Safi's Guide to Malta
‘SAFI’Munro must have travelled at least three feet before collapsing in a tired heap. The kiosk was barely ten yards away, but it was impossible for him to move any further.
"So you still think you can do it on your own?" Safi said.
"I can, I can," croaked Munro. "I don't need any of your Interspacial hyperlinks, I'm human - I can do it!"
It was just as well that no one else but Munro could see Safi. He towered above his human friend like a giant umbrella, his orange hat extending well past Munro's body, but it still didn't seem to shelter him from the hot sun.
Safi handed him a crumpled bus ticket.
I can't bear to watch any more. Take this you idiot. There's no need to win this bet. You don't really think I would have paid you anyway?"
Munro sat up and glared at Safi. "I'll never know that now, will I?"
"No, but then you never know anything do you? What is life, when is an atom not an atom, what is Mangodanga and for that matter when is it? You know what your problem is, don't you Munro? You're such an easy target!"
Alien or not, this practical joker, did seem to win each round.
It had all started so simply but ever since meeting Safi at the Carnival, life had changed.
To begin with, Munro had thought that Safi was just another reveller in fancy dress but he soon realized his mistake.
Safi had a way of pointing out his mistakes.
In one short afternoon, Munro was introduced to the concept of inter-dimensional existence. That life was not all it seemed to be. That his life in his adopted country of Malta, a sunny island in the Med, held more secrets than he would ever know and that he, Munro, was being invited to discover them.
A bus ticket, for example, wasn't just for buses. No, Safe and his like had skilfully maneuverer the numbering sequence to encapsulate neat little codes that were keys to other kinds of journeys.
His present state was a typical example. Bus ticket S.38 041385 was the exact formula for body molecular change/3B104 (simply translated - it made him heavier than lead). This, of course, only happened at three thirty on a Wednesday afternoon and only when sitting behind one fat lady and a thin man on a 67 bus.
As luck would have it, he was.
Munro had read the number, three times in quick succession, as Safi had instructed, and the change had taken place as soon as he stepped off the bus.
"You're lucky," said Safi chirpily, "you could have got ticket S.38 041387 and sat beside a blonde girl."
"What would have happened then?"
"You would have been instantly transported to Viegela"
"You don't want to go there, believe me. At least not unless you are a jelly based Lancoped."
"Yes, well, how do I get back to normal. I've had enough of this one."
"Recite the number again and say 'stop' between every word. S stop 3 stop 8 stop 0 stop and so on …"
Munro did it and, at the last 'stop' he popped back into the real world at which point, someone tripped over him on the pavement.
Yes, he was back ….
* * * * * * * *
The times they are a' changing!
Over the next two months, Safi had become a regular visitor – his visits were occurring at least once a week. Strangely though, he hadn't seen him for at least 10 days now.
However, this time, something very, very strange had happened and Munro knew, without a doubt, that Safi 's was behind it. He was waiting for the ‘joker' to show his face.
All around him nothing was moving; or making any noise. Life had simply ‘frozen' and he was the only thing still living and breathing properly. The room and all around him seemed to have stopped, just like a frozen frame on a DVD.
Munro walked in between the ‘frozen' people. It was like moving through a screen at the cinema while the projectionist had gone for a coffee break and left the machinery on pause. Any minute now, he thought, the 'film' would start up again and it would all go on normally.
He sighed deeply. It didn't look like that was going to happen.
He looked around the office. Matthew, the wages clerk, was leaning out of the window, his
cigarette was an inch from his lips and a slow, satisfying drag. A faint wisp of smoke from its tip curled upwards and hung, immovable, in mid air.
The typist's finger had just struck the letter 's' but the computer had not displayed the character on the screen.
"It was her fault!" said a voice behind him. Munro whirled round to see the figure of Safi standing behind him.
"She typed the 'STOP' command," said Safi .
"I knew it! I knew it was you!" shouted Munro. "Put all this back to normal right now. This is going too far!"
"What do you mean old friend?"
"I'm not your old friend and you know exactly what I mean. It's one thing getting me into weird situations - but not the whole WORLD! Get them back!"
"But I can't Munro. She did it. She typed the stop command."
"What stop command? She was just typing"
"Ah yes, but she blew her nose three times before and hesitated 9.5 tenths of a second between the 'a' and the 's' ; which is the exact formula on Wednesday the 10th at this latitude and at a temperature of 24.5 degrees centigrade."
