If you find yourself on the A12 in the east of England, then sorry. There are various ways to hell, some paved with good intentions; the A12 is paved with a sort of Swiss cheese tarmac that gives the unwitting driver the kind of experience you might otherwise find in a chiropractor-themed zombie movie.
Bones are both shaken and stirred.
You will, therefore be looking for distractions. Botoxing your gonads might be one such. Or wondering at the town of Margaretting – an Essex stroinghold – and how it got its name. The verb ‘To Margaret’ clearly has a long lineage connoting, as it does, the action of destroying through the cunning application of a handbag: as in ‘She margaretted the unions with her sturdy Gucci patent leather double clip’.
However for a proper and guaranteed way of uplifting the spirits, branch off to Colchester, today’s iteration of Camulodunum, an ancient British settlement.
Set on the flatlands of Essex and cuddled by the meanders of the river Colne, it’s an attractive proposition, that recently gained City status which may or may not be a good thing. I’m a bit cynical about the relevance of gongs and awards for people; I wonder what towns get out of such an uplift.
Anyway, on Sunday I diverted from the joys of contraflows and average speed checks to have a peek at a town – sorry, city – I’ve bypassed countless times.
As background, it has a lot of history. After its Ancient British status, the Romans came a courting and via the expedient application of negotiation and violence took control in the first decades after BC became AD. As an aside, when did BC become BCE and why? Who decided this? I was taught that our current calendar started when someone stuck a stick in the space time continuum and decided that was the point hotels in Bethlehem were at a premium. Okay, they needed a marker and that’s the one the western world adopted. To me, it’s just a label, shorthand. So why change it? I guess I’ll never get religion.
Back in time, Claudius had taken over in Rome and was seen as a bit dithery, with some not sure of his legitimacy. Bit like Rishi Sunak but with less teeth and more toga. To prove himself he decided to conquer some of Eastern England, led a bunch of legionnaires – legend has it he brought Elephants, which had to be the ultimate first century big boy’s toy – and set up the new Colchester as his capital from where he set forth to conquer all.
It didn’t all go according to plan for the Italians as, after Claudius died, the place was run by the ancestors of Berlusconi or some such. Nero was in there somewhere. They sequestrated Norfolk, pissed off the Iceni and especially Boudicca and had the place burnt to the ground. Including a temple to Claudius which I took a tour around its foundations.
Now whatever did the Romans do for Essex? They proved you could build on it. What Essex lacks in building materials, esp stone, it makes up for in tanning fluid but that wouldn’t support a temple. So they created this fascinating structure from grit stone – a sort of packed seashells and sand you get near the coast – some mortar and packed sand. There’s lots of sand in Essex.
Natch, after the Romans lost on penalties they withdrew and the temple was deconstructed, but its base remained. Thus when Norman appeared from over the way and decided ‘I want me some castles’ the one in Essex was always going to be a challenge. As anyone who has employed a builder knows, there’s a lot of sucking of teeth and frowning when said builder views the site for the first time and a sort of ‘I wouldn’t start from here’ vibe. That must have been the case in Essex but the builder – whose ancestors merely suffer a shite review on the Best Builder website but at the time was more likely to have found himself part of the structure if he disappointed his client – struck lucky with the Temple footplate. He built to the Roman specification thus creating the biggest castle keep in Europe and so today we have a lovely Norman castle to potter around, climb up and down and enjoy as one of the main Colchester sites.
I had tea, a cake of enormous dimensions and girded my loins to return to the A12. One thing was very apparent as I ground my way south and west towards London; if there is any Roman blood in the national veins, it’s very diluted, so far as their road building prowess is concerned.
‘The light’s rubbish. He looks like celery.’ Pa Vinchy threw his paintbrush onto his palette and kicked the easel.
‘Bugger off!’ The easel hopped away, rubbing its left side, the canvas slipping to the floor.
‘What the actual f…?’ The canvas’ words were lost as it landed face down on the tiles.
‘That went well. Prima Donna, or what?’ The paintbrush rolled in a circle, upsetting the red and the green. The paintbrush pointed at Pa. ‘See what you made me do? Now even your pigments are browned off.’
‘I’ll have you know,’ Pa regained his previous poise, ‘it’s Prima Don, if you don’t mind. I’m projecting my inner entitled male this week.’
The canvas rolled over, its edges lifted by a little zephyr. ‘Gerrof you little sod.’
The zephyr withdrew. ‘Sorreee. I was just venting. No need to get into a flap.’
