The basic idea is filched from
‘A Long Spoon’ by the blessed
John Wyndham, but at least
the plot is my own.
14 January 2002
I can’t get over my luck. I’m in love with this cool boy, he’s in love with me, and we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together in bliss. How do I know? Because it’s guaranteed in writing by a reliable and long-established firm. How did it happen? Well, read on.
Basically, I’ve got Christopher Marlowe to thank. We were doing his Dr Faustus in English Literature. You know, about this Faustus bloke who’s so desperate for a life of pleasure that he sells his soul to the devil. He regrets it in the end, of course, as he’s dragged down into hell screeching ‘Ah, Mephistopheles!’ But I sympathised with him, because I was desperate too. For Mark’s love, in my case. The only question was, how much would I be willing to pay for it? A hell of a lot, I reckoned. A hell of a lot? Wrong word, perhaps, because eternal hell-fire did seem altogether too high a price. But I couldn’t find a more exact answer. Anyway, this was all no more than day-dreaming, as my mind wandered around impossible scenarios.
My name’s Bill, by the way, and I’d better introduce the others. There was a gang of four of us who’d been together since primary school. But now that our hormones were on the warpath, the group was falling apart. It was too unbalanced: one straight girl and three gay boys. Amy loved Steve and I loved Mark. Nice and neat if only we could pair off like that. But Steve didn’t love Amy, and Mark didn’t love me. They loved each other. Or seemed well on the way to it.
Mark and I were just ordinary types. We’d grown up together, got into trouble together, discovered wanking together, shared our secrets, were really close friends. But just as I found my friendship for him ripening into love, he fell for Steve, and told me so quite frankly. It was understandable. Steve had everything going for him. He was handsome and confident and blatantly gay. He was also cruel, the sod. Once he had Mark well and truly hooked, he just flirted with him, alternately encouraged and discouraged him, kept him on tenterhooks, played with him like a cat with a mouse. And all the while, in the background, I faithfully yearned for Mark. From time to time I tried to persuade him that Steve wasn’t serious. But I was wasting my breath. The competition was too strong.
As for Amy, she was head and shoulders above the rest of us. She really was beautiful. And clever. And unscrupulous. And she didn’t mind her friends being gay — Mark and me, anyway, though she’d infinitely rather Steve had been straight. And she had two major ambitions. Obsessions, rather. One, to capture Steve, looked singularly doomed. But the other, to be a champion athlete, was howlingly successful. Last year, starting from absolutely nowhere, clean out of the blue, she’d made her name as a middle-distance runner. She’d swept the board at school, in inter-school competitions, at county and regional levels, breaking every record she met. Now she looked a dead cert for the national squad in the Commonwealth Games and even the Olympics. She was a phenomenon, and still is. If you haven’t heard of her already, you soon will.
So that’s how things stood one Friday evening. My parents were away for the weekend. I was sitting at the computer trying lackadaisically, in the intervals of dreaming about Mark and how the devil to win him over, to do my maths homework. I needed a series of random numbers, so I went to a website that supplied them and copied what I needed. I was about to exit when I noticed that the site offered random letters as well, and out of idle curiosity — anything to postpone the evil hour — I clicked on that. They were clumped in groups of ten. Almost all of them, not surprisingly, were total gibberish. But one group, by chance, made a pronounceable and rather nice word. Almeguroth. I read it aloud. Instantly there was a little ‘phut’ and a smell like burning electrics. Oh, shit. But that maddening blue ‘fatal exception’ screen didn’t come up. The computer case wasn’t hot. The cursor moved normally. I exited from the site without any trouble. Odd, but evidently no harm done.
Then I heard a discreet cough. I whirled round, and there standing behind me was a young man. Well, almost a boy, perhaps eighteen or nineteen. He was dressed in a smart dark grey suit with a subdued blue tie and he held one of those plastic clipboards. His hair was black and his complexion almost swarthy, and he wore the expression cultivated by high-quality salesmen. Confident, intelligent, polite. The sort that, if you found him on your doorstep, you’d feel obliged to invite in rather than slam the door in his face. I goggled for a moment before recovering my voice.
“Who’re you? How did you get here?”
