Stephen McQuiggan

Stephen McQuiggan was the original author of the bible; he vowed never to write again after the publishers removed the dinosaurs and the spectacular alien abduction ending from the final edit. His other, lesser known, novels are A Pig’s View Of Heaven and Trip A Dwarf.

TALL PAUL KNOWS IT ALL.

Paul Aster viewed himself as a well read, well travelled, man of the world and as such felt it incumbent upon himself to offer up his vast knowledge on all subjects, in the form of advice, to everyone he met – whether he knew them or not, or whether they asked for it or not. Despite never having looked at a book since his schooldays (he left with no qualifications and fewer friends), nor ever having left his hometown (not even for a daytrip to the seaside), Paul felt it was his duty to pass on his self proclaimed wisdom at every opportunity.

He was known as The Oracle to his neighbours, a moniker they gleefully called him to his face, but that didn’t bother him for he didn’t know the meaning of the word and was startlingly immune to sarcasm. Everyone else called him Tall Paul, which did irk him – Paul had to stand on his tip-toes to make five feet and was terribly, for one so worldly and wise, insecure about his height.

On the whole, people tended to view his advice as a form of one-upmanship and shun him whenever possible as a despicable blowhard, a boaster, a know-all who knew nothing. It was often noted that if you said you’d been to Tenerife Paul would say he’d been to Elevenerife; that if you informed him you’d once hammered a nail into the moon Paul would promptly reply that he’d hung his coat upon it.

When Tall Paul sauntered into his local pub of a weekend it had the similar effect of a police raid. He could clear a table just by making eye contact with a phalanx of hitherto merry carousers. Only strangers, oblivious to The Oracle amongst them, failed to flee at the chill touch of his overbearing shadow.

Paul liked nothing more than a new face – it meant at least a decent half hour of charitable advice giving – which was why, standing with his back against the wall so as not to be crushed by the rushing throng of sudden departees from The Donkey’s Hind Leg, he smiled when he saw the solitary punter by the bar sipping a whiskey like a man with nothing to do, and all the time in the world to do it in.

He spotted Gravy McNeill over by the fruit machines and was caught in two minds whether to approach him first, but opted for the stranger instead. It was always satisfying to lurk over Gravy’s shoulder, tell him what to hold, when to nudge, and to relate horror stories of gambling addiction, but Gravy would only withstand this for a few minutes before packing up for pastures new. The stranger, however, promised an untold time-frame in which Paul could instruct him.

Paul took a deep breath and ambled over, rehearsing tried and tested opening gambits, his eyes resting on the stranger’s whiskey. He grinned – he had a lot to impart on the amateurish vogue for putting ice in whiskey.

‘You’re ruining your beverage with that,’ he said nonchalantly, plonking himself down on the stool next to the stranger. ‘A rookie mistake, putting ice in a single malt. The ancient kings of Scotland used to –’

‘I like ice,’ the stranger said, turning to Paul; his eyes looked colder than the cubes floating in his glass.

‘Well.’ Paul said, trying to regain his composure, ‘that’s really neither here nor there. The point is –’

‘I have a great thirst,’ the stranger butted in once more, ‘and ice is still something of a novelty to me.’ He held out a hand. ‘My name is Stanford and I have travelled far. To meet one as knowledgeable as you is more satisfying than any manmade elixir.’

Stanford smiled, each tooth glistening with a patina of saliva, and Paul shook his hand, blushing with the flattery.

‘You have a limp shake,’ Stanford said, draining his whiskey. ‘I like that … a man who is all about the mind has no time for physical labour.’

‘My name’s Paul, Mr Stanford, and it is a joy to meet one so open-minded. I fear I’m not overly appreciated in these climes.’

‘They all think you’re a pain in the arse, eh? Tall Paul knows it all.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t go that far,’ Paul spluttered, uncertain what aggrieved him more – the blatant assertion of his secret fears, or how this stranger knew his dreaded nickname. ‘You should really use your mat when placing your glass back on the bar.’ Paul puffed out his chest, adopting what he hoped would be a professorial air. ‘The entire bar is made from teak, see, salvaged from the Olympic, the sister-ship of the Titanic.’

