Tuesday, 26 May 2015
"The only real point of being an adult is to choose what you want to do with your time. But it's usually too late to choose by the time you're grown up. So if you choose now what affect you want to have on the lives of others, you'll find your best adult job while you still have time to train into it," his 10th grade teacher told them while the classroom was a series of bent heads. Young John Barkus stared at his workbook and thought about when his uncle was finally able to move into his own house. He put his pen to the paper and wrote...
“So why are you really here, John Barkus?” Sarah asked, breaking into his thoughts. They; Barkus, Sarah, Lynn, Sheryl, Gus, Sol, Jim and half of Jim's regulars were filling Barkus' flat. He wasn't sure how that happened, but someone kept handing him drinks and there were cartons of pizza being passed around so he didnt really care. Plus he had snagged one of the comfier chairs.
"Pride,” was Barkus' instant reply, and then he blinked as if the answer was unexpected even to him. He had an audience, when did that happen?
“Do you want to think about that for a minute?” came the joke, not unkindly.
“Well...” Barkus let the word trail off for comic relief, which was rewarded, then added. “Yes, in two manners of speaking, I am here for Pride, or about Pride, or whatever.” Emboldnened by the alcohol and the open faces, he plunged on. “I thought I could solve my own problems to the point where I thought getting help showed weakness, an inability to Problem-Solve.” They heard the capitals. “So I pushed it all away until well, I ended up in those damn flower beds.” Laughter, the encouraging sort. “But on the other side, I've just remembered what I put down in my school book for why I wanted to be an Architect in the first place. Because I could see the pride that people got when they owned a house.” Nods went around the group. “I could see how much good that one fact did and I wanted to make people feel good, help them feel pride. So I decided to build houses.” He regarded his glass. “And somehow I still ended up in flowers.” And then he had to tell them about working at the local garden centre led by hippies who believed that flowers could solve everything. “For years I had no idea how they stayed in business. They made silly deals and donated to ogranisations all over the place and would say things like, “Its not about the money, its about the joy of earning your way, of using your skill and experience to make someone's day better.” About 5 years after I left, the penny dropped when my old boss's son came around with a bulk bag of weed for the college dorm.” Laughter erupted. “Yeah, they made a lot of people's days a lot better for a long time! But what about you Sarah? What are you here for, cos I know you're not from here.”
“I find it restful, and I like hanging out with my girlfriend which means I have to spend some time around here, whether I like it or not.” Mock jeers and pieces of popcorn rained on her. “But I do have to admit, I find it very restful here.” She accepted a top-up from Sol. “It's a really good place to come to after a tour when my batteries are almost depleted and I start getting really crabby.”
“What do you mean “start”?” Lynn interjeted, which earned her a popcorn at point-blank range. ”Spousal abuse,” she shrieked.
“Nah,” rumbled George, swaying in his seat. “Saw it all, it was retaliation for character defamation, perfectly acceptable behaviour.”
“You're only saying that because she bought you that special spiced rum,” Lynn protested in mock outrage.
“Yes, I acknowledge the conflict of interest and I say you are disturbing the peace and should refrain from further histeronics unless you wish the warning to become formal.”
“Oh I know how it goes now,” came the sarcastic reply. “I'm being set up by the Man, on the direction of the Woman.”
“And her special spiced rum,” Sarah pointed out. Sol put on a look of contrived puzzlement.
“Is that what they call it nowadays?”
From a group in the corner came a cry of “Yes! That's it, I knew I knew it!”
“My, but that's great timing,” laughed Sarah as the group turned as a whole to see what the excitement was about. “What's going on over there?”
Barkus smiled as someone started triumphantly telling the story of remembering a favoured song from the 1920's, but he was miles and years away, remembering those summers when his hands were always in the dirt and the smell of compost was in the air. He had enjoyed those times, had got a deep sense of satisfaction from knowing that it was his care and attention that made the plants thrive and flourish. He remembered the feeling of coming in one morning and seeing the first blood-red blooms on a climbing rose that he had rescued from the compost pile. His old boss had clapped him on the back and insisted that he take it home as proof of his Lazarus touch. He had tied it carefully to the back of his bike and presented it to his mother. It bloomed hugely for years and was so vigorous that his mother had been able to train it over arches and through the iron sculptures that his father loved. His younger sister had sworn by its scent and gathered armfuls of petals for her home-made moisturisers and perfumes. Neighbours and friends from all over had taken cuttings and soon the “Barkus Rose”, as it came to be known, was considered an essential part of a complete garden in their town. He would drive through the streets and his chest swelled as he thought that, if not for him, all that beauty would never have been. His lip twisted bitterly and he sighed. *At least,* he thought. *The Barkus Rose continues in other people's gardens* He looked up suddenly, to see Sol's eyes on him with an unreadable expression.
“What do you think of the discussion, Barkus?” Sol asked.
Barkus blinked and rubbed his forehead ruefully. “I wasnt listening,”he admitted. “What's being discussed?”
Sol shrugged. “The evolution of music I think,” he replied, sipping his scotch. “And its relationship to politics.”
“Are we up to Punk yet?” Barkus asked, stretching in his chair and shoving his remembrances aside. “Cos if we're going to discuss music and politics, Punk should take centre stage, pardon the pun.” A hand waved from another chair, Barkus thought he remembered the owner as being called Sophie.
“But we're talking about music, not noise,” she stated disparagingly. Barkus shook his head.
“I'll grant you that it's far from being the most technical genre of music, but it was never meant to be,” he argued. “It was supposed to be a statement, for free choice and originality and against constraints of personal freedoms.” Sophie didn't look conviced. “Take the Sex Pistols for example, they wrote music that directly attacked policies of the British Government at the time, they made satire of the Queen and they encouraged the general public to speak their minds and be themselves. They championed real freedom of choice. The Clash did the same.”
“But their music was so basic, it really is just modulated noise,” Sophie protested.
“Others would argue accesible,” Barkus retorted. “They showed that you don't need to be a virtuoso to write songs and get people's attention. From the point of view of musical history they were extremely important becasue they gave so many people the confidence to pick up an instrument or microphone and try.” Barkus shrugged. “Basically, if the Sex Pistols or the Clash could play a song, anyone could.”
Sophie snorted. “You're right there.”
“And what do you play?”
“Cello, violin and piano,” she said proudly.
“Sophie is part of the provincial orchestra,” Sol told Barkus. “She played for the Youth Orchestra before that.”
“Not all three instruments at once though,” Barkus hazarded.
“No,” Sophie laughed. “That would be a feat worthy of record. No, I play the cello for the Orchestra, the piano and violin are more for fun.”
“And I suppose they are easier to bring to parties.”
“Yes indeed, though I was caught on the backfoot tonight and I brought nothing with me.”
“You brought yourself,” Barkus reminded her and she smiled. “Next time the price of admission is a tune.” She nodded and smiled again.
In the natural pause of their conversation, they heard Sarah in full discussion mode.
“No. I agree tht lives are being sacrificed on the alter of propriety but I disagree on the thinking behind it. AIDS isn't being treated like it is because its a poor mans disease, or a black man's disease or a homosexual disease, it's because it's a venereal disease. If AIDS was transmitted through aerosal, there would be a solution to the “AIDS problem”. I dont know what form it would take, but there would be one. But AIDS is transmitted through sex, therefore it enters the realm of religous taboo and the Authorities can take the highest moral ground and leave the sinners to rot.”
“You really dont like religion, do you?' A sip of the drink, a headshake.
“No, I consider the vast majority of true human suffering in this world to be the sum total of the presence of organised religion.”
“What?!” In the hubbub, Barkus noticed that Sol and Gus were both staring at Sarah intently. He realised then that he had never seen either man direct their full attention on one subject before. Even when playing music, there was the impression of there being many things going on at once. Now, both men were completely focused on Sarah, who was sitting in the eye of the storm as the other guests protested her words.
Finally, Sol raised a hand and, quite naturally, the voices died away.
“I'm sure Sarah has no intention of leaving us hanging like this,” he observed dryily. “Only it's kind of hard to yell over 10 people's voices and still sound civil. So how about I restart the conversation with a point of order.” The woman in question nodded graciously as the others pulled themselves together and either prepared to listen or pretended to. “Sarah, you said the sum total of organised religion. What do you mean by that?” She shrugged.
