The Tragedy of Perception

The mouth of a volcano

In which Roland is so affronted by the mouth of a volcano, he disrobes to prove he has a brain of his own.

Back in the living room, Sally Softly still lay on the sofa beneath Roland Wise. Roland toiled away and she was thinking they still had another two positions to get through and wondered what was taking him so long, when the front doorbell rang.

Roland sighed, then quickly got up off her.

As Sally heard his sigh, it sounded to her like a sigh of relief. She looked up at Roland’s face to confirm this, and there it was—relief!

She got to her feet (Right—so he finds me so ugly, he can’t wait to get off me, does he?). She again imagined Roland and herself going through those three different positions in several rooms, but this time they did each position in two minutes, then moved on to the next. And in each room, there was a large stopwatch with two huge bells, and her one hand hovered over the watch, eager to re‑start it for the next position, while her other hand slapped Roland’s buttocks as a jockey’s whip tickles a horse’s behind—Faster, faster—and Roland was quivering as if about to collapse (—He wants to have a laugh on the golf course about me, does he?—well, let’s see him laugh about that).

With her smirk having triumphantly returned, she looked down, pulled her tracksuit this way and that, could not get it right, shrugged, left it as it was and went to answer the front door.

Roland stood beside the sofa, tugging at his chief‑constable’s uniform in a panic, attempting to push his shirt‑tails back into his trousers, zip up his flies, button his shirt and straighten his tie—all at the same time.

He noticed his uniform’s hat lying on the floor beside the sofa and realized Sally must have put her foot on it as she stood up, crushing its rim—almost as if in disrespect of the constabulary. He gasped in amazement, picked up the hat, and was about to straighten the rim when it popped back up of its own accord—as if the hat were inherently blind to any possible criticism of Roland’s superb constabulary.

He smoothed his hair into place, replaced his hat, then pricked up his ears—in the manner of an alert hunting dog—at the muffled talk coming from the front door. He realized he had a moment to himself, so he quickly sat on the front edge of the sofa—beside the place where Sally’s hips had been—and caressed the cushion for as long as he dared. He sighed, looked under the cushion, then replaced it and tapped it several times while reflecting that there did not seem to be anything criminal‑looking there (—No, no, it all seems perfectly legal to me). He nodded his approval at the law‑abiding cushion, then sat back down in the easy chair he occupied before mounting Sally.

Sally returned with a woman and two men (one of whom—Roland noticed—was limping). She introduced them as The Perception Residents’ Committee. Sally sat in the other easy chair and the committee sat along the sofa, further introducing themselves as Primrose Jones, Thomas Smithe, and Francis Meeke.

The woman clutched a thick wad of paper in (what could only be described as) a vindictive fashion. She eyed Roland while waving this wad of paper to and fro on her lap as if it were a hatchet she were contemplating using on him. Her knuckles whitened and her weapon seemed to start fidgeting as if it had a mind of its own and were desperately trying to get at Roland. She then lost control of it and started waving it at Roland, saying, “What do you think you’re doing—sitting around here when there’s a murderer still loose out there; or haven’t you noticed? No, I don’t suppose you would have. All you can do is sit around here contemplating ‘novel’ uses for your truncheon. Oh yes, I know all about that. Just what do you think you’re doing?—what? come on, what?”

Roland opened his mouth to speak but Primrose pressed on, “Five weeks, you’ve had; five weeks, and all you’ve got is a woman—a middle‑aged, blonde woman. A woman; you’re looking for a woman. Simpletons, that’s what you are. What have you been doing all this time? Come on, what? what?”

Roland opened his mouth to answer but she cut him off again, “Incompetence; that’s what it is. We’ve got a petition—a petition—” waving her weapon at him even more vigorously, “Everybody thinks the same—incompetent; you’re all incompetent.”

Roland rose in his seat, puffed up his plumage and shouted back at her, “Oh, of course—you can do better—with no training at all. All the rigorous training we’ve had (fifty‑seven novels; fifty‑seven!), and we can’t do a thing—oh no. But here’s you—Miss Volcano‑gob—and you can do it all.”

“Ridiculous!”

“Of course it is, of course. Sack the lot of them; that’s what I say; let Miss Volcano‑gob have a go!”

Primrose’s mouth hung open.

Thomas said, “She was gangbanged, you know.”

Primrose’s mouth closed. As the others looked on, she appeared to be standing on a boat whose sails had collapsed about her. In the next instant, they could almost visibly see her fumbling about on the deck, trying to re‑erect its defective sails. Sally and Francis looked on with their brows knitting frenziedly while Roland’s mouth—like the movement of a shark’s fin gliding eagerly through the water—slowly formed into an ever bigger smirk at the sight of her difficulty.

She got her boat’s sails back up again and resumed her attack, waving her weapon at Roland even more ferociously, “Five thousand names. They all agree, five thousand!—you’re all incompetent. So, just what are you doing about this?—five weeks, you’ve had—five weeks, and there’s still a mass murderer loose.”

Roland puffed up his plumage again, opened his mouth and was about to respond when Thomas said, “She was married to a mass murderer—or so they said.”

Primrose turned to Thomas and snapped, “What do you think you’re doing?”

Thomas snapped back at Primrose, “Her!”

Francis shouted, “What—?”

Thomas shouted, “Her! her!—who do you think I mean?”

Primrose shouted, “What—?”

Thomas said, as if to no‑one in particular, “—Doesn’t know what she’s saying; she’ll say anything—she’ll even say she fancies cripples—” he looked round at everyone, his facial expression instructing them about just how disgusting this was, “—cripples!—you can’t believe a thing. And she even thinks she’s a bat—ha! what did I tell you?—a bat!”

