Some things are fashionable, others not. Those things that are fashionable now might not be fashionable later on today, around teatime. It is generally objects that are or are not fashionable, but sometimes it is attributes, ethics, definitions. Language is at the moment rather fashionable. I am talking to you and you understand. You slowly nod your head, your fashionable head. Your nod is benign. Heads are still fashionable. An assegai, less so. Electricity is currently fashionable. Mammoths, unfortunately not. I am walking on the central reservation of a busy road and I ask myself: how stylish is this? Trucks pass, fashionable and not gauche.
My name is a fashionable one, it was given to me by fashionable parents and kept secure in my fashionable identity ever since. I am Flipblinker Rusk. How do you do? I have been trying to cross this road for the past hour, but I am stuck on the concrete strip of the central reservation like a castaway on a linear island. I am walking in my fashionable sandals because that’s better and more productive than standing still and enduring the blown kisses of the truck drivers, mostly ironic, some not ironic, while the wind of their passing lashes me in the face. If I don’t manage to cross over before nightfall, I shall have to camp out until dawn.
Night falls because it is fashionable for night to fall. It is fashionable for declining arpeggios to fall, but not fashionable for climbers. A climber whistling a melody that contains a declining arpeggio is fashionable until he loses his grip, then his voice will go up as he goes down. He will not be chic when he lands, not at all. Falling climbers sometimes survive by cushioning their impacts on yetis. Cushioning an impact can be a fashionable thing to do. There is a cushion in the knapsack on my back. If I have to camp on the central reservation at least my head will be comfortable. I was given the cushion by a wife when wives were in fashion.
Flipblinker is a Victorian name, one still fashionable.
Some Victorian men’s names that have gone out of fashion: Jimjam, Chortlesmith, Whiskaface, Ruggleburt, Chopsy, Bounder, Gaspgrunter, Fogs, Primtips, Piemuncher, Scowlington, Oldbean, Hogbunder, Gunboat…
The city where I currently dwell is often rated the most fashionable in the land, but it doesn’t give me great pleasure to think about this because the land itself is somewhat outmoded, tarnished, badly designed. It has plains and mountains and a coastline and forests and offshore islands, yes it does, but there is something almost childish in the way the borders have been drawn around it.
The borders of the land resemble the profile of a rabbit drawn by a child, the child of unfashionable parents, with a crayon, the least fashionable of all artistic materials. I am deeply ashamed when I scrutinise a map of the land. I have been told that there are other lands, faraway lands, realms beyond the remotest horizon, that have worse outlines than ours does, but I don’t believe it.
One of those other lands is rumoured to have borders that resemble the profile of a child as drawn by a rabbit. Rumours are currently fashionable but they regularly go out of fashion, at least according to a rumour I heard not so long ago. My own view is that the borders of lands shouldn’t look like living beings of any kind. They should be purely geometric, asymmetric and symbolic.
I wonder how long this central reservation extends for?
A motorbike slows down as it passes me and the rider shouts, “Flippy, it’s me!” but I scowl because I hate being called that. The rider is wearing a helmet with the tinted visor down but I recognise the voice. It is Belinda Belluma and I ought to be pleased to meet her again, even for a split second, because she is a fashionable person and I was once in love with her and she with me.
But love goes out of fashion too, the same as anything else, and that was the case with us, but I still value her friendship, she’s an inspiration in so many ways, but she is also a distraction and that’s the problem now. By passing me on her motorbike and calling out to me, she has made me forget the reason why I wanted to cross the road. I really can’t remember it at all. I am baffled.
There must be a reason why I am trapped on this central reservation right now, a good reason I mean, a reason connected with my career, with aspirations or nostalgia. I can’t believe I would take the risk of being flattened by a truck just because I felt the need for a saunter. That’s not like me at all. I am clearly going somewhere, but I have no idea where. Thank you, Belinda Belluma.
She called me “Hun” for several months at the beginning, before I felt confident enough to ask her to stop. Then she started calling me “Flippy”, which was worse. I didn’t protest because I saw it going downhill from there and who knows what she might have eventually ended up calling me? I squint ahead and she is now just a puff of exhaust smoke and a blur of dark colour.
A few more Victorian men’s names that have, in recent decades, gone somewhat out of fashion: Rascal, Doombutter, Rumplesniff, Gorkhandle, Hubberjowl, Plishplash, Burtbluster, Kingchin, Tophatus, Duckmind…
I happen to notice that many of the trucks that pass in both directions are conveying the same kinds of cargo between the cities of the land. I wonder why the cargoes need to be exchanged if they are identical. Couldn’t they just remain in their own depots? Then I remember that I chose not to remain in my house and that I am on the way to another house that exactly resembles mine.
