Stephen Coates

Stephen Coates comes from Christchurch but is currently living in Japan.

Writing is even more fun than reading!


Mortlock the Magnanimous

I escaped from the birthday party, went for a walk. Meandering along an unfamiliar street I came upon a market in a small park. Two men were taking down the awning from the Wheel of Fortune and a seagull stood guard over a soggy chip. The woman in the doughnut stand made eye contact, smiled like she meant it, but I’d been caught that way before. I veered towards the back gate.

And there he was, slouched behind a table with a hand-written sign taped to the front:
Learn your Future!

The last letters were squashed against the edge of the card as if he’d misjudged the length of his message. Underneath, in red felt, it said, Only $2! He was staring at the chestnut tree beside the pond. I glanced at him and kept on walking.

“Hey!”

He jerked his head at me. I froze.

“Nn?”

“You want to know a secret?”

I thought longingly of toast by the heater, rugby league on TV.

“I can tell you a secret. No, better than that. Three secrets.”

I sighed and turned to face him. He straightened, coughed a couple of times.

“The moment of your death, the manner of your death, the motive of your death. Master the mysteries of mortality, the multifarious metaphors of mutability. We are maundering in the maw of Moloch, the machinations of Machiavells, the mediocrity of McDonalds, the meretricity of mountebanks.”

He paused, gasped for air.

“This misanthropic midden, misbegotten milch-cow, mercenary martinet, this moribund metropolis. Meet manumission from mayhem, from melancholy, from morbidity, from me, Mortlock the Magnanimous.”

He stopped.

“Um,” I said.

“When, how, why. That’s what it boils down to. I figure the who and the what are kind of built in, if you see what I mean.”

I grimaced. Timely, if unwelcome. I cast about for something to say.

“Do you always talk like that?”

He looked around to see if anyone was listening.

“Nah, it’s just a gimmick. You got to have a gimmick. Otherwise you’re just a loser in a sideshow.”

“But why m’s?”

He shrugged.

“Coincidence. I moved into this flat and someone had left behind the Oxford Dictionary, the really big one. But only one volume, L to M. Well, I could hardly be Leroy the Lithuanian, could I?”

This sounded quite catchy to me but I nodded anyway.

“So,” he said, waving at the desk, “you want to do this?”

This was three plastic mugs, two blue and one orange, arranged in a line in front of him. A fluffy pig gazed at me myopically from a cracked saucer.

“Do what?”

He flipped the cups upside down and slid the piglet under the orange one.

“We are mafficking in the manure of mavericks, the mercurial ministrations of mescalin, the malapropisms of mastodons, the megrim of mandragora, the malarkey of magistrates, the maze of mangelwurzels, this monocephalous mendicant, this mesmeric mugwump, this macabre monstrosity.”

“So all I’ve got to do is find the pig, right?” I asked.

I dug in my pockets and jangled a coin into the plate. At least it took my mind off things. He started pushing the cups around the table top, swivelling from the hips. And he was humming. Maybe he’d run out of words. After thirty seconds he stopped.

“OK, Mike, where’s Monty?”

The orange cup was on the left, but I’m not stupid. I tapped the middle one. He grunted with disappointment and I grinned. Then he tossed both blues into the air, one after the other, spinning them end over end and catching them again. Empty. With a flourish he lifted the last mug and there, resting on its head and looking slightly dizzy, was the bloody pig.

“You’re not really trying, are you?” he said. “Have another go.”

He was playing me like a salmon but I couldn’t help myself. I offered up another coin and he went through the same routine. I glared at the blur of colours.

When he finished my arm stretched towards the orange as though it was magnetized. Then I hesitated. Perhaps it was the old double-bluff. My hand hovered over the other two cups. Finally I touched the one in the middle again. He frowned.

“Nah, you don’t want that one.”

Now I was certain. Looking him straight in the eye I lifted the mug, reached underneath and groped around like an idiot.

“Look,” he asked, “how hard can it be?”

His voice oozed fake patience as he showed me the pig, still under its original cup.

“This one, it’s orange, see? O-ringe. And this one, it’s beloo. This one, it’s beloo too.”

He set them up again, grabbed my wrists and forced me to slide the cups clumsily around the table. One, two, three. Then he placed my right hand on the orange.

“Take your time,” he said. “Whichever you want.”

I shook myself loose and picked up the mug. The pig smirked at me.

“Marvellous. Magnificent. Now, what’s your choice? Moment, manner or motive?”

My mouth had gone dry.

“Manner,” I stammered.

He began to pack up. The sign and accessories went into a black sports bag. He grappled the stool and desk into his armpit. Then he faced me with the bland expression of a poker player.

“Heart failure.”

“Er,” I said.

He stalked lopsidedly away. I was suddenly aware of the cold wind and my thin shirt. I needed to get back.