“In a budgeting sense, benefits go on eside, detriments go on the other, take one from the other and see what's left over.”
“Well what do you count as benefits and detriments?” Barkus asked before the hubbub could start again.
“I look at it from a humanistic point of view. Is this action or this mentality of net benefit, or net detriment to the health and well-being of human beings? The community spirit and the social conscience and responsibility that Organised Religion engenders is of net benefit to people becasue it roots them. It gives them a place to put their energies to use by helping other people. Without groups like the Salvation army, Meals on Wheels or church-organised social events a lot of people would be significantly more worse off than they are now, be it on an acute or chronic fashion.”
“Whether you get emergency shelter or a place to meet people,” Barkus translated. “Okay, but I can see a big “But” appearing in your mind.”
Sarah smiled and tipped her glass at him. “You're right because here comes the detriment part. Organised Religion works becasue of the submission of the congregation, the unthinking acceptance of whatever dogma is delivered from the hierarchy.”
“That's only true of the Catholics...” someone began but Sarah cut her off with a smile.
“Nope. Hierarchy is inherent in religion because it always requires submission to a mortal representation of the Divine.” She scanned thier faces and continued. “That is, someone created a picture of what the Divine looks like, feels like, behaves like and all followers of that Creed must submit to that one depiction and all other depictions are blasphemous. All other ways of intereacting with the Divine are wrong and only those who share the same method are saved.” Silence. Barkus saw dropped jaws on everyone who was listening but Sol and Gus who were both grinning to themselves, then he saw them exchange a loaded, expectant look and nod.
“The alienation that this core aspect of organised religion engenders makes it of net detriment to human happiness.' Sarah continued. 'Never mind the exploitation, the ready excuse for inhumane acts, the barrier to a truely personal relationship with the Divine or the obsession with forcing people to believe that their bodies are inherently filthy and that shame is the only acceptable attitude regarding them.”
“Inhumane acts? What kind of Church have you been going to?”
“Wait a minute, I want to know what she means by a barrier...”
Weaving slightly, Barkus made his way to the kitchen for a refill. He had heard most of this already and Sarah looked capable of looking after herself.
“Interesting lady, isn't she?” Sol asked conversationally, leaning on the counter with a fresh scotch. Barkus frowned, puzzled, then turned around to peer into the living room. He hadn't had that much to drink, had he? Sol was looking at him with his head on one side and a contemplative expression when he turned back around.
“Yes,” Barkus answered eventually, restarting his trip to the fridge. “Extrememly. Extremely sincere too, she really believes what she says.” The fridge held no more beer. “Dammit.”
“Thats why she surprises people so bad,” Sol shrugged. “She's comfortable enough in her own philosophy that she doesnt need to try and convince others, she just tells it like she sees it. It's the calm that gets people to listen and then she knocks them between the eyes with a new world-view. All with a smile on her face.”
Barkus nodded, pondering this and cast a last, hopeful look into the fridge, just in case new beer somehow appeared.
There was a new case of beer in the fridge. Barkus stared at it, hypnotised, then turned to look at Sol.
“Did you..?” Barkus heard himself say. Sol's eyes flicked from him to the fridge and back in apparently genuine incomprehension.
“Did I what?”
Barkus stared at him, at the beer, back at him.
“Uh, nothing.” He grabbed a beer and closed the fridge. “I've either drank too much or too little, because I'm seeing things.” He popped the top. “So I'm going to try drinking some more and see what happens.”
“Famous last words.”
“How come no-one remembers the first words?” Barkus mused.
“What do you mean?”
“The words that started events. Or at least were pithy, smart and said around the beginnings of a chain of happenings.”
“I guess the historians only show up when the action's over. Though I do remember some memorable first words, now that you mention it,” Sol continued, scratching his chin.
“Yeah, I think it was something like, “Everybody take up their positions.” “
“Loaded, for sure,” Barkus said after a moments thought. “But not particularly memorable on their own.” Sol nodded.
“I guess you'd need to know the context.”
“What's the context?”
“A private party in a brothel.”
Friday, 22 May 2015
It was 2 days later. The beds had been completely cleaned out and prepped for their planting. Barkus had been pleasantly surprised by the effort and skill displayed by the teams of teens. They had even negotiated with a local farmer to get some of his best compost to dig into the soil at no extra charge to Barkus. Garrett, the leader, had been clearly proud of the results and Barkus felt no tinge of regret in handing over the agreed sum, he even added a bonus.
'You kept your word,' he said by way of explanation as Garrett's eyes lit up at the unexpected extra. 'You delivered a top-notch job in good time and even looked to the future benefit of going the extra mile in the initial stages. That kind of initiative deserves a bonus' That was his father again, he knew. "Always reward someone for doing a good job", was one of his frequent sayings. Garrett counted out the bundle of cash with an air of professionalism, then carefully placed it in an envelope which was secreted in an inside pocket. His face then broke into a huge grin and he extended a hand.
'Pleasure working with you Mr. Barkus,' he said as Barkus hid his own grin and shook his hand. 'Let me know if you need some help again.'
'Let me get this design through the Council in one piece and you got a deal.'
“And that bit's blue, where is that pencil, ah, here.”
Sheryl had spent the last 2 days going back through her deign with a fine-tooth comb, incorporating more testimonials from townspeople, more common themes that were discussed in Council on a regular basis and a few professional comments from Barkus. The school colours appeared flamboyantly, the winter views were emphasised, the local vendors and materials lists were checked and updated. She left no stone unturned.
“Sheryl honey,' Lyn broke into Sheryls concentration gently. Barkus saw the skinny woman blink and rub at her eyes. They had been working for 8 straight hours. 'I think Barkus needs the design now and you need to eat.'
'But, but I'm not finished,' Sheryl protested, as a yawn broke through.
'You know that you're never going to be done, if by done you mean finished tweaking.' Lyn expertly lifted her best friend out of her chair and towards the kitchen. 'You're always tweaking.' Barkus was left in the room alone and just now with the setting sun pouring through, covering every surface in gold, the rooms were somehow spacious and cozy at the same time.
He had been sitting in a large armchair, and leafing through Sheryl's books again. But at Lyn's gentle removal of Sheryl, he got up and went to see what she had been working on.
When Lyn and Sheryl returned, full plates in hand, Barkus was staring at the latest completed design sketch.
'Oh wait, I'm not finished,' Sheryl began, looking for a space to put her food.
'Yes, you are,' Barkus said in a far away tone. 'You have covered all the bases, incorporated all the changes, checked all the facts and numbers 4 times over and have created more maps and images than I could have believed.' He looked at her with a strange expression on his face. 'They're going to be blown away by this. For now, your job is done.' He swept the papers into a pile and placed them carefully on a nearby end-table. 'So how about you sit and eat your dinner while I start to figure out how I'm going to do mine.' He paused. 'But first, I'm going to get some food.'
He was in the kitchen, putting some bread on his plate -Sheryl had shown up that morning with a casserole and fresh rolls- when he realized that when he stood in a certain spot, he could hear the women's conversation clearly.
'So he's back tomorrow?' Sheryl asked. Pause, sighing sound. Barkus scanned the kitchen and went over the plan of the apartment in his head. Right here, the sounds from the sitting room were funnelled into this exact spot, far too perfectly for mere accident. Clearly, he mused, someone wanted to make sure their party guests weren't talking behind their backs. However, the unknown paranoid hadn't seen it fit to add a spy-hole, maybe had decided that the risk of exposure wasn't worth it. Barkus shook his head ruefully and made to join them before a phrase dragged his ear back.
'Yeah, they say they've done all they can.' Pause. 'I hate that phrase,' Lyn continued in a wobbly voice. 'It always sounds like such a cop-out.' A pregnant silence. Barkus was caught, he couldn't just walk in now, he'd embarrass Lyn. But listening to them like this made him feel like some kind of Peeping Tom.
'I'm sure they don't mean it like that,' was the sympathetic reply.
'I should hope not. I'm paying enough to cover their bonuses this year goddammit!' Barkus winced at the raw edge in her voice and looked around hastily.
Lyn and Sheryl jumped as a metal saucepan lid crashed to the floor followed by a 'Sorry, sorry! Clumsy me!' Barkus emerged from the kitchen a moment later, looking a bit flustered but with plate of food securely in hand. By the time he reached the table, Lyn had managed to regain her composure and only Sheryl's momentary look of concern hinted at anything out of the ordinary. Barkus pretended not to see it as he sat down and busied himself with pouring water for each of them.
