This is the Message Centre for Mrs Zen

The Never-Starting Story

Post 1


There is an apparition on the doorstep.

"You're a seal", says Ben, wondering why she isn't entirely surprised.

"THE seal", replies Pinniped evenly. The apparition looks remarkably authentic. Grey blotches, soulful black eyes, bristling whiskers. Come to think of it, it smells pretty authentic too.

Ben prides herself on her sharpness. This clearly can't be Real Life. Nonetheless, everything appears perfectly normal, except for the unlikely creature in the doorway. She shoots a glance at the mirror in the hall, and it's the usual Ben who glances back.

"How did you reach the doorbell?" she demands, with scrupulous rationality.

Pinniped fixes her with a solemn stare, and she notices that the otherwise-familiar device is now set a mere six inches above the ground.

"I'll explain later. How that kind of thing happens, I mean". Pinniped seems distracted and impatient. "Since you're obviously loathe to invite me in, let's get to the point, shall we? How would you like to come on a journey?"

"I wouldn't", says Ben, with all the sweetness she can muster. "I left, remember?"

"It doesn't look like you left to me. Anyway, this is only a story. You can put it down whenever you like. Where's the harm in that?"

Ben really doesn't have time for this, but for some reason it's always the distractions in her life that get most of her attention. "So what exactly are you trying to do, Pin? Not that I'm remotely interested in joining in, you understand".

"I'm starting a story. Anyone in hootoo can be in it. They just have to say what sort of character they want to be, and give some idea of what they would and wouldn't want to do. And a few clues about their personality. Then they'll get written in, and it'll all virtually happen".

"So what's the story about?"

The seal looks blank. "Dunno, really", he says. "Someone else'll probably sort all that out, yeah?"

Ben frowns. Pinniped is always so vague with his ideas. The aimless flipper-waving that accompanies his monotonous discourse comes as no surprise at all.

Now, Ben knows exactly what this project needs. It needs a bit of structure, a system. She knows, moreover, that she is exactly the person to provide it. And last of all she knows, with her characteristic clear-minded certainty, that she is not going to touch this ridiculous enterprise with a bargepole.

"I guessed you'd think that", says the seal, with irrepressible cheerfulness. "That's why I took the precaution of writing you into it anyway".

She glowrers, and sags against the door jamb, arms folded and legs crossed. Unperturbed by either the negative body language or the sudden sounding of a heel-operated doorbell, Pinniped gazes pleadingly up at her.

"OK, Pinniped", sighs Ben. "What kind of journey are you thinking of? Is it a quest, maybe? Are you trying to find something?"

The seal looks pained. "Tried that once", he mutters. "Didn't work".

"An allegorical tale, then. A satire, like Candide, maybe?"

The animal's facial musculature isn't up to contempt. He chooses to express himself through a long silence instead.

"Jodan could do Dr Pangloss", Ben suggests, hopefully.

Pinniped brightens again, perhaps glad of the hinted engagement, but his scepticism remains obvious. "I'm writing this to get OUT of doing the gardening", he says. "You're way too pretentious sometimes, Ben. Whatever we do, it has to be familiar to everybody".

And suddenly she notices that a change is taking place outside. Further down the road, drab autumn is transforming into an improbably iridescent summer. The tarmac is turning yellow. The golden path rushes to Ben's door in a scintillating ripple, like something out of a cheesy breakfast-cereal commercial.

Ben shrieks.

"What are you complaining about now?" snaps the seal. "I can have cheesy breakfast-cereal if I like. We're not all precision bl**dy poets".

"You've given me pigtails!"

If there's one emotion that seal-eyes can convey perfectly, it's barely-concealed exasperation.
"And I could have ripped your house out of the ground with a f***ing tornado", Pinniped snarls. At last he averts his glare, seeming to relent. Ben's coiffure reverts to its previous style of under-maintained mature professional, instead of fantasy-Britney.

"Come on then", declares the suddenly-decisive phocoid, and turns for the gate.

"Hang on!" shouts Ben. Somehow she has failed to stop herself taking a few steps towards the retreating seal. She feels a sense of rising panic, without quite knowing why. "Look, I haven't said I'll do it yet".

Pinniped pauses, and fixes her with his emotionless stare. "You will, though", he says, sternly. "Otherwise, I'll just write your bits like I want. You wouldn't put up with that".

