You may have heard her name whispered in the hushed corners of the halls of commerce, shouted in the seediest bars, and reverentially mentioned by comic book store owner. She is the one, the only, Helena Hann-Basquiat, dilettante extraordinaire. She writes truth wrapped in the feather boa and smoky haze of fiction in the form of the Memoirs of a Dilettante. Volume One was released last year and those of us familiar with it–and with Helena’s writing–have been anxiously awaiting it’s sequel. Lucky for us all, we won’t have to wait much longer. In addition, one of the stories from Volume Two has been adapted into a Shakespearian style tragicomedy called Penelope, Countess of Arcadia. If you like what you see here, both Volume Two and Penelope are available for pre-order on Pubslush! And without any further ado, a sample from Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume Two and a prequel to Penelope, Countess of Arcadia!
Arcadius Interruptus – The Return of the Revolucionista
Penny was fuming as she related to me the events of the past 48 hours. With each passionately produced profanity (in which Penny is preternaturally proficient), she extracted from me an almost religious fervour for her cause.
“We were betrayed,” the Countess Penelope of Arcadia cried indignantly, channelling her inner bleeding heart poet. “Someone is going to hang for this, mark my words, Helena. Someone is going to fucking swing.”
I watched her pack her bag for school, scrutinizing each item and doing a mental check to see if any could possibly be turned into some sort of incendiary device.
“What are you going to do?” I asked her, the beginnings of a grin on my face.
“It’s not funny, Helena,” she rebuked; so angry she had tears in her eyes. “It’s not fucking funny. You’re going to write this as funny and it’s not. It’s serious. This is… a complete… fucking… breakdown… of the democratic process.”
She punctuated each furious word by throwing another item of clothing or paperwork into her book bag.
“It’s just the way my mind works, darling,” I said, reaching out and stroking her hair. “I want you to storm in there and give them hell – I wish I could come with you, I have a few words for them myself.”
“Well, don’t exaggerate it, okay?” The Countess begged through trembling lips.
I gave her a lopsided grin, and her smile returned.
“Well, not too much, anyway,” she conceded. “Believe me, you won’t have to. I’m going to let them have it with both barrels.”
“Yes, well, just don’t burn any bridges with that fiery temper of yours, Penny.”
She glared at me, and then became eerily calm.
“This isn’t personal, Helena,” she said, affecting a passable Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. “It’s strictly business. I’m out.”
The Countess Penelope of Arcadia (a neighbourhood adjacent to Little Italy, apparently) threw her bag over her shoulder and looked at me with angry resolve.
“Let’s do this.”
Penny had gotten involved in school politics, because she said it made her feel like a human being again. Throwing herself into the social aspects of university life gave her a life outside of home, which prevented her from sitting at home feeling orphaned and overwhelmed. Being part of the Executive Committee for her student society gave her a voice among her peers – at least, among her fellow students – I’m not sure Penny has peers, which might really come in handy for her someday if she’s ever required to be judged by a jury of them.
She’d enjoyed it for the last year or so, until she came home one day looking like her head was going to explode, and I had to talk her down for the rest of the evening.
“It’s bullying, plain and simple!” She declared, and then went on to spout a number of profanities, some involving illegal sex acts involving water buffalo. “They didn’t get what they wanted, and so now they’re going to bully their way to get it.”
“Hey, hey,” I said, trying to calm her down. “Back up, and tell me what’s going on.”
And so she did.
Universities have societies – not just fraternities and sororities – but societies based on department, area of study, different campuses, etc… and Penny is on the Executive Committee for one of these societies – I won’t say which, darlings, because I’m trying to keep this as confidential as possible. What this means is that she is part of a group of people that makes decisions about, among other things, membership in this society. People have to apply for membership, and because they are going to be representatives of the society, and participate in group events throughout the year, the members of this Executive Committee make their choices very carefully, based on various criteria, one of the foremost is the issue of character and integrity. These decisions aren’t made lightly, darlings, and there have been numerous nights when Penny has been gone until the wee hours of the morning because she’s been in session voting and discussing these issues.
