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Dead Pan and Joe Progress

Chapter 1

Buddha calls me an ecowarrior, but then he has a dark sense of humour. Warrior implies action. I'm more of an ecowhiner, sitting on my hairy backside complaining about injuries to my habitat but doing little about them. I make noises about the avocados with a walnut in their centre rather than a stone, though to be fair they taste very nice. And I grumble about the trout that jump from the river into any skillet placed in front of them, despite their convenience.

Only in our battle with the woodcutters have I managed some action, and even that was merely organisational. I pointed out to the woodnymphs that they are beautiful, highly-sexual creatures and the woodcutters are strapping young men, and it shouldn't be too hard to send them home each day with big smiles and no timber. The woodnymphs have a strong incentive as they can't exist without trees.

Right now I'm lying in my favourite clearing with the gorgeous woodnymph Echo reclining on my left, and Buddha on my right, in the lotus position as always. A few yards in front of us a stream crosses the open space, springing up at one side and disappearing mysteriously at the other. Although there's barely any gradient it runs fast and uneven, gurgling from end to end as the perfect stream should do. The insects are respectful too, never pestering us, just hovering above the grass like mist above a rain-soaked road. Even the breeze is selective, it blows cool across my brow like a caress, yet leaves Buddha's brow alone, as he has no need of it. Staying motionless for hours at a time, as he likes to do, can give the impression that he's furniture of a kind, and far from disliking this he feels that if he can give that impression then he's successfully removed the dualism between himself and his surroundings and has truly accomplished something. Personally I think this is a delusion too far, but we are good friends so I don't mention it.

I'm feeling peckish. I turn on my side and within arm's reach a brazil nut scurries across the grass, but I'm not a fan of the ones with legs even though they come off easily. I spot the purple lantern of a fritillary growing out of the grass. Delicious, and very few calories.

"I wish you wouldn't do that," says Buddha, evenly. His voice is rich and knowledgeable but always has a curious edge, some indefinable weirdness that steers it clear of bland. It's a voice that anybody can listen to for an hour, mesmerised and curious at the same time, always on the cusp of recognising where the weirdness comes from, but never quite getting there, and trapped by the imminent arrival.

"Do what?"

"Eat flowers. It's very… uncivilized."

How does he do this? I swear his eyes were closed.

"I didn't eat it!"

"Then where is it now?"

This is a question I can't answer. Instead I watch Echo as she snoozes peacefully. Really I should be careering through the forest on her trail, with her screeching and yelping ahead of me until I catch up with her and throw her to the ground and screw her to the point of exhaustion, as tradition demands. But this is a lazy afternoon and it would be rude to wake her. And to be honest I'm not as hot on the chase as I used to be, and the exhaustion is usually mine rather than hers, and often arrives before we've made a start on the screwing, which is not ideal. But then I am three and a half thousand years old. Echo refuses to accept my age as an excuse and says my problem is I'm too stressed-out trying to avoid Joe Progress, which is so far off the mark I won't even talk about it. But otherwise she's very accommodating and often takes a tumble on a tree root just a few minutes into the chase, which helps, as long as my ego doesn't fall with her.

It wasn't long after I got the woodnymphs organised – and very effective it's been too – that I first heard Joe Progress wanted to see me. The lumberjacks are his and many of his building projects have been slowed by the shortage of lumber. The weird avocados and chocolate pomegranates and eager trout are his too, developed in his Workshop of All Invention and carelessly released into my favourite forest, and any reasonable god would surely have thought 'win some, lose some' and let the timber issue ride, but no, Joe Progress is president of heaven and thinks everything should go his way.

This is what I assume. I don't know for sure because I haven't taken up his invitation. Joe Progress may be keen to see me but I don't particularly want to see him. I've never been good with authority figures. Anyway, I doubt that he wants to pat me on the back and buy me a margarita.

Avoiding him is getting increasingly difficult. I can't spend five minutes in a public place without some god sidling up and whispering "The Great God Progress wants to see you," like they're his closest confidant and the holder of privileged information. Brown-nosers. His true confidants, his agents, are also searching for me. Five days ago I was standing in the audience for St George and the Dragon, one of heaven's minor attractions, and a car pulled up on the opposite side of the plaza. There are relatively few cars in heaven and almost all of them belong to Joe Progress and his crew, so I was immediately on the defensive. Out popped his chief henchman and henchwoman, Mammon and Mercedes. I'd scuttled away even before they managed to close the doors.

