Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Semley’s Necklace’ and The Dispossessed

Hupa necklace, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

Last month I published a blog post about Ursula Le Guin’s relationship with her mother, Theodora Kroeber, which took as one of its central metaphors the notion of a necklace: an object that is simultaneously single and multiple, fixed in time and sequential. If you trace the beads or links with your fingers you can turn a necklace into a rosary or set of prayer beads, a tool for contemplation, and it becomes something that both exists all at once in the present moment and measures the passing of time, since the prayers or mantras you utter as you move from bead to bead take time to utter. As a rosary, though, it’s also timeless, since the experience of praying or meditating makes you lose track of time’s passing altogether. The metaphor of the necklace, I argued, has a central place both in Le Guin’s writing and her philosophy, especially in the first part of her career. What I didn’t mention in the post, however, was the transformation of the necklace metaphor that takes place in her most complex novel, The Dispossessed (1974). This transformation explains, I think, why the metaphor ceased to be of importance to her from that time forward. After writing that novel she had done all she could with necklaces, and moved on to develop other metaphors, such as the two kinds of spider’s web that lie at the heart of her fantasy novels The Farthest Shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990), or the dancing spirals of Always Coming Home (1985).

The necklace metaphor, I argued, may well derive from Theodora Kroeber’s book Ishi in Two Worlds (1962), about the last of the Yahi people of North California, a man called Ishi, who lived the final years of his life as an employee of the museum run by her husband, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. Theodora Kroeber describes the work of Ishi’s biographer as resembling that of an archaeologist who tries to string together an old necklace found in a dig:

There follows an account of all that is surely and truly known of him. What he believed and felt and did in the modern world and, earlier, in his own world are the bone beads of his story. The stringing of such of these beads as could be recovered onto a single strand has been my task. Surprisingly, the circle of his life’s necklace appears whole despite its many incompletions.[1]

The passage both illustrates the beautiful cadences of Kroeber’s prose, at times so like her daughter’s, and suggests why Le Guin would have been drawn to Ishi’s story: any talk of walking from one world to another was bound to appeal to an inventor of worlds. The metaphor, too, is interesting in its talk of life not as a chronological line but as a circle; and one wonders if this circularity was conjured up by the strangeness of Ishi’s appearance in modern California, when he ‘completed a trip,’ as Kroeber put it, ‘out of the Stone Age into the clang and glare of the Iron Age – a place of clocks and hours and a calendar; of money and labor and pay; of government and authority; of newspapers and business’ (p. 120). In making this trip Ishi became ‘a modern man, a city dweller with a street address’, and in the process showed both how the same historical period can contain inhabitants from different stages of technological development, and how so-called ‘primitive’ cultures are in fact just as rich and complex as ‘highly-developed’ ones – something Kroeber sought to stress repeatedly in her book, by comments like the one I’ve just quoted, in which she transforms Ishi from a Stone Age man to a modern city-dweller with a touch of her verbal wand.

Just a year after Kroeber published her biography Le Guin wrote her short story ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’ (1964, written 1963), reprinted as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ in her great short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1976). In between, the story had also appeared as the prologue to Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World (1966). The replacement of ‘dowry’ with ‘necklace’ in the title of the short story on its second printing is surely no accident: it draws attention to the object at the centre of the narrative, and so to the circular structure of the story, in which a woman from a ‘primitive’ culture on an obscure planet journeys to an interstellar museum on a spaceship travelling at near light speed, then returns home, only to discover that her friends have grown old, her child grown to adulthood and her husband died in her absence. The reason for her journey is that the economy of her people has been destroyed by the appearance from space of the ‘Starlords’ in their vessels, wielding weapons beyond the imagining of Semley’s people, and abruptly putting an end to the culture of warfare by which the rulers of her people have sustained themselves since time immemorial. As a result the rulers’ fortresses have been reduced to mouldering ruins; and in an attempt to revive the fortunes of the ruling-class family into which she has married, Semley goes in quest of the necklace of the title, a treasure passed down through generations by her ancestors before it was lost. She needs the necklace for her dowry and hopes that it will somehow restore the glories of the past to her diminished household. The necklace, then, represents a return to the past for Semley, and it involves a series of retrograde motions as she looks for it.

