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This story appears in John Grant's infinity plus ebooks collection Take No Prisoners:

Take No Prisoners - fantasy and SF for KindleIn a universe that isn't ours, a hopelessly mismatched pair are thrown together in a potentially fatal encounter with incomprehensible technology left behind by an unknown transgalactic civilization. Back here on Earth, a hideous rape is even more hideously avenged by a child's dream. A middle-aged bourgeois husband recalls his life as drummer in a punk-rock group and the otherworldly strangeness of the singer he loved. A movie buff cannot explain why the offerings at his local fleapit seem to fly in the face of all reason. In a world comprising the residue left over after imagination has gone elsewhere, a Beast must embark on an endless quest to find his Beauty. And meanwhile there's another case to be solved outside time in the cozy-mystery village of Cadaver-in-the-Offing...

In the fifteen superbly literary stories of this, his first collection, Hugo- and World Fantasy Award-winning author John Grant goes to places other fantasy and SF writers have yet to find on the map. Take No Prisoners is a magnificent demonstration of why his imagination has been described as defying all genre categorization.

As a special bonus, this new e-edition of Take No Prisoners includes two novelettes from the author's Leaving Fortusa cycle: "The Hard Stuff" and "Q"...

Available from: (Kindle format, $2.99) (Kindle format, £2.23)
...Smashwords (various formats, including epub, mobi, Sony and PDF, $2.99)

Wooden Horse

a novelette

by John Grant

It was while I was studying for my doctorate in veterinary science that I first developed that passion for the cinema which came to dominate my later career, at the expense, alas, of all the dogs and cats and cows and horses I might have treated had my life gone according to the original plan. It's silly to wish one could change the past, of course, but sometimes I catch myself thinking that each of us should be given more than one life -- not sequentially, but in parallel, so we could pursue several lifelines simultaneously. I would like to have been a vet as well as an expert on the movies, the author of over twenty critical studies, a reference work that I revise annually, and more articles and reviews than I could possibly have the time to count. But then the director calls for silence and I start speaking into the television camera, presenting some movie or another, or discussing the latest releases, and my fancy dies because I haven't the time to continue giving it life.

I wasn't born a movie fan. As I say, I was in my mid-twenties and studying for a doctorate when circumstances conspired to germinate an interest that I suppose, on reflection, must have been latent somewhere inside of me from the outset.

Those circumstances were not particularly glamorous. Mine isn't a tale of some mentor taking me under his wing and engendering in me a deep love of the silver screen. The main factors were: shortage of money; the rule that the laboratories and library were reserved exclusively for undergraduates on Monday afternoons; and the Rupolo Cinema on Broad Street.

They don't make movie theaters like the Rupolo any more. Nowadays, aside from the fringe cinemas you can find in the bigger cities that show either experimental movies of stupefying opacity or porn, or the latter masquerading as the former, just about all the movie theaters in the country are multi-screen links of this major chain or that one, all showing only the most blatantly commercial of the new releases. But in the days when I was a footloose postgraduate, forever counting my coins to make sure I could both eat and pay the rent, you could find little cinemas like the Rupolo in small towns all over America. Sure, they carried the new movies, but generally about three months behind -- an interesting temporal dislocation because, by the time a movie came to a cinema near you, you tended to have forgotten all the television hype there'd been around the time of original release and, often enough, to be able to recall even the title only dimly. As well as these new/oldish movies, cinemas like the Rupolo took it upon themselves to show special items, to have matinees for the kids on a Saturday morning, to run occasional "seasons" devoted to one theme or another ... It was a golden era for public appreciation of the movies, thanks to those small and generally run-down cinemas, and we didn't fully realize it until it was -- and they were -- gone.

Whoever owned the Rupolo -- and I never did discover who that was, or even think about it very much -- had a penchant for old British war movies of the 1940s and 1950s, most of them in black-and-white and many of them originally intended to be support movies. (And that's an artform that likewise disappeared without our noticing: the B-movie.) He -- I assume the owner was a he -- was not totally devoid of commercial sense, mind you. He might have had a passion for these old movies, but he wasn't going to be fool enough to show them at any time when he might pull in a bigger paying audience for something new starring Robert Redford or Faye Dunaway. So the aged war movies were relegated to Monday afternoons, notoriously the leanest time of the week for movie theaters. Weekday afternoons are generally pretty quiet for the cinemas anyway, except during the school holidays; and Monday is the quietest of them all, as people recover from the excesses of the weekend.

But Monday afternoon was ideal for me. On my budget, I couldn't afford those weekend excesses: I worked instead, partly through diligence but mostly because it was a cheaper way of getting through Saturday and Sunday. The labs and the library were forbidden to me on Monday afternoons, and my rotten little one-room apartment was almost impossible to study in because of the din of the fish market underneath it, the lack of a chair, and the thunder of Mrs. Bellis's bloody television soap operas booming through the thin wall from her equally small and squalid apartment next door. It was a depressing place to be at the best of times, but most of all during the day. The Rupolo charged seventy-five cents for admission on a Monday afternoon, which was just about within my budget. Besides, I told myself repeatedly in a desperate attempt to assuage my youthful guilt, it was important that I give myself at least some leisure time during the week, and Monday afternoon was as good a time as any to take it.

So, with my seventy-five cents in hand -- a dollar if it had been an economical week, so I could buy some stale popcorn as well as my ticket -- each Monday at two o'clock I would be outside the Rupolo, waiting for the doors to open. Inside, once I'd paid my money and crossed the musty-smelling foyer in the company of perhaps a couple of dozen other stalwarts, the routine for the afternoon was always the same: a feature, followed by trailers for forthcoming attractions, followed by another feature. Well before six o'clock, when the current main attraction would be shown for the first of its two evening performances, we would be out of there. The owner didn't bother to show any ads during these Monday-afternoon nostalgia fests: with an audience so small, and usually with several of them either sleeping or necking, it was hardly worth it -- and nor was it worth his while to lay on any more staff than the minimum for these performances: there was just the projectionist -- I assume, because I never saw one -- and the old guy at the door who took the money for the tickets and, if required to do so, reluctantly moved over to the counter to sell vintage popcorn, dubious nuts and even more dubious candies. I never learned this guy's name either: he was just a hooked nose and a pair of bright little intense eyes and a hunched-over back. He never said anything more than "seventy-five cents" or "twenty-five cents" or, just occasionally, "fuck you."

The first time I went there it was a bright sunny September afternoon, and my guilt was thereby intensified. I could hear my mother's voice telling me I should be doing something outside, taking advantage of the sun and the fresh air. I might have turned and left, might have gone off to bore myself rigid doing something healthy and outdoorsy, were it not for the fact that the guy behind the cashier window took advantage of my indecision to reach through the gap and deftly extract my coins from the fingers that had been clutching them, replacing them with a dog-eared cardboard stub before I'd quite realized what was going on.

