By Robert Morschel 23:54:00
"So, Mr Jones, we meet again."
I squinted up at the surgeon, puzzled.
"Don't mind him," said the anaesthetist seated at my head. "It's a James Bond reference."
"Ah," I replied.
The surgeon's eyes crinkled with mirth. "Yes, sorry. I can't seem to shake the habit. But, anyway, we're here to operate on your knee?"
"And," he continued, looking at the chart hanging next to him, "it's the left knee."
I nodded again.
The surgeon frowned and glanced over at the anaesthetist. "Is that my left, or yours?" I was about to reply, when he winked at me. "I'm just messing with you. Aren't I, Stan?"
The anaesthetist nodded. "Yes, he does this all the time."
The surgeon continued, "We like to have some fun. Surgery can be such a boring business. Anything else you want doing while we're in? Appendix out perhaps? No extra charge. No? Okay, well, Stan let's begin."
The anaesthetist placed a mask over my mouth, and slowly the room faded from view. The last I heard was the surgeon humming the theme from Jaws.
By Robert Morschel 13:13:00
The early dawn silence was shattered by the crash of distant cannon fire. Antoine stirred in his sleep, and then awoke.
"Every morning," he groaned sitting up. "Mon Dieu! How long must this war go on for?"
He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see his wife looking up at him sleepily. He bent down and kissed her forehead.
"Good morning, my love."
"I am still sleeping," she replied with mock indignation.
He smiled and kissed her again, and then got out of bed, shivering on the cold flagstones as he put on his gown and leather slippers. He shuffled through to the kitchen to light a fire in the hearth and hang a pot for hot water. He then opened the shutters and gazed for a while over the sleeping rooftops of Lombard towards the distant, hazy city walls of Réalmont. He listened to the continuing explosions.
"Poor bastards," he muttered.
His reverie was interrupted by the clattering of hooves on the cobble-stoned street below his house.
He looked down to see two soldiers pull up on horseback, trailing a third horse. One of the soldiers, a plume-helmeted lieutenant, dismounted and banged on the house front door.
"What is it?" shouted down Antoine from the window.
The lieutenant looked up. "Monsieur Rossignol? Antoine Rossignol?"
"You are to come with us, please. Général Duchamps has requested your presence at the camp at Réalmont. Immediately."
"What are you talking about?" objected Antoine. "I cannot just leave! I have students to teach! What does he want?"
"I'm afraid I must insist," said the lieutenant. "We will wait while you get ready."
Antoine sighed and turned from the window. His wife looked at him anxiously as he returned to the bedroom. "Who was that?"
"Soldiers of the prince. I've been summoned to see one his generals."
"Why you?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Who knows? Perhaps he needs help counting his cannons."
"This is no time for jokes, Antoine. You are not a soldier and have no business there."
"Do you think I want to go? But what choice do I have?"
"Clarisse, enough. I will go, and I will come back. Please help me fetch me my things."
His wife scowled, but helped him get ready.
"Please don't fret, my love," said Antoine, kissing his wife's forehead as he was about to leave. "I will take care and will be back soon, I promise."
He then opened the front door and was helped onto his horse by the waiting soldier and rode off along the narrow streets of Lombard until they reached the country road to Réalmont. The morning was still young and a reluctant mist clung to the fields. The road was dry, even with the recent rains, and despite his apprehension, Antoine felt an uncustomary thrill as they galloped past miles of poplar-lined countryside.
He heard the siege camp before he saw it, but then at the crest of a hill it appeared below: a vast sprawl of white tents flying the purple hawk crest of Henri II of Bourbon. Beyond the camp lay the great fortified gate of Réalmont.
They trotted into the camp, mud splashing surly soldiers huddled around morning camp fires as they passed, until finally they came to a halt in front of a large tent, and dismounted.
"Come with me," said the lieutenant.
Antoine followed him into the tent containing a chart-covered table, some draped chairs, a large studded chest and a simple camp bed. An older soldier wearing a nightshirt stood stooped over the charts, scratching his stubble.
