing appendages, or acephalous, some little more than stone pillars slowly crumbling into dust. Kerridwins swept past all these, hardly sparing them a glance and Morgan, divested of his ragged swaddling sheet and now wearing a passable copy of Dai’s second-best jacket and the union jack boxers, was frogmarched behind her. They passed into an inner hall. This one was lighter and a little more cheerful, full of exceptionally realistic waxworks, also artistically arranged in small tableaux, much the same as in the previous room, but at least these were in colour.
“Stand him here.” Kerridwins stopped in front of two men in black, an obese priest, a cadaverous Victorian, a USAF bomber pilot, slightly bloodstained at the edges, and a tall bloke, whose pugnacious black face was familiar, but whose name danced tantalizingly short of Morgan’s tongue-tip. “Yes, there, no, wait…to one side, I think, immediately behind Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer.”
“Move it, Git,” said Di, “left, right, left, right. We haven’t got all day.” A push here, a shove there, a fistful of uncalled-for aggression, and Kerridwins was satisfied – for now, at least.
“That’ll do. We can always fine-tune later.”
The eyes of the fat priest met his. Morgan was both shocked and impressed by the desperate expression the artist had managed to capture. It was uncanny. And that went for the level of craftsmanship in general. Madame Tussaud’s didn’t offer this sort of realism. Indeed no – a polite distance was observed, a courteous misting of the lens. Here, every detail of the unfortunate ageing process of a Caucasian male was spitefully reproduced – from his blotched and naked skull, the orange-peel texture of his ruby nose, to a tracing of broken veins and a scatter of blackheads; even the copious nasal hair and sprouting nests of ear-wiggery were replicated, along with gappy brown teeth, and the over-proved-dough quality of the waxwork’s embonpoint. Few physical shortcomings had been spared. The result was shockingly lifelike.
Tearing free of the eye-lock, Morgan reached out to touch the figure’s liver-spotted hand. And recoiled. The flesh was warm. Ninety-eight-point-four warm. He clutched Kerridwins’ sleeve. “But they’re alive.”
She shook him off. “Now Git, settle down. There’s nothing to worry about. Not if you’re sensible. All you have to is stand there and ask yourself one question.”
“In the end, at the end, what is the one thing that men really want? That’s all.” Reaching up, she scattered a handful of tiny, pale gold discs over him. There was something familiar about them. Curious, he tried to grab a few as they spiralled past his nose but his arms refused to respond. Terrified, he found that his whole body had seized up. Nothing would move. Every muscle in his blasted body had switched allegiance. Within seconds he was set as solid as one of Mam’s revolting Carrageenan fruit moulds. Eyelids, too, even his eyes. The miserable cow had afflicted him with tunnel vision: he could only see straight in front of himself. His power of hearing wasn’t affected though – couldn’t miss her sigh of exasperation – but hearing’s always the last faculty to go, which is why the best deathbed nurses are either dumb, pleasant, or prepared to endure retribution from beyond the crematorium.
Morgan mentally ground his teeth. They couldn’t do this. It was evil. It wasn’t human. They weren’t human.
“Goodbye, Git. Maybe we’ll meet again, or maybe not. Depends on how the meditation goes.”
Damn them. Buggered if he’d think about anything he was ordered to think about. At least his thoughts were still his own and he would marshal them as he, and only he, thought fit. What do men really want? What a stupid-arse question. Men wanted power. And as they had it already they didn’t need to want it. Buggered if he’d— The day drifted on. Damned if he’d think about what he was instructed to think about. The silence intensified. How long was he expected to stay here, a prisoner in this invisible cage? Cage. A hutch. An enclosed space. A prison. Cage, John. Beginning with a ten minute consideration of for minutes thirty-three seconds, Morgan quickly moved on to other aspects of the word to avoid thinking about thinking about the other thing. It had often occurred to him that rows of houses, each with their neat little fresh-air yards, were really no different to zoo cages except that they were self-managed, self-financed and the occupants allowed illusory freedom of movement.