The first of these motions takes place when she mounts a windsteed – a giant flying cat – to look for the treasure. ‘Married women of the Angyar,’ the narrator tells us, ‘never rode for sport, and Semley had not been from Hallan since her marriage; so now, mounting the high saddle of a windsteed, she felt like a girl again, like the wild maiden she had been, riding half-broken steeds on the north wind over the fields of Kirien’ (p. 15).[2] Semley’s marriage, then, has involved a taming, a narrowing down of possibilities after the wild promise of her active girlhood, and she reverses this process as she returns to the activity of her youth. The second retrograde movement is to her father’s house, which she finds in a worse state than when she left it; and the third is to the mines of the dwarflike Clayfolk who made the necklace long ago, before her family acquired it. Meanwhile she is warned three times (as in a fairy tale) that her quest for the necklace is an act of folly, driven by false values: a desire for what she doesn’t have which prevents her from appreciating the value of what she has. Her friend Durossa tells her that she herself is more precious than gold, being ‘Semley who shines like a falling star, Semley whose husband loves no gold but the gold of her hair’ (p. 14). And the elf-like Fiia among whom she inquires after the necklace find value only in the gold they discover in the cycle of the seasons – as well as in Semley: ‘For us there is sunlight in warmyear, and in coldyear the remembrance of sunlight; the yellow fruit, the yellow leaves in end-season, the yellow hair of our lady of Kirien; no other gold’ (p. 17). The third and final warning is the ‘wheedling’ note that creeps into the voices of the Clayfolk as they invite her to enter their mines to seek the necklace – a note she ‘would not hear’ (p. 19) – and the unpleasant grins they display as they promise her she will return ‘very soon’ from her flight through space to fetch it. The Clayfolk, like Durossa and the Fiia, are obsessed by her golden hair, laying their ‘heavy grey hands’ on it in the spaceship until she rebels against this intimacy (p. 25). On the journey, deprived of light, she begins to yearn for its return, and faints with relief – or the pressure of gravity – when ‘the light flashed golden, at the window’ as she docks at the museum (p. 25). Circle after circle is offered to her as she looks for the circle of gold, each one illustrating the obsolescence of the thing she seeks, the impossibility of going back in time to the same spot as before, the relativity of time itself, which moves in different ways depending on where one places oneself to witness its passage. As the Clayfolk promise, her journey takes only one night – there are no days, after all, in space – and she returns home safely to her husband’s stronghold. She even meets herself there in the shape of her daughter Haldre, who ‘stood beside Durossa, gazing with steady eyes at this woman Semley who was her mother and her own age. Their age was the same, and their gold hair, and their beauty. Only Semley was a little taller, and wore the blue stone on her breast’ (p. 30). But Semley’s husband has gone, her dowry is therefore useless, and her home no longer a home but a ruin for her. She has come back from her interstellar journey, but found herself a stranger in her house, and runs away from it ‘like some wild thing escaping’ into obscurity, ironically becoming once again the ‘wild maiden she had been’ before her marriage. For Semley, the circle of her life was a trap, not an endless rediscovery of richness as the cycle of the seasons was for the Fiia. And her end becomes a lament for the victims who have been destroyed over so many generations and millennia by the encounter between cultures, by the clash between post-industrial technology and more ancient modes of living, between past and future.

‘Wild things’ like the tormented Semley of the story’s end cannot be contained between four walls. Ishi was described by some of the modern men who met him as a ‘wild Indian’. Ishi died of a disease caught from those modern men. The coexistence of different times or historical periods in a single world can be a toxic business. The modern man, Rocannon, who gives Semley the necklace when she comes to the interstellar museum, has no appreciation of her perspective on time despite his genuine interest in her, despite his recognition that she has a complex history to which he has no access. His colleague observes that the necklace must be of great value both to her and the Clayfolk, since they have given up so many years for the mission to fetch it – referring to the years they have sacrificed in order to travel so far at the speed of light. Rocannon’s response is unintentionally dismissive: ‘“Several years, no doubt,” said the hilfer, who was used to starjumping. “Not very far”’ (p. 27). But for Semley the distance is far enough to kill her. The distance between their perspectives, in other words, is Semley’s happiness, Semley’s family, Semley’s lifetime.

‘Semley’s Necklace’ is about a journey between the past, represented by Semley with her feudal values, and the future, in the form of the Starlords. A decade after writing this story Le Guin returned to the encounter between times, between historical periods; and when she did so she also returned to the necklace metaphor. The Dispossessed too is a circular story, describing the journey of the physicist Shevek from his home world of Anarres to its sister planet Urras and back again; a journey from a possible future for the human race (Anarres is an experiment in anarchism on a scale that has not yet been tried on Earth) to what for Shevek is the past (Urras is the planet from which his people, the Annaresti, originally set out to conduct their social experiment on Anarres), and then back to the future, the planet of Anarres where his personal journey started. For Le Guin’s first readers in the 1970s, on the other hand, Urras would have looked very much like the present, since the dominant capitalist culture on that planet is locked in a war of attrition with a socialist enemy, mirroring the political scene on the Earth they lived in – so that for them Shevek’s journey takes him from the future to the present and back again to the future. But past, present and future are all a matter of perspective; for an Einsteinian physicist they are relative, since all exist at once in the stupendously large object which is the space-time continuum. Relativism is in fact built into the novel’s structure, whose narrative famously alternates between chapters set on Anarres, which tell the story of Shevek’s life from his childhood to the moment when he decides to go to Urras, and chapters set on Urras, which tell of his experiences from the time he sets off for Urras to the time he returns to Anarres. Each set of chapters occurs at a different time in Shevek’s life, yet they are presented to us side by side, as if to illustrate the fact that time and space can be viewed as a single vast unchanging object if like Einstein, Minkowski and H G Wells one understands time or duration as the fourth dimension of space.