It was a pretty amazing double bill, that first one I saw. First up was The Wooden Horse; then, after trailers for Traitors Within and The Wind from the South, came The Dam Busters. In the first of these movies a group of British prisoners-of-war incarcerated in a prison camp in Germany used all sorts of stratagems to tunnel their way to freedom. The movie's title came from their use of a gymnastic vaulting horse to cover up some of their clandestine activities. Surprisingly, at the end of the movie, most of the prisoners did indeed succeed in achieving their freedom. I watched the trailers with that curious fascination one has when seeing extracts from movies one knows one will never actually trouble to see in their entirety, and then came The Dam Busters. This concerned itself with the efforts of an inventor called Barnes Wallace -- I believe that was his name -- to devise a sort of super-bomb that could skip across water and thus more effectively destroy Axis dams. Through much of the movie the other characters kept telling him and each other that the scheme was crack-brained, and I tended to agree with them; but in the denouement we saw that this seemingly implausible technique did in fact work. It was a part of the war I hadn't known about before -- assuming it was indeed based on history rather than being just a screenwriter's fantasy -- so I found the movie extremely interesting, even if Wallace's device didn't in the end alter the course of anything very much.

I was disappointed when the movie had to come to an end, as all movies do, and I emerged blinking into what was still bright sunshine. I picked up a hot dog from a corner deli and walked back to my apartment and Mrs. Bellis's television set with my inner eyes full of flickering black-and-white images, dark clouds and darker aircraft. Even as I strolled along the sidewalk, munching my hot dog -- the frank had been overboiled, as usual -- I was fully cognizant of the fact that I had been hooked. Whatever my mother's remembered voice might say on other Mondays, there was no way short of a broken neck I was going to miss another of these World War II double bills.


That night I phoned home -- collect, of course -- just to see how the folks were getting along and perhaps, if the conversation went along the right lines, to hint subtly that a cash donation would be joyously received.

"Hi, Mom. How's it going?"

"Very much the same. Your father's still got his indigestion. Have you met a nice girl yet there at the university?"

"Not quite, Mom. There aren't many girl students, you know." This was true, but it was an evasive answer to her question. I couldn't afford a girlfriend, and anyway, a late developer, still hadn't gotten over my adolescent neuroses about getting too close to any member of the opposite sex. My love life was confined to fervent and anatomically inaccurate imaginings about the body of one of the girls at the checkout counter in the local supermarket, to which mental images I would industriously manipulate a penis that I was convinced was too small. "I'd hoped Dad would be better by now."

"Well, it's all the stress, poor man."

My father had been retired for eight years, during which he'd done nothing more stressful than mow the lawn and complain about his indigestion. My mother, fifteen years his junior, put up with his self-pity rather better than I'd ever been able to, and was constantly ready with an excuse for his perennial and probably imagined ailment. This week it was stress. Next week it would be food additives.

"Glenda Doberman still often talks about you, Kurt. She's such a nice girl, don't you think?"

People often talk about dogs and their owners resembling each other, but Glenda Doberman was the only person I'd ever met who had come to resemble the dog after which her family had been named. The whole of the rest of her face seemed to have been designed as a pedestal for the prognathous thrust of her jaws and nostrils. And the similarity didn't stop there. I'd once been forced into taking her to a prom, and dancing with her had proved to be like dancing with a sackful of conger eels, all solid and unpredictable muscles. The obligatory necking session in the car afterwards, outside her home, had been a nightmare I preferred to forget. I had nursed a sprained shoulder for weeks afterwards.

"And I'm sure she'll soon meet someone ... worthy of her," I said, in what I hoped was a smooth deflection of the subject. Mom didn't know -- and I certainly wasn't about to tell her -- that soon after her eighteenth birthday Glenda had become known as Hershey Bar Doberman because that was reckoned to be the maximum a boy had to invest to get inside her pants.

"So like you, Kurt. Always wishing the best for other people." My Mom had illusions about my father, and they extended to me as well. Who was I to destroy those rosy visions of hers?

"But you should be looking out for someone nice for yourself," she said. For her, people were either "nice" or they didn't qualify for an adjective. "You're going to be twenty-five next month..."

"Mom. Dad was forty-one when he found you."

"Yes, but that was different."

There was no way I could argue with this.

"What's the weather like at home?"

"Oh," she said, "just weather. It's been hot for September."

"Same here."

There was a pause during which all we heard was an electrical rendition of someone's burger catching fire on the barbecue.

"Are you feeding yourself properly?"

"As well as I can, Mom. Money's a little bit tigh -- "

"Make sure you eat plenty of vegetables."

"Well, vegetables are pretty expens -- "

"And fruit. There are some nice apples in the supermarkets at the moment."

My hot dog lurched inside me. Under the watchful eye of the deli's owner, Mr. Perkins, I'd piled it as high with sauerkraut as I dared, on the basis that on a budget like mine one should grab free additional nutrition wherever one could. That had possibly been, in retrospect, a mistake.

"How are your studies going?"

"Very well indeed," I replied, relaxing for the first time during this ritual weekly inquisition. It was true. So long as I kept my nose to the grindstone for the rest of the academic year, my doctorate was in the bag.

"Well, do keep yourself safe, dear. Your father and I miss you very much indeed."

Dad missed me so much that he could never bring himself to come to the phone to talk to his only son. As I put the phone down, after the usual tepid goodbyes exchanged with Mom, I entertained the fantasy that finally, fed up with his constant grousing, she'd slaughtered him with his own lawnmower and buried the shreds in the back yard. I'd never have known if she had, for all the contact there was between him and me except during those vacations that I went home. Yes, at Christmas-time I'd arrive back at the family bourn to discover my mother waiting to make a tearful confession to me...

"Your father -- he had a terrible accident. He mistook himself for a clump of dandelions, and before I could find the lawnmower's off-switch he'd reduced himself to a heap of tuna melts."

"Now, mother," I'd say sternly, "there is no need to lie to me. Where did you bury what was left of the old bastard?"

"Well, I didn't so much bury the bits as hammer them into the ground with the back of a shovel. Can you ever forgive me for having deprived you of a parent?"

"Break out the beer."

I shook my head, grinning at myself. Mom would never say a harsh word about my father, let alone murder him. It wouldn't be "nice."

The next week was spent in the usual hamster-wheel of study, although my mind was constantly being distracted by anticipation of Monday afternoon at the Rupolo. The owner didn't announce in advance what movies he'd be showing: he assumed the addicts and the adulterous or underage couples would just turn up anyway and be happy to take pot luck. This actually suited me well: knowledge of what movies were going to be screened would probably have dulled the keen edge of my expectancy. As it was, I could dream of unknown glories without being shackled by any fetters of the realistic.