He looked up. "Ah, Monsieur Rossignol," he said. "Do come in, and thank you for coming at such short notice." He took a step towards Antoine and extended his hand. "I am, despite my rustic appearances, Général Duchamps, commander of this patch of mud."
Antoine bowed and shook his hand. "Monsieur Général, I am honoured indeed to be here, but I don't quite understand..."
"Yes, my apologies for the secrecy and summoning you like this. War unfortunately curtails the freedoms of all, does it not?"
Antoine did not reply, so the general continued, "Ah well, there it is. We have a matter of great importance that you perhaps can help us with. You are a mathematician, I understand?"
"And what is your view of this war? You are, I understand, Catholic?"
Antoine shrugged. "I am indeed, but it is a war. War is unfortunate."
"You don't believe in the cause, then? The extermination of these Huguenot protestant heretics?"
Antoine eyed the general cautiously before replying slowly. "I believe in the truth of the Church, but I also believe in man's fallibility. Truth can be hard to perceive."
The general chuckled. "A diplomat, philosopher and mathematician.... and I am told with some enthusiasm for cryptography, I think it is called? The deciphering of codes?"
Antoine shuffled uncomfortably. "It is but a hobby of mine, Monsieur le Général."
"Do not be modest, Monsieur. Your reputation in this area precedes you." The general then handed Antoine a piece of paper containing a few lines of text. Antoine looked at it curiously. It was clearly a coded message: the letters were carefully arranged in a grid, but made no immediate sense.
"It appears to be a code," he said.
The general smiled. "It certainly does, Monsieur. We intercepted a messenger from the city. He was carrying this, but sadly did not live long enough to reveal its contents. We have such enthusiastic soldiers, you see. So, we are hoping you might be able to help."
"Fool, fool, arrogant fool, Antoine! To think you could solve this riddle. Oh, you come highly recommended, do you? Not after this!" He swept the papers off the table in disgust. The key to the code had eluded him so far, despite hours of struggle, and he held is face in despair. Initially the excitement at a new challenge had absorbed his attention, but as the puzzle failed repeated attempts at solving using standard decryption techniques, the young man became increasingly anxious. His lack of conviction over the Catholic cause was not a secret, and he worried that his inability to decipher the code might be considered deliberate by the enthusiastic army which surrounded him.
Antoine looked up. A small man dressed in drab civilian clothes and a white cap entered the tent bearing a tray of food.
"Pardon Monsieur for interrupting your work. Monsieur le Général asked that I bring you something to eat," said the man.
Antoine waved it away. "I am not hungry."
The man did not leave.
"Thank you, but no," insisted Antoine. "I have to finish this first. I cannot afford distractions."
The man approached and carefully put the tray on the table.
"Monsieur, I beg you to at least take a look at what I have prepared." He removed the tray cover to reveal a bowl of steaming fragrant vegetable broth, bread and cheese. Antoine relented - he was hungry after all, and perhaps a little break would be good. The man watched as he took a sip of the soup.
"Oh my goodness,” exclaimed Antoine. “It's exquisite!"
The man beamed. "It is my secret recipe."
"You are a chef?"
"I am, Monsieur. The personal chef to Monsieur le Général."
"But you are not a soldier," remarked Antoine, gesturing to the chef's clothes.
"No, Monsieur. I am too small and feeble to be of such service to my country."
"So instead you cook magical soups?"
The chef blushed slightly. "I do my best, Monsieur."
Antoine continued to eat in silence, then said, "So, tell me. What's in the soup? I can see the vegetables and guess some of the herbs, but there is something else I cannot place."
"I regret I cannot say, Monsieur, the recipe is a little secret of mine, but I will say that sometimes the secret of recipes is not in the basic ingredients, but in the way they are combined to form more complex ingredients..."
Antoine looked up suddenly. "Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed. The chef frowned. Antoine quickly pushed his tray to one side and leaned down to pick up his papers off the floor. "You see," he continued excitedly, waving the encoded message, "your soup is like this secret message. And when we try to decipher it, we look for basic ingredients, the letters, and seek familiar patterns, like the fact that a letter which occurs the most often may well represent the letter 'e'."
The chef nodded, still frowning slightly.