NIGEL Homo suburbium, b. 1972. Omnivore.
Dangerous if provoked. DO NOT RATTLE THE CAGE.
Who knew what unseen angelic or otherwise visitors walked amongst us unseen? Celestial visitors on a downmarket package tour calling themselves gods. O, you must see the homo-mammals on the Third planet, so amusing, so tasty. Better make it soon: they’re completely out of balance, don’t you know, and self-programmed for imminent evolutionary melt-down. Damned if he would think about thinking about the other thing. Cage. Cage. Better by far to be stuck in a Druidic wicker cage, a basketwork colossi, to be ritually incinerated, than this spellbinding. At least there’d be an end in sight. Now he knew why babies screamed and howled. Coming to after the terrifying birth process and finding yourself subjected to a life sentence, trapped in a meat-and-bone and gristle cage for upwards of seventy years was no laughing matter.
The sun shuffled from one window to the next. Didn’t matter to him. He could stand here all day and all night, if necessary. According to Islamic folklore Adam stood on one foot for 200 years after being booted out of the Garden.
What did men really want? Buggered if he’d think about it – power, of course. Everyone knew that.
At some point during the afternoon, a woman with long olive-green, snaky kinked hair strode in. After carefully appraising him from every angle, she made a few notes, yawned, and passed on. Ugly self-satisfying Bitch.
Yes, power, that was it. Without it you were nothing – or just something to be assessed purely on physical merit. Or lack of the same. Stared at, eyed up, incapable of making any impact on your situation. What sort of person would put up with that? God, would this day never end? Even the sun had started to lose interest. The light thickened towards twilight. Power, yes. That was definitely the answer.
Finally, night fell. Miserably dim lights, possibly glow-worm generated, grudgingly took on the darkness and half-heartedly held it at bay. The silence was broken by footsteps and faint whispers. Snake-hair had returned with a sidekick, a large female whose stupendously pyramidal outline brought to mind Lilith’s severely restricted diet. And now that he came to think of it, the sickly sweet smell of rotting top fruit was slowly but surely blotting out the prevailing fetid locker-room stink. Morgan’s eyes bored into the goblin shadows jostling the far wall. Was Lilith nearby? Or was it all down to the presence of a female archetype making Her nasty and threatening presence felt again?
“Right,” said Snake-hair. “Got his arms?”
Steatopygous grabbed him while a patch was applied under his ear. Morgan’s jaw twitched. His tongue unfroze. Pins and needles coursed from his fingertips. Snake-hair consulted her clipboard, snatched a large pink pill from a selection and poked it into his gullet with all the finesse of a vet dosing a mule.
Morgan declined. The patch was ripped off with pleasurable zest leaving raw, red pain and a bald spot.
It was not possible to sleep with his eyes fixed open, but perhaps the mind could be dislocated with a little effort. Failing that, he spent a reasonable night dwelling on the allocation of various and complex forms of torture. The punishments inflicted on witches presented several pleasurable possibilities; variations on the themes of pressing, hanging, burning at the stake, and swimming neatly covered all four elements of medieval philosophy, earth, air, fire and water. William Lord Soulis, a pernicious fourteenth-century wizard accused of sorcery most foul, was boiled to death in a cauldron. This seemed particularly apt for Kerridwins. Or maybe Augustus Caesar’s little rap on the knuckles was more appropriate: carefully slicing off the eyelids led to death, eventually, after many weeks, when his victims went totally barking mad from sleep deprivation. Yes. And for Di, scaphism, though certain difficulties presented themselves. Not the absence of boats, for the Persians often substituted tree trunks. Hollowing out a tree shouldn’t cause too many problems, neither would boring the five holes through which her head and limbs must protrude. True, she was big, not easily overpowered, but he had right on his side. No, it was getting hold of the honey to smear all over her, plus a colony of hungry ants. Enraged wasps might have done, but apart from fleas and butterflowers the place seemed to be an insect-free zone. Perhaps the Duke of Exeter’s Daughter then – no, any sort of rack would only accentuate her size. Thumbikins? The Scotch Boots? Eiserne Jungfrau –the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg? How about old-fashioned heavy metal played at maximum volume?