That second Monday, one of the two movies was in color -- a great disappointment to me, because more even than the subject matter it was the black-and-white ambience of these movies that had so rapidly addicted me. The offending movie was The Man Who Never Was, a tale of British intelligence officers outwitting the Axis by inventing a personality and grafting it onto an anonymous corpse, which they then arranged to have discovered by the Germans; the point of the story was that planted on the corpse were all sorts of faked secrets, so that German efforts would be misdirected. As with The Dam Busters, all this was absolutely absorbing as an item of forgotten -- at least by me -- history, and yet for a very similar reason it all seemed rather remote and irrelevant. It was as if I were watching a swarm of angry hornets from behind the safety of a sealed window, so that the fury could be impressive and perhaps even slightly frightening but at the same time so distanced by the presence of the glass that it could be appreciated intellectually rather than emotionally.

That was the second of the two movies shown. The first was in trusty, much-loved black-and-white, and was called Reach for the Sky. In it a British fighter pilot managed to lose both legs in an accident, yet with the aid of prosthetics was able to take to the skies once more and continue his career of shooting down Axis planes. He was shot down himself and spent some time in reassuringly familiar territory -- a prisoner-of-war camp. There were some great flying shots, and the story had considerable human interest. The fact that much of the acting was as stiff as a clergyman's collar didn't detract from this -- if anything, it added to that ambience I had so swiftly come to adore. A lot of the slang, being veddy British, meant nothing to me, but I was able to muddle through and get the general sense of it all.

That evening I didn't make the mistake of eating one of Mr. Perkins's hot dogs, but instead bought from him a couple of ham sandwiches with lashings of salad. I have never liked lying to my mother, and in fact have never been terribly good at it, so I thought it'd be handy during our weekly Monday-evening phonecall to be able to tell her truthfully that I'd had a -- relatively -- healthy supper.

I needn't have worried. Mom could talk about hardly anything except the latest hot news, which was that in the intervening week it had leaked out that Glenda Doberman was pregnant, and had thereby suddenly slipped out of the "nice" classification, being now worthy of no adjectives at all. I was reassured that I had had a lucky escape; the words "whore of Babylon" lurked somewhere just off-stage, but would forever remain there. My own theory was that Glenda, in a mad burst of frictional enthusiasm that excelled even her own many earlier efforts -- which had earned her another nickname, The Human Tuning-Fork -- had finally succeeded in melting the condom.

"And what have you been up to, Kurt?" asked Mom after several excited minutes, more by way of form than out of any true interest.

"Oh, nothing much. I went to the movies this afternoon."

"Shouldn't you have been studying?"

I explained to her about Monday afternoons and the undergraduates and the labs and the library and Mrs. Bellis's soap operas and the fish market. She sniffed cynically, but accepted the explanation. I told her about Reach for the Sky and The Man Who Never Was, and the silence at the other end of the line told me she was dutifully pretending to listen -- that's what moms are for, after all: to listen to their sons. She'd listened to me all through my childhood and adolescence, doing the listening job of two parents because my father never saw it as his responsibility. She'd bought me my first baseball bat and glove, and spent hours in the back yard hitting the ball or pitching for me; she could have been fairly good at it if she'd ever taken the game seriously, but she showed no signs of disapproval when I proved to be quite hopeless. She drew the line at football, but she would shoot baskets with me for hours, or go out fishing on the lake with me, letting out perfectly genuine whoops of enthusiasm on the rare occasions when we caught anything. In homework she explored with me the equally torturous topics of algebra and the Punic Wars, never grumbling. But, more than all this, she'd listened to me when I explained my little-boy concerns as I'd discovered the world and my place in it.

"Such imaginations these moviemakers have," she said when at length I dried up. "It's so long since I've been to the cinema." There was a wistful note in her voice. "Your father doesn't believe in it. Says it's all Sodom and Gomorrah. And he's right, of course..."

I felt like shouting at her that she should ignore the prejudices of an ignorant old bigot, but bit back the words. They wouldn't have done any good; all they'd have done was upset her.

As ever, the phone conversation ended in an unsatisfying tangle of desultory well-wishings. I returned the receiver to its hook at the bottom of the stairs, then climbed back up to my dreary little apartment. It was too late for soap operas, so Mrs. Bellis was watching cop shows instead. Someone was getting the shit beaten out of him in the interrogation chamber by a couple of cops who were convinced he was part of a communist plot against someone or other. In the middle of him screaming for mercy the broadcast segued into a commercial for diaper cream. Even over the din of the tv set I could hear Mrs. Bellis cursing and shuffling as she hunted for the remote. She liked a good torture scene -- I'd learned that much about her through the walls over the past few months. I wondered if she'd ever had any use for diaper cream herself, but came to the conclusion she hadn't. I couldn't imagine her husk-like body ever having borne children, ever having suckled them to her nightmarishly visualized breasts. She might have harbored the occasional pupa, but even that I doubted. She was, however, capable of the loudest farts I have ever heard from any man or woman. Sitting in front of her soap opera or cop show, presumably secure in the false knowledge that anything she did would go unheard because of the walls and the boom of the tv set, she not infrequently let rip with the most astonishing noises. The first time I heard her I assumed she must have started stripping wallpaper. I'd grown to know better.

I went over to the window -- it required only about two paces -- and looked out. On the other side of the road was a little park with swings and slides where kids were playing in the evening sunlight, their yells coming to me muffled through the glass. Their mothers were sitting on benches chatting animatedly to each other or sitting alone with books, some of them idly rocking a stroller or a baby carriage with a spare hand, soothing the next tidal wave of children who'd be playing on the swings and slides.

At any other time the scene would have appeared normal enough to me, but I was in a peculiar mood that evening, and something about it seemed subtly wrong -- somehow unnatural, as if it had all been staged for my personal benefit, as if I were the sole member of an audience watching an enormous, worldwide play, a play in which everyone except myself was performing. I was the only one who, having been designated once and for all eternity "audience," wasn't permitted to take a role in this play. It was a curious feeling of dislocation from reality, and it took me a while to put my finger on what was causing it.

Then I realized. The scene I was watching through the rectangular frame of the window was in color. I had become so immersed in watching scenes in rectangular frames that were in black-and-white -- and this after seeing only three movies this way -- that now it was the mundane reality that seemed artificial, the flickering monochrome images on the Rupolo's small gray screen the true reality. I was more at home in a world where cardboard-faced actors with implausible British accents called each other Chips and Frobisher than I was here, where the kids were yelling names like Duane and Randy and where every vowel didn't have to be contorted before being uttered.

I shook my head irritably, but the sensation persisted of being on the outside of a performance in which all the rest of the world was taking part, and I couldn't prize it loose. In the end I gave up, and went to bed with a book while the sky was still full of twilight. Not long afterwards, I fell asleep, and stayed that way until my alarm clock woke me in the morning.

