Saturday rolled around and I realized that it was my turn to tell a tale. I knew exactly what I was going to talk about, and, in order to keep it a relative surprise for you, Dear Reader, I will not, as of now, make the reveal. I left my block Saturday afternoon, today holding my umbrella, for I no longer trusted the weather to stay constant, to go down to the Sub-Pope’s Flock and was almost knocked over by the obscenely strong wind. I looked across the courtyard and saw, coming out of the block across from me, The Writer, who did fall over from the wind. I waited for him to stand up and then called his name.
He looked across, waved, and walked over. “So,” he said, “little bit of a wind today, right?”
“You might say that,” I said. I buried myself as deep as I could into my pea coat, attempting to resemble a turtle.
We walked in silence towards the foot path, saw a rabbit thrown into the air by a gust of wind, and decided that we should take the bus.
The main frequenters of the bus were students in the daytime during weekdays, and chavs and generally drunk teens on the weekends. Today was no different, as we went to the bus stop and saw four guys in track suits drinking from bottles barely hidden in their pockets. They each had a very fake gold chain hanging from their neck and, when we walked over, they nodded to each other and stared at us.
“Fucking hell,” I said to The Writer. I glanced at him and noticed that he’d turned paler than I thought a person who wasn’t a corpse could manage. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle this.” I gave a brief head nod to one of the chavs. “Sup,” I said.
They continued looking at me without making a move. This was good enough for me, and I decided that it would be best if I just took a seat on the bench and waited for the bus to come. We didn’t have to wait long, as one just cleared the hill and turned into the stop. “What do we do?” asked The Writer.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The… individuals over there.”
“Don’t bother them, they won’t bother us. If they bother us, then we’ll worry about it.”
The bus pulled up, opened its doors, and we boarded. The chavs boarded. We took seats towards the back, they took the seats immediately behind us. If I didn’t know better, I would have said they were trying something. The bus started back down the hill. After a silent ride and a couple of stops, I hit the signal. We got off, and the chavs got off behind us. My adrenaline going—mostly amped up by The Writer, who had been whimpering for the entire ride down the hill—I spun around, held my umbrella like a rapier, and jabbed the closest chav in the stomach with the metal tip, saying, “Have at you, rogue!”
The man collapsed on the ground and the other two bent down to help him up. One of them, who was wearing a red tracksuit, said, “Oi mate, wha’d you go and do that for?”
“You were going to attack us, don’t think I don’t know.”
“Bollocks to that,” he said. “We was goin to grab a couple pints from the pub is all.” He nodded at the pub in front of which we were standing. “Mate, you need to work on your issues before you go and piss off the wrong man. Go on, Tim,” he said to the one on the ground, “get up and I’ll buy you a drink.”
As the three chavs limped into the pub, I turned to The Writer, and said, “You just had to start whimpering on the freakin bus, didn’t you?”
“I’m not the one who attacked an innocent man with an umbrella.”
“No, but you are the one who kept gently rocking back and forth, whimpering and muttering ‘I don’t want to be stabbed’ under his breath.”
The Writer stiffened. “No I didn’t.”
I grunted and walked towards the Westgate and towards the Sub-Pope’s Flock.
When we arrived, no surprise, The Stalker was already there. The Student, The Drunkard, and The Traveler were all at the bar, having been on the bus that left just before ours. We all got our drinks and joined The Stalker at the bar. “I feel,” said The Traveler, “that I should apologize for our trip to London.”
“Er?” I asked.
“I feel that the day could have been better spent elsewhere, and since I’m the one who suggested the National Gallery, I’m responsible for the events of the day.”
“Balls to that,” said The Drunkard. “I licked a Da Vinci. How many people can say that?”
“And I,” said The Writer, “got a valuable four hundred words written.”
I turned to The Writer. “We were there for two hours. You only got four hundred words written?”
“I—yes. How many can you get in two hours?”
“Anywhere from fifteen hundred to twenty-five hundred. The hell do you do with your time, Writer?”
He turned red in the face and sputtered for a second before The Student said, “And I didn’t get kicked out of the Gallery, which I consider an achievement.”
The Stalker slurped from his cider. We all turned to him, but he didn’t respond other than another loud slurp.
“I,” I said, “apparently joined some sort of secret organization.” I pointed to the banana button on my jacket.
