1.20 Sunshine and Micronutrients

1.20.1 Alenby and Ada Prepare to Take Lunch

On the Terrace at Château Mourey

12:30 pm Thursday 3 April 1987

The raised terrace abutted the south side of the building, its awning retracted to admit the spring sunshine. On it a table was set for lunch for four: dazzling white napery, sparkling silverware and crystal goblets, a vase loaded with fresh-cut flowers. On a side-table, serving equipment, flutes, and an ice bucket containing a couple of magnums of Champagne. Here and there on the terrace stood white wicker chairs casually arranged, their cushions vivid splotches of green, vermillion, ocher....

Splendid layout, Alenby acknowledged inwardly. But what about lunch? With the ugly, small-minded restrictions enforced in this universe, what presentation could match the magnificence of this ambience?

He tuned away and looked about the courtyard, an equally impressive scene: in the stone wall to his right a porte cochère with an ornately wrought iron gate. To his left, the swimming pool filled, so Ada had told him, with the living water of the Vienne. Close by on his left he noticed a  domed cage, and a short time later he saw the piglet Georges trot through its tunnel-shaped entry-way. Ada appeared, carrying a steaming jug of what Alenby immediately recognized from its savory vapors as Pâtée Ducru.

"The cage, it's called a Piggy-Spa," she explained. "A piglet’s retreat, with externally operated food preparation facilities, a mud bath, a piglet-adapted Düngermischmaschine and an automatic exit wash. Hold on a moment, I'm just topping up his swill." As she said that she turned away and emptied the jug into the piglet's trough: "There you are my curly tailed princey whinsey, it's your swilly billy time, yes it i-is." And back to Alenby, "Are you feeling okay? You look a little off-color all of a sudden. Come, it's time to top up our own vital levels--of vitamins D, free in the form of sunshine." With that she bounded up the steps to the terrace, alighted on the nearest chair and allowed her limbs to fall into a sprawling attitude to receive the sun.

Alenby followed, mounting the steps gingerly, bracing at each for the inevitable forked lightning of pain at left knee to lower back. Arthritis—no escaping it, his doctor had assured him. A natural result of aging, nothing to worry about. In any case, easily controlled by taking a couple of tablets of Ipüpoften an hour and a half ahead of the planned physical activity. Two hours ahead if the most common side effect--continuous-flow diarrhea--should threaten to interfere with normal daily activities. And if by some chance Ipüpoften didn't work, there were artificial knees, hips and such to fall back on....

Why didn’t Ada have arthritis? The question crossed his mind, but he didn’t dwell on it. He merely marveled that the feminine arrangement of legs and hips, seemingly awkwardly constructed for locomotion, should in her case work so freely. He subsided on to a chair across the table from her and watched her luxuriating in the heat and light of the sun—twisting up-stretched arms back and forth as if to expose her body to the sun to the extent possible, and in so doing bringing into relief the distinct corrugations of her rib cage….

He’d been startled, at first, to see her tossing off all her clothes. After a moment, though, nude seemed a perfectly natural state in this sun-drenched courtyard. Perfectly natural—for her, at least. And now she wanted him to do so as well. He had plenty of reasons not to. Respectable reasons, like skin cancer and so on and so forth.

And the real reason—dirty underpants.

In Alenby's case, this was the result of his rectal leakage problem. On occasion, it seemed, his hyperactive colon kept right on working even after its job was done, as if trying to expel itself. Result: that familiar sensation of a snake writhing around in there, anal itching, an occasional sharp pain in that area like a jab with a needle. And most embarrassing, a slight but persistent oozing from his rectum. It wasn’t leaking at that very moment, but the chances were that telltale stain would be there....

"No," he said. "I am not about to disrobe, and that's flat!"

Ada received this declaration with head tilted back, one hand shading her eyes. "I think I hear a PROFATPOL helicopter out there somewhere. Snooping about looking for us. Alenby—I do wish you would take your clothes off!"