The following Monday the double bill consisted of two black-and-white movies -- no color this week, thank heavens. The first one -- and the better of the two, I then thought (and still do, in the eye of memory) -- was called I Was Monty's Double, and it told of a cunning British plan to use an impersonator in place of their Field-Marshal Montgomery for public appearances and the like, thereby foiling any possible plot to assassinate him, while at the same time misleading the Axis concerning his whereabouts and therefore his doings. Montgomery was for once a historical figure I'd heard of, although I couldn't remember much about him save the name and that he was reputed to be a quite brilliant military general -- the Allied equivalent of Rommel. I made a mental note as I hung on the edge of my seat, watching the story unfold, to go look him up in the library's encyclopedia the next day, to find out if he had survived the war and, if so, what had eventually become of him; but this was something that in the event I never got around to doing until years later, by which time my interest was no longer so poignant. (As I now recall it, he did indeed survive -- until the mid-1970s sometime -- living in seclusion as an honored but largely ignored figure.)

Whatever the historical veracity, the movie was engrossing -- for the first hour or so, anyway. After that it became more like a standard adventure thriller ... or, at least, that is my recollection of it.

The second feature, Mrs. Miniver, was less interesting to me. Again it centered on the British experience of the war, but this time at the domestic level. The eponymous character was a housewife in England, and she and her neighbors pluckily came through Axis bombings and the like. I wasn't surprised at the end to discover it had been an American movie, despite its British setting, because throughout I had been troubled by the stylistic differences between it and the others. Something about it had just not rung quite true. Traditional Hollywood England, like traditional Hollywood Arabia, is a strange otherworld that never really existed outside the moviemakers' imaginations.

My phone conversation with my mother that night was brief, covering only the basics: who the father of Glenda Doberman's unborn baby might be (a matter on which Glenda herself was apparently pretty vague, as I might have guessed) and whether the girl might be wise to get an abortion; the latest stop-the-presses news about my father's indigestion (no change); the question of my fruit and vegetable intake; and the insistence that I shouldn't be wasting my life sitting in stuffy cinemas the whole time but should instead be either studying or running around playing ball in the fresh air, or preferably both at the same time. It was a conversation I could have scripted myself by cutting and pasting fragments from previous phonecalls, and the sensation I'd had the previous week of being dislocated from the rest of reality returned in full force. And, once more, it persisted. Long after I'd put the phone back on its hook and retreated to the relative sanctuary of my single room I still felt as if the walls and furniture around me were no more real than movie props, that if I bumped against them too hard they'd ripple or collapse.

And the feeling extended to people as well. Was Mrs. Bellis, with her overloud television set and her farts and all, actually real? I hardly ever saw the woman -- I saw her as little as I possibly could, if the truth be told -- and so, for all I knew, all the rest of her existence might just be as a soundtrack blasted through the intervening wall to torment me. Mr. Perkins at the deli, the intense old guy at the Rupolo, my colleagues and peers at the university -- all of them seemed to me suddenly to be puppets or special effects, all controlled by some unseen, insane director. Sitting on my lumpy, thin-mattressed bed, I began to concoct fantasies about this director, the quasi-god who had brought all of this false display into existence, the puppet-master who made the people around me perform the charades they did. He was called Qinmeartha -- I have no idea where the name came from -- and he was the only one among the gods who had thought creation was a worthwhile enterprise. For going against their jointly expressed opinion and bringing the universe into existence, he was punished by being constantly mocked by the failure of his creation ever to achieve full, one hundred per cent reality. Always it remained just this side of fully convincing, even to him. Always his creatures remained puppets, or two-dimensional projections on the flat screen of his universe, their true reality forever being somewhere else. The only key that could change this situation was another aspect of him, called -- again the name came to me from nowhere -- the Girl Child LoChi, but she didn't wish to be a part of Qinmeartha any longer, and had fled from him. A further part of the curse the other gods had placed upon him for his audacity was that for the rest of eternity he would chase the Girl Child LoChi but, even if he located and trapped her, would never be able to persuade her to rejoin him and thereby make the universe fully real.

I lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, which displayed a map of some of the more obscure parts of Canada, or maybe Scandinavia -- somewhere with plenty of fjords, anyway. Two cops were arguing heatedly about the morality of shooting traitors in cold blood. The fish market was noisily closing for the night. (In all my time in that apartment I never once bought fish from the market, even though it was almost directly downstairs. The fish looked good and smelled good. I think it was the constant daytime noise of the staff and customers shouting at each other, a noise that started at five in the morning and went on until seven at night, that engendered my aversion to the produce.) A kid bellowed, presumably having fallen off its swing. Were there fjords in Canada? I couldn't remember. Maybe the map could be of a bit of New Zealand -- I was pretty certain there were fjords there...

And once more a deep and dreamless sleep took me into its arms.

And so the weeks went by and went by, each of them following very much the same pattern. Christmas, with its excruciating visit home, came and went. Although I continued to work hard at the university -- my parents had made sacrifices to get me there, so it was my obligation to do so -- I found that more and more I was living for my Monday afternoons at the Rupolo, that veterinary science was being shifted off towards the edge of my preoccupations. Only during those three and a half hours each week when I was sitting in the Rupolo, with or without popcorn (more usually without), did I feel that my mind was truly alive, and enlivened. It was the genesis of a lifelong passion, one that has molded the man I now am.

Of course, at this distance of years I cannot possibly recall the titles of all the movies I saw during those Monday afternoons, and, although I can remember great tracts of their plots, sometimes I suspect they have all become jumbled each among the others, so that what I bring to mind are not individual movies but just some gigantic composite, a sort of huge metamovie. Most of the movies were British, or at least centered on Britishers, and generally the Britishers were in conflict with the Germans; but there were a few that featured Americans, and their struggles with either the Germans or the Japanese or both. The movies were generally from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, although occasionally the Rupolo's owner saw fit to show something a bit more recent. A few of the titles that I do remember are Albert RN, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Colditz Story, Ice Cold in Alex, Stalag 17, Sahara, D-Day, Gallipoli, Danger Within, Foxhole in Cairo, The Captive Heart, The Mackenzie Break, The Purple Heart, The Longest Day, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Hannibal Brooks, King Rat, The Password is Courage, The Betrayal, Prisoner of War...

I suppose I should make a confession here. I am not an unusually stupid man, and several decades ago, when I was studying for my doctorate, I was undoubtedly brighter and sharper than I am today. However, I have to admit that, while I followed the plots of these movies keenly -- others might snore during a Rupolo Monday matinee but not me -- it took me a long time to realize that a composite was emerging from the whole sequence of movies that was, well, distinctly ... odd. I still cannot understand why it took me such a while to notice this. Nor can I understand why it was that, for all my genuine and unbridled passion for these features and by extension for cinema as a whole, it never occurred to me until near the end of that academic year to do more than simply watch the movies -- never occurred to me that the university library must contain scores if not hundreds of books on the cinema in which I might revel between one Monday afternoon and the next. I suppose the truth is that I was at the stage of being merely a fan; my awakening as a student of the cinema was for some reason delayed. Or maybe it was the subconscious notion that, the moment I began to take my devotion more seriously, as symbolized by my starting to search out books on the subject, would also be the moment I had to confront the fact that my interest in veterinary science, to which I had sacrificed nearly a decade of my young life, had ebbed to such a degree that all that was left was a darkening of the sand.

