Unruly penguins dancing to the thunder of the sea, a skidding flapping chaos. Then they dive, the ultimate display of grace.
Sleeping Beauty wandered through the palace aimlessly, vodka in hand. Her prince would be back soon, he’d expect her to be dressed for dinner, her hair piled high with diamonds, her eyelashes curled, but she was already half-drunk and could not be arsed.
“Not that he ever really looks at me anymore,” she muttered to herself, taking a mouthful of her drink and letting out a bitter sigh, “not while I’m awake anyway.” His fetishes no longer disturbed her, they were just one more irritation out of many.
She wandered through the grand hall, kicking off her shoes and shimmying around the floor. It was years since she had properly danced, and the lack of music was no barrier, she could feel a song in her skin, waiting to break out. She had spent a hundred years frozen still, and now three more bored stiff. She knew there were lives out there ready to be lived, new princes, new challenges, new mythical beasts to ride.
“Whatever happened to happy ever after?” she asked to the elaborate painted ceiling as she spun around the hall in her best approximation of a pirouette. She wondered if it was possible to hire herself a wicked witch, and made a mental note to google it later.
Denton could tie sixteen different types of knot and write five different alphabets. He knew the names of every country in the world and how to get from any tube station to any other, even though he had never been to London. He found this knowledge reassuring and periodically checked that he still knew it all. However, none of this helped him understand people. No matter that he could name each part of the brain; people were still a mess of unknowable, indefinable things. He suspected that other people had been given some kind of manual that explained everything – why sofas were important, when to speak, what facial expressions to wear – and because he didn’t have it, he was stumped, permanently. When he was with other people he always wore bewildered expression, hoping this would explain his situation. He wasn’t sure this worked though, because people were often angry with him.
Then, six months ago, Denton decided he’d had enough. He decided to take control. He was very fond of control, it was one of the reasons he was studying for a programming degree. After deciding fourteen separate times to take control, he had finally figured out how.
First, he worked to recreate the secret manual that he was sure everybody but him had access to. This required extensive research. With subtle questions to tutors and fellow students, with googling and searches to the dark web, the information had mounted up. He collated, cross referenced and edited each document, file and super-file. Now for phase two: only using one thousand words.
During his research into normal people and the curious stuff they do, he had read that most people only use a thousand words when speaking. They might know many more words, but normal conversation didn’t require them. As an experiment, Denton had spent a day with a Dictaphone keeping track of exactly how many words he used, and found it to be well over three thousand. He suspected that this excessive use of vocabulary might be why people thought he was strange, it was, at least a clue as to his oddness. So he had devised a list of an essential thousand words, and today would be the day when he restricted himself to using only those words. He had meticulously planned his wardrobe and behaviour to keep conversations on cue.
He heard a scuffling from outside his door and then,
“Denton!” he recognised the voice of his friend Steve. Denton knew that Steve would be standing with his feet flat on the floor and a shoulder’s width apart, that way he would be less likely to fall over when someone pushed him. Steve had been pushed a lot in his life.
“Denton, I’ve found a frog!”
The problem with a thousand-word limit, as far as Denton could see, was that you couldn’t know which situations would occur in any given day. He believed that for one day he could avoid describing the implosion of nebulae, or the function of a radio transmitter. He could avoid all references to the mouth parts of insects and the names of stones in archways. It would make conversation a little mundane, but he liked the challenge of repeating the same ideas over and over, like normal people.
When he had written out his thousand words, he had allowed for each basic everyday situation that he could think of – cancelled lectures, cold winds and earache, that the janitor was really a zombie; all very simple topics requiring just basic verbs and nouns. But he hadn’t thought to include the word frog. Still, Steve was a sensitive soul and Denton didn’t want to let him down. He shuffled from his bed and opened the door.
“Nice watch,” he said when he opened the door, then panicked. Steve stood holding the frog with two hands, two fingers spread slightly to let its head poke through.
“Frog,” he explained proudly, but Denton wasn’t listening, he was still panicking. He had spent several days outlining the plans for his thousand words. For example, he had decided that different verb endings didn’t fundamentally change the word – so he could count ‘speak’ and ‘speaks’ as one word. He had shaved a number of words out of his vocabulary, by choosing only one adjective, where normally several would be used – such as ‘red’ instead of ‘vermillion’, ‘pink’, ‘burgundy’. After all, many people couldn’t seem to tell the difference between those colours anyway. However, he had totally forgotten about Homonyms, words like ‘watch’, for example. He had actually included that word so that he could say “Can you watch my bag?” or “Did you watch telly last night?” but in his desperation to avoid conversations about a frog, he had used it in a different context. Was that ok? Or had he failed already? Not for the first time, he wished that social studies were published in the paper with proper methodology.
“I’m going to keep it,” said Steve, holding up the frog.
“Cool,” replied Denton.
“As a pet,” said Steve.