Although Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras and back again takes time for him, and so can be read as a single uninterrupted narrative, Anarres and Urras also coexist, although there is little communication between them – very much as Ishi and his family coexisted with what Kroeber calls ‘modern man’, although the two communities did not interact until the last five years of Ishi’s life. From one perspective, then, the past and the future coexist at the same time in Le Guin’s novel – although it is a matter of perspective as to which planet you see as representing which. For many of the inhabitants of Urras, Shevek and his fellow anarchists are primitives, wild men who understand little of the complexities of capitalist life. For Shevek, as I said before, Urras is his past – but when he visits the planet he discovers that the future exists there too: there are anarchists among the Urrasti, who are struggling to bring about an anarchist society on Urras in imitation of the one on Anarres. And he already knew when he came to Urras that there were representatives of the capitalist past on Anarres; it was because of the capitalistic impulses of some of his fellow physicists on Anarres that Shevek decided to travel to Urras to complete work on his major work, an attempt to unite the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity in physics. Urras, in other words, contains in itself the seeds of the anarchist future, while Anarres contains in itself the seeds of regression to the capitalist past. Shevek’s journey executes a circular movement which finds echoes in other potential circular movements taking place in the unfolding histories of the two worlds he inhabits.

As in ‘Semley’s Necklace’, then, there are circles within circles in The Dispossessed, and the fate of Anarres hangs delicately poised between regression to capitalism and the ‘infinite promise’ of a continued commitment to anarchist principles. This balance might have been represented as a necklace, and it very nearly is; but a necklace doesn’t convey the problem of keeping balance, or the constant motion that makes keeping balance necessary, although it neatly invokes the idea of the circle or cycle. As a result, Le Guin places at the centre of her novel a mobile instead of a necklace, which nevertheless carries within it a memory of the past in its resemblance to that item of jewellery.

The mobile in question is one of several which Shevek’s lifelong partner Takver brings with her when the couple move in together, on Anarres, for the first time. These mobiles represent an idea which lies at the centre of the novel: the idea of the promise or bond, the commitment to future fidelity, to going on living together as equals, which Shevek and Takver offer each other before they begin their cohabitation.[3] A promise is a verbal statement made in a narrow space of time which contains within it an implied succession of future actions; in the case of a connubial promise between two people it can be understood to bind both parties to one another for the rest of their lives. A commitment to anarchy could be seen as a similar promise; anarchy can only work if all parties involved in it commit themselves to lifelong observance of its principles; and keeping that promise is as difficult and worthwhile a thing as keeping an eye on the growing child which might or might not be the fruit of a lifelong partnership. As the Annaresti put it in the poem we hear repeatedly throughout the novel:

O child Anarchia, infinite promise
infinite carefulness
I listen, listen in the night
by the cradle deep as the night
is it well with the child (p. 86)

Orrery

In this poem the child or promise is suspended precariously in the deep night like a planet. But the mobiles that symbolise the promise of lifelong commitment between Shevek and Takver have more in common, it seems, with entire solar systems than with single worlds; each mobile seems to resemble an orrery or mechanical model of planets in orbit round a sun, being made up of ‘complex concentric shapes made of wire, which moved and changed slowly and inwardly when suspended from the ceiling. [Takver] had made these with scrap wire and tools from the craft supply depot, and called them Occupations of Uninhabited Space’ (p. 156). These Occupations become a study aid for Shevek, hanging above his desk as he struggles to reconcile sequency – the notion that one moment in time follows another – with simultaneity, the notion that two different moments in time can occur simultaneously when looked at from the right perspective.[4] At this point in the narrative the ‘inward’ movement of the mobiles resembles the operations of the human body and brain rather than the planets moving round the sun: ‘The delicate concentric mobiles hanging at different levels overhead moved with the introverted precision, silence, mystery of the organs of the body or the processes of the reasoning mind’ (p. 160). A little later they come to stand for the coexistence of loving partners, but also of worlds running on parallel orbits in a solar system – the orrery once again: ‘“Why does it look so beautiful?”’ Takver asks as she looks with Shevek out of their apartment window at Urras, while above them ‘the Occupations of Uninhabited Space hung, dim’ (p. 161). The promise that binds the couple gives Shevek an insight into how different perspectives and timelines can coexist while involved in constant sequential change; this is because the promise is a verbal statement that reconciles the present and the future, and that retains its meaning as it recedes into the past. In these ways it is very much like one of the mobiles; but each mobile is also very much like the necklace invoked in Kroeber’s preface – both in its circular motion and in its multiple significations.

