I visit Wagamamas for a bowl of ramen noodles,
Recuperate, read a book, sit and draw some doodles.
The portions are so generous, the broth full of umami,
That any other option for a ramen would be barmy.
I visit Wagamamas for a bowl of ramen noodles,
Recuperate, read a book, sit and draw some doodles.
The portions are so generous, the broth full of umami,
That any other option for a ramen would be barmy.
Now, Joshua didn’t stay there long. He followed the voice that told him to go out into the hills and woods of the country, and underwent a test of his own self. A time of self-seeking, some might call it, although this Joshua already knew who he was and what he was called to do. But every accusation that could come at him, as he walked and thought and prayed, attacked him with the voice of the devil. Because he wasn’t eating or drinking, the whole time, longer than a month, and if you’ve never been without food that long then you can’t say you know what hunger was. But he knew what hunger was – past the pangs of longing, into the feeling of bodily need, when your own body feels light because you have metabolised every scrap of fat between your sinews and under your skin. When the cushions of cartilage and fluid are empty and your nerves run directly over your bones.
“Hungry?” asked the Devil scornfully. “But you don’t even need to be hungry! You’re just indulging your need for drama – and needlessly. You’re going to survive – so why invite all this pain and starvation? Only a sadist does that. And are you a sadist?
“And anyway, didn’t we all hear it? If you are God’s son, you can turn any of these stones from the path into something good to eat – you can call a tree to fruit right in front of you. And I thought you liked that whole blossoming, fruiting, growing thing anyway? There’s no need for this stupid fast.”
But he knew why he was there. The hunger was the unavoidable companion of the degree of discipline and sacrifice he had chosen. The Devil was just trying to distract him from the real reason for his fast. “I know what it says,” replied Joshua to that needling voice. “Food doesn’t keep you going and breath doesn’t keep you breathing – it’s God’s promises that keep us alive.” He remembered the way his dad Joseph had said that – sometimes when he had been hungry and sometimes right before a feast. His dad had stuck to what he knew to be true.
But then it was as though Josh’s wanderings had brought him, suddenly, around a dry-stone wall and beneath overhanging trees to the pinnacle of the tallest tower in London, the city spread our below him, the trains rushing into and out of London Bridge station, vans delivering, riverboats accelerating away, and no-one looking up. And the Devil challenged him again.
“I don’t even know why you’re being careful with yourself. If you fall, you’re not going to die! If you were God’s son he’d send an angel to catch you, wouldn’t he? Like it says in that book you love – ‘His angels have orders to protect you, so they’ll carry you and you won’t even stub your toe.’ It’s a written promise, isn’t it? So just jump and leave all this stubborn walking.”
Joshua shook his head. “And it says ‘Don’t joke about with God’s promise.”
But then it was like Joshua had climbed even higher, so that in one view he could see all the countries of the worlds, their rulers and parliaments, all the wonderful diverse and developed kingdoms of men. And he heard the Devil say. “And where is God, anyway? Have you heard him, after all this time not eating or drinking? But you can hear me. Do what I say and you’ll have this – you know you will. You’re powerful enough to take it, if you let me direct you. If you choose me instead…”
“Don’t you dare,” said Joshua. “Don’t you dare even suggest it, you liar! I know what it says: ‘You belong to God – so don’t let anyone else take charge.’ I know what will happen if I choose you, you liar! Go away.”
And that was the last he heard of that needling voice. But I tell you what, he didn’t stub his toe on any stone as he came off the hills and back towards home. And whichever way he looked he saw figures guarding and guiding. And they even fed him with a food that he couldn’t quite recognise. And by the time he was back from his walk, he looked better and fitter than ever.
On the journey back he heard that John Waters had been arrested and was being held pending charges. He returned to his mum’s place and picked up a few things. And then he went down to Chesterfield, because it had always been said that when God would choose to change things, he’d start there. Perhaps because if God could change Chesterfield, he could change anywhere. So that was when Joshua Davidson started to tell people. “Change your life,” he’d say. Whether it was someone on the bus next to him or when he got on local radio or a visit to a school. “Change your life, because God’s reign is coming.”
I didn’t fancy eating anywhere by myself that evening. There was a crowd I sometimes spent time with, a sort of fried-egg shaped friendship group, a bit crinkly at the edge, some genuinely pleasant people in the yolk and a lot of rather shallow and flavourless trend-followers around them. But it would be more pleasant than eating by myself. Before I decided where we should meet, I had to choose my target.
Thinking about Max’s warning, I aimed without a particular play in mind. A single spontaneous review was unlikely to do a lot of damage – or boost a first-tier noticeably. But I’d heard interesting things about a place called Die Ner in Covent Garden. It was a Sahi affilliation, so I tucked the Double-Diamond away and fished out a dormant contract I played with in the name of Lucretius Segnit. He had built up a considerable celebration allowance in the last year, so I fiddled his birthday and booked a table for ten.
Antony was in the bar when I got there, drinking Northumbrian lager. We chatted about shallow social things while I cracked the shop lay and started reading the place from the inside out. Our table had been ready for twenty minutes, but the staff wanted to keep us at the bar. I didn’t mind. It wasn’t my allowance I was drinking.