I can’t recall who owns that other house, nor why I am going there, but at least I now have a destination, a reason for crossing this road. That’s a positive step. All my steps are positive, it’s just that I’m acutely aware they are carrying me sideways along the central reservation and that I might be drifting away from my target. I am cargo that is going astray, flotsam that is bone dry.
Now I understand why those trucks are exchanging cargoes that in theory could be allowed to remain where they are. It’s not about the cargo itself but about motion, the act of transference, the imparting to the object that is being exchanged some air of fluidity, as if movement itself is an alchemical process. If cargo remains in its own depot it becomes dispirited, lacklustre, lost.
Yes, it’s a curious paradox that it can become lost when it remains in the place that is most familiar. And this is why I came out into the day, to find my way to the house of another human being, probably a friend, who for some reason I suspect has one of the antique names that have gone out of fashion. It’s a feeling I have. If I ever reach that house and its occupant, I shall find out.
I was lost indoors in my own house, sitting on a chair, staring at the window, and I knew that the real world beyond that window was a map that would lead me back to a feeling of being home again, even though I had to leave my home in order to benefit from its wisdom, from its obstacle course, its clues and hazards. But geometry isn’t an unoccupied discipline, it has its inhabitants.
A river of fast traffic scuppered my plans, forced me to take a detour, and there is no way I can cross it without getting wet, without splashing myself with my blood. I said I was bone dry flotsam but bones aren’t dry, they are washed by our circulations when we are alive. Who is the friend I am trying to visit? Would he attend my funeral if my life ends here, dressed in formal attire?
Tophatus is pronounced Top-hat-us, just to be clear on this.
A few more Victorian men’s names that are out of fashion: Ironcheeks, Bristlenose, Steamship, Cleverbiscuit, Fiddleknee, Deskdriver, Sweepmuncher, Muskcustard, Higgychips, Bunnylaugher, Prudebrain, Uncleflunker, Humdrumbum. These are the ones that make me smile the widest today.
Walking through a city isn’t at all comparable to walking through a forest or along a clifftop path because the rhythms of city walking are subservient to the circumstances of commerce and technology, and jerkiness, hiatus, staccato steps are an integral part of the process. I regard it as a flawed process, but that’s just my personal opinion. It’s because momentum is an important resource.
I hate wasting it, having to come to a halt on the verge of the pavement, breaking the easy flow of my stride, waiting for gaps to appear in the rush of vehicles, jogging across or even sprinting to avoid being mangled by a truck that decides to accelerate when it sees me, as if I’m a wasp that must be swatted rather than a man the same as the man driving the menace. Nearly the same.
The constant varying of pace, of coming to a stop, of having to weave my way in a complex pattern between impediments that are themselves moving and coming to a stop at irregular intervals, is too stressful to be enjoyable. When I rode with Belinda Belluma on the back of her motorbike, it was different. I was the laughing one, part of the river of steel and fumes, a valiant vector.
When I was studying engineering one of our most cranky professors would say that a flawed process was as “useful as a chocolate teapot” and not once did I question the analogy. But this morning it occurred to me that a chocolate teapot could actually be useful for a variety of reasons:
* a place to hide chocolate money,
* a house for a sweet genie,
* a weapon of defence against invading teapotophobes,
* a possible model of spacetime,
* a source of emergency rations in the event of global catastrophe,
* a psychodramatic totem,
* a tangible embodiment of the aforesaid analogy,
* a tool of strategic seduction,
* a visible reminder of Aztec legacies,
* a high cocoa content kitchenware exemplar,
* a prison for jelly babies.
You might be wondering at the point of all this. You might be asking yourself where the narrative is going. I don’t even know where I am going, so I can’t possibly have a worthwhile hypothesis on the ultimate direction of anything else. I often hear women calling their male friends “Hun” but they never or rarely call them “Avar” or “Goth” or “Scythian” or “Varangian.” Why is this? I often hear people calling their mothers “mummy” but never “vampire” or “werewolf.”
I knew an artist who painted a large circle on the wall of his room. Every day he cleaned it off and painted a slightly smaller circle. I observed this process over many weeks and it baffled me. “I’m an artist and this is my art!” he insisted when I visited him. Finally as the circle contracted to an area no bigger than the tip of his brush, I demanded, “But what exactly are you doing?”
“Making a point,” he replied.
