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Chapter Nine

Arthur felt at a bit of a loss. There was a whole Galaxy of stuff out there for him, and he wondered if it was churlish of him to complain to himself that it lacked just two things: the world he was born on and the woman he loved.

Damn it and blast it, he thought, and felt the need of some guidance and advice. He consulted the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He looked up `guidance' and it said `See under ADVICE'. He looked up `advice' and it said `see under GUIDANCE'. It had been doing a lot of that kind of stuff recently and he wondered if it was all it was cracked up to be.

He headed to the outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy where, it was said, wisdom and truth were to be found, most particularly on the planet Hawalius, which was a planet of oracles and seers and soothsayers and also take-away pizza shops, because most mystics were completely incapable of cooking for themselves.

However it appeared that some sort of calamity had befallen this planet. As Arthur wandered the streets of the village where the major prophets lived, it had something of a crestfallen air. He came across one prophet who was clearly shutting up shop in a despondent kind of way and asked him what was happening.

`No call for us any more,' he said gruffly as he started to bang a nail into the plank he was holding across the window of his hovel.

`Oh? Why's that?'

`Hold on to the other end of this and I'll show you.'

Arthur held up the unnailed end of the plank and the old prophet scuttled into the recesses of his hovel, returning a moment or two later with a small Sub-Etha radio. He turned it on, fiddled with the dial for a moment and put the thing on the small wooden bench that he usually sat and prophesied on. He then took hold of the plank again and resumed hammering.

Arthur sat and listened to the radio.

`...be confirmed,' said the radio.

`Tomorrow,' it continued, `the Vice-President of Poffla Vigus, Roopy Ga Stip, will announce that he intends to run for President. In a speech he will give tomorrow at...'

`Find another channel,' said the prophet. Arthur pushed the preset button.

`...refused to Comment,' said the radio. `Next week's jobless totals in the Zabush sector, it continued, `will be the worst since records began. A report published next month says...'

`Find another,' barked the prophet, crossly. Arthur pushed the button again.

`...denied it categorically,' said the radio. `Next month's Royal Wedding between Prince Gid of the Soofling Dynasty and Princess Hooli of Raui Alpha will be the most spectacular ceremony the Bjanjy Territories has ever witnessed. Our reporter Trillian Astra is there and sends us this report.'

Arthur blinked.

The sound of cheering crowds and a hubbub of brass bands erupted from the radio. A very familiar voice said, `Well Krart, the scene here in the middle of next month is absolutely incredible. Princess Hooli is looking radiant in a...'

The prophet swiped the radio off the bench and on to the dusty ground, where it squawked like a badly tuned chicken.

`See what we have to contend with?' grumbled the prophet. `Here, hold this. Not that, this. No, not like that. This way up. Other way round, you fool.' `I was listening to that,' complained Arthur, grappling helplessly with the prophet's hammer.

`So does everybody. That's why this place is like a ghost town.' He spat into the dust.

`No, I mean, that sounded like someone I knew.'

`Princess Hooli? If I had to stand around saying hello to everybody who's known Princess Hooli I'd need a new set of lungs.'

`Not the Princess,' said Arthur. `The reporter. Her name's Trillian. I don't know where she got the Astra from. She's from the same planet as me. I wondered where she'd got to.'

`Oh, she's all over the continuum these days. We can't get the tri-d TV stations out here of course, thank the Great Green Arkleseizure, but you hear her on the radio, gallivanting here and there through space/time. She wants to settle down and find herself a steady era that young lady does. It'll all end in tears. Probably already has.' He swung with his hammer and hit his thumb rather hard. He started to speak in tongues.

The village of oracles wasn't much better.

He had been told that when looking for a good oracle it was best to find the oracle that other oracles went to, but he was shut. There was a sign by the entrance saying, `I just don't know any more. Try next door, but that's just a suggestion, not formal oracular advice.'

`Next door' was a cave a few hundred yards away and Arthur walked towards it. Smoke and steam were rising from, respectively, a small fire and a battered tin pot that was hanging over it. There was also a very nasty smell coming from the pot. At least Arthur thought it was coming from the pot. The distended bladders of some of the local goat-like things were hanging from a propped-up line drying in the sun, and the smell could have been coming from them. There was also, a worryingly small distance away, a pile of discarded bodies of the local goat-like things and the smell could have been coming from them.