'So,' he said with joviality he didn't really feel. 'Do you ladies have plans for this Summer? It's only around the corner now.' Both women blinked and grinned ruefully.
'You know what,' Sheryl said. 'I havent even thought of it and its already mid-April. I havent really done anything for a long time either.' Her voice trailed off and her eyes drifted back in time. Barkus saw Lyn flash a look of concern towards her friend, looking for, what? Barkus couldn't guess, but Sheryl's expression was relaxed, a faint smile playing around her lips. 'I have been thinking about going on a river trip.' Barkus saw Lyn's eyebrows shoot up past her hairline and almost choke on her food, so he asked the question.
'Now by that, do you mean swanning down a slow-moving body of river on a barge while you're handed cool drinks by uniformed men in well-cut trousers?' Both he and Lynn laughed as she paused and pretended to indulge in a moment of imagery. 'Or do you mean kayaking on the edge of adrenaline overload?'
'I think I'll start with kayaking on the edge of adrenaline first,' Sheryl laughed. 'I think if I try to start off on the same level that I stopped at, it may not be a pretty sight.' She paused. 'I'm sure it would hilarious, just not pretty.'
'You used to kayak?' Lyn asked in amazement. 'I didnt know that!'
'One of my Mum's boyfriends taught me,' was the reply. 'When we were travelling around the Mississippi. Said I was a natural with a kayak.' Sudden, unfathomable pause. 'He was one of the good guys.' Barkus felt a gulf open under the conversation, and threw a bridge over it.
'All I know about kayaking is that when I try to get in, it keeps dumping me out, so I have respect for anyone who can control those things.' He was rewarded with a bright smile. 'What about you Lyn, what are your plans for the Summer?'
'I have no idea,' she admitted. 'It depends on,' sigh. 'A couple of factors.' A different gulf threatened to yawn open.
'Alright then,' Barkus switched conversational gears fast. 'Here's a scenario; you have a month with no money worries, no transportation worries, no worries at all in fact. All you have to do is exactly and only what you really want to do.'
'One full month.' Sheryl stared into the middle distance thoughtfully.
'I think I would finally take a dictaphone, a guitar and sketchbook and travel around recording peoples stories and songs,' she said at last.
'And the sketchbook?'
'I'd go to the places where the land needs repairing and practise making designs to make the peoples lives better,' she mused.
'You'd never get past the first village,' Lynn laughed. 'Five years on you'd still be there tweaking how the flowers come up.' Sheryl laughed with her, ruefully.
“You may have something with that,' she admitted. 'But thats what I have to get better at. Knowing when the planning stage is done and its time to get the shovel out.'
'Would you be involved in the implementations?' Barkus asked.
'Only if they wanted me to be.' She shrugged. 'Depends on if they'd pay me, I guess.' She paused, considering. 'Its would be really cool to travel a route, placing designs where they fit and then re-visit them as they grow and mature. I could definitely do that for the rest of my life.' She shrugged again, and lifted a fork of casserole. 'Lets get this one done first though.'
'Sounds like something worth pursuing, for sure,' Barkus nodded. 'What about you Lynn, one month.'
'Go on a tour with Sarah,' she sighed. 'I know that its hotels and terrible food and late nights and early mornings, but it's such a large part of her life and I want to see it at least once.'
'Does she know this?'
'Yes, she does. It's just that, right now circumstances are against it.' Darkness threatened, before Barkus raised his wine glass and said;
'To escaping the strait jacket of circumstance.' Three glasses clinked.
The next afternoon, Barkus gave his presentation to the Council. And while he spoke, Barkus watched the Council with an experienced eye. He noticed which ones were making notes, which ones were comparing Sheryl's design to current pictures of the square and which ones had sat back with arms crossed and were watching him. Annie spent as much time watching the faces of the Council as she did the presentation. Barkus watched the reactions and modulated his talk as he went, emphasising cost-effectiveness here, convenience there, the beauty of nature here and public concerts there. He needed them to get on board with this so he could build the damn thing and get the hell out. Get back to his normal life.
'In short, ladies and gentlemen I present to you a design which is a prudent investment into the future of your town,' he finished. Annie leaned forward.
'Thank you Mr. Barkus for that interesting presentation,' she said, then turned to look down the table. 'Questions for Mr. Barkus?'
'I want to know what Paul's opinion of this is,' said a red-faced man sullenly, Richard, Barkus remembered. 'Has anyone asked him?'
'He's not back for another week,' a woman with a butterfly scarf said coldly, Barkus thought she was called Brenda. 'Are you proposing we put this off until he gets back? That mess his truck left.' Brenda motioned irritably at Barkus. 'Is right in front of my shop. It looks awful, I dont want to leave the decision for another week, I want it fixed.'
'I agree with Dick,' said a sharp-faced woman. Alice possibly? Barkus hazarded. Or Miriam? 'I think we should wait and see what Paul thinks, he's the one with experience.'
Barkus looked at Annie as the hubbub rose between the camps. She nodded, very slightly.
'I would like to know exactly who this Paul is and just what his "experience" is,' Barkus said clearly. Not shouting but in a tone and with a depth that had cut through building sites. The arguing councillors subsided and turned back to him. 'If he's the one with experience here.' Richard frowned.
'He's, he's a resident of the town and runs a successful business here,' was the reply.
'I hear he's also the one who designed the square the last time it was being done.'
'Well, under direction of this Council,' Richard began, but Barkus steamrolled right over him, hiking the arrogance level up several more notches.
'So who decided that it was to be a useless ornamentation, you or Paul?' Several tried to interrupt but Barkus was on a roll. 'Though using the word ornamentation is a bit much since it's uglier than an alcoholic on his last beer before Rehab.'
'Now wait a minute,' Alice/Miriam began.
'So this successful businessman and resident and relative to fully half of the Council,' Cough, uncomfortable shifting. 'Turned a perfectly acceptable space that was used by most everyone in the town for a variety of purposes into that ugly waste of ground.' Many on the Council flinched under his baleful stare, though Annie was covering an enormous grin. 'Let me make something clear to all of you right now. I may be here under court order but I am a professional and I will not have my name tied to anything that is not functional, aesthetically pleasing or preferably both. Unlike your Paul, I have a high-profile reputation to maintain and I will not carry forward with a project that I feel is doomed to fail. The design in front of each of you will use local materials and local labour, it fulfills the needs of the community and will create a space that your town can be proud of.' Barkus scanned the Council, most of the previous protesters seemed subdued but he had now caught the attention of a man who had spent most of the meeting with his hands clasped over his belly and his eyes closed. Now, he watched Barkus with keen, but poker-faced interest. 'Let me make myself clear here, I will not wait for Paul's opinion and I will not use his previous design as a template. I will only be a part of a design that is all-encompassing, that is functional, that is easy to maintain, in short one that works. And if I have to I will go back to the Judge and I will put forward the case that I have done as much as I have been able to do with the people I had to work with and I will place the responsibility firmly on all of your shoulders and don't you forget that.' The previously uninterested man smirked slightly, but Barkus was watching the others. 'In short, ladies and gentleman of the Council, unless you give me a design that suits this town better than the one you have in front of you, you will not have a John Barkus-built Square' he spat the last words like bullets and watched them hit home.
There was still some fight in his opposition though, made clear by Miriam/Alice saying; 'Speaking of high-profile reputations Mr. Barkus, we have done research on you and have come across some very interesting incidences in your history.' Barkus saw Annie's eyes widen slightly and his mind raced for a way to stave off the inevitable. However, he was saved by the previously un-interested man leaning forward slightly and cutting the speaker off.
'Miriam, I really don't feel that line of questioning is relevant to this meeting,' he rumbled. 'And furthermore,' he continued over her protests. 'As Mr. Barkus has said he is fulfilling his obligation under a Court Order and he is doing a remarkable and professional job of it. Any discussion of his personal life is one better suited for hairdressers and barber shops and not for an official Council Meeting.' The man's tone was civil but Miriam flushed like she had been slapped, and indeed some of the other Council members did too. Several looked like they would like to continue arguing but the man had taken the wind completely out of their sails. Annie cleared her throat as her gaze flicked around the Council table
'I move that Council vote on whether Mr. John Barkus should be awarded permission to go ahead with the design for our Square as he as submitted with allowances for minor changes as approved by the Square Steering Committee.'