At least here in the forest I can let my guard down, especially when I'm with good friends. In my daydreaming mind I'm chasing Echo at this moment, and my eyes begin to close, my legs and hoofs start to twitch. In my dreams I often chase her for miles, until the dreams turn philosophical and inside them I begin to wonder if I'm more interested in running than in sex. But this time, for no reason I can fathom, suddenly I'm wide awake, and so is Echo.

"What happened?" I ask.

Buddha hasn't moved but his eyes are wide open. "Darkness," he says, enigmatically.

I look around, though I don't know what I'm looking for. Then I spot Buddha's mystery darkness on the other side of the brook, moving quickly. It's a shadow, and way above it, just below the treetops, is the pig that's creating it, a flying pig gliding just inside the treeline, forcing us to crick our necks as we follow the circles of its descent. Its wings are bigger than a condor's and resemble those of a bat, with long and clearly visible fingers in the pink web of skin. It never flaps them, and to be frank it looks ill at ease with them, ungainly, too aware that they're large and the clearing is small.

Finally it comes so close to the ground that it must land, but clearly it's no expert at this and as it turns for a diagonal approach a wing tip hits the ground. A kaleidoscope of pig and wings tumbles towards us, raising pollen and scraps of vegetation and finally water until it comes to rest on its backside in the stream, almost sitting upright, just leaning back slightly against the bank, front trotters out like a begging dog, one ear folded back, the other covering an eye.

Instinctively I've finished up on top of Echo, shielding her body with mine.

She grins up at me lewdly. "Thank you."

But I've paid the price. One of the pig's wings hit me squarely across the shoulder.

Buddha hasn't flinched or moved, and predictably the cascading pig missed him entirely.

I roll on to my side and rub my shoulder. A cashew nut with a flipper tail hops across my vision and I reach out and pulverize it with my fist, which isn't polite but does give me some relief.

"That's it," I tell the world in general. "That's the final straw. I've had enough of this unnatural nature - chocolate pomegranates, brazil nuts with legs, pigs with wings but no flying skills. I'm going to put a stop to all this nonsense."

"Bugger," says the pig. "Crappy landing. You can talk to me direct, you know. I don't live in a wheelchair."

We have unusual things here in heaven, but until now we've not had talking pigs. The fact that the pig can talk doesn't improve my mood. It's yet one more example of unnatural nature.

"An apology would be nice," I suggest.

"I'm very sorry, I didn't ask to have wings."

"That's not much of an apology."

"Pan!" says Buddha, with authority. He's one of a handful of gods who can say this and have any effect. I respect him too much to ignore him. He's telling me that despite my injury I'm being too aggressive, and he's right. I try to calm down a little. The fact that the pig can talk does have one clear advantage.

"Where do you come from?" I ask the pig, in a gentler tone.

"The Workshop of All Invention. I'm supposed to be flying back there right now."

And there's the confirmation. One more piece of nonsense from the workshop of Joe Progress.

"And why are you flying there?" asks Buddha.

"Annual migration," answers the pig, without hesitation.

"Isn't that a bit strange, migrating to a laboratory?"

"Yes, I suppose it is, now you come to mention it. But it's my first time. I hadn't thought about it much."

"Have you met other pigs who've migrated and come back?"

"Er, no, I can't say I have."

Buddha clears his throat noisily. "I don't wish to worry you unduly, but you've probably noticed that many of the forest fruits now have legs, the brazil nuts and mangoes and so on. I have to tell you they're all mobile for one purpose – self-harvesting."

The pig's pink face slowly pales. "You don't mean? Oh me. Oh my. That's dreadful. That's unthinkable. I thought I'd been fattening myself up for a long flight."

"Unlikely. You can walk from anywhere in heaven to anywhere else in less than half an hour."

While the pig mutters to itself, I turn to Buddha and wag a forefinger. "I tell you, I've had enough of this. Joe Progress has made a big mistake this time. I'm going to clear this woodland of all these abominations, you mark my words."

"Don't forget that you're a lazy bastard," says Buddha, helpfully.

