283. No Refunds

If you have a toaster that goes up to 6, you know you’re never going to use it above 4. The dial might accidentally get turned up high, but that means the toast is going straight in the bin. If you’re desperate (i.e. a student) you might scrape off the top layer of carcinogenic charcoal, but it’s a grim job most would rather avoid.

The thing is, those high settings were put there for a reason. Toaster engineers aren’t dummies. They have degrees in science (and baking, presumably). They knew exactly what they’re doing. They know 5 produces the subtle aroma of melted plastic, and that 6 is guaranteed to set off alarms at the Office for Chemical and Biological Weapons. So why did they put them there?

Sure, there are some toasters made to handle bagels or muffins straight out of the freezer. But the useless settings on toasters have always been there. Even before people knew frozen waffles were a thing.

But people don’t care. They don’t demand answers as long as they get their breakfast on time (two and a half and allowed to cool before being buttered, if you were wondering). And maybe there isn’t an answer, not a logical one. Some people can’t be analysed, explained, understood or reasoned with. Some people just want to watch the toast burn.

Joshaya wanted something. To bring back the old gods, perhaps. It could be true, it could be a smokescreen for something else.

The girls had agreed to help him. Willingly, maybe.

No one had considered it worth their time to brief me on the matter. I was to wait. Keep your eyes on the lower settings and assume the rest is for marketing purposes. The speedometer goes up to 200 km/h, so what if the car only does 110? It looks cool.

Why care about something that doesn’t affect you? Or something they tell you doesn’t affect you.

It’s undeniably better to leave it to people who know what they’re doing. And if I ever meet one of those people, I will.

“How much money do we have?” I asked Maurice.

He had a pile of coins, some gems and a random assortment of jewellery. The druids dressed modestly, but they had deep pockets. Maurice examined it all very closely and said, “I have no idea.”

Most of the coins we weren’t familiar with. It looked like a lot.

I turned to the main druid. “Is this enough to get us through the front door?”

He shrugged. “We’ve never been allowed inside.”

“Does that mean none of you can come with us?” I had hoped to take a few druids with us for defensive purposes. Without the girls there were fewer people to hide behind.

“There’s no way they’ll let us inside the temple,” said the druid. His cohorts shook their heads to back him up. Their beards swayed from side to side in mesmerising unison.

I could see the problem. The druids had rather a distinct look. Long beards, bald heads. It was a strong fashion statement.

“What if you disguised yourselves?” A big hat and dark glasses probably wouldn’t cut it. “Maybe shave your beards?”

There was a gasp from the assembled druids. “No, no, we can’t do that.” There was something very odd in the way they had reacted.

“Why not?” I asked “They’ll grow back?”

There was a swish of branches behind me. “The beards hide what they really are,” said the tree.

“Wilbur, please, we’re trying to have a meeting.”

“My name is Xesar, not Wilbur.”

“I think you remember the vote. It was unanimous. Even you put your hands up. You’ve still got them up, now.”

To be fair, he was a tree. Hands up was a way of life.

“Oh,” said Maurice standing close to the druid and sneaking a look behind the waterfall of hair on his chin. He pointed. “Tentacles.”

The druids quickly brushed the beard in long flowing strokes. “They aren’t tentacles.”

“No, of course not,” I said. Perhaps shaving wouldn’t make them any less conspicuous. Perhaps it would start a general panic and a remake of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. “Okay, well come with us and just hang about in the square. We might need a diversion.”

This seemed to be acceptable to them. If they were going to be conspicuous, they could at least do it in a way that kept the attention off me.

“It won’t work,” said Wilbur. “Whatever you’re planning. The Pope will see through it.”

“Wilbur, please. Don’t judge us by your god’s pitiful standards. He can’t even take care of a single pope without a bunch of girls to help him. Me and the brothers have got this.”

I turned to look at the sorry state of the rebel alliance. We so didn’t have this.

We left Wilbur standing in the middle of the empty graveyard. The sun was up and it was already quite warm.

I gave our lead druid the money to hold. I felt it was a nice way to show my confidence in him. Plus, all those coins were quite heavy.

“Would be far simpler if they had banknotes here,” said Dudley.

“That’s brilliant,” said Maurice. “We should invent paper money. It would revolutionise this whole world.”

“Sure,” I said. “And what do you think’s going to happen? We set up a system of credit based on promissory notes, two thousand years from now the entire continent will be dominated by a single-minded monster bent on the rule of evil.”

“You mean like Sauron?” said Maurice.

“I was thinking more along the lines of Goldman Sachs, so yes, like Sauron.”

The plan was simple, although not by choice. We would bribe our way into the temple by making the ‘suggested donation’. Once inside, we would act big fans of dodgy architecture and oppressive cults (like most tourists) and then slip away when the guide was telling us about all the great things their Golden God had done for us mere mortals and what great value for money it had been.

Both Dudley and I had been inside the temple, kind of, so we had a fair idea of the layout. We’d be able to get to where the girls had gone quite easily, as long as we weren’t caught. It was a big place with lots of drafty corridors, so there was always a chance we’d get overlooked.