Antony’s friends arrived, together with a half-Samoan skinner called Timeo and a pair of sisters I had met before. We headed to our table in the dark rear of the restaurant.
This wasn’t a gimmick eatery like Eis had been. You could actually eat ten times a week here on a Sahi grade eleven, if you knew the exchanges, but I don’t think you’d want to. They had settled their menu a good long time ago and it wasn’t going to change any time soon. To access it here all you had to do was make your personal query gesture and it slid into view on the back of your sub-dominant hand. I watched Meera and Aruna scrolling through it with their elegant, lozenge-shaped fingertips.
“What do you fancy, ladies?” I asked. “Do you want a recommendation?”
Meera cocked her head. “Have you eaten here before?” she asked, coquettish and a little rushed. She’d had a strong drink before arriving, then.
I replied with a single nod. My eyes began reading her and running a tickertape of physical stats through her rather restrained aura. Height 1654, weight 5423 + 158, plenty more. I pinched it out with a hidden fingertip gesture.
“Perhaps you might enjoy the lobster quinoa salad,” I said. “Quite refreshing. Very reminiscent of a splash of seawater over the gunwale of a speeding catamaran.” It was in my interest for as much variety as possible to arrive on the table, of course. I watched Meera scroll back up and then flare her nostrils – almost certainly to find reviews on the social bands.
Her sister was seated beside me and hadn’t looked up. “I don’t know where to start,” she said. “There’s so much more choice than I’m used to.”
I leant into her personal space. “Then cross out anything you’d have normally. Live a little, Aruna!”
She looked up directly into my eyes. Something flashed there. “Well, there’s this fricasee of porq with araquee blossom and wild rice…?”
“Why not?” I replied.
“Oh, urgh, it’s tankmeat,” she said suddenly. “How tacky.”
“Try it,” I urged. “You might be pleasantly surprised.”
She looked unconvinced.
“Try it! If you don’t like it, have mine. I’m having the turbot in whitest sauce.” The top of the menu. “You can try both, if you like.”
She didn’t know how to take that. The invitation to actually eat off my plate… perhaps it slightly revolted her, as it would so many. Yet at the same time there was that transgressive playfulness. She was a couple of years younger than me and much more used to conventional eating habits. I was sure that she had never needed to scavenge behind eatery waste-chutes to quieten a churning stomach.
“Why not, then?” She gave a flick of her rather spectacular hair. “Four-score years and ten is my lot, after all.”
The food came. It was good, unspectacular, the service unobtrusive and convenient, the wine I had chosen was drinkable and not extravagant. But the dessert posed a problem. As the waiting staff brought out the new dishes, something caught the edge of my attention. A scent. I had ordered a dish of pickled pears – something I had never eaten before – and it came, quite beautifully presented on a heavy cut-glass plate, garnished with tiny sprigs of mint in flower. But there was a taint in the flavour, even before I put it in my mouth.
I had stopped chattering and bent over the food to really smell it. Filling my lungs and dialling my nasal diagnosts to maximum sensitivity, I tried to identify it. Was there a hint of raw meat in this? A contaminated board, an unclean knife, a stained wipe… Perhaps even the hands of the waiting staff… And not any meat. Uncooked… Liverish… Whale meat?
The others had noticed my change in attention and were watching me. I ignored them. Lifted a spoon of pickled pears to my lips and savoured.
Beaver. Definitely beaver. I knew it. I had eaten beaver three times. Once in Canada at a rural festival, once in Deptford in a swanky sea-themed hole and once in Milan. I had eaten the tail, the flank, the brains and the loin. If that had not been sufficient for me to gain an exact flavour profile, then nothing could. I had eaten it more times than I had eaten many tankmeats.
I was going to enjoy this.
“What’s wrong, Rafe?” asked Timeo with a rumble. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I don’t generally expect to find stray flavours in my food – least of all in a finely balanced dessert like this.”
I raised a hand in the old-fashioned way. And clicked for service.
Our tableman had been fine – so far. How would he handle this?
“Your preparation area is contaminated,” I told him. “And it is very likely that you could cause a serious reaction in someone unfortunate enough to be susceptible.”
“I’m very sorry sir. You would like something else?”
“No. Not at all. I would like to talk to your head chef. You can tell him that Rafael Castleman of the Open Menu has some advice for him.”
The tables nearby had also fallen silent now. Silence rippled out like a stone disturbs still water.
Only a few moments later – to the house’s credit – the chef arrived. He was a tall, lanky man by the name of Giroflet. I’d never come across him before.
“What seems to be the problem, sir? I understand you do not enjoy the dessert?”
I gave him a toothy grin. “No, that’s not right. I’m quite enjoying myself. And I would have enjoyed this very-well executed little dessert if there hadn’t been an awful taint.”
He looked at me quizzically, whipped a forked spoon from his breast pocket and tried the dish. “What do you taste, Mr Castleman?”
“Beaver,” I replied.
He looked at his waiter. “The gentleman tastes beaver.”
“I do,” I replied. “Distinctly.”
“It is impossible,” he replied. “I taste nothing.”
