Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul by Douglas Adams

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 Sellotape.

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 judgments 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 café, 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 café’s music system, a broken nose, and the waiter’s insuperable cool 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 omelet 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 omelet 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 café’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 tranquility 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 tranquility 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 favor of getting the new fridge, which, by a staggering coincidence, was the course of action which he himself favored.