"Rubbish!" snapped Munro, "you make these things up so you can do exactly what you feel like doing."
"Not so, not so, Munro. I can assure you that it is really happening." He peered intently into Munro's eyes and an awkward silence created space between them. He backed away slowly and flicked lightly at the rim of his hat, pretending to brush away some imaginary dust. Slowly and silently he walked stiffly around the room looking half-heartedly at the frozen scene.
"The truth is,” he whispered, “these things happen all the time,"
"Is that a fact! Strange I don't remember when the world stopped the last time. I must have missed it!"
Safi let out a little moan and snapped out of his silence. “All right then, I suppose I will just have to explain everything to you.”
He sat on the edge of a desk and swung one leg elegantly over the other.
"You never saw it happen before now because you, Munro Wilson, you, my personally chosen URL, were not in the EEE. before. Now that you are, now that I have officially registered you, you can see exactly what happens.”
Munro was silent. Safi was silent.
“There,” said Safi , “Now you know”
"The EEE?" said Munro, his voice reduced to an exasperated squeak. “What on Earth are you talking about?
"The ‘Entity Existence Encyclopaedia' - and since, by my request, you are now a registered member, a registered URL, you can now see what's really going on."
Munro decided it was no use badgering this being, he would use reason, tact and gentle persuasion to extract something that actually made sense.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!”
Munro was standing, arms hanging limply at his side, his clenched fists, white at the knuckles.
"Marvellous, just great ... everything's stopped except me. It's a nightmare! I'm stuck in a bad dream with a crazy person, saying crazy things.”
Safi sat quietly for a few minutes, rubbing his long fingers around his chin. “You know, Munro, perhaps you do need some more explanation. Look, I will give you an example from your own world.”
He got up and walked round to the computer on Munro's desk. “You have something you call the INTERNET.” He said the word slowly, with an accent that made it sound practically alien.
“The INTERNET is somewhat like a flat copy of something that happens to run the Universe. Do you know how you have names for places you want to go to? You call them URL's – Uniform Resource Locators – they take you to where you want to go – well, We use URL's too – the are Universal Reality Locators – They take us to where we want to go as well. Everything has a place, a number a relation to everything else. We register them – and then we use them to link to other things and so on and so on ….”
Munro listened in silence. He began to understand but he didn't like what he understood.
“You mean you are using me, like a page on the internet!”
"Come on dear fellow," said Safi , striding towards him. "It's not that bad. For one, it is an excellent chance to see behind the scenes"
"Really," said Munro, folding his arms tightly in front of him, "I'd like you to show me the fun in this."
"Well, for a start, you get to start time up again," said Safi .
"I do, do I? - So where's the button? Show me. Give me a crazy number to say back to front. What do I do this time; stand on my head and poke my finger in my ear?"
"You're upset" said Safi.
Munro was reduced to silence.
"Before I selected you," said Safi, "these things happened all around you, every day." Safi held up a hand "Silence now, there's a good chap."
Munro closed his mouth again and listened.
"They were adjusted, corrected, directed and generally guided without you, or anyone else knowing about it."
"Really!" said Munro.
"Shsh.. .. now listen!"
Munro looked sternly at Safi. "You're not God, mate - you don't even come close."
"No, but everybody has to do their part you know. Don't get philosophical on me Munro - you're not in the same league."
"Let's drop this Safi. Let's just get things back to normal."
Safi smiled. Munro really was a good chap.
"All right, here's what we do; no, what you do. You have to decide what you want to change. What you see around you now is not a brittle picture, it's a real 'snapshot' of a millisecond. The atoms of that second are 'frozen' in time. You, yourself can't move or destroy anything. You tell me what you want to change and I'll arrange the atoms accordingly."
"Then what?" asked Munro.
"Then time, space and this reality will continue again from that new point - that's all there is to it."
"So if I move that pencil from there to there," said Munro "it all goes back to normal."
"Well, whatever change you make is recorded backwards as well as forwards and that might have one or two consequences; little changes that you might notice. A pencil moving is not really sufficient; it needs a bigger kick-start than that, say a town or a bit of countryside."
Munro stared in horror. Safi took him by the arm and guided him out of the office while he was still in his stunned silence.
"Come, I'll take you on a little flight and we can look around and decide."
Safi came and stood next to Munro and drew a circle in the air around them. The second he had completed the circle, Munro could see what looked like a clear bubble surrounding them.
