Ants around my ankles

The day had begun clear and unnaturally bright, but already by lunchtime it was oppressively close. He had walked for hours through this strange, high-altitude landscape, with its hoards of ants the size of wasps and clouds of wasps no bigger than ants. By the time he had found the mountain cabin of reputedly Byronic aspect, Drood was sweating like an ox, gasping at the oxygen-poor air, which was now hotter than his exhaled breath, and it was far later in the day than expected.

The stone hut turned out to be packed with regional poets. He had no idea how many poets make a Hamlet, his collective noun for the same, but it didn’t require more than a handful for the tiny refuge to be full. What with their large, hairy and robustly poetic bodies, their haversacks full of virile verses, mythical quantities of cheese and their bottles of local wine, they couldn’t have found a corner for another errant soul, not even if his name were Pagnol.

A plethora of poems

They burst out of the cabin as he huffed his way across the clearing to give their pithy advice in well-rounded, regional tones. Drood mentioned his intention to cross the Cat’s Paw pass. The poets, all expert alpinists no doubt, looked at Edwin’s boots, his old khaki trousers, his distinctly English and hardly altitudinous shirt and shook their heads. But what did they know? With these very boots, Drood’s father had driven the communist out of Malaya and the Pachtoun back to his mountain lair. He decided to carry on up the Khyber, as it were, but politely suffered death from a lengthy quiver-full of regional sonnets first. He pretended to understand the argot and congratulated them all heartily before leaving. You never know when you might need an alpine poet with some rappelling and abseiling experience.

Now, three hours later and very alone under a sky so heavy and leaden as to bend a birds beak, he scrabbled at an almost vertical slope of dark and slippery shale while the wind picked up and the first drops of freezing rain began to rake the few tufts of harsh and brittle grass that was clearly all the life this face was prepared to support today. There were no real rocks to hold onto, merely some amorphous clumps of the same fragmented slate shale: awkward bulges made of a thousand tiny razors that crumbled at the slightest touch, trickling down the steep lip of the ravine with a soft tinkling sound that lasted, even above the noise of the wind, for an uncomfortably long time, before falling into an equally long and scary silence.

Politically correct divinity for the modern age

Drood has a God, a diffident, Anglican sort of God. The kind one doesn’t like to bother unless it’s something really serious, and certainly not on a weekday. Drood’s God is neither the type for severing hands nor stoning the adulterer, nor the kind you would want to shout “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani” at, even in the teeth of a storm, when cringing at the edge of a great, grey glissando of a precipice with no equipment other than a pair of boots that have definitely seen better days and not a dastardly Moriarty nor faithful Watson in sight to render one immortal.

“I have to get back”, said Drood out-loud to himself. “I have a column to write. There is, if one includes the editor, an enthusiastic readership of at least five people waiting for it.”

“For half a dozen more, I might consider you worth saving”, said the Anglican God, quietly in his right ear.

“I don’t have them”, said Drood, “I’m a poor blogger, not the bloody Telegraph”

“You shouldn’t swear”, said the Anglican God, “not even in a tight corner.”

“This is 2010, we’re not at Agincourt, ‘bloody’ doesn’t count as swearing, hasn’t for years.”

“I was at Agincourt”, said the Anglican God, “the language was fruity in the extreme. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. I made the universe and I make the rules.”

“Including gravity?”

“Including gravity, nice try” … “Listen, I might let you off for a good joke, as long as it doesn’t feature, sex, race or members of anyone’s clergy”

“I don’t do jokes”, said Drood, “and anyway, you can’t be funny and PC at the same time, it’s impossible. Does the clergy thing include Mullahs?”

“Mullahs, Ayatollahs, Bishops, Rabbis, whatever … no clergy”

“Whose side are you on? I thought you liked a nice Jewish joke.”

“The Lord your God is a balanced God. I try to encourage collegial respect.”

“What about other minorities: Celebrities? Talking animals? Scientists?”

“No problem with any of them,” said the Anglican God, “as long as it’s a good joke and nobody gets hurt or upset, or made to feel stupid because they didn’t get the punch-line.”

I give up”, said Drood, “I’d rather take my chances with the next fall of scree, or whatever this third-rate, non-rock is called.”

“My work is perfect”, said the Anglican God, “there is nothing third-rate in the whole universe that was not made by your lot”

You made our lot, so how can we be the root of imperfection?  That’s neither fair nor logical. I thought you were an Anglican! And anyway, we didn’t make the Alps, you did, and this stuff is rubbish: can’t climb it, can’t build with it, can’t make fire with it or anything useful! No wonder the whole damn range is eroding away. You just can’t admit that you got it wrong, that’s all.”

“I’m not talking to you anymore”, huffed the Anglican God. “You swear too much for my liking. No wonder you’re about to slide over a precipice. Who would want you around anyway? I’m surprised you even have a readership of five for your horrible column. In fact, I think you’re exaggerating. Everything I say from now on is a soliloquy. You’re all just ants around my ankles anyway and I don’t know why I bother. And I didn’t get the Alps wrong. They’re fantastic! I admit some bits are rather dodgy, but erosion is what makes for the grandeur of the whole effect. By the way, the passes are spectacular. The Cat’s Paw, for example, is particularly impressive in this light; from where I am you can see as far as Grenoble.”

At this point Edwin’s attention was distracted from God’s soliloquy by a very unsettling feeling under his right foot and another faint tinkling sound from far below.

“If I get out of this alive,” he said, “I promise to only tell the truth, get up early, go to the dentist every six months at least, phone my family from time to time, eat more local produce, start dating women my own age and definitely stop writing in the third person.”

Edwin Drood

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