Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Moon and the Spy Pencils

a story 

Moon was such a small man that if he had been one of many trapped in a burning building, he would have been able to avert catastrophe by wriggling through a skylight or a heating vent. He thought about it sometimes in bed at night. He pictured himself squeezed bullet-shaped, narrow little shoulders working forth and back, face contorted, encouraging shouts and hands at his rear. Lying in his bed, he wriggled a little, strained his little shellfish muscles. He imagined popping through like a cork out of a bottle, and being cheered and applauded as he got to work freeing the others. Fast and dainty as a cat, he would remove a window frame or force a lock, to accomodate their bulkier bodies. 

More than once since he reached his full height, Moon had been confidently informed that women went wild over tiny men. Other men - taller men - had told him with many a chuckle and wink that short men were known to be great lovers. Women, they said, could not resist short men. Look at Bogart! Look at Alan Ladd! And look at circus dwarves - they had beautiful full-sized wives and beautiful jealous full-sized girlfriends! The reason clowns were sad was because canny dwarves stole their women. 

Moon had never stolen a woman. But now that the war was bad, he found he was one of very few young and able-bodied men in town. He couldn't go away and fight because he was too small and his breath came out rough and ragged. His mother had given birth to him too soon, which she still spoke of reproachfully as if it had been his fault, but which he privately considered a failure on her part. He had been born in a bloody wrangle in the kitchen, too little and surprised to breathe easily on his own. He had not got enough oxygen. 

(He did wonder if this early experience of breathlessness might trouble him if he ever was called upon to wriggle through a skylight, or a heating vent.) 

Moon had a number of skills, though his body was weak and stunted. He knew he was cleverer and more able than many people who had enjoyed a full gestation period. His brain must have been finished, perhaps already dreaming, when he was rudely awakened and forced out that day in the kitchen. Only his body had been interrupted, and left unfinished. Moon had looked at embryos in jars and seen that they were all head, with just the smallest apologetic flicker of a body behind. They looked calm and wise, as if they had been left alone to think, without the distraction of other physical demands. The important early work goes into making the brains; the limbs and torso are afterthoughts. So Moon was made. His head was beautifully, perfectly large, his brain worked well. Some days he even felt he was superior - part of a different, more cerebral breed, constructed to think freely without the burden of muscle and bones and fat. His hands were faster, too, for being small. 

It could have gone another way. The lack of oxygen could have made him an idiot. For many months of his early life, doctors and other interested parties had watched anxiously at Moon's bedside for signs of strangeness. They expected that at any moment his tongue would loll or his eyes would lazily cross. But Moon was so alert that before they even knew he could speak he had secretly given them all names. He had also named his toys, his pillows and the three soft moles on his nanny's face. He hoarded words from stories and from conversations that he overheard. 

He revealed his abilities gradually to the people around his bed - starting, for tradition's sake, with 'Mama'. They kept saying 'Mama' to him, mugging with big eyes and flapping lips and wanting him to reciprocate, so he obliged. His own name for his mother, as it happened, was not Mama; it was This. His father's name was Out. 

The company that Moon worked for had been an innocuous concern before the war, producing games and packs of cards and crossword puzzles. Now they had a new project and they felt more important. They collected together useful items that could be smuggled into prisoner of war camps, and packaged them up in pretend care packages. There would be food, socks, a pack of cards perhaps, cigarettes, small comforts. Each box got stamped with the name of a fictitious charity and then they were shipped out, rich with secrets and never to be seen again. Moon's particular job was to work on tiny maps that were inked on tissue paper, rolled as thin as hairs and stashed inside the wooden chambers of pencils, where the lead was meant to be. It was a delicate process. Moon would be given a map to copy out, and would sit all day frowning very close to his work, a stack of pencils next to him, their insides mutilated to make room. Moon alternated the drawing and the rolling and the poking, and got up sometimes to wash his hands, so his sweat wouldn't buckle the tiny slips of paper or smudge the pencil lines. On his way to the men's washroom he would pass the table where the young girls sewed codes into handkerchiefs and map references into the heels of socks. Sometimes he passed by unnoticed. Sometimes the girls nudged each other and made comments. One of them was called Hilda and had two red coils of hair and a wide red mouth. She was as broad in the flanks as a horse and had rough skin around her mouth. 

'That's a wild one there,' said Harry, who had a withered leg and worked on tiny compasses, strong and resilient enough to be hidden in the heel of a boot. No-one knew how many of the little maps and other items actually got to their intended beneficiaries, or if they provided any help. But Harry and Moon and the girls all worked late into the night anyway, straining their eyes. Harry gained secret pleasure from not telling his wife anything about his new line of work, and she gained secret pleasure from not being told. 