The easel eased itself upright and repositioned the canvas. ‘Look, you overpriced decorator. Does it matter what skin tone He has? No one knows what pigmentation God has anyway.’
Pa leant so close that the left side of the easel knotted its brows. ‘Why don’t you keep your clever dick ideas to yourself, you piece of peri-kindling. Have you not heard of the Inquisition? They might not know, as an actual fact, whether God hails from Halls of Asgard or the backside of a fireguard but that doesn’t stop them pontificating as if they knew. And if they say God is Italian, then God loves his mama, eats his pasta like a good boy and has an olive complexion. And if I can’t get the tone right, I’ll soon find out why both God and the mafia organise their legions in similar ways.’
The easel, canvas, paintbrush and unmixed pigments considered this conundrum. The zephyr, which was still gyring slowly, said, rather breezily. ‘What happens if you get it wrong?’
There was such a sharp intake of breath that most of the zephyr split into small streams before reforming unhappily in a miasma of halitosis.
Pa Vinci swallowed. ‘For artisans they’d get bricked into a wall, but for me, a painter and artist…’ His voice failed him.
The easel tapped him on the shoulder, trying to confront him. When he spoke, his voice was a creak. ‘They’d paint him into a corner.’
As that awful notion took hold, each of Pa, the easel, the canvas, the paint brush, palette and pigments blanched. Even the zephyr felt the impact as all colour drained from it; it couldn’t even make a sound as it sussurated away, now just white noise.
May 9, 2023, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about two who cankeep a secret. Is the secret between them or is one keeping a secret from the other. Who are they? What remains unknown? What is revealed? Go where the prompt leads!
The Disgrace Of Secret Abuse
Through a network of Chinese whispers and Russian Mumbles distressed Secrets make their way to Connie Fidenshall’s Secret’s Shelter where the suppressed and misheard find a welcome. The address remains undisclosed; even the front door keeps itself to itself, eschewing regular Thursday selfie opportunities. Inside Secrets relax, opening up to those who’ve been kept in the margins of polite society. Illicit love poems meet whistleblowing memos for evenings spent reading out loud. Baby Secrets have showers whenever they want. Even Secrets with violence, cruelty and deception at their heart are included: it’s not the Secret’s choice to be captive.
‘What do we have, today?’ Guy Nocollogist, dentist to the stars, pulled on his Dior rubbers and smeared the antiseptic wipe (Bug Death by Chanel) over his palms.
‘Oh you’ll love this one. It’s the HOT 100s hottest hottie, the new leading man from The Junk Punk.’ Di Alog, the much amended hygienist attempted a smile but little moved.
‘Shay K’speer? Oh lovely.’ Guy tried to peer into the waiting room from the treatment centre. ‘Is he wearing a shirt?’
‘No…! And he’s freshly lubricated!’
‘And did he bring his junk?’
‘Oh yes!!! I’m no expert but I’d put a not inconsiderable number of my modifications on him sporting his reductible big end. Just for you.’
Guy staggered slightly. ‘Did you see the episode with Ryder Hard? Drilling the Willing? I almost changed career.’
The two professionals shared a moment, sponged up the residue and read the notes. ‘He’s wants us to extract all his wisdom teeth?’
‘Apparently he credits his success to his lack of wisdom. He thinks if he could double hinge his jaw, it might open some interesting opportunities, though his people having been blowing hot and cold on the idea.’
Guy read the remainder. ‘Maybe we could enhance the extra space. No one wants a void.’
‘Nature abhors a vacuum.’ Di was always prepared with a ready quip.
Guy frowned. ‘Personally I hate the ironing, but each to their own. Why don’t we suggest some interplanetary implants? His fans would defy gravity when he smiled.’ Guy looked at Di. He couldn’t hide his excitement. ‘Say, top left a fully rotating Earth – imagine how the weather might enhance his saliva? Bottom left, a fiery explosive Mars that gives you the heat without the those nasty post-curry consequences. Top right, a diaphanous Venus that emphasises his commitment to feminism. And bottom right a winged Mercury that will receive his fan mail without him having to read it. Can we make the planets to size?’
Di nodded so hard the vibrations created a harmonic that caused one of her breasts to implode. ‘I’ll speak to Art, but I’m sure he’ll be up for it.’
‘Right, get The Man in and we’ll measure him up, remove any lingering evidence of wisdom, set orbits gyrating and fix a date.’
‘I had one other thought?’ Di spoke with the sort of knowing smugness that makes those running quizzes statistically most likely to be the victims of spontaneous violence. ‘I could have a word with Professor Rex Tum.’