"But!" Antoine raised a triumphant finger. "Fool that I am for missing it until you spoke, in this case, and that is what has frustrated me until now, I have been looking for simple ingredients, not complex ones. Not letters..." He paused for dramatic effect. "But syllables!"
He did not wait for a response, and peered intently at the message in his hand, then at his letter charts, and then started scribbling furiously on a blank page, muttering to himself. The chef quietly cleared away the dishes on to the tray and slipped out of the tent without a word.
And thus it happened that Antoine Rossignol, formerly of cobble-stoned Rue Navier, Lombard, teacher of mathematics and husband to Clarisse, solved the encoded message of Réalmont. The message was found to be a desperate plea for provisions and ammunition to allies of the city, and when presented to the city the next day in decoded form, resulted in prompt surrender.
The means of the victory came to the attention of His Grand Eminence, Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII, and Antoine was summoned to the Palace of Versailles with his wife where he became chief cryptographer to the king. He decoded many more such messages, and developed the Grand Cipher, which for many a generation defined modern French cryptography.
History does not however mention, at least until now, the chef with a penchant for little secrets.
By Robert Morschel 02:05:00
“Lia, bring me drink,” said Riat.
“Ama, there is none left,” replied Lia. “There was so little on the dump today, and I had to buy some food.”
“Pah, food,” said Riat. “I need gin, not potatoes!” He heaved himself off his mat and staggered outside their tin hut into the muddy road that separated the shantytown from Tondo’s main dumpsite. The last light of the day faded behind clouds of circling birds, accompanied by the distant hum of the Manila evening rush hour.
Lia drew near to him and tugged at his ragged shirt. “Ama, don’t go. I have potatoes, and a little meat. Eat something.”
He looked down at the young girl and smiled kindly. “I’ll eat something, but then I must go - Benji owes me a bottle.” He let her lead him by the hand and sat down on his straw mat, watching her as she prepared the meagre stew. She was lean and brown, with jet black hair tied loosely behind her, and held the pot handle with long delicate fingers.
“How you are growing up, Lia. Is it really ten years since I found you in that shoe box?”
“So it is.” He scratched his side where a flea had bitten him. “I don’t understand why anyone would leave a baby like that.”
“Perhaps my mother didn’t want me.”
“Babies are not like clothes, Lia,” he replied angrily, “that you can just discard them when you no longer want them. It is shameful.”
“Tell me why I called Lia, Ama.”
“You know this story.”
“I like to hear it.”
“Lia is short for Liana. My dear wife was called Liana. She had always wanted children… but then … then she died. I started drinking, and lost everything.” He started sobbing. Lia came to his side and rested her hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her. “It’s not a happy story, is it?”
“Am I like her, Ama?” she asked.
“You are beautiful like her, inside and out. And you have her eyes.”
She lifted her hand to her face. “I wish I could have met her.”
“You would have liked her, Lia.” He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “Anyway, what did you find today on the dump?”
Lia shrugged. “The usual: cans, some cloth. Deni found an old TV.”
“A TV!” exclaimed Riat. “He’s a lucky one, that Deni.”
“Not really. Shama took it off him. Deni tried to fight, but he’s not big like Shama.”
“A terrible shame... Hey, that meat does not look good! Where did you get it?”
“It is fine,” replied Lia. “Deni’s mother found it and gave me some. She said to cook it well.”
Riat grunted, and then reached over to pick up a dirt-encrusted book from a small collection perched precariously on a nearby plank. “Shall I read to you?”
“I found something else on the dump.”
The man put the book down and looked enquiringly at the girl. Lia turned down the heat on the little oil stove, and reached into her large, striped, plastic collection bag. She pulled out a sodden shoebox and handed it carefully to the man. He opened the lid.
“There’s a note inside,” he said, surprised.
She nodded, her eyes gleaming eagerly.
“Wanted,” he read. “Information on the valuable contents of a box similar to this, lost many years ago in Tondo.”
He turned the note over. “And there’s an address.”
Lia sat down beside him and looked up hopefully. “Is it her, do you think?”
Riat shook his head. “It can’t be. What are the odds of you finding such a shoebox, and it being your mother looking for you, after so many years? It must be something else.”