“But I taste everything,” I said, pushing back my chair. “Have you ever eaten beaver, chef?”
He disregarded my challenge. “I can taste nothing of the sort,” he said calmly. “There is no beaver in the kitchen and there has never has been and there never will be such a ridiculous ingredient while I am chef.”
“You have a contaminated preparation area, chef,” I said, “And I will be writing exactly that unless…”
“Unless nothing,” he snapped. “Unless nothing. I expected nothing less from you, Mr Castleman. Or rather, Mr Segnit. Threats. Attempts to bully and bluster and bluff your way on an empty hand. I do not even desire to know what it is you want from me. I know your ways. I know your slant, sir, your thumbscrew words and reviews. But here nothing will work. In my kitchen I have the most up-to-date volatile chamber available commercially. And if you so desire, we can take your dish of pears and combust it right now. And exactly what flavours are present, perhaps we can let everyone see.”
I had to smile. The man was going to give me exactly what he wanted. The irony was that however up-to-date his volatile chamber, it could not compete with the three Rettier diagnosts implanted in my opthalmic bulb, each running their own identification protocols on every bite that I ate, every scent that I smelt, every savour that drifted past my nose. And I hadn’t even had to ask them about this – plain, simple old unaugmented memory had done it.
“Ideal,” I said. “I see no purpose in wasting any time.”
The kitchen had been in full swing, the very middle of service, but when the chef and I entered the brigade were standing back from their positions. Giroflet marched to a glass-fronted cabinet built into the wall and remotely slid a door aside with a gesture. “You will not be familiar with such equipment, Mr Castleman,” he said with a sneer. “Typically more useful for creating than criticising, but in this instance, perhaps demonstrative.” He nodded me the readout it stood, void and green in my upper left eye, while I waited with crossed arms for him to press the button.
He did so, and in a flash of intense heat and low pressure the food sublimed straight off the dish, its molecules unaltered. Every volatile was charted, right down to the single molecule.
Not a single shadow of beaver anywhere.
I immediately replayed my own readings. The two Rettier 409s in tandem had tasted, said their memories, nothing but perfectly ripe Wilson pear, cider vinegar pickle, anethole, menthole… Nothing indicative of raw meat.
The 309 said the same – after a rapid reboot.
So how had I tasted raw beaver?
The chef was looking at me. “It grieves me that you no longer have a dish of pears to enjoy,” he said. “But if you came with another intention – not the intention to enjoy the food set before you – who am I to cross your path? Please leave this kitchen. And my restaurant. And do not try to bluff with me again.”
A security man in his uniform black had appeared from somewhere, but I had no intention of staying. Return to the table and admit I had been wrong? Return to that silent room where I had faced the chef with such conviction? When my own nose had lied to me? What was this.
“Your machine says there was no beaver in this, but if I tasted beaver then I tasted beaver.”
“I think you are over-taxing your imagination, Mr Castleman. A hysterical experience, perhaps. And if a single subjective opinion should react in such a way… Well, I dismiss it!”
A heavy hand grasped at my sleeve, but I shook it off. “Get off!” I shoved a pastry chef out of the way and headed towards the service entrance.
“You’ll think hard before publishing a review based entirely upon your imagination, I’m sure,” said the chef. “Although perhaps rather more of what you have written was made up than you ever realised.”
His tone was so disgustingly smug that I wanted to spit. I wanted to throw something with clang or slam a door. I was searching for the last phrase to end it all.
I had nothing left to say.
I took a slider to Deptford where Max had his penthouse. It was a warehouse conversion from the noughties, updated with screenwalls in one half and a glossy live-art installation on the roof terrace, editing itself in time with the sculptor’s orginal somewhere in cool Nicaragua. For my taste, rather kitsch and very visually noisy, but then I could always choose not to see it.
Max was lounging on a brown leather recliner with a glass of brandy in his hand. I could smell the grape-rot from the moment the door rolled heavily aside.
“Hey, Rafe, come on in! Pour yourself one!”
There was also an empty bottle of champagne by his foot on the rug. He had plainly been drinking Admiral’s flip – until the champagne within easy reach ran out.
“How much did we make last night,” I asked, sitting down opposite him.
“A lot,” he said. “Something like thirteen billion calories.”
“How many of those have you just drunk?”
He gave me a look like the look you’d give your younger brother when he told you to grow up. “Do you want to know or are you just pissed at me? I’m not pissed at you, Rafe, I’m just pissed. I’m pretty pleased with you, my golden goose.” He staggered around the heavy coffee table and tried to plant a kiss on my cheek.
“Just do the sobering thing,” I said. “I’m tired of this Max already.”
He shrugged and turned away. I heard a deep breath and watched him shudder, hard, as his gastros metabolised the alcohol far faster than his liver could. He turned around with a scowl. “For a guy who makes his living eating and drinking, you’re a pretty miserable species of hypocrite.”
“And for someone who makes a living by split-second statistics, you’re a lazy drunk.”
He laughed. “Maybe. But the difference is, I take time off. I know when to stop working.”
“Well not now,” I said. “Let’s get Bengt in. We have to think about what’s next.”