This resemblance is noticed later in the novel, appropriately enough, by the couple’s daughter Sadik, who is one of the fruits or consequences of their promise or bond. After a long absence from his partner and child, brought about by the need for all Annaresti to stave off a calamitous drought on their infertile planet, Shevek moves back into Takver’s room and unpacks his things. One of the objects he takes out of his case is a mobile, which, as he reveals it ‘with some mystery’ to his daughter, becomes momentarily as strange to the reader as to her, ‘a curious object which as it lay in the case appeared to consist of a series of flat loops of wire and a few glass beads’ (p. 268). At first the child thinks it’s a necklace – and we are told that an unsophisticated delight in jewellery is common in rural places (as opposed to ‘sophisticated’ urban centres) all over Anarres, where ‘the deep connection between the aesthetic and the acquisitive was simply not worried about’ (p, 268). The necklace here represents, among other things, the anxiety over whether possessing something not strictly necessary can lead to a habit of self-indulgent possessiveness; and by extension the necklace can also be taken to stand for the problem of promising fidelity in an anarchy, which can give rise to habits of possessiveness between the couple concerned. Both things – a necklace and a lifelong partnership – can seem old-fashioned, like the necklace being pieced together by an archaeologist in Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds – though Le Guin is insistent that this view is merely a matter of perspective, and that there are many Anarresti who do not share it. In the same way, the object Shevek removes from his suitcase is from one point of view a symbol of the past – of the time when he and Tavker sealed their lifelong bond; but it is also a symbol of his continuing fidelity to that bond, his unbroken faith.

But the object is not in fact a necklace, as the reader knows, though Sadik doesn’t. It’s something kinetic, not fixed, something that embraces both partners, not just one, something that is always changing in time while remaining the same:

‘No, look,’ her father said, and with solemnity and deftness raised the object by the thread that connected its several loops. Hanging from his hand it came alive, the loops turning freely, describing airy spheres one within the other, the glass beads catching the lamp-light.

‘Oh, beauty!’ the child said. ‘What is it?’ (p. 268)

Shevek doesn’t tell her what it is, perhaps because there’s no exact answer. It’s something her mother made, and it’s one of the Occupations of Uninhabited Space, and it’s a mobile, and it’s a form of beauty (as Sadik points out), and it’s a symbol, but it wouldn’t be possible to sum up all these aspects of the object to the satisfaction of a child. But when Takver promises to make another one for Sadik there are tears in her eyes. The mobile’s fragile representation of change and continuity, of sequency and simultaneity, summarizes something that affects her profoundly – the endurance of affect itself in despite of change. And this affect embraces the daughter as well as the parents, and so also promises (since she represents a new generation) to extend itself outwards in time to embrace the wider community of Anarres, and perhaps Urras, and perhaps much more.

As it transpires, Shevek doesn’t take the surviving Occupation of Uninhabited Space with him to Urras. In fact, the Occupation disappears (as far as I can find) after the chapter I’ve just cited, where the couple come together again after long absence, to be replaced with another mobile. A few chapters later – towards the end of the book, in the chapter where Shevek makes up his mind to go to Urras – we are introduced to this new thing, hanging over the heads of the physicist and the couple’s second child, their second living promise, a girl called Pilun:

Behind his head and the child’s, the single mobile hanging in this room oscillated slightly. It was a large piece made of wires pounded flat, so that edge-on they all but disappeared, making the ovals into which they were fashioned flicker at intervals, vanishing, as did, in certain lights, the two thin, clear bubbles of glass that moved with the oval wires in complexly interwoven ellipsoid orbits about the common centre, never quite meeting, never entirely parting. Takver called it the Inhabitation of Time. (p. 303)

This mobile is described in greater detail than any so far. The number of beads is specified: there are two, as there are two of Shevek and Takver. The term ‘orbit’ is used to described their simultaneous and complementary but separate movements, which makes them analogous to planets, perhaps Urras and Anarres. The effect of appearances and disappearances ‘in certain lights’ (‘lights’ is another term for ‘perspectives’) makes their relationship seem more tenuous than the motions of the earlier mobiles, as is appropriate for a moment in the novel when the couple are about to separate physically and occupy two different planets. But by this time in the novel we also know that their experiences on each planet will echo each other; in every alternate chapter set on one planet there are clear echoes or reflections of events in a contiguous chapter set on the other. From this point onwards, as we know, the couple will occupy the same sequence of time in different places, never touching but always complementary, always definitively in relation to one another. And they are not trapped in this condition; the fact that this is a new mobile means there is the possibility of a further mobile being fashioned from the same materials, in which the beads are poised in a different relationship. The mobile is a model of the novel we have just been reading, all of whose parts contribute to the motions, the double narrative orbits of the whole, all of whose ideas offer the possibility of further ideas to be sown and cultivated outside the orbits of the novel itself.