The next day dragged by. During the late afternoon a gaggle of girls came in, the first he’d seen. It was to prove a terrifying experience. Without exception, they were large, frighteningly robust girls, sharp-featured, rough as hell and full of nasty juvenile tricks. Unconstrained by the accepted ideas of femininity and completely unsupervised, they spent a couple of riotous hours making loud and unduly personal observations about the appearance of the exhibits. From their comments it seemed that they had invented a norm, a totally unrealistic masculine ideal against which all other males were measured and found wanting. Conversation centred on ways in which the exhibits could be surgically reconstructed or cosmetically enhanced to make them more sexually acceptable, more pleasing to the dominant gender. It was a loathsome idea. No civilised society would permit such activities.
After a while, boredom set in. They descended to graffiti, drawing on thick black moustaches, and shoving things down trouser fronts. The appearance of Snake-hair modified their behaviour, but only in so far that the same concepts were recycled within a framework of serious critique. It was at this point that Morgan knew for sure that power was the correct answer.
“Wrong.” Snake-hair seemed supremely indifferent. Off came the patch. This time his tongue froze before he got the chance to emit the scream, which left it internalised, chuntering round the back alleys of his brain for several hours. Wrong? How could it be? It was men’s best-guarded possession. Without it they’d be nothing, less than nothing. For the love of God, without the power they’d be WOMEN.
What did men really want indeed? It was a silly-arse question. Buggered if he’d think about—
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
So – time for a strategic rethink. What was it they wanted him to say?
“Ah, get out of it!”
In more ways than one, Morgan was petrified to realise that with each passing day it was becoming more difficult to feel sensation in his extremities during that brief period of release. Now the decrepit statuary nearer the museum entrance began to assume new significance. Could it be? Was it possible? H-h-how?
Certain gorgonologists insist that it was the act of staring into the gorgon’s eyes that achieved calcification. Others harp on about the hair. It’s possible that a good many of the exquisite classical stone figures of the Mediterranean region are not in fact statues at all. As yet, no one is open minded enough (or the research grants not generous enough) to investigate this possibility. Clearly eyes and hair are not in themselves capable of turning a man to stone, though on occasions they contribute to a certain stiffening. Of resolve, perhaps? No: of the parts. Besides the fern seed, two other factors are involved, a dolomite-based potion plus a stubborn hardening of attitude. As one is what one eats, eventually one also becomes what one thinks. The real power of the so-called gorgon is the power to magnify and act as a mirror, reflecting back a hundredfold any erroneous thinking patterns. Originally this was perceived as an invaluable aid to seeing where a bloke was going wrong. Naturally, the method was vilified when he no longer wanted to listen. As usual, the word nagging was called into play – and then extreme violence resorted to. It made no odds. The Queen was dead. Long live the Queens. Medusa left two sisters: Stethno the Flat-chested-and-Don’t-Care and Euryalea the Easily-wins.
So what did women imagine a man really wanted? What the fuck was he supposed to say? He’d been through everything important. Indulging in a panic attack during the preliminary stages of calcification limited the physical symptoms to eye-bulging and blood boiling. After he’d calmed down, Morgan decided quick death was preferable to slow transformation into a stalagmite. Tonight he’d grapple with her of the extremely large buttocks, incite her to fury, and goad her into putting him down like the sick animal he was turning into.
The silence was broken by a small noise, at first so faint that Morgan dismissed it as a memory, lingering with the painful persistence of trapped wind. It grew louder.
Could it really be Puck?
A distant sound, hosepipe playing against wall, the splash of falling water, seemed to confirm this. The chant meandered nearer.
“Anthotyros, Kaseri, Feta, Myzithra, Halloumi. Hello, hello, anybody awake? Anybody awake, I say?”
