The arch fluid squinted his aged eyes and peered into the shadowy blur of the auditorium. Never before had he witnessed such uproar from the floor. Never before had the old guard been so vocal, so adamantly opposed to the ideas of the new. But his lot was not to take sides in the raging debate – although that tenet of the society didn’t seem to hold any water considering the level of lobbying that had been inflicted on him of late. No, his role was merely to be the conduit for equanimity, a means to channel all the piss and vinegar flowing so profusely around him this evening.

      He rested a hand on the heavy lectern in front of him, looked to his right and observed one of the two figures that shared the well-lit dais with him.

      Armetage Whedon, head of the anti faction and, currently, a bold study in crimson. His annoyance had turned his already ruddy complexion the colour of boiled ham, his pinking eyes afire above his inflated cheeks, his white moustache a quivering nail brush twitching this way and that across his top lip. The arch fluid regarded this agonised apparition and contemplated, not for the first time, that perhaps the society was in danger of losing its direction. He thought quietly of all the luncheons, the whispered gatherings around tattered Chesterfields in whoever’s club, the passed notes – traditionally transcribed onto toilet paper – and wondered if indeed it was time for a change.

      Swiveling his ancient head to the left, the old man looked upon the beaming face of James Twyford. The young upstart had just cast another provocative statement into the crowd – a natural orator, his voice projected wonderfully – and a chorus of cheers and boos were now shattering against his impervious frame.

      In his tanned hands the apparatus of contention dangled like a freshly caught sea creature, its creator seeming to relish the part of proud hunter bringing the spoils of his labour back to the tribe. There was a glint in his fifty-something eyes, a rakish flick to his full head of white hair and something not altogether ‘serious’ about the man and his membership. The arch fluid chewed the inside of his cheek and pondered.

      Obviously Twyford wasn’t young as far as the general populace were concerned but, for the old boys of the society, he was one of the youngest members. Maybe that was why the schism was so pronounced. Perhaps a year or so of disapproving scowls from the upper echelons had provided suitable motivation for Twyford’s ‘innovation’.

      Reaching out a wrinkled hand, the arch fluid wrapped his boney fingers around the wooden phallus that sat on the lectern before him. It was semi erect and uncircumcised – a design choice that had, once upon a time, caused months of debate in itself – and acted as a ceremonial hammer for society meetings. Once he had established a firm hold of it, he looked steadily out into the audience. It was time to get the meeting back on track.

      Thrice he slammed the hammer down upon the beautifully carved scrotum of the gavel and, on the third strike, he raised his voice in command.

      “Gentlemen. Gentlemen please. This is not how we conduct ourselves here!”

      So much had left him with age but the commanding power of his voice still held true. The multitude quietend, and all eyes fixed on the dais once again.

      “This kind of squabbling and in-fighting is not what this society was based upon. No man here has ever let his waters flow freely, al fresco beneath a starry firmament, and not felt a unity with all fellow men. As such, we stand – ‘stand’ gentlemen – shoulder to shoulder among the common tenets of this fraternal grouping. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves of those tenants?

      “Ever since the founder…” Here the arch fluid paused while the audience dutifully intoned the correct response, “May the flow he started never run dry.”

      “… First baptised Elisha Otis’ safety elevator in New York in 1854, we have kept his discerning vision clear. The encroaching mechanisation of our lives has been eroding our primordial essence for over a century now. Once we were wild, free to mark our territory as we saw fit, free to cleanse ourselves of all our impurities. Now modernity gives us indelible elements that lodge in our livers and kidneys – strontium 90, acetone, mercury and myriad other by-products of our industrialised environments.

      “But why the elevator as target of our retaliation? It’s a regular question among our initiates, and to answer this you have to put yourself into the Founder’s…”

      “May the flow he started never run dry.”

      “… shoes during the New York leg of his grand tour. A city in literal upheaval and at the heart of every building a mechanised conveyance turning work and dwelling place alike into something terrible. From our perspective today, this terror may not seem justified, but remember that we have to fight this acceptance on a daily basis. For the Founder…”

      “May the flow he started never run dry.”

      “… Saw that we were becoming mere cogs in the mechanics of the city, not people coming together as part of a community. Architects stacked us tier upon tier and created the means to convey us on an ever accelerating course away from quiet contemplation and towards improved productivity.

      “An abridged summation of some of the drives behind our activities, I admit, but a pertinent overview in light of young Twyford’s proposal and the growing crisis that has been felt by us all.

