TEXT prose

 

Harley Carter


Death by second person

 

 

We are sitting in an airport transit lounge with time to kill between flights, and you ask me what we can do to entertain ourselves. I hold up an old dictionary. This is the second edition of the Penguin English Dictionary, dated 1976, I say. It is almost the last Penguin before their brief affair with Macquarie to produce the Penguin Macquarie dictionary, I add. Good Lord, you gasp. Where did you get it? you ask. I liberated it from a rubbish bin in a publisher’s warehouse, I say.

Why don’t I use it to tell you a story? You are intrigued. How can anyone tell a story using a dictionary, you laugh. Easily, I say. It will be a “given” story and as you have no doubt noticed, we are talking in the second person and so I will make the story in the second person. I will use all the words I find on a particular page.

Will this exercise help me to become a famous writer? you want to know. Yes it will. Your creativity will be stimulated by this exercise and it will help you to see things from a different perspective. I watch you process this information and draw a conclusion. Good, you say suddenly. And you bet me a current edition of the Penguin dictionary that I can’t do it.

I open the old dictionary to a page at random – page 210, a “D” page. We agree that every word on this chosen page must be used, and in the exact order in which they appear. So I must start with the first word at the top of the left hand column, and continue to the last word at the bottom of the right hand column.

The first word is DIMPLE, brackets dimp’l, noun, small natural hollow in the flesh – what a delectable image. Also a shallow hollow in earth or water. Fancy that. A liquid dimple. Daphne du Maurier drinks dimples during dinner. What an image to begin a story. And Daphne du Maurier wrote mysteries. So let’s make this story a mystery.

The next entry is DIMWIT, brackets dimwit, noun, slang, fool, imbecile. The way you describe your boss. You have just been briefed by him on the increasing incidence of deaths in restaurants which serve Middle Eastern food. You wince at the racist overtone but I tell you that it is necessary and not gratuitous. And as a health inspector it is your responsibility to assist in the investigation of this mystery.

You stand up and make a DIN, brackets din, another noun, loud confused noise, continuous clamour, in protest, saying that you are not a health inspector. I tell you that you are in this story. But it’s a police job and they are handling it quite adequately on their own, you whine. Your boss doesn’t agree and thinks you should help them, particularly because you have a knowledge of Middle Eastern customs, I reply.

In Iraq there is a unit of currency called the DINAR, pronounced deenaar, noun, Eastern gold coin. You tell your boss this and ask him sarcastically if he has any to spare, because you may need some change. He tells you they’re not worth a tinker’s cuss and ushers you out of his office.

Suddenly you realize you’re hungry. The next entry is DINE, brackets dIn, verb intransitive and transitive, eat dinner; which is exactly what you want to do.

You would like to become a DINER, brackets dIner, noun, one who dines.

Or better still, a DINER-OUT, brackets dIner-owt, noun, person who frequently goes to dinner parties.

You choose one of the restaurants which are under observation. According to the police there is an anti-Arab fanatical group who are killing off the patrons of these restaurants as an act of terrorism. Arriving at the entrance, you DING, brackets ding, verb intransitive and transitive, make a ringing sound, repeat constantly, by pressing a button on the wall.

You wait, but no-one answers. DING-DONG, brackets ding-dong, noun, sound of bells continually ringing or of two bells ringing alternately. You can’t quite tell which, as you press the button again. You are becoming impatient. Still no-one answers.

DINGE, brackets dinj, verb transitive, colloquial, knock a dent in; which is what you now do to the door.

This violent action loosens from its moorings a DINGHY, brackets ding-gi, noun, small ship’s boat, small pleasure boat, inflatable rubber boat; which crashes to the ground beside you, showering you with fine white powder and splinters of wood. You look up to see where it came from and see a broken package from where the white powder is leaking and a sign introducing THE MARITIME AND AMPHIBIAN MUSEUM RESTAURANT. The dinghy was a prop. Something to catch the eye of passing traffic. What is the white powder? Could it be poison?

At last a waiter with a closely trimmed beard and an enigmatic smile opens the door. You see the DINGINESS, brackets dinjiness, noun, state of being dingy, drabness. The waiter ushers you inside. The place smells.

And it’s cheap. You can tell by the walls. They have DINGING, brackets dinging, noun, a single coat of rough plaster; coated on them.

The waiter leads you along a wooden panelled passageway which reminds you of a DINGLE, brackets ding’l, noun, a deep dell, a narrow wooded valley. The sort of place ideally suited for an ambush. You become relaxed when he leads you into the cocktail bar. The waiter tells you the place is full and asks if you’d like a drink while you wait.

