CHAPTER SIX – HERMIONE’S GUILDED CAGE
With that the elevator doors opened again and in strode a man in a shiny silver suit this time and a white velvet waistcoat, carrying a long, rolled up piece of paper under his arm.
“Coolidge,” cried Mr Sugarbug, “The best darn lawyer on the whole East Coast, let alone the East Side. My very own rainmaker. How’s it going, buddy?”
“Trouble,” answered Coolidge, the big New York lawyer, sweating in the heat, “big Union Trouble, Mr Mayor. In this heat everyone wants a pay rise, and the Garbage people have gone on Strike. The Fire Department and Sanitation men are threatening one too, especially with your water ban in this drought. Worst on record. But what’ll happen out there if folks’ trash ain’t collected?”
“Garbage,” whispered Mr Sugarbug thoughtfully. “You know I always say the problem with cleaning up garbage is there’s just no darn money in it. But make them some promises we can’t ever keep though,” added the Mayor, “So keep them sweet. Their bosses at least. Sack some others. That’s politics, Coolidge. That’s life.”
“Yes, Sir, Mr Mayor,” said the lawyer with a smile.
“And how are Business plans progressing, Coolidge? My mastery of the Virtual world. My online Omnipotence,” said Mr Sugarbug proudly, but then he paused. “And why are you carrying a piece of darn paper, dude?”
“It’s a brand new business patent, Mr Sugarbug. You still have to file a physical version. I think you’ll like it.”
“Sure, but what’s it doing on paper? You know my motto, Coolidge. All online. After all, I closed down all those god damn bookstores, like Borderlines, made ‘em declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and stole everyone’s words too, and put them up there free. On the Net.”
“Sorry, Mr Sugarbug.”
“Sure, sure, Coolidge. So what have you got this time? Any bright ideas?”
Coolidge the big lawyer unrolled the patent to show a drawing of what looked like a huge glass ball.
“A light bulb,” said Mr Sugarbug disapprovingly.
“Yes Sir, but a very special one.”
“You a dinosaur, Coolidge? What’s so special about a God damned light bulb?”
“LED, Mr Sugarbug,” answered Coolidge nervously, “but it’s also Everlasting.”
“Everlasting?” cried Mr Sugarbug in horror. “Idiot, Coolidge. LED is fine, saves 85% energy and costs more. But Everlasting? If it’s everlasting how will we sell any more of the things? Redundancy, Coolidge, built in redundancy, that’s what you need. So make sure the darn thing can break.”
“Yes, Mr Sugarbug.”
“No, no, this is what we really need, Coolidge,” said Mr Sugarbug, holding up the black oblong object he had been carrying in his hands. “The brand new Sugarbug Virtual Reality goggles. With these on you can watch everything in 3D, in a 360 degrees, and recreate anything you want. Travel the world, sail the seas, even go to the moon. Heaven. Now Augustus, what’s for lunch?”
“Lobster, Sir,” answered the chauffeur.
“Lobster,” cried Mr Sugarbug angrily. “Am I surrounded by morons? Are you trying to poison me, Augustus? Don’t you know lobsters are just scavengers, Augustus, the vacuum cleaners of the sea, which eat anything nasty and filthy and disgusting?”
“But reassuringly rare and expensive Sir,” said Augustus, “The executives at Google have them for lunch all the time.”
“Oh. Fine,” said Mr Sugarbug, “then I’ll have three, with a Thermador sauce. But junior, can’t you clean up your darn toys?”
So Mr Sugarbug had lunch, and Hermano was glad that Max was at least safe, and nasty little junior didn’t clear up his toys, but set to work on Hermano instead. By sunset the poor tree rat had been hung from the window, made to climb the fountain, raced around strapped to a roller skate and nearly drowned twice. But junior, who got bored easily, got bored. So he went off to play his new Computer Wargame, as he dropped poor Hermano in the corner of Hermione’s huge gilded cage – Ooof.
“Oh, but I am sorry, Mon Ami,” said a gentle female voice, as Hermano landed, “He’s a horrid, nasty, beastly little human boy. If that were not being rude to beasts. It’s why I refuse to play with him anymore. Je refuse.”
Hermano looked up and saw the most gorgeous pair of huge brown eyes looking back at him and his twisted tail. Hermione was so elegant, so graceful, so beautiful, that Hermano promptly fell in love with her.
“Je suis Hermione,” declared the pretty creature, waving her beautiful tail. “I am by origin French Canadian, from Quebec, c’est vrais. But now I live here, in splendour, at the top of the World, in New York City.”
“And I’m Hermano,” said Hermano nervously, introducing himself too, “My name means brother, Hermione. I’m from the Amazon. I’m a tree rat, though I don’t like heights. And I think I’m a little autistic.”
“Tres exotique,” purred Hermione approvingly. “But tell me, Hermano, mon cheri, are you in love with me already? Everyone is, bien sure.”
“No,” lied Hermano, “I’ve only just met you, Hermione.”
