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The Gift of Joy
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By Ian Whates

Conrad sauntered into Lacey's bar and took his accustomed place on one of the high stools, which settled with a disconcerting lurch.  He wriggled in an effort to find a more stable base, causing the stool's feet to scrape against the mock-wood beneath with teeth-jarring effect.  Roach glanced up to favour him with a sour look that bisected a smile and a grimace - his customary form of greeting.

      Roach was a constant feature at Lacey's.  He ate there, drank there and worked from there.  For all Conrad knew, he might even have slept there.

      “Another lousy day,” he observed.

      “Aren't they all,” Conrad responded, completing a ritual that had become established between them an age ago.  My-Ling materialised at the other side of the counter, armed with a coy smile and a glass of gently effervescing beer.  She was not coy, as Conrad well knew; it was just part of the camouflage she presented when at work.  With a grunt he fished in his pocket for some coins, forcing his fingers beneath the tight crease formed by his trousers and wishing he had thought to take the money out before sitting down.

      Beer paid for, his eyes settled on the television.  It sat above the bar and currently featured a news or current affairs programme.  The image switched from a reporter to a close-up of President Kelly; coverage of a recent speech, by the look of it.  Grey-blue eyes gazed straight at the camera for an instant, integrity oozing from every pore of his craggy, near-handsome face.  The volume was set too low to make out individual words - a minor mercy for which Conrad was grateful.  The picture then cut to a long shot from the same event, the President shaking hands with some dignitary or other. 

      “Do we have to have that thing on?” Conrad complained.  He had his own reasons for not wanting to look at the President more often than necessary.

      My-Ling shrugged and clearly had no intention of switching it off.  A deliberate act of perversity - she knew how much he loathed watching that man and why.  

      “I hate this town,” Roach said to no one in particular.

      No he didn't; more camouflage.  Slate was not the sort of place that anyone stayed in unless they wanted to, and Roach had been there for as long as anyone could remember.  The comment did not require a response and Conrad duly obliged by ignoring it.

      The story went that the town's founders had called the new settlement Slate because it represented a new beginning, a chance to start again, to 'wipe the slate clean'.  Conrad had his own theory.  He believed the place had been called Slate because it was cold, hard and grey.  Of course, not everyone shared his jaundiced view - it was all a question of perspective, with his particular perspective being from the bottom looking up. 

      As with any place that had been established for a while, Slate inevitably evolved its own districts and strata.  There were those who had done very well for themselves - affluent types who lived in nice, upmarket suburbs.  Anyone who saw only these areas might be forgiven for thinking this was a nice place to live.  But that was just the icing; lift it up and you would soon find the crumbling layers of stale pastry hidden beneath.