July 18, 2007

Snoozer Harraway Memorial Stand

Panther.jpgLike any municipal department with uncertain revenue streams, the Park Authority has always been on the lookout for new and unusual ways of spinning a buck from its assets, and in the last couple of years, its eyes have turned westward to the most profitable urban green-space redevelopment of all time – Pliocene Park in Homebush, the home of Sydney’s only un-extinct mammoths.

Unfortunately for the Authority, they have had neither the funds nor the corporate backers to make an extinct mammal cloning program a reality, so they have been forced to improvise. This has lead to two very tragic disasters – the first resulting in the death of a family pet and a costly law suit; the second resulting in something much worse…

On paper, the first response to Pliocene Park seemed truly inspired. Instead of dredging up some long-dead beast from the distant past, the Authority decided to reanimate a crytpozoological specimen from the present day – the Lithgow Panther. This legendary big cat, which had supposedly roamed the Blue Mountains since the 1850’s, had the advantage of never having being seen (or preserved in a glacier) so verisimilitude wasn’t a problem. All that was necessary was something that prowled around looking appropriately panther-like. To cut costs, the Authority purchased a refurbished animatronic tiger that had been listed on eBay by the liquidators of a Kerala movie studio.

The arrival of the fully serviced and freshly painted panther, which had been christened Rilke, was heralded with much press fanfare and attracted a huge crowd to the recommissioned cricket pitch that was to be its new home. The pitch was right next an oval where dog-owners congregated and where I regularly took Jasper to socialise, so I was able to poke my head in on the festivities without going out of my way.

The event began, as these events normally do, with a speech by a Lord Mayor from a local council whose boundaries had been hastily redrawn to include the cricket pitch, which was now concealed by a large marquee. This was followed by a group of upper class white-boys from a local private school who launched into an excruciating rap about panthers being the “blackest motherf**kers of all”. With all the polite applause sucked out of the surrounding crowd, the organisers then moved on to the piece de resistance – the unveiling of Rilke.

There were collective gasps of awe as a group of workers clumsily dragged away the marquee to reveal its sleek black form which rose jerkily to its feet, opened its jaw wide, and gurgled like a blocked drain. Despite this most un-cat-like of utterances, the crowd seemed convinced that this was a true-to-life rendering of the Lithgow Panther. (This was, after all, a super-cat so the chances of it sounding like any normal feline were slim indeed.)

Then, just as the operators were about demonstrate a carefully choreographed prowl, something unexpected happened. One of the dogs from the oval, a schnauzer, raced down to play with the panther. When it reached Rilke, it zipped back and forth in front of the lumbering animatronic beast and occasionally stopped on its haunches to yap frantically. In response, one of Rilke’s controllers decided it would be a good time to test out its “playful” subroutines. Unfortunately, as would later be revealed, these subroutines had been calibrated for action scenes in movies involving other animatronic big cats and “play”, in these contexts, included anything other than tearing the opposites head off.

Rilke launched itself “playfully” into the air, and brought one of its mechanical paws down hard on the skull of the schnauzer, flattening it to the thickness of a smear. There was a moment of stunned silence, then the dog’s owner ran screaming down from the oval and all hell broke loose.

Some of the crowd launched into an echoing of her shrieks, others ran forward to attack the dog-killing panther. The controllers tried to key in Rilke’s “flight” subroutines, but they were mobbed before they could send the commands and were forced to run for safety. Rilke, meanwhile, was left motionless and undefended as its fake fur was torn from its body and a hundred boots buckled and bent its metal skeleton. The orgy of violence continued for another half hour and only ended when one of the mob tried to drive their Land Rover Discovery over Rilke and broke an axle.

In the aftermath of the Great Lithgow Panther Fiasco, the four members of the Park Authority who had organised the unveiling were summarily dismissed; the owner of the schnauzer, Janelee Harraway, sued the Authority and was awarded $500,000 in damages; the nearby district cricket club stand and clubhouse was renamed in the schnauzer’s honour; and the private school hip-hop troupe released a single about the incident that got played on Video Hits.

