Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Shuman Experience - Flash science-fiction


It took a little while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness in the barn...

"I can't see anything," I said.
"Look into the pen," said mother.
I looked into the pen and was shocked, profoundly shocked. There, surrounded by straw and peering up through the dim light, was a creature the likes of which I had never seen before: It had soft rounded features, an aquiline nose and a puckish set of pinkish lips. The body however was in complete disharmony with the face. It was coated with a thick, woolly fleece. I reeled backwards and stuttered:
“It’s…it’s…it’s”
“Yes,” said mother, nodding excitedly, willing me to finish the sentence.
"It's... part sheep, part human!”
“Yes!!” Said mother victoriously, it’s a Shuman”.

I sat down on an upturned bucket and tried to get my breath back.
I told her it was a freak of nature, stitched together from two disparate species. I said it was a Frankensheep.
"Are you trying to hurt his feelings?”

She got down beside the animal and stroked his curls. “I think he’s special”
"Of course he's special," I snorted, "he's a sheep with freckles. What I want to know is where did he come from?"
"Who knows,” said mother, "The Agricultural Research Institute is just down the road. Maybe he strayed.”

I could immediately sense where this was going.
"You're not keeping him." I said.
Mother popped open a can of Pringles and fed one to the beast. He seemed to enjoy it.
"I was thinking of bringing him into the house tonight… Maybe upstairs"
"I'm not sharing my room with that thing." I said.
"Ah, sharing," said mother, and it became immediately apparent that this far off concept had never entered her mind. "You used to love spending time in the attic when you were a little boy". She said, sliding more Pringles into the hungry mouth.
"You can't do this", I said.
"Hmm. I think if you check the 'United Nations Treaty On Conditions That Apply To Sons Who Return Home Ignominiously And Spend Eight Months Unemployed' you'll find that paragraph 7a makes reference to a cot bed in the attic"

"I'm not unemployed", I protested, "I'm just trying to find my place in this society"
"Well, that place right now is wedged between the chimney breast and aunt Gertie’s travelling trunk, which may or may not contain the skeleton of your uncle Oscar. Don't go messing with the padlock is my advice - I had your father bring up a flashlight, some comics and your Farah Fawcett poster. I'll bait a couple of mouse traps and you can take them up with you this evening".

Two nights later I was flicking through the dusty pages of an old Dandy when there was a knock on the attic trapdoor. It was mother.
"Ari wants to have a word with you". She said.
"And who might ‘Ari’ be"?
"Oh, that's what we're calling him, you know, after the Agricultural Research Institute. A-R-I. it has a ring to it, don't you think - Ari Shuman!"
I slapped my forehead and groaned. "You want me to come down and talk to a sheep?
"I want you to come down and listen to him," she said, rather indignantly.

Amazed by the absurdity of this request and also in need of a little fresh air, I followed her down the rickety ladder and into what was once my accommodation. There, reclining on the middle of my Odearest Posture-Spring was 'Ari', surrounded by pages from one of my more recent stage plays. I was horrified. I started snatching up the pages and clutching them close to my chest.
"You're giving him my work for bedding?"
"Don't be ridiculous, he's been reading it. Now, listen to his opinions. I'm off to Stingo"
"Stingo???"
"Uh-huh", said mother, lighting a five inch menthol cigarette, "it's a combination of strip poker and bingo. Last one nude is the winner. We play it in the parish hall: "One and two, kick off that shoe; all the fours, drop those drawers".
She exited smartly and left me alone with the creature.

We regarded each other for a while. I was the one who broke the silence with a measure of biting sarcasm.
''I believe you have some observations about style and content?” I said.
Needless to say, I was startled when the sheep replied:
"I think we should start with structure", he said in a cool, almost refined tone of voice.
I reeled back against the door. "E-e-excuse me,” I stuttered".
"Yes", he continued, "What you need is more contrast, more conflict. Your work is presently a large un-differentiated verbal soup where occasional good ideas float about like lost croutons"
"I'm not taking this from a throw-rug with attitude," I said, and then I marched out the door.

When mother arrived home that night I confronted her.
"How can you look so happy?"
"Well, I just won twenty Euros at Stingo. It was a close call. Mary Maguire nearly bipped me when we were down to a stocking apiece. It’s a good job the corset comes in a pair of detachable sections”.
"If that creature in my bedroom is so damn smart," I blustered, "why doesn't he take up the pen himself?"
"No opposable thumbs," replied mother, "however, I have been taking dictation from him and we have submitted a number of scripts."
I laughed heartily at the very idea.
"Just wait and see what happens," she said, slipping into my old room with two tins of Pringles and a copy of the Farmer's Journal.

A week passed before the letters from theatres started to arrive. And they were unanimous: The sheep was a genius, a woolly, wordy, wonder. - I fumed as mother, in the company of Ari, read aloud the acceptance letter from Ireland's premier theatrical establishment:

'Dear Ari
We are very excited by your work. It is extremely rare to come across such a rich cornucopia of Irish rural metaphors, mixed with mordant Yiddish humour…"


I was outraged as I turned and glared at Ari.
"They think you're Jewish". I snorted.
Ari just shrugged, twirled one of his curls and said, "Oy vey".

The next week was very hard for me as one glowing letter of acceptance after another popped in through the letterbox (we won't even talk about the bursary from the Arts Council and the honorary doctorate from Trinity College). I slumped into depression and was not helped in the least when my father announced, "I'm delighted we finally have a real writer in the house - It’s only a pity he didn't show up a few years ago, when they were giving out the lamb subsidies”.

I was at the very depths of nothingness when things quite unexpectedly started to change. During a visit to the local post office I noticed a 'missing' poster for a certain Paddy Mullen. A wave of sense and realization swept over me as I took in the details of his appearance: Small round face, not very tall, pinkish complexion…

I rushed home and with stealth crept into the house and up the stairs. I paused, breathlessly, outside the bedroom door. I counted to ten and then I pounced. The door flew open only to reveal the sordid truth: There, lounging on the middle of my Odearest Posture-Spring, was the nude figure of Paddy Mullen, and draped over a bedside chair was his fleece, fitted, I noted, with prosthetic sheep legs.
"Aha!" I shouted.

Paddy, his faced drained of all colour, a Major cigarette drizzling ash onto his bare pigeon chest, yelped when he saw me:
"Cripes! I'm done for".
"Well, my pretty little shank" says I, "how exactly do we explain this?"

His excuses and apologies came in a torrent. It was all very foolish indeed. Things had just gotten out of control. He was an out-of-work actor (is there any other kind?) with a love of Pringles. He had spotted the opportunity to spend some time in rent-free luxury and had seized it. Could I blame him, he asked. It was either this or another stint playing Third Spear Carrier, twice removed, in a touring amateur production of Coriolanus.

"Pack up your wool and go". I demanded, but then it struck me that I had one more question in need of an answer.
"Those plays you dictated to mother, those staggering works of genius, hailed by all and sundry in the rarefied world of Irish drama, where did they come from?"

"Oh", said Paddy, flushing at the thought, "I took some children's books out of the library and spiced up the stories with sex, violence and bawdy language"
I thought as much.

When mother returned that day I gleefully recounted the earlier events. She nodded as she lit a Supreme Size menthol.
"Well, it was all rather obvious" She said.
I was flabbergasted. My patient detective work was being brushed aside like so much peppermint smoke. "What do you mean, obvious?" I demanded.
"Well", said mother, flicking Pringles crumbs from the blankets, "sure wasn't it a clear case of Mullen dressed as lamb".

I lay down on my Odearest Posture-Spring, and wept.

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