The word ‘Inhabitation’ as applied to this new mobile suggests that it represents, as a whole, the idea of home – a concept that’s utterly central to Le Guin’s thinking. Anarres is Shevek’s home – the place where he was born, the place where his partner and children live. But he also recognises Urras as home, the place all Anarresti originally came from, and where new prospective anarchists are still engaged in the political struggle that produced Anarres. The two worlds are complementary – neither can thrive without the other, in economic or physical terms. Remove one of these planets and the orbit of the other will be drastically and probably devastatingly altered. The mobile is a promise that the two places will cohabit, which is confirmed as it is made, since the two places do cohabit within a single solar system, a single home. So much for the name of the last mobile we meet in the novel. But what about those earlier mobiles, the Occupations of Uninhabited Space? What does Takver’s name for them signify?

One of the things it signifies, I think, is the refusal to colonize or be colonized. Ishi and his family refused to be colonized, choosing to live apart from and without commerce with the colonizers who occupied the Californian space around their desert home. The Anarresti likewise refuse to be colonized by the Urrasti, barring entry to and exit from their single spaceport to anyone but the most carefully vetted guests. And they themselves are not colonists of their planet; it was unoccupied when they came there, except by a temporary population of miners who were permitted to stay or leave as they thought fit. There are hardly any living species of any kind on its inhospitable surface apart from the Anarresti themselves. When they emigrated from Urras they occupied a space that was uninhabited, and brought with them an ideal that had been untried by their community, though no doubt an anarchism like theirs had been tried elsewhere in the vastness of the universe at some point. That ideal too, then, was an unoccupied space as far as they were concerned, and their move to Anarres was a promise to put it into practice; just as Shevek and Takver’s decision to move in together was a promise to put the hitherto unoccupied space of lifelong partnership into practice for the very first time – that is, for the first time in their lives, and from their perspective.

The two mobiles or sets of mobiles – the Inhabitation of Time and the Occupations of Uninhabited Space – come together in the final chapter of the novel, as Shevek returns to Anarres after solving his quest to reconcile the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity during his stay on Urras. The chapter opens with a return to the concept of the mobiles, which are descended from Kroeber’s necklace. First there are the two planets, Urras and Anarres, in complementary orbits:

Before they broke orbit, the view-ports were filled with the cloudy turquoise of Urras, immense and beautiful. But the ship turned, and the stars came into sight, and Anarres among them like a round bright rock: moving yet not moving, thrown by what hand, timelessly circling, creating time. (p. 314)

The reference to a rock being thrown takes us back to the beginning of the novel, when the child Shevek stumbled independently on one of Zeno’s paradoxes: if a stone is thrown at a tree it can never hit the tree because it will only ever cover half the distance to the tree, then half again, then half again – in which case how can contact ever be made?[5] Shevek’s career as a physicist was dedicated to solving that paradox, and by this final chapter we know he has solved it by the simplest of procedures: by assuming that the stone does make contact and working out a formula that explains this seemingly impossible occurrence. At the same time the reference in the passage to this rock revolving in a perpetual circle suggests time’s inescapable circularity, the fact that all things everywhere are occurring at once, simultaneously, when viewed from the right perspective. The irreconcilable paradox, in other words, remains even after Shevek has found a formula that seems to resolve it. This is why his formula permits instantaneous communication or contact between any two points in the universe, with the help of a device called an ansible which occurrs (like a premonition) in many of Le Guin’s science fiction novels written before she described its invention in The Dispossessed. All those points exist at the same time, as well as in sequence, and there are ways to communicate their equivalence, their contiguity, in spite of the distance and difference between them.

The ship on which Shevek is riding in this final chapter provides the second reference to a mobile. It’s an interstellar starship – one designed to cover impossible distances, and in the process to provide its occupants with that vast perspective that represents time as both sequential and simultaneous:

From the outside it was as bizarre and fragile-looking as a sculpture in glass and wire; it had no look of a ship, a vehicle, about it at all, not even a front and back end, for it never travelled through any atmosphere thicker than that of interplanetary space. Inside, it was as spacious and solid as a house. […] Its style had neither the opulence of Urras, nor the austerity of Anarres, but struck a balance, with the effortless grace of long practice. (pp. 314-5)