He shook his head. “I don’t get it,” he said. “You score one of the biggest spikes we’ve ever set up, all on the spur of the moment, all improvised out of your ice-cream dish and you can’t even relax about it for a single day.”
“We don’t have a day,” I replied. “Cornucopia’s move is in. They’re buying Scotch whisky. Distilleries. Brands. Supply channels. This morning.”
“Have a look,” I replied. I nodded him a spread of the current business reports. He went quiet and unfocused. I leant forward, shifted in the debris for an almost-clean glass and poured myself brandy, no ice, looked around for some soda water. None in sight. Scanned. None in the flat. Ordered some with my DoubleDiamond. It was really seeing the most action at the moment.
“Okay,” said Max slowly. “What does it mean?”
“Get Bengt on the big screen,” I said. “I don’t want to explain this twice.”
After the soda water droned in and I had poured it, we got Bengt live and began by replaying the data from last night’s escapade. Max had managed to continue trading into SBS until 9:20, after I’d decided we’d go for the spike. Every loose contract Bengt had been able to find over the previous few weeks had been exchanged, sometimes at considerable expense, for a new, shiny SBS contract. Their relative value had continued to rise, first well, then ridiculously as the commentary and live casts had streamed out of Eis, all rapturously reflecting Zahra Fukusawa’s performance and the intricate cleverness of the ice-cream. Then at 9:25 Max had begun to shift back out. Even those five minutes had seen a sizeable profit on every contract. The demand from interested consumers keep to stay tip-top and have the next big thing had spiralled up – and for every new consumer, Max just happened to have a contract they could purchase. Through a complicated system of blinds, of course.
By the time I posted at 9:53, Max and Bengt between them had exchanged more than three thousand contracts, most of which had been replaced with Cornucopia’s standard offerings in grades between four and eight. Bengt had managed to gain a brace of twenty-twos and Max had a higher average for his 2231 individual contracts. That was our equivalent of a profit of thirteen billion calories.
By the morning, Cornucopia’s rivals had all reacted one way or the other. Poor Tom, Dick and Harry on the street were now bought into contracts several months long with a deeply unfashionable and popularly unreliable consort. UDIT trading rules would stop most of them switching again for some time. Exactly the sort of rules that Bengt and Max were experts at breaking. Knowing that the relative value of a contract with SBS was now so low that they would struggle to fund any new launches, acquisitions or even a lifestyle drive in the near future, Monocle had moved back the launch of next week’s Chateau Pom Pom in Dakar, GruppoBimbo had extended their celebrations allowance for grades five to fifteen and Cornucopia had begun to buy whisky.
“That’s a significant outlay,” I said. “Look. That’s Grant, bought at asking price from Sabmil-Cocapep. The HighIsles Collection, also Sabmil. Distributors in Jordan, Poland, the Southern States, Scandi.”
“But who drinks whisky?” asked Bengt through the translator. The virtual voice did a fairly good job of being his Norwegian-accented echo, exactly twenty milliseconds after him. “Only old people.”
“No,” I said. “Not when Cornucopia match it with their Qualitas brand. They’re trying to broaden and heighten the grasp. It’s aspirational yupster marketing. Whisky, spirits, we’re going to see yoga mats, exercise bikes, the whole caboodle. Then Monocle – they’ve already got the cruise restaurants cornered. They’ll throw those in – you wait and see. We’ll see three new grades inserted somewhere in Gruppo’s hierarchy and more restaurant launches than you can shake a very shaky stick at. What it means is, the yupster war has only just begun. What it means is, good times are coming.”
Bengt and Max were on it. There was no need to steer Max away from the brandy now. He was projecting onto the tabletop where we could all see his hands weaving through information, piecing together a narrative of growth for us out of the vast market of eat or be eaten. Bengt spoke up. “Ok. So Max, find us some nodes. Rafe, switch that schedule over. Let’s concentrate on getting as much out of this as we can. We can leave the Eastern Europe plan for now.” I was glad of that. I’d been trying to talk them out of forcing me to go and eat a thousand varieties of borscht for the previous few months. “I’ll see what else I can rustle up in the twelve, fifteenth grades, London of course, Boston, all the yupster hubs. And tidy away most of these Cornucopias. Sell them back the German old people’s home somehow. Cleanse the trail. Keep me posted, brothers.” He winked out, and the giant wallscreen reverted to a view of Cambodian islands.
Bengt was a UDIT man. A bent UDIT man, of course, but then it seemed that they all were. In a world of apparent scarcity, in which an international regulatory body would oversee that everyone received their right to a sufficient nutrient and calorie intake and yet in which the fat cats were still fat and everyone else were still mice, how could they not be bent? They were lining their own pockets and their own bellies besides. They had to be. That was they way it worked. Bengt was no more dishonest in his position than everyone was.
He was a resurrectionist. His real job was to identify contracts that had fallen dormant, either because of unreported death, luddism or any of the many mistakes the system was prone to, and to report and close them. Which he did. But before putting them to sleep, he used them to wring a few more calories from the nutricorps who dictated everything to us.
Max was the statistician. He worked on turning the welter of noisy data into something that we could react to – and even, in a tiny way, guide. Watching the relative value of contracts with each of the many nutricorps, the popularity of one and the other.