The druids would hang around in the square singing songs and offering people the chance to experience the joy of lentils. They had a big cauldron and lots of wooden bowls. It was becoming clear why the druids had failed to win many converts over the years.

Our plan met a rather large and solid obstruction before we’d even had a chance to get going. The doors to the Mega Temple were shut.

A sign said: Closed for Maintenance.

It didn’t say for how long or give an explanation. There was a crowd of people outside who were upset that they hadn’t been given some warning, and also that there weren’t any temple representatives to keep them updated. Lack of communication, the number one customer complaint across the universe.

Apart from the disgruntled nature lovers who had hoped to see a pope in its natural environment, the rest of the city seemed to be going about its business. Shops were open on all sides of us, and the square itself was full of hawkers and people selling snacks out of carts.

“If we can’t buy our way in to see them,” I said, “we’ll have to get them to come to see us.”

I wandered over to one of the kiosks that sold cards you could use to send your personal queries and grievances directly to the Pope himself.

Trade was brisk, with people buying cards of various colours, jotting down their requests at a stand with pencils, and popping the filled-out cards into the barrels provided.

“How much did these cost?”

“One for green, two for blue, five for yellow, ten for red and a hundred for purple,” said Maurice, reading out of his notebook.

“And the purple one gets you an answer in a day, right?”

Maurice nodded. I went back to the druids and got some money off them while they started handing out soup. Or trying to. No one was interested when they had so many other options, and they seemed suspicious it was being handed out for free. ‘You get what you pay for’ often convinces people that the more they pay, the better the product they receive. There’s a reason why using all that child labour doesn’t seem to make running shoes any cheaper, and that reason is called suckers!

I told them to start charging, to call it ‘artisanal broth’ and to tell everyone it was half-price for a limited time only. They started selling like hotcakes. Shame they weren’t actually selling hotcakes, they would have sold even better than hotcakes.

I took the money and bought myself a purple card. The man behind the counter was delighted and tried to upsell me on a special express version with no difference in response time, but thicker card.

“The quality will please His Eminence’s fingers,” he informed me.

Clearly had me down as a gullible fool, which may well have been true.

“When do they empty the barrels?” I asked him.

“Lunchtime collection should be in about an hour.”

We had an hour to compose a note so compelling, the Pope would be driven to having us rushed into his presence.

Maurice and Dudley sat staring at Maurice’s notebook waiting for inspiration to strike.

“The blank page,” said Dudely, “every writer’s bitterest foe.”

“We could start, ‘Dear Pope,’” suggested Maurice.

“A bit informal,” said Dudley. “Perhaps, ‘Your Most Holy Eminence’? Or should that be ‘Your Most Eminent Holiness’?”

“Start it ‘Yo, Fuckface!’ for all I care,” I said. “Just make it attention-grabbing.”

They continued to debate the best opening line. They felt the first hook was worth getting right, like they were writing Moby Dick. They were half right.

While James Baldwin and Alfred Lord Tennyson worked on their first draft, I decided to wing it.


The old god Joshaya has returned to Gorgoth with an army of immortals.

If you wish to learn more, contact me at this address:

I put down the name of the inn we were staying at and signed it Nelson Mandela. I felt it was a name that would engender trust. I popped the card in the barrel. Probably as effective as putting it in the bin.

“What if we made it a limerick?” suggested Dudley. “With a slightly ribald flavour, eh?”

“Yes, okay,” said Maurice getting excited at the prospect of becoming this world’s first limerick superstar (or any world’s). “What rhymes with Gorgoth?”

While we waited, I bought some tourist stuff to help us blend in. There were loads of shops selling Shriner-based merch. They had some excellent branding and the tee-shirt quality really was very good.

A man with a cart came around and took away the barrels from each of the stores in the square like a bin man. We followed him all the way around until he returned to the temple and tipped the card into a chute under the skull’s chin.

Dudley still couldn’t see beyond the door the girls had gone through, but he was able to see where the cards went. There were dozens of Shriners waiting to sort the cards by colour. There were only a couple of purple ones and they were rushed off. He repeated what he was seeing with his eyes closed here, and open in there.

How long would it take for them to read and respond? There was probably a team of support staff who went through each card and decided what needed to be answered first. The Pope probably never saw any of them.

It was still a pretty decent plan. Even if they weren’t interested in my story of gods and monsters, they’d still be in touch by tomorrow at the latest.

“We should probably go back to the inn and wait for them to contact—”

“Ah,” said Dudley, suddenly backing away from the temple. He was pointing at the doors. “Ah, ah…”

The doors burst open and a procession of men in armour carrying spears ran out in an endless train. They had helmets on and every inch of their skin covered. They ran through the square as people dived out of the way. I didn’t know where they were going, but I’d say roughly, if I were to take a wild guess, in the direction of our inn.

Once they’d all gone, the doors began to close.

“The gift shop’s open!” I called out. “Twenty percent off everything.”

People stormed the temple like it was the first day of the sales. No fortress could defend against what was simultaneously the most constructive and destructive force known to man—the free market economy. We joined in and rode the wave.


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