Silently they lifted off the ground and floated effortlessly out of the open window. Safi sat down and motioned Munro to follow. The fact that there did not seem to be a seat there did not stop Munro joining him; his legs were about to give out anyway.
Soon they were floating over the towns and countryside. Nothing moved. The ancient city of Mdina looked even more silent than usual. Its walled ramparts and stone streets sprawled imposingly over the commanding hilltop, looking down on even more peaceful fields.
"You wouldn't care to move the old lady nearer to the sea would you?" said Safi .
"Mdina!" exclaimed Munro "you're joking!"
"Yes I am actually. That really would put a dent in the history books!"
"Not to mention MY future." said Munro; for once in agreement.
"Well ....yes, I don't think my imagination is up to that." said Safi who shuddered involuntarily and shook his head as if to clear away unwanted thoughts.
"Right," he said finally, "What's it to be then. We've hung around long enough - decide!"
"I can't, I just can't. What do you suggest?"
"Sorry," said Safi , its against the rules, but maybe I can give you a clue or two."
"Vegetation hasn't much history and is quite substantial; not just a few blades of grass, something a bit more solid perhaps."
"A tree!" said Munro.
Safi smiled. "I'm not saying anything."
"Right, I've got it. Go to my house, over that way. Land in the garden."
Within a minute or two they were at Munro's house and Munro was scrambling out of the strange craft and dashing around his small garden, giggling and mumbling to himself.
"Wow! what a great break! Come here quick Safi . You are going to do me a big favour"
"Yes, yes, yes .... for a change you are going to come in really handy," said Munro.
"This is most intriguing," said Safi as he strolled towards him.
"I want the tree at the end of the street to be in that corner of my garden," said Munro triumphantly.
"Mmmm" said Safi "Are you sure you want that particular tree .... I mean, not one growing in the middle of a field or something?"
"No, Safi . You said you wouldn't interfere. I want that one, its the bane of my life. It causes so many holdups in traffic for one reason or another. I've never understood why it's been left there. They left it like a traffic island right in the middle and made the traffic go round it. I've made up my mind. That's it!"
"As you wish," said Safi . "Come, I'll take you back to your office first."
The journey was short and Safi was very quiet. Munro had begun to feel a little uneasy. What was wrong with that decision? Did Safi know something? It was only the thought of going through another long process of looking around and choosing, that kept him from changing his mind. "That's it. That's it!" He kept assuring himself. "He'd look just the same no matter what I chose."
"See you later," said Safi and was gone.
A few seconds later he was back.
"Its done. Just stay here and don't move till its all over," he said. "See you later," and he was gone again.
Munro waited nervously but nothing seemed to be happening. He was about to go over and look out of the window but remembered Safi 's warning not to move.
It was hard to tell at first when things began to happen because the changes were so imperceptible. It wasn't long, however before the pace increased.
The pencil on the table rolled over and fell onto the floor. The waste paper basket disappeared. A pile of paper on his desk shifted and new files appeared beside them. Matthew's cigarette disappeared and his shirt changed from white to blue striped. Munro found it very amusing.
"One tree ... amazing!" he whispered, hardly daring to disturb the action.
It was not till the tall young man materialized near the door that he began to get butterflies. Something about him looked familiar. A growing unease led to a realization that this person represented a threat.
Anna's hair rearranged itself and a pair of glasses appeared on his desk before an explosion of sound and movement catapulted him out of his lonely thoughts and into a noisy, stirring world once again.
Time had returned.
The young man jumped and nearly dropped the papers he was holding.
"Wow! Where did you come from? he asked.
Anna stopped typing and turned around.
Matthew blinked and dropped his cigarette out of the window. "Sorry Ed, I didn't see him come in," he said.
"Excuse me," said Ed, the tall young man, "for a moment I thought you had just appeared from nowhere!" He went over and picked up the glasses from Munro's desk. "It must be eye strain."
Ed laid a bundle of papers on Munro's desk. Can I help you?" he said politely.
Munro fumbled for words. He turned to the typist for support.
"Anna, can you just fill me in on the situation. What were we working on?"
"Working on? I'm sorry, I think you have the wrong office." She smiled and stood up, offering some polite assistance. "This is the wages office. Are you sure you don't mean Anna Micallef downstairs in sales?
"Yes, yes," stammered Munro, eager to find any excuse to get out.
