A Wedding in Carlisle: free short story by Daniel Polansky
By Anne Perry
Posted on September 29, 2016 in Books, Fun Stuff with tags Daniel Polansky; Fantasy
It’s not long now before Daniel Polansky’s brilliant new fantasy, A City Dreaming, publishes… and in today’s fantastic free short story, he’ll introduce you to M, the beer-drinking, pirate-fighting (sometimes) protagonist, as he explores the UK. Bad food, bum bags and dragons… what more could you ask for?
M came back from the bathroom wearing an American flag cap, and an American flag fanny-pack, and a t-shirt with an American flag on it. Stockdale had spent the better part of the flight from JFK downing gin and tonics, and so he did not notice M’s change of costume immediately, occupied by the film playing on his seat-console, popcorn garbage the viewing of which can only be excused by being restrained in a chair for a sustained length of time, and even then only barely. Eventually he turned away from the mutants or ninjas or mutant ninjas, blinked, blinked again, finished off what was in his glass and asked. “Where are you from?”
“That’s very clever, for a man watching CGI robots fight each other.”
“Do you want to explain to me why you’re dressed like a the ghost of Abby Hoffman?”
“Not really,” M said, settling back down into his seat. “Just have another gin and tonic and watch your movie.”
But they had already begun their descent, and there are limits to what even magic can work on stewardesses.
Waiting for M to get through customs—a proud owner of a red passport, Stockdale breezed through the express lane—he thought to himself that M didn’t really look any worse than most of the rest of the foreign tourists. But when he saw him a second time he changed his assessment. “Whatever the reason for this is,” he said, “it better be a really good one. Like, life and limb good. Delaying the apocalypse good.”
“Do you think I’d be wearing a fanny pack if I had a reasonable alternative?” M asked as they headed towards bag claim. “Believe me, I’m not any happier about this than you are.”
On the curb outside of the airport, Stockdale flagged down an extra large black livery, but M grabbed his hand and pulled him onward. “We’re taking the train to Paddington, and the subway on from there.”
“Like hell we are. It’s thirty minutes to Paddington—and anyway, it’s not the subway, it’s the tube.”
“So long as I’m here it’s the subway. While we’re on the subject, I’m not putting my rucksack into any boots, we’re not riding any lifts to any flats, if I eat a biscuit it’ll be of the buttermilk variety, and should it come up for some reason, color and honor get written sans the superfluous ‘u’s, OK?”
“Does this have something to do with your outfit?”
“Might be it has to do with the outfit,” M admitted, “might be that I just don’t see the point in being profligate with my vowels. Like I said, don’t worry about it.”
A one way to London was twenty pounds, which was twenty five Euro, or the dollar equivalent of being sodomized with a poker. Under normal circumstances M would have complained about it, but these were not normal circumstances, and it seemed he had more to worry about– mainly, so far as Stockdale could discern, the train’s other passengers, whom he inspected with the studied discomfort of a homicide line up. An aging matron with an oversized umbrella and the sneer of an elderly Queen Victoria started him sweating; two Geordies in matching track suits, sputtering their incomprehensible brand of pseudo-English, set him to scratching his head with uncomfortable vigor; and the alighting of a stocky bourghouise in a tweed suit made him all but jump out of his seat.
“All right, enough,” Stockdale said, while they were briefly stopped at West Ealing. “Tell me what’s going on.”
M sighed. “Didn’t you ever wonder why, as much traveling as I do, I never seem to make it over to England?”
“You always said it was because you hate English food.”
“I do hate English food, everyone hates English food, even the English—it’s what pushed them to take over half of the planet, a desperate search for a country in which they wouldn’t have to wake up every day to boiled cabbage and larded mutton. But that’s not the reason.”
“Let’s just say I’ve…made some enemies, over on your side of the pond.”
“A figure of authority.”
“Downing Street? MI6?”
“Is it the Queen? Did you take a piss on Buckingham Palace?”
“Not the Queen. Older. National”
Stockdale crossed his eyes. “No!”
“The man himself!”
“Keep your voice down, Jesus,” M said, looking around warily. “He could be anywhere.”
Though it would have been more accurate to say that he was everywhere, behind each opened copy of The Sun, hidden in the vending machines selling Cadberry fruit and nut.
