Chapter 4 


My destination, Slaters Cottage, is a mansion attempting to pass itself off as something smaller. It's dominated by two storeys of sweeping brown roof tiles, including many windows, with one storey of regular wall beneath. It's a big house hiding under the roof of a little one, and I like that. I think Buddha would approve too. 

In the rear garden, bordered by poplars and cypresses, at least a hundred people are enjoying the garden party. The weather is perfect. The sun hangs low in the sky, reluctant to go down. It's warm and there's barely a breeze. Half-way down the lawn, on the left, a trio in white tuxedos and dickie-bows play guitar, double-bass and drums. Their music isn't inspired, but at least it's live. 

I begin to wonder how I can track down Stephanie McVeigh without sounding like a gatecrasher, but clearly my arrival didn't go unnoticed. She's on me in an instant. 

"Peter! Peter! I'm so glad you're here. Joe wasn't sure you'd make it." 

How nice to be in control of one's own destiny. 

"Pan," I correct her, though I don't think the correction registers. 

"Come and sit with me. I'll introduce you to my mother." 

Stephanie has to be over fifty, but has the vitality and lively eyes of the ageless, which make her instantly attractive. Her hair is dark and loose to her shoulders and she wears a simple blue crossover dress. She is the very queen of charm, and all those scathing first lines I thought of in the Axis Mundi melt into oblivion. Not that I thought of anything brilliant, to be honest. It's not my style. Buddha is your man for excruciating put-downs. 

Just off-centre in the lawn is a large gazebo with octagonal sides, and in front of it is a white plastic table where Stephanie McVeigh's mother sits in her wheelchair. 

"This is my mother, Dorothy. Mother will be listening to everything we say and hearing very little. She's rather deaf." 

I make an exaggerated show of acknowledging Dorothy's presence, but I'm not sure if she sees me. 

Stephanie sits and waves a hand in the air like a puppeteer warming up, and within seconds a waiter appears. I suspect that nobody else in the garden could do this, and certainly not so quickly, but then this is her party. She doesn't ask me what I want to drink and orders me a glass of rosé wine, which is not what I would have ordered, yet when it arrives is truly delicious and a precise fit for the garden party and I would have been a fool to order anything else.

We spend a minute on small talk about the party, exactly in line with the dramatic confrontation that I'd planned all along. Damn. Apparently this is a regular monthly get-together and most of the guests are either clients or have some business connection. They've already been here a while. I'm not sure I have much in common with them, apart from their clear love of alcohol. 

A young man, presumably one of Stephanie's employees, appears briefly and places a copy of the offending tabloid newspaper on the table, open at the page where my picture appears and somebody similar to me is described.  

"So what did you dislike about the article?" asks Stephanie. 

That's very clever. I hadn't said I disliked anything, yet. 

"The fact that it's untrue, every word of it." 

"But Peter, I'm not in the truth business. I do public relations."  

"The bit about being over fifty…" 

"And how old are you really?" 

Ok, I'm not going to push that one.  

"And the idea of going to a vet…" 

"Would you expect a normal doctor to deal with your legs?" 

"But what about the quotes? I never said any of these words in my life." 

"Oh, I'm sure you did, just not necessarily in that order, or in the same sentence. It's quite normal to make up quotes, perfectly normal, and it saves everybody a lot of bother with interviews."  

It strikes me that Stephanie's spectacles, which she touches every few seconds, and which have thick frames and thin lenses, may not be correcting her eyesight, just her image. She lights a cigarette and leaves it in the ashtray, picking it up twice as it burns to nothing. 

"But none of it is true, Stephanie."

She gives me her best smile, which would melt a troll's heart and which I try to avoid. She looks down meaningfully at my hoofs. 

"Ok," I have to admit. "Tiny bits of it are true." 

"Millions of people have read that article," she explains, "and every one of them gained a positive impression. They feel empathy towards you and hope you do well. It doesn't really matter if any of it was untrue, what matters is that you've now got the world on your side."

"Through lies." 

"Through meeting the entertainment needs of our audience. One small article and we're already there, way ahead of the game. Normally it would take years to create that amount of positive feeling." 

This is just a question of perspective, I'm sure. I can't exactly find a flaw with what she says, it just sounds wrong in some instinctive way. I begin to search through the paper, giving myself time to think. 

"Peter, don't worry about it. People never believe anything they read in the newspapers. Nor will they believe anything they've read about you. We're just aiming for a feeling. That article merely reassures readers that they're doing fine with their genetically unmodified bodies, that all is well with the natural status quo." 

