Friday, 31 August 2012
Tuesday, 28 August 2012
Statutory disclaimer: The author of this article has never been inside an economics classroom, and has no background in economic theory. He is also of the opinion that academic economics ranks alongside astrology as one of the most fundamentally useless facets of human study. Therefore, the contents of this article are not unbiased, and may be wrong.
One of the recurrent themes I’ve come across in right-wing economic discourse is the idea that the cycle of production and consumption is a never-ending route to permanent prosperity. On the surface of it it’s a rather plausible idea, of course; someone makes something, sells it, gets money and buys something else. He’s happy, his customer is happy, and the guy from whom he’s buying is happy.
Only, what happens after the customer has bought whatever it is the man has made? Once he’s bought something with which he’s happy, what then?
This is a rather fundamentally interesting question, because, as I’ll illustrate, the entire foundation of modern society is based on a flawed understanding of it.
Suppose our craftsman is a potter. He sells a nice set of pots to a housewife, gets money for this, and uses part of that money to buy himself a shirt from the tailor, and with the money left over buys food for his family. Right, so he’s clothed and fed, and presumably content. But what happens next?
If the housewife is satisfied with his pots, and they serve her needs well she’s not going to be back in the morning with an order for a further set. So, what does our potter do tomorrow to put food on the table?
Let’s suppose yesterday’s customer has friends, and these friends see the pots and come over to buy more. Business does well for a few days, but sooner or later everyone has pots.
So what’s our potter to do then? He might hire a crier to sing the praises of his pots far and wide, and that might bring an uptick of business, but ultimately he’ll have sold so many pots that people don’t want any more.
Some of the pots, of course, will break over time, and if the potter is a tad unscrupulous he might ensure the pots are brittle and would break easily. But that would be stupid, because the people might decide that it makes more sense to buy their pots from the other potter two villages over. In fact, making better pots ensures staying ahead of the competition.
So far, so good. But the potter’s customers have stopped coming, and he requires a source of income so as to be able to continue affording shirts and food. What is he to do?
If this is a village-level economy, the potter can probably work as a farmhand for a few months until enough of the pots he’s sold have broken in the course of daily use that he has a customer base again to sell to. In fact, this is something a lot of people do even now, in the villages of this country; during the farming season they work in the fields, and when the crops have been gathered in, they manufacture pots or cloth or wicker baskets enough to supply the customers until the next manufacturing season. And while they’re off working in the fields, the bamboo or cotton they use for their raw material has a chance to grow and replenish itself.
It’s a relatively sustainable and low-wastage solution to the problem. But it works well only at the level of a simple (I will not say “primitive”) economy.
The problem with these simple economies, of course, is that they operate on a small scale and do not allow a few people to become extremely rich. For that, you need economies which operate on a much, much larger scale, with organised factories working without an off season to supply a large scale market. That can only be done on an industrial scale, of course, and that’s what the Industrial Revolution was all about – the factories which ran round the clock to produce an endless supply of goods.
Of course, the setting up of factories and mass production also requires several other things.
First of all, there has to be a regular supply of raw materials and power, as well as cheap labour. All these cost money, add to the finished cost of the product, and therefore directly affect the margin of profit. And since the cost of raw materials and power isn’t – generally speaking – something that can be skimped on, the cost of labour is the one part of this which can be lowered. The ultimate in this lowering is the assembly line, especially the ultra-modern robotised assembly line.
This is the point at which right-wing economists generally sit back complacently and declare that this is the acme of modern capitalism, where the producer and consumer both benefit, and the money earned is passed down to the workers in the form of wages and upstream to the suppliers of raw material and power as payments for goods. Actually, compared to the village potter, an assembly line can look like a marvel of modernity, but actually it’s far less sustainable in the long run. There are several reasons for this, but ultimately it all comes down to the necessity of finding a market for the stuff you produce.
Unlike the village potter, the assembly line can’t afford to switch to alternative work when the demand dies down. If it’s going to keep in business, it has to stay in production – and it has to keep moving the finished product. Unless it can keep producing, and selling what it produces, in the long run it has no future.
This simple fact means that the modern industrial system has to have absolutely assured and constant sources of raw material and power; at all times, and can’t wait to have them regenerate themselves (for the former, generally speaking, regeneration isn’t even an option). And it also has to have a constantly expanding consumer base, so that it can sell its products despite competition and the changing tastes of various people.