“I ought to turn you in myself,” Stockdale said.”
“Please, Stockdale, your national hero is Rama.”
“It’s called Eurasian, M, you can Google it. I had ancestors shot on both sides at Plassy, and no doubt they’re drinking chai together in the afterlife.”
“I doubt that’s true,” M said, “but anyway now is not the time to remedy your false consciousness.”
“If you’re so concerned about him, then why did you make the trip?
“Lisa’s my friend, and it’s her her wedding, and I’ll be damned if I let some second-rate saint keep me from celebrating the nuptials.”
“Brave words, for a man wearing a fanny pack. All right, so what’s the plan then?”
“We get to Carlisle, we drink a toast to Lisa, we try to sleep with a bridesmaid, we get the hell out of the country—and we do it all without doing anything which might draw any undue attention.”
“Like what, exactly?”
“Anything too English.
“Which would be?”
“Riding in double-decker buses, listening to the Kinks, shooting Irishmen. So long as we’re here its USA all the way.”
They got off at Paddington station, which was already pushing the matter, from M’s perspective. There aren’t, after all, many words more English than Paddington; Windsor, maybe, but it was close. Heading towards the exit a woman pushing a pram gave him a hard look, as did the toddler she was escorting, Reggie Kray eyes above his milk bottle. M ducked them into the corner Starbucks and ordered something which was one part coffee and about eight parts sugar water.
“We can’t take the train,” M said, looked distinctly peaked.
“Trains aren’t particularly English.”
“They’re more English than they are American, and anyway I can’t take the risk.”
“Fine, fine, have it your way. What’s the least English way we could get to Oxford?”
Stockdale thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers happily. An hour later they were in a rented Land Rover, jet black, 254 horses screaming north on the A1.
“I can literally feel my penis getting larger,” Stockdale said.
“I’ll have to take your word for it.”
“What did you do to our blessed Saint, exactly, to piss him off so?”
M’s playlist was all Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, and he was playing it loud enough to make conversation difficult. “I can’t remember.”
“I’m going to start whistling God Save the Queen in a moment.”
“Well, first of all, I was very drunk.”
“Not the first time I’ve heard a story begun thusly.”
“All I’m saying, you never hear about what the dragon did, exactly.”
“He’s a dragon, M, no doubt he was eating maidens, and burning villages and whatnot.”
“What else is a dragon supposed to eat? You eat pork, I don’t see the need to put a pike in your jugular. For that matter, how does killing a dragon make you a Saint in the Christian church? Turn the other cheek and whatnot, but only for people? Seems damn speciest, if you ask me.”
“All right, so you bad mouthed our patron saint a bit. It’s hardly the worse scandal Albion has suffered through, not like you hacked into the phone of dying child to get a tabloid scoop, or were alive during the eighties, which is to say, committed pedophilia.”
“Is that even illegal over here anymore? How do you find enough people to make a sitting jury? Anyway, it wasn’t what I said, I suppose, so much as how and where I said it.”
“What, like Stonehenge during the solstice?”
“What could be more British than Stonehenge on the solstice?”
“The top floor or Apple Studios, January 30th, 1969.”
“For Clive’s sake, M–”
“No wonder he’s pissed!”
“I was drunk! Drunk I tell you! I was bombed out of my gourd! There had been a girl, you see, and…”
“Yes, yes,” Stockdale interrupted, “I don’t need the whole thing.”
They stopped for lunch at a rest stop McDonald’s, greasy burgers and soggy fries—not chips, M reminded Stockdale, Stockdale and the universe, but French Fries—and then they were back on the M40, tooling north.
M was feeling tense but generally in control until the hit the midlands, and then it occurred to him that London is not really England, as New York is not really America—or at least that London was certainly far less English than any of the small towns they drove past, towns with names like Bedfordshipshire and Lord-Huntingdon-Bottom-On-the-Ouse. It was a warm fall day, and under different circumstances he might have found enjoyed himself—the little cottages, rolling hills, the whole nation like a garden park carefully cultivated. But it was not normal circumstances, and so M ducked down further in his seat and played Born to Run very loud on his iPod.