But the smell could just as easily have been coming from the old lady who was busy beating flies away from the pile of bodies. It was a hopeless task because each of the flies was about the size of a winged bottle top and all she had was a table tennis bat. Also she seemed half blind. Every now and then, by chance, her wild thrashing would connect with one of the flies with a richly satisfying thunk, and the fly would hurtle through the air and smack itself open against the rock face a few yards from the entrance to her cave.

She gave every impression, by her demeanour, that these were the moments she lived for.

Arthur watched this exotic performance for a while from a polite distance, and then at last tried giving a gentle cough to attract her attention. The gentle cough, courteously meant, unfortunately involved first inhaling rather more of the local atmosphere than he had so far been doing and as a result, he erupted into a fit of raucous expectoration, and collapsed against the rock face, choking and streaming with tears. He struggled for breath, but each new breath made things worse. He vomited, half-choked again, rolled over his vomit, kept rolling for a few yards, and eventually made it up on to his hands and knees and crawled, panting, into slightly fresher air.

`Excuse me,' he said. He got some breath back. `I really am most dreadfully sorry. I feel a complete idiot and...' He gestured helplessly towards the small pile of his own vomit lying spread around the entrance to her cave.

`What can I say?' he said. `What can I possibly say?'

This at least had gained her attention. She looked round at him suspiciously, but, being half blind, had difficulty finding him in the blurred and rocky landscape.

He waved, helpfully. `Hello!' he called.

At last she spotted him, grunted to herself and turned back to whacking flies.

It was horribly apparent from the way that currents of air moved when she did, that the major source of the smell was in fact her. The drying bladders, the festering bodies and the noxious potage may all have been making violent contributions to the atmosphere, but the major olfactory presence was the woman herself.

She got another good thwack at a fly. It smacked against the rock and dribbled its insides down it in what she clearly regarded, if she could see that far, as a satisfactory manner.

Unsteadily, Arthur got to his feet and brushed himself down with a fistful of dried grass. He didn't know what else to do by way of announcing himself. He had half a mind just to wander off again, but felt awkward about leaving a pile of his vomit in front of the entrance to the woman's home. He wondered what to do about it. He started to pluck up more handsful of the scrubby dried grass that was to be found here and there. He was worried, though, that if he ventured nearer to the vomit he might simply add to it rather than clear it up.

Just as he was debating with himself as to what the right course of action was he began to realise that she was at last saying something to him.

`I beg your pardon?' he called out.

`I said, can I help you?' she said, in a thin, scratchy voice. that he could only just hear.

`Er, I came to ask your advice,' he called back, feeling a bit ridiculous.

She turned to peer at him, myopically, then turned back, swiped at a fly and missed.

`What about?' she said.

`I beg your pardon?' he said.

`I said, what about?' she almost screeched.

`Well,' said Arthur. `Just sort of general advice, really. It said in the brochure ---'

`Ha! Brochure!' spat the old woman. She seemed to be waving her bat more or less at random now.

Arthur fished the crumpled-up brochure from his pocket. He wasn't quite certain why. He had already read it and she, he expected, wouldn't want to. He unfolded it anyway in order to have something to frown thoughtfully at for a moment or two. The copy in the brochure wittered on about the ancient mystical arts of the seers and sages of Hawalius, and wildly over-represented the level of accommodation available in Hawalion. Arthur still carried a copy of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with him but found, when he consulted it, that the entries were becoming more abstruse and paranoid and had lots of x's and j's and \{'s in them. Something was wrong somewhere. Whether it was in his own personal unit, or whether it was something or someone going terribly amiss, or perhaps just hallucinating, at the heart of the Guide organisation itself, he didn't know. But one way or another he was even less inclined to trust it than usual, which meant that he trusted it not one bit, and mostly used it for eating his sandwiches off when he was sitting on a rock staring at something.

The woman had turned and was walking slowly towards him now. Arthur tried, without making it too obvious, to judge the wind direction, and bobbed about a bit as she approached.

`Advice,' she said. `Advice, eh?'