"Snooping helicopters are all the more reason to keep our clothes on. Surely it attracts unwanted attention—people lolling about in the nude?"

"Not as much attention as people lolling about not in the nude. Wearing clothes while sunbathing or swimming is so eccentric, any judge would accept it as ground for a search warrant. And remember, in this season at least thirty minutes' exposure to sunlight is necessary to up our vitamin D3 reserves to a safe level. So please be sensible, for safety….

Alenby saw the logic in her mention of a search warrant. Nothing motivated him like the prospect of a brush with the law--so unsafe in the absence of competent legal representation. He had to disrobe for safety’s sake. Thinking fast, he conceived a plan to avoid embarrassment—undress slowly until getting to his unsightly underpants, then while she wasn't looking, whip them off, quickly roll them up to hide that telltale stain—

When he carried out his plan, however, he found it supererogatory! There was no stain. He wasn’t leaking, and he now realized, hadn’t been leaking at any time that day. Evidently Crudulax or R-solace or plain old Paxitin or some lucky combination of them had somehow worked to defeat that inner reptile. It had never happened before….

And she was right all along, he acknowledged inwardly. In the circumstances, wearing clothes was indeed eccentric. He quickly removed the rest of his things, sank down on to his chair and closed his eyes. He felt the smooth warm pavement of the terrace under the soles of his feet, the rough fabric of the cushion under his buttocks, and the air, warm from the sun but with an edgy hint of chill, eddying about his torso…. It was a moment to savor.

He heard the subdued pop of a Champagne cork expertly pulled, the gush of bubbly into a glass. At his side he sensed Ada, smelling lightly toasted like scalloped potatoes gratin fresh from the oven. He opened his eyes, and yes it was a glass—not a flute—two glasses, actually, of Lafayette Blanc de Blanc.

"Surprise!" Ada said, laughing, "I knew you didn’t care for our u-flutes, so while you weren't looking I went in and switched them for standard wine glasses. You’re right, our  flutes are too small. You can’t get your nose into them. I like to get my nose in and nuzzle, you know, the subsiding foam, and feel the prickle of tiny bubbles and roll my tongue around inside and lick up the froth. For that you need a regular glass."

"More clinkable, too," Alenby said, also laughing. Generally he didn’t care for levity where wine was concerned, but today he made an exception for Champagne.

They raised their glasses, clinked, and toasted the moment.

After a while, their glasses drained, Ada announced that it was time to prepare the lunch that Uncle Paul had planned for them. She went inside and presently emerged rolling a portable kitchen with a stove top, refrigerator, oven--everything that might be needed for a table-side presentation. Even more eye-catching to Alenby, she had put on the essentials of a serious waitress' attire--frilly white mobcap and white apron—a partial coverage of her person that only added to her allure. It occurred to him that if his virility-enhancing meds were ever going to work, it would be now. But no, not a flicker. Might as well give up on it, he thought.

"Lucrezia--she's Uncle Paul's housekeeper--she's already done the prep," Ada was saying. "The rest is automatic. It won't take long. We have plenty of time...."

Alenby noticed she was smiling and working her hips the way the weaker sex invites amorous interest. "Well," he said reluctantly, "I suppose I could go and get the pump--"

"Well, that's thoughtful...but Alenby, I adore how you talk dirty. You will talk dirty won't you? You know--like about roasted chicken, grilled steak pink on the inside, frog's legs...."

At that moment a carillon sounded--a joyous sound to Alenby's ears, like the finale of Mahler's "Resurrection."

Ada was not overjoyed, however. "Oh humanure!" she said, hurriedly removing her waitress clothes and tossing them aside. "It's the fracking neighbors. Quick, off the glasses, get the flutes--we don't want them to think we're savages. Oh, I told Uncle Paul we wanted to be alone! Oh, my hair! And my face! Where you slugged me, you gorgeous brute!" She accompanied this last with a playful punch to his soft midriff. "But it doesn't matter. I've just remembered--it's probably just Ari. Uncle Paul's crony Aristotle Patras, the United Nations Secretary General Emeritus. Has a thing for pubescent girls.... "

Alenby came back with the flutes. "Well, are they coming in? Maybe someone just pushed the button by mistake?"