Morgan caught brief glimpses of Puck’s compressed intestine head as he darted between the live installations; half-hearted hopes began to surface. The creature’s method of investigation – clambering up selected trouser legs to inflict his rampant halitosis on each unprotected face – involved a long wait. It might have been an hour before Puck finally clung to his lapels.
“Ho, there you are, there you are, I say. You ain’t half in a cheese-an-pickle this time.” Puck arranged his apology for a grin where Morgan could see it. “Never mind, I’ll get you out of here. Cost you, mind. Shall we call it one truckle of Cheddar? Shake your head if you don’t agree. That’s settled then. I’ll be back.”
It was Hyacinth who placed the stolen patch on his neck. Gradually – cramp accompanied by pins-and-needles – feeling returned. Then guilt set in. Shambling around, making sure his sluggish circulation had got the message, involved serial ducking and weaving to avoid meeting scores of other chronically desperate eyes. Enough was enough.
“For the love of—” Morgan hesitated, unwilling to offend anyone who might save his bacon, “the love of uh…Duwies get me out of here.” With any luck, change of the Almighty’s gender might not count in the Welsh. Besides, things being as they were back home, who was to say what sort of divinely hormonal imbalances might not be afflicting the Supreme Being.
Group shuffling of feet and mumbling followed. Rowan elected himself spokesman. “Things have changed over the last three months.”
“Three months? Three months? Are you trying to tell me that’s how long I’ve been immobilised?” He’d missed Christmas then, and New Year. If they didn’t get their thumbs out the brief Welsh Marches summer, with its bearably tepid rain, would have slipped by and he’d find himself going back to bleak August and the beginning of the sleet season. “Changed, you say – how?”
Not for the better, he was sure. And yet, there was a buzz of suppressed excitement in the air. Movements were less languid. The faces looked more alert. Every head – with the exception of Crocus’ – sported a wildly uneven buzz cut. What remained of Rowan’s russet hair had intensified to shockingly bright red, and he’d shed the trappings of decrepitude in favour of being his I am what I am self. Even Backus had improved. Perhaps he’d put on weight. At any rate, his skin had plumped out: the raisin wrinkles were far less obvious.
“In a nutshell, repression. Curfew in place, for a start. And all meetings of ten males or more have been banned.”
Rowan’s announcement didn’t produce the desired shock-horror effect. Reminded of past times when he’d been shown up at express supermarket checkouts, ten items or fewer, Morgan quickly counted heads. They were eleven. It had long been the number of public humiliation. One left over, one too many, the number of being forced to pick up all your carefully stacked groceries and carry them to the back of the thirty-strong ordinary, takes-for-ever, aren’t supermarkets supposed to be faster, why, in my day you just took a shopping list into the Co-op and the assistant ran round collecting everything up for you, queue.
“It means we can’t even give the boys their sewing lessons,” complained Backus. “Well, not unless some of us go out for a walk.”
“I’m not doing that crap anymore,” announced Hyacinth. “Why should men have domestic roles forced upon them? I want to be a scientist or an Order-keeper. Anything girls can do, I can do better.” Lupin nodded. Morgan noticed they both had grazed knuckles.
“And who put those words into your mouth?” Backus asked, wearily. He intercepted the boys’ quick glance at Rowan. “Don’t bother. My question was rhetorical.”
“I’ve only said what we all think privately,” muttered Rowan. “It’s a monstrous system. How the Hertha can having a uterus automatically mean they’re superior? Somehow we’ve got to shift the balance of power.”
“Fine, when discussed privately, but you didn’t. As usual, they found out and there’s always a backlash. Yet again, we’ve been penalised by having the waiting periods for regeneration doubled.”
“How did they find out, that’s what I want to know?” demanded Lupin.
“It’s got to be that Mother-sucker-up, Elverin.” Hyacinth looked meaningfully at his clenched fists.
Hermaze shook his head. “How? He wathn’t ever around.”