He looked faintly puzzled. “You summoned me, sir.” And he flashed a laminated ID card bearing a photo and the words
The penny began to drop. Come to think of it, he did have something satanic about him, though nothing very obvious. I wouldn’t have expected cloven feet, a spiky tail and horns, not in this day and age. Or even a trident and a pointed beard. We had been on a class trip to see John Godber’s production of Dr Faustus, in which Mephistopheles was a blond and smarmy young man in a shimmering iridescent suit, rather like the presenter in a tacky TV show. This businesslike youth was much more plausible.
“But I didn’t summon you!”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but you spoke the Word of Summons. I couldn’t have arrived here otherwise.”
The penny dropped still further. By a trillion-to-one chance it must have been that computer-generated thing.
“Oh Lord, I’m sorry. I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. Yes, I did say a word, but I found it by accident. I’d no idea it was the Word of Summons. Anyway, I thought one had to draw, um, pentacles and write symbols and things in them before, er, people like you could appear.”
“That used to be the case, sir. But our technical services department has been updating our procedures to make them easier for potential clients. Nowadays all that is required is some such facility as this.”
He pointed to his feet, which were indeed standing inside a five-pointed star formed by the pattern in the carpet.
“But,” he continued, “even if you did summon me by mistake, sir, I wonder if, now that I’m here, I might interest you in any of the services we offer. The lottery jackpot. Up-market properties. Titles. Fame in almost any field of human endeavour. Perhaps you’d care to cast an eye over our brochure, which includes testimonials from a wide selection of satisfied customers? It also contains a contract form which, once I’ve filled in the details, merely requires your signature in blood.”
He was fishing one out of his clipboard, but I waved it away.
“No thanks. I think I know the score. I take it the price is the same, whatever?”
“Oh yes, sir. A flat rate for every service.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t mind having, er, several of the things you mentioned. But not at that price.”
“Not even beautiful girls, sir, or” — he gave me a calculating look — “boys?”
As I said, I’d have paid a lot for Mark’s love. But I was level-headed enough to draw the line at roasting in the flames of hell for all eternity. So I drew it, with some regret.
“No, not even that.”
He sighed. “Well, if you’re sure, sir, then I won’t disturb you any longer. If you’d be so kind as to speak the Word of Dismissal.” He stepped back into the star, from which he had wandered, and waited expectantly.
“But I don’t know it.”
“If you summoned me, sir, you must be able to dismiss me.”
“I told you, I hit on the Word of Summons by pure chance. But if you tell me the Word of Dismissal, I’ll say it for you.”
“But I don’t know it either. I’ve never heard it. Everyone who’s summoned me has always been eager to do business. I can’t go back unless I’ve either got a signed contract or been dismissed with the proper word. What the hell do I do now?”
His suave veneer was cracking and he was becoming quite human, if that’s the right word. The poor bugger really was in the shit, and I began to feel sorry for him. Could I find the Word of Dismissal on the web? Mmmm, possibly, somewhere. It might mean a long search. But it was the best bet, because I wasn’t going to sign my own soul away, and finding an alternative sucker would be virtually impossi …
Hang on! A brainwave struck me. Could I get what I wanted after all, and for free?
“Wait a mo. I’ve thought of someone else who might be willing to sign a contract for you. Yes. Yes. Let me think.”
Scabgrat snapped back into his salesman mode. Bad salesmen, when they sense that a customer’s nibbling at the bait, pour out a stream of what they suppose is encouragement. Good salesmen stay quiet. This one stayed quiet.
“Right,” I said after a quick think. “I’ve got a friend, a girl, who’s after a bloke. But he’s gay. Could you make him straight, and fall in love with her?”
“No problem at all, sir.”
“Well then, let’s go round and see if you can interest her.”
Amy lived only a couple of streets away, and as we walked I asked him conversationally how business was.
“Oh, never better, sir. It always improves when there’s recession in the air. Our sales staff now numbers about two hundred and fifty world-wide. Seventeen in this country alone. Just to meet the demand. Twelve per cent up on last year.” And he carried on in this vein until we reached Amy’s.
She answered the door herself. “Bill! Hi!”
“Hi, Amy! This is Mr Scabgrat.”
“Good evening, madam, er, miss. Permit me to show you my credentials.”
