The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams


  He spun round angrily. He wanted to be able to turn round calmly and with crushing dignity, but no such strategy ever worked with this creature, and since he, Thor, would only end up feeling humiliated and ridiculous whatever posture he adopted, he might as well go with one he felt comfortable with.

  "Toe Rag!" he roared, yanked his hammer spinning into the air and hurled it with immense, stunning force at the small creature who was squatting complacently in the shadows on top of a small heap of rubble, leaning forward a little.

  Toe Rag caught the hammer and placed it neatly on top of the pile of Thor's clothes that lay next to him. He grinned, and allowed a stray shaft of sunlight to glitter on one of his teeth. These things don't happen by accident. Toe Rag had spent some time while Thor was unconscious working out how long it would take him to recover, then industriously moving the pile of rubble to exactly this spot, checking the height and then calculating the exact angle at which to lean. As a provocateur he regarded himself as a professional.

  "Did you do this to me?" roared Thor. "Did you--"

  Thor searched for any way of saying "glue me to the floor" that didn't sound like "glue me to floor", but eventually the pause got too long and he had to give up.

  "--glue me to the floor?" he demanded at last. He wished he hadn't asked such a stupid question.

  "Don't even answer that!" he added angrily and wished he hadn't said that either. He stamped his foot and shook the foundations of the building a little just to make the point. He wasn't certain what the point was, but he felt that it had to be made. Some dust settled gently around him.

  Toe Rag watched him with his dancing, glittering eyes.

  "I merely carry out the instructions given to me by your father," he said in a grotesque parody of obsequiousness.

  "It seems to me," said Thor, "that the instructions my father has been giving since you entered his service have been very odd. I think you have some kind of evil grip on him. I don't know what kind of evil grip it is, but it's definitely a grip, and it's definitely . . . " synonyms failed him " . . . evil," he concluded.

  Toe Rag reacted like an iguana to whom someone had just complained about the wine.

  "Me?" he protested. "How can I possibly have a grip on your father? Odin is the greatest of the Gods of Asgard, and I am his devoted servant in all things. Odin says, 'Do this,' and I do it. Odin says, 'Go there,' and I go there. Odin says, 'Go and get my big stupid son out of hospital before he causes any more trouble, and then, I don't know, glue him to the floor or something,' and I do exactly as he asks. I am merely the most humble of functionaries. However small or menial the task, Odin's bidding is what I am there to perform."

  Thor was not sufficiently subtle a student of human nature or, for that matter, divine or goblin nature, to be able to argue that this was in fact a very powerful grip to hold over anybody, particularly a fallible and pampered old god. He just knew that it was all wrong.

  "Well then," he shouted, "take this message back to my father, Odin. Tell him that I, Thor, the God of Thunder, demand to meet him. And not in his damned hospital either! I'm not going to hang about reading magazines and looking at fruit while he has his bed changed! Tell him that Thor, the God of Thunder, will meet Odin, the Father of the Gods of Asgard, tonight, at the Challenging Hour in the Halls of Asgard!"

  "Again?" said Toe Rag, with a sly glance sideways at the Coca-Cola vending machine.

  "Er, yes," said Thor. "Yes!" he repeated in a rage. "Again!"

  Toe Rag made a tiny sigh, such as one who felt resigned to carrying out the bidding of a temperamental simpleton might make, and said, "Well, I'll tell him. I don't suppose he will be best pleased."

  "It is no matter of yours whether he is pleased or not!" shouted Thor, disturbing the foundations of the building once more. "This is between my father and myself! You may think yourself very clever, Toe Rag, and you may think that I am not--"

  Toe Rag arched an eyebrow. He had prepared for this moment. He stayed silent and merely let the stray beam of sunlight glint on his dancing eyes. It was a silence of the most profound eloquence.

  "I may not know what you're up to, Toe Rag, I may not know a lot of things, but I do know one thing. I know that I am Thor, the God of Thunder, and that I will not be made a fool of by a goblin!"

  "Well," said Toe Rag with a light grin, "when you know two things I expect you'll be twice as clever. Remember to put your clothes on before you go out." He gestured casually at the pile beside him and departed.