"I'm not just going to leap into some stupid adventure!" Ben is determined to give as good as she gets. "We all have to think about this. We can't just rush off. What about money and food? Does this story have basic sanitation, even?"

"Doesn't need it", replies the seal dismissively. "Unless you want to write about it, it doesn't happen. I realise that you're probably the type who WILL want to write at length about lavatorial ablutions and the like, but I'm prepared to put up with that".

He pauses, but not quite long enough for Ben to frame a retort.

"Much better than RL, this, isn't it?" The seal is maddeningly bright once more. "Now come on. We've got others to enlist".

Ben wavers again, and glances back to the house. To her alarm, it's barely visible in the far distance.

"Don't worry. I locked it", breezes the seal. "So, who shall we pick up first? The usual suspects? Boots, maybe? Waz? Jodan?"

"Jodan lives in Ohio", protests Ben.

"Which is right around the corner. We can be there as soon as we say we are".

Ben's head is spinning. She can't fathom just where she lost her grip. Pinniped has it all worked out, as always, albeit in his inimitable and totally infuriating half-cock fashion.

"OK", she says, better judgement disappearing rapidly. "I'll co-operate, just for a while. But there's a proviso. We do this properly. This thing needs some rules, trust me".

For a species with vestigial aural appendages, Pinniped is all ears.

And THIS is what Ben says next...

The Never-Starting Story

Post 2

Mrs Zen

Imagine watching Neo make the choice between the Red Pill and the Blue Pill. Imagine being Neo, making the choice.

"This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes."

Either option is pretty good, right?
Either option brings heartache.
Either option has pros and cons.

smiley - earth Blue pill - Real life. Normal life. You have been here before and know how it works. You are *good* at it in fact. Your friends are here. Oh, don't underestimate the heart-aching loss of giving up wonderland, but you have done that before too, and you know how to do it again.

smiley - mars Red pill - Wonderland. New places, new toys, new thoughts, new adventures. Sounds so alluring, doesn't it? But there is no going back to Real Life, you change countries, change jobs and take on the biggest scariest hightest-stake challenge anyone will ever offer you, and the challenge is the kind that bites back. The cost of failure is high, and not everyone in the game is cute.

So - two equally balanced choices. Each has pros and each has cons; but the direction of your future life, even down to the country you live in and the language you speak, depends on your choice.

High stakes stuff.

Important long term decision; they are perfectly balanced but completely different - both involve heartache and pain; that is inescapable.

Whichever you choose, life will never be the same.

smiley - mars or smiley - earth?

And then imagine that someone else is making the choice for you.


The Never-Starting Story

Post 3



The seal hovers at the gate-post for quite some time. His mind is racing, but it skids a bit when going round corners.

Total incomprehension? No, that would be no impediment. His instinct can always deal with that : plough on regardless, and it'll probably pick on someone else.

But this is different. Ben is different. Pinniped has a nasty feeling that he almost understands what she means. He shudders, in spite of the bright morning sunshine.

Get help, yells the instinct. Trying to look as nonchalant as possible, Pinniped whistles. Behind the pretended confidence, his heart is hammering. He listens desperately for the approach of bounding paws...

The Never-Starting Story

Post 4


Jodan walks in from 'just around the corner'

Following seal's lead, Jodan tries to whistle, but ends up looking rather menacing in the process, instead of relaxed and casual.

Jodan suddenly wonders what it is he's whistling for and abruptly stops, in the middle of Mary had a little blacksheep.

The Never-Starting Story

Post 5


Pinniped resolves to work on his whistling technique. He inspects the newcomer, who appears to consist mainly of badges. So this is what Jodan looks like...

There's nothing for it but to improvise. The hound will presumably turn up in her own good time. Meanwhile, he's going to have to persuade Ben of the fecund possibilities of an expedition in the company of...this.

"...Err...Ben? This is Jodan. From Ohio, yeah. Haven't you always wanted to meet him? Well, anyway, I think Jodan can help you, because there's nobody like Jodan for keeping balls in the air. I mean, is this guy prolific or what? All that quality time in hootoo, and he still manages to perform a useful role in...society..."

Pinniped has the feeling that he's losing momentum somewhat. Maybe this should have been thought out a little more beforehand.