“Love at first sight, non, as the stories say? All things enter through the eyes. And this book you can certainly judge by her lovely cover. It must be a great privilege for you to meet me, Hermano. Of course you are in love with me, mon amour, but it’s quite impossible. Our love, I mean. Doomed.”
Hermano frowned, for he didn’t like the way Hermione was talking at all, although she was so beautiful that he couldn’t take his eyes off her either.
“Why impossible, Hermione?” asked Hermano, with a gulp.
“Because you are a rat, of course, a tree rat who’s scared of heights, with a crooked tail too, and I am a rare golden Gerbil. Priceless.”
“Gerbil,” said Hermano, thinking of what Vladimir had said and that this must be the Gerbil he has his beady eyes on, “but then we’re related.”
“We are?” said Hermione, fluttering her huge eyelashes. “But how interesting, chere Hermano, maybe we have a connection. Perhaps you will stay with me then, a while until I get bored, non? I have many admirers. What can you do?”
“Do? Count. And tell stories, I suppose. Well, I’m getting better. I want to be an artist, I think.”
“Very well then. You shall tell Hermione stories every evening. You will be happy here.”
“Happy?” said Hermano, “But it’s so high up here, much higher than the Water Tower, and I don’t really like heights, and besides, you’re in a cage, Hermione.”
“A gilded cage,” corrected the pretty Gerbil coldly, “With a Platinum wheel and a twist of Lemon and Ginger in my water bottle. All the creature comforts. What could be more perfect? Parfait.”
“But you aren’t free,” said Hermano, missing all the artistic vagrants around his Water Tower, Jeb especially, with his tales of freedom in the Wild West, and of the prairies and the endless open spaces, even if his stories weren’t quite right.
“Free?” said Hermione, with a heavy sigh. “And what is really free, Mon pauvre Hermano? Out there it is frightening and cruel, like a Jungle, in fact, and you have to work to make your way, so who is ever really free? And what do expect me to do instead, live on some Garbage Dump?”
Hermano wondered, as Hermione laughed, yet he felt strangely sorry for the beautiful creature.
“I’d protect you out there, Hermione,” he said, his heart thumping in his chest, “I’m Street Wise, Hermione. And I’ve travelled too. All the way from the Amazon, in fact. In a FedX box.”
“How very democratic,” said Hermione, with a tolerant smile. “But you protect mois? You’re just a spineless little rat, Hermano, who’s autistic and afraid of heights. And filthy too, very smelly indeed actually.”
Hermione grimaced as she sniffed at him and Hermano realised that with the water shortage he hadn’t washed, up there with the artist vagrants, and had forgotten what his grandfather had taught him too.
“When I’m the cleanest, prettiest most elegant Golden gerbil that ever lived,” declared Hermione. “They come to groom me twice a week. While I bet you can’t even dance.”
“Dance?” said Hermano, blushing very deeply, as Hermione started to hum and spin around.
“Oh there’s nothing J’adore so much as dancing,” cried Hermione delightedly. “Waltzes and Tangos, Samba and Salsa, Jive, Charleston’s and Break dancing . I am an artist of the dance. The divinest diva of the dance.”
Hermano still looked rather reluctant.
“And if you think you’ll be unhappy here, ma Cherie,” said Hermione, “Just think of a bed of cashmere and all the lovely things you’ll have to eat. Like that bowl of Brazil nuts.”
Brazil nuts? Hermano’s eyes boggled as Hermione turned her head, for there, in the finest cut glass bowl, was a huge pile of freshly cracked Brazil nuts, already out of their impossibly hard shells. This was luxury indeed, in Penthouse 54.
“But now I must get some sleep, silly little Hermano. Hermione’s beautiful beauty sleep. So try not to disturb me, Mon Cheri, and keep your crooked tail to yourself. Bon nuit.”
So Hermano met Hermione and stayed with the beautiful Golden gerbil in her gilded cage, when junior wasn’t torturing him, or threatening to drop him form the 54th floor. Up there he looked down on the city, like the Mayor of New York and King of the online world himself, at all the people moving like ants and the traffic hurrying back and forth below. Hermano wondered what it all meant and how the humans didn’t seem to be able to stop, just like slaves, as the Wall Street pigeon had said. Hermano began to despair that he could ever do anything about the Amazon Depository, or anything else for that matter. But worse than that, that second evening when Hermione called on Hermano to tell her a bedtime story, Hermano did fairly well, describing something of the Amazon and his home. For a good week Hermione seemed to like his stories too. But as Hermano went on looking out of the high Windows, and thought of Jeb Cowpaw and the others, of Pier 54, just a garbage dump, more and more numbers began to swirl around his head, and one evening he just stopped speaking. Hermano could not think of any stories any more, or anywhere to go.
