The Secret of the Universe Research

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You have a sealed envelope. You are to deliver it to the man who lives at the top of the Shard, London. His name is Hieronymus Phniggs and his office is called Secret of the Universe Research.

Hieronymus Phniggs understands that living at the highest point in London, which is a sacred city, will help him in his research. The pointiness of the Shard is an additional attraction, as it is created at the exact angle that, according to various arcane calculations, will concentrate cosmic energy most effectively.

You ascend in the high speed lift, the envelope in your inner jacket pocket. At the 68th floor you emerge with the sightseers to the viewing area. From here you take a further lift and finally stairs to floor 84. There is a door with an intercom. You press the button and the door opens with a buzzing sound without anyone answering.

As a consequence of living at the top of the Shard, the apartment, which is also Phniggs's office, has unusual geometry. The lowest floor in which you now find yourself is a more-or-less normal space, albeit with the walls tilted in and entirely of glass. You have the unnerving impression that you might walk out into the sky in a moment of inattention, perhaps in the act of looking for a lost fountain pen behind a sofa.

You reflect that this would not be the worst way to die, arguably, in that the view would be phenomenal. Also the long descent would allow sufficient time to bring your being into harmony with whatever the Secret of the Universe is, whether by prayer or stoical acceptance. You might also consider Wittgenstein's dictum that death is not an event in life, just as the visual field, although limited, does not have an edge. You would have time on the way down to open the envelope which might perhaps contain the actual Secret. These considerations do not however altogether alleviate a feeling of vertigo.

You ascend a spiral staircase set into the centre of the room. The second to top floor is, as anyone with a grasp of three-dimensional geometry will have realised already, slightly smaller and in the form of a truncated cone. It is lined with bookcases, all tilting in so that you are enveloped in tiers of books. You feel that the books might fall on you at any moment, and you want to adopt the posture of Alice fending off a shower of cards at the end of 'Wonderland.' The number of books is very large.

In the centre the spiral staircase continues upwards to a hole in the ceiling. No doubt this serves the dual purpose of allowing access to the top floor and also to the books on the top shelves. On the way up you pick one out at random. It opens at an illustration: a large calligraphy of the Arabic letter kun. Be. You put it back. You reach behind you without looking and pull out another book, The Making of Honey. You open it and it falls to a picture of a bee. You try another and it is the Koran: 'He need only say Be, and it is.' And again, Bismillah. In the name of the One who Is. Beginning with the English letter B. One more: The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 'Let all beings awaken right now.'

The spiral staircase ends. Next to it is an ancient wooden desk with an attached bench, done in a medieval style and resembling that of Saint Jerome in his study.

Hieronymus Phniggs is an old man with a full head of white hair and a white beard. The hair and beard look dry and slightly dishevelled. His face is thin and his eyes, although alert, have a kind of absence to them, as though he is not quite there. He smiles at you in a way that doesn't put you at your ease, although you feel it should. It is a smile that has forgotten the meaning of smiling.

"Well, sit down." He gestures to a small stool on which you sit, rather uncomfortably. Yet the discomfort has more to do with Phniggs than it does with the stool.

"I think this is what you have been looking for." You hand him the envelope. He puts it on the desk, unopened.

"Thank you. Most kind of you."

You were expecting him to be a little more excited than that.

"I think it's what you have been looking for all your life," you say, trying to bring forth more of a response.

"Mm, well, who can tell?" A look of slight anxiety crosses his face, and he puts the envelope to one side.

He offers tea, and you accept, out of politeness I suppose, and also from the hope that he will open the envelope. Eventually the tea is finished, and you stand up to leave. You extend a hand and he takes yours and gives it a brief shake. You turn and start back down the spiral staircase, out onto the landing and back down to the ordinary world of London Bridge Station.

The world is strangely bright.

A selection from 'Remarkably Silly Stories for Grown-ups'Read this story for FREE!