The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2014 Results


Copyright © Ian Ward 2014

Somewhere along the line, which is the line running southeast and then south of Melbourne through the string of towns along the coast, and the road parallel to it, that truncate the towns, trepan or execute them almost, cutting each head effectively off the neck, financially and socially, so that real estate on the bay side of the road commands several thousand dollars per square meter more than the housing less than twenty paces to the east across the tracks in the swollen estates beyond, the train stops. When the doors open, accompanied by a series of high-pitched beeps, and people get on, or off, but not both except in occasional moments of indecision, more often than you might expect, the express service is not clearly distinguished from the local train so that there is a real risk, especially for people who have been caught out in this way, foreigners and migrants mainly, of getting on the wrong train and forever afterwards being unsure which train they are on and consequently where to get off, but by the time the trains reach Mordialloc, basically, this problem is not so acute, since all trains stop at every station from then on, all the way to Frankston, mostly people get on or off with relative certainty. Which was, I think, the case on the day in question. The doors close, though with a different series of beeps, all these beeps usually with the blind or partially-sighted in mind, a generous thought on the part of the manufacturer or more likely not generous but then, in keeping with certain guidelines laid down by governments concerned to appear, and in small things generally appearing, solicitous of the welfare of minorities, a situation which is not easy to explain and which will not be explained here because the behaviour of the institutions and corporations that effectively rule every life is just too complicated to deal with, similarly the question of the distress caused to other persons in danger of going deaf or becoming overly sensitive to high-pitched noises, a perhaps less vociferous minority, figuratively speaking. Passengers stand around in the open areas around the doors; if there are seats – the kind of utilitarian seating, with middling amounts of padding reminiscent, though I haven’t actually been there, of the hard and soft seating on Chinese trains, even in the early days of the Communist society you got what you paid for, unless you looked very obviously like you were the sort of person who couldn’t afford a soft seat and so where did you get the money and so on – some people sit down, unless they especially want to stand, which again happens, say if they have been sitting down all day, except in this case the early morning, or if like my sons they want to do pull-ups on the straps that dangle from the ceilings and the bars which people are encouraged to hold onto if the train stops suddenly, although I notice this eventuality is not compared to say on the trams in the inner city where the chances of sudden stops are more so often adverted to. Some of the standing passengers, and a few seated ones, including myself, those not sufficiently wrapped up in listening to headphones or peering at a mobile phone of the type I can’t afford, though it seems that other people who look as if they can’t afford one always somehow seem to manage, perhaps analogous to the Chinese peasants in the soft seat department, notice, through a process of growing inferences from certain unusual movements and glances among the other standing passengers, the process no doubt informed by an almost atavistic and hence probably subliminal awareness going way back to a time before humans could even communicate except by gestures, that a spider has got on the train.

Which would all be well and good if humans had enough of a grasp of or were otherwise in touch with different kinds of animal life, especially among the lepidoptera and other orders or phyla that I personally am not familiar with and, seeing myself as reasonably representative of normal persons, infer as its being the case among others that they don’t know either, when confronted or maybe not confronted, the spider was simply there, distinctly non-confrontational, what kind of creature they are dealing with, but in this case assume, through a similarly amorphous process of growing certainty, among a certainly random group of humans brought together for no obvious reason and thus probably for no reason at all, which the implications are perhaps beneficial for the behaviour of humanity as a whole in the face of looming disasters on a much greater scale but in this instance is beginning to look bad for the spider, something should be done about it, regardless of what kind of spider it was, unless some thoughtful person could raise their voice to ask, much in the same manner you get a fellow-passenger beginning to look uncomfortable for health reasons and another individual, usually brought up to be concerned for the welfare of others, might stand up and shout, Is there an entomologist on the train? Which he does not. My own feeling, in fact, as my sons will tell you, that, and this is something they have difficulty in accepting, spiders deserve, if not reverence, at least a degree of attention and respect and to be left alone that, frankly, they regard as bordering on superstition; and if asked why I think this, I have no real answer; suffice it that if a spider is found in the house, and currently there is a slight dilemma in this regard in that, in order to get my bond back prior to leaving the current rental property, all mould, detritus, cobwebs etc, and most especially cobwebs, shall be removed, which near the laundry ceiling is a problem given the presence, surrounded by large drapes of web and hundreds of smaller dark specks, mostly mobile, presumably its progeny, of a Badumna Insignis, or Black House spider (thank you Google), which, even if its name suggests that it may not be dangerous, certainly looks it but that is not the issue – I can’t simply eject it; physically, of course, I could, a jam-jar is usually around somewhere in the kitchen, but morally, that strange power which can and often does stay the upraised hand, does.

