Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Episode 12: Going underground

Ubiquarian, as he now thought of himself, was finding good and bad aspects to his new existence. Until he was accepted into the OED, he would be unable to reside in one of the letter blocks…something which wasn’t without its own advantages as he relished the novelty of his anonymity and wandered around Wordsdrow without tasks to perform. On the down side, he had to seek temporary accommodation in one of the small sanctuaries for unregistered words which had sprung up on Wordsdrow’s hinterland.

These buildings were viewed by some as over-indulgence; by others as shameful neglect of those on society’s margins. It was true that some residents took advantage of the opportunity to opt out of everyday life and live a slovenly existence but, for others, the sanctuaries were their only hope of survival. Ubiquarian, aware that he didn’t fit neatly into either of these groupings decided that he would treat the sanctuary in which he found himself as a temporary necessity. It stiffened his resolve to make the transition to an accepted word as quickly as possible.

It wasn’t that the conditions were unpleasant but he missed the cachet of being a recognised word. Here, everybody strived for recognition and more than a few were willing to compromise their dignity to do so. A stroll through the building would reveal a high incidence of exhibitionists among the limbo words, as they were known, who attempted to catch the attention of others. Ubiquarian felt embarrassed for them. If nothing else, the experience provided a timely reminder of what he valued in life. He thought about Incognito’s offer to assist him to gain recognition but his preference was to do so on his own terms...in itself, a challenge. In his Crusade guise, he’d been self-effacing; now he had to be more demonstrative.

‘Hi, I’m Ubiquarian. I’m new around here,’ he would boldly say to other words, proffering his hand in a firm shake. ‘I’m looking to get to know people and make a name for myself.’

Too pushy; the words didn’t sound natural and he noticed others visibly flinching when greeted by this introduction. He tried a more discreet approach.

‘Hey, I’m Ubiquarian. No, you won’t have heard of me as I’m new around here.’

Too reticent; as often as not, this gambit was met with indifference. Maybe he should opt for a more grandiloquent gesture which would immediately make him known. But what might such a gesture be? And could he carry it off? It wasn’t in his nature to be brash. No, he corrected himself - it wasn’t in Crusade’s nature…he now had to cast off his Crusade mantle.

After a few days, Ubiquarian became familiar with his mood swings: one moment, regretting his actions and the attempt to forge a new identity; the next, savouring the opportunity to re-invent himself. His overwhelming regret was that he’d taken leave of Treason so abruptly although he could, now, seek her out in his new guise but didn’t feel confident that he could do so without betraying what had happened between them.

He continued to agonise over this. Even within the circle of friends he’d made in the A-block, there was unease at the idea of identity change. Whatever hand fate had dealt one, surely the noble response was to make the most of it but he’d now made his decision and retracting it would only leave him open to a fresh set of problems. He sighed and decided to go for a walk.

Treason had been shaken by her visit to the C-block. She’d decided to talk to Crusade, explain that being dismissive wasn’t her intention and state her desire to resume their relationship. The first indication that this might not be so easy came when he failed to respond to her attempts to contact him. Words in the OED were on constant alert for situations where they were needed to adjudicate on their usage and the paging network tended to get a response within an hour. Allowances were made for words to get some rest and relaxation but the system was designed so that they would be contactable most of the time.

Her relationship with Crusade revolved around, mostly, clandestine meetings; that both of them were technology savvy helped to facilitate these meetings. Now, he was incommunicado and she suspected that this was linked to their aborted encounter. He’d seemed shell-shocked as she left the room but surely he wouldn’t act impetuously and do something drastic? Two of his traits which she liked most were his rational mind and his sensitivity. Could these have made him read too much into her response?

There was only one way to find out so she visited a couple of bars in the C-block. She knew the Cross Bar was a favourite of his and she recognised some of his acquaintances – Coin, Correspondent and Cynic – at one of the tables. She was about to ask if they’d seen Crusade when she noticed a change of mood among the group. When she was joined at the bar by Correspondent, her concern increased and she decided to leave. Moments later, she caught a fleeting glimpse of one of the group as he raced to the lift and knew her instinct had been correct: something was afoot.