She often came home disappointed, especially when she saw the sad fact of politics – that sometimes it’s a popularity contest. But while she didn’t always agree with the choices made, she always respected the democratic process. Whatever was decided as a group was law, and no one person had the power or right to undo those decisions.
Recently, certain applicants, though they had been members of this society the previous year, had been denied re-admittance to the society because of certain accusations brought against them; specifically, their character. There had been accusations of sexual impropriety and underage drinking – things that needed to be taken seriously. The university keeps close watch of these societies, as they are often the public face of the school itself. It is not out of the realm of possibility for the university to order a society disbanded, and its members punished, should they be regarded as an embarrassment to the institution, or in violation of its code of conduct. (In fact, this had happened to another society not that long ago).
The Executive Committee had convened, and after much deliberation, decided not to give these particular students entry into the society. The decision was made as a group, and that should have been the end of it.
Not so, Penny told me that night, trying not to seem as hurt as I could tell she actually was.
“They started a Facebook group,” she told me, rolling her eyes at the immaturity of it all. “A secret group, and aren’t they just oh-so-sneaky?”
She showed me some screenshots she’d been sent by a friend who had been invited to the group, and had joined for the sake of infiltrating their clandestine network and reporting back. Suddenly this was turning into a WWII spy-thriller.
I tried my best to ignore the tears in her eyes as she showed me what people were saying, not just about her, but about the others on the Exec Committee.
Most of it was what you’d expect from this current generation of Internet bullies – cowardly name-calling and mocking, coupled with accusations and threats. I’d been the victim of Internet bullies, or people who hid behind their position to send caustic emails rather than engage in civil conversation, so I knew how much it hurt, and how frustrated and powerless it made you feel.
“Here,” she said, pointing to a picture of a smiling blonde, who had just referred to Penny as a crazy psycho whore who has no business making decisions for anyone. ”I had lunch with her just last week. It’s not like we’re best friends or anything, Helena, but…”
“Fuckers,” I spat.
Fast forward to the revelation of this covert Facebook group, whose goal (other than to gather in the dark and spit venom about their so-called friends) was to overturn the decision to refuse those particular students entry into the society. As if by getting enough members to sign a petition they could force their way in.
The Executive Committee met to discuss how to handle the group – which, by the way, violated so many University codes of conduct that I won’t even go into it here – and decided to withdraw membership of anyone that had taken part in this group. There was harsher talk, Penny told me, and real serious discussion about actions that would have gone on the students’ permanent transcript.
“Do it!” I said, pumping my fist in the air. “String them all up! Every revolution needs its body count to discourage dissenters!”
At this point, Penny and I had begun referring to each other as Comrade and were blasting The Clash’s Sandanista! while tying bullets into each other’s hair.
(Work with me, darlings).
“It won’t stick,” Penny sighed. “Claudia’s too soft-hearted. She won’t see it through.”
Claudia is the President of the society, and while she doesn’t have the power to make the decision on her own, she can certainly influence the ultimate details of the consequences the students involved will face.
“The talk started at expulsion from the University, then softened to revoking their membership in the society with a life-long ban, and then there was some talk of drawing a line in the sand and giving immunity to anyone who would leave the Facebook group by a certain time – it was like we were the U.N. threatening some crackpot tin soldier regime.”
“And did they actually have weapons of mass destruction?” I asked facetiously.
“Exactly,” Penny said, ignoring my question. “And by the time the discussion was done, and we had all voted to take their memberships, there was still some feeling that Claudia thought that was too harsh. The very vague word probation got tossed around a lot.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked. “Besides, you all voted to take their memberships, right?”
Penny snorted. “Right.”
A couple of weeks passed, and I’d occasionally get an update from Penny that nothing had been done yet, and that while the Facebook group had been shut down, no public apology had been made, nor had any reprisals or consequences been enacted.