That week at work I functioned on autopilot. I loaded boxes, unloaded boxes, cleaned out the hoppers, drove the forklift over the foreman’s foot. But mostly I thought about dying. The manner of your death, the manner of your death. His spiel kept sloshing round inside my head. And what the hell did heart failure mean anyway? Dying in my sleep when I was ninety or an agonising, chest-clutching collapse while I was washing the dishes tonight? I had a brief image of me lying face down on the kitchen floor and Mrs. Neagley finding me next month when the rent hadn’t been paid. I tried really hard not to think about gap-toothed, bald-headed six-year-olds.

Saturday morning, early, I was woken by the phone. I thought it was a heart monitor. I raced through to the living room but it stopped before I reached it. I’d been dreaming, having a conversation in the park with a pig. About transmigration of souls. I didn’t even know what that was. I tried to doze some more but I couldn’t so I drank a gallon of coffee, read about world events. Insurrection in Bogotá, an earthquake in the Sudan.



When the market opened I threaded my way through the crowd, surprised how busy it was. At first I didn’t spot him and my heart sank, but there he was, down towards the other end of the field. He watched as I approached.

“Morning, Mike,” he said.

“Yeah, morning. Hey, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. You told me I’d die of heart failure, right? Well, I realized that’s how everyone dies. It’s always heart failure. Doesn’t matter if your head’s chopped off or you drown in a vat of whiskey, you’re not dead till your heart stops.”

He stroked the pig’s head as he considered this.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “I said heart failure, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“And it always is heart failure.”

“Yeah.”

“So you’re complaining because I told you the truth. Right?”

“Yeah! No! I mean.”

My mouth made a series of false starts.

“Well, it’s true, sure,” I said. “But it’s not useful, is it? I thought you were going to tell me the exact manner, like choking on a pretzel at my brother’s wedding.”

Mort scratched his nose.

“Hmm. You’ve got a point there. Would it be better if I told you that you’d be roasted alive with a giant magnifying glass by a bunch of pygmies in penguin suits?”

“Yes! At least it’s something I could hold on to!”

“But it’s dumb, isn’t it? Why would pygmies be wearing penguin suits?”

I jammed my hands into my pockets. I knew his logic was skewed but for the life of me I couldn’t work out how. After letting me flounder for a bit he gestured at the paraphernalia on the desk.

“Would you like to try again?”

I nodded eagerly.

“OK. When am I going to cark it? Kick the bucket? Shuffle off this mortal coil?”

He pointed at his sign.

“You’ve got to play. That’s the rule.”

I counted ten twenties into the saucer. He wrinkled his brow like he was making an important decision, went for the orange anyway. When he finished my hand edged to the right. He shook his head slightly. The left. Another almost imperceptible shake. I chose orange. He tipped it back to reveal the pig.

“Congratulations,” he said. “Moment, was it?”

“Yeah.”

“When your heart stops.”

I laughed at the sheer effrontery of it.

“You can’t deny it’s true,” he said. “Look on the bright side.”

Look on the bright side. One of the staff kept saying that. I hated it. I hated the damn positivity, the absurd belief in miracles and rainbows.

“OK,” I said. “Tell me about the third one. The motive. It doesn’t make any sense. How can there be a motive for someone’s death?”

His eyes flicked towards the sign. I groaned.

“But we both know where it’s going to be,” I argued.

“That’s the rule.”

I dumped the rest of my change on the plate, waited for him go through his routine. I knew how it ended. Finally he looked enquiringly at me. I indicated the orange cup.

“There,” I croaked. “That one. What I figure is this. A motive’s only for murder and things, where one person means to kill another, but most deaths aren’t like that. They’re just accidents or illness or old age or something.”

My words were garbled. He didn’t answer. Instead he laid the cup on its side so I could see right to the bottom. It was empty.

“Sorry,” he said.

I blundered forward, swept the other two tumblers to the ground. The pig had vanished. I gaped at him.

“Where is it? I want another go!”

But he was putting the tools of his trade in his bag, which he heaved onto his shoulder. Then he gathered up the stool and the table, holding them awkwardly in front of him, a tangle of legs facing me. Quickly scanned the grass, dipped his head apologetically and staggered off. I suspected that this time he wouldn’t be coming back. I hurried after him.

“Are you saying that there really is a motive? There’s some motive behind a little kid getting leukaemia? Someone’s planning it all?”

It sounded stupid even as I said it. He turned, his voice muffled by the plywood desk.

“How the hell should I know?” he said, not unkindly. “I’m just a loser in a sideshow.”

And then he was gone. A seagull jeered loudly overhead. Forlornly, I watched until he disappeared out the gate. I wanted to tell him my name’s not Mike, but I was fairly sure he already knew. And I wanted to tell him about Jamie, but I think he knew that too.