You look around and see a DINGLE-DANGLE, brackets ding’l-dang’l, adjective and adverb, hanging loosely. You wonder whether this word really is an adjective or an adverb. Surely it must be a noun. You look again and see a DINGLE-DANGLE of males hanging loosely at the bar. That makes more sense. They are dressed casually and each has a twinkle in his eye. And yes you will have a drink, you tell the waiter.

You are tempted to order a liquid dimple. You can’t see Daphne du Maurier anywhere, so you don’t. Instead, you inspect the next word and order a yellow DINGO, brackets Ding-gO, noun, Australian wild dog. This is a boutique beer, the barman protests. And they don’t sell it.

What a bloody DINGY, brackets dinji, adjective, dull-looking, shabby, disreputable; state of affairs, you tell the barman loudly. And the Dingle-Dangle shout back in agreement.

You order a glass of the house red and join them. They have eaten here before and compare the meals with those served in a DINING-CAR, brackets dIning-kaar, noun, railway carriage equipped to serve meals to passengers.

You say that they couldn’t be worse than the meals you got at boarding school in the DINING-HALL, brackets dIning-hawl, noun, large room where dinner and other meals are eaten.

More unfavourable comments are made and the restaurant is compared to an army DINING-ROOM, brackets dIning-ROOm, noun, room in which dinner and other meals are eaten.

Then someone says he’s so hungry that as long as there is a DINING-TABLE, brackets dIning-tayb’l, noun, table on which meals are served; he couldn’t care less how terrible the meals are.

You don’t tell them you are a health inspector. And because you don’t, you could be accused of not being DINKUM, brackets dinkum, adjective, Australian slang, genuine, honest. But this does not worry you.

Typically, just as the conversation is getting interesting and the cocktail bar is starting to look DINKY, brackets dinki, adjective, colloquial, neat, dainty; you are told your table is ready.

DINNER, brackets diner, noun, chief meal of the day, formal banquet. At last, you sigh.

As warned by the Dingle-Dangle at the bar, the meal is atrocious. You ordered recently fossilised goats legs because you can never resist a new item on a menu. Unfortunately, they appear to be more like legs from a DINOSAUR, brackets dInosawr, noun, huge extinct reptile of the Mesozoic epoch.

When you try to cut them they seem more like those from a DINOTHERE or DINOTHERIUM, brackets dInotheer or dInotheerium, noun, huge extinct elephant-like mammal.

In fact it is extremely hard to make a DINT, brackets dint, noun, dent, impression on a hard surface; or even a scratch in them.

At a nearby table you recognize a catering personality they call “The Bishop.” You have been told by the police that he is suspected of contaminating food in various restaurants. Although whether he has a connection with the killings is not clear. The reason he is called The Bishop is because he moves diagonally, in a similar way to the chess piece of the same name. A very tricky customer and one to be carefully watched. You wonder what sort of DIOCESAN, brackets dI-osizan, adjective, pertaining to a diocese; activities he is involved with at the moment.

You remember that this area is part of his DIOCESE, brackets dI-oseez, noun, area under a bishop’s jurisdiction. So you eavesdrop on the conversation between him and his female companion.

A DIODE, brackets dI-Od, noun, thermionic valve containing two electrodes, anode and cathode; is mentioned. The woman says something about RMS value and gas-filled dual electrode envelopes. From your supreme knowledge of electrical engineering you realize, of course, that she is talking about old-style large current rectifiers. The type that is still used in some old-style electrical devices.

The bishop asks her if she used a DIODONE, brackets dI-odOn, noun, medicine, complex preparation containing iodine, used for contrast radiography. You conclude the woman is a radiographer and she is using an old-style x-ray machine which has a power supply problem.

The waiter asks you if you enjoyed your meal and tells you the members of the dingle-dangle are still at the bar and they’re looking sick.

You ostentatiously join the bishop and the woman at their table with the intent of showing off your knowledge of x-ray machines but they quickly change the subject to biology, which makes you suspicious. The bishop has a large body wrapped in fat and small eyes like full stops. The woman is a dour brunette. The conversation turns to species which are DIOECIOUS, brackets dI-eeshus, adjective, botany, having male and female flowers on separate plants, zoology, unisexual, producing male and female gametes in separate animals.