Among the passengers standing and sitting in this portion of the train carriage near the door who most if not all have become aware that by now there is an issue; which as with most issues means a level of indecision, a conflict between two impulses, dignified in the psychological manuals as the fight or flight imperative, to which a great deal of attention has been paid in regards to whether humans in any given situation will do what. Less ink, however, has been spilled in examining the middle ground where they cannot decide which course to follow, where self-interest or some other form of blinker prevents a rabbit in the way of approaching headlights from moving out of, though this might be called paralysis rather than ratiocination – indeed it would be difficult to analyse, strictly, whether indecision is a thought process, the absurdly high number of actual computations that occur in the cerebellum during even the simplest operation, but also you get the intriguing possibility that for computer scientists to create a genuine humanoid robot they would also have to make it capable of being in doubt; which no doubt some robots often are, or seem to be, but usually because their computational power is as yet too small to be able to handle, they continue to butt against the corners of a room which they are not yet able to navigate their way out of or otherwise resign themselves to; at any rate, there also almost seems to be another set of forces – I don’t know what else to call them – at play among groups of humans, once again harking back to the extremely remote past and to a need for security that is largely unconscious but no less powerful and, it has to be said, easily manipulable by demagogues, xenophobes etc, in which people trying to decide whether or not some concerted form of action is either possible or desirable for the group in the face of the given threat, when that threat is more often than not more imagined than real, as in the present instance. Without any prejudice being intended it has to be said that among those passengers who are female the feeling predominates that something very horrible is about to occur, or could occur or almost certainly will occur, this being yet another atavistic response, as in the well-known aversion among women to mice with their penchant for scurrying into crevices and other dark areas, though the fear of spiders would seem to have a different origin but to create a no less unreasoning trepidation, curious given the image often associated with women from their having certain affinities with activities involving spinning. But at this moment increasingly among the men too. Particularly as the spider makes a number of tentative movements in the centre of the standing area indicative of an uncertainty which, on the whole, one does not associate with the lower insects and thus which has to be not uncertainty at all but simply a computational process designed to maximise its own preservation and not, even less, a reaction to the reactions of the humans around it since that would imply, again, a degree of sensitivity which spiders cannot be assumed to have, the humans observe more with growing degrees of mostly apprehension or in a few cases feigned indifference, depending largely on their distance from the spider, or in my case a kind of sympathetic fascination stemming when I was a kid from being surrounded by legs. And then at some point, and this is the point, there wasn’t any real point, no observable instant separable from the infinite number of points in time leading up to it and hence more of a hiatus in time, when it all seemed to stop, as it were, like when some object which you barely have time to notice hits your head and you flinch but it seems almost as though before it hit you the reaction had come automatically before the perception of events as the series leading to the impact, which is yet another self-defence mechanism for humans, one of the larger male passengers standing in the area designated for standing, who may have been wearing a suit, somebody managerial, somebody trained or born to take the lead, assuming charitably that he regards this situation as one in which managerial qualities of leadership and determination rather than brute force are called for, nonetheless stepping towards the spider – indeed, his very proximity to the spider may have been a factor, or perhaps for the, to him, obvious reason that today this is just another thing going wrong for him – raising one of his fashionable shoes over the spider and, in what might be described as an instinctive gesture, were humans any longer to be credited with such an otherwise noble thing, akin to saving babies in front of buses and thereby sacrificing one’s own life and other such philosophical niceties in the face of wildlife which have otherwise been entirely subjugated but which I could not help but feel was both undeserved and unnecessary, put his foot down.

These days I no longer take the train, not because of the high-pitched beeping but because the job I used to go to no longer exists, which was in the warehouse of a book wholesaler, the robots took over, in a part of the gradual process of automatisation of physical labour and mental labour that no doubt is inevitable much as the coming of the trains was; all I have are some fond memories of the commute and some not so fond, including the few seconds after the managerial type of man directed approximately half his bodyweight downwards on top of a spider and then, with a shuffling motion indicative for the first time of something less than instinctive certainty, suggesting a small but noticeable breakdown of the atavistic imperatives that had governed him up till that time, and which imply also both a possible openness to other impulses more civilised – is that the word I am looking for? – and a gradual cracking of the same veneer, shaking his foot a little – a weird, almost humble gesture in a man to whom humility obviously does not come easily but who accedes to the impulse so as to disclaim any credit for his action, shaking off with the same movement any vestige of spider as if, similarly, to deny to whomever he presumes might both be looking and pretending not to look, neither approving nor indifferent, that any material such as deceased arachnid body-parts can possibly adhere to him in the manner of certain industrial adhesives or confectionery or mud; and yet, no doubt unwittingly, overall giving the impression of a man for whom a few drops of urine have gone down his trouser leg; this impression not communicating itself to him, at least not immediately, but perhaps at some level because of his next impulse, reverting to type, which is to move away from the spot back to where he had been, which was only one pace away, all this while still torn, seemingly, since only micro-expressions could have conveyed it with any certainty, between an awareness of his action in crushing the spider and the wish to pretend that it has never happened, that if he was the one who killed it he did so as a matter of course, motivated by and for the random grouping of humans in that part of the train that morning, not as being the one most concerned for their safety, rather because it had to be done, somebody had to do it, to stand up against spiders; but in doing so, in regaining his former position raising his foot slightly away from the place where the spider was, the place defined by where the spider had been but which even I, at the distance I am and looking at a green and dun coloured motley speckled kind of flooring designed specifically not to look as dirty as the volume of daily traffic would lead one almost certainly to think, can see is not the place any longer because there is no spider, it is not there, that it must indeed be adhering, with a tenacity greater than when it was living, to the sole of his shoe - from where its body will be ground down, as completely, during his perambulations, as if had never woken up, into ever smaller fragments, like ash scattered over the city, from its web of dreams.