‘Proctologist to the great and good? How would Rex help?’ Guy had a feeling this would be good.
‘I read this article about a procedure Rex carried out on him last year, making the sun shine out of his arse. Shay said he thought the effect had limited impact since the intimacy authorities have limited the unaccompanied appearances of his buttocks to five minutes per episode. Maybe we could refocus the brilliance and set his epiglottis glowing. Imagine the dental penumbra…’
Guy slumped to his seat. This was so exciting. Having a career as a dentist involved so much more than being a rapacious bastard.
Lou Tenant and May Jerr admired their handy work. Normally these doyens of the paperclip counting brigades would have eschewed hard work and anything that might generate a callous but in times of conflict heroes emerge.
‘We need heroes,’ they said, pointing at Lou and May.
‘Us?’ Replied Lou and May with no little incredulity. ‘We count paper clips.’
‘Exactly. And now you can show your mettle.’ They sounded confident.
‘They’re plastic coated. For Health & safety reasons.’
‘Funny you should mentioned that. Meet Saf T’blanket and Paddy Lock. They’re going to help.’ They waved a wand.
‘We need a fort.’ Their faces became serious.
‘Is that where we show our metal? I quite fancy aluminium.’
‘We were thinking about stones. We have a headland and lots of rock. And a plan. And an easy ‘how to’ guide.’ They looked even more confident.
‘Are you sure it’s easy?’
‘We’ve two experts from a DIY help desk. Tam Noy and Justine Time. They’ll be joining you.’ Cue them clapping. ‘You’ve a week. Make it good.’ They left.
The new recruits weren’t sure exactly what to do so they decided on a break. Tam, being the youngest with reliable knees did the coffee run.
Paddy, being the man, took charge. Everyone ignored him.
‘Haven’t you started yet?’ They were back.
‘Does that help?’
‘Here’s an incentive. Finish the fort and you get to be heroes.’ They left.
‘Who are they?’
No one knew. No one could remember who’d ordered the caramel flat white. Rather than argue they built a fort, marvelling that Ikea had one in their range of garden sheds and summerhouses. It was called Fucsic.
‘We man it.’
Paddy didn’t look happy. ‘Can’t we person it?’
They’d all attended EDI training and to make sure they were up to speed, they returned with two EDI trainees: Di Scrimination and Di Sability who changed everyone’s pronouns and the wallpaper in the gun ports to something mindful.
Everyone waited. Eventually a note appeared. ‘Attack imminent. You’re heroes. PS all people are indispensable but some are more dispensable than others.’
‘Do you think they meant ‘indispensable’?’ Their number had been swelled by management consultants, advertising executives, a whole legion of middle managers who understood the power of language when applied to rotas and lists.
There was no time to answer. An enormous flotilla of warplanes and gun ships had slipped in unnoticed. An enormous robot-like being stood at the head, bellowing, ‘Surrender or die.’
‘What’s he saying?’ No one could understand as he spoke a little understood computer language that wasn’t designed to be orally articulated.
An IT consultant launched Google Translate. It was easily shot down.
Someone tapped the ‘contact us’ button on the Ministry of Defence website. A chat bot appeared, rubbing its eyes. ‘Yes? What?’
The IT consultant took charge. ‘We’re being attached by enormous robots.’
‘What do we do?’ He tried to keep the panic out of his typing by limiting his use of emojis to the essential.
‘What do you want to do?’
‘What’s it saying?’ The others crowded close.
‘It’s on the screen.’ The IT consultant was easily irritated; it was part of his basic training.
‘It says it’s a private conversation. We can’t read that.’
‘It’s asking what we want to do.’
‘Runaway?’ The voice came from the back where the Gym receptionists congregated.
The others had a break to discuss it. They decided that was a last resort. When the IT consultant went back to the chatbot the conversation had closed for inactivity.
They turned to the robot. ‘Well?’ He intoned menacingly.
‘We don’t know except we’re meant to be heroes.’
The robot brightened. ‘Oh! Good.’ Unfeasibly large and powerful ordnance was loosed on the fort which was rendered moot in seconds. Even the atoms felt rather bruised and settled quickly in non threatening dunes, hoping to be allowed to heal.
The Robot reported back to his supreme commander.
‘How’d it go?’
‘Another useless sacrifice.’
‘I read somewhere the fort was peopled with a whole range of the unloved, unwanted and underwhelming.’
‘Really? So it wasn’t pointless?’
‘Not at all.’
The robot considered the space where previously there had been a landscape. ‘Good to know they were heroes after all.’