Gotesdene and its surrounding environs were very different to the Suburbs I decided as I walked along the long and winding road. There was none of the obsessive order and neatness that characterises the Suburbs. Rather, the fields on either side were a quilted hodgepodge of crops with goats, oxen and other animals working on the land: pulling ploughs, walking around in circles to grind grain in primitive mills, gathering crops in their teeth and throwing the produce into the back of carts. On several occasions, I had to step off the brick road into dried mud to allow an oxen-pulled wagon to ponderously lumber by. The midday sun was beating down on me but there was no shelter to be seen: there were few trees in sight and most of these were far off the road with many branches torn off, and their trunks ravished by the gnawing goats. Swallows occasionally dove down past me chasing after the insects buzzing around the corpses of animals by the roadside.
After two or three miles of walking through this rural scenery with my feet getting increasingly sore, I at last arrived at a village. There was no doubt that this was the village of Gotesdene, as just outside the fence barricading it was a painted board supported by two wooden posts which welcomed me to the village and requested me to drive carefully. Large ornate metal gates broke the monotony of fencing, featuring the crest of a rampant goat and ox, and supported by two pillars crowned by identical statues of rampant elephants bearing arms.
Initially, I thought there might be some kind of toll required to enter the village as in front of the gates was a family of goats kneeling down by a wooden platter. They bleated at me piteously in a dialect I couldn't understand at all, but I soon inferred that they were begging for alms: a practice long discontinued in the Suburbs. I pulled out a groat from my trouser pocket which I threw into the platter, believing this to be the absolute minimum that I could decently give. I wasn't at all prepared for the effusiveness with which the goat incomprehensibly expressed his gratitude. Although I could distinguish the occasional English word, I speculated that he was speaking a totally different language altogether.
I pushed open the gate, which creaked noisily as it resisted me, and ventured in. The village comprised a wide space of open land around which there were numerous wood and mud hovels, and was traversed by a dirt track from which the slightest breeze blew up clouds of dust. Goats, oxen and others wandered listlessly amongst the scattered waste and detritus. In the centre of the patch of common land there were a stocks, a gallows and a tall gaily coloured pole from which dangled multicoloured strands. There were also some tall oak trees and a tall stone cross.
A collection of market stalls was gathered at one end of the common. As I hadn't eaten since breakfast, I decided to look for a stall selling convenience food, such as a hamburger or a pizza. As I approached, I saw that there was little likelihood of buying a microwaved pizza, a deep-fried chicken or even chips. The stalls mostly sold agricultural implements, live chickens and vegetables. Many of these products flowed off the stalls and onto the ground, where decaying wicker baskets protected them from the dust and dirt. One stall was conducting a profitable trade in hay, around which gathered a crowd of acquisitive ungulates.
I understood very little of the stall-holders' cries, but I assumed that they were referring to their produce and how much a pound of this or an ounce of that would cost. I soon observed that the cost of living here was substantially lower than that in the Suburbs. Very little cost less than a florin or half crown in the Suburbs, whilst most goods in the Gotesdene market were selling for under a penny. This explained the gratitude the beggar at the gate had shown for a groat. I thought I might have a problem finding a stall furnished with sufficient change for the smallest denomination coin I had on me.
I bought a pound of apples for a farthing from a vegetable stall and had to resort to gestures to express what I wanted. I carried the apples loose in my pockets - as like other buyers I was clearly expected to have brought my own basket to the market - together with innumerable ha'pennies and farthings of change. While biting into a small acidic apple, I found myself being addressed by a voice which despite a rustic accent I was at last able to understand.
"You don't speak Anglo-Saxon, I presume?" asked a relatively small white elephant standing upright, in very colourful silk clothes swathed by a long red cloak secured by a large brooch beneath the chin.
"No, I don't," I admitted through a mouthful of apple. "Is that what's spoken here?" I was surprised to find an elephant addressing me: especially by a white one, who I had heard was very rare. I had never spoken to an elephant, white or otherwise, before. He flapped his large ears using his trunk to pull his cloak together at the front. He had two quite short tusks, which nevertheless looked too dangerous to approach too closely.
"Ay, that is what they speak hereabouts," the White Elephant said. "Gotesdene is a very old-fashioned place. You, as an outsider, must find it extraordinarily undeveloped."
"It's very different from the Suburbs."
