Saturday 26 July 2014

New Book from the Editor - The Investigations of the Para-Usual

Maverick academic, Professor O'Singh, believes he may bestow upon mankind the ultimate gift – the key to all knowledge. Haplessly, and not until it’s too late, does he realise that he’s precipitated the destruction of the planet.

Here is an excerpt, the first three chapters of The Investigations of the Para-Usual.

Candyman 1

‘Aerial burial!’ yelled the man, imagining the launching of his lifeless corpse into outer space.
His considerable bulk was being rocked, about to be hauled upwards inside what was the tight fit of an antiquated wooden lift car – the projectile coffin of his imaginings; his pine overcoat, his pine spacesuit, as it were.

Lift off.

‘Graveyard declutter!’ he bellowed, seizing on another thought. Might outer space be the answer to overcrowded cemeteries in the modern age? Much as as al fresco became ‘the rage’ when the sinking of the dead beneath church flagstones was stretched to saturation point?

Must be the most morbid instance of sweeping under the carpet, it occurred – the Medieval practice of burying people under paving slabs.

Even as the lift cables took up the slack and began to strain, that single notion – burials in space – catalysed thought connections that cracked and fizzed pyrotechnically inside the bulky man’s cranium.

‘Negative burial!’ he exclaimed. Burial in space must be considered negative burial, because the deceased is headed in the opposite direction – up instead of down. 60,000 feet above the ground, rather than 6 feet below. 

‘Pushing down the daisies!’ the bulky one shouted.

The big man squeezed his arms up the rattling walls of the lift and above his head the way an escapologist might, reassigning his limbs in the preliminary stages of escape. Thus, was he able to clasp his hands over his ears. He needed desperately to crowd out those thoughts. He needed extreme focus. Supreme concentration. He clamped his eyes firmly shut.

‘Come on, O’Singh!’ he muttered, in the manner somewhat of somebody speaking in tongues. ‘Take strength from Strathclyde!’

Professor Breville O’Singh was transported back in his mind to the University of Strathclyde, preaching there from the stage of the amphitheatre, rolling his hands one over the other to facilitate the order of his speech. Not rhythmically, but in the fashion rather of a father dancing at a disco, to Sister Sledge.

A bear-shaped man was O’Singh, or perhaps a man-shaped bear. A big man as imposing a figure as Cassius Clay, though always looking sorry for the imposition. Kind of limp, drawing in his bulk. Professor Breville O’Singh was apologetically large.

‘When asked a question to which there is any number of possible answers, we reply, “How long is a piece of string?”’ observed Professor Breville O’Singh, from the stage. ‘But equally we could ask, could we not, “How wide is a piece of string?”’

O’Singh stopped to survey the reactions of his audience, a gaggle of professors, sat in various attitudes of contemplation, in judgement, squinting into a blinding low-angled shaft of Spring sunlight.

O’Singh’s eyes popped open. The floor indicator light flickered on ‘4’.

‘Come on, man! Erm… Extract from Exeter!’ he urged himself. (CLICK ON 'Read more' LINK, BELOW):
His eyes clamped shut again. And this time in his mind’s eye he was at the University of Exeter, breaching the campus parkland between faculty buildings amid a gaggle of peers. 

He stopped abruptly and swung round to shield himself from a flurry of cherry blossom blown up by a sudden gust.

‘We ask ourselves, “What is the meaning of life?” yelled O’Singh, addressing his fellow-strollers, above the whoosh of the gust. ‘But what indeed is the meaning of death?’

O’Singh stood with a clump of cherry blossom adorning his left ear, looking like the most oversized lady in a Hawaiian greeting party.

In the juddering lift, the professor re-opened his eyes and exhaled deeply. The indicator light illuminated ‘5’. The car tremored and stopped. O’Singh hesitated, eyeing the door. Then reached for the handle. 

A squeal of metal sounded as he ripped open the interior concertina door.

Falling 2

A thudding sound was accompanied by a grunt. The curved glass panel of a revolving door shimmered. The door stuttered and yielded very slightly to the soundtrack of ‘Vwarpt!’ – a rasping fart.

Then ‘Pblllllmmmt!’