Whereas I was the front line. I was the shark end of the wedge, the tooth on the tip of the open jaw of the shark at the front of the shoal. I used my intuition and knowledge to judge what was about to break big, which food was about to be the fad, which contract was going to be sought after. I could review, wheedle, manipulate and dictate. I had eaten in every country under the sun, eaten every cuisine and every style, knew where those cuisines came from, historically, chemically, who was innovating, who disrupting, who was winning, who was losing.
We were winning.
I was winning.
“So what do you think, Rafe,” asked Max. We had taken a break from the stats and the detail. “What’s your hunch?”
“The first tier will react,” I replied. “Sahi, SLM, McNestle, all of them. Sabmil-Cocapep, of course, once they see the pitch of the new yupster-grabbers.” SBS and its competitors were big, don’t get me wrong. Alliances and conglomerates that counted hundreds of companies within their bounds, with millions of subscribed dependents in countries across Western Europe and further afield. But the eight largest nutricorps and their subsidiaries provided nutrition and life-style for seventy-three percent of the world’s population. They had swallowed industries. They had swallowed nations. They had extinguished species and designed new ones. They were the world. To them, the three of us skimming a little floating cream were no more significant than a water-flea to a whale. They had been content to let the second-rates squabble. After all, what need had they to fight over yupsters when they had Malaysia? When they had the urban poor… Everywhere. When they had Mexico city, suckling at the teats of SafdieLandrieuMavrou and flourishing. When they had the factory cities of China and North Australia?
“I think they’ll do some outright grabbing,” I said. “Easy transfer rates, to get the floaters. Then some new supernovas – regain some ground. The young ones have been taking up a lot of media time. Knock them back.”
Max nodded. “I agree.”
“I’ll keep cycling through ontrend,” I said. “Hold my spot. But anything from one of the first tier will give us a real opening.”
He looked at me. “Nothing wonky,” he said. “You can’t play those sort of tricks with Sahi or McNestle.”
“We don’t need to,” I said. “We just time it right, I file a straight review. No monkey business.”
He looked at me sharply. “That’s exactly what I mean. You’re too easily distracted. We didn’t need to knock SBS last night. We could have uptraded anytime and still made a good profit. You just got carried away. In walks a pretty woman, you switch into performance mode.”
“I was very low-key,” I said, unable to stop my smile. Max knew me. We’d worked together long enough that he knew me.
“You know exactly what I mean. If you want to stir a bit more in the top tier, that’s fine by me. But we need to know when to pull out. And stay focused.”
The plan had come to me the same moment I had seen her. It was quite simple. First I had to get everybody in the place raving about it, publically. Then I had to melt all the ice-cream in the building.
Zahra Fukasawa was in fact exactly the sort of person the management would have hoped to attract to Eis. She was here spontaneously, I was sure, because the restaurant would have been unable to remain silent about such a scoop. It also fitted what I knew about her.
She was a soundscaper. A half-Iranian, half-Japanese citizen of the world who had found some celebrity a year or so previously, her art a form of dance and musical composition that turned ambient noise into rhythmic, melodic expression. It got recorded, but the thing died in captivity as surely as orcas used to do. No, to experience it, you had to be there live, or ride someone who was there.
That’s why I had known I could create a real spike. Any other celebrity of her class would have been a success for Eis, but for me, Zahra Fukasawa was the opportunity we had been looking for.
First, of course, the waiting staff identified her. Her aura was relatively discreet – not anonymous by any means, but from where I sat she had a lot less flashing around her than, say, Niki Booker-Cosens, Thought-Patterner, hiremeforyourcognitivechange, discretiondevelopmentdirection over there in the booth by the street. But there was a collective shifting in their seats from the customers and a waiter hurried out with another table and set it near the other end of the bar, one chair for her while her minder stood.
I don’t normally open my vis to the public channels for long, but tonight I needed to know what everyone was thinking. Looking around I could see updates and pops, messages and updates and status reports being published all around the room. Zahra Fukusawa here in Islington gosh you wont believe this shes here!!! @Eis with @ZahraF This place @eis just got cooler… and so on.
I was on my twenty-eighth ice-cream. Just over halfway. This one was rare Welsh lamb, served with candyfloss, a very pleasant pink and pink with a single mint leaf. In less than the time it took me to eat the single spoonful, I had created a guest account through a dummy identity on the most popular Zahra fancom, and posted that she’d been spotted in Eis and had promised to give a performance.
By the pine-corn-old coin sorbet that followed, my message was being referenced all round the room and much further abroad as well. I shot a line to Max, typing by habit into a keyboard only I could see overlaid on the bar. Get me a Zahracrowd. Fanstorm.
In the meantime, they had sat her down and welcomed her and the big minder had already turned a couple of print-hunters away. She needed to perform, not simply sit and guzzle cold dairy products.
To my left was a woman whose aura said she was thirty-one, Viki Crane, much more besides. She looked bemused by the stirrings. But she had an air about her… The air of someone who always knows more than you. I swung my stool towards her.
“I’ve got no idea either,” I said. “Some sort of celebrity, I think.”