Whatever the reason, it wasn't until sometime in the late spring or early summer of the following year that I located the Performing Arts section of the university library and then, embedded within it, the long shelves dedicated to books on the cinema. I strolled backwards and forwards in front of those shelves for several minutes, I recall, reluctant to take the final step of actually pulling a book down and opening it. There were books about individual directors, actors, studios ... even individual movies. There were histories of Hollywood in general, and of specific genres; this was the first time that I realized, for example, that animation was something more than kids' stuff but was worthy of serious consideration by grown-up human beings -- a significant discovery, as it was to prove, because animation has become one of my major obsessions within the broader field of cinema studies. There were books on the philosophy of the movies, books on the silents, books on series like those starring Tarzan or Flash Gordon or Dick Tracy or Batman, books on the technologies of cinematography and special effects, encyclopedias and movie guides, how-to books for wannabe screenwriters ... There was a whole world contained within those books, and I had been doing nothing more than looking at the outside of one of its aspects. They presented a challenge starkly before me: if I wanted, I could turn and leave the building and forget all about them, become a vet who enjoyed watching the movies whenever he had the spare time; otherwise, I was going to start an exploration that would likely remain incomplete even if I dedicated the rest of my life to it.

Knowing exactly the import of what I was doing, I eventually reached out a slightly shaking hand and took by the spine a copy of Brunner's Companion to the Cinema. I carried it over to a desk and opened it. I saw in a blur two pages jammed full of small print. It was an encyclopedic listing of movies -- over 20,000 of them, according to the splashline on the cover. Once I got my eyes to focus properly, I could see that the movies were listed alphabetically, each with basic details such as year of release, running time, director and stars, plus a short synopsis. The spread I had open in front of me contained these brief descriptions of movies like Four Men and a Prayer, The Four Musketeers, The Four-Poster, Four Sided Triangle, Four's a Crowd, The Fox and the Hound, Fragment of Fear, The Franchise Affair, Francis of Assisi ... Reading the summaries -- none was longer than a couple of sentences -- was a tantalizing and soon frustrating experience: I began to salivate at the prospect of all these movies still waiting in the future for me to watch, but what I really wanted was to watch them now -- and all of them at once.

Brunner's Companion to the Cinema bore a bold blue REFERENCE stamp, so all I could do was look at it there -- I wasn't going to be able to take it home with me and browse through it late into the night. I looked at the price on the cover and realized glumly that it would be a long time, no matter how much I scrimped, before I could save up enough money from my allowance to buy a copy of my own. But there were other books on the shelves which I was allowed to borrow, and soon I'd amassed a stack of half a dozen of them -- as many as my university library card entitled me to borrow at any one time. Clutching them to me as if I were a small child who'd just discovered a trove of chocolates and was making good his escape while the coast was clear with as many as he could carry, I checked them out and made my way back to the apartment.

Now here's a curious thing. I cannot for the life of me remember what those books actually were -- an omission from memory as grievous as if I'd forgotten the name of the woman to whom I'd lost my virginity. (No, not to Glenda Doberman.) But certainly I discovered that they had the property of banishing the sounds of the fish market and the shrieking kids and Mrs. Bellis's soap operas. I got home in the late afternoon and didn't stop reading until I fell asleep face-first into the third of the books I'd started, my last memory before unconsciousness hit me and the words on the page receded wildly from my vision being that a lot of people seemed to be laughing very loudly on the other side of the wall at the quips of a chat-show host.

The next day I had to drag myself to the laboratory. It had to be faced that, overnight, veterinary science had transformed from an interest -- albeit by now only a marginal one -- into a chore. I did a few studies of the larynx of a dog, wrote a couple of paragraphs of my dissertation, stared out the window a lot. I'd brought the two cinema books I'd finished last night with me, and at lunchtime I almost sprinted to the library -- not just to exchange them for two more but also for an hour's uninterrupted browsing through the pages of Brunner's Companion to the Cinema.

Lenny, Leo the Last, The Leopard, The Leopard Man, Lepke, A Lesson in Love...

It was only then that it occurred to me that, rather than just leafing through the book, I might be more profitably occupied using it to find out something about the specific genre of movies with which I'd fallen in love -- those old World War II movies I saw at the Rupolo. Accordingly, I turned back through the pages to the Gs, hunting for The Great Escape.

I found The Great Diamond Robbery -- a minor comedy thriller, apparently -- and Great Expectations, but clearly Mr. Brunner thought The Great Escape was beneath his notice. I wasn't unduly surprised: most of the Rupolo's Monday-afternoon presentations were obviously very obscure and very aged B-movies, and any reference work has to draw the line somewhere. Maybe I'd have better luck with Reach for the Sky.

I didn't. Nor with The Bridge on the River Kwai, or The Wooden Horse, or Ice Cold in Alex, or The Colditz Story, or...

In fact, Mr. Brunner had ignored all of the war movies whose titles I could offhand recall.

I shut the book and stared at its cover in a state of complete incredulity. It was reasonable that some -- possibly most -- of these undistinguished movies might have been omitted for reasons of space, but all of them? It didn't seem feasible.

And it was then that something which had for months now been subliminally troubling me about my weekly forays to the Rupolo came hammering irresistibly into the forefront of my conscious -- that disturbing pattern that evidenced itself in the Monday-afternoon movies as a whole. In items like The Great Escape and The Wooden Horse I'd seen plucky British prisoners-of-war outwitting rather stupid Germans and gaining their freedom. There were battle movies in which the forces of the Axis got the crap beaten or bombed out of them by the Allies. The Brits or the Americans had almost always been portrayed as brave heroes; the Germans and the Japs almost always as cowards or villains or both -- or just as expendable non-people who could be mown down in their hundreds and thousands without the smallest tear being shed. Moreover, although it hadn't been stated, these movies' stories had seemed implicitly part of a larger story in which the Axis had been defeated and the Allies had triumphed. Indeed, now that I began to think about the whole thing properly -- started using that rational mind which my parents had donated so many thousands of dollars to train -- it seemed distinctly peculiar that any of these movies had ever been made at all. OK, one, perhaps two -- as curios in which the tables were turned on history. But dozens of them?

Taking this further, how come the cops were allowing the Rupolo to show such seditious features? -- for seditious they were, now that I'd begun to regard them analytically rather than just with the wide-eyed, naive gawp of enthusiasm. Surely the place should have been busted by now and its owner marched off for, at the very least, extensive interrogation? A chill ran down my spine as I realized that the audience, too, should have been scooped up in the net. We were almost as guilty as the Rupolo's proprietor through having returned, week in and week out, to watch such dangerous stuff. Without ever noticing that I was doing anything illegal, I'd become in effect a habitual criminal, a serial offender -- a traitor in thought and arguably a traitor in deed as well.