She examined his ID very thoughtfully, casting occasional glances at his face.
“Look, Amy,” I explained, “Mr Scabgrat, er, dropped in to see me. I couldn’t, um, help him. But he’s got a suggestion you may be interested in.”
“OK, let’s hear it. Come in.” Surprisingly decisive, but that’s how Amy was.
She led the way into the front room. As he followed, Scabgrat asked me to wait outside. “We like to ensure complete confidentiality, if you don’t mind, sir.”
Well, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, so I didn’t mind, and sat on the stairs. It was barely five minutes before he was out again, wearing a satisfied smile and stowing into his clipboard a form which bore a dark red signature.
“Thank you again, miss,” he called back into the room. “I am greatly obliged. I trust it will be many years before you regret your decision. And now, sir, if you’re ready, perhaps you’d be kind enough to take me back to your pentacle.”
As we passed the front room I glimpsed Amy dabbing at her forearm with a slightly blood-stained hanky and picking up the phone.
“How long does it take for these things to happen?” I asked casually as we walked back.
“It depends on the nature of the transaction, sir. Knighthoods and peerages, for example, have to go through the usual channels and take several months at least. But affairs of the heart are normally arranged with immediate effect. By now your friend will find that her affections are returned. Thanks to your intervention, sir.”
Ah! So my rival was already out of the way. Exactly what I wanted to hear. But Scabgrat assumed I had been helping Amy out of the kindness of my heart, and I did not feel like telling him I had a personal interest. So I said nothing, and my silence paid immediate dividends.
“And I too am deeply obliged to you, sir,” he continued. “Now, we’re authorised to offer, at our discretion, a free gift to clients who have been especially helpful in putting business our way. This week’s offer is an exceptionally loving relationship with the partner of your choice, supported by a life-long guarantee. There are no strings attached. Would you be interested?”
“I most certainly would.” Almost too good to be true. I could now be sure of catching Mark on the rebound.
Back at my house, he filled in a form with our names and details, and handed me the carbon copy and guarantee certificate.
“Thank you again, sir. May I wish you long enjoyment of your gift.”
He stepped into the pentacle, politely inclined his head and, with another ‘phut’ and a whiff of burning, vanished.
So far, so excellent. Feeling more than a little light-headed, I sat down and waited for my dreams to be fulfilled. Not for long. In half an hour the doorbell rang, and there stood Mark. In a dreadful state. Out of breath, face blotchy with tears, bubbling with indignation.
And he flung himself into my arms and sobbed on my shoulder. It was a while before he could talk coherently. Finally it emerged that, to put it in a nutshell, he had just been round to Steve’s place, only to find him shagging Amy on the kitchen table. And Steve had told him to fuck off.
“The rotten bastard. Stringing me along. Pretending he was gay. Oh, Bill, I wish I’d listened to you. You’ve stood by me all this time. I’ve only just realised it’s you I really love.”
“And I love you, Mark.”
And we got down to demonstrating it in a practical way.
The weekend was interesting. Highly enjoyable, too. A taste of what the rest of our lives held in store. My maths homework was not completed. On Monday morning we rolled in to school with haggard faces but stars in our eyes. So did Amy and Steve. And that’s virtually the end of the story.
Except that at break Amy took me aside. “Thanks a lot, Bill. That was very kind of you. OK, you got what you wanted too, but I’m still grateful.”
“Glad to help. I reckoned you’d be interested, but I wasn’t at all sure you’d be willing to pay the price. I was surprised you made your mind up so fast.”
“Oh, I knew the terms already.”
“Well, you don’t seem very worried about them.”
“It’s Lucifer Inc. that should be worried. Not me. After all, I won’t be paying anything for what I got.” She smiled wickedly.
“Look, when they discover their books won’t balance, there’s going to be hell to pay down there. It’s their own fault. They’re so out of date, that crowd. They’ve only just got round to updating their marketing techniques, and back at head office they’re still in the Middle Ages. You’d have thought they’d have computerised their records by now. And issued their reps with laptops. So they could check on previous transactions.”
“What the devil are you babbling about?”
“Oh Bill, you are being thick. I’ve had dealings with that lot before, of course. How else do you think I became a champion athlete?”