Until two nights ago, when she came home shouting about how she was the big bad wolf and that she was going to blow their house down all around them and laugh at the ruin they’d made of themselves.
I, of course, required a bit of elaboration.
“They betrayed us, Helena! Look at this!” She opened her laptop and showed me an email, sent from Claudia, to the members whose memberships had been revoked, inviting them back.
“What?” I asked. “That doesn’t seem right. How can she…”
“How can she, indeed!” Penny snapped. “She can’t! And what’s worse, she lied – not only to me, but to Angela as well!”
“Angela?” I prompted.
“Angela’s the VP – she had asked Claudia for an update on what precisely was happening with the dishonourably discharged douchebags – oh, sorry, couche-tards – and she was told that by Claudia that the decision was up in the air.”
“I thought it was decided that they were losing their memberships?” I said. “At the very least.”
“It was,” Penny said, teeth clenched. “We decided. As a committee. We fought it out. There were tears, Helena. Tears. But we came to a decision that we all decided was right.”
“And now it seems she’s just undoing all that,” I said, reading the email. Suddenly all my paranoia came flooding back. “Penny – who knows you have these emails – and who is this Deep Throat that’s sending them to you?”
“That’s Angela!” Penny shouted at me, as if I were somehow the source of her rage. “Sorry. That’s how fucking arrogant and/or stupid Claudia is – these emails are a matter of record, which Angela has access to. Everything I need to nail her ass to the wall is right there in black and white.”
“Well, it is right now,” I said, throwing Penny my cell phone. “Call Angela. Tell her to print everything up, right now.”
I felt like those investigative reporters who busted open the Watergate scandal on Nixon. Rocky and Bullwinkle. Or was it Loggins and Messina? Captain and Tennille? (Insert other ‘70s reference here).
Woodward and Bernstein, Helena! It was Woodward and Bernstein!
Yes, thank you, darling – I was being facetious.
Penny made the call to Angela on my cell phone, and while she was on the phone, her bag began to play Spiderwebs by No Doubt.
Sorry I’m not home right now, I’m walking into spiderwebs, so leave a message and I’ll call you back…
I fished her phone out of her bag, and looked at the call display flash the word CLAUDIA at me. I motioned to Penny that I was answering it, and that she should finish up her own call.
“Hello,” I said, doing my very best secretarial voice. “Yes, one moment please. Penelope! Oh, Penelope! Phone’s for you, darling!”
Penny hung up my phone and grabbed her laptop, where a chat window had popped up.
“You’re not going to believe this!” Penny whispered to me, and pointed to her computer.
SHE’S CALLING YOU FROM THE OFFICE, the chat box read. It was Angela. I’M SITTING RIGHT HERE.
“Hello, Claudia,” The Countess Penelope of Arcadia, which is just an eloquent hop, skip and a lady-like jump away from Poughkeepsie, home of Vassar – that is to say, Penny can turn on the charm when she wants to. For this to work, she adopts the occasional dilettante-ism as well: “Oh, I was just thinking of you, darling. How are you?
“Yes, I know I’m strange. I quite enjoy being strange. How strange that you take pleasure in being so strangely ordinary.
“Yes, well. What can I do for you? I’m afraid I’m quite busy. Lots of damage control, you know. Lots of gossip to quell, lots of confidence that needs to be restored, that kind of thing. Lots of hurt feelings.
“Oh you have? You’ve made a decision. That’s odd. I thought that we had made a decision. Together. You, me, the whole Executive Committee.
“Oh I see. So, you want to revisit that decision, then? Discuss it further? And this is what? You inviting me to a meeting so we can discuss this further?
“Oh, okay. Well, that’s a relief.
“No, no, I’m fine with discussing it. I just thought that maybe you were going to tell me that you’d already re-instated the memberships, and that you’d already sent emails inviting these people back to the society.
“No, of course you’d never do that – I was just saying.
“Oh, yes, I’ll be there. You can count on it.”
SHE’S LYING TO YOU, Angela sent. WHY IS SHE LYING TO YOU?