“Cool,” said Denton.
Maybe he could pass the whole day saying ‘cool’, other people managed it.
They walked to the canteen, across the paving, all the while Steve chatted to his frog and Denton tried to stay quiet.
They had reached the canteen doors where two girls from his year stood sharing a cigarette.
“Hi Denton,” said Su, who had dark eyes and a bright smile.
“Why are you wearing your dressing gown?” she asked.
“Eccentricity,” replied Denton, glad the conversation was going to plan.
“Oooh, a frog,” said Katie who had red hair and a matching birthmark across her neck.
“Yes, I found it in the field. I’m going to keep it in the sink,” said Steve.
“Do you like frogs, Denton?” asked Su.
“What type of frog is it?” asked Su, with great effort of will, Denton kept his knowledge inside, and said,
“You’re very monosyllabic today,” Su narrowed her dark eyes and folded her arms.
“I said ‘eccentricity’,” said Denton puzzled, wondering if people would think him stranger now that he was saying less.
“Eccentricity,” said Katie, rolling the word around her mouth like a boiled sweet.
“That’s a very good word, I don’t use it enough.” Su added brightly,
“You know, I read in the paper today that the average person speaks only three thousand different words in a day.”
“What?” exclaimed Denton.
“Yeh, apparently we all just keep repeating the same three thousand over and over. Except for Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare was an odious buffoon!” said Denton happily, as Su laughed. Denton decided today was going to be delightful.
He slammed down the book and relished the ripples of shock and irritation as they echoed around the library.
“Sorry, so sorry,” he said, meekly, his head held low and so that his floppy fringe hid his small grin. The room was fusty, with dust collecting on every surface, weighing people down. They’d be slow to react, he’d get to enjoy every frown and tut as it unfolded around him. He lifted the book high a second time.
Once again, he was the master of chaos.
Every morning Cat would wake in a panic and rush to the bathroom where her make up was gathered around her sink like a jury. She’d work through the routine, layer by layer she would remake her face into something acceptable. Concealer, foundation, foundation powder, blush, neutral eyeliner, defining eyeshadow, eyeliner. She saw her face as a collection of flaws to be patched up and buried. Each year the slap had grown thicker and thicker as new wrinkles and blemishes popped to the surface and her true face was lost.
Some days she’d try to imagine how it would be to be loved for all her flaws, to show herself to the world, could she really be so disgusting to look at? She’d make a deal with herself that tomorrow she’d walk down the street with her face naked, just to see what would happen. Would people shout? Laugh? Would strangers video this hideous creature to stick up on Youtube? She knew she’d never do it. Sometimes she’d dare herself to just step outside her flat and take the lift to the ground floor, say hello to Mrs Robey who liked to stand in the hall smoking a fag, maybe pop her head out the door to where Salman would be playing with his kids on the grass. The dare would quickly evaporate as she imagined their horrified reactions.
And then the fire happened. At three in the morning, the fire alarm rattled through the block with such a raucous demand for attention, she found herself standing on the grass outside before she remembered her face was empty of disguise. As the street filled up with scared occupants in dressing gowns and duvets, she tried to keep under trees in the shadows. She saw Mrs Robey, already lighting up a fag to calm her nerves, even in the panic she had thought to bring them with her. She saw Salman huddling his children to him, trying to keep them warm. As people from neighbouring blocks joined them, it became increasingly difficult to hide, all spaces were filled with people, both dazed and bustling, slowly filling up the spaces and edging her out into the light. And then she was in the middle of the noise and fuss, being offered cups of tea and wrapped up in blankets. And no one was recoiling from her ugliness, it was as if they didn’t notice any difference, as if they didn’t care. She slurped her tea and chuckled with her neighbours about how silly they all looked, about how scared they’d all been; and for once she didn’t need to think about her make up slipping or lipstick on her teeth. And it was quite nice.
Nobody was paying attention when the sky cracked open, but we all heard the yawn that rolled in from the beginning of time.
She lost everything in the fire, old photographs, her wedding dress, pictures the children had drawn. Each thread that tied her to her life had snapped and there was nothing left. Feeling lighter than air she wandered to the station and planned who she was going to be from this day forth.
As she folded and smoothed the bedsheets over and over, minutes edged into hours. As she perfected one corner, another would rumple, but she kept on trying.
“If I can just get this one thing right, it will be the start of a perfect life,” she thought.
Living in a house converted to three flats, Jacky was only slightly surprised to see on the hall table, post for a name she didn’t recognise. It was a package the size of a bag of sugar, and the name on the front said Stenny Johansson. She checked beneath it for her own post, found none, and went on her way.
The package had been there for three days when the doorbell rang early on Sunday morning. A cheerful blonde-haired, ruddy-faced Swedish man stood on the doorstep, and Jacky peered at him through her hangover,
“Hello! Hello! I am so pleased to see you here. I was hoping that you had a parcel for me, Stenny Johansson?”