Up to this point in my life I had always been the most law-abiding of persons. I hadn't committed so much as an act of littering. Now I was involved in an extremely serious crime.

Is it any wonder that I never made it back to the laboratories that afternoon, but instead drifted home haphazardly, my stomach feeling as if it were filled with ice and my head most certainly filled with visions of my arrest, my interrogation and the shame I would bring down on the heads of my parents?

Yet by the morning my attitude had changed. This might seem surprising -- indeed, in retrospect it's slightly startling even to me -- but you must remember that I had for months now been affected by that curious sensation of being more related to the fictional world of Chips and Ginger and Forbes-Hepplewhite and the rest than to what my intellect but not my gut acknowledged as the real world: the world around me. In that sense, to ask myself to give up my Monday afternoons at the Rupolo was to require of me more than forgoing a pleasurable activity: in a very true sense it was to require me to give up my existence -- in effect to commit suicide -- for I was a part not of a three-dimensional Technicolor world but of a two-dimensional monochrome one. If I abandoned the monochrome world, then something that strongly resembled a doctoral student called Kurt Stroheim would continue to go through all the action of existing in the Technicolor world, but he wouldn't be me: he -- or it -- would be just another puppet, like all the rest of the denizens of that world.

There was another factor, which was that I was young, and immature even for my age. Continuing to attend the Rupolo's Monday double-bill matinees was risky and risqué, it was to partake of forbidden fruit -- and thus it was infinitely appealing to me. Life as an impoverished postgraduate was generally dull and sometimes duller than that, and the excitement of deliberate illegality added a sparkle to something otherwise sparkle-free.

So the following Monday I was back at the Rupolo with my seventy-five cents.

The old guy looked up at me as he reached out his clawed hand for the money, and as he studied my face I could see something die in those fanatic eyes of his -- some element of the fire that normally lit them. And, although there was no alteration at all of his habitually hostile facial expression as he grabbed the coins and grudgingly emitted the usual torn card stub through the hole in his window, I could somehow tell that he was disappointed in me. After a moment of disconcertedness I shrugged his attitude off: why should I give a shit about the opinions of a misanthropic old vulture -- who anyway, by the look of his nose, probably had some Semitic blood in his ancestry?

Don't get me wrong here. I am not a prejudiced man, and I believe that the Final Solution, as perpetrated both in Germany under the Fuehrer and here under President MacNaish, was almost certainly an unnecessarily inhumane means of dealing with an acknowledged problem. There seems to me no reason at all why the Jews could not have been dealt with in the same way as MacNaish coped with the nigger problem. But in my youth I was more encumbered by the cultural baggage of my elders and peers. That moment when I recognized that the old ticket-seller might well be partly Semitic and yet did nothing about it was a major leap forward in the evolution of my own, independent worldview. From now on I at least recognized that there was the possibility for me to develop attitudes and a morality that were not merely carbon copies of those my parents lived by.

I shuffled into the semi-gloom of the theater and, sure enough, my regular seat was vacant -- fifth row from the front, on the right side of the aisle. There were still a few minutes to go before the torn red-plush curtains would draw back and the screen flicker into life, and so as always I craned round to check that all the regulars were arrived or arriving. There was the middle-aged woman with the tightly clutched beadwork handbag and the perpetually watery eyes. There was the young couple who came here to neck in the back row and who I could swear once went the whole way there, right through the central section of a movie called Casablanca, in fact; at the end one of the characters said something like "Play it for me again, Tom" and half the small audience burst into sniggers. There was the tall man who carried himself so upright that I always guessed he'd been in the military fifty years ago. And there were the rest. You understand, none of us ever spoke to each other or even acknowledged each other's presence, yet in a strange way we'd each gotten to know our fellows, and there was a certain bonding between us. Quite how we'd have reacted had any of us ever run into one of the other Rupolo Monday-afternoon regulars I do not know: it never happened to me, and it was a prospect that made me quail. Today, as usual, there were a couple of new faces, too -- doubtless stragglers who'd wandered in off the street less to watch the movie than to make three and a half hours of their lives disappear.

I turned back toward the screen just as the curtains drew apart.

The first movie to be shown today was called Private Kohl's War, and it was directed, according to the opening credits, by Thea von Harbou -- one of the directors whose biographies I'd noticed on the library shelves. It told the story, in color, of a young soldier who'd taken part in the invasion of England and then fought in the sequence of battles that led to the Fall of London. At the end it showed him celebrating the surrender, contributing to the extermination of the Communists, and making plans to import his beautiful blonde German girlfriend so they could marry and raise kids on the small plot of farmland he'd been permitted to annex. It was a well enough made movie, and some of the camerawork and sets were superb -- strongly influenced by Art Deco in places -- but overall I found the movie unsatisfying and often tedious. Where were Chips and Ginger? The few Brits who had speaking parts were either villains of the stupidest sort or wise collaborators who might as well have been Germans themselves. And where was all the poignancy of watching stiff-upper-lip heroes who didn't know that, despite all their courage and dedication, they were doomed to be on the losing side, whatever their temporary triumphs? Where was all the antiquated slang I had come to love?

I glanced around me as the lights came up. So far as I could tell, none of the other regulars had found the movie in any way less enjoyable than usual -- I seemed to be the only one to have noticed the very different character of this piece from our customary fare. Well, there had been other dreary movies in the Rupolo's seemingly neverending season devoted to World War II, and I supposed it was about time that the owner showed one that presented the other side of the story, as it were.

I settled back to watch the trailer for the movie that was showing in the evenings all this week. It was called Robotic Cop Two, and if the trailer was anything to go by it involved a machine taking the place of a cop and shooting everything and everybody in sight for a solid two hours. I decided not to bother watching it even when it came onto tv.

The second feature that afternoon was called The Rising Sun Shall Never Set, and at last we seemed to be back in familiar prisoner-of-war territory. I relaxed briefly in my seat, luxuriating in the sensation of having come home, but that happy state did not last long. The prisoners-of-war proved to be not Britishers incarcerated somewhere in Germany but Japanese being held in one of the concentration camps that the traitor Roosevelt established in this country. Aside from that the plot was fairly routine, following the lines I had come to expect from my earlier viewing, although with the additional complication that Japanese escapees had a tougher time of it, because of their distinctively non-American appearance, as they tried to make their way across country to join their comrades or make contact with the Resistance. The gimmick of the movie -- which for all I know may have been historically based -- was that the intelligent Japs got their imbecilic guards, mainly niggers, so involved in learning samurai skills that they relaxed the actual business of guarding. The close of the movie saw the liberation of the camp and a general rejoicing over the assassination of the hated Roosevelt.