At first, the producer can try to reduce the selling price of its products to a minimum to attract purchasers and undercut competitors, but that’s not a policy which can be sustainable. The selling price, after all, can’t be less than the cost of production, quite apart from such recurrent expenses as wages, maintaining and replacing equipment, transport and so on. Again, while right-wing economists love to extol the alleged benefits of reduced prices to the consumer, this is not something that ever happens in the long run. Instead, the producers end up forming cartels and rigging prices to around the same level, but even so they end up in a situation where they have to find new customers for their products if they are to survive.
Of course the reader will see where this is heading. Since the very existence of the industry, and by extension the economy dependent on the existence of this industry, depends on these three factors, they have to be secured by any means possible. And, equally obviously, if these means require that government policy be “influenced” in favour of that industry, by lobbying, bribes, or other means, that’s quite all right. Forests can be made to vanish and the ground strip-mined of coal and minerals, and poison dumped into rivers because it’s cheaper than treating effluents. But that doesn’t remove the requirement for consumers to buy the products.
This situation is worse for the producers of consumer durables like cars or refrigerators, aeroplanes or office furniture. After all, how many cars can a man own? What happens after each member of the family has one? (I once asked this question to an economics professor. His reply: “Then they want better cars.” Really? What happens to the old cars? And what happens when there’s no more road space to drive those cars on?)
In the nineteenth century, the solution was relatively simple; the industrialised nations would routinely invade and occupy Asian and African countries, destroy their local small-scale production, strip them of their raw materials, and force them to buy the finished products of the Western factories. It was easy to do, because owing to the industrial revolution and constant warfare the European nations were militarily much stronger than most rival countries. It was also easy to justify, in the name of spreading Western civilisation among the “lesser breeds without the law” (who, in general, were far more civilised than the Europeans doing the civilising). The heights of this policy of securing captive markets was reached by the British (who else?) in the nineteenth century, when they went to war against China to compel the Middle Kingdom to buy opium, the use of which was then rampant and which the Chinese government of the time was trying to suppress.
Imperialism, in its foundations, was always primarily an economic phenomenon.
After the Second World War, there was a brief period when imperialism seemed to have ebbed, and it appeared that the time of the old imperialist powers was past. In reality, the temporary ebbing of that imperialism can be ascribed to the rebuilding of the shattered European and Japanese infrastructures and economies after the war, and the economic boom which followed as people back home bought cars and TV sets, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners, things which they hadn’t had before.
But then, soon enough, the same problem raised its head; the domestic market was glutted, and there were industries all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Coincidentally, around this time, for the first time in history the world suddenly found itself under the hegemony of a single power; a power, moreover, which had no scruples about changing the rules to suit itself, including imposing its own currency on the planet as a reserve so that it had no need to earn foreign exchange in order to purchase foreign goods. The equivalent is to print your own money, so that you can buy whatever you want instead of working for it.
As a somewhat famous bearded German Jew once said, history repeats itself. This hegemonistic power, and its European vassals, found themselves again in virtually unchallenged military superiority over the rest of the world at just the time when their own (economically accessible) raw materials were running short, and they desperately needed new secure markets for their products. Is it a coincidence that it was just then that they set about another series of wars meant to “spread Western values” among non-white peoples? Of course not.
As the war criminal and mass murderer William Jefferson Clinton openly stated, his country was
entitled to resort to "unilateral use of military power" to ensure "uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources"
... a rare bit of honesty which soon gave way to the camouflage of a “Global War On Terror”, as promoted by his successor, the war criminal and mass murderer George W Bush, and continued under his successor, the war criminal, mass murderer, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Barack Hussein Obama. Remember what the very first objective the Empire’s forces secured after the capture of Baghdad was, before all others? The Oil Ministry. Recall what happens to every single nation taken over by the Empire or its vassals? Privatisation of the economy, with assets sold off to the Western multinationals which also finance the election campaigns of those in power and their primary opponents. What is the first condition for a loan imposed by the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund on a desperate and poor nation? “Economic restructuring”. Basically, it’s the Opium Wars all over again, but on a global scale. Greed is still the motivating factor.
The reader will understand that what the people of the occupied nations want or need does not matter in this situation. What the people of the industrialised nations want, too, no longer matters. What matters is only profit, and the continuing ability to generate profit. Everything else is secondary to that goal.