Lisa was getting married in a country estate just north of Carlisle, and when they pulled in late that evening M’s nerves were all but shot, leaping at the cry of every errant raven, and the waving of a distant Union Jack. Cocktail hour and most of the guests were milling about the estate, enjoying the autumn foliage. Lovely woman and handsome men, smiling elders looking tolerantly on the shenanigans of their seed, none of them, so far as M could gather, seriously concerned about the possibility of being murdered with a spear.
“You came!” shouted a very pretty girl in a short dress, sprinting away from her group and taking M in a tight embrace.
“Wouldn’t have missed it,” M said, though he swiveled his eyes frantically over Lisa’s shoulder, and his end of the hug had something desperate in it.
“I wasn’t sure you’d manage!”
The lucky groom came to greet them a moment behind. Lisa had the sort of accent that people who had never been to England imagined all the English must possess, soft and trilling, the verbal equivalent of a pinky extended past a cuppa. Her fiance was on the other end of the spectrum, from somewhere round Billericay, and he had always given M the impression that he had, just before every conversation, stuffed a penny packet worth of marbles into his cheeks. “Rawflr faroarx, aient it maint?’
“Always a pleasure, Andy,” M said, who liked the man for all that he could not understand him. Indeed, had it been up to M he’d have far more acquaintances whose conversation was conducted through the same filter. “Best to you on this happy day!”
Dinner was a proper Sunday roast, mushy mutton above mushy peas, and M steadfastly refused to eat any of it, for fear of calling attention to himself. They were quartered in one of the lovely cottages which surrounded the perimeter of the estate, six-hundred years old according to the red-cheeked matron who ran the place. The bed was oak-framed and intricately carved, and on the bookshelf was a full set of leather-bound Kipling’s, from The Light that Failed to the second Jungle Book.
M spent the night curled up in the back of the SUV, and when Stockdale woke him the next morning with a tap on the window, M lurched upright, wiping sleep and terror out of his eyes.
“That better not be tea,” M said, pointing at one of the two mugs Stockdale was holding.
“Coffee,” Stockdale promised, handing over his portion “Instant, but still.”
M kicked open the side door and coughed through the day’s first cigarette. “Now’s not the time to be picky.”
Stockdale allowed a few moments of relief before bringing the hammer down. “Feeling better?”
“Well, get ready for an abrupt reversal of that state.”
“I’m always prepared for things to get worse.
“I had a word with the bride about the particulars of the ceremony.”
“It’s not good, M.”
“I drew the chubby one?”
“No, they’re all very pretty. But did you catch the email about the dress code?”
“I don’t really have an email account.”
“Yes, well, had you, you might have thought twice about attending. The costume is…very English.”
“Plate mail? Beefeater livery?”
“Think Evelyn Waugh.”
“Morning suits?” M asked, eyes wide and wriggly.
M had started to roll a cigarette, then realized he was still smoking one. But he finished rolling it anyway. He would need another soon enough. “Shit,” he said.
“But no top hats.”
“No. She thinks it’s garish.”
“All right,” M said after a long moment’s consideration. “I think we should be OK, so long as I don’t wear a top hat, and we leave before brunch tomorrow.”
“It gets worse.”
“How could it get worse? Is Pete Townshend walking her down the isle?”
“It’s in the cathedral.”
Though they would have thrown M out of one for using any of the string of words he used just then, or, for that matter, a baptist mega church, a Sunni mosque, any denomination of synagogue (including reform), and the better class of Quaker meeting houses. “When did Lisa find religion?”
“What can I tell you, she likes the buildings.”
“I had not counted on having to sit through a Church of England service,” M admitted.
“A bit like firing off a flare-gun, ain’t it?”
“Maybe it would be best to discover yourself in the midst of some sort of intestinal complaint? I could poison you with something, if you don’t want to lie.”
The cigarette in M’s mouth was down to the filter, and he threw it away. The cigarette behind M’s ear, however, was ready to be smoked, and he lit that and put it to his mouth, mulling the thing over.“No,” M said, finally. “It would be one thing if I was just a guest. But I’m in the wedding party. And I’m already here.”
“Quite right,” Stockdale agreed. “Quite right.”
“On the other hand, we might be leaving after the ceremony.”