“You’re Stenny Johansson?”
“Yes, I’m over here from Sweden and my wife sent my parcel to the wrong house. Do you have it?”
“Oh, sure,” said Jackie, blurrily and confused, she handed over the package.
“Oh what a relief. It is parts for my vacuum cleaner and I’m leaving in a few days, so I need those parts before I leave the country.”
“Ah,” said Jacky, wondering vaguely why anyone would have vacuum cleaner parts sent over from Sweden if they were about to leave the country, but instead she nodded sagely.
“Oh you are a doll! You’re a lifesaver!” said Stenny, exuberantly, in a noisy way that hurt her head, and Jacky was relived to shut the door.
Three days later, on Wednesday morning when Jacky was still on her first coffee,the door bell rang and Jacky trudged down the stairs to open it. In the doorway stood another blonde, cheerful man.
“Ah yes! Hello! My name is Stenny Johansson, I’m hoping that you have a package for me,” said the man.
“No, someone called Stenny Johansson picked it up a few days ago,” said Jacky, feeling befuddlement flush her face red.
“No, no. I am Stenny Johansson, that is my package. Do you have it?”
“No, I just told you, someone picked it up.”
“But it’s mine,” said the man, sweaty indignation furrowing his face. “It’s vacuum cleaner parts, I need them to fix my vacuum cleaner. Did you check he was the real Stenny Johansson?”
“No, why would I check that?” asked Jackie, she was feeling indignant now. The second Johansson stormed off, shouting,
“Well you shouldn’t have given my post away! That’s illegal, you know?”
When the third Stenny Johansson appeared at the door, Jacky knew instantly. He had the same ruddy face, tousled blonde hair and look of optimism. Before she could speak, he tried to force his way in. Jacky put her foot against the door, but it took all her strength to keep the new Stenny outside.
“But those are the parts for my vacuum cleaner!” he shouted through the letterbox. “How will I clean my house now?”
The fourth Stenny Johansson didn’t bother announcing his name as he shoved the door aside with such force that Jacky went flying against the wall and knocked her head. With her thoughts still spinning, she was only dimly aware of Stenny Johansson stomping up the stairs to her flat, and then stomping back down a few minutes later. She didn’t really register the bright red object in his hands, and it was only later when she found her Henry hoover missing that she understood that he’d taken it.
Wade had a blister that had started out as three separate blisters but had grown into one. He’d run out of energy bars. He was sick of breath-taking views of endless skies above endless valleys. His knees hurt. But he was finally here, outside the guru’s cave, waiting to have the meaning of life explained to him.
He’d first read about the guru Alodu on the Internet. People would write gushing posts about how he had freed them from the nagging doubts, given them a lasting sense of peace. For years now, Wade had been dragging himself through life feeling each moment as itchy with guilt and insecurity. He had visited therapists, taken medication, listened to CDs, but these things only ever felt like a temporary solution, a hiding of his problems, not fixing them. When he heard about Alodu he decided the chance to free himself was worth the price of a flight and a hike. He hadn’t expected the route up the mountain and to the cave to be quite so well signposted. Luckily, since he’d run out of food, there was a fast food kiosk selling burgers, but it felt a little tacky.
He ducked under the cave’s low roof, and was surprised to see a small speccy white man sitting on the floor in a cardigan. He was unimpressive, and Wade felt his hopes deflate as his blisters throbbed.
“So, I’m Alodu,” said the guru, “what’s up?”
This felt all wrong to Wade, but he had rehearsed this speech a hundred times and he wasn’t going to waste the effort.
“I’m plagued,” he said dramatically. Dramatic had seemed right when he planned this conversation on the walk up. However, sharing with this librarian of a man, his head cocked to one side politely, it seemed inappropriate to be dramatic. “I feel like I’ve done and said too much that’s wrong. I want to forget, stop caring and get on with my life, but I can’t stop thinking about all the mistakes I’ve made.”
“That’s unfortunate, “ said Alodu as if he was commenting on something mundane like a traffic jam, rather than Wade’s plagued soul. “Have you tried collecting stamps? I find that soothing.”
Wade shifted awkwardly on his rock, hoping this would convey his lack of satisfaction with this answer.
“Stamps?” he said.
“Yes or perhaps watch some Bob Ross videos about learning to paint, I do like a bit of Bob Ross.”
“Now look here!” snapped Wade, causing the guru to flinch inside his cardigan. “I’ve climbed a bloody mountain, I want better advice than my gran would come up with.”
Alodu looked at him thoughtfully, with infinite patience and calm. Then in hushed tones, whispered,
“You want meaning in your life? Serenity?”
“Have you tried eating steamed broccoli?”
Wade stormed out on his blistered feet. As Alodu watched him go, he said sadly,
“Some people just don’t want to be enlightened.”