Now, she had a new dilemma...it would be difficult for her to ask about Crusade without drawing attention to herself but she wanted to know where he was and communicate with him. If something untoward had happened, she felt partially responsible, complicit. Sensing hostility from Crusade’s friends, she knew that she should avoid C-block until she contacted him again but still found herself drawn towards the building.

It wasn’t, as Conspiracy surmised, that she wanted to return to the scene of the crime, more that she wanted some connection with Crusade and C-block was the likeliest place for this. After a couple of visits, she knew that Crusade had been categorised as a missing word. Through stealth and judicious enquiries, she established that there was concern over his disappearance and a theory among his friends that a dark-haired lady was involved. She was horrified to think that she was somehow implicated and toyed with seeking out his friends to explain her association and to help in whatever way she could.

On the other hand, she was uncomfortable with the situation. Although she dismissed the view that C-block was host to a disproportionate number of ne’er-do-wells as lazy stereotyping, she felt no desire to antagonise any of its occupants. She would keep her own counsel but was aware that events could overtake her. Above all else, she needed time and space to think about her situation.

Conspiracy – seen by many as over-eager to look for non-existent intrigue – was, in truth, quite sanguine. His excitable imagination would often lead to a misinterpretation of events which he would then temper with a more rational analysis but something about Crusade’s disappearance alarmed him. Because he liked Crusade and saw him as well-meaning, Conspiracy wished to discount his own suggestion that Crusade might take measures to ensure Onesie would not be accepted into the OED.

He enquired about the newcomer and learned that since his appearance in a bar in the C-block, Onesie hadn’t been seen. Even though Conspiracy saw Onesie as unwanted and ridiculous, this was bad news as the timing of his disappearance coupled with that of Crusade was too much of a coincidence. Conspiracy’s discomfort was increased when he was approached by Coercion and Crook as he enjoyed an early-morning coffee in a C-block canteen.

‘Mind if we join you?’ asked Crook, smiling but not quite smiling.

‘Please do.’

‘Your Christmas OK?’

‘Yeah, it was OK. Not perfect, a few things went wrong but that’s how it goes.’

‘Look, we’ve been hearing things about you and we just wanted to clarify something,’ said Coercion, sliding his elbow along the table, moving closer to Conspiracy and lowering his voice. ‘We heard you’ve been asking about Onesie. May I ask why?’

‘Oh, I was just curious. He popped up everywhere for a few days and then I hadn’t seen him around. Just curious, that’s all. Have you seen him?’

‘As it happens, no, we haven’t...and it’s causing us some concern. We’d rather taken a shine to him and wanted to give him the chance to introduce himself around the place. You know, poor chap looked a bit lost and we don’t like seeing that happen. Now he’s gone missing and we heard that you were on his trail. Just wondered what was up, is all.’ Coercion smiled his own half-smile, half-smirk.

Conspiracy gulped. ‘Well, one of my friends has also gone missing…pretty much the same time as Onesie and I just wondered whether there was any connection. When you’ve got a name such as mine, you tend to read too much into things.’

‘Oh a bit of healthy curiosity does no harm,’ said Crook. ‘It’s just that, and don’t read anything into my name here, I wanted to find out whether something was afoot. You would tell me, wouldn’t you?’

‘Of course, of course,’ stammered Conspiracy. ‘If I hear of anything, I’ll let you know. Er, can you reciprocate…tell me if anything comes to light about my friend, Crusade?’

‘Sure, mate. Us Cs must stick together, eh?’ said Crook who patted Conspiracy’s arm, adding casually: ‘Do you have any leads on Crusade, anything we can use to help you find him?’

‘No, not really. Apparently, he was with some woman the other night but I don’t know who she is or, er, anything about her, really.’ Conspiracy paused. ‘But I’ll let you know if I find out anything…about Onesie, that is.’

