Times Before Lockdown #4

In the machine.

The ships pushed across the horizon. The world was a furnace, and swaying in the shallow end, where the fish don't swim, was the machine. It perched near an octopus which floated on black blotch with two of its eight legs working madly like oars. You went into the machine fully clothed, got naked, and then got dressed into a swimsuit. Ms. Malone had been standing fully clothed for quite some time. She would not step lightly into the salty water. Instead, she swayed with the machine and held up her index finger so that it blocked out the light from the window. She imagined trumpets. “I disavow botany,” she said with a smile. She closed her eyes. At once, the thin walls of the machine fell away to reveal a burning, boiling auditorium. It circled around her, up and into the sky where the angels lived. Only, there weren't any angels. Men without faces sat in the auditorium. Faceless save for three, and Ms. Malone recognised them: Mr. Harley, Mr. Sheepsbridge, Mr. Diddleham. Together they drew their breath and reached under their chairs for their notebooks. “I don’t think much of flower painting either,” Ms. Malone said, projecting her voice up into the depths. “My interests currently include such things as gum-works and silver thimbles.” She pressed her hands against her hipbones… scratch scratch… “Oops,” she squealed, and pressed her cheek in mock concern. “My thimbles! I appear to have dropped them.” Mr. Harley, Mr. Sheepsbridge, and Mr. Diddleham murmured in concern and bent forwards. Their eyes – two, four, six – follow the lines of Ms. Malone's body as she bent to retrieve them. "Won’t you tighten my buckle, Mr.H? Won’t you help me please, Mr.S? Mr.D, would you be so kind?” Mr. Sheepsbridge looked away embarrassed. Mr. Diddleham looked about to seizure. Mr. Harley, however, approached Ms. Malone. “Psst, come now. Yes. That's it. Not so tight, Mr. H, that’s better. You can return to your seat. But listen while you climb as well because I have more to say. My manorial court is now in session. It’s time to find out who's to be punished for naughty or nice, for tearing through the bushes in such and such a manner, see hedgebreaking; for running your stumps across or along my she-lion flanks, see backbyting; and for any and all bodily dismemberment that would cause shock in the parish, see eavesdropping.” Mrs. Malone eyed the three of them each in turn, and, without letting up, she stooped to fetch a top hat, placed it on her head, fixed her mask, and ruffled her hair to cover her ears. “There,” she said. “And now, Mr. H, I’ll have that.” She held out her palm. Mr. H evaporated, along with Mr. S and Mr. D. The auditorium disappeared. The flaps of the machine closed with a click. Ms. Malone sat down on the floor. Outside the machine, she heard yelps of pleasure – cats licking their ears, someone calling her name.

Ms. Malone rolled her eyes and looked through the window as the sky changed colour. She curled her hair back behind her right ear and tugged gently at her earlobe as if testing the strength of a jungle vine. She ran her forefinger and thumb up and around the edge of her ear. Something was in there. Carefully, she folded the skin around her earhole and sealed it tight by pressing down on the flaps with her hand. Slowly, she lay back on the rug. Reaching over her head with her one free hand, she found the wicker basket, lifted the lid, and closed her hand around a pair of iron tweezers. Twisting her body around so that her unsealed ear now pressed tightly against the carpet, the noise of the sea and the people vanished completely, and she heard the dripping noise in her head for the first time. It was like a tap had been left on. Ms. Malone held her breath. She had a clear mental picture of what a leak on the brain would look like. Manoeuvring her arms, she positioned the iron tweezers next to her airborne ear and pressed the tip against the covered up earhole. Then she lay there, quite still, for several minutes. Then, she pulled her fingers away one by one and as her ear bloomed she got busy with the tweezers. In they went and with one pinch they caught the head of something. Ms. Malone squeezed her eyes tight. Then, twisting ever so gently so as not to tear the thing in half, she pulled, and pulled, and bit by bit a worm came out of her ear. She held it up above her head. It was a grey and glistening thing. It was limp too, hardly moving, and longer in length than the prongs that held it. Ms. Malone grimaced. She got to her feet and went to the window. With one final curious look, she pushed it through the window bars and dropped it into the sea.

The worm was rescued by a big wave which washed up against the machine and bore the worm gently into the sea. Catching the worm like this was a blessing shortlived, however, because the worm was an earth worm and did not know the backstroke. So, the worm started to drown. It took on a lot of water, but fortunately was taken up on the ocean's silver teaspoon to where it could breathe. With the white horses it rode, until they threatened to beach the poor worm next to the octopus, and leave it to blacken on the beach in the sun. But the worm got lucky again, saved just before the cliff’s edge by a passing seagull, an enemy whose kindly intervention resulted in the exhausted worm clamped between its beak and carried far out to sea. The worm looked down. The beach, and shore, and the machines, all receded into the distance. Far down below, the ships with their circular smokers glinted in sunspots. Just as the worm was settling in, there came the inevitable, accidental snip, and the worm fell, down, down, down… an identity crisis common to its kind. The confused worm passed through middle zone of man and entered the sea with an Olympian splash. The worm would never make it back to the surface. First, the worm passed beneath singing dolphins. Next, the worm danced badly with mermaids. Descending further still, the worm made friends with a whale, a whale whose insides were warm and dark and allowed the worm to blow out its cheeks and take in the air one final time. That was where the worm disintegrated over the remainder of his natural life.

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