"Very antiquated," the White Elephant continued. "But it is the village for which I have the honour to serve as mayor. And as so, I feel it to be my duty to take this underdeveloped little community, however reluctantly, into the modern age. You sophisticated Suburbanites probably can't imagine that villages like ours still exist: no running water, no electricity and mains gas, no metalled roads, no supermarket or video rental store. But I shall ensure that Gotesdene will very soon be as modern a village as any other in the realm. The centuries have passed Gotesdene by for far too long. I pledge that every home shall have fibreglass cabling, hot and cold running water and a roof. The roads shall have sensory speed detectors, traffic lights and tar macadam. Gotesdene shall be abreast of the world, with television, videophones and computer networking. You probably find it amazing to discover a place so lacking in the basics of modern life."
"I didn't expect to find life in Gotesdene so very different," I admitted.
The White Elephant swung his trunk around dramatically, while prudent villagers kept their distance from its range. "Gotesdene has probably not changed in 1500 years. It is a fossil yet to make the transition into the modern era. Almost everyone in the village and the surrounding countryside live off the land, and as they are unable to afford to pay taxes to Her Maphrodite's government, they provide work in kind to me, the Lord of this Manor. This work provides the surplus wealth - agricultural wealth I admit - which I sell to pay taxes. It's an arrangement by which we all work together. But I am resolved that Gotesdene shall diversify. Move into microchip manufacture, network services, aerospace and more.
"But great effort is needed to persuade the City to assist. I know that City financiers and banks are reluctant to invest their capital where there is so little infrastructure, where so few people have the necessary technological and management skills and expertise, and where communications are limited to the speed of an ox-drawn carriage. But this is just City prejudice. Understandable, perhaps, given the vast contrast of culture, but I am convinced that the low-wage opportunities here will eventually persuade the City institutions otherwise.
"I have my own wealth, inherited from centuries of White Elephants here in Gotesdene, and mostly invested in property throughout the realm. I admit it is at least partly my ancestors' fault that Gotesdene has remained so primitive, by repeatedly opposing any modern developments in or around the village, but the base stupidity of the peasant is to blame as well." He snorted dismissively, which through a trunk as long as his came out almost as a trumpet call. "Look at them!" he said, waving his trunk about at the villagers, many wearing very ragged clothes secured precariously by cord. "You'd never see such a mean crowd of scum in the Suburbs, would you?"
I shook my head. It is unlikely that a single one of the villagers could stay for very long in the Suburbs before being arrested on charges of vagrancy.
"White Elephants such as I have held the estates here from time immemorial," he continued. "In that time, we have become increasingly sophisticated. Connoisseurs of art, captains of industry, members of parliament. It is people such as I who have selflessly guided and directed the culture in the nation for the good of the peasant, whose rôle is to support our exalted projects. The long and grand tradition of my family has given communities like this the continuity and stability that it needs. It is only now that it is necessary to force the pace. Make of Gotesdene what it has to be."
"What plans do you have?"
"I have such plans. Such great plans! I will build factories, power stations, mines and motorways. The primitive waste of this land, dedicated only to inefficient and outmoded methods of agriculture, will be transformed into a landscape of concrete and steel. Tower blocks will replace the mud-huts. Airport runways will crisscross the open fields. A giant shopping mall will be built where this market now stands. I have a vision of industrial estates, tower blocks, factories, flyovers and television aerials! All I need is the investment from the City."
"Do you work in business yourself?"
"I own many companies in the City and abroad. I own a hotel, a chain of restaurants, several factories and shares in shipping, insurance and defence. But while Her Maphrodite's government dithers and flounders, I will never get the planning permission I need to modernise Gotesdene. Perhaps after the General Election there will be more decisiveness and direction. And then Gotesdene will no longer be dismissed as a primitive Anglo-Saxon theme park, but will be recognised as a modern, thriving community!"
The White Elephant shook his large ears and I followed him as he strode away from the market through the dusty streets, past obsequious peasants to the stone cross in the common land. We sheltered under the shade of the massive overwhelming oak trees whose bark was protected from vandalism by vicious spikes forced into the trunk. The cross was exquisitely ornate depicting an elephant heroically brandishing a sword in his trunk.
"So, young man, what finds you in our village so far from the Suburbs?" the White Elephant asked.
I told him of my quest for the Truth.
"I believe I should be flattered by the notion that the Truth abides in Gotesdene," laughed the White Elephant. "I know that many have admired the village, but you are the first to come this way on such a quest. But mayhap in a community such as this, unpolluted by the vices and vagaries of modern irreligious heresy, the Truth you are looking for may indeed be found."