Crashing through the revolving doors tumbled a small, dishevelled man, got up in cheap tracksuit and baseball cap. He fell into the building with such gusto that it looked as though somebody might have thrown him through the doors. Like he had been physically ejected from a building. Though the other way round. Like he had been physically ejected into a building. Physically injected. His head, most notably, was massed in some sort of black, unctuous grime.

‘Charlatan!’ bawled the creator, the brewer of that flatulence – giving full vent now from the opposite end of his digestive tract.

A lightning flash brilliantly lit the white, minimalist mock-marble cavernous space of the office block foyer.

‘Charlatan! Charlatan!’ rang out and echoed around the foyer along with the clatter of a plastic bucket. The small man had disdainfully cast it aside. He was a compact ball of fury. The viscous, black ooze dripped from the top of his baseball cap down his contorted face lending him, when united with the bucket, the look of a hapless road junction car valet.

An office worker wielding a golf umbrella slipped delicately round the valet and into the slowing revolving door segment he had vacated.

‘He knows nothing!’ screeched the valet.

There in the foyer, at a slab-like reception desk stretching the extent of the far wall sat the sole occupant of the foyer, quite clearly a person dressed in a pantomime dog costume. 

The dog-person carefully patted a newspaper to conceal it under the desk, then looked up not to the incandescent valet but beyond him to the office worker bent double, propping herself up with her brolly, choking, spluttering for air on the street side of the revolving doors. She had just shared the revolving door segment with a certain lingering ‘Vwarpt!’

A terrifying crack of thunder detonated. Lightning illuminated the foyer in rapid pulses.

‘Oh, dog-man. There you sit. How fortunate is your lot,’ groaned the valet. His own personal storm had blown out, his voice had settled back into its refined Edinburgh lilt.

The dog-man looked back impassively or at least with the same expression lent by a pantomime dog’s immutable fluffy head – the tongue hanging out the corner of the mouth in perpetual eagerness to please.

The valet shuffled towards the reception desk, face beneath the grime, red and puffy. It would have been clear to the dog-man now that the black ooze that matted the valet’s grey thatch of hair sprouting from beneath the baseball cap and the constantly a-twitch paintbrush-shaped moustache, was midge juice. A squadron of flies that had survived whatever ordeal had befallen their brethren made themselves satellites of the valet’s head, forming a kind of escorting halo.

‘A dog-man’s life, indeed,’ sighed the valet.

The dog-man continued to stare.

Torrential rain sounded like white noise outside.

‘You could quit,’ suggested the dog-man – a muffled suggestion from under the dog suit.

‘I ber… I beg your pardon?’ spluttered the valet, blinking disbelievingly. ‘Quit? Seriously? Quit?’

Lightning flashed. A clap of thunder sounded louder than before. A smell hung heavy. Not that of ozone, redolent of fresh mountain air one might associate with a storm, but something altogether unpleasant and acrid. 

The valet stood rigid as though wholly disconnected with the odour, looking defiant, like it had nothing to do with him. As though the existence of that smell could be attributed to the little-known fact that ozone goes rotten, that in time it ‘goes off’. That ozone has a shelf-life – and a very short one at that.

‘What do you take me for?’ demanded the valet, menacingly, dragging himself up the last two inches to the reception desk.

‘You see this face?’ he persisted, indignantly, thrusting his purple swollen midge-encrusted head right up to the dog-man’s snout. ‘This is a face not to be messed with… anymore!’

The dog-man stared.

‘I shall never quit,’ fumed the valet, recoiling and striking out in no particular direction across the foyer. ‘I will fight my corner and other corners… that belong to others. 

'O’Singh claims he can know everything. But what for? He doesn’t know the first thing about what is traditional!’

A ghostly hush settled on the foyer. It was midweek in the middle of the day and the building was all but abandoned of life. Life – the city traffic, the streams of hurried, rain-dodging office workers – could be seen beyond the revolving doors and the building’s pane glass frontage, beyond the grassy square out front, as was its custom, bypassing Stalingrad House.

‘Let me help you,’ said the dog-man, breaking the silence.

‘What?’ exclaimed the valet, semi-delirious with incredulity. ‘You? An excuse for a common mutt? An ersatz pooch? How could you possibly help you… you cane-four-and-a-half,’ the valet threw in for good measure.

He swaggered back to the reception desk so he might admire the subject of his condemnation.