"Yes, I know I am. But the key to being a lazy bastard is having somewhere nice to laze. If I don't put a stop to all this, our gorgeous stretch of woodland will be overrun by flying farmyard animals and mobile fruits with disturbing flavours, if there's any woodland left to be overrun. I can't live my life without forest to run through and glades to dance in. If I have to fight to protect that, then so be it."

Buddha doesn't look convinced, but that's his approach to life in general, so not much of an indicator.

"And what about the poor woodnymphs?" I add. I should have mentioned this earlier, of course, so it didn't sound like an afterthought, but Echo smiles anyway.

"I'm not sure I like being called an abomination," says the pig, on reflection. "Do you want to eradicate me too?"

In my experience this is always the tricky part of any grand plan, the compromises brought about by emotion. My shoulder is recovering, the pig looks cute with its ears going this way and that, and the poor thing has been pre-programmed to fly to its death. Also Buddha and Echo are looking at me with big eyes.

"Well," I answer, "we have to be reasonable about this. Maybe it would be nice to have one or two er… reminders of the er… items in question. You know, just rooting around the forest looking for acorns and things."

Smiles all round. I've said the right thing.

"Om, there's one other item you might like to think about," Buddha tells me. "The small detail of power and ability to do battle – the fact that you're a wandering maverick with a set of pipes and Joe Progress is the elected president of heaven, the most powerful position anybody can hold."

Yes, this had occurred to me too.

"And politics," continues Buddha, in his same flat tone. "You'll be getting involved with politics and politicians, and you know what they say – don't fight with pigs: you both get covered in shit and the pig enjoys it."

"Steady on," says the pig.

"Sorry. It's just an expression."

"Yes, but that's how stereotypes are formed, isn't it? We're actually very clean animals, one of the few beasts with complete control over our bowels."

Buddha, Echo and I can't help it. In unison we look above our heads to see if there are any more flying pigs. There aren't.

"But in this uneven battle I can count on my friends, right?" I ask Buddha.

"Of course. If any meditation or chanting is called for, I'll be right with you."

Very comforting. But I'm going to fight my battle anyway, though I haven't a clue where to start. Chasing nymphs and dancing and drinking for thousands of years hasn't given me a great knowledge of politics.

"Hey," says Buddha, raising a forefinger. Clearly he's excited by something. "The next election is less than a month away, with Joe Progress standing for re-election. That's perfect timing. Leaders are always nervous in the run-up to an election. You could put your weight behind the opposition, maybe extract a few concessions from Progress, even if he goes on to win."

This is exactly what I wanted to hear. I know that Joe Progress is far too powerful for me to challenge outright, but the idea of pressuring him into some kind of deal sounds perfect.

"So who's he up against?" I ask.

"Doctor Longlife. That's the only serious rival for Progress."

"The Doc? Are you sure?"

I've met the Doc a couple of times and I can't imagine him as presidential material. He's plump and jolly with rosy cheeks that remind me of Uncle Bacchus. His thin balding hair is swept back straight against his skull and ends in rows of tiny hooks at the rear, like some kind of seed-pod burr. He wears a tweed jacket and cotton drill shirt with a plain tie. A stethoscope always peeks out from his side pocket. He's a most peculiar god, bumbling and distracted, surely not a strong contender for any kind of election. But when I think about it a little longer I realise that everybody in heaven likes him. He's self-deprecating and always happy. Nobody ever has a bad word to say about the Doc.

"That sounds great. Thanks, Buddha."

"Oh yes," says Buddha. "Doctor Longlife is the answer."

"And how do these elections work? How do we vote? I don't think I've ever been asked to vote."

The question causes Buddha some difficulty. Finally he says, "You won't like it."

"Try me."

"It's to do with the other world."

Hmm. I try to be tolerant towards believers in the other world. As long as their faith doesn't affect me then it's none of my business. But I refuse to have my life influenced by this ancient myth when I don't believe in it myself.

"You mean – you haven't a clue how the elections work."

This is the way with believers. The other world is their way of rationalising the inexplicable. But I'm disappointed to hear it from Buddha.

"No. I know how they work. There are billions of people in the other world. They vote with their beliefs. The post of president of heaven goes to the god who best represents the collective faith of the majority."