'Seconded,' said the saviour of the design, his gaze fixed on Barkus.
'Ready for the vote Council members?' Barkus found himself holding his breath. 'All in favour?' 9 hands went up, including a few that had been initially in the opposition. 'All opposed?' 3 hands went up, Miriam looked furious. 'The ayes have it.' Annie looked at Barkus with the fire of long-delayed triumph shining in her eyes. 'Barkus, go build us a square to be proud of.'
'I still cant believe it,' Sheryl gasped, practically skipping as they walked into Jim's Place with the sunset. 'It's actually going to happen.' Lynn smiled and Sarah laughed and hugged her.
'It really is,' she agreed. 'And it's going to be tough and exasperating and involve a lot of negotiation and compromise before it's done. But for right now,' she continued as she pushed open the doors. 'It's party time!'
Wednesday, 20 May 2015
When Staff Seargeant Stewarts walked in for his mid-shift coffee 20 minuted later, he found the group holding their sides as Sarah recounted stories from her latest tour.
'...And then, wait wait wait, it gets better,' she was saying as he picked up his coffee from Mary with a nod. 'So after all of that, the flat tire and the broken timing belt and the ticket and everything, we still had to get to the gig cos I still had to get on stage and make people laugh and you know, get paid. So we limp into the parking lot of the theatre and there's a team of security guards around the place cos the show is sold-out, booked solid. And I'm thinking, I cant find my I.D. badge.' Groans. '”They're not going to let me in, I'm going to be shut out of my own show. This is the end”. Come on in Mike, good to see you.'
'Good to see you too Sarah, please go on,' Stewarts said, taking a seat at the table. 'I'm already hooked, keep going.'
'So all of this is running through my head and I'm starting to panic. But luckily, the head of security was a big fan, he told me afterwards that he had pulled some serious string to work my gig, so when I showed up at the stagedoor, he recognised me straight away and whisked me inside. I was that close, the audience was already sitting down when I arrived at the door. The theatre head was having kittens but they stuck a bottle of water in my hand and shoved me out on stage just in time. And that's when I realised that my shirt was torn, my clothes were covered in grease and mud and my hair was an absolute mess. The audience was clapping their welcome and this was it, fly or die.' She paused dramatically and the Seareant's eyes darted around, noting the rapt attention of the little group. 'So I turned to the audience and I said, “Winnipeg, I heard your mosquitoes were bad, boy was that an understatement. Just look at what they did to me on the way here!” They laughed, and I flew!' The group laughed heartily on cue and Sarah beamed. Mike smiled to himself and sat back with his coffee.
Mary did another tour with her coffee jug and smiled to hear the group head down yet another conversational road.
“No, I mean it's inherently doomed to fail. The moral or edcational status of it's followers has little to do with it over more than the immediate short term.”
“What?” Barkus was clearly baffled, but lifted his coffee mug for Mary to refill.
“Okay,” Sarah adjusted her seat, flipped hair out of her eyes and spread her hands as Mary went around the table. “I propose that the true underlying principle of organised religion is that of elitism and superiority. You have a system of salvation that hinges you belonging to a certain group ideology, right? The door is firmly shut against everyone else. Everyone who by reason of having the wrong language, educational background, childhood indoctrination, even the wrong time and place of birth. All of those billlions of people, the door is locked solidly against them. Once you have a system so elitist and that panders to the human ego so thoroughly and contains as part of its framework the justification to act inhumanly towards other human beings, because after all, they're sinners beyound redemption anyway, well, any kind of atrocity becomes easy because they're not really people. They dont really count. And this is for damn-near every organised religion going by the way, picking which one to concentrate on is just splitting hairs.”
“So what are you saying?” Barkus asked, puzzled.
“Oh, just that its not faith that's causing the pain. Faith is a beautiful part of the human condition. Humans need faith to get up in the morning, if only faith that today will be better than yesterday. Where people go wrong is in thinking that faith and religion are comparable.”
“Okay, I didnt know I held that asumption,” Barkus laughed, looking at the rest of the around the table. In doing so, he caught sight of a man staring, no glaring, over at them. He was eating breakfast in betwen snorting like a bull. Gus, who was facing that way, winked and made a conciliatory gesture. Sol was frowning at the ceiling, Lynn had stars in her eyes and the law enforcement representatives were siting with their mouths open, coffee forgotten.
Sarah smiled, “Most people don't realise it,” she said. “Until it's pointed out and that I fear, says several things all at once and none of them good. But I digress.” In the breath she took to collect her thoughts, Barkus shot a glance towards the angry man's table, now wiping his mouth and musing over his coffee, apparently paying them no attention at all.
“For the sake of this conversation, let's say faith and belief are free emotions, they arise in the human heart without any control from the brain. They either happen or they don't. Religion is a different thing. Religion happens when a group of people sit down and decide on a set of behavioural norms and group ideologies around an item of faith. They then make it look like the same thing. If you follow the rules you'll receive faith and if you have faith you must obey the rules. It's a parlour trick, one that has worked for a very long time, but still a parlour trick.”
“You're calling the Church a parlour trick?”
“I'd go so far as to say a con-job in fact,” Sarah seemed unruffled by George's incredulous expresion. “Especially for you and your heritage George, if you don't mind me saying. Groups of elites dictating from their ivory towers how the masses should behave in every situation in thier lives and they get paid for it. It's a great gig if you can get it, you have to admit.” Barkus's eyes darted back to the angry man's table, but he was scribbling furiously in a notebook.
“But you hold that faith is seperate,” Gus questionned.
“Completely, absolutely seperate,” Sara nodded. “I would even go so far as to say that faith may be our saving grace, if only we could get religion the hell out of the way.”
“But how can faith be our saving grace if you deny the role of religion to harness it?” Sol asked. Sarah spread her hands.
'Why does faith need to be harnessed? Why does it need to be a tool for division? Or suppression? Instead of unity and the aknowledgement of what makes us actually unique in the Animal Kingdom?”
The angry man paused in his scribbling, then shook his head and restarted at an even more furious pace. Now Barkus had joined in the open mouth chorus, though he couldnt help noticing a curiously elated expression on Gus's face and a darkly amused one on Sol's. Lynn's smile was huge.
“I'm sorry, but huh?” Mike said. “You're starting to sound vey hippy-ish to me now Sarah and I know that's not you. So how about getting down to the nuts and bolts of it and explain what you're actuallly trying to say in a way that this poor ol' back-water police officer can understand.” Sara put down her coffee and looked him with her head on one side for a moment.
“Allright then, but I'm going to have to pick on you a little bit to do it first.” Mike shrugged and had some coffee. “I guess we all, with the exception of Barkus, know that you're a Church-going man Seargeant, is that correct?”
“That I am, or that you know I am?” Chuckles. “Alright I'll play properly. Yes, I am a Church-going man.”
“My question is, if you had to describe the reason, the real reason why you choose to attend Church as a fully autonomous adult male, what would you describe?” To his credit, Barkus thought, the Seargeant sat back and thought about this properly, instead of going for the flippant reply.
“Now, this doesnt happen everytime,” he stated at last. “But sometimes, I get this feeling of, connection I guess, of peace that made of stillness, of a silence made of noise and it's like,” he paused slightly embarresed but, emboldened by Sara's smiling nod, he tried again. “Do you know when, you've spent every ounce of energy you got running, or playing sports or.” He grinned. “Any other physical activity that adults may care to name.” Laughter. “And just after that, when you're getting your breath back, and your muscles are screaming at you but you dont care because your mind is completely clear and it feels like the edges of yourself go on forever and you're filled with, the feeling of fantastic.” He joined the laughter. “Pure fantastic-ness is filling every cell in your body and your mind is clear and free.” He paused. “Make that a PG image and that's the reason why I go to Church.”
“And that's faith,” Sara said excitedly. “That feeling of connection and benevolence and being re-charged from exhaustion, that's faith. All of the constraints and rigidness surrounding that feeling, that's religion. And the sad part is, religion started as a way of protecting that feeling and giving the faithful a reliable place to find that feeling and instead became the valve that choked it off by supplanting the search for that true moment of bliss with the search for sin i.e. breaking the rules.”
“You saying we dont need rules missy?” George asked in mock-severity.
