"What's the matter?" asked Arnold.
I was getting a footnoterphone signal; in the BookWorld people generally communicated like this.
"A footnoterphone call," I replied, "but it's not a messageit's like the wireless back home."
"... After the headlines you can hear our weekly documentary show WellSpeak, where today we will discuss hiding exposition; following that there will be a WellNews special on the launch of the new Book Operating System, UltraWord, featuring a live studio debate with WordMaster Xavier Libris of Text Grand Central..."
Arnold stared at me. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"I'm from the other side of the page. What you call the Outland."
"... here are the main points of the news. Prices of semicolons, plot devices, prologues and inciting incidents continued to fall yesterday, lopping twenty-eight points off the TomJones Index. The Council of Genres has announced the nominations for the 923rd annual BookWorld Awards; Heathcliff is once again to head the Most Troubled Romantic Lead category, for the seventy-eighth year running..."
He opened his eyes wide. "You meanyou're real?"
"I'm afraid so," I replied, slightly bemused.
"Goodness! Is it true that Outlanders can't say red-Buick-blue-Buick' many times quickly?"
"It's true. We call it a tongue twister."
"Fascinating! There's nothing like that here, you know. I can say The sixth sheikh's sixth sheep's sick' over and over as many times as I want!"
And he did, three times.
"Now you try."
I took a deep breath. "The sixth spleeps sics sleeks... sick."
Arnold laughed like a drain. I don't think he'd come across anything quite so funny in his life. I smiled.
"Do it again!"
"No thanks. How do I stop this footnoterphone blabbering inside my skull?"
"... A new epic poem is to be constructed for the first time in eighty-seven years. Title and subject to be announced, but pundits reckon that it's a pointless exercise: skills have all but died out. Next week will also see the launch of a new shopping chain offering off-the-peg narrative requisites. It will be called Prêt-à-Écrire..."
"Just think Off very strongly."
I did, and the footnoterphone stopped.
"You'll get the hang of it."
He thought for a minute, looked up and down the lake in an overtly innocent manner, then said, "Do you want to buy some verbs? Not any of your rubbish, either. Good, strong, healthy regularsstraight from the Text SeaI have a friend on a scrawltrawler."
I smiled. "I don't think so, Arnoldand I don't think you should ask meI'm Jurisfiction."
"Oh," said Arnold, looking pale all of a sudden. He bit his lip and gave such an imploring look that I almost laughed.
"Don't sweat," I told him, "I won't report it."
He sighed a deep sigh of relief, muttered his thanks, remounted his motorbike and drove off in a jerky fashion, narrowly missing the mailboxes at the top of the track.
The interior of the flying boat was lighter and more airy than I had imagined, but it smelt a bit musty. Mary was mistaken; she had not been halfway through the craft's conversionit was more like one-tenth. The walls were half-paneled with pine tongue-and-groove, and rock-wool insulation stuck out untidily along with unused electrical cables. There was room for two floors within the boat's cavernous hull, the downstairs a large, open-plan living room with a couple of old sofas pointing towards a television set. I tried to switch it on but it was deadthere was no TV in the BookWorld unless called for in the narrative. Much of what I could see around me were merely props, necessary for the chapter in which Jack Spratt visits the Sunderland to discuss the case. On the mantelpiece above a small wood-burning stove were pictures of Mary from her days at the police training college, and another from when she was promoted to detective sergeant.
Copyright Jasper Fforde 2003. All rights reserved.
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