  10

  * * *

  The trouble with the sort of shop that sells things like magnifying glasses and penknives is that they tend also to sell all kinds of other fascinating things, like the quite extraordinary device with which Dirk eventually emerged after having been hopelessly unable to decide between the knife with the built-in Philips screwdriver, toothpick and ball-point pen and the one with the 13-tooth gristle saw and the tig-welded rivets.

  The magnifying glasses had held him in thrall for a short while, particularly the 25-diopter, high-index, vacuum-deposited, gold-coated glass model with the integral handle and mount and the notchless seal glazing, but then Dirk had happened to catch sight of a small electronic I Ching calculator and he was lost.

  He had never before even guessed at the existence of such a thing. And to be able to move from total ignorance of something to total desire for it, and then actually to own the thing all within the space of about forty seconds was, for Dirk, something of an epiphany.

  The electronic I Ching calculator was badly made. It had probably been manufactured in whichever of the South-East Asian countries was busy tooling up to do to South Korea what South Korea was busy doing to Japan. Glue technology had obviously not progressed in that country to the point where things could be successfully held together with it. Already the back had half fallen off and needed to be stuck back on with Sell tape.

  It was much like an ordinary pocket calculator, except that the LCD screen was a little larger than usual, in order to accommodate the abridged judgements of King Wen on each of the sixty-four hexagrams, and also the commentaries of his son, the Duke of Chou, on each of the lines of each hexagram. These were unusual texts to see marching across the display of a pocket calculator, particularly as they had been translated from the Chinese via the Japanese and seemed to have enjoyed many adventures on the way.

  The device also functioned as an ordinary calculator, but only to a limited degree. It could handle any calculation which returned an answer of anything up to "4".

  "1+1" it could manage ("2"), and "1+2" ("3") and "2+2" ("4") or "tan 74" ("3.4874145"), but anything above "4" it represented merely as "A Suffusion of Yellow". Dirk was not certain if this was a programming error or an insight beyond his ability to fathom, but he was crazy about it anyway, enough to hand over 20 of ready cash for the thing.

  "Thank you, sir," said the proprietor. "It's a nice piece that. I think you'll be happy with it."

  "I ab," said Dirk.

  "Glad to hear it, sir," replied the proprietor. "Do you know you've broken your nose?"

  Dirk looked up from fawning on his new possession.

  "Yedth," he said testily, "obf courth I dknow."

  The man nodded, satisfied.

  "Just that a lot of my customers wouldn't always know about a thing like that," he explained.

  Dirk thanked him tersely and hurried out with his purchase. A few minutes later he took up residence at the small corner table of an Islington cafe, ordered a small but incredibly strong cup of coffee; and attempted to take stock of his day. A moment's reflection told him that he was almost certainly going to need a small but incredibly strong beer as well, and he attempted to add this to his order.

  "A wha?" said the waiter. His hair was very black and filled with brilliantine. He was tall, incredibly fit and too cool to listen to customers or say consonants.

  Dirk repeated his order, but what with having the cafe's music system, a broken nose, and the waiter's insuperable c
ool to contend with, he eventually found it simpler to write out the order on a napkin with a stub of pencil. The waiter peered at it in an offended manner, and left.

  Dirk exchanged a friendly nod with the girl sitting half reading a book at the next table, who had watched this exchange with sympathy. Then he set about laying out his morning's acquisitions on the table in front of him--the newspaper, the electronic I Ching calculator and the envelope which he had retrieved from behind the gold disc on Geoffrey Anstey's bathroom wall. He then spent a minute or two dabbing at his nose with a handkerchief, and prodding it tenderly to see how much it hurt, which turned out to be quite a lot. He sighed and stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket.

  A few seconds later the waiter returned bearing a herb omelette and a single breadstick. Dirk explained that this wasn't what he had ordered. The waiter shrugged and said that it wasn't his fault.

  Dirk had no idea what to say to this, and said so. He was still having a great deal of difficulty speaking. The waiter asked Dirk if he knew that he had broken his nose and Dirk said that yedth, dthagg you berry budge, he did. The waiter said that his friend Neil had once broken his nose and Dirk said that he hobed it hurd like hell, which seemed to draw the conversation to a close. The waiter took the omelette and left, vowing never to return.