“I'm saying we dont need the burden of sin, we dont need the fear-mongering and sure as hell dont need the shame.”
“I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that you were raised Catholic,” Barkus observed. Sarah nodded as she took a sip of coffee.
“I tell people I'm RC, was Roman Catholic, now Recovering.” The men guffawed at this while Lynn winked at Sarah and squeezed her hand.
“How's the burden of shame doing?” Sarah looked sideways at Lynn mischeivously.
“Getting lighter every day.” Lynn punched her on the shoulder as the table burst into laughter again.
“Alright then,” Barkus said later. “What else would you describe under the heading of faith?” Sarah looked at him quizzically. They were alone at the table, George had checked the time and hurried off home, the Sherrif had begun his rounds, and Sol and Gus had their own errands to run. Lynn had “gone ahead home” and Barkus was on watch duty to “make sure she gives me a half-hour headstart.” He hadn't asked, just agreed to do as he was told in exchange for a future muffin. The Cafe had a few occupied tables but it wasnt as busy. Angry man was still there, on the third page of his notebook, still writing though at a much slower pace.
“You're gonna have to catch me up there Barkus,” she replied as she got up to refill her mug from the jug on the counter.
“You said, “for the purposes of this conversation, lets say that faith and belief are emotions”. Oh thank you,” he added and held out his coffee cup in answer to her profferment. “What would you call them for the purposes of another conversation?”
“Like this one for example?” Barkus shrugged. She doctored her coffee and sat staring into space for a moment. “Okay,” she said at last. “Since this is a one-on-one, I'd like to try something if you dont mind.”
“Do I have to stand up?”
“Nope, stay right you are, exactly as you are. There's an exercise called the 'Conscious Breath'.”
“Exercise? I thought I didnt have to get up,” Barkus joked nervously, though he had no idea why. Sarah's face held an amused expression.
“Don't worry,” she told him. “You wont be doing anything embaressing, though you might find it easier to close your eyes the frst few times.”
“Oh, okay.” Barkus scanned the room, no-one was looking their way, though he got the feeling that the angry man was trying to watch them out of the corner of his eye. Annoyance flashed, what was that fat idiot doing?
“Never mind him,” Sara said in a low voice and Barkus looked back at her. “Dude in the too-small ballcap? You'll get angry people everywhere, you can't let them into your head.” Barkus glanced towards the other table again and Sara laughed. “Come on, I'll teach you something that's pretty damn handy when dealing with those kinds of people.”
“Is funny music required?”
“Nope.” Barkus sighed and put down his cup, straightened up in the chair and folded his hands in his lap.
“Okay then, lead me through it.”
“So fatalistic!” Sarah laughed again. “But okay. What I want to you to do is breath in through your nose, but when you do, you must follow the path of the air as it goes into your nostrils, down the back of your throat and into your lungs.” Barkus opened an eye and looked at her quizzically. “I know what it sounds like, just trust me. And when you exhale, follow the air back out from your lungs, up your throat and out.”
“And what does this do?” Barkus asked as he tried to follow the insructions without feeling like a bit of a fool.
“It puts you solidly in the moment, where no fears or worries can touch you.” Barkus looked at her sternly. “No seriously! Think about it, all your stress and worries and fears and doubts and regrets are in one of two places: the future or the past, yes?”
“So when you are able to concentrate on the feeling of the breath you are taking right now, you are placing yourself completely in the present and none of the other stuff matters. It can't touch you.”
“Is that I'm trying to do?” Barkus laughed and Sara grinned.
“Okay so I'm not the greatest teacher. But that's the general idea, yes. When you concentrate solely on how it feels when you breath, you calm your mind and allow yourself time to think.”
“Oh, is that all?”
“Actually no,” Sara deadpanned. “The extra rush of oxygen increases the amount of oxygen in your brain which allows you to make better decisions. The break from the ego, the part of us that is the eternal shit-stirrer, lowers your stress levels when practised on a regular basis and helps lower the related doctor's bills. And,” she paused, looking at him with her head on one side again.
“And?' Barkus prompted.
“It makes you realise certain things about yourself,” she said slowly. “It makes you see things clearly, forces you to re-visit assumptions and beliefs.” She laughed suddenly. “It also helps you drop some baggage, some big-time baggage. Baggage that you didnt even know you had.” Barkus stared at her.
“Okay,” he said at last. “Lead me through this again.”
Barkus jumped and his eyes snapped open as a fist slammed onto the table. The angry man was looming over them, lit with righteous indignation and glowering fiercely at Sarah. Who in return merely took a long, slow breath and sipped her coffee. Barkus realised what she was doing as she gestured to an empty chair.
“Please sit,' she invited. “Since you are so obviously eager to join the conversation you might as well.”
“I'll not sit with the likes of you,” the man growled. Barkus shifted in his chair, watching the man's fists. He was dimly aware that while there was still a buzz of conversation in the cafe, everyone was keeping an eye on the goings-on. “You heretic! You witch! You burner of souls!”
“Well not today,” Sarah admitted. “I left my matching kebab skewers in the last hotel fireplace. They're the very devil to replace, you know.” Barkus choked back the laughter, there was no telling what would happen. Though the fanatic didnt appear to notice as he drew himself up with dark relish and pointed to his vacated table.
“I was sitting over there and I heard what you said, you Satan's whore! How dare you attempt to turn people from God!”
“Clearly you didn't actually,” Sara replied calmly.
“Yes I did! I heard every filthy lie you said!”
“I try not to lie, its habit-forming.” There was, Barkus noticed, actually foam on the mans lips.
“You said that the faithful are fools and are being conned!”
“So your Church is your God?” came the quiet but razer-sharp question.
“You have no understanding...” But Sarah cut off the attempted recovery using a level tone that cut through every voice in the place..
“No, you have none. You had neither properly heard nor understood the conversation you so rudely and blatantly eavsdropped. I would never try to take someone's faith from them.”
“Liar! You said...”
“Religion and faith are not the same thing.” The mugs rattled to Sarah's emphatic denial. The stranger's brows climbed down his nose and her empty hands rose as if cupping two spheres. “Look at the Sun and the Moon. One,” her right hand rose. “Gives warmth and light and supports and encourages life freely as part of its physical construct. The other,” her left hand rose. “Is a pale reflection, serving a purpose, yes, but in no way, shape or form capable of supplanting the first.” Right hand rose. “The Sun is faith.” Left hand. “The Moon is religion.” Right, left, right, left. “Not the same thing.” Her hands dropped. “Which of course leaves you in quite a pickle, doesnt it?” The stranger blinked at the apparent change in direction.
“What do you mean?” he demanded gruffly.
“Things should be known by their true names, don't you agree?” she said suddenly.
“To make sure that things are kept straight, for a little less confusion about important things that trip up a poor soul, don't you agree?”
“Agree with what?”
“That things should be known by their true names. Don't you agree?”
“I, I guess.”
“Oh, good. Let me start then.” The stranger goggled as Sarah rose unstoppably from her chair to her full height. 'Ye shall be known to all by thy true name,' she boomed, fury in her eyes. Her arm swung up to point directly at the man. 'I name thee, Idolater'. The man's eyes went wide and he plunked down on a chair, pale-faced. 'You see, I have no fear of the afterlife,' she growled, looming over him. 'Either I'll have to apologize to God's face for not believing in Him/Her, or I don't. It's not up to me either way, so I just get on with it and do what I can to make life a little easier to bear for other people. But you...' The fanatic cringed back as she planted her knuckles on the table and leaned right in until they were nose to nose. Barkus leaned back as the ferocity in Sara's glare threatened to set the air on fire. 'You will die and stand before your God in all his awe-full glory and explain why each and every day you shattered the 1st Commandment. Yes, that is what you have been doing. You've turned from the beauty and wonder of an incredible world that you profess to believe was made by His Will and His Word, down to the very last crumb and you've instead hidden your face in a book written by pens held in fleshy hands. You sir, are an Idolater of the highest degree. With every breath, with every beat of your poor, confused little heart, you have placed a human book of words above your One True God.' She stared into the sweating man's eyes, then said with relish. 'You, are going to burn.'
She drew herself back up to her full height, pulled a note out of her pocket and laid it on the table, nodded at Barkus and left without a single backward glance. The religious fanatic goggled at her, then at Barkus, before scuttling back to his own table, and then out the door, taking care to go in the opposite direction of Sarah. Conversation started up again but with shocked laughter riding through the undercurrent. Mary walked over with the jug of coffee.