"Ari's not bright, it'll take him a few tries to figure out the password. But Alenby--listen to me now--Ari seems harmless, but he could turn out a real menace. It's hard to credit, but he still believes in ridiculous notions totally antithetical to science and reason--travel through hyperspace, U-sightings all that  nonsense-- Give him a shred of confirmation and he'll go blabbing it all over the universe trying to show he was right after all. Imagine the publicity! So--low profile, okay?"

Alenby said okay, and he really meant it. There were few things he wanted less than publicity.

1.20.2 Enter Aristotle Patras and Anastacia Oupia

 On the Terrace at Château Mourey

1:30 pm Thursday 3 April 1987

The gates swung open to admit running into the courtyard a short, lean, bronzed, somewhat stiff-striding elderly man sporting a thick mat of white hair on his chest, accompanied by a whip-thin pubescent girl. The runners headed  to the swimming pool, removing their skimpy running outfits with the evident intention of a cooling plunge before lunch, but on seeing others were present they politely slowed down and turned towards the terrace.

"That's Ari all right," Ada confirmed hurriedly, "but his little friend--I think she must be the unfortunate offspring of the Comptesse d'Oupia, a ghastly hag trying to get her child approved for motherhood but the kid idolizes Uncle Paul, wants to be a scientist..."

She broke off and moved to greet the visiting couple on tippy toes, but Aristotle Patras, genially invoking his senior status, brushed aside the formalities and insisted on the casual first names: Ada, Ari, Ana and, to Alenby's mute displeasure, Al. So the social temperature was set on warm, or at least tepid. Alenby opened a fresh bottle of Champagne (and Vichy water for Ana), and poured full the flutes. Standing, they toasted the spring sunshine, the sparkle of the water of the Vienne in the brimming pool, the happy chance of their meeting. Into a potentially awkward silence that followed, Ari neatly interposed a few words of light-hearted chatter about the traffic accident just a little way down the road--caused apparently by some hyper-aggressive driver....  Ada and Alenby mouthed the usual expressions of dismay, meanwhile exchanging covert glances of complicity. Then Ada lowered the awning and all four sat down together on the now-shaded terrace.

Ada and Ari conversed in English, while Al and Ana remained amicably silent.

"Ada," said Ari, respectfully pressing her right hand between both of his, "I have heard so much about you from Paul, you know, and I have been looking forward to meeting you! I have of course followed with great interest your efforts through XPROW to extend Prohibition to sugary snacks and drinks, et cetera. Though this highly desirable measure has yet to be made law throughout the United Nations, your advocacy has already raised public awareness of the dangers of these low-nutricity, or junk foods. Especially apposite, I think, to the condition known as obesity. Though few cases of obesity have been reported in recent years, the potential for harm is significant. Thanks to your work, the menace of the second O in CHAOS AND OUCH is at last about to receive the widespread scrutiny it deserves."

"How kind your greeting, and the feeling is mutual," Ada responded, freeing her hand with an elaborate show of reluctance and allowing it to drop languidly on Ari's magnificently hairy pectorals. "For my part, I found much of interest in in your recent Prohibition Day address, particularly your identification of  two unsolved problems currently confronting the United Nations. Confidentially, do you find any reason for optimism in that regard?"

"Those two problems are far from definitive solution," said Ari in a grave voice. "But I have, I believe, some constructive ideas.

"In regard to the first, the population problem: As I may have mentioned--of course you are entirely au fait with  this--the institution of polyandry has proved an effective means of reducing the birthrate, and present trends indeed suggest we will reduce our numbers to a sustainable level--that would be about two billion, as my friends who occupy themselves with such minutiae inform me--within a few generations. Yet we must do more. We must improve the health and the intellectual potential of the newborn, that in due course they may be optimally prepared to marshal science and reason to preserve Gaea."