Not that this will continue indefinitely, of course. Even on a global scale, the neo-imperialists can’t compel people to buy their products forever any more than the village potter can compel the housewives to buy his pots. And, sooner rather than later, the raw materials will run out, leaving the industries with no way to produce and no way to sell (this will actually be exacerbated by the impoverishment of the majority of people of nations whose economies have been forcibly privatised, as a direct result of said privatisation; in all newly privatised economies, a small minority becomes very wealthy and the rest become poor). That will be a complete collapse, compared to which a mere depression, or even Depression, will look like a party.
At that point, it’s impossible to predict just what will happen, but massive wars over dwindling resources are a distinct possibility. If anything is left over at the end of it all to start over again, it will probably be on a subsistence level. Something like...
...a village potter, for instance.
Under his wings, the plain is an expanse of cinders and grey ash.
He circles, looking for a sign of life, however small, wondering what had happened here. Far away, at the very limits of distance, the sun is rising, a ball of ruddy fire. But its redness does not touch the plain with colour.
Here and there, wisps of smoke still rise from the plain, and an ember or two glows a dull red. It was not too long ago, then, that the plain was burned, he thinks, and in the thought he has an inkling of what might have happened here.
Fear begins then, inside him, struggling, contending for dominance with anger. Fear, because he is afraid of what he must do, and anger, because he feels compelled to do it despite his will. For a while longer, he circles, mulling turning away and returning to his distant mountain home, still shrouded in the western night. But he knows that’s impossible – when he left, he knew he could never go back there again.
At least, he can’t go back there without doing what he’s come to do.
Resentment burns inside him now, at the thought of being forced to this, at last. But he has no choice in the matter, not really, and never has.
The sun is higher now, no longer red, and the last wisps of smoke no longer stain the air. It’s time to go.
Dipping a wingtip, he banks sharply, flying due east, directly away from the peaks which had been his home for so long. His great wings beat, faster and faster, driving him up into the upper air, from where the plain fades to a grey smear, from where he can almost see until the end of the world.
He follows the track left by destruction below, the charred plains and valleys following one another, like an arrow pointing to the direction he must follow. By now he is sure what has happened, and the anger and fear have given way to frustration, because he knows this was all done for his benefit, to draw him on – and he knows he has no choice but to follow it to the end.
It’s evening by the time he begins to descend. All day he hasn’t seen anything else in the air, not a bird or a balloon, even as a speck on the horizon. And of course he won’t be able to see his quarry – not until he is allowed to. He knows that, but knows it won’t be too long now.
All day, the sun has been raining fire, like the heat of the fire rising off the plain. Like all his kind, he feels no discomfort with heat. But now, in the cooler air of evening, his wings have begun to grow heavy, and he needs somewhere to spend the night.
All day the land has been rising, the plains having given way to eroded plateaus fissured by twisting valleys, and the burning has been fresher, spouts of orange flame still rising, topped with greasy plumes of black smoke. He has a feeling it will happen tonight.
He dislikes the night, because at night his blood is sluggish with the cold, and after flying since the previous evening his energy levels are low. He needs to save all the energy he has, to keep it for the morning, but if it happens tonight he won’t have that luxury.
He comes to earth on a spire of rock above a stony valley. It isn’t quite dark yet, and he can see a small village down below, little houses of mud bricks held together with lime. He can see the people moving around, and the barking of a dog sounds faintly. The village and the dry, dusty fields beyond haven’t been burned yet. He has caught up at last.
Now he knows it will happen tonight, without a doubt, and with the realisation he feels almost relieved. Crouching on the spire of rock, he begins to prepare himself, feeling the glands release the chemicals into his blood, his muscles leaching away the tiredness of his long flight. He doesn’t know how long he will have to prepare, and when it happens, he needs to be ready.
He tries not to think of what lies ahead. It’s always better not to think. Plans don’t work in this situation, because plans bind the planner to a course of action, and he can’t afford that. When it happens, he will have to react instantly and as best he can. There will not be time to adapt a plan to suit it to circumstances.
Instead, he thinks of his home, so far away to the west, the mountain crags where he has lived for so long, almost as long as he can remember. If he hadn’t received the summons, the call in his blood, he would have been there now, happy in his familiar world of evergreen forests and tinkling little streams. When he half-closes his eyes, he can see the shadow of drifting mists among the hills. He can almost taste the longing to be back there, but he does not know if he will ever see them again.