For the next twelve months, any thoughts about emulating the success of Pliocene Park became a no-go area for the Park Authority. Then, when the dust had settled and the civil suit was well behind them, the Authority was approached by a consortium with a proposal that promised to completely blow Pliocene Park’s mammoths out of the water. Despite everything that had gone before, the Authority decided to hear them out… The result would be a debacle that would make the Great Lithgow Panther Fiasco seem like just another day at the office.

Posted by Warren at 10:04 PM | Comments (0)

July 17, 2007

The Glade Of The Beloved

Glade.jpgUnlike the many other features of the park, there are no maps or signs directing casual visitors to the Glade Of The Beloved. If they were to go looking for it, they probably wouldn’t find it either. If they were lucky, they might stumble upon its high perimeter fence, but this would look no different to the high perimeter fence that surrounds the rest of the park, so they would no doubt pass it by without even pausing.

The only reason I know about it, is because of my recently-departed neighbour Edith.

Edith and I first met on our shared landing three months ago. I’d just returned from a walk with Jasper and the two of us immediately bonded over him. Jasper is a West Highland Terrier and Edith delightedly informed me that she and her husband Duncan had owned Westies for most of their married life. Their last one, Jock, had passed away six months before and, as I would later learn, Duncan had suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma shortly thereafter. This was why she had moved into the flat down the hall from me; so she could be closer to him. When she told me this, I assumed that Duncan was in St Vincents which is situated a couple of blocks from our building. Edith was quick to correct me.

“Oh no, there were no beds for him there. He’s in a tree, dear. In the park. If you like, you and Jasper can come along next time I visit him. I usually go on Tuesdays.”

The following Tuesday, Edith took us to a corner of the park that I hadn’t bothered visiting before. Compared to the well-manicured precincts, it was a virtual wilderness. The grass was patchy and unkempt; there were no toilet blocks or coin-operated dog turd collectors; and the trees seemed to congregate wherever they pleased. We followed a meandering dirt track for about twenty minutes, arriving at a high spiked fence. Beyond the fence was a fairly unremarkable copse of fig trees. Edith went up to the fence, stood there for a moment, then turned to face me.

“Ready to go now, dear?”

I was naturally nonplussed. If this was our final destination, why were we leaving almost as soon as we’d arrived?

“What? Already? Don’t you want to stay a bit longer?”

“All the time. But it’s late and we have to get Jasper back.”

“Is… Duncan in one of those trees?”

“Of course, dear. You can’t see it from here though… Shall we go?”

These enigmatic excursions with Edith continued every Tuesday for the next seven weeks. Occasionally I’d try to extract more information about her tree-dwelling husband, but she was never terribly forthcoming. She’d invariably tell me that it was a long story that I might understand one day, but not today.

On the weekend, before our eighth scheduled walk in the park, I was away in Newcastle when I received a call from a woman named April Tanner. She informed me that Edith had died in her sleep. My initial reaction was one of disbelief. Edith may have been pushing seventy but she was remarkably fit and had the sort of grip on life that I couldn’t imagine being loosened so easily. Despite this, Edith was apparently well aware that she wasn’t going to live forever. (If she was cashed-up enough for that then she certainly wouldn’t have been living in my block.) So, she’d made plans and those plans included me.

“So what do I do?”

“Same as always. Come to the glade on Tuesday. And make sure you bring Jasper. See you then.”

And, on that note, the call ended.

The following Tuesday, I made my way to the copse of figs on the edge of the park; which I assumed was what April meant when she referred to “the glade”. When I arrived, I found the area magically transformed into something that actually befitted the title “glade”. The formerly unruly clump of trees had expanded and arranged itself into neat rows. These rows were separated by paved paths that merged into a single walkway that snaked back up to the fence which had now acquired a high arched gate designed to resemble an art nouveau tree. Standing at the gate was a prim woman in a crisply-pressed suit who looked like she’d come straight from the perfume counter at an up-market department store. I guessed that this was April Tanner.