The dog-man shifted slightly in his seat. ‘I beg your pardon?’ he mustered.

‘That’s another one for you,’ grinned the valet grotesquely, pleased to offload his frustrations on some other soul. ‘You’re half-dog, aren’t you, not the full canine? Makes you a cane-four-and-a-half,’ he gurgled. ‘You do the math!’

The dog-man slowly slid open a desk drawer, bunched a paw round a set of keys and stood up holding them aloft like a fisherman’s haul.

‘Perhaps I could help,’ he said, tantalisingly. ‘If I were to ‘fail in my security duties’?’

‘Come,’ he insisted, rounding the reception desk, signalling that the valet should follow him towards the lifts. Then froze as though struck by a sudden thought.

‘To think…’ said the dog-man, spinning around, causing the valet to back up, ‘…not so very long ago, just before you met him, Professor Breville O’Singh was at the University of Strathclyde desperate to secure a research post.’

‘O’Singh spoke of string theory at Strathclyde,’ he resumed, turning heel and back towards the lifts.

The call button dinged to the touch and the doors flung open. The dog-man stepped from the foyer directly into a lift car, barely breaking stride. A car languishing at ground level was just about a certainty in a 1960s city office block. Stalingrad House was decades beyond its expiry date as London business headquarters material.

‘Come. Get in,’ entreated the dog-man.

As the doors trundled shut behind them, the dog-man pawed at a button and the lift car shuddered into life.

‘Day after, O’Singh was in the West Country. Struggling with the meaning of death.’

The dog-man looked up to see the floor number on the display above the door creep from ‘2’ to ‘3’.

‘At Exeter, he waxed existential. Then…’

The lift lurched and stopped.

‘…Lancaster’. The automatic doors flung open.

‘Lancaster!’ blustered Professor Breville O’Singh, as he swiped open the outer door of his funereal lift. Several months separated O’Singh and the dog-man recalling the very same location.

‘Did show promise, what you brought to the table,’ conceded Professor A’Court, the vice-chancellor at the University of Lancaster, walking O’Singh up the planked staircase of a modernist faculty building.

‘Well thank you, but...’

‘How did you phrase it, now?’

‘Should underpants be considered underpants if the wearer is not wearing his trousers?’

A’Court halted at the top of the staircase, wrapped in thought.

‘Uh-huh! Yes. So an instance where the wearer is no longer wearing them under anything? Where the underpants become… well, rightfully they become pants?’

Professor A’ Court took the initiative once again. He lunged for a glass door across the landing and held it open for O’Singh to pass through.

‘Yuh, I do like that,’ he said, once again forging ahead, hands clasped together contemplatively behind his back.

‘A respectful word of advice, professor. If you hope to gain a platform at an academic institution, you will need to find applications for your ideas. We have to be much more about income-generation. We need to turn a penny, you understand?’

‘Absa-absolutely…’ drawled O’Singh. ‘I could perhaps make my finding a starting point for finding an application... I do actually really, absolutely need to get started on the platform thing the day after tomorrow.’

A’ Court slipped from the corridor through a door bearing his name into a glass-walled office.

‘The day after tomorrow? Actually…? Why?’ he asked.

‘I have computed the time I will need to discover everything as the number of years from my age on Friday to the average age of death of a luminary scientist,’ said O’Singh.

‘What do you…? Explain.’

A’Court drew out a leather chair from his desk, inviting O’Singh to tarry.

‘I calculated the number of years that Darwin, Einstein, Newton, Curie, Sigmund Freud all lived after making their first discovery. Then took the average.’

O’Singh eased his bulk into the protesting chair.

‘That is the time the standard scientific pioneer needs in order to produce their finest work.’

A’Court picked his way around the desk and sat himself down opposite O’Singh.

‘The day after tomorrow? On Friday?’ he reiterated, furrow-browed.

‘Eleven minutes past eight, to be precise. In the morning. What time do you start work here?’

‘9.30, I’m afraid. We wouldn’t have been able to help you even if we had offered you the position.’

‘I could perhaps have started a little later at that time and worked through my lunch hour?’ suggested O’Singh, lamely.

Floor 3 at Stalingrad House, several months hence, the dog-man sprang from the lift and struck out taking the lead down a long, narrow corridor.