His thoughts are abruptly interrupted. For a moment he thinks this is it, but it doesn’t happen this way, not with voices, human voices and the flicker of torches.
By now, darkness has fallen, and the villagers have come up the valley and are gathered below him, looking up. The light of the torches glimmers in their eyes. Two men step out of the throng. There is a girl between them, clad in a rough grey shift, her hair hanging loose over her face and her limbs bare. She’s young, her arms bound with ropes, and they push her forward, not particularly gently. The girl cries out, stumbles and falls, tearing her skin open on the stones. He can smell her blood.
“She’s a virgin,” one of the men calls up to him. “Take her, and spare us.”
“Yes,” the other man says. “Spare us from the burning.”
He arches his neck, studying them, studying the girl. She’s kneeling where she fell, looking down at the stones, submissive in her terror. He can smell her fear now, as well as her blood, and knows that she’s waiting to feel his talons in her back. From the crowd he can hear a quiet sobbing. A parent, perhaps, or a sibling.
The burning is not my doing, he wants to say, to their upturned faces, patches of white in the flickering light of the torches. And I can’t accept your sacrifice, because...
And then he grows aware that the darkness is dissipating, that it is giving way to a golden glow, and he turns away from them, flexing his wings. They no longer matter. It is about to begin.
She is here.
She rises from behind the spire of stone, so gigantic that the sight of her sucks the breath away, the torches flashing fire from the plates of her flanks. Her wings beat slowly, distilled sheets of golden sunlight, sparks flying from them at every beat. Her great antennae twist back and forth, questing, ready to flick out like whips and strip skin and flesh from bone. Her eyes are seething pools, glowing red like molten rock, her tail like a pillar flung over heaven. She is beautiful and terrible, and awful to look upon.
She throws back her head, roaring a challenge audible only to him, like a peal of thunder racing across the sky.
He roars back, his wings thrashing, bearing him up off the crag, his steel-blue form dwarfed by her glowing gold. He’s always known she’d be bigger than him, but he’d never have believed she would be this much larger. It’s going to be much more difficult than he ever imagined.
He flies straight at her, aiming at her underbelly, reaching forwards with his talons, slashing, but she’s already gone, sideslipped with a speed and agility incredible for her size. She slaps at him with a gigantic wing, catching him a glancing blow and sending him tumbling earthwards. Even that blow is so strong that it numbs him momentarily, and he only manages to right himself an instant before he impacts the rocks, the flattened tip of his tail brushing them before he can climb again.
She is there, up above, waiting, her wings beating, keeping her in place. Her jaws are open, the sparks from her wings lighting her great teeth, her antennae whipping back and forth. She hisses at him contemptuously.
I can crush you easily, she tells him, the thought ringing clear in his mind. Did you really think you were worthy?
You thought I was worthy enough to call me, he replies. You burned the plains so I had to come.
It will all be wasted, anyway, she responds, because you will never defeat me. He sees her draw her neck back and knows what is to come. Just in time h throws himself to the right, closing one wing and extending the other so that he falls out of the sky in a spin, the blast of fire passing harmlessly by – yet near enough to singe him.
Opening both wings wide, he angles them so that he breaks out of the spin and rushes at head-height above the plateau, zigzagging between rocks and protuberances, doubling back twice on his own path to avoid more of her fiery blasts. Then she swoops on him from above, claws extended to catch hold of one of his wings and twist it off. He zigzags, but she’s got the advantage of height, and can cut him off whichever way he goes. There’s only one thing to do.
Closing both his wings, he lets himself fall like a stone.
He drops like a stone past the plateau edge, between the parallel walls of a ravine, into the darkness. Twisting, he grabs for the wall with his claws, finds a toehold, hangs on. Far above, she screams in frustration, and fires another blast into the ravine. A shelf of rock protects him, and she’s well off target.
There’s no time to lose.
Back in his mountain home, he has learned to crawl up vertical rock surfaces using only his claws, but that was in daytime, when his energy levels were high and when a moment’s miscalculation would not mean fiery death. But there’s nothing for it – he scrambles frantically for the top, keeping in the shelter of the rock shelf for as long as he can, and pulls himself to the top of the plateau.
And then he stops, confused. She should have been waiting, ready to blast him, but he can’t see her anywhere.
For a fraction of a second he considers the possibility that she’s gone, back into hiding, but she can’t do that. Once she’s shown herself, she has to play it through, all the way. She can help it no more than he could help following the trail of burning she had left for him.