  When the girl sitting at the next table looked away for a moment, Dirk leaned over and took her coffee. He knew that he was perfectly safe doing this because she would simply not be able to believe that this had happened. He sat sipping at the lukewarm cup and casting his mind back over the day.

  He knew that before consulting the I Ching, even an electronic one, he should try and compose his thoughts and allow them to settle calmly.

  This was a tough one.

  However much he tried to clear his mind and think in a calm and collected way, he was unable to stop Geoffrey Anstey's head revolving incessantly in his mind. It revolved disapprovingly, as if pointing an accusing finger at Dirk. The fact that it did not have an accusing finger with which to point only served to drive the point it was trying to make home all the harder.

  Dirk screwed up his eyes and attempted to concentrate instead on the problem of the mysteriously vanished Miss Pearce, but was unable to get much of a grip on it. When she had used to work for him she would often disappear mysteriously for two or three days at a time, but the papers didn't make any kind of fuss about it then. Admittedly, there weren't things exploding around her at the time, at least, not that he was aware of. She had never mentioned anything exploding particularly.

  Furthermore, whenever he thought of her face, which he had last seen on the television set in Geoffrey Anstey's house, his thoughts tended instantly to sink towards the head which was busy revolving thirty-three and a third times a minute three floors beneath it. This was not conducive to the calm and contemplative mood he was seeking. Nor was the very loud music on the cafe's music system.

  He sighed, and stared at the electronic I Ching calculator.

  If he wanted to get his thoughts into some kind of order then maybe chronological order would be as good a one as any. He decided to cast his mind back to the beginning of the day, before any of these appalling things had happened, or at least, before they'd happened to him.

  First there had been the fridge.

  It seemed to him that by comparison with everything else, the problem of what to do about his fridge had now shrunk to fairly manageable proportions. It still provoked a discernible twinge of fear and guilt, but here, he thought, was a problem which he could face up to with relative calm.

  The little book of instructions suggested that he should simply concentrate "soulfully" on the question which was "besieging" him, write it down, ponder on it, enjoy the silence, and then once he had achieved inner harmony and tranquillity he should push the red button.

  There wasn't a red button, but there was a blue button marked "Red", and this Dirk took to be the one.

  He concentrated for a while on the question, then looked through his pockets for a piece of paper, but was unable to find one. In the end he wrote his question, "Should I buy a new fridge?" on a corner of his napkin. Then he took the view that if he was going to wait until he had achieved inner harmony and tranquillity he could be there all night, so he went ahead and pushed the blue button marked "Red" anyway. A symbol flashed up in a corner of the screen, a hexagram which looked like this:

  3 : CHUN

  The I Ching calculator then scrolled this text Across its tiny LCD display:

  The Judgement of King Wen:

  Chun Signifies Difficulties At Outset, As Of Blade Of Grass Pushing Up Against Stone. The Time Is Full Of Irregularities And Obscurities: Superior Man Will Adjust His Measures As In Sorting The Threads Of The Warp And Woof. Firm Correctness Will Bring At Last Success. Early Advances Should Only Be Made With Caution. There Will Be Advantage In Appointing Feudal Princes.

  Line 6 Changes:

  The Commentary of the Duke of Chou:

  The Horses And The Chariot Obliged To Retreat.

  Streams Of Bloody Tears Will Flow.

  Dirk considered this for a few moments, and then decided that on balance it appeared to be a vote in favour of getting the new fridge, which, by a staggering coincidence, was the course of action which he himself favoured.

  There was a pay phone in one of the dark corners where waiters slouched moodily at one another. Dirk threaded his way through them, wondering whom it was they reminded him of, and eventually deciding that it was the small crowd of naked men standing around behind the Holy Family in Michelangelo's picture of the same name, for no more apparent reason than that Michelangelo rather liked them.

  He telephoned an acquaintance of his called Nobby Paxton, or so he claimed, who worked the darker side of the domestic appliance supply business. Dirk came straight to the point.