'That's a wild one there. Eat you for breakfast, Moon. Soon as look at you.' 

Harry had a wife, a woman of virtue who was not to be discussed in the same terms as the working girls. Moon blushed when Harry talked that way. Hilda stood a full foot taller than Moon. Moon knew this because she'd once backed him against a wall and offered him a swig of something strong-smelling from a hip flask. His nose had come level with the imperious jut of her bosom. Too close to her body, he saw that it was really a collection of beautiful arches, like a church: her eyebrows, her feet in battered high-up heels, her front curved out under black scratchy heavy fabric. Her pelvis the doorway, her ribcage the rafters. Moon pitter-pattered like a rabbit, feet working for escape, heart fast. He felt the breath gather in his chest as if in a balloon. 

'You're so LITTLE. It's sweet,' Hilda hissed before he got away. 'I could snap you over my knee like one of those pencils.' After that he began sneaking glances at her knees, which were as solid and lumpy as potatoes. 

One of the things that Out did after Moon gratified him with the word 'Dad' was to provide Moon with books and paper. After the incident in the kitchen Moon's mother had made it very clear that she would not tolerate another pregnancy. She had found the experience uncomfortable, its culmination horrifying and its issue disappointing. So Out had to accept that his only heir was sickly and under-sized. The only hope was to encourage the boy to use his big head and become a great thinker. Great thinkers, Out reasoned, could be peculiar in appearance; it was tolerated, in intellectual circles. Out ordered stacks of books on random subjects from geology to Greek architecture, in the hope that Moon would display natural ability in one direction or another. Moon, curled foetus-like on his bed, quietly read everything and told his father very little about what he thought. In private he drew on all the flyleaves of the books - pictures of himself, big-headed and serene, and of This, and of Out. Next to their heads he would write things that they had said to him or about him. ALWAYS WITH YOUR HEAD IN A BOOK! This said. MAYBE THE CIVIL SERVICE OR POLITICS Out said. Because Out never looked at the books he didn't know about the drawings and it seemed somehow necessary to keep them secret. 

'That ain't a map,' said Harry, leaning over Moon's shoulder. Moon's map had turned itself into a drawing of Hilda, the dimpled side of her face and the heavy sweep of her hair. 'If you ever run short on dough, Hild, you could sell that hair,' one of the other girls had shouted once when Hilda was pinning it up. 'But if I didn't have the hair, I wouldn't get my drinks bought for me, and then I'd be even shorter on dough,' Hilda laughed back. 'Who wants to dance with a bald girl?' 

'You're a dark one. Got any more?' Harry asked Moon, with surprising urgency. 
'No,' said Moon. 'I just lost concentration for a bit.' He crushed the map in his hand - a waste. 
'Draw us one,' urged Harry. 'Not Hilda, though, she's a cow. Draw us little Jean there, the blonde one.' 
Drawing women wasn't unlike drawing maps. They had curves and fencing and wooded areas too. Jean was smaller and sharper and Moon thought her geography far less intriguing than Hilda's, but he obliged Harry. Harry whistled appreciatively and Moon felt suddenly liked. 
'Tell you what, mate. Most of those prisoners would rather see one of these than those bloody maps. Know I would if I was in the lock-up.' Harry paused. He had been in the lock-up, once, having been given to using his nimble compass-making fingers for the less noble purpose of breaking locks and opening safes. Encouraged, though shy, Moon started using both sides of the paper. Waste not, want not. On one side the map; on the other, a version of Hilda, first based upon sneaked glances across to her laughing or frowning over her work, then as he grew bolder, in imagined poses and scenarios. Harry encouraged him but then betrayed him. Hilda came in for the day in a state of high excitement, her wide cheeks redder than black market rouge. She came right over to Moon's desk and he felt littler than ever, as troubled as when Out had fired questions at him about his reading. 