After taking an appreciative sip of Lafayette, Ari continued: "To this end, we need to improve the readiness of potential Diplomates of Motherhood, Dipmoms as I believe people are saying, to handle the stressful situations that arise in the transition from daughter to mother, from fancy-free maiden to wife of two or more, possibly rather surly husbands.

"A high degree of stress, as indicated in humans and surrogate animals by elevated levels of certain hormones, is detrimental to health. Scientific research has revealed that a stressed mother will likely deliver a stressed baby, and a stressed condition may well prevail in adulthood and be transmitted to subsequent generations.

"It is in this regard that I have proposed the provision of sexmentors, kindly elderly gentlemen of impeccable reputation who undertake to provide confidence-boosting guidance of potential Dipmoms through their first steps of reproductive life.

"Now I am aware that this proposal might strike some as laughable, if not bizarre. But I would respond with the reminder--here I paraphrase words of my friend Gabriel García Márquez, a writer--that it is not unusual for a gentleman to blossom in a kind of autumnal youth, to seem more dignified with his first gray hairs, become witty and seductive in the eyes of young women--"

"Not only young women," Ada put in, unobtrusively running her fingers through Ari's chest hair.

At Ari's murmured response, Ada smiled serenely. Ana, overhearing, squirmed and rolled her eyes  in a paroxysm of embarrassment. Al also squirmed, not so much from embarrassment as from his awareness that it was time for lunch and nobody seemed to care.

"The second unsolved problem," Ari resumed, "is as you know a demographic imbalance between old and young that threatens the economic health and the social cohesiveness of every one of our United Nations. The solution is simple to state: Persuade more old people to commit suicide. In practice, however, it has proved difficult to implement. The traditional suicide party, or assiette noire as it is called here in France, is a promising format, but the elderly have been unenthusiastic about putting it into practice.

"For the benefit of those of the Anglo-Saxon persuasion who might be present in my audience today, I should perhaps explain the nature of the assiette noire. It is a luncheon party in which black delicacies--black fungi of various sorts, ripe olives, black beans, black truffles, liberally accompanied by the famed black wine of Cahors--are offered to the entire assemblage. After dessert--blackberries with a prune juice coulis is frequently favored--and black coffee, the guest of honor accepts, usually to acclamation, a poison mushroom of such virulence that it can be relied upon to cause death instantly upon ingestion, and without creating any annoying clean-up problems.

"Here we have an end-of-life option in full accord with science and reason, yet as I mentioned, it is largely spurned by the aged. One must ask--how might it be modified to make it more acceptable to them than lengthy lingering in the grip of pain and melancholy?

"I propose an answer, and it is simply this: Simplify. Retain the fatal mushroom, but otherwise pare down the menu to one item--a mushroom of some sort is an overwhelmingly popular choice--one item, I suggest, one item of supremely attractive savor, and powerful enough to engage the most attenuated gustatory sensibilities.

"In this way I have reduced an apparently intractable philosophical problem to a mere technical one, namely to produce a non-poisonous mushroom of the required culinary merit. My friend Paul Ducru has undertaken to produce such a mushroom by the methods of bioengineering, in which he is a distinguished expert, and today he has kindly made available some prototypical samples for our delectation."

"Thank you, Ari," said Ada, who had by this time resumed her waitress attire and taken her station at the portable kitchen. "Lunch will be ready in four minutes. Uncle Paul has requested feedback on his culinary effort. Kindly give your comments to Ari, who will relay them to the chef. Now, Ari--would you care to say grace?"

"Gladly," said Ari, "But I will say not so much a grace as a blessing. A blessing of those who, in the interest of mitigating the effects of the demographic imbalance that looms over us, have participated as principal in an assiette noire. The words are those of Charles Péguy:

                                                   Heureux ceux qui sont morts, car ils sont returnés

                                                  Dans la première argile et la première terre."