As he walked out, he tried to make a grab for his jacket but the coat-peg was empty. Munro awkwardly pretended to scratch his head and beat a hasty retreat.
Outside, things looked fairly normal but how would he know? He hadn't known any of these people, these passers-by, before. Were they different?
But he did remember that the buses weren't sky blue and it now appeared that bright Lime Green was this year's fashion colour. He couldn't wait to get home and see the tree in his garden that had caused all this.
"So you're here," Munro said as he saw Safi waiting for him at the corner of his street. Safi was looking distinctly mysterious. "What's wrong?" said Munro.
"Not much," said Safi , "it worked out better than I had calculated, thankfully."
"Really" said Munro "apart from the fact that I seemed to have lost my job and Malta has gone colour crazy?"
"Oh... and one or two other things." said Safi .
"Look Munro, a nice clear road; no traffic hazard. How do you like it?"
"And What else Safi ? WHAT ELSE !"
"One or two other things."
"Do you tell me or do I get to go mad slowly?"
Safi held out a bunch of keys. "You'll need these. You left them in your jacket."
"Yeh, where did that get to?"
They were walking towards his house but Safi pulled him back before they reached the door.
"You don't live here anymore." said Safi .
Munro didn't have to say anything. Safi continued speedily with an explanation.
"Right, now, one or two facts; listen, because I don't care to go through 50,000 years of history; just the bits that matter to you.
The tree came from a seed that was dropped from a bird that flew through a branch from a tree in Rabat . To drop it in that particular place, the bird had to land several meters further on. This caused widespread geographical changes owning to the cat that caught that particular bird. The present owner of the house always had the tree in his garden. Loved it, lived a happy life, was a good father, had more children; he's still living there now with his daughter and six grandchildren.
Ed, the young man at your office, had an interview for the same post you got five years ago. Instead of being stuck in a traffic jam caused by that tree at the corner of your street, he managed to get there in plenty of time. He was less flustered and he got the job. You didn't."
"That's how I knew him!" said Munro. "I saw his photo on an application form when I was clearing out old files. So what am I doing now. Where do I live?"
"You got fed up looking for jobs, took a risk and started the advertising business you had always wanted and now have a plush office in Valletta . Oh, by the way, that's were your jacket is."
Safi hardly stopped for breath. "There's your car; I brought it here. Here's your keys and I'm off."
"Hey, wait a minute, wait a minute! How do I know where I'm going? How will I do my work; my client's, my staff, I don't know anything." said Munro.
"You will ... in say, 30, 35 minutes. It will all seem to come back to you. Well nearly everything, it will take time."
"And the wages office?"
"Oh yes, you'll remember that too, everything. You have sort of gained five years experience in one day," Safi allowed himself a wide grin "And of course a lot of money!"
In the comfort of his new office, Munro felt strangely at peace. He looked around the room.
“Nice taste, this guy has. Couldn’t have done better myself.” His eyes scanned past the photos on the wall. Obviously some examples of clients’ art work. He paused at one of a particularly beautiful model, smiling back at him peeking from behind a tree.
“Nice,” he thought and ran his hand over the smooth, sleek desk. He pushed back into his ever so comfortable chair and took a deep, relaxing breath and smiled.
The phone rang and he deftly flicked it to his ear.
“Hi,” said the voice on the other end, “What’s all this?” She imitated his voice, “Munro Associates.” The woman seemed a little puzzled, even offended. There was silence. Munro was looking for some clue how to answer. “What’s up?” he said finally. That was always a good way to get some answers.
“What do you mean! ‘What’s up! What’s up with you!” she was nearly shouting, but not quite. He could practically hear the breaks being applied to her vocal cords.
Munro's tie suddenly seemed way too tight. How long did Safi say his memory would take to catch up?
"Munro Wilson!" came the voice again, far more strident. "What's got into you? And why aren't you here? You were supposed to be here 30 minutes ago!
He was desperately trying to think of a safe answer but the pause was a big mistake.
“I am coming right over there. There is something weird going on.”
The phone went dead.
Munro shot out of his chair and grabbed his jacket from the peg beside the door.
"I'm not here!" he shouted to his secretary on the way past. "And remember, I haven't been here all day!"
"Yes Sir," said Madeleine and went on typing.
"By the way Mr. Wilson, you are 30 minutes late.”
“Lunch with your wife.”