Something catches his eye, then, a golden glow on the rock. She is there, behind and below him. She’s dropped past the plateau edge to look for him, as he was climbing to the top.
Turning, he cranes his neck past the edge – yes, there she is, below him, dropping down in slow circles, her head extended downwards to look for him. He won’t have a better chance.
He dives off the edge of the plateau like a plummeting hawk, wings held close to his body, steering with the tips only, coming down hard on her shoulders. He grips tight, digging his claws between the plates of her skin, his jaws closing on the base of her neck.
She fights, of course, like a thing demented, thrashing frantically, turning her head to snap with her immense jaws, but he knows he’s won. She recognises it too, her wings opening wide and flapping to lift them over the plateau. Silently, she comes down to earth, and there they lie, trembling, together. His tail twines round hers as she claws at the earth.
Later, after she has flapped off, weary with her new burden, he flies down to the spire to rest. The villagers have long since fled, but the girl is still there, lashed to a post with ropes, lying curled up in the dust. At first he thinks she’s dead, but then he can hear her breathing, and smell her fear. She’s conscious and aware of him.
He’s desperately weary, needs rest, but there’s something he must do first.
Wings spread to the maximum size, he lets himself drift downwards, gentle as a feather, until he stands by the girl’s side. He can feel her tremble as he uses the tip of a claw to cut through her bonds and set her free.
Slowly, as though waking from a nightmare, she moves, trying each limb, unbelieving of her freedom. She looks up at him. Under her fringe of hair, her features are smudged with dirt and tears, but not uncomely. She may be a beauty in a few years, if she survives.
Holding on to the post, she pulls herself up, whispering something that he can’t hear. With a tentative finger, she reaches out and touches his near wing, and instantly snatches the finger back, as though she has been burned.
“Thank you,” she whispers again, and this time loud enough for him to hear. “Thank you for my life. And thank you for chasing the other one away. Thank you for all our lives.”
There’s no need to thank me, he wants to tell her. I did it as much for myself as you. If I had lost, I would have been consumed, and you too. If I had lost, then I would have proved myself too weak, and she would have looked for someone else. She would not have stopped till she found one strong enough to beat her, for only such a one is worthy of giving her his seed.
Tomorrow, he wants to tell her, I will go back to my mountains, which I had not thought to see again. As she has gone, to wherever her home is, to hatch her eggs. The burned plains will heal, the green come again on the land. And, when her children – our children – grow mature, one might come this way again, burning fields and villages, questing for a male who can beat her in combat. For only the strongest win.
But until that happens, you will be safe. Go and live your life, and be happy, for it will not happen in your lifetime, or that of your grandchildren’s grandchildren.
All this he wants to tell her, and more, but he does not have a voice to speak with, and though he can think his messages, she does not have the ears to hear.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012
Monday, 27 August 2012
It was an ancient house which perched on a hump of a hill a short distance outside town, a house that did not even have a name, a house which nobody dared enter. Everyone just called it the Haunted House.
The Haunted House was not empty. It held a population of several thousand spiders, a not inconsiderable number of rats, some beetles, and a bat or two. It also contained a ghost.
It was a very, very old ghost. Not even the ghost itself knew quite how old it was. It was, of course, not the spirit of a dead person, because if the spirits of dead people exist, they have better things to do than hang around haunting old houses and scaring people. Like all ghosts, it was an ancient remnant of the energies that created the universe.
It was a very lonely ghost. It had been alone since the beginning of time, and had never found another of its own kind in all the billions of years of searching. It had only found other energies, which were actively hostile and wanted to consume it. Finally, it had decided to slink into hiding in a small planet orbiting a minor sun in a remote spiral arm of an unexceptionable galaxy.
And there, for millions of years, it had remained, drifting from shelter to shelter as it had to. And for years beyond counting, it had resided in the Haunted House Outside The Town.
The Haunted House was also extremely old. Nobody knew just how old, because the land records had long since disappeared and nobody dared enter the premises to look for them. That suited the ghost fine, because it was terrified of human beings.
It was a very cowardly ghost, though in its defence its experiences over the billennia would have been enough to sour its outlook forever. It shrank from the slightest noise, and hid under the stairs at a clap of thunder. It was even afraid of the spiders which spun webs high up in the corners, and stared sown into the room with their eight bulging eyes.
