In a former life, I wrote comics – using the name Dick Foreman. These included the Vertigo series: ‘Black Orchid’, 3 issues of ‘Swamp Thing’ and 1 of ‘Hellblazer’ for DC, along with contributions to ‘2000AD’, ‘Blaam’, ‘Taboo’ and more. For 20 years, I also scripted photostories and comic strips for ‘Who Cares’ – a UK national magazine for young people in care.
I have contributed articles to Alan Moore’s ‘Dodgem Logic’ magazine, and poems to a number of publications – including ‘Roundyhouse’ and 'Obsessed with Pipework' magazines and the anthology ‘And This Global Warming'. In 2016 another poem appeared in 'Tears in the Fence' magazine, with a short story in the following issue. This launched me into a close association with 'Tears', contributing more material to subsequent issues. I am now also an associate editor, reading and assessing short story submissions, and am involved in the planning and running of an annual Tears poetry festival.
Below you'll find one story from the 'Wilful Misunderstandings' short story collection. 'Friendly Smiles and Calm Voices', was originally published in the Autumn 2014 issue of 'Confingo', a magazine publishing new fiction and poetry. Here, you'll find a slightly revised version of it, as it appeared in the book.
Click on the 'Story #2' button and you'll find 'A Shedload of Angels'. This recently written story appeared in 'Tears in the Fence' #71 (Spring 2020).
Friendly Smiles and Calm Voices
There are bright, exquisitely designed banners hanging over the entrances that catch your eye with their sunrise colours as you take the short, pleasant walk from the plane to the terminal building. ‘Welcome,’ they say. ‘Welcome to Analgesia’. And somehow – wherever you come from, whatever your tongue – the signs read in your own language.
Beyond the terminal are green shrouded hills, dotted with scintillatingly picturesque buildings designed in harmony with their surroundings. You breathe air scented with honeysuckle and a hint of some exotic spice. You feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, the absence of excess humidity, and – whatever the rigours of the journey you’ve taken to get here – you begin already to relax.
Inside the terminal, staff with friendly smiles and calm voices whisk you efficiently through minimal arrival procedures. At each stage you are offered refreshments and comforts.
Then, it seems all too soon, you are in your sleek, fuel-efficient courtesy car and driving along elegant, smoothly surfaced boulevards, your destination clearly signposted. You arrive at your accommodation with a feeling of absolute confidence. Justifiably so. It is perfectly suited to your individual needs and desires.
By the end of your first evening in Analgesia you have discovered the unique excellence of the local cuisine, the easy-going yet respectful friendliness of those whose task it is to serve you. You’ve taken a rest on the padded lounger and watched a rich and splendid sunset from your balcony. You’ve listened in the bar to talented musicians playing the lively yet gentle music of this region. You’ve considered at least some of the many and varied landmarks, sights and vistas you might check out during your stay here. Now you’re ready to sink into the soft comfort of a large and inviting bed.
You wake from a deep and restful sleep, shower, dress lightly and go in search of breakfast. Soon you’re comfortably settled at a table in an open air space that functions as both eatery and exotic garden, with a selection of fresh fruits, local breads and cereals in front of you, as you take your first delectable sip of fresh brewed coffee. And yet, for all this medium of perfectly judged luxury in which you have exulted since your arrival in Analgesia, you realise you have woken with a sense of unease.
At first you can’t place it. A bad dream whose feeling lingers though its content is forgotten? Or a premonition of the mundane and stressful life to which you will inevitably return when you’ve had all that you’ve paid for here?
Hey! Lighten up. It’s the first day of your holiday. Enjoy!
You can’t resist the sandy beach, the inviting crescent of the palm-lined bay. There are plenty of shades and tables for your convenience and from time to time tempting light refreshments are discretely served with easy grace. You gaze across the lazy waves at a clear, bright horizon and you realise that still, you do not feel entirely at ease.
What’s wrong? Your mind returns to the problem and a possible indicator presents itself. You are, it occurs to you, in a kind of heartland where the sun shines to order and all is as it should be, ever was and ever will be. But how can this be so? We are human. Our nature is flawed. How can anything of human creation be as perfectly pleasant as this?
Like an Arabian rug, this place requires an imperfection. Find that and you can relax. A bit of plumbing that doesn’t work perfectly. An irritable official who will only cooperate when bribed. An idiot on a motorbike driving too fast across the beach. Just one example will do. Then the disturbing feeling will abate.
You make a few enquiries amongst the staff and discover that minibus trips are available, and amongst them there is one to a nearby fishing village and a small town. Its purpose is to give the curious visitor a sense of life as it is lived in the communities here, outside of the tourist-oriented aspects of the Analgesian economy. It all sounds educative and worthwhile, though you don’t doubt that it will be a little stage-managed at least.