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Stephen Coates

Bio
Stephen Coates comes from Christchurch but is currently living in Japan.

Comment
It’s even more fun than reading!

Mortlock the Magnanimous

I escaped from the birthday party, went for a walk. Meandering along an unfamiliar street I came upon a market in a small park. Two men were taking down the awning from the Wheel of Fortune and a seagull stood guard over a soggy chip. The woman in the doughnut stand made eye contact, smiled like she meant it, but I’d been caught that way before. I veered towards the back gate.

And there he was, slouched behind a table with a hand-written sign taped to the front:
Learn your Future!

The last letters were squashed against the edge of the card as if he’d misjudged the length of his message. Underneath, in red felt, it said, Only $2! He was staring at the chestnut tree beside the pond. I glanced at him and kept on walking.

“Hey!”

He jerked his head at me. I froze.

“Nn?”

“You want to know a secret?”

I thought longingly of toast by the heater, rugby league on TV.

“I can tell you a secret. No, better than that. Three secrets.”

I sighed and turned to face him. He straightened, coughed a couple of times.

“The moment of your death, the manner of your death, the motive of your death. Master the mysteries of mortality, the multifarious metaphors of mutability. We are maundering in the maw of Moloch, the machinations of Machiavells, the mediocrity of McDonalds, the meretricity of mountebanks.”

He paused, gasped for air.

“This misanthropic midden, misbegotten milch-cow, mercenary martinet, this moribund metropolis. Meet manumission from mayhem, from melancholy, from morbidity, from me, Mortlock the Magnanimous.”

He stopped.

“Um,” I said.

“When, how, why. That’s what it boils down to. I figure the who and the what are kind of built in, if you see what I mean.”

I grimaced. Timely, if unwelcome. I cast about for something to say.

“Do you always talk like that?”

He looked around to see if anyone was listening.

“Nah, it’s just a gimmick. You got to have a gimmick. Otherwise you’re just a loser in a sideshow.”

“But why m’s?”

He shrugged.

“Coincidence. I moved into this flat and someone had left behind the Oxford Dictionary, the really big one. But only one volume, L to M. Well, I could hardly be Leroy the Lithuanian, could I?”

This sounded quite catchy to me but I nodded anyway.

“So,” he said, waving at the desk, “you want to do this?”

This was three plastic mugs, two blue and one orange, arranged in a line in front of him. A fluffy pig gazed at me myopically from a cracked saucer.

“Do what?”

He flipped the cups upside down and slid the piglet under the orange one.

“We are mafficking in the manure of mavericks, the mercurial ministrations of mescalin, the malapropisms of mastodons, the megrim of mandragora, the malarkey of magistrates, the maze of mangelwurzels, this monocephalous mendicant, this mesmeric mugwump, this macabre monstrosity.”

“So all I’ve got to do is find the pig, right?” I asked.

I dug in my pockets and jangled a coin into the plate. At least it took my mind off things. He started pushing the cups around the table top, swivelling from the hips. And he was humming. Maybe he’d run out of words. After thirty seconds he stopped.

“OK, Mike, where’s Monty?”

The orange cup was on the left, but I’m not stupid. I tapped the middle one. He grunted with disappointment and I grinned. Then he tossed both blues into the air, one after the other, spinning them end over end and catching them again. Empty. With a flourish he lifted the last mug and there, resting on its head and looking slightly dizzy, was the bloody pig.

“You’re not really trying, are you?” he said. “Have another go.”

He was playing me like a salmon but I couldn’t help myself. I offered up another coin and he went through the same routine. I glared at the blur of colours.

When he finished my arm stretched towards the orange as though it was magnetized. Then I hesitated. Perhaps it was the old double-bluff. My hand hovered over the other two cups. Finally I touched the one in the middle again. He frowned.

“Nah, you don’t want that one.”

Now I was certain. Looking him straight in the eye I lifted the mug, reached underneath and groped around like an idiot.

“Look,” he asked, “how hard can it be?”

His voice oozed fake patience as he showed me the pig, still under its original cup.

“This one, it’s orange, see? O-ringe. And this one, it’s beloo. This one, it’s beloo too.”

He set them up again, grabbed my wrists and forced me to slide the cups clumsily around the table. One, two, three. Then he placed my right hand on the orange.

“Take your time,” he said. “Whichever you want.”

I shook myself loose and picked up the mug. The pig smirked at me.

“Marvellous. Magnificent. Now, what’s your choice? Moment, manner or motive?”

My mouth had gone dry.

“Manner,” I stammered.

He began to pack up. The sign and accessories went into a black sports bag. He grappled the stool and desk into his armpit. Then he faced me with the bland expression of a poker player.

“Heart failure.”

“Er,” I said.

He stalked lopsidedly away. I was suddenly aware of the cold wind and my thin shirt. I needed to get back.