Her eyes twitched. “Zahra Fukasawa,” she said. “The soundscaper? You must have heard of her. She won the Lit Medal last year?” The slight hesitations told me that she was reading her facts off something virtual.
“Oh, I see,” I replied. “A musician. Funny, I thought she was someone important.”
“Deeply important,” replied Miss Crane, with a shake of the head. “She’s redefining music.”
“Music’s all the same to me,” I said with a shrug.
Her need to be right was far more powerful than her sense of bashfulness. “Oh, no. If she performs tonight you’ll know that you’ve heard something special. She can turn your own heartbeat into something wonderful.”
While I was winding this woman up I was tracking Max’s progress. Already the queue outside had doubled in length and chatter on the fan sites was peaking. The problem was that at the moment, there was no way she would give a free, impromptu performance here. It would be squandering her considerable social pull for the sake of a place she had simply popped into hoping to get a little sweet supper.
So I needed to pretend to be someone else again.
I faked up a message from an address that could be Eis’s management and sent it straight to Zahra’s sponsor, flattering her grossly, describing the wonderful serendipity of the evening, such pleasure in having her come and grace the new endeavour, proposing an alliance of convenience for a limited time. In return for an ‘impromptu’ performance in house tonight, we, the management of Eis, would arrange for twentieth grade contracts for a year with SBS, our parent consort, for Miss Fukagawa, her sponsor and thirteen other nominees.
By the second spoon of the spicy marron glace ice, I had seen Zahra whisper to the manager and then stand while her table was tidied away again. She had barely had the time to take a single lick of a beautiful vanilla cone that they had brought her.
“Dear diners,” began the manager, an anonymous, large woman dressed in black and possessing a particularly fat pair of lips, “We are honoured by the presence of Miss Zahra Fukasawa, who will now perform a spontaneous soundscape. Please ensure your aural implants and augmentations are channelled to our house band.”
The room, already virtually abuzz, now really began to bubble. People were telling their relatives, making distant friends jealous, publicising eyeshots, uprating the restaurant, surfing on a virtual wave of hype even while they sat in the semi-dark on their leather bankettes. I turned to the Viki lady. “So this must be a real spontaneous thing, for her.”
“Oh, I’m sure not,” she replied breezily. “Probably a well-prepared scheme.”
“I didn’t read about it with the opening,” I said.
She frowned a moment, then thought her way to the high ground again. “Maybe it wasn’t available on your level of access.” I really had to work hard to keep my grin to myself.
“Well, this is going to be the partnership the manager mentioned at the door, then,” I returned. There was no way this woman was going to admit she had heard nothing of the sort, but a startled look in her eyes told me she had taken the bait.
In a few moments I had my next ice-cream and Zahra had finished her preparations. Diners were mentioning a partnership, maybe even a sponsorship between the restaurant where they were eating right this moment and Zahra Fukagawa herself, even as they watched with open-mouths, but my mind was elsewhere. I was researching thermostat codes.
The public lay was, as I mentioned, a seamlessly well-designed interface that allowed customers to interact with a menu, log preferences, link images, read histories and discussions and much more beside. Behind it, on a visual channel unobservable to eyes without a certain ram loaded, was the business lay, giving the waiting staff information on their customers, orders, spacial patterning, calorie consumptions and, crucially for an ice-cream restaurant, temperatures. With it I could see through the bar to the kitchen and even the stockroom. I could see the till in virtual blue above the centre of the room where Zahra was now wheeling her arms in some presumably intricate and musical fashion, see the unpaid and the booked.
But back to the kitchen. It was empty now. The three kitchen staff had come out to watch and listen to the show. The barstaff were also enraptured. There wasn’t even a kitchen porter around. I identified the access interface for the freezer, hacked it with a freely-available maintenance override ram I fed into it, and reversed the temperature flow, while leaving a trace that gave the impression of factory-sourced malfunction. Thankyou online community of freezer electricians and your well-organised maintenance archive.
I returned my attention to the room around me and even tuned in to the house band. There was a relationship between her movement in her headscarf and bootleg slacks and the complex, cross-rhythmed melodies I could hear. All around the room, conoisseurs were nodding and giving themselves little smiles of satisfaction. To me it sounded like repetitive cutlery-dropping – but then maybe that was in fact where she had sourced her basic sound palette.
People were leaning in through the open doors, then, before anyone in the rapt staff could do anything about it, trickling inside in quite an English way, not wanting to take up space they hadn’t paid for but unwilling to miss the opportunity of hearing and seeing and experiencing this music-changer at work. Her minder looked panicky for a moment until he realised they were going to follow his hand signals and keep a good distance. After all, they wouldn’t want to trespass on their own heroine’s creative space.
They kept pressing in, until my eyes counted more than a hundred standing there, as well as us. With the conditioning off – I had done that as well, of course – more factory faults – the temperature in the room slowly began to rise and the little spheres of perfect chemistry began to lose their integrity and sink into puddles of expensive custard. Not that anyone was paying attention.
I was on my forty-third when she finished. My desserts had kept coming simply because of the conveyor belt in front of me, but I was fairly confident that these would be the last frozen things leaving the kitchen that night. It was a homage to the old neapolitan, but using Brie, pink caviar and rye to mess with my expectations. Too rich, really. Or perhaps that was simply the temperature.