And with that, the red mist floods in, right on cue. This is all somebody else's fault. His. Hers. Definitely hers. And where the hell is that stupid dog?

He is building himself up for one almighty seal-bile-powered whistle-blast, when, at that very moment...

The Never-Starting Story

Post 6


...Jodan peeps up again.

"Er useful role in society? I thought this was an intervention of sorts... let's not start out with a lie."

"Oh, we should? Alright then..."

The Never-Starting Story

Post 7


The seal decides against an attempt to explain sarcasm to the colonies...

If flippers could be drummed impatiently, it would be happening now...

Whistle, whistle...tum-te-tum...

...when, at that very moment...

The Never-Starting Story

Post 8


Hypatia enters carrying an armload of driftwood and lays it down near the edge of a tidal pool.

That won't make a very large fire. I'll have to collect ten times that much. But first I need to draw the magic circle for the others to shelter in until I return.

She notices a ring of stones a few yards up the beach and discovers that it is an old fire pit. She retrieves the wood and places it inside the stones. Then, taking a dow rod from her backpack she draws a large pentagram in the sand with the fire pit at its center. A large ring outside the pentagram completes her task.

The seal, Ben and Jodan are invited to sit inside the protective circle. I'll be back as soon as I can with more wood. If any of you are brave enough, I would appreciate your help. We need to have the fire lighted before midnight.

Where is the hound? She needs to get here soon. This isn't a night to be alone under the stars.

The Never-Starting Story

Post 9

Mother of God, Empress of the Universe

The driving beat of the Time Warp invades the arena, followed by a bright red Nissan truck with a Mean People Suck bumper sticker on its rear window and leaf debris stuck in the windshield wipers.

"Just in the nick of Time", MoG exclaims as she bounds from the cab, mangy feather boa all aflutter and her bizarre Adventure Hat rakishly tilted over her freshly-botoxed brow. "I *knew* I was saving this fire wood for something special. It's freshly imported from North Carolina, guaranteed to burn all night long if it's tended properly."

MoG unloads the magical wood in a flash, then crawls into the depths of her truck for essentials. Vodka... tonic... vermouth... almond-stuffed olives... limes.... cocktail glasses.... shaker....

"Now we're properly outfitted for a virtual Adventure. smiley - winkeye *I* know how to lure a certain Broad out of hibernation, just takes a certain kind of.... incentive."

Then Mog lays a trail of smiley - bubbly....smiley - stiffdrink....smiley - bubbly....smiley - stiffdrink....smiley - bubbly towards Ben. "Shhhhhhh.... be vewwy, vewwy quiet... it's smiley - ghost hunting season."

The Never-Starting Story

Post 10

Mrs Zen

*cautiously sniffs the Cosmicpolitans*
*takes one*
*disappears into RL, sipping happily*

The Never-Starting Story

Post 11

Mother of God, Empress of the Universe

*giggles wickedly*

She'll be back. That one had the smiley - mars in it. Well, to be honest, they all did. That's what happens when you imagine that someone else is making the choice for you.

*chugs her own smiley - bubbly , takes a jump to the left, then a step to the right, puts her hands on her hips, and lets madness take its toll.*

The Never-Starting Story

Post 12


but outside the magic circle, deep in the borrogroves the jabberwk growls.
Will the pentagon withstand the possible attack of the beast?

The Never-Starting Story

Post 13

Mother of God, Empress of the Universe

smiley - yikes
*Quivers with momentary terror, and then realizes that the Beasts thrive inside the Pentagon, but they have no power to penetrate Hypatia's pentagram, no matter how disruptive they try to be.*

Jabberwocks are another story, and require a united front of smiley - stiffdrink to tame their unruly selves. Drink up! smiley - cheers

The Never-Starting Story

Post 14


The seal helps himself to a smiley - stiffdrink and grins at Jodan. This is much more like it.

"What's going on?" whispers Jodan, anxiously.

"Don't sweat. Happens all the time in the Home Counties", replies Pinniped, nodding sagaciously. "You just keep whistling, OK? She wouldn't want to miss this".

And he settles back happily into clueless wonderment...

The Never-Starting Story

Post 15


Observes the magic fire burning away inside the circle and nods in approval.