If Belinda Belluma comes back this way I will try to jump onto the back of the saddle and go wherever she is going, rather than to the place I originally planned to go. This will be a dangerous thing to attempt, but it will relieve the pressure of my situation. I am willing to take the risk. It is currently fashionable to take risks, but only on those occasions when no harm is ultimately done.
If a risk turns out to be fatal, then it’s frowned on, not morally but aesthetically. It becomes a statement of hopelessness in style. Reviewers for fashionable newspapers might mention the incident in a flippant and dismissive way, not as a warning against readers imitating the antic but in order to make them far more conscious of the need to survive it. I imagine my demise in words.
“Flipblinker Rusk, a smudge on a road, badly executed, rather derivative too, as if he blatantly decided to ignore all the latest advances in deaths and just smear his gore in a diagonal line of varying thickness, sparkling with bits of bone in the noonday sun like cheap baubles. Perhaps we can give him some credit for effort, but ultimately the result is painfully deficient, amateurish even.”
It might be said that a bad review doesn’t matter to one who is dead, but this isn’t true. After you die, you become only what is said about you, so a review is absolutely what you are, and if it’s a bad one then you too are bad. We are more vulnerable after our demise, not less, and yet I will still attempt to jump on the motorbike if I see it. I worry only that I might jump on the wrong one.
There are other motorbikes identical to Belinda Belluma’s and riders who are very similar to her in shape and posture. She is a beautiful woman, and an excellent person in many ways, but she isn’t as unique as love once made me claim. I thought she was the only individual in the world who was like that. Since I recovered my sanity it has become clear she is splendid but nothing more.
There are millions of splendid individuals in the world and tens of thousands just in this land. I might even be one of them, but that’s not for me to say, that’s for others to say. Maybe Belinda Belluma is saying it about me right now, if she isn’t too busy concentrating on the road and the traffic lights and avoiding the eagles that swoop on bikers from the overpasses of crystal and steel.
Names like everything else can come back into fashion long after they have gone out of fashion. They are like comets that appear in the night sky, grow brighter, then fade away and vanish for another few centuries. I wonder what was the very first name for any human being? I wonder if it has ever come back into fashion. I suspect it has, but how can a modern man be certain of this?
I once had a conversation on the topic with a friend who violently disagreed. He told me that the first name ever would have been unique to the individual who owned it, something never to be repeated. You must consider, he warned me, that prototypes are imperfect, that they are refined and perfected immediately after testing, and then they vanish into oblivion. They can’t come back into fashion because they were never in fashion in the first place. They are dead ends. But we really ought to work out what that first name was. How can we manage?
I doubt that the first name was Adam, Og or Ug, those are clichés and clichés had not yet been invented. Akkh, Achu, Guhh or Coogh are more plausible. Ting or Ling are possibilities. Broar, Thorn and Chit-Chit too. My friend declared that names back then came from physical attributes and that Greeneye or Onetoe are good candidates. I answered that professions were a more likely source, and as we know that the oldest profession is prostitution, then Treewalker has a strong chance. We fell silent. Might silence have been the first? But if so, everyone would have thought they were being called whenever the wind dropped and the mammoths stopped trumpeting. This was hard work, harder than we were expecting.
I pointed out to my friend that we were both assuming it would be a simple name, simpler than modern names, but in fact ancient languages are usually more complex than modern ones. So the name we were looking for could be something like Ooooh-ooh-Cutherbert-Dribble-Hockenstocking. It just remained to be seen if that particular name had ever been used in the ages since.
He nodded and the argument was settled. It shouldn’t have been settled but it was. My friend stood up shortly afterwards and with a petulant hairy hand knocked over his coffee mug. He strode out of the café like a hulking brute in search of a lost club. I’ve never seen him since, but I still have the satisfaction of being in the right, a small consolation, true enough, but a consolation nevertheless. Will I ever see Ooooh-ooh-Cutherbert-Dribble-Hockenstocking again?
As I continue walking along the central reservation, and as the sun starts to cautiously lower itself in the sky, I realise that all the truck drivers are listening to the same radio station and I can reconstruct the entire broadcast if I concentrate. There are short gaps in the flow of talk that correspond to the spaces between passing trucks, but I am able to fill in the missing sections and assemble the news bulletin from the fragments. It is a shock to me when I digest the implications.
The crossing of roads has been declared unfashionable. It fell out of fashion in the past hour, while I was stuck on the reservation. I am now unable to cross forwards or backwards without being deeply unfashionable, which I refuse to do and be. Thus I’m condemned to live on this thin linear strip until such time as crossing roads becomes fashionable again, which could be a day, a week, a year or more. I am distraught but I keep walking. There is no point stopping yet.
