The Bread Fence Lets The Rations Through

posted Saturday, 26 July 2008

Published ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ 1998


The city was so sprawling and populous that I began to believe – perhaps unaccountably – that coincidences could never exist, a thought which reminded me of Diamante Fillul, one time spaced-out street-walker and feaster-with-panthers. The last I had heard about her was that she had retired to a basement flat rather than face what she called “the outrageous randomness of city life”.

Whilst, in her heyday, she would have been the soul of any party – indeed the central hub of the well-adjusted generously oiled wheel of social activities spinning and humming gently around her – now, she was purported to be a shivering wreck. Yet, evidently, she had a story to tell before she died – and if I was not the first prying person to knock on her door since the coming of her late-life crisis, I still could not have felt more like an iconoclast: shattering a vesperal calm that had been set up around the precincts of Diamante Fillul’s presence: an iron lung of mock silence, a conch of sounds that perhaps only I could hear.

Nobody answered the door. I would need to go away and come again: next time I must choose the optimum moment more by haphazard chance than by the careful weighing of cross-currents and potential flashpoints. But, then, to my unrehearsed surprise, the door opened a crack. On greased hinges. My newspaper may get its story after all.

The spice canals between the trade-stars in that particular part of space were well charted. Along such common-law circumscriptions of route, the starships plied: in the shape of the Narrowboats which used to wend their leisurely way along real canals in the Old Country. Yet these bore a blister pod over the stern-bridge to keep the air sweet for the starship’s Skipper. And Skippers on the spice trade were now women because, during the Wars of Correction in the Tenable Universe, men had retreated to the homes where, in truth, men had always belonged. Consigned to their earths.

Diamante’s husband was indeed a man, thus just one more forgotten creature comfort. And today, she negotiated the book-value tracks of space, needing only a light touch on the tiller as her craft chugged along them. Her bosom rose and fell beneath the check T-shirt, whilst the outcrop of her buttocks tightened the jeans, yet with no hint of soft-worm. This was unlike many women of Diamnante’s acquaintance who had wept bitterly upon discovering such an excrescence bulging in the cross-sections of their laps: to the extent of being forced to resume frocks and skirts as their apparel.

Assuredly, Diamante Fillul was no anonymous broad. She had been involved up to the neck with the leading lights of the city, privy to secrets as well as the sweet nothings whispered into her shell-like ear. If scandal was abroad, Ms Fillul would not have been more than a few lashes’ breadth from the eye of the storm. Now retired, she just might be willing to puncture the ghostly speech-bubbles that still hovered around her bed amid the echoes of her lovers’ ghosts. Or so the newspaper for which I worked hoped.

Why they sent me, of all people is anybody’s guess. I usually ran Poet’s Corner, wherein spry verses on the latest season of the year (all written by yours truly) would appear on the inside pages under several fictitious by-lines. Perhaps… But, surely not, they could not have considered me in the sexy romantic role, wheedling titbits from her in competition with the fly loveplay of handsomer, healthier men than I. Even at this moment (as I tried to prize the door wider against the chain-lock so prudently in place), I could feel my confidence seeping away.

The departure star was now simply a single white spark in the otherwise empty hemisphere of the universe behind Diamante and, being a threadbare area of space, there was only the destination star in front. Men would have found the loneliness to be a cousin of despair. She felt it, too, however, as she screwed up her face in a wild desire for the craft to go just a little bit faster than the standard four miles per hour. Yet, she smiled at the absurdity. Centuries ago, man had dreamed of dashing between worlds faster than light, in hyperdrive missiles that would GO GO GO and almost catch up with themselves in the past or future – or even in the nowhere days that some call the present moment.

Then, however, the “speed” diseases became evident. Nobody had thought speed could result in a raging randiness. Men were dragged from their ships in a state of near bestiality, so over-sexed that they would rampage about, their members five foot high, desperate for an assuagement that no amount of manipulation could supply. They ended up beating their privates to a living pulp on space-station lavatory walls. Even women began to be affected to some extent, when they began to discover shrimpish coily worms growing where such things should not grow and to suffer itches deep down inside themselves that nothing but nothing could scratch away.