"There's one thing left to do then I can sit, have a g&t, and enjoy everyone's company."

She walks a few feet up the beach and begins laying out stones to spell BEN. She steps back for a look then walks to her Jeep 4X4 to retrieve a couple of cans of spray paint. Returning to the name in the sand, she sprays every other stone red or blue. Then she lays a dead chicken with one black feather on top of the middle bar of the E, douses it with aged Scotch, and sets it aflame.

"Maybe that will get her attention." She turns her back and walks back toward the circle, gets a lawn chair out of the Jeep, grabs a cooler and sets up inside the circle to wait.

"Help yourself folks"

The Never-Starting Story

Post 16

Mother of God, Empress of the Universe

*Attempting, without success, to raise an eyebrow in surprise, MoG turns to Hypatia.*

Not that I'm criticizing, but that's the most minimalist bar-b-q sauce recipe I've ever seen. And I thought I'd seen 'em all when I lived in Lousiana. Is it necessary to use a black feather, or will a white or brown one do in a pinch? And do you think one chicken will be enough for all of us? I believe I still have some bread and cheese and maybe a can ot two of beef stew in the truck. And I know for a fact that there's a bag of trail mix that we can have for hors d'oeuvres... Damn, I wish I'd known we'd be having dinner. I'd have picked up some potato salad on the way.

The Never-Starting Story

Post 17


I don't think that particular chicken would be very tasty, MoG. It's stuffed with....just trust me on this one. It is intended to feed a creature of the night who has rather...unusual...preferences. The black feather is actually used for a toothpick. smiley - blush I just hope he likes it.

*opens the cooler and sets out plates of assorted sandwiches and fried chicken, bowls of potato salad, three bean salad, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, a large bag of Lay's Ridgies, some green onion dip, and a box of Little Debbie Caramel Cookie Bars. And some sardines for the seal.*

MoG, do you have a pan to heat that stew in? We may all be drawn and quartered and thrown upon a makeshift pyre before morning, but at least we'll die with out stomachs full.

Hey, where's everyone going? Look at that smiley - blacksheep run!

The Never-Starting Story

Post 18

Mother of God, Empress of the Universe

Years and years ago, in the distant days of her youth, MoG had been informed that she ran with the grace of a pregnant ostrich. As one of those who wouldn't compromise her inherent *cough* dignity by running anywhere, ever again, unless her own butt were afire and the water was waaaaay over -------> there, Mog peers around, and not being especially observant, notes no immediate danger. She crawls into the bed of the truck and starts clattering around, pushing out a collapsible bistro table and chairs, a camp stove and a plastic drawer full of cooking utensiles and silverware.

"Here you are, Hypatia."

smiley - huh


An ominous rumble vibrates through the landscape as the sky darkens and the wind whips at her skirt.

"smiley - grr That'll teach me. A thunderstorm's abrewing, and, once again I broke the cardinal rule of camping and didn't set up tarps first thing. I just *hate* doing it in the rain", she grumbles as she roots around for her tarp and bungee cords, with her economy-sized rump blocking her view of the circle.

The Never-Starting Story

Post 19

Trout Montague

Trout Montague resealed his rectal sphincter, and listened not without some pride as twee mock-tudor suburban middle-england rocked and resonated to the throb of his flatulence. Autumn leaves, many charred from the blast, danced at his tail-fin, the pall of November among other things lingered heavily in the air.

But he was close now, very close. The claxon-call of the blubbery Arctic denizen was louder than ever before, and his olfactory organ had detected ... something ovine?

Ahead he spied the unlikely community that had gathered at the garden gate, the object of their vigil but yards away behind a red-brick dwarf-wall, privet untended, grass long but too wet to cut and littered with leaves, a flowering-cherry barren at this time of year, a bay-window, thick blue velvet drapes; inside warm and gently lit, books candles, and armchairs large and soft, enveloping, womblike. But outside, beyond the twisted black iron of the gate, a campfire raged, while a seal, a badge-bedecked sheep, and what appeared to be two-thirds of a regulation Shakespearian coven loitered somewhat unconvincingly around some pavement-bound astrological symbols. Clearly these people sought guidance; but their muse remained cloistered.