"The Truth is here! What is it?" I asked enthusiastically.
"The Truth is balance and order. It is respect for the Lord and the world that He has graciously created for us. And that essential Truth is manifest in the elements of Earth, Fire, Air and Water. It is these to which the universe is essentially reducible." The White Elephant waved his trunk around at the village. "Everything here is composed of these Four Elements, myself included. They govern the World physically and spiritually, proportioned by the mystical qualities of numbers. Numbers are the Universe's abstract foundations. The smaller the Number, the more potent. The number One is the Universe and all in it. Two is the manifest division between the Spiritual and the Material. Three is the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Three is also the number of times which something need be said to be known as the Truth. And Four is the number of the Elements.
"From the Four Elements are derived the Four Humours which govern the Soul of each individual. Just as a person is the physical union of matter, energy, water and oxygen so his Soul is governed by different proportions of the Spiritual Qualities of these Elements. There are, in addition, the Five Senses, the thrice Six which is the Number of the Beast, the Seven Sins, the Twelve Houses of the Heavens and the Twenty-Four Hours of the Day. All in its natural and God-given place in the Universe.
"The Truth is but the balance and order in which God has invested the Universe, and it is the Duty of all to ensure that this balance is undisturbed by proboscidean, artiodactyl nor human endeavour. Nothing hastens more the Chaos and Destruction of the End than the rejection and perversion of the Natural Order by which the Truth is made manifest."
"How is the Truth perverted?" I wondered.
"In many ways. By the practice of perversions that transgress the Natural Order such as Sodomy, Heresy and Witchcraft. These must be suppressed with extreme prejudice, or, as surely as Three is the Number of the Lord, the Natural Order will unravel, power will be wrested by foreign despots, laws will be disregarded, monsters will yet again roam the Earth and the Heavens will open!
"The good people of Gotesdene strive hard to keep Satan at bay," continued the White Elephant indicating the stocks and the gallows with a wave of his trunk. "Here is where transgressors are purged of their sins. And if the Soul is to be purged from the Body to achieve its Salvation, then that is a sacrifice worth making. Gotesdene has a long and proud tradition of suppressing Witchcraft and I speak proudly when I say that no Witch who is accused is ever found other than guilty and punished accordingly. Does this not compare well with the pusillanimity of Justice elsewhere which so frequently permits Witches to wander free spreading their vice, perversion, magic and heterodoxy?"
"How are Witches punished?" I wondered, looking nervously at the scaffold.
"Not all Witches are hanged," the White Elephant sighed. "For many it is felt that there is opportunity for redemption, and if it be that their confessions of guilt are sufficiently sincere and detailed they may suffer only a whipping or the stocks. This is especially so if they are young and pretty, because if the exterior is fair then the interior cannot all be rotten. But occasionally a Witch will join the Homosexual, the Murderer or the Heretic on the platform with the noose around the neck. These occasions are a public event, where all can learn from seeing the ignominious end others come to and will reflect on their own transgressions. This is not, I believe, how Justice is conducted in the Suburbs?"
"No," I admitted. "It's a much more complicated procedure - and many of the things you mention are not illegal at all!"
"When the Day of Judgement comes," the White Elephant bellowed, "it will surely visit the most ills on those who treat the Natural Order with not so much contempt as indifference. Much as I admire the progress and order of the Suburbs, there are many features I find alarming. These are so much in conflict with the Truth that I marvel not that you should feel the need to leave the Suburbs to seek the Truth elsewhere. All are treated equally in the Suburbs: Women as equals with Men, the Poor as with the Rich, and the Believer as with the Unbeliever. How can this be right? When God created the Natural Order, He didn't do so only that places such as the Suburbs and the City should disregard it and substitute a New Order of their own invention. When Progress and Modernity are established in Gotesdene, it will not be to subvert the Natural Order, but to reinforce it."
"However," continued the White Elephant reflectively, "the Suburbs have but little sin and vice when compared to the City, where I have been many times and have been many times appalled. From the virtue and decency of the village of Gotesdene, through the indifference to vice and the Truth in the Suburbs, to the depravity and decadence of the City is painted a triptych of the ethics of Heaven, Limbo and Hell. In the City, there is no limit to what is permitted and practised. There are no moral constraints. No regard for the Natural Order. Indeed, the practice of vice at its most vicious, sin at its most sinful and decadence at its most despicable. Have you ever been to the City?"