  "Dobby, I deed a fridge."

  "Dirk, I been saving one against the day you'd ask me."

  Dirk found this highly unlikely.

  "Only I wand a good fridge you thee, Dobby."

  "This is the best, Dirk. Japanese. Microprocessor controlled."

  "What would a microprothethor be doing id a fridge, Dobby?"

  "Keeping itself cool, Dirk. I'll get the lads to bring it round right away. I need to get it off the premises pretty sharpish for reasons which I won't trouble you with."

  "I apprethiade thid, Dobby," said Dirk. "Froblem id, I'm not at home at preddent."

  "Gaining access to houses in the absence of their owner is only one of the panoply of skills with which my lads are blessed. Let me know if you find anything missing afterwards, by the way."

  "I'd be happy to, Dobby. Id fact if your ladth are in a mood for carting thtuff off I'd be glad if they would thtart with my old fridge. It badly needth throwing away."

  "I shall see that it's done, Dirk. There's usually a skip or two on your street these days. Now, do you expect to be paying for this or shall I just get you kneecapped straight off, save everybody time and aggravation all round?"

  It was never one hundred per cent clear to Dirk exactly when Nobby was joking and he was not keen to put it to the test. He assured him that he would pay him, as soon as next they met.

  "See you very soon then, Dirk," said Nobby. "By the way, do you know you sound exactly as if someone's broken your nose?"

  There was a pause.

  "You there, Dirk?" said Nobby.

  "Yed," said Dirk. "I wad judd liddening to a reggord."

  "Hot Potato!" roared the hi-fi in the cafe.

  "Don't pick it up. pick it up, pick it up.

  "Quick, pass it on, pass it on, pass it on."

  "I said, do you know you sound exactly as if someone's broken your nose?" repeated Nobby.

  Dirk said that he did know this, thanked Nobby for pointing it out, said goodbye, stood thoughtfully for a moment, made another quick couple of phone calls, and then threaded his way back through the huddle of posing waiters to find the girl whose coffee he had appro
priated sitting at his table.

  "Hello," she said, meaningfully.

  Dirk was as gracious as he knew how.

  He bowed to her very politely, doffed his hat, since all this gave him a second or so to recover himself, and requested her permission to sit down.

  "Go ahead," she said, "it's your table." She gestured magnanimously.

  She was small, her hair was neat and dark, she was in her mid-twenties, and was looking quizzically at the half-empty cup of coffee in the middle of the table.

  Dirk sat down opposite her and leant forward conspiratorially. "I expeg," he said in a low voice, "you are enquirigg after your coffee."

  "You betcha," said the girl.

  "Id very bad for you, you dow."

  "Is it?"

  "Id id. Caffeide. Cholethderog in the milgg."

  "I see, so it was just my health you were thinking of."

  "I was thiggigg of meddy thiggs," said Dirk airily.

  "You saw me sitting at the next table and you thought 'There's a nice-looking girl with her health in ruins. Let me save her from herself.'"

  "In a nudthell."

  "Do you know you've broken your nose?"

  "Yeth, of courth I do," said Dirk crossly. "Everybody keepth--"

  "How long ago did you break it?" the girl asked.

  "Id wad broked for me," said Dirk, "aboud tweddy middidd ago."

  "I thought so," said the girl. "Close your eyes for a moment."

  Dirk looked at her suspiciously.

  "Why?"

  "It's all right," she said with a smile, "I'm not going to hurt you. Now close them."

  With a puzzled frown, Dirk closed his eyes just for a moment. In that moment the girl reached over and gripped him firmly by the nose, giving it a sharp twist. Dirk nearly exploded with pain and howled so loudly that he almost attracted the attention of a waiter.

  "You widge!" he yelled, staggering wildly back from the table clutching his face. "You double-dabbed widge!"

  "Oh, be quiet and sit down," she said. "All right, I lied about it not going to hurt you, but at least it should be straight now, which will save you a lot worse later on. You should get straight round to a hospital to have some splints and padding put on. I'm a nurse, I know what I'm doing. Or at least, I think I do. Let's have a look at you."

 
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