'Harry said you been drawing me!' 
'No,' said Moon. 
'Come on, show! No-one ever drew me before.' Moon was quicker but she was stronger, and with one tough move she whipped a pile of finished papers off his desk. The delicate paper crumpled in her grip. She held them too high for Moon to reach and he sat red and suffering as she looked at each one in turn. She seemed angry and then not angry. She looked at the pictures for so long that Moon stopped watching her and went back to his work. 
'You been putting these in your little pencils, then?' she finally asked him. 
'Yes,' he said, wretched. 
'Show me.' She proffered one of the drawings. 
'Put it in. Do what you do.' 
Harry was watching from the other side of the table. Moon picked a pencil up. His hands trembled as he rolled the paper up tight and slotted it in through the tiny hole. Hilda leaned in close, and giggled. 
'Look at the way you slide that in there.' 
Harry let out a rude snort. 
'I don't have any notion who's looking at me, do I? Don't you think you ought to ask a person before you send pictures of them across the bloody world, hmm?' 
'Yes. I'm sorry.' 
'Make it up to me, then.' 
She placed the papers back on his desk with exaggerated care, patting them flat. Moon watched, not understanding. 
'Draw me properly,' she said. 'A big one, like proper artists do.' 
'But how can I -' 
Hilda leaned in again and took the completed, forgotten spy pencil out of his hand. She wrote an address down on one of the finished maps in front of him. 'That's where I live. You're going to come over and do my picture. Or I'm going to tell the supervisor about what you've been up to. Dirty little man.' 

Hilda lived with Jean in a shabby two-room flat. There was just a bedroom, with twin beds, and a kitchen. There were dirty saucepans crowded by the sink, and stockings hanging limply over the door-frames like discarded skins.
'It ain't Buckingham Palace,' Hilda said, handing Moon a china cup with an inch of brown in the bottom. Moon touched his tongue to the liquid and it burned. Outside work Hilda seemed a little quieter and less aggressive. She was wearing a sober brownish jumper, assiduously darned at one elbow, and a grey skirt that didn't show her knees. Jean had gone out for the evening. 
'You brought your stuff then?' Hilda said, looking down on Moon with a smile that betrayed some nervousness or regret. 'We don't keep a lot of artists' materials around.'

Moon produced a sketchbook from his knapsack. Paper was so scarce that he had begun rubbing out old drawings and working over their remains. Some pages had four layers of faint lines on them. Moon still could not be sure if he was being punished, or befriended, but he suspected the latter.

'Come on into the bedroom then. Jean's out for the night, and good luck to her.' 

The thing about the bedroom was the beds, and the chamber-pot neatly stashed in one corner. There was a smell, too, of close-confined flesh and talcum powder. Moon was gripped by a sudden conviction that Hilda was going to dart back out of the room and leave him in there, locking the door behind her. He would have to sit down on the corner of one of the beds and wait, the chamber-pot horrifyingly close by and the smell of girls growing stronger as the night drew in. 

But she didn't leave the room. She did something Moon had not even considered. 

'Oh come on, little man. Proper artists always drew women starkers. You know that.' 

The brownish jumper with its thoughtful darn was on the floor, soon joined by the grey skirt, two discarded skins of stockings and a number of complex items that had long ago been white. Moon stared at the pile of clothes and then flicked his eyes up to Hilda's face, trying to avoid the skin in between. She was flushed and defiant-looking, glittering at him. The last thing she did was unpin her hair. Seeing that he wasn't going to speak, she sat down on the bed, and made an impatient gesture. Well? He had to look then, and saw the way her belly settled into comfortable folds, the sad tug-marks on her hips and breasts where the flesh had swelled too fast. The arch of her pelvis, the arch of her arm propped awkwardly behind her head in imitation of a pose she had seen in magazines, the arch of her foot pointed out. Moon sat on the other bed, and did as he was told. 

'Can't believe I took all my clothes off and you never tried a thing,' she said when he had stilled his trembles enough to execute a competent sketch of her. He looked at her. She peeled the bedspread off her bed and wrapped it round her shoulders. 

'Never say a word, do you? Just big eyes like an owl. Never ask any of the girls out for a drink. Nothing from you. You're a rare commodity, you know. Nice-looking bloke still at home. You ought to take advantage.'
'I'm so small,' said Moon at last. 
'But it's nice for a man to be gentle, though. Makes a change.' 

She reached over the gap between the two beds, and took the sketchpad out of his hands. 'Ever think about all them prisoners who might be looking at me and wondering who I am?' she said with a soft laugh. 
'We don't know -' began Moon. 
'We don't know if they get there,' she filled in, nodding, drawing him over to her bed. 'We just never, never - know.' 

A hundred pictures of Hilda, wadded between socks and chocolate bars, inside pencils that had been part of trees, tumbling in luggage holds, handled by guards, confiscated, maybe, or never found. She unbuttoned Moon with the tender efficiency of a nurse. 

'Like this,' she said. 
'Like this,' he weakly echoed. 
'Don't draw the others, Moon.' 

'I don't.'

the end.

 This was published in the Scotland on Sunday Shorts anthology around the turn of the millenium...

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