“I'm I glad I didnt miss that,” she said in slightly awed tones. “I hope she can take that on stage, that'd be a show to see.”
Tuesday, 19 May 2015
He heard the crackle of fires surrounding him, felt the heat under his feet, the smoke stinging his eyes. He was yelling desperately, trying to force his body to move faster when the very air seemed to be holding him back. A crack under him and he was falling, hurtling into a fire that reached hungry arms up to claim him...
Barkus opened his eyes and found himself on the floor, wrapped so thoroughly in bedsheets that his only recourse was to wriggle, worm-like out the top of the cocoon. He was in the apartment above Mary's Cafe, and it was nearly dawn. The place was really very nice. It had been clearly designed for 2 people who liked to socialize. One permanent bedroom, a guest room/office, a compact but pleasantly functional kitchen and a sizeable, open-plan living area. Large bedroom windows showed the line of brightness that signified the coming sun and the birds outside were celebrating the new day.
Barkus stared around the simple, yet comfortably furnished room, his heart still pounding in his throat, the sweat cooling on his skin. He'd had nightmares before of course, but it was so vivid, so real. It was like he had really been in a house fire, but he had never been in one...
Well said a recently-awakened voice. You haven't, but your family has...
Barkus jumped at the slam of a door under his feet. In the Cafe below, the usual noises of opening up an establishment for the day began, including several voices raised in greeting. Barkus took a swift, scalding hot shower to chase away the demons, dressed hurriedly and clattered down the apartment steps, turning the corner to the entrance of Mary's just as Mary herself was turning the sign to 'Open'.
'Oh good morning Barkus,' she smiled as he walked in. 'Did you sleep well?'
'For the most part,' he replied, then he saw who else was there. 'Sol! Gus! How are you two doing?'
'Oh cant complain now Barkus,' Sol replied with a wide grin as Barkus made his way over to them. 'The sun's rising, everything else is a bonus.' Barkus paused in the act of pulling out a chair after an inviting gesture from Gus.
'That's a pretty good way of looking at it,' he admitted, sitting down. 'I have to say that I never thought of it that way.'
'It's a different approach, that's for sure.'
'So how's Barkus this morning?,' Gus rumbled. Barkus opened his mouth to deliver the usual inane answer, then shut it again. Instinctively, he felt again that Gus brooked no lies.
'In need of a working dreamcatcher,' he said instead. They waited politely, Mary quietly deposited a cup of coffee by his elbow, for a moment it seemed like there was a crossroads looming, then he shook his head and it passed. 'I don't know,' he mumbled. 'It's a funny thing, dreaming.'
'That it is,' Sol nodded as Barkus took refuge in his coffee. 'It used to be believed that a dream was always true, not even allegorical, just plain true. Then it was thought that they had to interpreted through standard texts and translators. At some point they were dismissed as nothing more than images and random leakages while the days events were being filed.' He shrugged, while Barkus stared right through a picture of a bespectacled Dave Brubeck at his piano. 'I'm sure tomorrow they'll find something else to reason them away.'
'You sound ever so slightly acerbic,' Barkus pointed out, dragging himself back into the here and now.
'Do I?' Sol seemed surprised, then he shrugged again. 'I suppose I prefer to see dreams as slightly more significant than the 'random filing' theory.'
'How so?' Sol pursed his lips and gazed at the ceiling, Barkus realized that the spot he was staring at corresponded to where his bed was upstairs, but shrugged it off as coincidence.
'Certain things weigh heavily on the human mind,' he said slowly. 'Unfulfilled expectations, unfinished goodbyes, regrets, pain of all kinds, they all pull on the subconscious regardless of whether or not a person is actually aware of it. Dreams are many things and one of the functions is to allow the unconscious mind to,' he waved his coffee cup. 'Leave a note on the door I guess. Though sometimes,' he laughed. 'It's more like breaking the door down, grabbing the conscious mind by the scruff of the neck and demanding it's attention.' Barkus laughed weakly, but he remembered the feeling of terror as the boards broke under his feet to pitch him into the flames. His hand began to shake.
At that moment, Gus rose to fetch a fresh jug of cream from where Mary was filling them for the day. As he did so, his shadow fell across Barkus and Barkus felt a moment of calm. He took a huge, shuddering breath, then snuck a look to see if either of the other two men had noticed his discomposure. Both appeared engrossed in their tasks, Gus almost replacing his coffee with cream and Sol scanning the breakfast menu on the wall.
'Would you guys like something to eat this morning?' Mary asked, bustling over. 'The grill's warmed up and the eggs are fresh, so what can I get you?'
'I'll have pancakes, please Mary,' Sol said. 'Just three, loaded with fruits and chocolate please.'
'That sounds pretty good actually;' Barkus mused. 'Make that 2 orders please Mary. And an orange juice.'
'And I'll have the melted cheese and ham on brown bread please,' said Gus. 'Thanks Mary.' And with another smile, she was off to the kitchen.
'So I hear you're almost ready to present to Council,' Sol said, matter of factly. Barkus grinned, what else did he expect?
'Nearly, I have to get to grips with the material first. When there are, entrenched interests there are entrenched ideas ,' he paused, Sol and Gus were both grinning at him as he tried to stay diplomatic. 'And those can be hard to...'
'De-trench?' Gus suggested. 'You're not far wrong there, though the issue is more that while the Council would love a 'John Barkus Built' square, they'll want Paul Taylor to be in charge of the actual building.' Barkus thought about this. Up in the flat, there were sepia-toned pictures of the town over the last 100 or so years. When he was shown the flat yesterday, he had taken great care to memorize the section that contained the building where Paul Taylor's clothes shop was, then went back out again to look at the building as it was today. He was not struck by Mr Taylor's taste in building decoration, and said so. Both of the other men burst out laughing.
'You know,' Sol said, wiping at his eyes. 'I kinda had the feeling you'd feel that way.'
'Well, I really had better start studying then,' Barkus mused. 'Cos the best way to call someones ability into question is to catch them out in a question and never let them regain balance. And I don't feel like tottering in front of the Village Council.'
'Oh, you better be careful who hears you there Barkus,' came a new voice. Barkus twisted to see George accept a coffee from Mary and wander over to their table. He was out of uniform and as he sat down, Sol asked;
'Day off today George?'
'You know it,' George replied, putting his hat under his chair and sitting back with a sigh. 'Giving the wife a lie-in and came out for a guilty breakfast.'
'Her granola getting any better?' George put on a look of mock-offence.
'That's my wife you're talking about there buddy, her granola has always been amazing.' Pause, contemplation of coffee. 'It's the muesli that could do with some work.' Laughter.
'My wife used to put coconut flakes, nuts, berries, maple syrup and some ginger,' Barkus paused. 'And I think a pinch of salt too, all in a bowl and mix it up, put it into muffin tins, and pop them in the freezer. When they came out they were these sweet, nutty, hard snacks that went perfectly with a coffee.' Barkus paused, then glanced down at his left hand. 'Ex-wife, I mean,' he mumbled. The other men looked at him sympathetically, then George cleared his throat.
'You know,' he said thoughtfully. 'I don't like hard snacks, but a mix like that sounds like it would be really tasty along with muesli.' he paused and grimaced. 'I cant believe I just said that. She's wearing me down boys.' Mary came over with three plates and slid them in front of their owners.
'Having breakfast with Lisa today George?' George shook his head.
'Nope, giving her a break and letting her sleep in so I'll need some feeding.' Mary waited, eyebrow raised as George stared longingly at Gus's plate, then he sighed. 'You know what Lisa allows Mary, just do your best to make it interesting.'
'You know she only wants to make sure you live forever,' Mary commented, as she turned away.
'Well, if second prize is making it feel like forever, then she's certainly getting that medal.' George's smile robbed the words of sting and Barkus felt a wave of jealousy suddenly wash over him. He bent his head over his pancakes to hide it, and missed the look that flashed between Sol and Gus.
'Oh wow,' he said, mouth full. 'These pancakes are amazing!'
'Yeah,' George said morosely. 'They are. It's the high percentage of butter and cream.' Barkus paused.
'That's true' he admitted. 'But I think the nutmeg might also have something to do with it.'
'Shush there Barkus!' Mary called from the counter where she was polishing cutlery. 'Stop giving my secrets away!' George stared at Barkus.