Such was the situation when the bandit Diego el Diablo came to town.
The entire country knew Diego el Diablo very well. Even those who had never seen him before could describe his crossed bandoliers, his pair of revolvers, his huge sombrero, his bags of loot, and most of all, his pair of moustaches. Those were a very luxuriant pair of moustaches, and Diego el Diablo spent a lot of time and trouble waxing, polishing and taking care of them. You might say the moustaches were his most prized possession.
Now two things must be realised: Diego el Diablo did not know of the existence of the ghost, and the ghost wasn’t afraid of moustaches.
There was a reason for this. Many aeons ago, the ghost had been a fugitive fleeing between the galaxies, chased by energies great enough to swallow star systems whole and spit out black holes. The greatest and most implacable of these entities had been one with flat, expressionless black eyes, rather like someone wearing an immense pair of sunglasses. Escaping from it had been almost impossible, but finally the ghost had found shelter for a few million years in a mass of dark matter. That mass of dark matter had looked exactly like a gigantic pair of moustaches.
In time, the dark matter had dispersed, and the ghost had had to look for shelter elsewhere. But it had never forgotten the moustaches, and thought of them as its only friend.
Meanwhile, there was Diego el Diablo. In truth, his reputation was far more fearsome than the truth. Actually, Diego el Diablo was a harmless man who had once wanted to star in the movies. However, the producers had laughed at him, saying he looked like a cartoon Mexican bandit. Diego, insulted and ashamed, had decided then and there that he should become a real bandit, not just a cartoon one. And being someone with immense strength of character, he had forthwith set out to achieve his goal. Today, though he wasn’t a Mexican bandit, he was at least quite indubitably a bandit. What more did he want?
Well, several things, actually. For one, he was lonely, and he wanted someone to talk to. Being a bandit was all very well, but it didn’t make for great social interaction. Then, he wanted a place to hide out for a while.
The reason he wanted to hide out for a while was this: a few days previously, in his most audacious strike yet, he had successfully robbed an armoured car and made off with enough money to retire for life. But the police were hard on his trail. They’d quickly formed a posse to chase him, under the command of an Inspector who wore big sunglasses at all times, even at night. They had been following him, day and night, until he could run no longer. If he looked over his shoulder, he could almost see them on the horizon. The huge old ruin of a house seemed the answer to a prayer.
When Diego el Diablo made a decision, he did not hesitate. Bounding over the crumbling wall of the decaying edifice, he broke open the fastening of a window and clambered inside.
For a while he wandered up and down corridors, looking into rooms ankle-deep in dust, wondering how long it had been since the old pile had last had a visitor. Except for his own footprints, there were no marks in the dust, and apart from the spiders watching balefully from the corners of the ceiling, he didn’t see another living thing. Diego el Diablo was not a particularly imaginative individual, but it did occur to him to wonder why a place like this should have been left alone for so long.
He was no closer to thinking of an answer when something happened. Because of the filth on the windows, it was almost dark inside, and he couldn’t see out. Therefore it was some time before he became aware that there were noises outside, as of a police posse trying to work up the courage to break into a house where an armed robber might be lying in ambush, and a ghost most assuredly would.
Nobody had ever called Diego el Diablo slow to react in a crisis. At the moment he heard the police, he was walking past the stairs. Without a moment’s pause to think, he dived into the space under the stairs.
And, once there, he suddenly found he wasn’t alone.
The ghost had hidden under the stairs in terror – terror of the crashing and splintering noise of Diego’s entrance, and then the tramp of his boots up and down the ancient hallways. It had been far too terrified to even sneak a look to see what had invaded its domain after so many years. All it could think was that it had finally been discovered by the enemy it feared most of all – the entity which looked like a pair of flat, expressionless eyes.
And yet, when suddenly confronted with the intruder, the ghost found that it was not the enemy which had discovered it, after all, but something completely different – the pair of moustaches which had sheltered it, instead.
So it was out of relief as much as anything that the ghost leapt forward and embraced the bandit as hard as it could...
Diego el Diablo was no poltroon. He’d faced down a lot of dangers in his time, dangers which might have made a lesser man’s hair go white, or at least compel him to rethink his choice of career. But the sudden and completely unexpected embrace of a ghost was enough to unsettle even him, to the extent that he let out a bloodcurdling scream of panic. The scream was so loud and shrill that it sent the ghost scooting for the nearest shelter – Diego’s magnificent pair of moustaches.