That would be flaw enough. A bit of obvious play-acting.
So a driver whisks you and a few other more thoughtful tourists off in a luxurious vehicle (with cocktail bar and videogame consoles) to the dainty little port of Aspiri and the charming market town of Ibupro. There you discover that the fishing folk are all happily synched into a smoothly running workers’ cooperative which distributes wealth equitably throughout the community. In the town you hear of similar enterprises and their success. From praise for the government’s provision of exemplary medical and educational services to enthusiasm for a range of colourful cultural activities, you speak to no one who does not appear to be genuinely happy and contented with their lot. If this is a performance, you can only say ‘bravo’ to the performers.
On your second night you do not sleep so well. You are content enough with your first day’s activity. It has been good to get a sense of life here outside the holidaymakers’ bubble. You’ve nothing but respect for Analgesia’s loving and resourceful people. But this ‘just right’ quality to everything you encounter is beginning to feel oppressive. There’s something in you that wants to stir it up, to disturb the placid surface of these waters and see what lurks below.
It seems curious, in the most comfortable bed you’ve ever had the opportunity to occupy, that you toss and turn through much of the night. But the time of your wakefulness is not spent idly. You conceive of a number of experiments to be conducted the following day.
The experiments, however, fail to provide the result you seek. You cruelly and vindictively insult a waiter, only to find that he responds with such winning wit and unaffected good humour that you end up apologising and offering to buy him a drink.
That lunchtime you drink heavily and rapidly until you are incapably drunk. This will surely cause some stress, you think, as thought itself becomes incoherent. Just then your friend the waiter approaches you and offers you a drug, which he says is legal in Analgesia and acts with alcohol in a way that restores calm and capacity but enhances the euphoria to the point of ecstasy. It sounds irresistible, and once you’ve taken it, proves so delightfully effective that you completely forget the remaining experiments you planned.
It does occur to you the next day that if you simply relaxed, chilled out, accepted the place for what it apparently is, you could have the finest holiday of your life. The experience would rub off on you and you would return home happier and contented. Perhaps the world has a great deal to learn from the exemplary inhabitants of Analgesia.
No! You baulk at this blissed out thinking, no doubt engendered by yesterday’s drug ingestion. It just can’t be true and you’d be a complete fool to let yourself buy the lie. Something needs to be done to expose it, something drastic. And soon – so you can get it over with and then relax.
But what? The answer comes to you swiftly. All it requires is a bit of research on the Internet and a series of purchases at some of the shops you observed in Ibupro on the minibus trip. You are not by nature a criminal or violent person, so it must be done with care.
Some hours later you return to your accommodation with the requisite chemical fertiliser, a small can of diesel and the other equipment you need. You feel a little nervous, unsurprisingly. You’ve never made a bomb before.
But the instructions make it sound quite simple and the target you’ve identified is a public memorial, well away from any habitation. It will be an act of vandalism, no more, but the slogans you intend to spray paint in the vicinity should stir up ill feeling, enough to disrupt the façade.
Obviously from what you’ve observed, the response will – in the main – be calm and rational. But there should be a degree of outrage. And people seldom retain their better nature when outraged. All you need is a little glimpse of the crazy edge of the Analgesian psyche.
You are just re-reading the print-out notes on fertiliser bombs when you hear a firm and urgent knock at your door.
Through the reinforced glass window you can see the airport and the green shrouded hills beyond. The sun still shines brightly, but you have been gently yet firmly advised to remain in this room until the arrival of the flight that will take you home.
Everything, from your discrete arrest at the resort to the serving of the deportation papers, has been done with the utmost civility. Officials with friendly smiles and calm voices have whisked you through the minimal legal procedures. At every stage you have been offered refreshments and comforts.
It has been quietly and clearly explained how your good friend the waiter had reported your increasingly erratic behaviour to the authorities and you have been under observation for the last 24 hours. They are quite used to this sort of thing in Analgesia. They recognise that a certain proportion of their valued visitors will react in the way that you have. Not only do they recognise this, but they show a fine understanding and even a degree of sympathy for your motivations.
Nevertheless, they obviously cannot permit you to go through with your plan. You or anyone like you. Since there is no crime whatsoever in Analgesia, they are able to devote their security forces exclusively to this kind of problem and invariably, as they like to put it, ‘nip it in the bud’ before any unpleasantness occurs.
Shortly before your plane arrives, you dine for one last time on the exquisite local cuisine – a superbly spiced fish dish – and browse through a number of brochures that they have thoughtfully provided, detailing possible holiday destinations that might be a little more suited to your psyche.
And they’re right, of course. They always are. You begin to seriously consider a couple of weeks in the lively state of Neuralgia. Or possibly the quieter island resort of Lumbago