The Curmudgeon


Saturday, August 01, 2015

The Wolf That Will Swallow the Sun

An extract

The Captain stood facing out to sea, one hand raised to shade his eyes, the other resting on the head of the great gaunt dog sitting at his right. The dog’s head was turned to face inland, its teeth bared; as a child Visner had never been entirely confident of the Captain's ability to control it. The traditional gloss on the statue was that the Captain was watching for invaders and the dog was summoning the citizens to repel them; given what was known of the historical Captain Scoller, it was at least equally likely that the man was staring after the longship which had just abandoned him while the dog snarled at the soldiers who were about to hack both man and dog to pieces. Visner could not remember what expression was on the Captain's face, and at this time of day the black stone showed nothing.

Visner turned away and went across the road to one of the restaurants, the one whose price list flew closest to the limits of reasonable expenditure without blatantly exceeding them. The place was called the Captain's Table, and the walls were decorated with historical photographs of the town, with a natural emphasis on its former function as a sea-port; but to Visner’s relief no effort had been made to conjure up a nautical atmosphere with oars, wheels and the like.

The waitress was young and blonde, and her smile was slightly better than professional. "Good evening," she said, and handed Visner a menu in a plastic folder.
"Thank you," Visner said.
"If you would prefer non-migrant service, just let a member of staff know," the waitress said.
"I beg your pardon?" Visner said.

The waitress stepped back from the table and pointed at her foot. A grey plastic ring encircled her leg just above the ankle, loosely fitted but impossible to slide off. It bore a serial number and a cuboid protrusion like a child's building brick with a small square hole. Inside the hole was a coppery glint.

"It's your statutory right as a consumer to be served by a non-migrant if you so wish," the waitress said. "You should be aware that if you choose that option when the restaurant is busy it can mean your meal may take longer to arrive. We're not all that busy now, though."
"You'll do fine,” Visner said. "But thanks anyway."

He glanced down the menu, which turned out to be two menus: one with smaller print, greater choice and larger prices, and a footnote which guaranteed that all ingredients were imported. Visner ordered from the cheaper list, which guaranteed only that the ingredients were of the best quality obtainable at such economical rates.

The portions were reasonably sized, but cauterised almost beyond the bounds of flavour; perhaps the kitchen staff knew too much about the best obtainable ingredients, or perhaps they had been ordered to motivate customers towards the more expensive menu. Scraping at the carbon with a knife, Visner looked around the half-dozen other occupied tables. To judge by the diners' display of appetite, most of them had opted for the cheaper meal as well; at the table nearest Visner's they had also requested the non-migrant service, and a youngish man whose voice reminded him of Gabend's was lamenting the times that made such choices necessary.

"It might be a bit slower than letting a plague virus loose or rounding us all up to be shot, but the end result is exactly the same: the disappearance of this nation. Worse than that, the deliberate extermination of this nation, because I refuse to believe that they don’t understand the consequences of what they do. It’s genocide, nothing more nor less."
"It's irresponsible, definitely," agreed the young man’s older companion as Visner’s waitress walked past. “I think just about everyone agrees that the penalties are far too lenient."
"Penalties? They practically reward them," the young man said. "They don't have to pay their repatriation fares, they don't have to pay fines, they probably don't have to eat dog-meat like this, and even the ones that work don't have to work very hard. All they have to do is wear an ankle bracelet for a while, and even that comes off after a couple of years so they can sail away for another little vacation. They ought to be tattooed, permanently marked somehow."
"Branded on the forehead," said the older man, leaning back in his chair and corseting his paunch with his fingers. "It's what used to be done with runaway slaves. Though I doubt it would work nowadays; it'd probably end up being a fashion statement."
"They could outlaw it," said the young man; "they could make that design of tattoo illegal for anyone else to have, like a copyright."
"They could do that," the older man agreed; "but they're afraid to, of course. They don't want to seem harsh. Meanwhile they spend millions on the repatriation initiative, and whenever part of the country sinks beneath the sea it turns out that they can’t afford the land reclamation."

Visner signalled to the waitress and asked for the bill. Coffee was available, but the price was bloated by the water tax on restaurants; it would be far cheaper to use the ration in his hotel room. He made a point of thanking the waitress rather too effusively, less from any profound gratitude than from an urge to spite the spirit of Gabend in the young man’s voice.

He walked all the way round the Square in search of a pleasanter exit than Scholar Street; but he was unable to find a route that led easily back to the hotel and he had no wish to explore Gullands for short-cuts in the dark. As he was inching past the hole in Scholar Street he heard a low, indeterminate growl that made him stop and strain his eyes; the source might have been a dog or a disturbed tramp or perhaps, Visner thought when it did not occur again, he was simply not fully awake. He had spent most of the day surrounded by the static whine of the car engine and the murmured exclamations of passing vehicles, which were doubtless now being echoed in the murmur and crash of the sea.

Visner walked to the end of Scholar Street, as quickly and quietly as he could manage without actually going on tiptoe or hurrying over the line between a brisk walk and a run. Nobody was trying to sleep on the pavement; and there were no dogs.

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