“What was that?” the ghost gasped, from the safety of the moustaches. “What was that horrible sound?”
“Just me, screaming,” Diego el Diablo confessed, with embarrassment. “You took me by surprise, you see.”
“I take you by surprise?” the ghost replied indignantly. “Here you’ve been stomping around the place all this time, would’ve given me a heart attack if I’d had a heart, and you tell me I took you by surprise?”
“I wasn’t expecting a ghost,” Diego told it. “If I’d known there was a ghost in residence I wouldn’t have come in here. I don’t want to intrude where I’m not wanted.”
“Well, I’m...” the ghost began, but it was interrupted.
It wasn’t only the ghost which had been spooked by Diego’s terrified scream. The police squad which had been on the verge of storming the house was also stopped in its tracks by the terrible sound. It didn’t know what the scream meant, of course; whether the scream was from Diego el Diablo being eaten by the ghost, or from someone else being killed or captured by Diego, or of that someone else being eaten by the ghost. Shaken to the core, the members retreated back beyond the wall and brought up a megaphone.
“Diego!” the Inspector with the shades called through the megaphone, not particularly hopefully. “You’re surrounded. Your situation is hopeless. Come out with your hands up.” Nothing happened, so he tried again. “Diego,” he wheedled, “you don’t want to be in there with the ghost, do you? We may not be exactly your friends out here, but at least we’re human like you, right? What do you say, Diego? Come out and give yourself up, there’s a good boy.”
There was still no answer.
“I think the ghost got him,” the Inspector told his deputy, worriedly. “Not that I’d care about that, ordinarily, but he’s got all that loot in there with him, and I need to recover it.”
“Isn’t it insured?” the deputy remarked, stupidly. “Won’t the bank get the money back anyway?”
The Inspector glared at him, though the dark glasses took the edge off the glare. “I said I need to recover it,” he said acidly. “Who cares about the bank?”
On that note, he turned back to his men and began to organise another attempt at storming the ghost’s ancient citadel.
It didn’t work out very well.
“We all heard the bandit screaming,” the men said. “It’s obvious the ghost ripped out his intestines. We don’t want the ghost to rip out our intestines, as well.”
“I think you’re going to have to give up the plan of securing the money,” the deputy said, not quite daring to smirk with satisfaction.
“Never,” the Inspector snapped. “I’ll never give up. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Wait, I’ve got an idea. The town’s not far off, is it? I’ll be right back.”
Meanwhile, inside the building, the ghost and Diego el Diablo were conferring hurriedly. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready to fire at them through the windows?” the former said. “That’s how they always do it in the movies. ‘You’ll never take me alive,’ and all that.”
“When did you ever get to the movies?” Diego el Diablo asked curiously. “Aren’t you kind of stuck here for the duration?”
If the ghost could have blushed it would have. Even though it couldn’t, Diego’s moustaches momentarily turned a pinkish hue. “A while back I checked the electromagnetic spectrum and came across TV. I was bored, so...anyway, aren’t you going to get ready for the bog stand-off?”
“What with?” Diego el Diablo asked. “I don’t have any ammunition.”
“Loaded with blanks, of course,” Diego snorted. He swept his hands over the bandoliers. “All these are blanks," he said. "Do you think I’d ever use real bullets? That’s insanely dangerous. Someone could get shot!”
There was a brief pause.
“In fact,” Diego added, “I don’t really have much of an idea how to fire these guns. I never have, you see.”
“Well then,” said the ghost, “what do you intend to do?”
If Diego el Diablo had an answer, he didn’t have the opportunity to voice it, because at that moment the front door – directly opposite the stairs under which the ghost and he were hiding – opened with a terrible screech and a jabber of prayer.
Prayer? Diego el Diablo, and the ghost, both peeked cautiously out from under the stairs. A priest stood at the door, sprinkling holy water everywhere and mumbling out exhortations for all unclean spirits to depart the premises.
“I like that!” the ghost said indignantly. “I bet I’m much cleaner than him. Look at the dirt on his collar.”
Some of this must have been audible to the priest, for he stopped and pointed a trembling finger in the general direction of the stairs. “Depart at once,” he declaimed. “Depart to the realm of the dead!”
“Why?” the ghost replied, jumping out. “I’m not dead, I’ve never been dead, I don’t know the way to the realm of the dead, and I wouldn’t go there if I could. As for you...” It stopped, because with a shriek of terror, the priest had dropped his flask of holy water and rushed towards the door to escape.