“Not before the toasts.”
M looked at Stockdale crossways. “What do you take me for, exactly?”
Changing into their Downton Abby costumes took the better part of an hour. M wore an ‘I Heart NY’ undershirt, but he didn’t suppose it would be enough.
“I haven’t worn tails in ages,” Stockdale said, checking himself in the mirror. “Really should have taken my old pair out of storage, but you know she just insisted on all having the same color, and personally I always preferred charcoal to azure, goes back to the Stockdale coat of arms, I suppose, which is–”
“You’re like a Tory wet dream, do you know that?” M interrupted.
“We’re very inclusive,” Stockdale said, daintily choosing from the selection of pocket handkerchiefs he had brought. “It’s not like the old days.”
“Go put your prick in a pig’s mouth.”
“Absolutely no evidence that that’s true! And in any event, in my day, what a gentleman did in his dining club stayed in his dining–”
The wedding was beautiful. It was storybook. It was everything that a young girl, raised on romantic comedies and dreams of matrimony, might hope to experience. The sun was shining, the foliage was bright, the bride was beautiful, the groom handsome. The minister was eloquent, the speeches were brief, the weeping babies were absent, as were any drunken cousins. For a while, M even managed to forget the fact that he was being pursued by the national manifestation of the English consciousness, and started to think about the usual things that single people think about when they see their friends getting happily hitched, especially when they’ve been single for a human lifetime, or perhaps two. Wasn’t it perhaps time to give up this life of ribald tomfoolery, and make something of himself? Get a little plot of land, find someone to share it with, grow old in the company of said person and perhaps by some appropriate number of smaller people that you and the first person had made?
Or, at least open a savings account. That would be a step in the right direction.
M’s ruminations were interrupted somewhat when he noticed, midway through the service, a caretaker appear at the back corner of the church. Presumably a caretaker, though he didn’t quite look the part, quite a striking sort of fellow, those dark eyes, that high-brow, those broad shoulders. Indeed, even some of the bridesmaids found their attention shifting away from its appropriate target at the alter and towards this new entrant, fluttering eye-lashes and fingering girdles.
On the church steps afterward M found himself tossing rice with less enthusiasm than the occasion warranted.
“You saw him?” Stockdale asked through a forced smile.
“Yeah, I fucking saw him,” M said, wearing the same.
“I guess your t-shirt wasn’t enough.”
“I think the Paddington Bear reading pushed us over the edge.”
“I think you’re right. Why hasn’t he come for you yet?”
“Because he’s a gentleman,” M admitted, “credit where due. Not going to ruin a woman’s big day on account of sticking me with that giant spear of his. Not till after pudding, at least.”
“Couldn’t you apologize?”
“I could try, but I don’t speak Anglo-Saxon. You?”
“I…never actually read Chaucer.”
“More dick jokes than you’d expect in a classic of English letters.”
Cocktail hour stretched from four to seven, and included croquet, which would have fucked M had he not already been so obviously pear-shaped. He managed to keep up a happy front for the bride—no point in letting her know this may well be the last time she’d be seeing him—but after a congratulatory hug, and a celebratory shot with Andy, M found himself at a far corner of the dance floor with Stockdale, bitterly contemplating his mortality.
“You know he’s not even real,” M said angrily. “I mean he never lived in England or anything. He hasn’t even been a real saint since Vatican two!”
“Since when has a thing not being real ever mattered?”
“Since never, but I feel like complaining.”
When the waiter came back around M forewent the offer of a flute and took the entire bottle, shot one of those heavy, mystically-tinged looks that sent the server walking away quickly.
“So?” Stockdale asked. “The border can’t be more than half an hour. Shall we do a runner?”
“It’s that or Wales,” M said, “and I’d rather be dead than in fucking Cardiff.”
“What’s wrong with Cardiff? They’ve got the Dr. Who Museum.”
“And that’s all they’ve got, that and a lot of street names with C’s crammed against W’s. And while we’re on the subject, just because something’s on television a very long time doesn’t make it worth watching.”
“You’re only digging yourself a deeper hole. Dr. Who is as English as tea.”
“Another good reason to avoid Cardiff, then. No, Scotland it is.”