PRINT THOSE EMAILS, Penny replied. PRINT THEM NOW.
“Let’s do this,” The Countess Penelope of Arcadia (a small but proud democratic nation trying to maintain their autonomy. Major exports – feisty women with a hardline on hypocrisy and Sea Monkeys – little known fact) laced up her Doc Martens and threw her bag over her shoulder.
“Are you sure?” I asked, giving her one last exit, which I knew she wouldn’t take. Besides, who was I kidding? I wished I was going with her. This was going to be legendary, and I could only imagine the scene:
Penny sits across the table from the oppressive bourgeois Empress, Claudia the First, and clenches her fists so tightly that she draws blood from eight little crescent moons on her palms. She thinks to herself that there hasn’t been such a blatant disregard for the democratic process since Senator Palpatine dissolved the Imperial Senate and declared himself the first Galactic Emperor. Or perhaps since George W. Bush won the Presidency back in 2000.
“I’ve been thinking,” Empress Claudia declares, and the scribes beside her begin writing down her every syllable with huge feathered pens. Two eunuchs in saffron loincloths stand on either side of her, one holding a tray of chocolate truffles, the other a glass of special wine, made out of the tears of war orphans. “Perhaps we have been too harsh on our fellow classmates.”
Penny knows in her heart that she is not referring to the Committee, but rather, that she is using the royal ‘we’. Bourgeois bitch, Penny thinks, before the end of this day I shall see you locked up in the Château d’If – or hanging from the wall of the Bastille, or poking your pretty corrupt aristo head through La Veuve, if I have my way!
“So I propose that we re-consider our decision to revoke their membership in our society,” the Empress Claudia steps forward, her powdered wig sitting flawlessly atop her conniving head.
“Lies!” Penny screams, and stands up atop the table, black leather boots reaching all the way up to her knees. Her tartan kilt lends some to think that she’s going to launch into a William Wallace-esque diatribe about how she’ll keep fighting until Scotland is free, and how they may take her life, but they’ll never take her freedom – but then they see her black t-shirt with the Ramones logo emblazoned on it with the caption GABBA GABBA HEY! and they start picturing student protests and the summer of ‘77, and they start worrying that she’s going to start singing Don’t Worry About the Government by the Talking Heads, or perhaps I’m So Bored With the U.S.A. by The Clash. Neither song would be recognized in this room full of musical Luddites, though – cookie cutter clones with Pharrell Williams’ Happy on an infinite loop on their iPods – and so Penny gets right down to business, reaching into her bag and pulling out a red beret and a pile of papers.
Donning the red beret, she begins to make her speech.
“She’s lied to you,” she says, looking at her fellow committee members one by one. “She’s lied to you. And you. And you. And you, too, Jar Jar.”
“Empwess didsa lies to Jar Jar?”
“Yes, Jar Jar, I’m afraid so. Claudia has told you that we are here to discuss this matter in a democratic fashion – but I say to you that you have all been lied to! She’s made this decision behind our backs, and I if that’s how we are going to be treated, then I for one want no part of this society anymore. I won’t wear the colours of this corrupt dictatorship one moment longer!”
I imagine at this point, Penny rips off her shirt and throws it in Claudia’s incensed visage. People stare, some blush, poor Jar Jar creams his pants and has to be excused. After a moment or two, Penny remembers that she wasn’t wearing her society shirt, and is, in fact, wearing only a purple push up bra from Victoria’s Secret, and that the room is quite chilly.
“I would never make this decision behind your backs,” The Empress protests, but the Countess, not one to ever be caught with her pants down (her top’s another matter, darlings) starts handing out copies of the email where Claudia did indeed invite the disgraced members back to the society.
Fury rises on the Empress’ face, and she begins to cry, and then to scream madly, calling for Penny’s head, calling for all their heads, and rather than wait for Jaime Lannister (or, you know, some random committee member) to step forward and stab the mad Empress in the back, Penny leaps off the table and grabs the would be dictator by her frilly lace collar and drags her across the room, throwing her on the table in front of the other committee members, all the while screaming Viva La Revolution!