'Nutmeg?' He twisted in his chair. 'Hey Mary, am I allowed nutmeg?'
'George, you know full well that you're allowed all flavourings except chillis and salt. It's not Lisa's fault that they're the only ones you think you like. Don't worry, Jamie's on the case and he's got taste-buds that are only half-atrophied.'
'How's Jamie working out for you?' Gus asked as Mary wandered over, the cutlery chore forgotten.
'You tell me,' she smiled. 'This morning he did everything himself from scratch.' Sol and Gus both stared down at their plates and back at her.
'So these aren't your pancakes?' Sol asked, sounding heartbroken.
'My recipe, my kitchen, Jamie's hands on the whisk.' Mary smiled. 'He learns fast that kid, he gets a recipe perfect after 2 tries and by the fourth he's bringing it home to see how far he can take it.'
'How's his Pop doing?'
'Better now that his son makes sure he's eating properly. But he's not walking as much as the doctors tell him and that's making him seize up.'
'Well, lets be honest here Mary,' Gus rumbled. 'Where they live there's nowhere to walk to, just out and back and James Hornet has never seen the point in that. He may have lost an arm, but it hasn't changed him that much.'
'And old men like James Hornet will never 'make himself a burden' as he puts it.' She sighed and turned as the door opened to admit 3 more customers. 'So unless there's a purpose for him to take walks besides his health, he's not going to take them.' With a last glance at the volumes of their coffee cups, she went to look after the 3 newcomers.
'Where do they live?' Barkus asked. A phrase from last nights study had popped up during the conversation.
'You know that road going between Jim's Place and the blue building? About 3 miles out that way,' George said.
'Huh.' Silence reigned for a few moments. 'How many people live out that way?' Sol, Gus and George regarded each other for a moment.
'Over the whole road?' George shrugged. 'About 200 people, but spread out over 10 or 15 square miles. You know, clusters of related families, gap of couple miles, more clusters.'
'But they're not all on the road neither,' Gus added. 'Most are a half-mile and more further back. For some, half the way into town is getting off the driveway.'
'Huh,' Barkus said again, with a far-away look in his eye.
'Why, whatcha thinking about? Thanks Mary,' George added as Mary slid a bowl and small plate in front of him. 'Oh wow, what is this?'
'Muesli, fruit and yoghurt, with vanilla and maple syrup,' she told him. 'With a side of sliced pears and Jamie's special fruit cake.' George raised an eyebrow.
'”Special”?' Mary laughed, then lowered her voice.
'Gluten free, just don't blab cos no-one will want to try it and it's too good to be refused.'
'Well,' George sighed. 'Okay, I'll give it a try.'
'We appreciate you taking the risk,' she replied solemnly, before heading away again. George regarded the cake slice suspiciously, then turned his attention to the bowl.
'So what were you thinking about?' Sol asked Barkus, who was grinning at George's examination of his breakfast.
'Hmm? Oh, sorry. What was I thinking about when?' Gus chuckled, his melted sandwich had already disappeared, now his finger was chasing the last of the salad dressing.
'When you were asking about the road past Jim's Place?' Sol hinted.
'Oh my, this is good,' George enthused suddenly. He had finally taken the plunge and a spoonful from the bowl, now he was staring into it with the expression of a man on the verge of a revelation. He looked up into three bemused expressions. 'I'm sorry, please continue.'
Amidst chuckles, Barkus said; 'I want to ask Sheryl what she could come up with for that road.' The three other men looked him quizzically. 'Just out of interest,' he said, a shade defensively.
'Sheryl Monroe,' Sol mused, while Gus regarded Barkus with an unreadable expression. 'I been hearing some strange things regarding...'
George coughed and held his napkin to his mouth. He coughed again and this time managed to clear the problem. He looked up.
'Sorry, he said for the second time in a minute. 'It seems that tasty muesli is a dangerous thing, liable to choke you if eaten too fast.'
'I wonder is that the first time anyone's said that?' Barkus asked as he got up to re-fill his cup from the jug on the counter. Mary was at the other end of the restaurant, entertaining a small, hyperactive child while it's parents tried to doze over their coffee. There was a mirror here and Barkus saw George shoot Sol an annoyed, meaningful look, while Sol raised his shoulders in the universal “who, me?” gesture. When he got back to the table, all was normal, though Gus was regarding the ceiling with a repressed smile and folded arms.
'Well,' Barkus said as he sat down again. 'I've been reading the books she lent me and they're fascinating. I want to see some different applications though,' he paused, he had lost them. 'Do you guys have any idea what I'm talking about?'
About ten minutes later, Barkus realised that he had gotten himself into a hole, but was momentarily saved by Sol looking towards the door and breaking into a large smile.
'Sarah! Welcome back my dear, it's been far too long!' he boomed, standing to give the tall stranger a hug. She was so much taller than him in fact, that his face ended in her breasts, a fact that he did not seem to mind at all. She laughed a rich, warm laugh and wrapped her arms around the top of his head.
'With a welcome like that, is it any wonder I stay away so long?' Gus and George laughed as Sol emerged with a loopy grin, before standing for their hugs of welcome. Gus even lifted the woman off her feet momentarily, resulting in another thrill of laughter. Lynn, Barkus noticed, was grinning from ear to ear and her eyes sparkled as she drank in Sarah's every move. He put two and two together and was thankful that he had not embarressed himself. Then it was his turn to greet the newcomers.
Sarah turned a broadly smiling face and dark eyes on him, and he was momentarily tongue-tied. She was one of these rare people who almost created electricity with an arm gesture, who vibrated with inner purpose, and focused that energy on whoever was the subject of their attention. The fact that she was drop-dead gorgeous did not help at all. As he muttered an inane greeting to go with his handshake while Lynn introduced them, his eyes fell on a vivid red and black badge pinned low to one side of the scoop-neck top she was wearing. It had a slogan on it.
“ 'What does it mean?',” he echoed, not realising he spoke aloud until the sound of his voice hit his ears. Sarah regarded him with her head on one side, eyes sparkling. Barkus hoped he wasnt blushing as he stumbled on in embarresment. “Your badge, it says, “What does it m...?” So, what does it mean?”
“Are you completing the thought on the badge or are you asking me the meaning or purpose of the badge?” Barkus paused, the woman's face held the same expression as his younger sister's had when she was in a playful mood.
“I think I've guessed the purpose of the badge and so may have reached the meaning also.” The smallest change in her expression told him that he had won a prize so he plunged on. “I think people fill in words that they expect to see, that resonates with their frame of mind at that time. By dangling a badge like that where people are bound to look,” he was rewarded by a bark of laughter. “You have a sure-fire way of assessing a person in a short period of time.”
Sarah smiled ruefully and turned to Lynn.
“You're right,” she said to her. “I do like him despite myself.”
'Why do you want to know where she lives?'
'I have to present to the Council.' Barkus gestured to the briefcase -the papers were returned safely- and then towards the door Annie had just left by. 'I need to meet with Sheryl to make sure that I get everything straight and that she's okay with the changes I propose.' Lynn put her head on one side.
'Okay, I've a better idea then,' she said after a few seconds. 'I go get her and we all have lunch together while you two discuss it.' She looked around while Barkus' stomach growled its agreement with the plan. 'You get that round table with the red flowers and we'll be back in ten.' And she was gone.
Barkus obediently moved his coffee cup and the briefcase to the new table, then glanced around for the washrooms. Mary, the smiling owner pointed for him as she retrieved the used crockery.
On the way back, Barkus noted the framed pictures along the walls. Someone liked Jazz, that was for sure. You couldn't tell from the background music. He sat down at the new table and noted with a smile that the waitress had not only added a large jug of water and several glasses to the table, she had also replaced his half-empty, half-cold coffee cup with a new, full one. He sipped at the fresh coffee and looked around for more pictures. In so doing, he absently noticed that his seat gave him a perfect view of the entire interior.
In fact, he mused. If anyone were to come in from any point of entrance, I'd see them and I could leave through 3 other points of exit He thought for a moment, then switched seats so that he sat at an oblique angle to the first seat. He had barely gotten comfortable when Lynn entered, just ahead of Sheryl. The woman was pale, but she seemed determined.
'Good morning.' Barkus stood, but didn't move around the table as they walked over.