“Have it your way. Though it’s hardly going to matter, with him so close on our tail. We’re going to need a few minute’s grace period if we have any hope of making the border.”
“Yeah,” M said, taking the bottle back and finishing it. “I’ve got an idea for that one too.”
Dinner began. M’s sat beside a very pretty woman with a pixie cut and a first from Christ Church, to whom he might have been more attentive were he not fairly certain that his after dinner drink would be mingled unhappily with his life’s blood. For once the English weather had been kind, and the mid-September evening was temperate verging on comfortable, a rarity which was sure to go down in legend for the generations and centuries to come. They ate full and they drank heavily, the darkness illuminated by hanging lanterns, virtually everyone in the reception enjoying themselves immensely.
By the time the plates had cleared M was drunk enough not to currently be in fear for his life but not so drunk that he couldn’t stand upright. This is a narrow gap if ever there was one, and only as experienced and inebriate as M could have attempted it. The maid of honor gave a toast in which she used the word ‘I’ more often than seemed strictly necessary, but at least it wrapped itself up quickly. The best man, unfortunately, had not managed to maintain M’s own precarious sense of sobriety, and began a long, confused tale about Andy’s time at Oxford, a bottle of vodka which he thought was water, and an ill-disposed vicar. M would have had trouble following it even if, midway through, he had not noticed the man from the church was lurking about the perimeters—dressed in full formal attire, looking dapper as all hell, smoldering eyes following M wherever he went.
The best man did, eventually, manage to finish his speech, to the collective joy of the crowd, who were keen to get on to what one does towards the latter end of toney English wedding receptions, that is to say, if single, to find a partner, and if coupled, to make one’s way to the port and cheese platter as swiftly as possible. But before either could do either M had crossed over to the small stage which stood at the back of the gathering.
“What are you doing?” asked the best man.
“It’s an American tradition for a random person to get up and address the audience unexpectedly.”
“I got my PHD at Harvard and I never heard–”
“Hahaha!” M said, ripping the mic away and continuing as if he hadn’t heard. “Let’s give another round of applause for the first of our two speakers!” M said, doing just that, a sustained ovation, several cycles, in fact, until after a while he was the only one clapping, and then a few people started up awkwardly a second time, and then finally it was done. It was embarrassing for everyone, not the least for M, but it gave Stockdale time to slip away, which was the plan.
“I’d like to thank everyone for having me here today, for showing us such fine hospitality! A fine country, this England! Absolutely thrilled to be here! It’s not Brazil, obviously, that goes without saying, but still, as far as all the nations of the world go, it’s absolutely in the top two quarters, no question. Admittedly, many of those countries are bitterly impoverished, or war torn, or, I dunno, Australia, so I suppose it’s not exactly a fair comparison, but all the same…all the same, you’re not Australia!”
Muted applause. M’s pursuer, standing at the outskirts of the party, began to snarl.
M would have to dig deeper, and dig deeper he did. “To fair Albion!” he began, and to prove his affection he decided to raise not his glass of champagne, but the bottle entirely. “Bless your country houses and her no longer in use railways! Bless your pubs which all look exactly alike and serve room-temperature ales which have been insufficiently carbonated! Bless the fact that you see no irony in voting lamb vindalloo the national dish ! Bless the rolling hills which used to have forests and now have no forests! Bless the three days of August sunshine you call Summer! Bless the fact that you think that bacon is something that bacon clearly and indisputably is not! Bless Michael Caine, Graham Greene and the Stone Roses! Bless the trumped up German nobility which you have inexplicably set atop your nation’s throne! May the sun never set on her domains! Or, at least, may it set only during appropriate evening hours, because after all one has to sleep at some point, and then afterward, may it rise again, not that you’d know either way, what with the perpetual cloud cover!”
If it had been the first toast of the night, it would have, in all likelihood, received confusion and perhaps even a bit of dismay, in so far as it had very little to do with the bride or groom, their love, life together thus far or future happiness. But it was not the first toast of the night, and while most of England’s inhabitants are no longer so enamored of it as to want to, say, invade Bangladesh, still deep down it’s that rare subject of the Queen who does not hold some secret love for their heritage, much as they might complain about the NHS and UKIP, and debate emigrating to Sydney.