My mind was in something of a ferment as I wandered home, clutching one of Mr. Perkins's roast beef and Swiss sandwiches with "the works." Was it possible that sometime during the past week the cops had quietly warned the Rupolo's owner to alter his ways or be busted for sedition? Or was it not more likely that he'd simply had a change of heart? Or maybe he'd run out of movies of the other sort and, rather than start repeating himself, he'd decided to move on to more realistic dramas? Or had he sold the business, and the new owner...? There were endless possible reasons for the double bill I'd just witnessed, but none of them seemed entirely plausible to me.

I was still nagging away at the problem as I climbed the stairs to my apartment. Just as I put the key in the lock I was startled by a bellow from behind Mrs. Bellis's door.

"Your maw called," she yelled. "You gotta call her back, you fucker."

I paused. For Mrs. Bellis to speak to me at all was unprecedented. For her to give me a phone message was something I'd never considered outside the bounds of fantasy. Normally, if she answered the phone and it was for me she just slammed the receiver back on its hook and swore -- I'd heard her do exactly this several times. Mom must have been extremely firm in her instructions that I was to be informed.

The key still in my hand, I retreated down the stairs and dialed the operator. In a few moments my collect call had been put through and I was speaking to my mother.

Who was in near-hysterical tears.

After all those years of complaining about his indigestion, and how it could be related to a serious heart condition, my father had been chasing some Jehovah's Witnesses off the property when he'd inadvertently stepped into the path of a fire-truck racing to an emergency. He'd died not just immediately but emphatically, with bits of him smeared halfway down the street, although apparently the paramedics had had some difficulty extricating his heavy walking stick from his tightly clenched fist. She'd wired some money to me so I could, as my father's only child, his son and heir, come home the following day.

I comforted her as best I could over the phone, standing there in the hallway with the shouts of the playpark kids and the fish-market habitues coming in through the thin door. I think I helped her with just the sound of my voice -- a reassurance to her that she still had something left of her family. After I put the phone down I trudged slowly up the stairs to get my bags packed.

It was nearly a month later that I returned, and then only briefly -- to tell the folk at the university face-to-face that I was abandoning my doctorate, and to clear out my apartment. It was pathetic that I could fit all my remaining possessions there into a single medium-sized case. I yelled a goodbye to Mrs. Bellis as I departed, case in hand, but her only response was to jack up the volume on her tv set a bit higher and to emit one of her thunderous farts as a farewell memento -- one of the most effective mementos I've ever been given, in fact, because I can remember it quite clearly to this day.

On my way to the station, I made a detour to bid adieu to the Rupolo, the place where I'd spent so many happy Monday afternoons, the place that had been responsible for changing the course of my life. From a distance the cinema looked very much as tatty usual, but as I approached it along the sidewalk I realized that its doors had been boarded up and that the posters outside still advertised Robotic Cop Two. Although I was becoming a little anxious about being in time to catch my train, I went into Mr. Perkins's deli to ask him what had happened; from the fact that he refused to answer me, or even to recognize me, I deduced that the cops had finally stepped in.

On the train, as soon as we'd left the station behind, I pulled out of my bag the copy of Brunner's Companion to the Cinema I'd bought with part of my father's surprisingly sizable legacy and began to browse lackadaisically through it. I hardly saw the words, though. Instead I was thinking about how my life had changed so radically over the past few months, and in particular over the past few weeks. Mom had initially not taken kindly to my insistence that I was ditching my veterinary career in favor of becoming a student of the cinema -- she had wailed that I was insulting my father's memory, for had he not paid to put me through college so I could establish myself in a worthwhile and respected career? -- but eventually she saw such moral-blackmailing arguments were going to get her nowhere, and that I was absolutely resolute about my new future. After a while she actually began quite to like the idea, and started introducing me to her friends as "my son, the film critic."

The funeral had been ghastly, of course. My father had more friends in death than he had ever had in life. The worst moment of all was when, after the service, Glenda Doberman made a bulging attempt to hit on me. Gossip must have exaggerated the size of my inheritance.

Still idly turning the pages of Brunner's Companion to the Cinema, I forced such memories out of my head. This was a more recent edition of the book than the one in the university library, and I wondered if the expansion trumpeted in the blurb meant that it now included some of the old World War II movies I'd watched in the Rupolo.

No such luck.

I gazed out the train window at huge cornfields and placid cows speeding by, and another fantasy began to build itself in my mind.

It had been my assumption that Andrew Brunner had omitted the movies I'd watched on Monday afternoons because of their seditious content, their undesirability -- he didn't list porn flicks, so it was reasonable to figure that he wouldn't want to list politically reprehensible movies either, censoring himself for reasons of either pragmatism or good taste. Or perhaps his publishers had insisted such items be expunged.

But what if that mundane explanation was totally wrong-headed?

It's very obvious that the future is malleable -- or, to put it another way, that at any particular moment in time there are numerous possible futures lying in wait for us. We tend to think of the passage of time, the movement of the moment that is "now" from the present into the future, as being much like the train on which I was currently sitting lost in speculation. A train can travel along just a single track -- no way can it go along two tracks simultaneously. But I began to think -- and I've believed it more and more as the decades have passed -- that the passage of time isn't like that at all: the movement of the "now" is like that of the impossible train which can run on more than one track at once: on many tracks, on an almost infinitely large number of tracks. And I think it's open to us to decide which of those tracks we perceive the train to be running on. Over the past month or so I had opted -- wittingly or unwittingly -- to shift my perception of the track along which my own personal train was traveling. One of the many railway lines had been leading to a station that was the security of a career as a vet, and for over a decade that had been the only track I could see. But then had come my Monday afternoons at the Rupolo. Nothing in the physical universe had been changed by my experience of them -- that would have been a ridiculous notion -- but my perception had been altered, so that now the chief railway line I saw was the one leading to a station called Cinema Historian and Critic. I was still conscious that the other railway line was there, but I no longer perceived it.

My mind explored this concept, and then took it further.

Trains don't just go to stations, they come from them as well.

Which implied that, all my life so far, I'd been perceiving only one of the many railway tracks along which my personal train -- my own personal "now" -- had been traveling. Had I somehow been possessed of the ability to perceive the totality of the passage of my past time, I'd have experienced not just a single past but many. In other words, if I could happily accept that the future was unformed and therefore malleable, then I must also accept the far more difficult proposition that the past, too, was readily malleable. It's an old cliché that we mold our own futures. Is it feasible that, through our selective perception, we can likewise mold our own pasts?

If so, then there was another explanation for Andrew Brunner's omission of all those old World War II movies from his Brunner's Companion to the Cinema.

They were movies that had never been made.