“Elverin’s always hanging around dusting something.”
“No.” Morgan suddenly knew without a shadow of doubt how the information was passed. He also knew they wouldn’t like it. Cats hadn’t been allowed to stay simply because they didn’t need cleaning up after but because both sexes of felines have female energy patterns, as opposed to dogs which are all male even when they’re female. This New Age concept is understood at a deep level in the Marches, where just about everything is referred to as ’ee except for tomcats which are always she. Cats belong to women and women belong to cats. No smoke without fire: they are certainly capable of acting as familiars. They prowl. They sneak. They slink. They slide. They creep through shadows on silent paws. They prostitute themselves on alien laps to pick up titbits of gossip. Even when listening intently they lull suspicion with rhythmic fur licking. And with that subdued soporific growl which is – how easily people are taken in – supposed to indicate extreme sensual pleasure. Here they were the Mothers’ spies. The men were living on sufferance like mice under the cats’ feet.
“No, what?” prompted Rowan, ginger-irritable.
“It’s his Bastet relaying every conversation.” Cats, wasn’t it always cats? He should have realised before. Bastet even had that single white patch on his chest like the wild Elvin cats of Scotland. Same size as them, too. One jump over a corpse and it becomes a vampire. All cats must be killed – their malefic influence shouldn’t be underestimated. Look at the John Fian affair. In an effort to drown James VI, and thereby change the course of history, he and his coven christened a cat, strapped it to a dismembered corpse, and chucked it into the sea while reciting evil incantations. The cat undoubtedly reneged on them for, although they raised a spectacular storm, James escaped and soon afterwards changed his name to James I, whereas Fian was subjected to the kind of torture usually reserved for defenceless old women. “Your Bastet’s a spy.”
Backus ignored him. “It’s all right for Rowan, prancing around preaching liberation. He’s got years-natural in front of him. What about me, though? The older you get, the more dangerous the process of regeneration becomes. And look at the state of Sernunnos – he’s been waiting for at least fifty years now. And that was just over an illegal tobacco plant.”
Since Backus continued to ignore him, it was Mosaic who stumbled to provide some sort of information. A circumlocutory explanation at best – artists paint because they can’t get it out in words, and nobody would listen anyway – with everyone else interrupting to add their own three ha’pence worth; what it boiled down to was that this was not, after all, a technologically backward society. It was way ahead in its exploration of the subtle energies which subtend matter: the principles simplified until the impedimenta required to contain and channel energy were invisible extensions of the women’s – and only the women’s – own force fields. That was where their power lay. Centuries ago, when the process of calidārium rejuvenation was invented, women demanded total control over the process, claiming that any birth, re- or otherwise, was part of the Female Mystique and men could bugger off and keep their noses out of it. And by the way, no more natural gestation. Pregnancy ruined the figure and labour was undignified. Henceforth, population growth, if needed, would be achieved by cloning – mostly of women, naturally. Why try and improve on perfection? Giving in to this demand had proved a big mistake, the beginning of the end. From that day on, to hear was to obey. The alternative was self-induced mortality. There was a waiting list; infringements of the new rules, which were complex and largely incomprehensible, subject to intricately detailed subdivisions and tangential addenda, meant being shuffled to the end of it – much the same as in Sainsbury’s.
“Everyone knows that,” squeaked Crocus. The ensuing scuffle reopened the half-healed wounds on Lupin’s knuckles.
“That’s why we’ve got to topple the system,” said Rowan. “As it is, we males have to wait until we’re at least one hundred and sixty-five. Women get it automatically at sixty. And they live longer anyway. And they outnumber us three to one. Boy babies only appear when one of us drops dead or meets with a ho-hum accident. There have been four this millennium. Four. It can’t continue. You know all about how real men carry on. Can we count on you to help us?”
“All we’re asking for is equality. We don’t expect supremacy.” Mosaic caught Rowan’s glare. “Well…not yet, at least.”