`Er, yes,' said Arthur. `Yes, that is ---'

He frowned again at the brochure, as if to be certain that he hadn't misread it and stupidly turned up on the wrong planet or something. The brochure said `The friendly local inhabitants will be glad to share with you the knowledge and wisdom of the ancients. Peer with them into the swirling mysteries of past and future time!' There were some coupons as well, but Arthur had been far too embarrassed actually to cut them out or try to present them to anybody.

`Advice, eh,' said the old woman again. `Just sort of general advice, you say. On what? What to do with your life, that sort of thing?'

`Yes,' said Arthur. `That sort of thing. Bit of a problem I sometimes find if I'm being perfectly honest.' He was trying desperately, with tiny darting movements, to stay upwind of her. She surprised him by suddenly turning sharply away from him and heading off towards her cave.

`You'll have to help me with the photocopier, then,' she said.

`What?' said Arthur.

`The photocopier,' she repeated, patiently. `You'll have to help me drag it out. It's solar-powered. I have to keep it in the cave, though, so the birds don't shit on it.'

`I see,' said Arthur.

`I'd take a few deep breaths if I were you,' muttered the old woman, as she stomped into the gloom of the cave mouth.

Arthur did as she advised. He almost hyperventilated in fact. When he felt he was ready, he held his breath and followed her in.

The photocopier was a big old thing on a rickety trolley. It stood just inside the dim shadows of the cave. The wheels were stuck obstinately in different directions and the ground was rough and stony.

`Go ahead and take a breath outside,' said the old woman. Arthur was going red in the face trying to help her move the thing.

He nodded in relief. If she wasn't going to be embarrassed about it then neither, he was determined, would he. He stepped outside and took a few breaths, then came back in to do more heaving and pushing. He had to do this quite a few times till at last the machine was outside.

The sun beat down on it. The old woman disappeared back into her cave again and brought with her some mottled metal panels, which she connected to the machine to collect the sun's energy.

She squinted up into the sky. The sun was quite bright, but the day was hazy and vague.

`It'll take a while,' she said.

Arthur said he was happy to wait.

The old woman shrugged and stomped across to the fire. Above it, the contents of the tin can were bubbling away. She poked about at them with a stick.

`You won't be wanting any lunch?' she enquired of Arthur.

`I've eaten, thanks,' said Arthur. `No, really. I've eaten.'

`I'm sure you have,' said the old lady. She stirred with the stick. After a few minutes she fished a lump of something out, blew on it to cool it a little, and then put it in her mouth.

She chewed on it thoughtfully for a bit.

Then she hobbled slowly across to the pile of dead goat-like things. She spat the lump out on to the pile. She hobbled slowly back to the can. She tried to unhook it from the sort of tripod-like thing that it was hanging from.

`Can I help you?' said Arthur, jumping up politely. He hurried over.

Together they disengaged the tin from the tripod and carried it awkwardly down the slight slope that led downwards from her cave and towards a line of scrubby and gnarled trees, which marked the edge of a steep but quite shallow gully, from, which a whole new range of offensive smells was emanating.

`Ready?' said the old Lady.

`Yes...' said Arthur, though he didn't know for what.

`One,' said the old lady.

`Two,' she said.

`Three,' she added.

Arthur realised just in time what she intended. Together they tossed the contents of the tin into the gully.

After an hour or two of uncommunicative silence, the old woman decided that the solar panels had absorbed enough sunlight to run the photocopier now and she disappeared to rummage inside her cave. She emerged at last with a few sheaves of paper and fed them through the machine.

She handed the copies to Arthur.

`This is, er, this your advice then, is it?' said Arthur, leafing through them uncertainly.

`No,' said the old lady. `It's the story of my life. You see, the quality of any advice anybody has to offer has to be judged against the quality of life they actually lead. Now, as you look through this document you'll see that I've underlined all the major decisions I ever made to make them stand out. They're all indexed and cross-referenced. See? All I can suggest is that if you take decisions that are exactly opposite to the sort of decisions that I've taken, then maybe you won't finish up at the end of your life...' she paused, and filled her lungs for a good shout, `... in a smelly old cave like this!'