                                                    [Blessed are the dead, for they have returned

                                                    To the original clay and the primeval earth.]

After a pause for reflection, everyone made the sign of the circle. Then Ada announced "Lunch is served," everyone said "bon appétit," and the test of Professor Ducru's latest culinary creation proceeded with due solemnity.

***

Following the service of the experimental mushroom, and after dessert, coffee and mignardises, Ari assembled the comments to be transmitted to Professor Ducru:

"Ada, I believe you said the experimental mushroom was 'To die for.'"

"I did," she said, "and Ari, you were magnificent: 'Heureux ceux qui sont morts,' so approprate."

"Thank you. And Ana, your comment was 'Yummy.'"

"Uh huh, I guess..."

"I'll take that as 'yes.' And Al, you said--hmm, something about ozmazome, whatever that may be. Perhaps you can enlighten us on that point?"

Alenby was by this time feeling emotionally disoriented. The aroma and taste of the genetically modified mushroom had brought back in startling immediacy the most treasured memories of his life as a gourmet. On the other hand, Ari's casual takeover of the tasting event, as if it were nothing more than an item on some tiresome bureaucratic agenda, had left him profoundly peeved. So he answered with a degree of asperity: "I said, 'this mushroom contains the quintessential quality of the crispy, crunchy coating of roasted meat--a quality known as ozmazome.'"

"Oh yes," said Ari, hurriedly licking his lips. "Ozmazome, that's from Brillat-Savarin's 'The Physiology of Taste,' isn't it. It has been a long time since I read the scrofulous meanderings of that eminent Substance pornographer, but it is coming back to me now--"

"Scrofulous?" Alenby cut in. "Scrofulous, meaning morally degenerate? I say 'scrofulous' is more aptly applied to your participation in sex with children and in assisted suicide. Those activities are not only odious, they are also criminal."

Well, that's it, he thought. No more low profile. What now?

Nothing much, apparently. He saw Ada smiling, and Ari with head tilted back and slightly to one side, tapping a forefinger to his bottom lip as if in serious thought. "Odious, perhaps," he said at length, "but not criminal. Not in this universe.

"However," Ari continued, "about sex with girls below a certain age, I appreciate your point. My activities are supported by reason and science as justified in the face of the existential threats of overpopulation and global warming. But reason cautions against rejecting too lightly the moral strictures of an earlier stage in the evolution of civilization. As Pascal's pensée advises 'The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.'"

 With that he turned away with some quip to Ada and Ana, as if Alenby's outburst were forgotten.   

The lunch, and the business of the lunch, were over, and the heat of the afternoon sunshine had become somewhat oppressive. It was time for the guests to put on their clothes and go home, but--annoyingly to Alenby, who was feeling the pain of one bested in a game of which he did not know the rules, they made no sign of leaving. Instead, Ari hitched his chair closer to Ada's, and they put their heads together in an animated tête-à-tête.

He's talking dirty to her, Alenby thought irritably. Talking about ozmazome and the coating of a baron of beef roasting on the spit.... He felt an overpowering desire to be somewhere else. He glanced at Ana, they both glanced at the swimming pool, and of one accord, they stood up and ran over the hot stone to of the courtyard toward the the pool. Or rather, Ana ran and dived in, clean as a knife, while Alenby lumbered after and flopped.

***

In that clumsy plunge Alenby entered a swimming environment quite unlike what he recalled from his youth as the star of the Rowan Hamilton swim team. Instead of gleaming tiles to every side, he saw luxuriant growths of dark green moss carpeting roughly shaped stone walls. Instead of a clear antiseptic solution of eye-stinging chlorine, he swam the pale green, faintly opalescent water of the Vienne with its squads of tiny minnows darting and wheeling. He had a revelation that he was embedded in the untidy, teeming, burgeoning, rotting and regenerating biomass called Gaea.

But he soon came to his senses and faced the perception that as an alien in an unfamiliar universe and a criminal to boot, he was in a rather awkward position.

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