“Ms Fillul, can you spare me a moment of your valuable time?”

In fact, I knew her days were spent mooning, dreaming of a past that had become little more than the words which memories had become. An Anita Brookner with blinkers to shade her, to fence her in..

“Get hold of any diaries, any papers, Charlie,” my editor had urged. I had shrugged, as if to question the whole project, nevertheless promising to do my humble best.

She did not answer my question. I looked down and saw a foot in a gold-braid slipper wedged between the door and the door-frame. She did not want me to shut it, did not want me irretrievably to cut her off from this new love-hate relationship. Equally, she did not remove the chain.

“Can we speak for a while?”

“Only for a while.”

Her voice was older than I imagined. Perhaps even a child’s voice would grow croaky through disuse. I knew it would be difficult to interview a voice: faces are far more important.

“I was interested in why you’ve shut yourself away at a secret address?”

“Not as secret as all that, evidently, my dear.”

“Even so, have you anything you can tell me?”

“The city used to be such a beautiful place, my dear…”

“Call me Charlie.”

“I’d rather not call you by anything quite so personal as a name.”

She tried to shut the door but her own foot did not budge. I was rather irritated with myself for interrupting her first train of thought, but I need not have worried for it all then started to pour from her stale soul. She had relished the meaningful relationships that had grown up naturally within the well-oiled machinery of street and building: every seemingly insignificant brushing up against a stranger in a lift; the gentle kisses of slight acquaintances greeting and parting, in tune with some larger plan other than their own motivation; pregnant silences that were meant to last from early evening into the darkest parts of the night, being broken only by the casual backfiring of a maladroit delivery van; knowing looks passing across crowded rooms between erstwhile lovers or between people who were soon to become lovers once they had spoken to each other for the first time; polite introductions that were bound to be made; marriages planned by parents even before they knew they would bear shadows let alone children; estranged spouses re-visiting the haunts of their earlier love-making, tearful at the coincidence of seeing a couple in the same chimney-corner wearing a striking resemblance to their younger selves; foreigners in the night, exchanging glances…

“But what went wrong?” I asked. “The city is still the same place. I’m one of its inhabitants, same as you.”


As with all ploys of people like human beings, there inevitably came the sledgehammer to crack a nut. It was decreed, from a power house higher than common man could dream, that all spaceships could go no faster than four miles per hour. Diamante remembered the early days of the legislation, with a concatenation of heated debates during her childhood. Now, she was party to it: one of the specially bred individuals who would spend the whole of her life just a single spice-trip into space. True, she had submitted herself to a series of lobotomies, but none had really taken hold, because she kept finding her real between-the-ears self returning to the front of her skull, just like a bad penny. There was, however, a series of clitorectomies which did take hold, at least temporarily.

Diamante’s life-time ship was the good boat “Coincidence” (better than “Serendipity” any day, she claimed), now chugging along on all cylinders. Its weed-hatch needed clearing out regularly because, in the Tenable Universe, space had much more consistency than space anywhere else – sown with microscopic particles of dead civilisations that once thrived in huge glandular cities on the flat mulch worlds skimming in fungal circles.

Pumping out the bilge was another task to which poor Diamante had to attend. Upon hands and knees, she needed to suck out the cosmic purée from the purpose teats on the underside of the engine, hold it in her mouth and, when it was convenient, gob it into the chemical toilet, along with her other daily off-loads. The muck there would then automatically jettison itself into space through the underhull gills as soon as the stink was sufficient to cause such self-generated gurgitation. The engine ran on fuel which was recycled by feeding off that very stink.

I could not keep up with her exact answers but, working for a newspaper, even on Poet’s Corner, had not left me without a certain art in reported speech. The voices of the crowd had apparently changed, she maintained. They no longer sung in unison. Glances became furtive. Gestures obscene. Even the clean-living and respected used uncouth words. Conversations full of small talk, people having forgotten the tantalising art of innuendo. Coincidences clashed and crashed their gears, became mere tautologies, simple unrelated incidents in the smash and grab of survival. Nice people became a rat race apart. Worst of all, love became only a succession of one-night stands…

“But, surely, one-night stands were your job. Nothing to be ashamed about in that, by the way.”