      “We are fighting a losing battle gentlemen, let’s make no bones about it. Our membership is slow to grow and we still must be ever cautious in our recruitment. And yet, out in the world, urban development continues apace and the security systems that protect these projects become ever more complex.” Here the arch fluid paused, his old head hanging as if with fatigue, one hand gently clutching the edge of the lectern. He leant forward slightly and an expectant hush replaced the gentle murmurs that had accompanied his speech so far. Well, he thought to himself, Twyford may have his grasp of good rhetoric, but I’ve still got a few tricks left in me.

      “So to the question.” He raised himself again, his countenance concentrated, his voice once again clear and strong.

      “The question of whether we utilise Twyford’s rudimentary technology as a means to an ends, or whether we hold true to our principles – like the Luddites before us – and move forward with our trusted allies of wit and guile? Do we fight fire with fire? Is a bicycle inner tube attached to one’s member a technological affront? Does the ability to relieve ourselves with impunity mean that we have become surreptitious and somehow cowardly? Only a vote will decide. And so, dear gentleman, I propose a recess. Some time to clear your thoughts and, inevitably, empty your bladders.”

      There was a ripple of muted laughter around the auditorium and the arch fluid waved a hand towards where he imagined the usher stood. The gloomy room crept to a level of illumination in which everyone could at least see one another, and the two spokesmen descended from the dais into the waiting clans of ardent supporters.

      The ancient wooden doors clunked open and the crowd quickly dwindled to a few stragglers and those the grand fluid considered closest to him. Hands were offered to assist him down but he refused them saying he wanted to remain where he was. There were a couple more entreaties and then the group divided leaving a few of the higher ranks in the front row. They engaged themselves in subdued conversation and allowed the arch fluid the solitude he seemed to crave.

      The old man reached down and picked up his glass of water from the lectern’s concealed shelf. He raised it to his lips, savoured a refreshing draft and was about to return it to its perch when the society’s crest caught his eye.

      The rampant unicorn – one hoof planted on two golden roundles, his formidable manhood pointing directly at the opposing sea horse – the Doncette fringe dominating the skyline. Worthy ambition, extreme courage and the power of water all symbolically captured in crystal by the etcher’s hand. The arch fluid held the glass at arms length and considered the hidden message that many would easily miss. So much time dedicated to the cause, so much water under the bridge. He smiled wryly to himself.

      Looking up, head tilted back slightly, he explored the back walls of the almost empty auditorium. There, from frame after frame, all the previous arch fluids stared back at him. Each vast portrait, loving conveyed in realist oils, showed a leader on the front line, their faces turned back over their shoulders as they applied themselves to the society’s work. All had the same ponderous look in their eyes, the only changeable element being the structure of the elevators in which they stood.

      The arch fluid swept his eyes across the gallery and rested upon his own portrait. It had been commissioned almost eight years ago and he marveled at the marked transition in setting. The chosen vessel for the initial Polaroid sketches had been an access lift to the car park at Heathrow’s Terminal 3. A vision in stainless steel and brushed aluminium, it represented the perfect icon for flawed modernity; office, car, lift, terminal, aircraft, terminal, taxi, lift, office. Compared to the wrought iron backing of the founder’s image, it was like the dream of a 1950’s pulp sci-fi writer. Unchecked progress emblazoned in clinical still life.

      The arch fluid then looked to the empty wood panels approaching the stage, and a sudden vision – unbidden and deeply unsettling – pressed itself into the empty space his eyes rested upon. There, in a razor pressed pin-striped suit, stood an effigy of James Twyford – the innovator, the agent of change, the next arch fluid. Unlike his predecessors he faced outwards in his portrait, his arms folded in abject defiance, a triumphant smile curled across his lips. And there, by a foot encased in bespoke leather, a small puddle caught mid swell – the contentious apparatus clamped invisibly to the inside of his leg.

      “Dear Lord, is this the future?” The old man’s thoughts raced as he murmured to himself. “Is this what I have worked towards all these years? Is this really the Founder’s vision or a complete fallacy? A mere grouping of priapic old men pissing in the wind? But how can we hope to beat the rising tide unless we embrace… progress?”

      He thought of the members slowly ambling back to vote, and a violent pang suddenly blossomed deep within him. It was a reflexive clench that made his prostate spasm and yet, somehow, he instinctively knew that it had absolutely nothing to do with an urge to go to the toilet.


(Copyright © 2008 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)