I find this difficult to believe. I point to an earlier page, where the headline reads: 'Terrorist Leader Arrested'.  

"Terrorist today, president of some vast African country tomorrow," says Stephanie. "Either way, very happy to be in the newspaper." 

I turn to page five, to the picture of the attractive young lady wearing bikini pants, heels, a baseball cap, and nothing else. I read out the caption, "Cloe Zeeting, 19, from Milton Keynes, is a keen Tottenham fan…" 

Stephanie shakes her head. "Probably from Barking, supports West Ham." 

"But at least she's called Cloe." 

"I doubt it." 

I look at the picture for a long time, perhaps too long. 

Stephanie adds, "And they're not real, either."

I close the newspaper, mildly flustered. "Is there anything in here that's believable?"

"Yesterday's weather, and the football scores - they're usually accurate. A tabloid newspaper isn't in the truth business any more than I am. If you don't know that, then you really do need my services."


"I was hoping the newspaper article would show you the value of my company," she tells me. "Perhaps I might persuade you to become a client." 

"Stephanie, I don't even know what you do." 

After a long and impassioned explanation, I'm not much wiser. I hear a lot of abstract expressions like "fulfil a role" and "public profile" and "exploit the medium", but very little of a concrete nature, and at the end of the explanation I'm still not sure if her company sells bananas or trains blacksmiths.

"I'm sorry, but that makes no sense to me," I tell her. 

"Then let me give you the abbreviated version. We make you famous and keep you famous." 

"Why would I want to be famous?" 

Stephanie rocks back in her chair and huffs like a tired but amused giant. "That's original. Nobody ever sat in my garden and said that before."

A young girl on the verge of her teens turns up at the table. Immediately I know this is Stephanie's daughter. There's some family resemblance, but more obvious is the overwhelming affection. 

"Jessica, you're covered in carpet hair again." Stephanie picks delicately at the girl's woollen top. "When are you going to learn what chairs are for? And look at your elbows. I do wish you'd come outside." 

"I'm on level seven," says Jessica, proudly. 

"Well done." But there's no enthusiasm in the praise. Stephanie turns to me. "It's a gorgeous evening. All the adults are playing outside, and the children are inside working on their computer games." 

Yet I'm not really listening and Stephanie isn't really talking to me. That was an aside for benefit of her daughter. I'm more interested in the three ageing musicians in their dickie-bows and white tuxedos. They're passable players but have entirely lost the enthusiasm of youth. Each tune they play – and some are quite pleasant – is de-clawed and de-sexed and house-trained. Occasionally they forget themselves and begin to enjoy their instruments, and naturally at that point everything improves, but most of the time they're earning a living filling space where otherwise silence would be, or nothing more than the chatter of guests. Their leader – the band's singer and guitarist – is most to blame. When he begins a new song I can tell how many times he's played it before. If the figure is in the hundreds then the song means nothing to him and he plays in a way that means nothing to the audience. He goes through the correct sequence of notes – I acknowledge that – but accomplishes nothing with them. 

Having briefly docked with the mother-ship, Jessica runs off to rejoin the virtual indoor world. Stephanie glances at me and sees I'm absorbed. She turns to her mother and with great feeling says, "Oh mum, I do wish they'd dance for you. I do. But we can only hire a band and hope for the best."

The old woman doesn't acknowledge this any more than she acknowledged my presence earlier. Stephanie holds her mother's hand on the wheelchair's arm, and if my heart is touched, which it is, then perhaps this is down to the contrast with the coldness on display in the rest of the garden.  

Because of the music I can't easily hear the conversations between the scores of guests drinking punch or white wine (I suspect the rosé is held in reserve), and maybe that's a good thing, so I'm assessing them by body language. I read the angles of their chins, the way they hold their wine glasses, their interest in who is busy elsewhere and in whom they are talking to, and my assessment isn't complimentary. 

There are very few children around. Perhaps because this is a work-related party, or because they're all indoors at their computer screens. The one child making an impact is in full bawling mode, slung against his mother's chest with his head over her shoulder, features red and contorted from the effort of crying. I think I can hear his words above the music, but what I hear is so surreal that I can't be sure. 

"Gonna die, gonna die," he wails. "Don't live long." 

"There there," comforts mother, patting him on the back as she carries him towards the deserted rear of the garden. "It's all right. Don't worry, it'll be OK." 

"Gonna die. Seventy years. Don't live long." 

