I thought I saw a Harpie, sparkling in the night rain as I lay in the middle of the road. I was in a dream, puddles gritty against my cheek and all four coats sodden. I didn’t mind, I had a bottle in me. The air traffic combed electromagnets through my beard and hair, rubbing my brain.
To attract a Harpie, the dream must have been good. Worth something. I closed my eyes, ready for the rapture. God knows I needed the money. Well, iGod does anyway.
“Bear, you going to finish that?” Not a Harpie, Della Rosa. The White Lady. Fresh skim of paint on her too. Clothes, lips, eyes, hair all covered in thick white gloss. Sparkling and completely waterproof.
She wrenched the bottle off me and I growled but didn’t mean it. Cost me a song, that bottle of Jack. Or a poem, I don’t know.
I settled my head back into the dream.
“I don’t like the look of them,” Rosa said, nodding at a group of glowering Salesmen. They didn’t like the look of us either. Seemed they hadn’t had much luck. Suits a little shabby, eyes a little dim. Very little new stuff to sell, recently. That would be our fault.
“You got anything for us?” one shouted over. He held out his hands and pretended to smile. “Anything at all?”
“I’m trying to work here! Bugger off!” I think that was me. Sometimes it just comes out.
“Useless Sods!” Another shouted, then they all charged into the road.
“Dream one for me,” one said and kicked Rosa in the face, so I jumped on her and squashed her flat beneath me. I was half-armoured with coats and booze and could take a beating without a squeak, so they soon got bored. They grumbled off before the Bees came, ordering everyone to move along.
“What awful people,” Rosa said when I rolled off her.
This made me chuckle. She was bad-dizzy and her face was swelling into a moon. She licked rain and cracked gloss off her lips and her teeth were red.
An autombulance meowed down from above but we shooed it away, telling the police to buzz off too. Machines would only sober us up.
“Come on Rosa, I’ll take you home,” I said.
Then it was daytime, and we were in my room. We sat on two chairs wedged amongst my books and I had put an old vinyl disk on a wind-up record player. Don’t know what. More crackle than music anyway. Sunlight caught the steam off us in god-rays. I was fuming inside too.
“Missus,” I said, “I’ve had enough of this. I know times are hard, but they can’t get away with it.”
Rosa sighed, probing her tongue in her cheek. “Bear, let it lie. They’re just upset there’s nothing new to sell. Anyway, what can you do about it? Punch them all?”
“I’m going to talk to iGod.”
“Good luck with that.” She wrinkled her eyebrows. Not angry, just thinking.
I went into my church. Well, the kitchen. Where the signal was stronger.
“Hey iGod, you there?”
HOW CAN I HELP, BEAR?
“Rosa and I got another battering, did you see?”
I DID. VERY SAD. DELLA ROSA NEEDS—
“I know. Can you step in sometime? I mean, stop the buggers doing it, before they start?”
YOU KNOW I CAN’T. IF YOU VALUE PERSONAL FREEDOM.
I AM SORRY, BEAR. USE YOUR MISFORTUNE. GO CREATE.
I sighed a big one and punched a pile of take-out boxes.
“Would you at least get some monkeys in?”
OF COURSE. I WILL ADD CLEANERS TO YOUR WISH LIST. FOR WHEN YOU ARE NEXT IN CREDIT.
I gave up, dug out my last bottle, and returned to Rosa.
“Hey, the big fella won’t—oh, damnation.”
She was in rapture, lucky cow. A Harpie was sucking an idea right out of her ear. Dangling all floaty from the ceiling it was, bright and smoky, wreathed in undulating curls of hair. It winked at me, cheeky sprite.
My chest melted and twisted at the same time. I opened the bottle, glugged, and watched. I hadn’t had a good thought in days. Maybe weeks. I felt a rush of panic and belched whiskey sting. I needed a big one this time. A whole story maybe, not just a snippet. Fully formed and spanking new. I needed more booze. I needed to pay the bills. And above all I needed not to work in Sales.
I shivered, right from my bones.
The Harpie let go of Rosa’s face and patted her, then whipped off out the window. “Lucky Mare,” I said.
Rosa smirked, apologetic-like. But not. I handed her the bottle.
“I don’t even know what it found,” she said, swigging. “I was nodding off. Must have been the music.”
Then it hit me.
“Missus, it’s about time Sellers saw things like we do,” I said.
All the good ideas go to iGod. Harpies pop them in one end, It poops stuff out the other. We can choose which end we stand, food-for-thought or muck-spreading. Art or Sales. iGod does everything, you see. Or his miniature minions do. Manufacture, finance, transport, legals, health, security, cleaning, you name it. There is nothing left for us to do. Other than come up with new ideas, or sell stuff to each other.
Don’t ask me why, but iGod can’t do that. It needs us. Thank God.
When I have an idea, and I don’t get a visit from a Harpie. Well, most times that means it’s a bad idea. But other times, rare times, it’s because I have had a very, very good idea. The Big Bugger holds off on the Harpies, then, waiting for it to mature. And the rewards are big. Last time that happened, I wrote a book. Got my flat.
Rosa backed this one anyway. With her last precious credit, she bought a favour from iGod. “Re-investing,” she said. And we were on.
Next morning, we met at the subway fire-exit and sneaked down to the underground train platforms. A couple of mole rats amongst all the tube mice. I had all we needed in a wheelie bag and—for starters—that annoyed the early-bird commuters to four-letter faces. Missus and I 'd decanted the last of the whiskey into a hip flask and sipped it so we weren’t too sober. Not too drunk either, we weren’t about to fall down or anything. Just enough to soften the corners.
Nervous and giggly, we waited until the trains were crammed, and then pushed ourselves into one.