You say that sounds like bollocks to you. Then you apologize for this outburst, blaming it on your mood which is DIONYSIAC or DIONYSIAN, brackets dI-onizi-ak or dI-onizi-an, adjective, pertaining to the Greek wine-god Dionysus or to his worship. The evidence for this can be smelt in the empty glass in your hand.

On the table, you notice a piece of DIOPSIDE, brackets dI-opsId, noun, mineralogy, calcium magnesium silicate, a type of pyroxene. It is a bright green crystalline solid.

Some of the dingle-dangle are now passing through the dining area to go to the toilet. They are coughing and seem to have difficulty breathing. A few look feverish and complain of pains in their arms and legs. You stare at them as a DIOPSIS, brackets dI-opsis, noun, zoology, insect whose eyes grow on stalks; might stare at them.

On closer inspection, you deduce that the green crystal on the table is actually DIOPTASE, brackets dI-optays, noun, an emerald green silicate of copper. It is found in the weathering zones of copper lodes and recently fossilised goats legs. Furthermore, the interstitial spaces between the hexagonal axes of its crystals are capable of absorbing microscopic particles, such as bacteria, and releasing them later under certain conditions. You knew all this from your early training in food technology. Although you didn’t know you knew until I told you. And you also remember the dingle-dangle were going to have goats legs as a snack at the bar and now they are getting sick. You wonder if there is a connection.

Pretending to be drunk, you lean forward so you can study the crystals in detail. You comment on the woman’s liquid dimples and ask if her name is Daphne du Maurier. The bishop glares at you and says you have the IQ of a DIOPTER, brackets dI-opter, noun, ancient form of theodolite.
 
You reply that you need new glasses. They are of a low DIOPTRE, brackets dI-opter, noun, optics, unit of power of a lens.

In fact the DIOPTRIC, brackets dI-optRik, noun, unit of power of a lens, dioptre; is so weak that you also need to go to the toilet.

On the way there you see a DIORAMA, brackets dI-oRaama, noun, views of scenery painted on translucent cloth, viewed through an opening, and animated by lighting effects. This stimulates you to reflect on what has happened so far.

You notice the wash basin is made out of DIORITE, brackets dI-oRIt, noun, a course grained igneous rock. Those green crystals are found in igneous rocks and so are recently fossilised goats legs. This confirms a link between the two. The question is why would a restaurant have a wash basin made out of Diorite? Unless they have an over-supply of it. Of course! They mine the stuff to get the green crystals out of it. They’d have tonnes of it simply lying around. Brilliant! You congratulate yourself. This restaurant must be the bishop’s headquarters. The next question is how do they get the bacteria inside the crystals.

You look at the next word, which is DIOXIDE, brackets dI-oksId, noun, chemistry, oxide formed by two equivalents of oxygen and one of metal. But Sulphur isn’t a metal so how do they explain Sulphur Dioxide? And Carbon isn’t either yet carbon dioxide is the most well-known dioxide there is. Although Carbon can behave as if it is a metal and carbon dioxide under high pressure can force things like bacteria cells anywhere, particularly into green crystals inside goats legs.

So it seems conceivable that the bishop and his friend have perfected a way of secreting bacteria into goats legs, using the green crystals as the carrier.

Now how do they release the bacteria at the right time to do the damage, which is when the goats legs are being eaten? If you can answer this question their little game will be over. But the chances of coming up with a solution would seem to be as slim as winning something valuable from a lucky DIP, brackets dip, present participle dipping, past tense and past participle dipped, verb transitive and intransitive, plunge rapidly into liquid and withdraw immediately, move rapidly down and up again, sink or drop suddenly, clean, dye, coat or make by plunging into liquid, slope down, geology, slope down at an angle to the horizontal. And after that long description, you feel as if you should give up.

Of course it is possible the problem is DIPARTITE, brackets dIpaartIt, adjective, divided into various parts. And it may have more than one solution. Actually, I don’t think so, and you agree with me.

On your way back from the toilet you pass a door leading to the back of the kitchen. You push it open and peer in. You can see a microwave oven and on a plate beside it, the remains of some goats legs. You can also see what looks like a home-made power module wired up to the oven with two large old-style thermionic valves mounted on the top of it. You have a flash of inspiration.

Obviously the oven has been fitted with a generator which is DIPHASE, brackets dIfayz, adjective, electricity, having two alternating currents whose phases differ by 90 electric degrees. Clearly, if a high power alternating current is passed through the goats legs and 90 degrees out of phase with the power which causes the heat, then the bones will crack, the crystals will shatter, and the bacteria will be released through the resulting fissures as soon as somebody starts eating them. Bingo! It’s simple.