This strange experience blasts me out of my daydream. Surely I've been hallucinating? Buddha told me that the other-worlders don't live very long, but I doubt their children grasp this at an early age and are upset by it. 

I look across at Stephanie and see the puzzlement on her face. No, perhaps I've not been hallucinating. But the experience is too strange for either of us to acknowledge it.  

"I'm so glad I took the time to have Jessica," says Stephanie. 

I follow her lead and behave as if nothing bizarre has happened. "Do you have more?" 

"No, just the one. And that's unusual in our circles. Half the guests here don't have any children at all. The most intelligent members of our society have lost the urge to procreate. In evolutionary terms, we're going backwards. How about that? I call it Devolution. I like to think it's our method of giving the planet a chance. Let's leave populating the planet to the poor and uneducated, keep everybody alive at whatever cost, vote dumb people into power and follow their dumb policies, and with any luck our species will be out of the way quickly and the planet can get back to some kind of reasonable balance." Stephanie holds her hand in front of her mouth. "Sorry. I don't usually do politics."

"That's OK." 

I'm now sure Stephanie had the same strange experience as me. That's why she's talking nonsense. 

"It's just…" she says, "I get the feeling you might be pro-nature yourself." 

"You're right. I am." 

Stephanie looks relieved. "Rationally, we should all stop having children for twenty years and let things settle down. But I adore mine, and I expect I'll adore my grandchildren. I'm sure everybody else feels the same. We're emotionally programmed to populate." 

"That's true." 

"Maybe it's a good thing that so few of the guests here have children. Most of them are famous or want to be famous, so they're unbalanced in some way. Strange, isn't it, how we idolise the unbalanced, because the balanced are too boring to follow?" 

Stephanie laughs. Either she's laughing at herself or this is still the relief of passing off a weird experience. I've taken a liking to her. She's in a profession that has no regard for accuracy, and I suspect has little connection with morality or humanity, yet scratch the surface and a thoughtful person still lurks there. I can't imagine this is easy. 

"And that's my less-than-expert way of persuading you to join my client list – telling you how unbalanced my clients are." This time her smile is shy. "I've booked you on TV, on the Gary Triumph Show. We need to move quickly, while people remember you, while you're still hot." 

"Me? On a TV show? Why?" 

"Why? To raise your profile, of course. And for the money. After my cut you'd probably clear forty thousand from your first sponsorship deal. More from the ones that follow. How does that sound?" 

It's quite meaningless to me. "No. Stephanie, I've already been badly misrepresented once, why would I want to go through the same nonsense a second time?" 

But the word No doesn't count for much in Stephanie McVeigh's line of business, or perhaps she hears in my tone that I don't mean it. Certainly I can see I've been unconvincing.

"Stephanie, where did you get my photograph?" 

"Joe gave it to me." 

This silences me for a minute.  

"Didn't he tell you he'd asked me to write the article?" asks Stephanie. 

I'm too confused to lie, so I say nothing. Why would Progress want me in a newspaper? Even before he took up my so-called challenge.  

There's probably a clue there, something I'm supposed to pick up that will help me do battle with him, but it's lost on me. There might be others. 

"Did he also make up this nonsense about me being a genetic experiment from Foxglove Laboratories." 

Stephanie loses her smile. "Oh dear, I thought that was one of the truthful bits. Which company are you really from?" 

"I'm not from a company at all. I'm from heaven." 

Stephanie shakes her head. "No, we can't use that. People will think you're mad. Better stick with the Foxglove story. Everybody's used to weird stuff coming out of laboratories, stories about pomegranates with lizard legs and brazil nuts scurrying around like ants."  

"Uh? Say that again?" 

Stephanie says it again. I heard it right the first time. 

"And pigs with wings?" I suggest. 

"Don't be silly. Pigs can't fly." 

So, I'm supposed to have been created by Foxglove Laboratories, and so are the unnatural products I'm trying to do battle against in heaven. Many of them, if not all. This is a curious turn of events. 

I say my thoughts out loud. "I think I should visit Foxglove Laboratories." 

"It's a secretive company." Stephanie holds her hand against her chin and contemplates this. "You could pretend to be an investor. They do investor tours. But they'll check your credentials. Are you stinking rich?"  

"Odourless. I don't have a bean." 

"Then you really must go on the Gary Triumph Show." 

While I'm briefly lost in jigsaw thoughts, Stephanie holds her mother's hand again. "Oh mum, I'm so sorry they're not dancing."