“Yeah,” said The Traveler, “what’s up with that? Where did you go when we were getting into fights and arguments with guards in the Gallery?”
I shivered, remembering the men with bowler caps who apparently struggled with figuring out what life meant. “The only thing I remember clearly was an empty warehouse and a man giving me what he called an Erisian Apple.”
“Wait,” said The Stalker, slamming his cider down on the table and leaning forward. “What did the apple say?”
The Stalker burst into laughter. The strange thing was, his laugh was actually comforting. One of those full-body, deep, belly laughs. I expected a titter, maybe something high pitched, reminiscent of a cackle, but The Stalker’s laugh was the laugh of a normal, well-adjusted—though maybe a bit too enthusiastic—person. “You’re shitting me,” he said.
“Fraid not,” I responded.
“They thought you were me!”
“Er,” I remarked.
The Stalker continued laughing.
The Drunkard looked between us and took a drink from his whiskey. “You know,” he said, “you do look sort of alike. I mean, in a passing glance sort of way. Yeah, I think that if someone had a blurry enough photo of one of you, then the mistake could be made. I’ll be damned.”
“Hail hail hail hail hail, Eris Eris Eris Eris Eris,” said The Stalker, finally stopping his burst of merriment.
“That’s what the pensioner said.”
The Stalker nodded and grinned. “She’s probably a part of the same Cabal as the guy in the bowler cap.”
“So are you…?”
The Stalker nodded, took out his wallet, and brought out a laminated business card. It read, in part: “The bearer of this card is a genuine and authorized POPE; So please treat him good and right FOREVER.”
“Wait a second,” said The Student. He leaned back, threw his head back, and burst into laughter, and said, “The Principia Discordia!”
“That’s right!” said The Stalker. He held up his glass and said, “To Malaclypse The Younger!” Then he took a giant swig.
The Student took a drink from his own glass and laughed some more. “I haven’t read that thing in years.”
“Still good enough to be a POEE Priest! Welcome to the CABAL, man.”
The two clinked their glasses together and said the “Hail Eris” thing, clinked their glasses together, said it again, clinked, and said it a last time before draining their glasses.
The rest of us at the table exchanged profoundly confused looks. “Any idea?” I asked.
“None at all,” said The Traveler.
“Barman!” shouted The Student. “Another round for the POEE POPE and I! There’s a fiver in it for you if you bring em here so we don’t trip over ourselves coming up there.”
In another moment, The Stalker had another cider, and The Student had another ale, and the bartender had a fiver in his pocket. “So,” I said, “you mind telling us what’s going on with this stuff?”
“You’ll have to read it,” said The Stalker.
“You’ll thank us when you do,” said The Student.
“Noted,” said The Traveler. He then clapped his hands together, rubbed them, and pointed at me. “Your go, Narrator.”
I took a drink and cleared my throat. “Now, necessarily, words may fail me when I tell this tale, and for that, I apologize in advance. I begin, though, with an invocation.”
“Jesus Christ,” said The Drunkard, “are you serious?”
I shot him the best approximation of what I thought would be a chilling glare. “Quite.” I cleared my throat again. “O God of Alcohol! Great thou art in thine wisdom and ability to unhinge the tongue—”
“That’s what she said,” said The Drunkard.
“Hey. Knock, knock,” I said.
“Go fuck yourself.” I cleared my throat again—it was starting to get raw. “I ask thee now for thine guidance and mercy. Allow this in front of me to let the flow of words proceed unhindered, like a roaring tide; let them not trip over each other in the influence of too relaxed a tongue, but work together in the sense of something that works together really well. Amen,” I finished the invocation with a sip of the ale in front of me.
“Now that that’s out of the way,” I said, “I shall tell you a tale the likes of which we have not yet heard. So far, we have had tales of bloodshed, heartbreak, er, racism, drunkenness, and shit-flinging; today, we shall explore the more fantastic, the less concrete. We shall dip into realms that, so far, none of us have wanted to talk about. The ream of What-If.
“Perhaps you all know of the trope in murder mysteries, or ghost stories, of a picture whose eyes follow a passer-by. Well, I posit to you the question: What if it were not just the eyes that followed the passer-by, but the entire world of the picture? What if someone were sucked in by a picture, not in the figurative, but in the literal sense?”