"Oh, come on. Don't give me this nonsense. You're talking about the human world, and it's just a myth, something we invented to make ourselves feel more secure, to give ourselves a purpose in life. Full of mythical beings who worship us, so we can feel wanted and useful. There's no evidence that it really exists."

Buddha takes time formulating his reply, knowing I'm unlikely to digest more nonsense. "We've never really talked about this before, because I know we have different views, but if you're going to fight Progress, you'll need to understand where his power-base comes from. The other world is very real. It's kind of similar to heaven but a lot more crowded, with more buildings and less predictable weather and millions of cars. They've got massive machines that can fly, and even hover, or go beneath the sea, and machines that can do incredible calculations, and others they watch for entertainment."

"You've really built up a detailed fantasy here. Maybe you ought to ease off the meditation for a while. Have you any idea how ridiculous this sounds?"

"And no woodnymphs."

"No woodnymphs!"

He has me there. I repeat this to myself a couple of times, then I realise how a fine touch of negative detail can help a mythical place sound more real.

"I'm not fooled for a moment. It's still a myth."

"The other world also accounts for which gods exist in heaven, and which gods… disappear. Your feeling of age, your lack of breath, these are consequences of how you're perceived in the other world."

"Complete and utter crap!" I'm not pleased by the personal direction this is taking. My ageing, my lack of fitness, these are down to… to something else, something I don't yet understand, but not some mythical contrivance.

"The other-worlders are great fans of Progress, which is why he won the last election. But they're keen on Doctor Longlife too. They don't live very long – seventy or eighty years – and they're obsessed with living longer. It's never clear whether they're more obsessed with progress and moving the whole species along or with living longer individual lives. I think Joe only made it by a whisker last time."

For a moment there I thought we were getting somewhere. I can see why the Doc would be a popular candidate in heaven, but I can't assess his potential in a world that doesn't exist.

"Buddha, listen, it's great to hear about the presidential elections and the candidates, but it doesn't help when you bring your personal faith into the discussion. Now can we please drop this other world thing? "

"How am I going to tell you how to get there if you don't even believe the place exists?"

"Well, obviously you can't, can you?"


We are both agitated. It's not as if I'm asking him to change his beliefs, I just don't want to hear about them. There's no way forward with this discussion and we're both wise enough to stop it.

I lie on the grass regaining my composure, and for some time I can hear Buddha doing his breathing exercises to calm himself down, until the sound stops.

"Good grief!" yells the pig. "He's disappeared! He was there one moment and now he's gone."

"Who's disappeared?"


Panic over. I relax again. "Yes, he does that."

"What do you mean, he does that?"

"It's some aspect of extreme meditation, I think, or non-dualism, I can't remember which. He becomes so much at one with this surroundings that… no, I can't remember. Anyway, he disappears."

"Well, I've seen some things in my time," says the flying pig, "but a disappearing Buddha. That really takes the biscuit."

Echo hasn't moved. Both of us are used to Buddha's strange comings and goings, though I guess his disappearing act must seem strange when seen for the first time. I try to remember the explanation, but it won't come to me. And the more I think about it the more odd it seems to me too. How have I got used to somebody disappearing? Little by little, over time, through disappearance at a distance, then closer, more frequently. The same gradual erosion of reality that's happened with the cross-species fruits of the forest, leading to the flying pig, and whatever follows it.

I'm off the grass and on my feet. "I'm going to see Joe Progress, right now."

Echo looks up at me with admiring eyes. It's the same look she uses when I say something brave but foolhardy that ultimately I regret.

"I'm going to confront him and get all this cross-species nonsense stopped," I tell her. "I'll explain to him that unless he does what I say I'm going to support Doctor Longlife in the elections, however they work. Let's see what he says to that."

Echo and I hug, which is very pleasant and makes me realise how much I love the woodnymphs, Echo in particular, but all the others too. There's nothing wrong with collective love, especially if like me you're partly herd animal.

"Are you going to disappear too?" asks the pig.

"Kind of. But not suddenly. Just a gradual fading into the distance type of thing."

"Oh." He sounds disappointed.

When I've walked fifty metres down the track that leads out of the clearing I jump sideways behind some bushes, hoping that does the trick. It would be a shame to let him down.

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The complete manuscript of this book is available free of charge at www.foxglove.co.uk.