“I want no more part of this, Penny says, and someone throws her back her tattered t-shirt. Instead of using it to cover herself, she holds it high like a flag, looking like Liberty Leading the People from that Eugène Delacroix painting from the French Revolution – you know it, darlings, it’s the cover of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida.
“I won’t be a part of something this weak,” Penny continues, more seriously, now. When she’s serious, when something means this much to her, she can’t help but get teary-eyed. It just ends up adding more credence to her already important words. “We made a decision together – and we made it because we believed in each other, and we stood together and vowed that we weren’t going to be bullied.”
Around the room, committee members hang on her every word. Years from now they will recount this story to their grandchildren, and teach them the song The Ballad of the Penelope, Countess of Arcadia (a catchy little tune, by the way, that spent an unprecedented 68 consecutive weeks at Number 1 on the College Charts) and they will remember that day as the last time that they truly believed in anything.
“If you do this thing – if you just let her give in, you send a message to everyone out there – to every future couche-tard who doesn’t like the way things go for them – that all you have to do is bully the right people, and complain to the right people – and you can get away with anything. That is the world you will create, if you don’t stand up and say that it is not okay. That what they did was wrong; that there are certain inalienable truths that are self-evident; that there is just some shit with which we will not put up!”
At this point, Penny looks around for something, and notices someone spreading Nutella on a piece of bread. She grabs the butter knife out of their hands and holds it to her throat.
“That,” she says, and looks to the ceiling, baring her throat to her captive audience, “that is not a world I want to live in.”
I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to what might happen after that, darlings, but I do hope that Penny speaks her mind. I know that she’s made up her mind that one way or the other, she’s walking away. I’m proud of her. I know that she doesn’t want to be part of something so weak and ineffectual, and if her voice is just going to be ignored or co-opted and vetoed, then it’s more frustration than it’s worth.
Penny got home that night looking more relieved than I’d seen her in a couple weeks. She actually had a smile on her face.
“So,” I asked, “how did it go?”
She shrugged. “About how I expected. The good news is, I now have more spare time to spend with my favourite Aunt.”
“I’m your only Aunt,” I said, “and don’t you have a boyfriend or something?”
She kissed my cheek. “You’re still my favourite. And boys are icky – isn’t that what you told me?”
“Yeah,” I laughed, “when you were seventeen and I was worried about you getting knocked up.”
“No boys right now,” she confided with a sigh.
“Hey, I’m not complaining, darling,” I said, and put my arm around her. “So what do you want to do with all this spare time?”
“Dunno,” she said. “I kinda wanna watch a movie. Maybe something with Hugh Jackman in it.”
“Have you seen Les Mis yet?” I asked.
“No, but if Hugh Jackman’s in it, I’m game.”
“He is,” I said, rubbing my hands together with glee, “and you’re going to love it.”
 The inescapable prison from The Count of Monte Cristo
 Literally The Window, this was a term for the guillotine.
 Continuing on with the evil Galactic Emperor schtick, Jar Jar Binks was the silly character from the Star Wars prequels.
 A reference to the character from Game of Thrones, and his infamous actions against the Mad King.
This story is featured in Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume Two, but also continues in Shakespearean fashion in Penelope, Countess of Arcadia.
Some people attribute the invention of the Ampersand to her, but she has never made that claim herself.
Last year, she published Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume One, and is about to release Volume Two, along with a Shakespearean style tragi-comedy, entitled Penelope, Countess of Arcadia.
Helena writes strange, dark fiction under the name Jessica B. Bell. VISCERA, a collection of strange tales, will be published by Sirens Call Publications later this year. Find more of her writing at http://www.helenahb.com or and http://www.whoisjessica.com Connect with her via Twitter @HHBasquiat , and keep up with her ever growing body of work at GOODREADS, or visit her AMAZON PAGE