After exchanging greetings, I conveyed my amazement at the sudden transformation of the “glade”.

“Was this all done in the last week?”

“Oh, no. You ask that every week. The glade has always been like this but its true nature is concealed by a forgetting field. Anyone who chances upon us without the proper shielding will see the glade as it is but as soon as they leave, all memory of it will be erased and replaced with the vague impression that they’ve just walked past an uninteresting patch of fenced off trees… It may seem extreme but it’s a necessary precaution designed to ensure the unmolested privacy of our clients… Something which I inform you of on a weekly basis.”

“So, when I leave… I’ll just forget all this?”

“Not today. Edith left you this.”

April held up a small circular brooch embossed with a leaf. This apparently was the “shield”. I vaguely remembered Edith wearing it on our outings but I’d thought nothing of it at the time. Once I’d fastened it to my jacket, April opened the gate and beckoned me inside. On the side of the path beyond the gate was a rack of individually locked garden rakes. After escorting me into the glade, April went over to the rack and unlocked one of the rakes. She then held it out to me as if she were entrusting me with the implements of some very sacred undertaking.

“This was Edith’s. I guess it’s yours now… As a rule, you know, I don’t approve of proxies - especially ones with no active memory of the glade. But, I am bound to honour the wishes of our clients. Provided, of course, that they don’t compromise the facility… You do understand what I mean?”

I didn’t, but I figured it would be best just to nod gravely and take a firm hold of the rake. This seemed to satisfy April and we set off along the meandering path that lead to the glade.

When I’d first arrived at the yet-to-be-forgotten glade, I’d been overcome by the landscaping and that rather natty gate so I hadn’t really looked closely at the individual trees. Now as we entered the glade proper, I noticed that there were large wooden caskets bolted to their trunks. Tubes from these caskets ran into the flesh of the tree then out into bedside table sized appliances topped with touch panels and an EKG type display. At the top of each casket was a viewing window. Through that window could be seen the face of its inhabitant; each one in a state of ghastly repose with the arc of a respirator tube anchored in its nostrils.

April obviously noticed that my jaw was dropping in horror at the sight of these tree-mounted sarcophagi and immediately launched into the operationally mandated Comforting Explanation.

“Before you ask… Yes, they are alive but no, they are not experiencing any discomfort and distress. Every one of our residents is on the very lowest rung of the Glasgow Coma Scale. Some are irretrievably vegetative, others are still receptive to stimuli; but all of them, regardless, are getting the best care our patrons’ money can buy. And by that, I don’t just mean medical… Look over there.”

I looked over to where April was pointing and saw a middle-aged man in a long woollen overcoat with his hand wedged in a knothole of one of the trees. With his other hand, he gently stroked the tree’s casket which contained a comatose woman. As he did this, he muttered what seemed like soothing intimacies. It was hard to tell though from where we were standing.

“Mr Peregian. His wife was in an accident two years and a half ago and has been in a coma ever since. When it happened, her doctors informed him that she might still be reached by a familiar touch or comforting words from a voice that she recognised. So, when she passed into our care, we made sure her tree was equipped with interfaces that would facilitate continued intimate contact.

See where he has his hand inside the tree? He’s actually holding on to a metacarpal stub with a dedicated feedback link to his wife’s hand. And where he strokes the casket? That’s triggering sensors wired to haptic patches on his wife’s body. Even his words are being picked up by concealed microphones attached to speakers inside the casket… Impressive, huh?”

From a strictly technical perspective, the answer was no. It was all old-tech; basically a larger scale version of the Tickle-Me-Elm Living Sapling that had been a minor hit with kids two Christmas’s ago. And, from any other perspective, impressive was not the adjective that immediately came to mind. I knew that wasn’t what April wanted to hear though, so I said nothing. Thankfully, April let my reticence slide and we moved on, but I could tell that she’d mentally added another bullet point to the “potential to compromise” report she was no doubt preparing on me.