The diode problem that the bishop’s woman had was not on an x-ray machine. It was on a microwave oven. And the Diodone she used had nothing to do with radiography. Being a preparation of Iodine, it kills bacteria. They probably use it as a safeguard in case their experiments get out of control. It all fits. To find the microwave oven was a sheer stroke of luck. It means you have indeed stumbled upon the bishop’s headquarters. Again you congratulate yourself.

You return to the dining area and notice one of the dingle-dangle prostrate on the floor. You examine him. He has a stiff greyish membrane across his gullet. Together with the other symptoms, this is conclusive evidence that the bacteria being used is DIPHTHERIA, brackets diftheeRi-a, noun, grave infectious disease of the membranes of the throat and air passages. He is dead.

You rush to the bar where you find two more of the dingle-dangle lying on the floor. On examination you find they are also dead and both have a similar membrane attached to their gullets. But three more are still standing. Why have some died and not others? And why are you still alive yourself? On making enquiries you discover all the members of the dingle-dangle have eaten recently fossilised goats legs. The only difference between them is that the three members still alive entered the restaurant after you.

You have another flash of inspiration. You remember the broken package which spattered fine white powder everywhere when the dingy crashed down beside you before you entered the restaurant. It must be the antitoxin. And it must have rubbed off onto you as you entered and it must have also rubbed off onto those members of the dingle-dangle who arrived later. That’s why all of you are still alive. After all, a bulk supply of the antitoxin would have to be kept somewhere.

You rush back to the dining room – alas too late. The bishop has vanished and the woman is lying on the floor. Examination shows that she is dead too, with similar symptoms.

The bishop must have known you were on to him. He panicked and killed his assistant to stop her from talking. The deaths of the dingle-dangle were incidental to his attempt to kill you; and now he has escaped. 

You look at the last word on the page of the dictionary for a clue to the bishop’s whereabouts. The word is DIPHTHONG, brackets difthong, noun, combination of two vowel sounds pronounced in one syllable. For instance “a” and “u” pronounced OR, as in Paul. Au is also the chemical symbol for gold. And “a” and “u” are phonetically equivalent to “Hey you” which is what everyone shouts when they want somebody. This could be it, you think. “a” and “u” pronounced OR, as in Paul. Au as the symbol for Gold. Eureka, you scream with delight. The bishop’s real name must be Paul Gold and his address can therefore be found on the net under the RESIDENTIAL tab of whitepages.com.au.

“That is an absolutely pathetic ending,” she snarled. She could feel her patience boiling into rage because the ending wasn’t satisfying enough to make the wait worthwhile.
“Hey, why have you changed the viewpoint and lurched into third person dialogue?”
“Because your story has closure and it is not necessary. I wanted to break your concentration so you could see that.” She stretched out in the airport seat and poked her tongue out at him.
“See what?”
“The last word ‘Diphthong’ does not have to give you a conclusion. The ‘two vowels in one syllable’ is a metaphor for two things being viewed as one. A mystery story and a writing lesson. So it doesn’t matter whether the bishop is found or not. He is just a construct. His sole purpose is to make the lesson work.”
“Oh how post-modernist and how self-referential.”
“Beginnings and endings do not reflect the art of a story, only the craft,” she said. And in her mind she added ‘you pompous ass’ with a hiss of venom. “So as a lesson in creativity, your whole story has failed. You have killed it.”
“That’s your opinion. And it’s wrong.”
“It’s not. An opinion is not right or wrong. It is just an opinion. And all knowledge is relative.”
“That’s rubbish. Anyway I win the bet. And you owe me a Penguin dictionary.”
“A dictionary is just a collection of opinions.”
“And you are just an opinion of a writer expressed in a story.”
“Then what are you?”
“Me? I am the omnipotent author.”

 

 

Harley Carter lives in Bendigo with his wife together with sundry animals - both tame and wild. He has been working in the writing game for more years than should be necessary and has written for radio, stage, television, film, magazines and newspapers. He has taught writing for councils, community institutions and TAFEs and has been a Writer In The Community for the Shire of Pakenham (Vic) and a Writer In Residence in Dandenong (Vic). He holds a graduate Diploma in Professional Writing from VUT. When he isn’t writing, doing compulsory chores or other jobs for survival money, he likes to read, converse, imbibe and make robots out of Meccano.

 

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TEXT
Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
http://www.textjournal.com.au
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo
Text@griffith.edu.au