‘Appreciated, mate. We’d love to stay and have a longer chat but things to do...and that. Cheers.’ Both Coercion and Crook stood up, shook hands with Conspiracy and walked slowly to the door.

Conspiracy exhaled as they left…this was becoming complicated. He was not to know but it was even more complicated than he thought. A few tables away from him but out of earshot, Treason had watched the exchange. Having sensed hostility or, at least, curiosity towards her in the Cross Bar, she made covert visits to the C-block – eschewing her habitual dark-coloured clothes and wearing either a headscarf or a hat – and this latest visit alarmed her. She knew Conspiracy to be a friend of Crusade and when she saw him chatting amicably with Crook and Coercion, she shivered involuntarily.

Her plan had been to inveigle her way into Crusade’s circle of friends but she no longer wished to do so. Having been concerned about Crusade’s absence, she was now also concerned about her own. She would go to ground for a while and from her A-block friends' knowing remarks, she knew how to go about it. There were some self-styled makeover practitioners in Wordsdrow and the arrival of the New Year led to many “New Year, New You” advertisements. The services offered were cosmetic treatment or vaguely-worded holistic regeneration but it was those who didn’t advertise themselves who interested Treason.

She dredged her memory for names: Veneer, Masquerade and Front, she remembered were among the less wholesome ones while Obscure and Incognito were spoken of with approval. Of the two, Treason sensed that Incognito, a fellow female, would be the more empathic of the two but she decided to visit Obscure first.

She finished her coffee and walked to the O-zone. When she entered the lobby of the main block, she sensed tension. Three men lounged on seats which accorded a good view of all entrants and when they noticed Treason, all three sat upright, smirks on their faces. Treason recognised Obnoxious, an unruly, unpopular figure around Wordsdrow and guessed that the other two were likely to be part of his notorious coterie which included Offensive, Obnoxious, Obscene and Odious. The comments began immediately: ‘Get a load of her…nice ass…not so sure about the rest though…any idea who she is? Shall we find out and treat her to a proper O-block welcome?’

Treason did her best to ignore them as she asked at the reception desk whether Obscure was available.

‘He’s a difficult one to track down. If you’d like to take a seat, I’ll see if I can find him,’ said Organiser, the man on the desk, who then lowered his voice and inclined his head towards the three men who were now berating another arrival. ‘I’d choose a seat as far away from them as possible. They are, I’m afraid, one of the occupational hazards of residing in this building.’

‘Are they always like this? Do they hang around being rude to everybody who passes through?’

‘More often than we’d like. Actually, they’re even worse when Obscene is with them,’ said Organiser as he rolled his eyes and shook his head. ‘The things that appalling man comes out with. Anyway, just take a seat and I’ll let you know. Can I say who’s calling?’

‘He won’t know me…just say there’s somebody to see him.’

Treason sat where she was partially obscured from the view of the three men whose jeering and hectoring continued until a woman of gothic appearance with elaborately applied make-up and long black hair descended a stairs and walked slowly through the foyer. The litany of abuse and derision stopped abruptly and there was silence as she passed. Intrigued, Treason walked over to Organiser and asked if he’d been able to locate Obscure; he hadn’t as yet.

‘Who was the woman with long black hair just now?’

‘Oh, that’s Occult. I take it you noted the change in demeanour from those three idiots?’

Treason nodded.

‘She really intimidates them and the bully fa├žade slips when she’s around. She’s actually mild-mannered, more into Gothic clothing than any real interest in sorcery or witchcraft but she spooks them. I wish we had a few more like her here.’

‘Indeed. It seems as if Obscure isn’t around so I won’t wait. Thanks for your help.’

Treason walked to the exit and glared at the three snigggering men. She was glad to leave and smiled at the prospect of visiting the more amenable surroundings of her favourite Wordsdrow building: I-block.
Next episode: the mysterious world of numbers........

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