Or, at least, they had never been made in the particular past which the consensus of the people alive in the world today had perceived, and indeed still perceived. Yet our train had been traveling along many lines at once, not just the one we'd noticed, and along one of those other lines it was perfectly plausible that the Allies had emerged victorious -- perhaps the D-Day landings had been successful rather than a fiasco, or perhaps the traitor Oppenheimer's team had proved nuclear fission possible after all, rather than being misled by the nonsensical Jew science of the charlatan Einstein. I wasn't a historian, so I couldn't even begin to hazard a guess at these things. Whatever the details, it seemed to me that, just because we were able to perceive only a single past, we were getting a completely misleading picture of what the past had actually been like -- we were regarding as simple something which had in fact been infernally complex, a huge number of different railway lines that knotted and unknotted as the history train sped along all of them at once. The past, in short, had been molded into its apparently immutable form not through any physical property of the universe but through the sheer inability of the human brain to perceive it fully.

Those movies hadn't been made in our past, but they had been made in the past.

Along at least one of the railway tracks of history, the victors in World War II had been the Allies, and their movie producers and directors had set about solidifying the past they preferred. Of course, they wouldn't have realized that this was what they were doing -- they were merely making triumphal entertainments, just as our own moviemakers had created such propagandistic efforts as The Rising Sun Shall Never Set and Private Kohl's War and countless others you can certainly think of yourself -- but that was the effect of what they did.

How the movies had been brought into our present was something about which I could hardly even begin to guess. Perhaps there are some people who are able to perceive directly that the train of time is always running along more than a single track, and perhaps one of those people succeeded in, as it were, moving the cans of film across from one side of the train to the other. Or perhaps they just slipped accidentally from a different track, of the many that constitute the passage of time, onto ours. However it came about, the anonymous proprietor of the Rupolo -- and perhaps his counterparts in numerous small, scruffy suburban cinemas all over the country -- had realized they represented a way of altering people's perceptions, and thereby of changing the shape of history, of reifying a different past.

And to a great extent it had worked -- I knew that at first hand. Even to this day, whatever the evidence of my senses or my intellect, I know deep inside me that World War II was fought in black-and-white and that the winners were those slightly comical chappies with their strangled accents. At the time I was sitting on the train home and these notions were formulating themselves in my head, the knowledge was much stronger. Ever since I'd started going to the Monday matinees I'd been having those occasional but powerful flashes when the world around me seemed to be nothing but a charade, the powerful feeling that true reality was what I saw on the Rupolo's screen. Were my own experience to be repeated all over America or all over the world, to be shared by millions upon millions of others, then assuredly the consensus perception of which railway line the train had pounded along might change.

And the past with it.

The only reason the ploy had ultimately failed in my own instance was that I had begun to think of the movies analytically -- it had been my conscious decision to continue watching them, but now on the basis that they were thrillingly verboten presentations. Had I continued to watch them uncritically, seeing them through the lens of my emotions rather than that of my intellect, I might have eventually come to see the world they depicted as the only possible past, the true history. No wonder the other Monday regulars at the Rupolo hadn't seemed disappointed by Private Kohl's War and The Rising Sun Shall Never Set. While I'd been watching those two ditchwater outings the rest of the audience had been watching something else -- The Fall of Berlin, perhaps, or Convoy to Nairobi, or ... They'd seen those movies because there was no reason for them not to. I, on the other hand, had been able to see only movies that accorded with my own particular perception of the way the past had run. Along the railway track to which my perception was once more limited, the victors had made the movies that reinforced the consensual past.

Whoever those conspirators were -- if they even existed outside the bounds of my own fertile imagination -- their scheme patently failed, and not because of the cops busting cinemas like the Rupolo all over the country but because in due course no human being can continue to observe and accept outside stimuli completely uncritically: eventually, as with myself, the analytical faculty must step in to limit the scope of the mind. For me to say that this self-limiting mechanism of the brain is a tragedy might seem rather rich, coming as that statement does from someone who has made a lifetime career -- and a very great deal of money -- out of deploying that very same analytical faculty. Yet I stick to the contention. Without a full perception of the true, complicated nature of our past we are not fully prepared as a species to tackle the equally complicated, multiply braided future that awaits us. We will forever be blind to the flowering of the simultaneous realities of our own future, instead perceiving only a single stalk, permitting ourselves to glance neither to left nor to right as we charge ahead oblivious to the splendors all around us. It is a sterile course we are following, this faith in our perception that there is only a single, unique future, and I believe that in due course it will lead to our extinction. If there are other species out there among the stars, I have no doubt they will have learned not to make the same mistake we've made and persist in making, and that they'll thereby be equipped to deal with the future: to welcome it as the burgeoning treasure-store it is in a way we are not. Perhaps only here, on this world, has the mistake ever been made.

As for the movies themselves? As I've said, I am a rich man, and I've spent some of my wealth on employing researchers to try to track down those whose titles I can recall: Albert RN, The Great Escape, Reach for the Sky, The Bridge on the River Kwai ... But so far they've come up with nothing, and I doubt that now this will ever change. What I still think of as The Rupolo Movies were, if you like, just temporary visitors to our consensual and ever-evolving history; whether they'll ever come back -- or be brought back -- is something about which one can't guess. My suspicion is that we've seen the last of them.

Every now and then I wonder what our consensual present would be like had we indeed been able to perceive a railway track along which one of the stations was the Allies winning World War II. Would things be so very much different? Would they be better or would they be worse? Again, who can guess?

This particular version of history has been very good to me. I've led an extremely comfortable life doing more or less exactly what I wanted to do, indulging my own especial passion and being paid large sums of money simply to enjoy myself. And most of the time, as I look around at the rest of the world, everything there seems pretty near ideal as well. But sometimes I wonder.

This week in the New York Times there was much reporting of the bloody suppression of yet another escape plot by the niggers in one of the slave camps of the South. Scores of them were shot or hanged, including children, and the ringleaders were roasted alive, as is the custom there. I am not one of those who would pretend that the niggers are anything other than a debased subspecies of humanity, but at the same time I cannot believe that this is right: I would not roast a dog or a cat alive, so how can it be right to do this to a nigger? The week before, two homosexuals were lynched in Massachusetts; that was considered to be such a routine occurrence that the story was given only a single paragraph tucked away at the bottom of page twelve. Again, can it be truly right to punish someone with death for their sexual preferences? To be sure, the law would have delivered them a jail sentence, which is certainly justified enough, but the tone of that single paragraph seemed to condone the actions of the lynch mob. I feel uneasy at the ease and frequency with which our penal system carries out executions, often of people who seem to me to be more mentally ill or impaired, or simply more independently minded, than genuinely criminal. And I wish that when vagrants are rounded up they did not simply disappear.

So, yes, sometimes I wonder.

© John Grant 2002, 2004.
Wooden Horse was first published in The Third Alternative; the slightly revised version reproduced here is from the collection Take No Prisoners (Willowgate Press, 2004; infinity plus ebooks, 2011).

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