“It’s no good looking to him for help,” snarled Backus. “He’s a cat-hater. Not, therefore, to be trusted. My Bastet wouldn’t betray me.”
Puck’s letterbox mouth and a slice of pulsating cheek materialised a foot above the shoulder of a frozen Cree Indian. “He would so. Where do you think your raddled old moggie disappears to every evening, hey, hey? Chasing flutter-bowers? No. He’s up in the castle for debriefing with all the others, that’s where. He repeats everything, word for word. Nine lives? Nine lives my arse. My arse, I say. No allegiance whatsoever, cats. In it for what they can get, ain’t they? Bastet’s already had thirteen rejuvenations.”
“Piss off, fuck-wit.”
Not a wise thing to say. Puck instantly obliged from a great height. The meeting had to be reconvened on dry ground amongst the irreversibly fossilised stumps behind the Medes and Persians.
A meeting proper was called immediately they’d secured the entire building. It was strategy time. Weapons were a problem in a peaceful society which relied on the flat of the hand and a raised voice for crowd control. Under protest, Hermaze was appointed messenger, sent out to spread the news and gather up as many sharp kitchen implements as he could lay hands on.
“Why me? Ith thnot fair. Think I want to be turned into a pile of thtones?”
“You’re the fastest runner, so get on with it. And you’re hook-fingered, too,” snarled Backus. “Don’t think I hadn’t noticed. I know where Orchid’s new sandals went. Yes, that’s right, the rose-coloured ones with the little wings on the sides.”
Morgan paced the floor. “We’re at a disadvantage. Apart from females having more staying power, the Mothers are twice the size of most of you.”
“I’ve been feeding everyone up with extra rations, just in case – poached flutter-bowers, white bryony and fennel seed – but if it’s a question of all-out war, using the potato might prove to be the turning point,” murmured Sernunnos. “Remember what I told you about its characteristics? Luckily I planted a few right at the edge of the outlands. Conservation project, really. Thought if I ever made it back to Hertha and they’d died out, I could use them to trade. We’ll send a couple of boys to dig them up. You know how to prepare them for consumption, I take it.”
Morgan nodded. He absent-mindedly issued unreasonably complex directions for producing mashed potato before taking stock. The spud might help, but it wouldn’t be enough. Having decided that the museum should serve as their headquarters, it was painfully clear that this handful of wilted flowers wouldn’t be able to hold out against a rush of larger-than-life women. There was only one thing for it. “We need more manpower. Is there any chance of waking up some of these blokes?”
Sernunnos frowned. “Could be done, but there are some nasty types here, you know. Some so bad they had to be transported ready-stoned.”
“What are they in for? Nobody ever told me.”
“They’re misogynists of the worst kind, imported for educational purposes.”
Morgan blinked. What the hell was he doing here, then? He LOVED women. Well, that only proved his point. Not a bone of logic in women’s brains. “Look around, they’re big, lots of them are armed, and there’s a common purpose.” It took all of thirty seconds for Sernunnos to capitulate.
“Right, let’s go for it.”
“How’s it done?”
“Fern seed. No problem.”
“But that’s what they use to spellbind.”
“Ah yes, but you dispense it homoeopathically.” It’s a benign corruption of the principal that like cures like, that is to say that it is possible to treat a medical condition by inflicting a further minute dose of the thing that caused that condition; a principal known to sufferers from crapulence as the hair of the dog. “Better not undo them all at once. We’ll treat a few at a time.”
Morgan and the boys walked round, marking any blokes that looked halfway useful with small white crosses. He picked out a knot of Yanks in combat gear with ferocious comic-book jaws, some caveman, largely on account of their clubs and extensive collection of flint daggers, a gangster with a gun in his belt and a knife in his sock, and some of the more fancy characters of the Middle Ages who couldn’t have been as soft as they looked on account of their calloused knuckles, and/or elaborate but functional swords. One six hundredth part of a fern seed was placed in each chosen mouth with all the pomp due to a communion wafer.