Must've been two hundred people in there, all Sales. Artists know to keep out of their way if they value their teeth, but lucky for us there wasn’t room to swing a fist. Also, our aromatic force-field kept everyone at a distance.
iGod did Its job—like the omnipresent, hyper-efficient super-deity It is—and ten minutes into the ride, the train stopped. Lights went out. Power too.
Now, you have to understand what a Seller crowd is like. It is tailored and groomed and its eyes glitter with information, its ears hiss with crickety chirrups. So when the power goes, the signal goes, and it’s snuffed.
My hairs stood on end as darkness flumped on us. Little psychic antennae picking up rising panic in the black. We got to work. I pulled the equipment out of my bag. My clockwork record player and one record. ‘The carnival of the animals’, Camille Saint Saens. It had worked for Della Rosa, she got an idea out of it. I figured it might work the same magic in a few Seller skulls too. Convert a few sad hearts, who knows.
Relying on my instincts in the pitch black, I cranked the handle and dropped the needle in the general direction of the record. The bristling silence came alive with fizzing and scratchy pops and a few people cried out. It sounded fiercely like a lit fuse. I hadn’t anticipated that.
A heroic type bellowed and blundered into me, but my multiple overcoats and natural immovability stopped him with a muffled yelp. I guess he hoped it would kick off a stampede but everyone left him to it. I grappled him and tried to say calming things but got a fit of coughing. This didn’t help at all. Even to me it sounded like a mad dog, barking. Chaos. The carriage bounced and shook with bodies bumping about in panic.
Then the music started, and a confused sort of calm came over everyone. I suppose they realised there was no bomb, just ‘The Royal March of the Lion’. The one under my arm went limp (not dead) and I thought Bingo. Whether confused or bemused, the Sellers in the dark shut-up and listened. I don’t know what they heard. Maybe their old Gran’s radio in the kitchen. Childhood dances. First loves maybe.
Then—much to my surprise as everyone else’s—Rosa struck a match next to her face.
There were a few throaty screams as her painted-shut features hovered in the dark, and the match went out. She lit another one. A materialising ghost, popping up somewhere else. On her knees I think, or some unexpected place. No screams this time. When she disappeared and popped up a third time, floating above us—I guess stood on a chair—someone sniggered and someone else shushed.
Like the scratches in my record, the whiteout of her face seemed to make magic. Blank as a cloud, you could see things in it. The music slowed and I cranked its handle, puffing with pride at my Della Rosa. With each manifestation, her face became more intent. More intense. There were stories there, in every brief flickering and every crackle. Now the darkness was entranced. Fertile.
Then the record finished. We put our stuff away and the power came on. There was a dribble of awkward applause and the train smoothed off down the tracks again. No one looked at us or said anything; they got back into their sparkling worlds as soon as the connection came back on. We both looked at our boots, avoiding everyone’s eye.
But I still had hope.
See, I used to be in Sales. I sold wings. Full-on flap-your-arms-and-fly wings. They worked too, but I never even sold one pair. Seriously, I was that bad. Then one day, accidentally, I had a new idea. Can’t remember what it was. The kiss of my first Harpie, though, that changed me forever.
We got off the train and I took Rosa’s arm. I led her to the top of an escalator. It was a wide-open kind of station and you could look down over everyone from the ticket hall.
“Watch,” I said, then held my breath, a little queasy with the faith I was putting in ordinary people. When a Harpie appeared, I dared to breathe. When the second came, I allowed myself a smile and watched Rosa instead.
Her eyes didn’t widen at the shuffling rivers of tinsel-eyed people below us. Her eyes widened at the gathering storm of Harpies, a slinking, smooching whirlwind of them. More than we’d ever seen. We had done that, created a mad little vein of wonder. A curiosity. Something for world-weary imaginations to hook on to.
Now, I'm a cynical Bear. I didn't expect more than a dozen Harpie-worthy ideas from our drunken stunt. However, Sales people are chatty creatures and word seemed to spread. More Harpies arrived to sloop up more fresh new imaginings, an invading army of airborne jellyfish. I don’t know how many Artists were born that day, but it was a hell of a sight. Angel fire.
Then it was our turn. Rosa and I held hands as two handsome specimens flipped over us and puckered up. Rosa's fingers trembled with the rapture and I squeezed her hard as my own welled up and over. My knees quivered, my skin tingled, and I laughed out loud. The blessed relief to the worst kind of itch. An idea, pulled out of my head, and put to use.
The Harpies took a long time crediting us. It seemed we were on a kickback for everybody else’s ideas too. Royalty. Well, that's certainly how it felt that day. When the creatures finished and whispered my credit balance, I blushed. Rosa too, for all I could tell under her paint.
“Bear. We are horribly rich,” she said, her lips hardly daring to move.
The Harpies patted our heads and flipped off. Big numbers pinged my skull. I swallowed. “Flask’s empty,” I said, “Let's get a—”
“Good day to you, Sir!” A fine young man approached me with his hand out. A Seller, but his eyes were black. Dead. I shivered, recalling The Shark Eye from my days as a Seller. When you saw an opportunity, no displays should distract you from your target. Your prey. I jumped and Rosa hid behind me.
“Hello, have you ever visited the moon?” An elegant woman with brochures smiled at us.
Two more knocked her aside, spreading their arms like long-lost family. We blinked, spinning around for a direction to run, but found only excited faces and Shark Eyes.
I screwed my eyes shut, grabbed Rosa close, and whispered “iGod help us.”
The voice had concrete trembling beneath our feet. I opened one eye to the hum of a swarm, stinging a path through the scampering crowd. A Bee escort led us out to our own private hover-pub, where dandy monkeys took our coats and handed us drinks. Then we were above the city, Sellers still clamouring for us below. Shouting, smiling and waving.
At the back of my head big numbers ticked, ticked, ticked away.
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