'Good morning,' Sheryl replied, not quite looking at him. She gravitated to the 'perfect view' seat as Lynn moved to the one opposite Barkus but near enough to Sheryl to give moral support if necessary. They all sat down.
'So, Lynn tells me you need to modify my design.' Sheryl said it in a matter-of-fact way, but Barkus saw her white knuckles.
'In minor ways,' he replied soothingly. He slid the papers out of the briefcase again and spread the relevant pages in front of her.
Lynn sat back and looked for Mary, but she was already on the way over with a fresh jug of coffee. She made small talk and asked for menus, then looked at the other two. Barkus was using a capped pen to illustrate whatever he was saying. Sheryl was engrossed in the discussion and was waving her own pen in time to her comments.
'There you go Lynn,' the waitress handed her some menus.
'Thanks Mary.' Mary nodded and went to see to a young family that had just walked in. Barkus looked up.
'Good idea Lynn,' he said and took the menu that she offered. 'I am starving.' He checked his watch. 'Oh wow, no wonder. Its past 11 o'clock and I haven't eaten anything yet.'
'You haven't had breakfast?' both female voices asked in unison, then they looked at each other and laughed.
'You two are definitely best friends,' Barkus observed. 'But to answer your questioning, no I have not. The motel doesn't exactly run a 5 star kitchen.'
'You're at the Motel?' Sheryl sounded surprised. 'Oh I think you can do better than that, don't you think so Lynn?'
'Absolutely, Mary rents out the apartment upstairs, I think its empty at the moment.' They turned expectant eyes on him and Barkus coughed to hid the sudden laugh.
'Thank you ladies, I must say that the thought of having breakfast here in the mornings does appeal to me.' He meant it, the place had a certain charm about it.
'Ready to order?' Mary bustled up.
'Well, I know what I want,' Barkus began as both Lynn and Sheryl scanned the menu guiltily. 'I'll take the Big Breakfast, over easy, ham, home-fries, whole grain toast.' He waited while she jotted that down. 'And Lynn and Sheryl tell me that you have a room to rent.'
'Oh yes, do you need a place to say?' Mary asked, in the act of taking back the menu.
'He's at the Motel,' Lynn supplied before Barkus could say anything. 'And I'll take the muesli and yoghurt, and some peanut butter please.'
'Ugh, gotta get you out of there. What'll ya have Sheryl?'
'Soft boiled egg with whole grain toast and fruit preserves please Mary.'
'Sure thing, honey. Well,' Mary paused after writing the order and looked at Barkus. 'Come see me today when we both have time and I'll show you the place, deal?' The door bell tinkled as more customers came in.
'Deal.' And with a smile she was off.
Barkus stared at the ugly, weed-filled flowerbeds and his creaking stomach sent him a prophecy of what would happen if he even thought of trying to clear them himself. Well, what was the point of being a self-made man if you couldn't take advantage of it? He looked around and sighted on the gang of teenagers sprawled in the sun just off the square.
They exchanged sullen expressions and started pulling their various items together in preparation for being yelled along as he walked towards them.
'Hang on, hang on,' Barkus called out. 'I'm not gonna tell you to push off, I want to ask you something.'
'Oh yeah,' said an apparent leader non-concomitantly. 'What's that?'
'How'd you all like to earn some money?' Only after saying it did Barkus realize how dodgy that sentence could sound. But the teenagers didn't turn and flee. The leader regarded him impassively.
'And how would we be earning it, exactly?' Barkus pointed back towards the dreadful flowerbeds.
'Clear those god-awful patches of weeds. Pick up all the trash, pull out every single plant by the roots, prep the ground for planting then cover them with tarps.' Barkus hesitated, every teen had turned a thoughtful eye to the flowerbeds. 'Do you know how to prep ground for planting?' The leader nodded.
'Most of us prepped and planted those beds the last time they were done,' he mused. 'Got a day off school for it.'
'We knew they were ugly as sin when we planted them,' said someone else. 'And they've only gotten worse since.'
'So you're John Barkus I take it then,' the leader continued, looking him up and down. 'You're the one who's gonna decide what our town centre looks like then?'
'No,' Barkus replied honestly. 'The Town Council is.' The chorus of derisive snorts and hoots let Barkus know their opinion on that.
'In this town, that means the Taylors will decide it,' the leader informed him solemnly. 'And that means Paul Taylor will be the one designing it. Again.'
'Not necessarily.' Barkus eyed the group, a strange idea growing in the back of his head. 'How would you like to be a part of making sure that doesn't happen?' Now he had their attention.
Ten minutes later, Barkus was whistling his way into Jim's Place.
'Well aren't you a happy fellow,' Jim said in surprise as Barkus sat at the bar with a grin. 'Suspiciously happy I would say for a fellow who has to clear all them beds on his own.' The statement had a curve in the end.
'But not for a fellow who has just found people to do the work for him,' Barkus replied. 'Turns out that teenagers can be motivated, you just need to find the right way of presenting it to them.' And the right account balance he mused as Jim placed a beer in front of him. The leader of the teens, his name had turned out to be Gareth, was a shrewd negotiator and Barkus had been forced into promising a bit more money than he had bargained for. However, he had been assured that it would be worth it.
'Oh yeah, and whats that then, showing them the lounging options available?'
'You were a teenager once, what was the single biggest thing you wanted to do?' Jim sighed in nostalgia.
'Nancy Chase.' Laughter. 'No, I think I see what you mean. So you've convinced them that picking trash and weeding is gonna screw things up for 'Tha Man'?'
'It can be if 'Tha Man' is the chance that Paul Taylor is going to design the square again apparently.' Jim paused.
'You're a smart bastard, you know that?' Barkus grinned and saluted slightly with his beer. 'So what, they get the beds cleared out and ready to plant and then you present the design to the council and force an agreement on a time-limit basis because Paul is gone for another 2 weeks?' Barkus was surprised.
'You're pretty smart too, you know that?' Jim smiled self-deprecatingly. 'But yes, that's my devious plan to get the job done. Here's hoping it works.'
Barkus decided to leave Jim's before closing time for once and strolled along the sidewalk towards Mary's Cafe and where his suitcase now rested in the hallway of the flat above it. He meandered, taking the long way around the square, eyeing the lines and buildings and where people had made their own paths in the grass verges, leaving some pieces of concrete walkway worn and some like new. He strolled, enjoying the cooling evening air and the 2 beer buzz, not thinking of anything in particular. He idly wondered when people stopped using the square as a gathering place and the maintenance became a nuisance.' “You see,” a voice rumbled out of memory. Barkus could see him now, his father sitting in his big chair by the fire with his friends. He, the second youngest son, between the chair and the dog, afraid to move or make a sound in case he was spotted and whisked away to bed. “What I think you're doing is mixing up a Unicorn and a Draft Horse. A unicorn is this incredible, fantastical beast representing purity and innocence and vast power to a select few based on easily violated requirements. It's elusive, it's awe-inspiring, it's fake. A draft horse is this huge block of hair and muscle and it's got it's own wants and needs and it's real. You dont get much realer than scrubbing down a draft horse after a long day, I can tell you that. And they have thoughts and feelings and if you can understand that and work with them, then they will give you everything that they have. But if you start thinking otherwise they can and will do anything, up to and including kicking your fool head clean off.”
“What's your point Dave?” said Jonas Brown, a neighbour.
“My point is that unicorns dont need anything from us, they're a dream. They will always have waterfalls and forests and happy times because we imagine them there. So we can go along and do whatever we please, what we do in our real lives has no impact on the unicorn. Now the draft horse is a whole 'nother matter. It needs us. It needs us for food and water, shelter and care and maintenance, doesnt it? They are hard work, they require an investment from us not just in money but also in care and time and love and responsibility. It is our duty and our actions and choices that affect them. And at the end of the day, that long hard day, it is our attitude that determines how drudgerous it all is.”“So what are you saying?”
“Sometimes you gotta stand back and look at a situation and wonder; Is it a unicorn or is it a draft horse? Am I just thinking happy thoughts, pretending that things are ticking over properly, that it doesnt have anything to do with me? Or is it a draft horse where there are things to be done that need to be done and maybe arent being done?” '
The headlights of a truck cut into Barkus' thoughts and he realised that he was staring out over the square, chewing on his shirt collar. His chest hurt and his eyes burnt, but he smiled and blinked away the tears, then turned and walked up the stairs to the flat.