And there, at the door, coming in, was the Inspector, his sunglasses still in place. He was just in time to collide with the fleeing priest.
“Ouch,” said the Inspector, and went sprawling on the floor. The priest didn’t even pause. With a prodigious leap, worthy of a place in the Olympic Games, he jumped over the policeman and sprinted through the door like an athlete on steroids.
The Inspector lay on the floor, rubbing his stomach and wincing. He looked in such pain that Diego el Diablo popped out from under the stairs to give him a hand, before taking a moment to think what he was doing.
The Inspector looked at Diego el Diablo, and Diego looked back at him.
“So,” the Inspector said, reaching for his gun, which was most definitely loaded. “Diego. You aren’t dead after all.”
“No,” Diego agreed, “I’m most definitely not dead.”
“You soon will be,” the Inspector promised him, and fired. But with the darkness inside and the sunglasses he was wearing, he could hardly see anything, so the shot went wide. Cursing, he ripped off the sunglasses, and that was his mistake.
At the first sight of the Inspector and his shades, the ghost, in a Pavlovian reaction of terror, had gone rushing back to the safety of Diego el Diablo’s moustaches. But as soon as the Inspector had taken off the sunglasses, the ghost realised that it wasn’t being threatened by the entity which had followed it so long through space and time. Also, it realised that the friend it had just begun to make was in danger of being lost forever.
Full of wrath, it struck.
It struck like an express train, like a battering ram, with a shriek of anger so loud that it sounded as though it was tearing the sound barrier in half. The Inspector didn’t even have the time to blink. The ghost ripped the gun from his hand, twisted it into a Möbius strip, and threw it into the corner. Still screaming, it lifted him high into the air, twirled him around twice, and flung him into the corner. He’d hardly hit the floor before it picked him up again and, holding him by the ankles, prepared to dash his brains out.
“Wait,” Diego shouted. “Don’t kill him.”
“He was going to kill you,” the ghost said.
“He didn’t, did he? And now that you’ve wrecked his gun, he can’t. So don’t kill him.”
“If you say so.” With a disgusted snort, the ghost flicked the Inspector through the door. He landed on his back in a puff of dust.
“Thanks,” Diego said. “I appreciate that.”
“You’re too nice for your own good,” the ghost grumbled. “That man will be back, mark my words. He’s not the sort to give up, ever.”
Even as it was speaking, the Inspector was scrambling to his feet outside and gesturing wildly. “Go in there,” he shouted to his men. “Diego el Diablo is there, alive. Go and finish him off.”
There was no response. None of his men were left to obey his orders. Half of them had fled at the priest’s scream, and the remainder at the ghost’s enraged shriek. All that was left was a puff of dust on the horizon.
“You’d better run, too,” Diego called, peering out through the open door. “Or I’ll send my friend after you.”
“Boo!” the ghost said, popping out of the moustaches for a moment.
The Inspector ran.
“It was nice of you to come with me,” Diego said, poking at the bonfire with a stick. “After all, that old pile was your home.”
The ghost snorted. “I’ve had a lot of homes before,” it said. “Besides, how long do you think it would have been before they’d have returned with ten times the men and weapons? Even I couldn’t have protected you forever. And what kind of home would it have been like for me afterwards anyway?”
“You’re probably right,” Diego said, stretching. All around, the night lay silent and calm. “It’s time I gave up the robbery business,” he observed.
“I thought it was your job?”
“Well, there’s not much of a future in it, and it can be hazardous to health.” Diego yawned. “Besides, with the loot from my last job I have enough to get by for the rest of my life if I’m careful. No more banditry. I find I’m not nearly ruthless enough for it. ”
“We’ll find something for you to do instead,” the ghost said.
“We’ll find something to do instead,” Diego agreed, rolling himself in his blanket and yawning again. “I’m not planning on becoming an idle layabout.”
“Go to sleep,” the ghost said. “I’ll keep a lookout, don’t worry.”
“I’m sure,” the ghost said. “I don’t need sleep.” It watched Diego el Diablo pull his sombrero over his face and lie down. “Thanks for turning up,” it said softly. “You can’t believe how lonely I’d got over the years, and how desperate. Now, I’m not even afraid anymore.”
There was no response except a snore. Diego el Diablo was asleep.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012