That week at work I functioned on autopilot. I loaded boxes, unloaded boxes, cleaned out the hoppers, drove the forklift over the foreman’s foot. But mostly I thought about dying. The manner of your death, the manner of your death. His spiel kept sloshing round inside my head. And what the hell did heart failure mean anyway? Dying in my sleep when I was ninety or an agonising, chest-clutching collapse while I was washing the dishes tonight? I had a brief image of me lying face down on the kitchen floor and Mrs. Neagley finding me next month when the rent hadn’t been paid. I tried really hard not to think about gap-toothed, bald-headed six-year-olds.

Saturday morning, early, I was woken by the phone. I thought it was a heart monitor. I raced through to the living room but it stopped before I reached it. I’d been dreaming, having a conversation in the park with a pig. About transmigration of souls. I didn’t even know what that was. I tried to doze some more but I couldn’t so I drank a gallon of coffee, read about world events. Insurrection in Bogotá, an earthquake in the Sudan.



When the market opened I threaded my way through the crowd, surprised how busy it was. At first I didn’t spot him and my heart sank, but there he was, down towards the other end of the field. He watched as I approached.

“Morning, Mike,” he said.

“Yeah, morning. Hey, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. You told me I’d die of heart failure, right? Well, I realized that’s how everyone dies. It’s always heart failure. Doesn’t matter if your head’s chopped off or you drown in a vat of whiskey, you’re not dead till your heart stops.”

He stroked the pig’s head as he considered this.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “I said heart failure, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“And it always is heart failure.”

“Yeah.”

“So you’re complaining because I told you the truth. Right?”

“Yeah! No! I mean.”

My mouth made a series of false starts.

“Well, it’s true, sure,” I said. “But it’s not useful, is it? I thought you were going to tell me the exact manner, like choking on a pretzel at my brother’s wedding.”

Mort scratched his nose.

“Hmm. You’ve got a point there. Would it be better if I told you that you’d be roasted alive with a giant magnifying glass by a bunch of pygmies in penguin suits?”

“Yes! At least it’s something I could hold on to!”

“But it’s dumb, isn’t it? Why would pygmies be wearing penguin suits?”

I jammed my hands into my pockets. I knew his logic was skewed but for the life of me I couldn’t work out how. After letting me flounder for a bit he gestured at the paraphernalia on the desk.

“Would you like to try again?”

I nodded eagerly.

“OK. When am I going to cark it? Kick the bucket? Shuffle off this mortal coil?”

He pointed at his sign.

“You’ve got to play. That’s the rule.”

I counted ten twenties into the saucer. He wrinkled his brow like he was making an important decision, went for the orange anyway. When he finished my hand edged to the right. He shook his head slightly. The left. Another almost imperceptible shake. I chose orange. He tipped it back to reveal the pig.

“Congratulations,” he said. “Moment, was it?”

“Yeah.”

“When your heart stops.”

I laughed at the sheer effrontery of it.

“You can’t deny it’s true,” he said. “Look on the bright side.”

Look on the bright side. One of the staff kept saying that. I hated it. I hated the damn positivity, the absurd belief in miracles and rainbows.

“OK,” I said. “Tell me about the third one. The motive. It doesn’t make any sense. How can there be a motive for someone’s death?”

His eyes flicked towards the sign. I groaned.

“But we both know where it’s going to be,” I argued.

“That’s the rule.”

I dumped the rest of my change on the plate, waited for him go through his routine. I knew how it ended. Finally he looked enquiringly at me. I indicated the orange cup.

“There,” I croaked. “That one. What I figure is this. A motive’s only for murder and things, where one person means to kill another, but most deaths aren’t like that. They’re just accidents or illness or old age or something.”

My words were garbled. He didn’t answer. Instead he laid the cup on its side so I could see right to the bottom. It was empty.

“Sorry,” he said.

I blundered forward, swept the other two tumblers to the ground. The pig had vanished. I gaped at him.

“Where is it? I want another go!”

But he was putting the tools of his trade in his bag, which he heaved onto his shoulder. Then he gathered up the stool and the table, holding them awkwardly in front of him, a tangle of legs facing me. Quickly scanned the grass, dipped his head apologetically and staggered off. I suspected that this time he wouldn’t be coming back. I hurried after him.

“Are you saying that there really is a motive? There’s some motive behind a little kid getting leukaemia? Someone’s planning it all?”

It sounded stupid even as I said it. He turned, his voice muffled by the plywood desk.

“How the hell should I know?” he said, not unkindly. “I’m just a loser in a sideshow.”

And then he was gone. A seagull jeered loudly overhead. Forlornly, I watched until he disappeared out the gate. I wanted to tell him my name’s not Mike, but I was fairly sure he already knew. And I wanted to tell him about Jamie, but I think he knew that too.