“Anyway… Here we are.”

Even if I hadn’t been told this, I would have picked it up from the name plaque and faded photo of Edith and Duncan in happier times attached to the casket on the tree we now stood before. The faded picture version of Duncan was everything I’d imagined he’d be; a beaming bear of a man with an obvious love of the great outdoors and an uncanny resemblance to a happy Ernest Hemmingway (even down to the rolled neck heavy knit sweater). In an attempt to hang on to this image, the Duncan in the casket had been dressed in the same sweater as the Duncan in the photo, but this did little to disguise the fact that he had lost a lot weight and now resembled a freeze-dried version of his former self; slimmed down specially for ease of packing and storage.

“So… Does he have a hand that I should be holding?”

“No, his is a standard tree. Edith would, of course, speak to him but you don’t even need to do that. All that she stipulated was that you rake any leaves that might have fallen into that pile underneath Duncan… I know it seems strange but it’s a ritual we encourage our clients to observe. It helps prepare them for the final transformation. That which feeds the tree, feeds your beloved.”

“The final transformation?”

“Yes… DNA twines with DNA; cells merge with cells; and slowly and painlessly the body of your beloved and his Protector Tree become one. His soul is joined to the earth through deep nourishing roots and to the sky by leaves that tremble with his last words of love and gratitude to you who care so much. You meanwhile can take comfort in the knowledge that when he does finally ascend, he will already be in a state of perfect peace…”

I guessed that I’d just had a chunk of the company’s brochure quoted at me, but April delivered it like it was some hallowed article of faith. It made me almost wish that I was signing up as a client so I could hear a full-length pitch.

“Does that actually happen?”

“Of course. It’s our main selling point. Some clients do come to us because we can get immediate access to any medical advance that might lead to revival but, in each case, we can only offer that for two years. It is unfortunate but still, it’s two years more than they’d get anywhere else. And after that two years, we can give them something that they’d never get in an over-crowded hospital where they were being pushed to pull the plug – a death that is truly dignified and beautiful… And now, I’m sorry, but unless you have other pressing questions, I really must return to my post.”

I knew April was keen to be rid of me so I let her depart and stood for a moment pondering what I’d just heard. To be fair, I could understand how the glade might appeal to someone like Duncan. Not only would he be passing away in an attractive woodland setting, he would be passing away as part of that setting. At the very least, it was preferable to expiring in some dismal hospital ward.

Lurking behind this thought, though, were images of screaming man-trees; their roots turned to legs by DNA fusion and their minds driven to blind rampage at the horror of being reincarnated as monsters. As fantastic as that was, it wasn’t without precedent. The park, after all, was still coming to grips with another chimera project that had gone disastrously wrong – Alice The Elephant.

This then was probably why there was such secrecy surrounding the Glade of the Beloved. The obvious associations with Alice were way too damaging, and maybe there were actual connections that needed concealment. In either case, I imagined that April already knew what was going through my mind. Possibly, she’d departed so hastily so she could watch me on a bank of monitors that was hidden nearby in yet another forgetting field.

With this in mind, I resisted the urge to look around for the cameras and busied myself raking leaves. (At the very least, I hoped that this would keep me off the list of those that Duncan-Tree decided to punish when his Final Transformation went haywire.) As soon as all the loose foliage was stacked into the neatest pile I could manage, I took a tight hold on Jasper’s lead and headed back up the path as quickly as I could without arousing suspicion. When I arrived at the gate to drop off the rake, April was nowhere to be seen.

DISCLAIMER: It’s now three weeks since I originally posted this entry and I must apologise to any readers who went looking for the Glade of the Beloved based on what I wrote. I’ve been back there numerous times and even scaled the fence to take a closer look and it does not exist. Neither do the characters mentioned in the post. I’ve only kept it up on the site as an entertaining piece of fiction. I hope that you will enjoy it in this spirit and not allow it to colour your appreciation of the other posts on this blog which are all true.

Posted by Warren at 07:39 PM | Comments (0)