Sernunnos settled himself for a nap. “It’ll take a while.”
He was no doubt correct, but the desire for revenge can transcend time and nobody had taken into account the explosion of hitherto forcibly contained rabid fury. Hence, Morgan’s carefully worked-out defensive strategy was worthless – once fully awake, nobody was interested in reason; they’d had plenty of time to mull over root causes and there was no holding the least one of them back.
Nor did a hundred disparate languages prove a barrier when it came to the communal swearing of mighty oaths. Knowing all too well what the problem was, the men set out to prove that violence would solve absolutely everything. United by common purpose and fuelled by hefty portions of mashed potato, wave after wave of newly awakened brothers burst from the building, howling sexist insults, gibbering incoherent threats, brandishing what weapons they already possessed and gathering sticks, stones, mops, pokers and washing-line props along the way. Confusion reigned, plus noise and bloodlust of biblical proportions. They descended on the city with all the relish that the first Kurgans must have displayed when invading the green swards of matriarchal Old Europe. Rampaging through the streets and marketplaces, smashing anything that looked useful, their numbers were swollen by the genuinely pissed-off, the bored, and those anxious to ensure that their bread was buttered both sides. Dwellings were fired. The smell of burnt mushroom and addled eggs tainted the air. Flutter-bowers abandoned their twigs in multicoloured swarms, leaving parks and gardens agent-orange bare. A skulk of cats fled, making for the castle with all the dignity of rats deserting a sinking coal barge. Few women were on the streets and those that were didn’t stop to lay down the Law.
For a supposedly peaceful society it didn’t take long for them to strike back. Within half an hour, a well-ordered charge of Amazons laid low a dozen or so medieval idiots constrained by farcical notions of chivalry. The sight of their well-trampled corpses caused short-lived panic. A few locals, including two dress designers and the newly – forcibly – cropped Crocus, switched sides and scuttled to the safety of the Great Hall.
In order to raise morale, two USAF bomber pilots taught anyone who would listen the gallantly obscene do-and-die words of ‘Ghost Fuckers in the Sky’.
Puck hovered, raining.
The mayhem woke dormant memories in Backus, who ran amok encouraging ripping and rending, the tearing of the enemy limb from limb, with no thought for his safety. Hermaze had to rescue him; not for the first time.
The women retreated and regrouped round Lilith. A miasma of Mother-guilt emanated from her, an effective weapon, but its affects were short-term: the Americans indulged in a little self-recrimination; one or two Italians wept; the British allowed themselves a single quiver of emotion. Then it was over. And so was Lilith’s outbreak of maternal patience. Forked lightning sprang from her clawed fingers. Thunder rocked the buildings. A shower of rock-hard pears fell. Half a dozen randomly lobbed grenades put paid to that game. By then, prisoners had been taken. Several of the less aggressive women had been bound, gagged and stacked in log piles against one of the walls. The glint in Heinrich Kramer’s eye as he stood guard over them suggested new and more personally initiated applications of those tips contained in Malleus Maleficarum.
Puck smirked. “Didn’t tell you, did they? Did they?”
Morgan dabbed wearily at his various cuts and bruises. “Didn’t tell me what?”
“That thing about Here and There having to be in balance.”
“What the bloody hell are you on about now, runt?”
“You know. Wake up, wake up. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Peredur, son of Evrawg? Remember him, with the black sheep on one bank of the river, the white ones on the other. Balance between the two worlds, hey, hey? This place and t’Other place. Like a – what do you call it – a see-saw. Men take over here, by the time we get back to Hertha, it’ll be women on top there.”
The colour drained from Morgan’s face.
“That’s right,” sniggered Puck. “Up, down. Up, down. Moon, sun. Dark, light. Death, life. This place, the Other. Matriarchy, patriarchy. On and on and on it goes, millennium in, millennium out, Great Year after Great Year. The whole idea is to stabilise and move on, move on, I say, but you buggers never learn, do you? It’s like a disease. What did you think the cauldron showed you? An unholy trinity of might-be, could-be extremes, that’s what. Hey, hey…none of that. Don’t even think about taking it out on me, squire.” He disappeared, leaving only his broad grin which lingered for a while at knee level.