The designers of this ship, the Hainish people, are the most ancient human species in the universe, responsible for colonizing all the worlds where anthropoid peoples can be found. It is their extraordinary antiquity, the vastness of their recorded history, that gives them the perspective that sees the whole universe as their house or home; that takes no note of forward or backward motion because all directions have already been taken, at one time or many times in the past, by their ancestors – as they no doubt will be again at some point or many points in the infinite future. But their antiquity does not make the Hainish jaded. Change remains possible, infinite hope available for every individual Hainish person, for a reason as simple as Shevek’s solution to the problem of reconciling incompatible theories. One of the Hainish crewmembers explains this reason to Shevek:

‘My race is very old,’ Ketho said. ‘We have been civilised for a thousand millennia. We have histories of hundreds of those millennia. We have tried everything. Anarchism, with the rest. But I have not tried it. They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?’ (p. 318)

The statement might summon to our minds the mobile hanging above the head of Shevek’s second baby daughter as he prepared to leave for Urras – for the first time in his life, even if such departures have happened infinite times before and will happen again. In this passage Takver’s mobiles fulfil their promise, complete another orbit, and take their place in the reader’s mind as a message of hope for the worlds to come.

The Dispossessed ends, as Daniel Jaeckle has pointed out, on a note of uncertainty. Shevek faces the anger of some of his fellow anarchists on Anarres for what they see as his betrayal in going to Urras, and it’s perfectly possible that he and the hopeful Hainish crewmember will die at the spaceport. His legacy, though, is enshrined in Le Guin’s earlier books in the form of the ansible. His hopefulness, too, and the hopefulness of his Hainish fellow traveller, remains enshrined in the novel, to be revitalised each time we reread it. And the novel also offers a hopeful riposte, through slantwise references to that necklace, to the tragic stories of Ishi, as told by Kroeber, and of Semley, as communicated by Le Guin herself in her early short story. Reconciliation is always possible, Le Guin seems to say, in the fullness of time, even if we don’t live to witness it as individuals. Things are always being made new. By means of whatever wayward orbits, we are always coming home.

Notes

[1] Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), prefatory note.

[2] ‘Semley’s Necklace’, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2 vols. (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 9-30.

[3] There is a detailed and very beautiful account of the notion of a promise from an anarchist’s perspective in The Dispossessed (London: Grafton Books, 1975), Chapter Eight, p. 205.

[4] The clearest account I’ve found of Shevek’s physics is in Daniel P. Jaeckle, ‘Embodied anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed’, Utopian Studies, 20.1 (Winter 2009): p. 75 ff.

[5] See The Dispossessed, Chapter Two, p. 31.

Bedbound

One morning, Mr McGhee rolled over in bed and refused to get up.

‘Are you all right, love?’ asked his wife. She shook him a couple of times, then went to phone his work.

‘Tommy’s ill, I’m afraid,’ she said.

‘No I’m not,’ said Mr McGhee through the open door of the bedroom. ‘I’m just not getting up. I’m never getting out of bed again.’

And he didn’t.

***

As word spread about Mr McGhee’s decision he became something of a celebrity. A piece appeared in the local paper. A national magazine ran a feature on him. A TV crew came to film him where he lay among stacks of empty pizza-boxes and buckled beer-cans. The longer he stayed in bed the more elaborate and satisfying reasons he found for doing so.

‘It’s a good bed,’ he said. ‘My grandfather and great-grandfather were born in it. Most of our dreams are dreamt in bed, and sex is best between the sheets. It’s nicest to have breakfast in bed, or tea in bed while watching TV. If more people stayed in bed there wouldn’t be so much greed and violence in the world. I like my bed, and all the evidence suggests that my bed likes me.’

His neighbours regarded him as something of a hero. After he’d been in bed a year they threw him a party, to which the lord provost and most of the councillors were invited. A piper serenaded him outside his bedroom window, and the bedroom became an Aladdin’s cave of unlikely gifts: porcelain figures, footballs, garden furniture, and every kind of spare part for his car. There was a cake with a single candle, and a lot of cards wishing him either ‘Happy Anniversary’ or ‘Get Well Soon’.

His wife left him three months later.

***

For a while after that a volunteer came round with meals on wheels. Then the day came when the service was discontinued. ‘You’ll have to get up now, Mr McGhee,’ said the cheerful official who brought him the news. ‘The trouble is, you’re not an invalid, so you don’t qualify for government aid. There’s nothing we can do to help you. You’ll have to get up or starve.’

Mr McGhee warmly agreed with the official, and began to starve to death almost at once. As day followed day he got thinner and thinner, till one morning two of his neighbours wandered in and found that he seemed to have stopped breathing. When they moistened his lips with a little beer he revived and asked for a slice of toast. So they phoned the district councillor, and after a short debate, responsibility for feeding Mr McGhee was resumed by his former employers, the city council.