The point being, everyone cheered, loudly and lustily. Glasses were raised, hats were tossed into the air. Even M’s nemesis seemed filled with enthusiasm, and briefly forgot his mystically inspired instinct to kill M with a spear.
It was just then that Stockdale swung past with the SUV, coming to an abrupt stop beside the stage. A few steps and M leaped into the open sun roof, the tail of his morning suit fluttering in the night breeze. The crowd cheered his exit, which was dramatic if insensible, and M was waving goodbye vigorously as Stockdale kicked the engine into high gear, and then the full forward momentum of the V8 dragged him roughly down into the seat.
“I can’t believe we’re actually using this off road,” Stockdale said cheerily.
“It’s like a Superbowl commercial,” M admitted. “I wish I’d thought to bring us another bottle of champagne,” said M.
“Check the back.”
M did. There was a cooler. Inside the cooler were two magnums of Moet. “Clever bastard.”
“I was a boy scout, you know.”
“It little surprisea me,” M admitted, popping one open and taking a swig before passing it to the Eagle Scout.
M’s tribute, honestly meant and lengthy, was distraction enough to keep St. George the Mighty distracted for a rough seven minutes, during which they were managed to get themselves back onto the main road, and then onto the A7 which headed north.
“Has it occurred to you that it has been three hundred years since the Act of Union? How do you know that Scotland is outside of his reach?”
“I don’t,” M admitted, “this would be a whole lot more certain if the SNP had done their fucking jobs.”
“Keep your voice down,” M hushed. “The last thing we need is trouble with old Andrew.”
The sound of falling hooves began to grow louder and louder. In the rear view mirror, if one chose to look, one could see the reflection of a giant steed, and of a horde of baying hounds each the size of a vintage Triumph.
“Isn’t this wild hunt thing a bit more German then English?” M asked, trying to keep up his temper with the aid of humor and alcohol.
“They all got a bit muddled, I suppose, during the dark ages. Extraordinary country, England, all these different peoples and religions coming together to create one people, from the Bretons and the Welsh to the Romans, not even to start on the Germanic influence which–”
“Good God, Rudyard, can we do Peak of Pooks Hill another time? Put your foot on the fucking gas!”
“Right, sorry,” Their SUV sped onward, slightly more frantically. There was a screech and Stockdale screamed in fear or excitement and turned left sharply, a distinctly speak-like dent appearing in one corner of their car. If they ever got it back to the rental agency they would have some explaining to do, though at that moment this was not foremost in M’s mind. And now not only the road but the trees and the hills and the very sky itself seemed to erupt with the hateful shuddering of falling hooves, and the call of a bronze-bit horn. Their RPM pushing dangerously far into the red, if they tripped a pot hole their pursuer’s lance would not be required. But they were far enough through the second bottle of Moet that M was no longer feeling any fear, and Stockdale, true to both sides of his heritage, was a man who laughed loud in the face of danger. George drew up beside the passenger side window, M staring at the same grim eyes which, in some legendary but still relevant past, had stared a dragon into oblivion. But Stockdale coaxed one final burst of speed from their car, and M leaned out the window and tossed the empty bottle at the patron saint of all England.
“A hit!” M roared, as the Moet broke against the war helmet of their adversary, “a palpable hit!”
A minor hindrance to a major demi-god but it proved sufficient, it was just enough, a sign above their heading encouraging them to ‘Come Back to Soon’ and one just past it reading, like the salvation of the good book, ‘Welcome to Scotland.’ George reared up on his great horse, roaring impotently, brandishing his spear against the moonlight, his hounds likewise mourning M’s escape.
“The Black Prince was a buggerer!” M yelled behind them. “And Good King Richard spoke French!”
And somehow even Stockdale could not help but cheering that last one, which was historically accurate anyway, and after all what is a nation against a friend? They broke into southernmost reaches of Scotland, which looked exactly the same as the northernmost reaches of England but which, were, it goes without saying, distinctly and entirely different.
“Charming city, Edinburgh,” M said, some hours later, in the back of a woody pub just off the Royal mile, eating his second scotch egg.
“Athens of the North,” Stockdale agreed, finishing what in his glass, and calling for another, more peat-heavy.