"Does she like dancing?" I ask. The lack of dancing seems to be an important issue. Even if Stephanie did write all that nonsense about me she's been very helpful. I might be able to do something in return. 

"Just to watch, it's all she can do these days. When she was younger she was a beautiful dancer. I mean truly beautiful, the Ginger Rogers of her day. Now she can barely move. It's the one thing that gives her joy, to watch, I mean. I pay a lot of money for the band, they're all session musicians, very talented, and they do their best, but I can't force people to dance." 

"No, indeed you can't." 

I get up off my seat and walk towards the band on their tiny podium. This is slightly rude of me, leaving Stephanie without a word, but I think she'll forgive me. As I reach the podium I produce my Syrinx, my pipes, which always appear in my hand when I have need of them, and without waiting for an invitation I step right in amongst the players. 

They grind to a halt in mid-number. The band leader gives me his get-lost glare, which is feeble and easily shrugged-off, then I see him glance at Stephanie, who will be paying the band's bill, to see how he should react if he wants the bill to go through with ease. I've not been on Earth very long, but I'm learning the significance of bills and the people who sign them. Apparently I get the nod. 

"What key is that?" asks the band-leader, resignedly, cocking his head at my Syrinx. 

"It's not a key, it's a musical instrument." 

Now he looks heavenward. Has he worked out where I'm from? I doubt it. 

"Can you give us a middle C?" he asks. He speaks very slowly, like I'm an idiot. 

"I don't think so." 

"Good Lord. Just play a note. Any note will do." 

I play a note. 

"Ok, let's try C flat," he says, struggling to keep a straight face. The other two musicians appear to find this funny. 

They begin to play, in a very contorted way that clearly they find difficult, and happily I play along, adjusting the tone of the Syrinx to match the weird background they're struggling with. After a minute the leader nods his head and the background music changes, and a while later it changes again. This looks hopeful. They're better than I thought. On each occasion I change the tone of my instrument to match them. On the Syrinx I can play any note that exists. Some notes are tricky, but they're all there, every one of them.

This is a surprise to the band. As we continue, the leader's jaw begins to drop and I get a clear view of his tongue. Perhaps in the other world a set of seven reed pipes only produce seven notes. I suppose this is a possibility. And now I remember where I've heard the expression 'key' before. In heaven. John Lennon used it when we were jamming together in The Three Johns. "Pan," he said, "you know it would be wonderful if you could keep to one key for five or six notes at a time, then the rest of us musical morons might be able to keep up." About the only person in heaven who feels happy to accompany me is Mozart, who, I have to admit, is pretty good, and when we reach the end of a piece where we've flown all over the musical skies and covered every note in the spectrum he insists on stepping over and giving me a palm-smacking high-five, and has a grin that begins at each ear, like we've just accomplished something extraordinary. He's a strange fish, and no mistake. 

Back in Stephanie's garden, when we get to the end of the peculiar ballad the band-leader is looking at me like I'm the creature from the black lagoon and he's the virgin tied to the post. His skin is as pale as his jacket and I don't think he's prepared to take the lead again, and so I begin with a hornpipe. We have the attention of the audience, let's make the most of it. The band follow me, sometimes at a distance. The drummer is cool, he doesn't have key problems. The tall guy with silver hair on double-bass changes up a gear, and then another gear, and finally begins to enjoy himself. He's hooting and gurgling in a way he probably last did in his twenties. After a few minutes the band-leader gives up, and I admire him for this. He's wise enough to know his limitations. 

We go way beyond them. I can trill a set of reeds, I can add three notes to the trill and fit ten trills in a second. Any ear that's connected to any set of feet is obliged to dance. It's not optional. By the time we're half-way through our tune we have our audience prancing around on the grass like pagans at Saturnalia. Some of them have thrown their wine glasses into the Cypress hedgerows, others have hung on to them and have the stains on the clothes to prove it. A handful of children come out of their computerised indoor sanctuary and dance like puppets. Their parents huff and puff and jump up and down as if their feet are escaping hot embers. We are a hundred mad people tamping down the lawn, throwing our arms in the air and feeling completely and utterly connected to our ears. We are dancing.

Stephanie too has found the sound irresistible. Her daughter Jessica bounces up and down in front of her. Dorothy can't manage the miracle of leaving her wheelchair, yet her feet tap on the footrests, even though she doesn't hear well. 

But I'm not looking at her feet, I'm seeing her smile, and it's the most beautiful smile I've seen for a long time.  

< Previous | Home | Next >