“Incredible,” breathed my new friend to my left. “Don’t you think?”
“Hard to believe,” I agreed. “Very hard to believe.”
Forty-four was anchovy, kalamansi and basil. Very finely balanced. I concentrated on it while I listened to the increasingly frustrated customers around the room.
I sent Max a single word.
“What do you mean, I can’t have another one? You can see this one melted while we watched your performer!”
“Wait how long?”
“How can an ice-cream restaurant not have any ice-cream?”
That was the one I had been waiting for.
Then I heard Zahra. “I thought I had been given twentieth grade,” she was saying sharply. “You think I just give my performances away?”
I got the clear from Max, then pushed myself off my stool and headed out to the street, typing on my thighs as I went, grinning like the shark leaving the empty lagoon. The review was out in eight minutes. Two minutes before Zahra Fukagawa’s sponsors filed a lawsuit against Eis and eighteen minutes before the value of SBS contracts plummeted to the lowest they had been that year.
Of course, our contract holdings were all in Cornucopia now.
North Central London, a district still lit by real light, glowing in the virtual with a million competing projections. Flying over the city at night, perhaps low in a glidesuit from any one of the tourist platforms, you can see a street that runs north to south from Holloway to Angel, gleaming a retro sodium orange like a slit in the side of a black-skinned clementine.
This is Upper Street, the restaurant mile. A thousand years ago herds of cattle walked the same rise and fall to Smithfield, where they were slaughtered. And nowadays? It’s seen the blood run from the jugulars of hundreds of hope-drunk restauranteurs.
Swooping lower, where the street kinks a little to the west, you might see one of the many queues outside the tip and ontrend eateries, one particularly buzzing with the auras of gastros and yupsters and coolhunters. They were queuing, this particular night, for tables at Eis, which had opened the same week. They had all traded their entitlements with their own consort for credit with Sysbiowynstay, calling in favours, momentarily faking their birthdates, finding codes for free trials at higher grades than they could afford, all so they could boast of eating where the ice-cream was savoury and the ideas fresh. Continue reading
I was talking with the Lord last year over a meal and heard him clearly tell me to eat up my dinner. Three times. After that sort of amusing word, I’m always intrigued. This is how the Lord likes to hook me, I think!
Protein builds muscles, he reminded me. So I began to think about this with some new insight, for everything that is true for our physical body is reflected in our spirit, I’m learning. When we do things – when we exercise – our muscles are torn and worn and it is in the repairing of them, using protein we’ve eaten, that they are strengthened. So what is it that makes us stronger in the spirit?
It is the Word – scripture – God’s speaking to us – that builds us up. We know this! But our diet must be coupled with exercise – with obedience to the word. Without the tearing and the wearing out of our human abilities the muscles of a human spirit cannot be rebuilt as muscles of Jesus’ spirit in us. God works in these organic ways, growing and replacing from within – we see it all the time.
To continue the analogy, rice gives us energy. Carbohydrate is the fuel of our continuing life, allowing us to move. What is it that energises us in the spiritual realm? Surely it is praise and worship! You can go a day without carbs, but your body will need to re-wire and re-plumb and improvise to find some energy somewhere – yet you are designed to burn that carbohydrate in every cell of your body! Now sometimes we think we can get on without worship, yet worship is the thing that gives us energy – spiritual energy – to do the work that God has for us. As we burn the fuel – make the offering – give the sacrifice – we ourselves are cleansed and changed and made ready to act.
I think the analogy could go even further – I love to shove a metaphor – and I wonder whether prophecy might not fill some of the place that minerals and vitamins do in our earthly diet… But there are so many things to be explored here! Suffice to say, I’m convinced that getting the two big blocks sorted for growth is a good place to start – the protein of the Word, exercised through obedience, and the carbohydrate fuel of worship, burnt to give us life!
“Ai, Sarah! Come and fetch wood.”
“Wait just there, Mama. My son Benjamin is writing in his schoolbook. I want to see him writing.”
“Sarah, Sarah. It is a long walk, we will not wait until he is done.”
“Ooh, Mama, I am coming. Every day! Every day we must go to fetch more wood, go to fetch water, go to the goats, go to the market. My life is a chain.”
Sarah got up from beside her house and picked up the strap from the raw wood hook in the fence. She did not run – you would never see her run, or any of the women there – she took her long strides and caught up with the other women, chattering on the path. It was morning and not yet hot.
“Your husband is away long, Cindy. He will have to give you such a present when he gets back.”
“Aha! I know what I would like from my husband, oh yes. I have been waiting for him!”
The path was dusty, lined and cracked liked Mama’s forehead. She was the eldest of the women there, gaunt and straight like a Sudanese, but copper-coloured like the dirt. She strode along, her head covered with a bright scarf that flashed, her dark eyes watching the women, and flashing.
“Ai, Cindy. You do not want too big a present from that man. He has given you too many babies already.” Mama clicked between her teeth.
“I know how to have my man,” Cindy giggled, “And no more babies. I am not a girl anymore.”