She grabbed up her table tennis bat, rolled up her sleeve, stomped off to her pile of dead goat-like things, and started to set about the flies with vim and vigour.

The last village Arthur visited consisted entirely of extremely high poles. They were so high that it wasn't possible to tell, from the ground, what was on top of them, and Arthur had to climb three before he found one that had anything on top of it at all other than a platform covered with bird droppings.

Not an easy task. You went up the poles by climbing on the short wooden pegs that had been hammered into them in slowly ascending spirals. Anybody who was a less diligent tourist than Arthur would have taken a couple of snapshots and sloped right off to the nearest Bar & Grill, where you also could buy a range of particularly sweet and gooey chocolate cakes to eat in front of the ascetics. But, largely as a result of this, most of the ascetics had gone now. In fact they had mostly gone and set up lucrative therapy centres on some of the more affluent worlds in the North West ripple of the Galaxy, where the living was easier by a factor of about seventeen million, and the chocolate was just fabulous. Most of the ascetics, it turned out, had not known about chocolate before they took up asceticism. Most of the clients who came to their therapy centres knew about it all too well.

At the top of the third pole Arthur stopped for a breather. He was very hot and out of breath, since each pole was about fifty or sixty feet high. The world seemed to swing vertiginously around him, but it didn't worry Arthur too much. He knew that, logically. he could not die until he had been to Stavromula Beta, <footnote 6> and had therefore managed to cultivate a merry attitude towards extreme personal danger. He felt a little giddy perched fifty feet up in the air on top of a pole, but he dealt with it by eating a sandwich. He was just about to embark on reading the photocopied life history of the oracle, when he was rather startled to hear a slight cough behind him.

He turned so abruptly that he dropped his sandwich, which turned downwards through the air and was rather small by the time it was stopped by the ground.

About thirty feet behind Arthur was another pole, and, alone amongst the sparse forest of about three dozen poles, the top of it was occupied. It was occupied by an old man who, in turn, seemed to be occupied by profound thoughts that were making him scowl.

`Excuse me,' said Arthur. The man ignored him. Perhaps he couldn't hear him. The breeze was moving about a bit. It was only by chance that Arthur had heard the slight cough.

`Hello?' called Arthur. `Hello!'

The man at last glanced round at him. He seemed surprised to see him. Arthur couldn't tell if he was surprised and pleased to see him or just surprsised.

`Are you open?' called Arthur.

The man frowned in incomprehension. Arthur couldn't tell if he couldn't understand or couldn't hear.

`I'll pop over,' called Arthur. `Don't go away.'

He clambered off the small platform and climbed quickly down the spiralling pegs, arriving at the bottom quite dizzy.

He started to make his way over to the pole on which the old man was sitting, and then suddenly realised that he had disoriented himself on the way down and didn't know for certain which one it was.

He looked around for landmarks and worked out which was the right one.

He climbed it. It wasn't.

`Damn,' he said. `Excuse me!' he called out to the old man again, who was now straight in front of him and forty feet away. `Got lost. Be with you in a minute.' Down he went again, getting very hot and bothered.

When he arrived, panting and sweating, at the top of the pole that he knew for certain was the right one he realised that the man was, somehow or other, mucking him about.

`What do you want?' shouted the old man crossly at him. He was now sitting on top of the pole that Arthur recognised was the one that he had been on himself when eating his sandwich.

`How did you get over there?' called Arthur in bewilderment.

`You think I'm going to tell you just like that what it took me forty springs, summers and autumns of sitting on top of a pole to work out?'

`What about winter?'

`What about winter?'

`Don't you sit on the pole in the winter?'

`Just because I sit up a pole for most of my life,' said the man, `doesn't mean I'm an idiot. I go south in the winter. Got a beach house. Sit on the chimney stack.'

`Do you have any advice for a traveller?'

`Yes. Get a beach house.'

`I see.'

The man stared out over the hot, dry scrubby landscape. From here Arthur could just see the old woman, a tiny speck in the distance, dancing up and down swatting flies.

`You see her?' called the old man, suddenly.

`Yes,' said Arthur. `I consulted her in fact.'

`Fat lot she knows. I got the beach house because she turned it down. What advice did she give you?'