Francis shouted, “What is this?”

Thomas said, “Then they even put her in a loony bin; they had to, for ranting all that rubbish.” He shouted, “It’s rubbish, all of it; you can’t believe a thing she says.”

Primrose and Francis gaped at him while Roland continued watching Primrose, but now with his head swaying from side to side as if under the weight of his own smug smile—which now resembled the smile of a shark who was trailing a floating meat‑factory, its tail joyously swishing from side to side.

Thomas said, with an apparent sparkle of glee in his eye, “And he was neutered—like a dog! Her boy—” his face then screwed up as if his words were a bitter‑tasting substance he was spitting out, “—her dear little boy.”

Francis shouted, “What is this? what’s going on?”

Thomas shouted, his face still spitting out that bitter taste, “Peter—who do you think—Peter. His boy—his and hers,” and by now he seemed to have expelled the bitter taste and continued, almost with a smile, “—Taken away and neutered—like a dog, just like a dog!”

Primrose shouted, “What do you think you’re doing?”

Thomas looked round at everyone, shouting at them, “It’s all rubbish—all of it; you can’t believe a word.”

By this time Sally had become diverted from her own turmoil by the fascinating idea that this man on the sofa—Thomas—could be Peter’s half‑brother.

The only thing she could recall Peter saying about his past was that he was an orphan. And Thomas’s half-brother had the same name as her Peter. And also, Peter’s age would be about right. Though—she had to admit—she could see no resemblance between the features of Peter and Thomas, no matter how hard she scrutinized Thomas’s face. So, she had no idea why she suspected them half‑brothers; she only knew she did, and it was therefore probably true—and that was good enough for her. She leant forward in her chair and started questioning Thomas about this half‑brother of his.

Meanwhile Primrose resumed her attack on Roland, “They all want to know, everyone—five thousand. Now, you’re the chief constable; what are you doing about it?”

He sat back in a leisurely fashion—his plumage now having settled back down—smiled smugly and told her, “Ah, but I’m not.”

“Not what?”

“The chief constable.”

“You’re not—?”

“No.” He casually glanced down at his watch, said, “I stopped being the chief constable—” and he leisurely examined his watch for a moment, then looked back up with an even bigger smug smile and told her, “—forty‑five minutes ago.”

“What?”

“I’m off duty!”

Primrose shouted, “What—? How can you sit there—still in your uniform—and say that? It’s your duty, your duty.” She pointed to his uniform, “—Look, look; you’re wearing it—that’s you; you are the chief constable.”

Roland sat forward in his chair, puffed up his plumage again and said, “It’s only a uniform, you know; I have got a brain as well.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Absurd, is it? absurd?” He stood up, “Right,” and pulled off his jacket, held it between thumb and forefinger, shouted, “Whoops,” and dropped it theatrically to the floor, saying, “There goes my brain; drop it to the floor; we won’t be needing that any more, will we? Oh no.” He then tugged his trousers off over his shoes, held them out at arm’s length, shouted, “Whoops,” and released his trousers to the floor, saying, “Oh dear me; there goes another bit of my brain. Drop that to the floor as well—you’re not on duty now, Roland, you won’t be needing your brain any more, will you? Oh no.”

He returned to his easy chair, wearing only his shirt, underwear, shoes and hat—which he seemed to have forgotten to take off. He folded his arms, resumed his smug smile and beamed this at Primrose.

Primrose waved her weapon even more frantically at him and shouted, “Five thousand signatures—you can’t get out of it this easily—five thousand.”

Roland shouted, “What are you looking at me for?—he’s down there—” pointing to the floor, “—down there.”

She shouted, “Five thousand, five!”

He pointed her to his uniform, “Down there—” pointing vigorously with his whole arm, “—he’s down there.” He then looked away, firmly folded his arms and crossed his bare legs.

Meanwhile Sally had finished her initial questioning of Thomas and was becoming more diverted by this fascinating idea—which seemed more convincing the more she “scientifically examined the facts”. That is, the more she looked at Thomas’s face and saw everything she wanted to know, written all over it.

She smiled broadly to herself, tapped the arm of her chair conclusively, then adopted a grimace that resembled a stick‑on photo of a smile while her face appeared to be straining with the effort of holding the photo in place. And at the same time, she widened her eyes as if she were sitting on a pin but could not possibly break with decorum and reveal her pain to anyone. She turned to Primrose, beamed this stick‑on smile at her and politely asked, “Now, would you like tea… or coffee?” beam, beam.

Primrose shouted, “What—?”

Sally politely repeated, “Tea… or coffee?”

Primrose gaped at her for a moment, then said, begrudgingly, “Coffee… please.”

Sally took similar orders from Francis and Thomas, then walked to the kitchen.

Roland watched the backs of her tracksuited legs as she left, sighed deeply, tapped his fingers several times on the arm of his chair, then looked closely at the arm, reflecting that there was definitely nothing criminal‑looking there (—No, no, nothing at all; damned if I can see a thing). He got up—leaving his uniform heaped on the floor beside his chair, but apparently unaware he was still wearing his hat—and headed for the kitchen, waving his arm dismissively over his shoulder at Primrose Jones and shouting, “Sack the lot of them; oh yes, let’s do that—Miss Volcano‑gob wants to have a go!”

Primrose glared after him and her head began trembling on her shoulders. She viciously watched the living‑room door, as if by merely staring at the door Roland had passed through, she could inflict some terrible injury on him. And as she watched the door, her head began quivering alarmingly and the occasional spray of venom escaped from between her whitened lips.

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