The witches though at least kept busy, appearing to be prepare food for eating and themselves for rain. Trout Montague looked up. The skies were clear; the stars bright, a yellow gibbous moon on the wane. It wouldn't rain tonight ... there'd be a frost, which might suit the sprout farmers but not the campers.

Except one.

"Hello, Pinniped," said Trout Montague warily, never knowing which side of this seal, as often generous as raspingly sharp, would greet him. But Pinniped didn't flinch. Instead he and the badges whistled, tunelessly and without rhythm. It was like an episode of One Man And His Dog ...

The Never-Starting Story

Post 20

Mrs Zen

Well, most of the gang appears to be there, except the hound of course. But you know what dogs are like when you take them for walks; always bounding off to deal with rabbitty issues of their own, and then catching up with you, from in front, about half a mile later, grinning their teeth and wagging their tales, as if they had been waiting there patiently all along. So no harm that the hound isn't actually there right now.

Hypatia and MoG appear to be having a discussion; from this distance it is hard to tell whether they are exchanging recipies for making potato salad, for summoning clear weather, or for trans-dimentional voyeurism. It is in fact the latter. Hypatia appears to be slightly shocked.

The Sheep and the Seal are discussing different ways of making fur and wool waterproof. The Sheep smells (rather nicely) of wet lanolin, the Seal smells mildly of fish. The fish-smell makes the Trout slightly nervous, but he knows that the Seal's bark is worse than his bite, and he's never yet forgotton his manners so much that he actually ate a friend.

There is an enticing aroma of barbecue, but MoG wisely decides not to serve the fish course. Or the lamb cutlets. Ettiquette on this trip is going to be a delicate thing.

Slowly the animals start listening to the women, and realise that they are discussing ways of finding out what Ben is actually up to.

"We could scrye" says Hypatia.

"Spy, more like" Jodan mutters. As a black sheep, he is aware of the value of privacy.

But the rest think it is a good idea, and MoG realises that she is going to have to make the largest cosmicpolitan of her life, and gets a bowl to mix it in. One by one the ingredients go in, and five heads gather round the bowl peering at the oily surface of the liquid. Then, as MoG adds the final olive, the surface seems to shimmer images appear.

Ben, sitting in her living room, two enormous cats playing with the chaos, typing at her PC.

Ben, with two very tall men, eating a meal in a restaurant, all three of them are laughing. The other diners are very politely not being disturbed by the simple joy from the table of three.

Ben, in a bedroom, watching one of the men packing a bag. He places books in the bag, then clothes, then more books and some papers. Ben says something, and then says nothing because she looks as if she is carefully not crying. The tall man stops packing for a moment, and says something to her. Suddenly Ben is rolling on the bed, laughing a great joyous belly laugh. Stars shine in through the window. The shadow of tears is still within her eyes.

Ben, standing alone in an airport. It is impossible to tell if she is looking at the departures board or the arrivals board.

The two very tall men, talking together. It is obvious they are father and son; and equally obvious that there is great love and great pain surrounding them.

Three women that none of the watchers have seen before. They are talking together, but it is impossible to tell what their mood is, or what they are saying.

Ben, sitting alone, high on a hill, looking up at the stars. Orion shines tall in the sky.

And finally, the very tall man, also alone. He appears to be playing chess with himself, left hand against right. The Red Queen and the White Queen can be clearly seen on opposite sides of the board, there is a Rook, a pawn which has crossed the board and become a Queen, and two other Pawns beside her. Off to one side there is a captured Bishop. The man is deep in thought. There are tears in his eyes, though they do not fall, and MoG realises that those are the only pieces on the board. She cannot see the King. Outside it is snowing. There is no sign of Ben.

MoG gets uneasy at this point; being the mother of You-Know-Who she is probably even more comfortable in trans-dimensional spaces than the other watchers around the punch-bowl.

"We've seen enough", she says. "Ben has shown us she can join us at any time. Let's get on with the barbecue".

The others stir themselves and agree. MoG pours them all cosmicpolitans from the mix in the bowl. They shake off the visions and settle down to watch the flames and the moon. They eat the food, burning their fingers, (or flippers in Pin's case), and using bread to mop up the juices.

The sound of conversations, conviviality and laughter can be heard rising above the firelit circle of oddly assorted travellers.

The moon shines over head, and Orion rises slowly in the south. In between the conversation you can hear the sound of a dog hunting rabbits.

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