Stanford ran his fingers across the polished wood and raised his thin eyebrows. ‘That so? Feels like cheap veneer to me.’

‘A common mistake to a common eye,’ Paul said, warming to his theme. ‘The Olympic went down in the twenties, all hands on board, some two thousand souls, but never received the coverage of her more illustrious sibling.’

Paul had no idea if anything that was currently coming out of his mouth was true, but that didn’t faze him – it had the ring of truth. His goal was to convey learning, not to get bogged down with facts.

‘I think you may be mistaken,’ Stanford said, ordering another whiskey with a wave of his pale hand.

‘I’ve studied it minutely and know the subject inside out. Are you some kind of nautical expert yourself?’

‘No,’ Stanford conceded, ‘but I know a thing or two about souls. I’d remember such a glut that ran into thousands.’

Paul watched the stranger cross his legs as he sat back on his stool and decided to steer the subject back to safer ground. ‘You really shouldn’t do that you know,’ he said, venturing to touch Stanford’s knee (it was so cold, even through the fabric), ‘it plays havoc with the circulation. Humans were simply not engineered to cross their legs. You talk about souls, but there’s no empirical proof of such a thing – are you a preacher by any chance?’

Stanford laughed. ‘That’s one fault that can’t be laid at my door. No, I’m merely an observer, if anything.’

‘So, what is your profession?’

‘Can’t you tell, a smart cookie like yourself?’

‘You’re obviously a worldly man.’

‘Indeed, I’ve travelled around it countless times, observing at my leisure. I was locked away for a time, then set free to roam its borders, my tallest of Pauls!’

Paul ignored the height jibe, and even the confession of criminality (he could always come back to it – he had a wealth of interesting facts regarding incarceration), so eager was he to pounce on the stranger’s blatant error. Paul laughed wryly and shook his head in a pitying manner, tutting sadly as he did so.

Stanford smiled. ‘What’s wrong, my little friend?’

‘You said you’ve been around the world,’ Paul said slowly, as if speaking to an imbecile. The barman, well aware where Paul was driving the conversation (for he’d been a passenger himself on more than one occasion) took himself quickly out of earshot. ‘Around.’

‘That’s right.’

‘I’m afraid it’s not. You see, you may well have travelled across the world but you certainly haven’t been around it. The Earth is flat, Mr Stanford, demonstrably so. It’s a proven fact.’

‘You don’t say?’ Stanford leaned back on his stool and took another hit of whiskey, looking every inch a man enthralled. ‘And how did you come to possess such arcane lore? You must admit that the majority of the world’s population still labour under the belief that the planet they stand on is as round as an orange.’

‘Unfortunately, that’s all too true,’ Paul said sadly, though inside his nerves thrummed ecstatically at finding such an open-minded audience.

‘Perhaps you have access to occult scrolls, the apocrypha of the Ancients, or secret government files cataloguing the depths of this deception?’

Paul moved closer, wincing a little at the smoky odour (he’d have to remind Stanford at some point of the latest carcinogenic content of cigarettes) emanating from the stranger, and whispered in a low, grave tone, ‘Online.’ He tapped the side of his nose and winked. ‘The internet is a treasure trove of such truths if you know where to look.’

‘I’m a big fan of social media,’ Stanford said. ‘You could even say I invented it. I endorse it wholeheartedly, but how can you be sure that what you’re reading isn’t…bullshit.’

‘There are many pitfalls,’ Paul conceded, ‘yet the discerning mind can always separate the wheat from the chaff as it were. I can sniff out what those in charge wish to remain hidden – it’s a sixth sense almost. I have access to,’ and here Paul’s voice became decidedly ominous, ‘the dark web.’

‘I admire your dedication to research. Do you know about the…’ Stanford wiggled his eyebrows and shot Paul a knowing look. ‘Of course you do. Enough said.’

‘Know about what?’

Stanford waved his hands apologetically. ‘Exactly. My mistake for bringing it up in such a…’ he eyed the empty bar without a hint of irony, ‘public place.’