That statement was where I went wrong with Diamante Fillul. Even through a passionate series of clients (as she preferred to call them), she had originally felt a thread of continuity. But, in today’s world, she thought that even going steady with one lover, the bed-clothes were left oily, greasy, even bloody. King Random reigned. The flashpoints of interrelated destinies were dead and gone. The city had become a mob, at best a crowd, never again to be that audience who once clapped the performance of life in a unison worthy of the collective unconsciousness that had been their birthright.

Diamante finally learnt not to question anything. She just plugged on, her desperations concealed beneath the inner skull’s post-surgical detritus. She needed much, but eventually the simple need was enough. Whilst she yearned for all manner of satisfactions, such yearning became an end in itself. She merely consumed the spice food that she was meant to be freighting in “Coincidence” from star to star, knowing nothing but this must be God’s way. And as the food depleted, so did all hope of arrival. Yet the mind’s despair was enough to staunch the mindless boredom.

The spice canals are still in existence for any historian to view, were there any active historians left. The hypothetical banks and towpaths have become so eroded, they form the leading edge of a new Untenable Universe, where anything can live or happen once such untenability takes purchase and becomes second nature.

The ancient space lanes are no doubt full of all the old romance of trade and exploration, but nostalgia is never viable when nobody has any memories at all or, more pitifully, if memories have nobody to wield them. Meanwhile, Diamante’s home-based husband developed into the couch potato of all sofa sausages, because any pace from foot to foot gave him the hots so bad, he’d rather indulge his laissez-faire than let everything harden up again so painfully. He’d rather simply loll there, dreaming of the past and of the day when Diamante might return from her trip. Thus, the male race became mere butcher’s rubble around a shrinking roseworm.

The foot disappeared. The door shut. All too quickly for me to react. I needed to speak again. Urgently. Realisation had dawned too late. No letter-box through which to call my all-important message. A non-directory number, too, I later discovered. She had probably been disconnected, anyway.

The message?


It meant nothing, of course, like a line of avant garde poetry. But it was the highest common denominator: the title at the masthead of the piece I wrote about her, one in which we had both appeared: a connection worth cherishing, if nothing else, a coincidence possibly in the making. It was only later that I saw through her disguise and recalled that I, myself, had been party to one of her one-night stands, in the old days, when I was healthier and, hopefully, handsomer than today. I had been, indeed, one of her so-called clients.

Soon after my visit to the door of her basement flat, a chance visitor discovered Diamante Fillul quite dead, one of her gold-braid slippers stuffed into her mouth so that it would fill the gullet. He, too, the visitor, had probably known her, too, as a client, in the old days. If only Diamante Fillul had fully appreciated such green shoots of synchronicity – such vegetative resurgence of creative serendipity – she may not have seen fit to kill herself at what she had evidently considered to be her optimum time for death.

I shall try to lose myself in the sprawling city, leaving my piece on Diamante Fillul somewhere – yes, on a wooden park-bench in a randomly chosen part of the city – for a lonely person, for someone carrying a paper bag of stale breadcrumbs for the pigeons, for anybody (you, for example) to pick up and read before consigning it to the bin. Meanwhile, I’m still on my spice kick, if now in inner, as opposed to outer, space. Lust is easier that way. And far less physical. Poetry Corner was just a cover, a meaningless metaphor of words that let the walls through. Despair, you see, soon becomes a parthenogenesis of hope … hopefully. Just give it time or a dose of tumescent tachyons.

Yours, Charlie. Still a trifle spaced-out.


“Coincidence is a craft on which we can actually work, not a faith built simply upon the act of putting-yourself-about. Excuse the colloquialism.”
Rachel Mildeyes (from THE ART OF REAL DRAMA)


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