“But it might be, Ama. We’ll go to the address, ya?”
He looked at her sharply. “It’s all the way on the far side of Manila. How will we get there?”
“We can walk, Ama.”
“It will take a whole day, Lia, and we can’t afford to not work. This is foolishness. Let’s not speak of it further.”
He put the note back in the box, which he threw angrily into the corner of the room on to a heap of cardboard and he had collected that day. Lia knew better than to pursue the conversation and returned to stirring the stew. Later they ate in silence, the room darkening in the cooling light of the day.
After the meal, Lia lay down on her mat to sleep. Riat bent over to kiss her goodnight but she turned away.
“Don’t be like that, Lia. It’s a silly hope.”
She did not answer. He sighed and got up to leave the hut. “I’ll be back soon.”
He returned an hour later, carrying a 1 litre plastic bottle of cheap gin. He stumbled unsteadily over Lia’s plastic sandals, cursing as he almost lost his balance.
“Are you awake?” he hissed. Lia didn’t reply, so he sat down heavily on his sleeping mat, took one final swig from the bottle, and lay down, resting his head on his arm. Sleep came soon, as did the recurring dream of his wife. She stood under a palm tree, her flowing cotton dress blowing in the breeze, holding a baby girl. She smiled at him, and held out an arm for him to come closer, but he never could.
He has awoken by the sun streaming into the hut. Startled, he sat up. “Lia, why did you not wake me?!” There was no answer. Puzzled, he looked around, and seeing the room was empty, got up, and went to the doorway. The day was already in full swing, with hordes of dusty children noisily chasing the morning dumpster trucks. He rubbed his throbbing head and went back inside. Lia had left him a bowl of rice porridge, but it was cold.
“What is going on with that girl?” he muttered to himself.
Then his eyes fell on the cardboard heap in the corner and he leaped up, knocking the bowl to the ground, splattering porridge over his feet. He sprinted out the hut, through foul alleyways, blood pounding in his temples, until he reached the tarred the outskirts of the shanty town and the roads of suburban Tondo. There was no sign of Lia, so he carried on running, his chest bursting, until he saw her an hour later, sitting crying in the dust next to the hurtling stream of traffic along Rizal Avenue. He sat down next to her, gasping desperately, and pulled her close to him.
“You silly girl,” he said. They sat, huddled together for many minutes, Riat staring dreamily into the distance, Lia sniffing into his shirt, until finally he turned to her and wiped her tear-streaked cheeks with a dirty sleeve. “Come on then. It’s time we finished this.”
Taguig’s leafy suburban lanes offered welcome, cool respite from the heat of that day. Riat and Lia shuffled wearily passed walled mansions until they reached the address on the shoebox paper. A tall wrought-iron gateway barred their passage. Riat pressed a buzzer on the wall.
“Yes?” said a strong male voice through the intercom speaker.
“We are here to see the lady of the house,” replied Riat. “About a shoebox.”
There was a pause, and some muffled talking, before the voice continued, “We get many shoebox people every day. What is so special about your shoebox that you should see the lady of this house?”
“It contained a child,” replied Riat.
The gates opened a moment later, and Riat led Lia along an ornate gravelled drive, until they come to a massive teak door. The door opened and a white-pinafored domestic invited them in.
“Follow me,” she said coldly, looking at their filthy rags with undisguised disdain, “and don’t touch anything!” She led them to a large library and indicated that they should wait.
“Ama, look at all those books!” whispered Lia loudly, pointing at the book-lined walls. “Old, just like yours.”
“Many more than my few,” replied Riat sadly.
“They used to belong to my sister’s husband,” said a female voice from the shadows. They turned to face a middle-aged woman dressed in a stark business suit, her hair tied back to reveal a smooth, aquiline face. “Before he disappeared.” She stared pointedly at Riat.
“Hello Maria,” said Riat, shuffling forward and extending a hand. “It has been a long time.”
She ignored his hand. “I want to know what happened,” she said coldly, “… that night.”