`Do exactly the opposite of everything she's done.'

`In other words, get a beach house.'

`I suppose so,' said Arthur. `Well, maybe I'll get one.'

`Hmmm.'

The horizon was swimming in a fetid heat haze.

`Any other advice?' asked Arthur. `Other than to do with real estate?'

`A beach house isn't just real estate. It's a state of mind,' said the man. He turned and looked at Arthur.

Oddly, the man's face was now only a couple of feet away. He seemed in one way to be a perfectly normal shape, but his body was sitting cross-legged on a pole forty feet away while his face was only two feet from Arthur's. Without moving his head, and without seeming to do anything odd at all, he stood up and stepped on to the top of another pole. Either it was just the heat, thought Arthur, or space was a different shape for him.

`A beach house,' he said, `doesn't even have to be on the beach. Though the best ones are. We all like to congregate,' he went on, `at boundary conditions.'

`Really?' said Arthur.

`Where land meets water. Where earth meets air. Where body meets mind. Where space meets time. We like to be on one side, and look at the other.'

Arthur got terribly excited. This was exactly the sort of thing he'd been promised in the brochure. Here was a man who seemed to be moving through some kind of Escher space saying really profound things about all sorts of stuff.

It was unnerving though. The man was now stepping from pole to ground, from ground to pole, from pole to pole, from pole to horizon and back: he was making complete nonsense of Arthur's spatial universe. `Please stop!' Arthur said, suddenly.

`Can't take it, huh?' said the man. Without the slightest movement he was now back, sitting cross-legged, on top of the pole forty feet in front of Arthur. `You come to me for advice, but you can't cope with anything you don't recognise. Hmmm. So we'll have to tell you something you already know but make it sound like news, eh? Well, business as usual I suppose.' He sighed and squinted mournfully into the distance.

`Where you from, boy?' he then asked. Arthur decided to be clever. He was fed up with being mistaken for a complete idiot by everyone he ever met. `Tell you what,' he said. `You're a seer. Why don't you tell me?'

The old man sighed again. `I was just,' he said, passing his hand round behind his head, `making conversation.' When he brought his hand round to the front again, he had a globe of the Earth spinning on his up-pointed forefinger. It was unmistakable. He put it away again. Arthur was stunned.

`How did you ---'

`I can't tell you.'

`Why not? I've come all this way.' `You cannot see what I see because you see what you see. You cannot know what I know because you know what you know. What I see and what I know cannot be added to what you see and what you know because they are not of the same kind. Neither can it replace what you see and what you know, because that would be to replace you yourself.'

`Hang on, can I write this down?' said Arthur, excitedly fumbling in his pocket for a pencil.

`You can pick up a copy at the spaceport,' said the old man . `They've got racks of the stuff.'

`Oh,' said Arthur, disappointed. `Well, isn't there anything that's perhaps a bit more specific to me?'

`Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you.'

Arthur looked at him doubtfully. `Can I get that at the spaceport, too?' he said.

`Check it out,' said the old man.

`It says in the brochure,' said Arthur, pulling it out of his pocket and looking at it again, `that I can have a special prayer, individually tailored to me and my special needs.'

`Oh, all right,' said the old man. `Here's a prayer for you. Got a pencil?'

`Yes,' said Arthur.

`It goes like this. Let's see now: ``Protect me from knowing what I don't need to know. Protect me from even knowing that there are things to know that I don't know. Protect me from knowing that I decided not to know about the things that I decided not to know about. Amen.'' That's it. It's what you pray silently inside yourself anyway, so you may as well have it out in the open.'

`Hmmm,' said Arthur. `Well, thank you ---'

`There's another prayer that goes with it that's very important,' continued the old man, `so you'd better jot this down, too.'

`OK.'

`It goes, ``Lord, lord, lord...'' It's best to put that bit in, just in case. You can never be too sure ``Lord, lord, lord. Protect me from the consequences of the above prayer. Amen...'' And that's it. Most of the trouble people get into in life comes from missing out that last part.'

`Ever heard of a place called Stavromula Beta?' asked Arthur.

`No.'

`Well, thank you for your help,' said Arthur.

`Don't mention it,' said the man on the pole, and vanished.


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