‘O’Singh had blind faith that his theories would gain acceptance in mainstream science,’ he remarked, crunching his way across the light- and dark-blue checked industrial carpet tiles. ‘His insights showed promise. They scanned well. String Theory in Strathclyde. Existentialism in Exeter.

‘Perhaps then he should’ve recognised the portents.’ He rounded a dog-leg in the corridor. 

‘“Underpants in Lancaster” – didn’t scan.’

Locating O’Singh’s office at the end of the passage, the dog-man fumbled a key into the lock.

‘You know… he would have gone on going nowhere forever had it not been for the action of somebody… far away from Lancaster… that very same day.’

The dog-man dropped to one knee and began jiggling the key with both felt paws, but to no real effect. It was as though he were encumbered by one of those old-age simulator get-ups in which the experiencer’s dexterity is impaired by oven gloves, his sight blurred by focus-warping spectacles; modified to make him feel like he’s wearing an overcoat in the summer months. His paws finally slipped and he lost his grip.

A loud and derisive snort came from behind. The dog-man spun around to urge patience, only to find that the valet’s eyeline was fixed not on the unyielding lock, but the sign on the door: ‘The Investigations of the Para-Usual’.

He straightened up and fixed the valet with his fake dog stare.

‘You know, whoever was behind the kidnapping,’ he asserted, ‘could never have imagined that they were handing O’Singh his big break.’

Lil’ Girl 3

Halfway across the planet in Tanzania – on the very same day Professor Breville O’Singh was attending the interview at Lancaster – sheet lightning flashed above the western rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. A figure, enigmatic under a straw boater, mysterious behind mirrored shades, peered across the great, grassy terrestrial indent from the veranda of a well-appointed Maasai-chic hotel complex. Outside, rather than inside his mud-and-thatch-look hut, enjoying as a consequence what the hotel brochure might dress up as a ‘semi-nomadic’ Masaai experience.

‘Good evening, sir,’ boomed an immaculately liveried waiter, arriving on the decking with a hospitality smile that stretched as far as was required. He gently clunked a long cool drink on the marble-top table in front of the guest, acknowledged a negative on further requirements and retired, affording the impassive recipient an unspoilt panorama of the Crater.

Unbeknown to the planet at large, the Crater, the cradle of humanity – the location from which early man set out to begin the first of endless journeys of discovery – was destined also to become its grave.

Upon the table, the enigmatic figure flipped up the lid of a small, sleek laptop computer. An email message awoke and filled the laptop screen, demanding his attention. He clamped a mobile phone to his ear and peered over the lid instead, beyond to where the sun had slipped below the horizon and the last of the light was seeping with it. Down below in the bowl of the ancient meteor crater, animals were beginning, others finishing their shifts. The zebra, the wildebeest, the lion, were all knocking off. The cicadas were clocking on, flashmobbing, building to a manic tropical screech.

‘I am sending the instructions now,’ uttered the figure, slowly, impassively. Ominously. ‘We must of course ensure the operation name’s anonymity. Be watchful thus, for an untitled message.’

He began to backspace, to delete ‘OPERATION GREEN SHOOTS’ – the title that was showing in the subject line of the email.

‘Instead I shall speak the name this one time only.’

Slowly, a smile rippled across his face – a sneering, triumphant kind of smile. He made to deliver a key stroke, then paused. The finger of a mortal man remained poised tantalisingly above the laptop keyboard. He turned his head robotically and watched until the waiter had negotiated some distant decked half-levels of the hotel complex and disappeared from view.

The mysterious figure returned to the task at hand. He lowered his digit to half-depress the key. Then paused and held the pose. The moment was too delicious not to relish.

‘Remember, as from this conversation we will no longer communicate by phone. Understood?’ he murmured into his mobile.

With his free hand, he blindly groped for his drink in readiness to toast the initiation of his masterplan. He secured a cack-handed grip and jerkily raised the glass to his mouth.

‘Hereby, I launch Operation…’ the figure began. And pressed the key at the same time that he stuffed a straw up his right nostril all the way to the bendy knuckle.

That was how Operation Green Shoots was almost launched. And how, instead, Operation Green Sher-HEY! – one of the most significant operations in the history of mankind – was sneezed into existence.

[Please visit, if you would like to read further chapters. Any feedback left here mostly appreciated.

Thanks very much.

Paul Angliss