Was there still time? There had to be. What profit a man if he regained his world, but lost its sole purpose? Faced with an End of Days catastrophe, it would be better to settle for some sort of equality. Morgan pitched into the epicentre of the mêlée. “STOP! For the love of whatever, stop! This has gone too far.”
“Oh, good,” crowed Kerridwins, “our first prisoner.”
“I knew you were trouble the moment I clapped eyes on you,” growled Di’s nastier friend. “I should have finished it up there on the bloody hillside that first night. Hairy bastard.”
Drawing back her boot, she kicked him hard in his Achilles’ heel – which was nowhere near his foot. That certainly wasn’t where Thetis held her son. Imagine, if you must – Oh, never mind all that. The point is, she wasn’t stupid enough to leave his heel vulnerable, not in a land swarming with scorpions and vipers. Cultivate a healthy cynicism: suspect euphemistic Victorianism at work whenever the word foot or lameness appears in mythology and folklore. Vulcan wasn’t lame; he just wasn’t up to Venus’s demands. Then there was the cuckolding business. Think what that did for his libido. No, the truth is, Thetis held Achilles by pinching the skin of his raphe, that prominent seam line running from arsehole to scrotum. It must have hurt like hell, but it was by the keening waters of the Styx and anyway babies are prone to yelling. Morgan yelled, too, and writhed on the ground, both hands clasped over his genitalia.
“Ha-ha,” squeaked Elverin, sheltering behind various Mothers. “I told you our women knew how to put the boot in.”
“Get up,” said Kerridwins. “It’s over – time to go.”
“You’re letting me go home, back to my own time?”
“Exactly, go back and suffer the consequences of your own actions, stupid Git. What better punishment could we give you? And since you’ve buggered everything up here so successfully, a few of us will be coming with you. We’ll distribute ourselves, of course. Find positions of responsibility where we can ease the progress of your women towards total supremacy. I imagine our paths will cross and if so, you’ll recognise me when we meet.”
She flung him a vicious sweet-sour smile. “Or perhaps we already have. Time’s a funny fabric, prone to creasing. So maybe it’s already happened.”
Di clouted him. “Stand up straight when she’s talking to you.”
“I can’t.” He rocked backwards and forwards, gritting back the howls of pain. All he wanted at the moment was – what he wanted, what he really, really wanted—
“Well?” demanded Kerridwins. “Come on then. In the end all men want? What’s the answer? If you don’t know now, you never will.”
Want? What he wanted was oblivion. What he needed was the inviolable safety only to be found in that once scorned, dreaded, belittled, feared, deep-dark cave where the unmanifest became manifest. Was it inconceivable? That it might temporarily work in reverse? He wanted his mother. Not his mother, not ferocious Mam, but the officially sanctioned version; an unconditionally loving, take anything you can dish out and still cook your supper and wash your stinking socks, turn the other cheek, slip you a tenner when you’re flat broke, proper, protect against the world and Cronus too mother. Yes. No. Yes.
Yes, he wanted Mother. Damned if he was going to admit it though.
They knew though. They knew. He could see it in their faces. He had one last request. Those doomed were entitled to that. If Earth was to be lumbered with Amazonian cows the least they could do was let him be in on the selection process.
“I want to see Thorns.”
This was greeted with snorts of laughter. “Oh, you really are a silly Git.”
What a mess, he thought, hanging in the dark, what did it all mean? It was a vicious circle. There was Mam, giving birth to a son profoundly disappointing to her, and him, by his own birth, birthing a mother who, hating and or fearing men (and why? What happened in her past?), had never emotionally satisfied him and who’d made his journey through life such an empty, yearning one that he hated and resented and was terrified of all women who resembled in any way a matriarch.
FUCK – where was everyone? And where was everything?
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).