“Oh Maria, Liana had been so depressed about the baby. I didn’t understand it – we had wanted a child so badly. Then, suddenly, that night, she said she didn’t want the baby anymore. She wanted to get rid of it on the dump. I tried to reason with her, but she ran off and drove away. I followed her, and found her with the baby in a shoebox.
We fought. She was like a crazed animal. Then she fell, and smashed her head on a rock. There was blood everywhere. I just panicked and ran off with the baby.”
He looked imploringly at her. “I’m so sorry.”
“You just left her there, you bastard.”
“She was dead!”
Maria ignored him and turned to Lia. “And this? This is the baby?”
Her face softened. “She looks just like her. What’s your name, dear?”
“Lia,” whispered the girl.
“Oh!” The voice behind them was soft and familiar. “That’s my name too.”
By Robert Morschel 01:50:00
Good old McDonald's - you can always count on them for a toilet when all else fails.
I told Molly, my wife, to wait for me outside and nipped in. The place was busy, so I didn't feel very conspicuous, and walked quickly to a door on the left-hand side marked ‘toilets’. The door led to a long, empty corridor, which I followed, turning left at the end, where I was met with another door. I pushed the door open and was surprised to find a smiling, young girl behind a bare, steel desk. She was dressed in the standard McDonald's beige and black uniform, with an overly large cap dwarfing her freckled face.
I hesitated, stopping before the desk, and then spoke. “Er, sorry, I must have the wrong place. I was looking for the toilets.”
She nodded her head vigorously, her smile now even wider than before, and then pushed a clipboard on the desk towards me. “Of course, sir, please sign here.”
“No,” I replied, “you don’t understand. I just need the toilet.”
The young girl cocked her to one side, her eyebrows furrowed with practiced empathy. “Certainly sir, but there is no misunderstanding. This is now McDonalds corporate policy. Health and safety regulations. I hope you understand.”
Good grief, I thought, what next? What was this world coming to? I leaned forward, took the proffered pen from the young girl and signed the form without reading it.
“Thank you, sir,” said the girl, taking the form from the clipboard and popping it into a chute where it was sucked away. “Now it you’d just like to wait a moment, someone will be with you shortly.”
“What?” I replied, slightly louder than I meant to. “I don’t need to be accompanied, just show me where to go!”
The young girl nodded, and was about to reply when a male voice spoke from my left. “This way, sir.”
I turned to see another uniformed youngster, a boy with strong cheeks and downy brown eyes framed in steel rimmed glasses. He too was wearing a ridiculously large cap. He beckoned to yet another door and started walking, watching me carefully all the time. We reached the door, which he held open for me, letting me enter ahead of him. As I walked past him, I noticed an unusual smell about him that I could not place. The doorway opened to a large white room with a metal trolley standing against a wall. I turned to protest, but everything went black.
I woke later to find myself lying naked on the trolley, my arms and legs strapped to the side, neon lights moving past my now aching head. I turned my head to find another capped youngster pushing the trolley, but this time dressed in a white overcoat. I began to speak but then found I could not – my mouth had been taped shut. The youngster looked down at me, smiling reassuringly. “It won’t be long now.”
Until what? my mind screamed. Where were they taking to me? What was going on? Furiously I tried to wrench my arms and legs from their restraints, but to no avail, so I lay still, biding my time.
After what seemed an age, the trolley pushed against a door and we entered a large room filled with gently humming machinery. The youngster pushed the trolley towards a rectangular archway in the nearest machine. Stepping away, he pushed a green button on the silver panel next to us. I found myself suddenly lifted and flipped from the trolley, my bonds having been automatically loosened. I was tossed onto a conveyer belt inside the bowels of the machine, moving slowly towards a shredded rubber curtain. I tried to scramble backwards but slipped on the slick surface of the conveyor belt. The hum of the machinery had increased in intensity to a dull roar. I was pushed through the curtain, and towards two large swinging cutting wheels. I tried to clamber backwards frantically, scarcely noticing the bloodied hand prints on the walls, but was drawn inevitably towards the spinning blades. I closed my eyes and waited, resigned to my grisly fate, and thought of Molly waiting outside.
I hoped she’d have the sense not to order a burger. I now knew what they put in those things.