It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a shovel may dig a hole in half an hour, but two men with shovels can take up to two hours to perform the same task. First, there is the need to closely examine the area to be dug out. This takes fifteen minutes to half an hour. Following this, there must be a rambling, expletive-filled discussion on hole digging in theory and practice. This takes at least half an hour. After that, a half hour cigarette break is a must, and then we dig the hole which, to the horror of maths teachers everywhere, takes almost exactly the same time to dig as if one man did the work.
Donna sat on a sunny bench outside of the Barbeque Imperium, watching two particular men digging a hole in a garden area next to the carpark. She wasn’t watching them in a diet-soft-drink-ad sort of way. She wasn’t particularly interested in either of them. It was just that the men leaning on their shovels was the only thing to look at in the carpark. Her attention was momentarily redirected upwards as a superhero flew overhead. Donna sighed at the realisation that it was not Voyager and went back to looking at the workmen.
Donna recognised Christian’s voice, but didn’t look up. “Hey, Christian.”
“Mind if I join you?”
Donna shrugged and Christian sat. “How’s Storage World?”
“Pretty good, actually,” Donna said. “How’s Barbeque Imperium?”
“A lot of fun, actually. It’s like I get to spend all day helping people to have fun and enjoy their lives, you know? It’s…”
“And how’s Gwen?” The words came from Donna’s mouth as cold as a mountain stream.
Christian fell silent for a minute. A workman picked up a shovel and for a moment it looked as if digging would commence. But her merely pointed the shovel at the ground for a moment before returning to leaning on it.
“Look, I know you don’t like Gwen…”
“She tried to sabotage the Pavilion.”
“And you helped her.”
“And you remember what she tried to do to Norman.”
Christian stopped talking, but Donna could hear his laboured breathing as he tried to control his emotions.
“Yes,” he said. “I remember. I know what she tried to do. And yet I’m still with her. Okay? Miss Judgemental.”
Donna sipped her apple juice. “Judgement is what sets us apart from the beasts.”
“I defend you, you know?” Christian said. “I defend you. You know why the others don’t talk to you? They think that you think you’re better than everyone. And it’s gotten worse since…”
Christian trailed off.
“Since Sadie died?” Donna said. “You can say it.”
“I’m sorry, I…”
“She died, and now she’s dead,” Donna said. “And I try to live my life the way she would have wanted me to, and if that makes me unpopular, well…”
The workmen were now deep in argument about something or other. Nothing is simple, Donna thought. Nothing is easy. Even the most straightforward things are just nexuses of complication and confusion.
Christian sighed deeply. “No one wants to talk about any of it,” he said. “The battle, the Pyramid… The fact half our former co-workers are in prison… Everyone just avoids the subject. It’s weird, I’d rather hear you tell me how many wrong choices Gwen and I made than talk to the people who just pretend nothing happened.”
Donna turned and for the first time looked directly at Christian. She’d never really thought much about him, she realised. She’d seen him as a determined sales whizz at first and then after his relationship to Gwen had been revealed she’d seen him as nothing but her catspaw.
“Yes, Gwen did — or tried to do — some terrible things,” Christian said. “And I helped her with some of them. There was no harm done. True, we were trying to do harm and failing. But still… it’s over now. We’re all in this together now. If you don’t like me or trust me, that’s fine. But we’re all in this together so… Ah I don’t even know where I’m going with this.”
For a while, Donna said nothing. “Do you see those workers?” she said at last.
“Yeah. What are they digging? Didn’t there used to be a flower bed there?”
“When they go on break, I’ll need your help.”
Christian smiled. “Really? Okay.”
Five minutes later, the two men shuffled off towards the kebab shop. Donna produced a brass tape measure from her pocket. “Here. I’ll hold the end. Help me measure the distance over to the flower bed.”
Christian took the brass case and walked over to the abandoned shovels, unspooling the tape as he went. When he got to the bed, he called out, “One brownielength… What? What’s a brownielength?’
“Grab a shovel and start digging, right at the point you measured to.”
Christian only hesitated for a moment before he started to dig. Donna walked over to join him. This time the maths teachers were right, and together they dug faster than one person digging alone.
“This is weird,” Christian said.
“We do weird well, here.”
Soon, there was a small hole, perhaps deep enough to plant a sapling. Donna measured to the bottom.
“Half a brownielength,” she said. “Keep digging.”
After a few more shovels, Christian gasped as he hit something made of black cloth.
A few shovelfuls later, and the hole started shouting. “Stop shovelling! That hurts. Look, you got me. I’m coming out.”
Something squirmed underground, and the cloth-covered object rose in the hole. Donna and Christian stood back as it broke the surface, revealing itself to be a small head clad in a black hat. Some more struggling, and the head was joined by black-clad arms, which struggled to pull a torso and legs to the surface. The little man brushed himself down. He stood a little over a metre tall, and he wore a black coat, waistcoat, knee-breeches and a hat, and his tiny face was adorned by a wee little goatee:
“So you found me. Clever. Clever.”
“What the Hell is he?” Christian said.
“A dark brownie,” Donna said.
“Sounds delicious. Like it would go nice with a cup of coffee.”
Donna frowned at him. “No, he’s a brownie. They’re helpful household spirits – usually. They help with chores around the home in return for food. But if you give them an item of clothing, they leave forever. And if you give them a pulley they turn completely evil.”
“Quite so, Miss Saheco, quite so.” The brownie stroked his moustache. “You know, we are not so different, you and I.”
“Oh, shut the fuck up. Christian, use that shovel. Knock him out.”
“Didn’t you just tell me of for being…”
Christian shrugged and whacked the brownie on its little buckled hat, and the little man fell over.
“How did you know the brownie was hiding underground?” Christian said.
“That’s where evil brownies hide,” Donna said, “But their presence kills flowers, so that’s how I knew he was here.”
“And how come his eyes turned into little ‘X’s when he fell unconscious?”
“Now that is a mystery,” Donna shrugged. “Come on, help me get him back to Storage World. You-know-who will have some questions for him.”