***

Five years later he was interviewed again by the same TV crew as before. He had stopped shaving and his beard had grown into a thick forest at one end of the rugged landscape of his continental quilt. The quilt had developed growths of its own: fungal blossoms and several varieties of moss that throve on a diet of rotting feathers and liquid secretions from his body.

‘Do you miss anything?’ they asked him. ‘Do you regret your decision? Don’t you think it’s irresponsible to stay in bed when there are so many people in the country with genuine disabilities?’

‘They have their reasons for staying in bed; I have mine,’ he answered sagely.

‘Don’t you feel like a sponger?’

‘Sometimes,’ he admitted. ‘But on the whole that’s balanced by the memory of what it was like before I started to sponge. I can live with the guilt, I think.’

***

After that people forgot about Mr McGhee and his gesture of defiance. The delivery of meals on wheels became erratic. His neighbours no longer visited. Only his wife came in from time to time with a bag of this or a basket of that, but she refused to do so regularly. ‘You made your decision, I made mine,’ she said, and Mr McGhee warmly agreed.

One morning he found he couldn’t sit up in bed. He lay flat on his back for three days and three nights till his wife dropped by. She took one look at him and phoned the doctor, a call that had been delayed by fifteen years.

‘Your husband has had a stroke, Mrs McGhee,’ said the doctor.

‘Not Mrs McGhee. Ms Winkelmeyer,’ said the ex Mrs McGhee. ‘He needs to be treated in this bed. He can’t be moved.’

‘That’s just as well,’ said the doctor. ‘These days we prefer to treat our patients at home. The hospital wards have all been converted to suites for private patients. I’ll send some nurses over.’

Several weeks passed before the nurses arrived, and in the meantime Ms Winkelmeyer cared for Mr McGhee with dispassionate assiduity. The nurses, when they came, were big burly men with hairy chests bursting out of their green cotton blouses. ‘How are we today?’ they said to Mr McGhee as if he had suddenly turned into a roomful of people. Then they helped him to move his limbs, to sit up in bed, to raise his arms and legs one by one and flex them. These movements caused him excruciating pain. ‘That’s very good,’ they said. ‘Tomorrow we’ll begin speech therapy.’ They left him looking grey with agony, trying to swallow a pill.

Next day, as promised, the nurses began speech therapy. ‘Talk,’ they said, and slapped his cheeks. He rolled his eyes and laboured with his tongue, but no matter how he tried he could only manage to let out a few feeble screams when they slapped him. ‘Very good,’ they said again. ‘We’re doing very well. Tomorrow we’ll try walking.’

Mr McGhee shook his head and Ms Winkelmeyer protested, but the nurses were firm. ‘We mustn’t be lazy,’ they insisted. ‘A walk will do us good.’

Next day they ordered Mr McGhee to stand up. When he shook his head, they seized him by his skinny arms and swung him round so that his little withered legs were dangling over the side of his great-grandfather’s bed. All at once he spoke to them clearly.

‘Nothing you can possibly do to me,’ he said, ‘will make me take one step.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ said the nurses, pulling him upright.

He gave a terrible shriek, and died.

‘Poor soul,’ they said as they laid him on his quilt. ‘Still, at least he’s now at rest.’

***

His funeral was attended by an enormous crowd. As it turned out, Mr McGhee had bought shares in the successful Dreamboat Mattress Company and become fabulously rich, though he had never seen fit to mention this to anyone. He left his fortune and his bed to his ex wife.

 

 

Picture credit: Unmade bed by Silvina Day

Autumn Lights

At nightfall when the cottage lights went on the street should have been plunged in an abysmal darkness; but where Mr Printon (being an educated man) knew the stars must be, although he had never seen a star, there was a palpitating red glow like the inside of a mouth. That glow throbbed to the distant city’s pulse, as did the constant moan of traffic as it bowled along the raised motorways that gripped the city in concrete coils. Mr Printon did not live in the city. He inhabited the town of Addenden, an urban satellite with a steadily expanding population towards whose prosperity, he flattered himself, he had made a not insignificant contribution. His office stood only three hundred and sixty-seven paces from his cottage gate, and between the door of the cottage and the door of the office Mr Printon led a life of such regularity it was a wonder there was not a trench from threshold to threshold.

Apart from twenty-seven pounds a week spent on cigarettes Mr Printon’s management of his domestic economy was irreproachable. He was a man of clean-cut principles, his suit well shaven, his chin faultlessly pressed, his bowler hat immaculately brushed and his hair set at a jaunty angle on his (though he said so himself) polished intellect. He kept to his daily timetable with a precision not to be measured with instruments. Passers-by were blinded by the shine from his shoes, and you might wound yourself on his pocket-handkerchief.