"No, not once," I admitted.
"Perhaps, then, there is hope for you yet," snorted the White Elephant. "In the City, there is no likelihood that you will ever find the Truth for which you quest. Indeed, there is complete absence of the Truth. The City is a Hell of fast-moving traffic on many-laned motorways; buildings that scrape the very roof of the sky; frantic and hectic activity; ceaseless noise and light. In all directions the City spreads out, enclosing pockets of green, whereas Gotesdene is a village enclosed by countless green acres. There is nothing but concrete and steel; petrol fumes and neon lights; people coming and people going. Not, as in Gotesdene, merely being: they restlessly move from one place to another. And so many of them!"
"The City is very big, is it?"
"It is tall. It is wide. It houses many millions. It is the economic, financial, political, social and cultural capital of this land, and also the nation's whorehouse, bordello and opium den. It is also very expensive. In Gotesdene, the possessor of a guinea is a rich man. He has enough to live for a long time on one single guinea, which composes two hundred and fifty-two pennies! A fortune! That is over a thousand farthings! In the City, a guinea is but what a farthing is here. Perhaps less! But despite the expense and the hideous environment and the loathsome depravity, despite all this, many millions choose to live in and amongst its garbage and degeneracy."
"You don't recommend that I ever visit the City?"
"No. Not if you value your Soul!" the White Elephant said emphatically. "In the City, there is all the depravity and decline which will surely hasten the Day of Judgment. The City is like a cancer infesting this land. The City congests its inhabitants into smaller and less congenial spaces, spreads pollution into the air, the street, the water supply and the ether, exhausting the atmosphere, the soil, the reservoir and the power station. Worse than its physical despoliation, is its spiritual barrenness and pollution. It spreads prostitution, pornography, atheism, sexual perversity and a cult of instant gratification. And this is what is most despicable in the City and what it represents. Gotesdene will not be so corrupted as it pursues the path of Progress that I have planned for it. It will forever remain a bastion of virtue, faith and, yea, the Truth!"
The White Elephant paused in his tirade and looked about him at the village. His great claims for it did not seem particularly well illustrated by the general atmosphere of poverty and decay. A peasant was urinating against a tree. Several goats were plaintively bleating for alms around a pottery saucer. One goat had both rear legs missing and one eye. The ground was dusty and barren, dotted occasionally by piles of ox dung and attendant flies.
"I have much business to which I must attend," the White Elephant announced. "I shall leave you now. But I hope that as you stay here you will reflect on all that I have said and focus anew your quest for the Truth."
With that he bade me farewell, and walked away from the village green, his cloak raising a cloud of dust behind him, responding with a gracious wave of his trunk to the obsequies of the villagers who stood aside for him.
A passing goat was selling meat pies which looked quite unappetising, but my hunger resolved that I off-load some of the farthings I had accumulated for a pie that was fortunately cool enough for me to eat with my fingers. I sat down at the base of the stone cross with my feet resting in dried mud and decomposing faeces. I passively observed the bustle of the village, still slightly nauseated by the dirt and decay.
While chewing on a particularly unforgiving piece of unidentifiable meat, I noticed some men and women wearing unsophisticated flaxen clothes roughly push a woman towards the common. They headed towards the stocks, shouting and jeering at the woman as they proceeded. She was punched and kicked and some of her clothes had been ripped off. She seemed resigned to her misfortune and didn't struggle, but from the evidence of the bruises on her face and her bare arms and shoulders, she'd probably lost all the resistance she'd ever had. The stocks were opened, her head, hands and legs were pushed through, and then they were clamped shut. She sat in a very undignified position, with only the dusty ground on which to rest her bottom. The men forcing her in secured the stocks with a peg through the hole by the side.
Her punishment wasn't over then, as the group of men and women continued jeering at her, and threw earth and moist cow-pats at her. One or two children even threw stones - one catching her on the cheek and immediately opened a bloody gash. An ox passing by did a very good trade in the fruit he was selling, which judging from the messy way it splattered as it hit her was less than fresh and firm. I had never seen justice dispensed like this in the Suburbs, where punishment was generally either monetary or concealed in penal institutions. I felt uneasy about the unbridled enthusiasm with which this rough justice was dealt.
"Poor girl!" commented a voice next to me. "Even if she is a witch, I'm certain she doesn't deserve what she's getting."