In Competition No. 2752 you were invited to submit a short story ending with the phrase: ‘It is not all pleasure, this exploration.’ Dr Livingstone’s pronouncement, written in 1873 a few days before his wretched death, is putting it mildly. His final days had been plagued by pneumonia, malaria, foot ulcers, piles, rotting teeth, leeches, hostile African tribesmen and a large blood clot in his gut. Several competitors wove Livingstone in, but the postbag was impressively wide-ranging: crime rubbed shoulders with horror and sci-fi, and there was even a smattering of erotica — very much the genre du jour. Commendations to Lance Levens and Frank Osen, £25 each to the winners and £30 to Josephine Boyle.
I am inquisitive: I love discoveries. Usually. As a child, I exhausted everyone, especially my dear governess, by always insisting on going on to the next stage, round the corner, over the horizon, to see what lay beyond. When I married, my husband was already old and an established figure in his own land, the possessor of a fairy-tale castle. I determined to acquaint myself with the mysteries of my new home. Egged on by Sister Anne, who was staying while my husband was away, we investigated every room, every corner, inglenook and cranny. Finally we came to the forbidden door. I have never seen anger like that encountered upon my husband’s return. In spite of his sinister colouring and reputation, he had always acted gently and considerately to me. I mustn’t think about the things I saw in that room; he has granted me only minutes to compose myself. O, it is not all pleasure, this exploration.
It is a thrilling experience to travel through the human body, reduced together with our submersible flyer to the size of a microscopic spore. On entering, we were swept along at breathtaking speed on a surging tide of blood, surrounded by corpuscles the size of icebergs, though fortunately lacking their destructive powers. Exploring the brain’s labyrinth was fascinating; it was illuminated by countless electric flashes between the neurones, a sight reminiscent of the Aurora Borealis in our actual world. The cathedral-like vaults of the heart were awe-inspiring, as were the windswept caverns of the lungs, although during our traversal of the latter, we were frequently blown off course. Now, however, we have entered the digestive tract, and it would appear that its owner has grossly over-indulged in a powerful Vindaloo curry, with disastrous consequences that are all too evident from our surroundings. It is not all pleasure, this exploration.
‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’
‘Ay, so you do, you wee pith-helmeted bampot. But you’d be hard put to be wrong in these parts, wouldn’t you? So what’s your excuse for bothering me?’
‘Dr Livingstone, my newspaper has commissioned me — ’
‘And what newspaper would that be, laddie? Some godless scandal sheet filling the minds of the public with idle and lascivious thoughts, I’ll be bound. And me with work to do that bears on the very future of mankind.’
‘But the world is waiting for news of you! Your fame has spread worldwide. You can write your own ticket.’
‘It’s a ticket to Heaven I’m hoping for, you light-minded worldling, and only God can write that. It’s his work I’m at, and if that means I’ve no reward in this world, so be it. What count are Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation. It is not all pleasure, this exploration.’
Our ankles raw from the incessant suction of gargantuan leeches, our tongues stuck to the roofs of our mouths from unendurable thirst, we were 12 days lost in that jungle, the source of the Mbangwa River as remote now as Piccadilly or the chance of clean undergarments. N’Pengo, our steadfast guide, we’d had to bury alive, as was the custom when the raving, vomiting fever of that region struck. Trapshaw, our cartographer, went mad, poking out both eyes and plaintively crying ‘I just want to see something that isn’t green!’ Our stocks of food exhausted, we ate whatever grubs crawled upon us, our guts twisting but failing ever to find satiety. The days were interminable, the nights doubly so. Then, all lost, our morale officer, Molloy, suggested we sing that rousing Irish ballad he’d taught us on the boat over, all 18 verses. It is not all pleasure, this exploration.
Retired at 60 but not being, as she said, the retiring type, Aunt Lorna decided to devote some time ‘from the scrag end of life’ to medical research. Her own scientific knowledge was ‘shamefully rudimentary’, but her ‘functioning, if helpfully underused’ body was ideal for a Swiss doctor then experimenting ‘off-piste’ with immunisation against malaria. She answered his advertisement for committed volunteers — ‘Swiss for guinea pigs’ — and moved to Geneva. The family thought she was enjoying the lakes and mountains, as her postcards said. But the diary I found after her death revealed it had been ‘a time of some travail’ as Dr Schuster ‘probes my physiology with his injecting and testing syringes. The nurse says my veins look like a junk monkey’s.’ At one point she movingly confided: ‘I am doing it, at bottom, to please myself but I freely admit that it is not all pleasure, this exploration.’
The Fringpoondles from the Andromeda galaxy had long wondered if there were other intelligent species in the universe, so that when they invented the light-year-jump they set off in hope. Happy to find a few in Andromeda, they ventured further, and after many centuries had logged several more wonderful discoveries of intelligence, when their ship reached a yellow giant system on the edge of the next galaxy. They investigated a couple of gas giants, then an empty red planet, and after avoiding some rocks, picked up a signal. ‘Global warming’, it said, then: ‘double depression’, ‘Liberal Democrats’, and then, bafflingly: ‘Eurovision song contest’. Finally came a signal translated as: ‘Nice to see you, to see you nice.’ It was at that point the commander decided that in the interests of intergalactic intelligence they would, very sadly, have to obliterate this planet. It is not all pleasure, this exploration.
No. 2755 water works
You are invited to submit an ode to rain (16 lines max). Please email entries to firstname.lastname@example.org by midday on 11 July.