They carried on, teasing, smiling, and then came to the scrubby trees. There was still a lot of wood on the ground. They fanned out, still calling out, stacking the bleached wood, knocking off remnants of bark, making their own piles. From above it might have looked like the uncurling of fingers on a hand, even, balanced.
Sarah leant over and grasped a forked limb. A lizard dashed out from beneath it, over her foot, away. “I am just like that lizard,” she said. “There is no time.”
“Why do you say there is no time?” said Mama, who was collecting small pieces beneath an acacia. “There is just enough time for all of us.”
“If I was not collecting wood I would be helping my son with his writing. I would be answering his questions. I would be taking the melons to the shop. We have all those melons and they will not stay fresh. It would be better to sell them to Mr Funassu, and then I could buy another book for my Benjamin.”
“But you have to collect wood,” said Mama, “Or you cannot cook food for him.”
“Yes,” said Sarah. “I have to collect wood.” She picked up her bundle by the strap, and raised it against her back. “I have to.”
Sarah came walking back from Mr Funassu’s shop. It was an hour there, an hour back. She did not have a clock that told her this. She knew it from the number of steps she had walked. She was taut inside, guilty for the time she had spent, anxious. And carrying a bundle that was not shaped like a book. She hurried into her house and sat down by her fireplace.
Cindy appeared at the open door. “What have you bought from Mr Funassu, Sarah? What have you found?”
Sarah looked around. “It is a cooking stove. Mr Funassu showed it to me. It does not smoke like this fire. It will not sting my eyes with the smoke. Mrs Funassu has one, and she cooks on it every day.”
The cooking stove was a round drum, about eighteen inches high, somewhat battered and plainly well-used. It had an opening in the side, an open top and a folding frame.
“How can you cook with that? It is too small for the fire!”
Sarah shook her head. “No, it is not too small. It keeps the fire close together.”
“You spent money on it, but you did not need to spend any money on having a fire. Your fireplace is already there.”
“Wait and see.”
Mama came to see later that evening. Sarah was sitting by her stove, stirring the porridge in the pan. She lifted the cup through the grain, through the water, slap, slap. The flames climbed around the sides of the pan.
“Ai, it is dark in here! You have hidden your fire in a can!”
Sarah didn’t answer. She put down the enamel cup and experimentally pushed the pieces of wood deeper into the opening. They didn’t move far. The porridge was cooking quickly. The fire normally needed feeding more than she or her son.
“How can the fire breathe in that stove?” asked Mama scornfully. “He is trapped in there.”
Sarah smiled. “The fire must do as I say now. He must not make all this smoke in my house. It makes me cough. It hurts all our eyes. He is my fire, so he will stay in the stove if I tell him to.”
Mama snorted and left.
She heard the noise as Birthday came back with the goats. They pattered and butted their way through the gate and into the yard around the little round house. She heard his familiar whistle and smiled, knowing she would see his lopsided smile very soon… in a moment!
He came through the door, his bright eyes shining. His mouth seemed to laugh whenever it opened. His missing teeth might have been knocked out by the force of so much good humour. Sarah knew she was a lucky woman with a man who smiled and meant his smile.
“Ohoho! What is this? What has my Sarah bought here? A cooking stove, they told me. Ohoho. My wise wife is thinking of her house.”
When Birthday was there, Sarah did not need to worry what the other women thought. She did not feel bad for thinking differently, or having wishes, or wanting to play with her boy.
The others could still look at her with their scornful eyes, but she had Birthday’s bright eyes and his lopsided, gappy smile.
“Here, my Birthday. Eat and be warm in your belly.” She passed him a tin plate of porridge. He ate it slowly today. Normally he ate quickly. He scooped it up and seemd to be thinking.
“I think right now Benjamin is walking along the path from school,” he said. “I think he is playing with the other boys and he is happy to be coming home.”
“He is a good son,” she said.
“Yeass. Maybe he will do well at school. Then he will be a teacher or a lawyer and tell people what is right to do and make judgements in the city. He cannot spend all his time looking after goats, like me.”
“We have to do our best.”
“Oh yeass. But you are working harder than all the other women, Sarah. You are cleaning and milking and growing and fetching water and wood.”
“Benjamin is big enough to fetch the water now.”
“So he must do his part. But our lives are full of things to do and we cannot just help him to grow up his own way. I want him to have something better, you know?”
She smiled and drew close to him. This was why they had come together. They had more in common than need and desire. They had some living spark of hope. They knew other people had things better.
“Ai, Sarah! Come and fetch wood.”
Sarah looked up from the patch she was weaving for her dress. Mama and the women were waiting on the path. But then she looked at her stack of wood. She had not used half of it. She did not need to fetch wood.
“I am not coming, Mama. You can all go.”
“You are not coming? Does your fire in a can not need wood?”
“I have enough wood.”
Mama called again. “Then I suppose you can just stay and rest, can’t you?”
“Rest? Ai, no! There is so much I want to do!” She leapt up. Now she had time…
I wrote this as an exercise after watching a TED talk about providing simple cooking stoves for rural households in Africa. Or maybe it was a National Geographic article? I don’t remember – there’s quite a lot on the internet about these initiatives.