‘Quite right,’ Paul nodded sagely, ‘but just to make sure we’re on the same page, what is it you were mistaken in mentioning?’

The stranger performed an elaborate mime that culminated in him feigning a violent death and left Paul none the wiser.

‘Ahh,’ he said, hoping that Stanford would think him enigmatic, ‘that reminds me of quite a few things, highly classified you understand, that I’m privy to – could you be more specific?’

‘The poison in the food supply,’ Stanford said, loud enough to make the barman look over.

‘Shh!’ Paul chided, trying to bide time to fake some expertise on the subject. Stanford laughed in his face – his breath was acrid, sulphuric (didn’t he know about the high cholesterol in eggs?); it smelt like he’d already been gorging himself on a poisoned food supply.

‘I have relatives in Parliament, the White House,’ Stanford said in an exaggerated whisper. ‘I have friends in all the power structures of the Western World and they all tell me that, as I’m sure you already know, those in high places are planning to trim the global population by polluting the food chain.’

‘I thought it was through vaccination.’

Stanford took another shot of whiskey and ignored him. ‘It’s why dementia and autism are off the scales, but you knew that already too.’

Paul rubbed his chin and sighed. ‘I’ve been telling people that for years but they won’t listen.’

‘People don’t like advice,’ the stranger tapped his glass with one long, meticulously clean fingernail, ‘especially if it’s for their own good. You, being a high-minded individual, would be open to some life saving advice if I were to give it to you?’

Paul puffed out his chest with pigeon pride (if only there were more people in the bar to hear this fulsome praise) and gazed over at the barman to see if he was listening, but he looked as busy, and as vacant, as ever.

‘Well, I probably know what you’re about to say,’ Paul ventured – it would be easy to jump aboard the stranger’s instructions and claim he followed them diligently anyway, but he would have to play it carefully. He sensed that he was finally close to learning something he had never known before – the friendship of another human being.

‘Oh, I don’t think you do,’ Stanford said. ‘In fact, you told me as much yourself.’

Paul blinked, running over the topics he had touched upon since arriving in the bar

The stranger rattled his glass and said in a sing-song voice, ‘The secret is the ice.’ He drew the last word out in a sibilant hiss.

Paul blew out his cheeks, disappointed at the prosaic nature of the revelation and also, if what the stranger said were true, frustration at how he could backtrack effectively. He had been warning all and sundry about the dangers of ice for as long as he could remember; it was one of his favourite conversation starters.

‘But everyone knows the impurities of ice –’

‘Because the media have fed them, along with their poison, that treacherous lie – they poisoned the information supply too, you see? Ice dilutes their toxins, renders them null and void. Unfortunately their campaign has been so successful they have managed to hoodwink even a switched on guy like your good self.’

Paul stood, speechless at the notion that anyone could think that he – the man who knew who really shot JFK, and where Elvis now lived – was a dupe, whilst simultaneously buzzing from finally being recognised as ‘switched on’.

‘You look like you could use a drink.’ Stanford motioned the barman over. When the barman hovered with the tongs over the ice bucket, Paul nodded, his face glowing before he had even tasted his drink. Stanford clinked his glass against Paul’s and watched as he drained it.

As Paul put his glass back on the bar (making sure it sat squarely on the mat provided) he felt something catch in his throat. He coughed, but that only made the obstruction wedge itself in more firmly. His embarrassment quickly gave way to ragged fear. As he clutched at his hacking throat, his protruding eyes searched for the barman (but, having overheard the talk turn to global conspiracies, he had sought sanctuary in the cellar), roved the deserted bar, before they finally rested upon the stranger’s face.

Blood vessels must have popped in his retinas for, as Paul gazed imploringly into Stanford’s grinning (and oh so wicked) face, it seemed to be scarlet and smoking.

‘For one who knows everything,’ Stanford said, rising and putting on his coat, ‘you seem to have forgotten the advice you learnt at your mother’s knee.’ He patted Paul on the back, causing the ice cube to root itself intractably in his gullet. ‘Never talk to strangers.’

As the final breath left him the darkness rushed in – a darkness, Paul realised with bowel loosening incredulity, he knew absolutely nothing about.

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