Another evening though when junior had forgotten him for a moment, and the spiny rat’s nerve endings, Hermano noticed that those Virtual Reality goggles were lying on the floor and that Mr Sugarbug had left them on. The rat scurried over to them and as he climbed over the strap and stared at the screen, Hermano’s eyes began to boggle. It was as if Hermano was suddenly floating in space, in mid-air among the stars, looking at it in Virtual Reality. Now Hermano could see a blue green ball, that he knew was the Earth itself. It was just like a ball, as the one eyed cat had said, or a water droplet, or a tear drop. It was like he was floating too, though still on the ground, as if he was free of gravity itself.
“It’s amazing,” whispered Hermano, “and the humans couldn’t do this without Science. Perhaps I shouldn’t be a silly artist then, who can’t tell stories anymore, but a scientist instead. I mean that would make me really modern and I do like numbers too, see them all the time. What did Grandpapa Raoul say but strike upwards, even if you strike the stars?”
Yet as Hermano looked at that image of the Virtual planet from Space, he thought of his fallen Brazil nut tree too, and his dead parents, thought of all the cut down trees like matchsticks and the swelling cities and Hermano felt very sad. He started to cry again and he hadn’t done that in a while. Then Hermano heard a voice. While Hermano had been floating in the Virtual World Mr Sugarbug had come back into the room and was talking on his mobile phone.
“Look to the future, Coolidge,” Sugarbug was saying loudly, “I mean, people whine on about Social Media and VR, and change and say nothing’s real anymore. But if we’re really destroying the Planet, surely we want more Virtual Reality and less things? Less books for a start, that use all that paper, and take up all that space, when we can just read them online.”
Hermano frowned and yet there seemed a truth in it too. Meanwhile, although Hermano loved admiring the ravishing Gerbil, who would sometimes dance for him like a diva, divinely, Hermano began to miss even his temporary home with Jeb and his friends below the Water Tower more and more. The only consolation were the Brazil nuts, for Hermano had as many as he could eat. One sweltering morning Hermano was tired of being tortured though, eating one of the nuts again, and even missing the threatening noises of his forest, when he suddenly heard a welcome buzzing.
“Found you, Hermano,” cried Buzzy, who was hanging in mid-air before him like that Virtual Reality picture of the Earth itself, “Jeb sent me up like a drone to spy you out.”
“Buzzy,” cried Hermano delightedly. “And how is dear old Jeb, and his Cowboy poetry, and Lenno and Rumi? Pepe, Alfonse and even Colonel Black? I miss them all so much, Buzzy. They’re my friends.”
Buzzy the Hummingbird frowned.
“Not so good, brother,” she answered. “The summer’s getting hotter and hotter and even the Water Tower’s nearly run dry, with the ban. Max is noisier than ever. Jeb has given up Cowboy Poetry too. And the dirty rats, and Vladimir, they seem to have a plan, Hermano. I heard them whispering the other day about spreading terror and mayhem everywhere.”
“Yes, Buzzy, I know,” said Hermano sadly.
“There’s rubbish all over the streets too, and the Firemen and Sanitation department have gone on strike, while the other humans are so busy online, they don’t seem to notice anything. Except for Toola Iceberg, of course, who is certainly doing something, and that’s a fact. But anyhow Hermano, I’ve come to help you escape.”
“Escape,” whispered Hermione in horror though, who had just woken up with a huge, lazy yawn. “But who would want to escape from paradise, mes Cheris, from me and the finest view in all New York? With Lemon and a twist of Ginger.”
Already little Buzzy was at work though, with her long and very thin Hummingbird beak, that can sip the finest pollen from the tiniest flowers, hovering there, picking the lock on Hermione’s gilded cage.
“Aren’t you coming Hermione though,” said Hermano, bits of Brazil nut falling from his mouth, as the golden door sprung open, and Hermano realized he was very much in love after all.
“Coming where, mon Cheri?” answered Hermione softly. “There is nowhere in the World to go anymore. Except perhaps Space. To Mars. Face reality.”
“I’m sorry, Hermione,” cried Hermano, “but I have to be free, spiny tree rats are born to it, and I miss my friends, and Jeb has given up Cowboy Poetry and something bad is happening out there…”
“Coward,” cried Hermione scornfully, “you’re simply afraid of l’amour, Hermano, of love and commitment, and of living in Heaven with me. Go then, go back to your filthy street rats and your worthless vagrant artist friends. See if I care.”
Hermano paused heavily and looked back sadly, for he knew he was a little afraid, and he felt a strange tearing in his heart, as the tree rat dropped to the ground, the lift doors opened and junior ran in and cried out furiously, seeing Hermano had vanished.
“Gone,” snarled the nasty little boy, “Stolen. Everyone abandons me in the end. That’s why I’m always bullied on Social Media and don’t have any friends. Like Mommy left me, left me that day the horrid men attacked New York city.”
Hermano felt strangely guilty as the little boy burst into tears himself. For the boy had lost his own mother that terrible day Rumi had talked about, just like Hermano had lost his parents, when the humans had come to cut down his tree. But already Buzzy was in the elevator pressing the button with her beak and Hermano scuttled inside too, just in time. Once more, the spiny tree rat was on his way down.
TO BE CONTINUED….