I cling to the hope that I might encounter a bridge with a column embedded in the concrete of the reservation, and that a ladder will be secured to the side of the column that I can climb. This is very unlikely, but the thought of it makes me smile. It’s a thin smile, more of a grimace with bloodless lips, but we do the best we can. Up ahead all I can see is a cloud of black smoke. Something has happened, but I resist the urge to quicken my step. I am fashionably dignified.
There has been an accident. One of the trucks has skidded across the road, toppled on its side and erupted into flame. Other trucks screeched into it and they too broke open and their precious cargo has been scattered all over the highway. There are no looters in evidence. The location is too remote from the residential areas of the city. It is for me alone, all of it, and I swoop accordingly.
Teapots, chocolate teapots, thousands of them. This is what the trucks were taking from one depot to another. I have enough food to sustain me during my exile on the central reservation. Inside some of the teapots are jelly babies, therefore my diet will be varied. I won’t be like a marooned sailor who eats nothing but coconuts without a single deviation from that diet ever. I guffaw.
Of all the styles of laughter, the guffaw is the most fashionable. While I am bent over in the act of collecting whole teapots and the shards of broken ones, I feel a pain in my rump and a pain in my ears. The former is from a boot that has kicked me, the latter is the shout, “Flippy!” I straighten and almost sprain my back doing so. Thanks to the blaze, the chocolate has started to melt.
Then I turn and confront the ironic dimpled faced of Belinda Belluma. Her visor is up and her cradled arms are full of teapots. Once I imagined that she would hold a child that way, our child. But dreams change. Now I am happy enough that we’ll be together again, survivors on the reservation, for at least a short while, munching on a treasure trove of edible teapots and jelly tots.
It is a landscape that resembles a very specific post-apocalyptic scenario. Pools of melted chocolate lap the wreckage of rusting trucks. The radio batteries are dying one by one. Soon there will be only silence. If silence was a name, everyone in existence would be summoned to surround us, hungry faces like a circle of flames, but the real flames are extinguished and it is cold at night.
We hug each other in a practical and fashionable embrace.
In a house in an unspecified part of the city, a gathering of individuals watched the clock on the mantelpiece, then they shook their heads sadly. The room was lit by a single candle and the figures were hunched over it as if hungry for the light. One of them finally opened his mouth and spoke. His words were heavy and sluggish, as if all the consonants were fabricated from riveted iron and had to move through a tar pit in order to exit his throat. “He’s not coming.”
Ooooh-ooh-Cutherbert-Dribble-Hockenstocking sighed deeply. “Yes, I feel you’re right. We’ve given him enough opportunity.”
“Has he betrayed us?”
“Flipblinker Rusk isn’t that kind of man.”
“So what has happened?”
“He must have been injured or killed in an accident.”
“What shall we do?”
“Without him there’s no point in proceeding. He was an essential part of the plot. All together we could have really made changes, overthrown the tyranny of fashion, allowed people to be however they wanted.”
“And it’s too late?”
“Yes, it is. For a very short space of time, it briefly became fashionable to attempt the destruction of the concept of fashion. Nobody else noticed this apart from us. But we had to move fast. Flipblinker had skills, as we all have skills, and combining them into a unified force we might have achieved something. But he’s not coming now and the chance has gone. We have failed.”
“It’s no longer fashionable to abolish fashion?”
“I’m afraid not. Snuff out the candle and turn on the electric lights. I don’t want to trip over an assegai in the dark. The floor is littered with them. But don’t despair. One day the chance to destroy fashion might come back into fashion, and then others may succeed instead, our descendants perhaps.”
The group of plotters dispersed into the blackness and silence. Adam, Og and Ug went one way, Akkh, Achu, Guhh and Coogh went another, Ting and Ling stopped at an all-night café for tea before reaching home, Broar, Thorn and Chit-Chit crossed the bridge to the other side of the river, while Greeneye and Onetoe hailed a passing taxi. Treewalker climbed the park railings for nostalgic, atavistic and professional reasons. This was life, fashionable life, but only some of it.
Rhys Hughes was born in Wales but has lived in many different countries. He graduated as an engineer and currently works as a tutor of mathematics. He began writing fiction at an early age and his first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published more than forty other books. His short stories have been translated into ten languages. He is nearing the end of an ambitious project to complete a cycle of exactly 1000 linked tales. His most recent book is the collection Arms Against a Sea and he is hard at work on an experimental novel called Corybantic Fulgours.