The reason for Mr Printon’s fastidiousness (if reason it could be called) lay in the walk to his office and his twice-weekly visit to the town shopping centre. It could be found in the fluttering of abandoned newspapers, insurance policies, travel brochures and miscellaneous refuse on the pavement; in the gurgle of oily water in the drains; in the smelly sludge that slimed the streets on rainy days; in the shrieks of despair or snatches of drunken bawling that scrabbled against his window at night; in the amorous wails of his neighbour’s cat; and above all, in the faceless passers-by reduced to a shabby anonymity by the murk that passed for weather in these prosperous parts. That was why when Mr Printon returned home every evening he enacted furtive rituals with tape-measures, weighing scales, pocket calculators and soap.

At eight o’clock each morning (after an hour’s careful grooming) he entered the kitchen with ceremonious solemnity. He switched on the kettle and the radio, boiled water in a pan for his breakfast egg, swallowed a glass of orange juice fortified with nine additional vitamins together with whatever tablets his doctor had prescribed, then settled down to read the newspaper over a cup of strong black coffee. In his opinion the government could do worse than take his household arrangements as a model for the running of the nation.

Consider, then, his consternation when he entered the kitchen one morning and found there was no egg. He stood for an indeterminate period staring into the recesses of the fridge as if he expected the egg to drop out of the freezer compartment with an icy cluck. Shaken, he reached for the orange juice – only to find that this was missing likewise. His brain gave out a hiss of bafflement tinged with anxiety, and it was only after several seconds that he realized he was listening to the white noise emitted by the radio. Then he turned to the sideboard and found to his relief that the coffee-jar was still half full. He brewed himself a cup of coffee, swallowed the aspirins he discovered in his pocket and settled down to search for an explanation in the newspaper.

Then he found himself searching for the newspaper.

He even opened the front door and peered out into the misty morning, but the mat had WELCOME on it and nothing else. That word, WELCOME, somehow disconcerted him, and he hurriedly closed the door. He was, he concluded, sickening for something, and accordingly strode to the medicine cupboard with a new sense of purpose, swallowed everything he found there, and began to feel genuinely queasy.

Now he realized that a new sound was buzzing in the hairs of his ears, having detached itself from the hiss of the radio. Little by little he heard voices in the confusion. He drew aside a corner of the hall curtain, and though the mist was pressing up against the glass he could tell that a crowd had gathered in the High Street and was heading towards his cottage. He had the absurd impression that they were coming to root him out with staves and scythes, as the Roman peasantry might have rooted out a fallen emperor. Fighting the nausea in his stomach he donned a raincoat, took his bowler hat and tightly rolled umbrella and stepped over WELCOME, the perennial concerned citizen, to find out what was going on.

The street lamps still glimmered at intervals through the mist. A light wind was blowing which would soon disperse the early morning vapours. As he stood by the cottage gate he soon made out the foremost figures hurrying towards him with the intentness of those who can feel their purpose rapidly slithering away. Mr Sanders the estate agent, Miss O’Toole the postmistress and a slender young man in a silk shirt were the first he recognized. Soon a host of faces known and unknown were milling about the newcomer, chattering in high, strained voices, rubbing the backs of their necks, shifting from foot to foot, staring up into the impenetrable blankness. The townspeople converged about Mr Printon’s bowler hat as about the entrance to a government building, finding comfort in his rigid collar and gold cuff-links.

‘O Mr Printon, thank God you’re safe!’

‘Mr Printon, have you heard? There’s been no food for a fortnight!’

‘We tried to hush things up, sir, to prevent unnecessary panic; but stocks in the shops are running very low.’

‘O Mr Sanders, I’m perishing with hunger already. I’d nothing but a slice of bread for my supper last night!’

‘Be calm, Miss O’Toole. Don’t fret yourselves, don’t fret yourselves!’ exclaimed Mr Printon in his most authoritative tones. ‘Everything is under control. No doubt it’s a strike, or a temporary side-effect of the spending cuts; they’ll soon have things back to normal.’

‘O Mr Printon, do you really think so?’

‘You don’t think it’s anything serious, then, Mr Printon? I can’t tell you what a relief that is.’

‘I’ve such a respect for Mr Printon’s judgement!’

‘Constable Mathers! Has no-one contacted the council yet?’

‘No, sir, the lines are dead. I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic, but perhaps it’s a terrorist attack?’

‘Mary mother of God and all the saints preserve us!’

‘What a ridiculous notion! Who’d attack Addenden?’

‘Complete waste of time. Much better bomb the city.’

‘Perhaps that’s what’s happened! Perhaps the city’s no longer there! O God, has anybody been to look?’

‘For heaven’s sake, calm yourselves!’ Mr Printon called over the rising hubbub. He lifted his umbrella and rapped the pavement sharply with the tip. A sudden hush fell. Mr Printon cleared his throat and felt himself rising to the occasion.

‘Listen here, townspeople. It won’t do a scrap of good panicking about it. Since we’ve no means of contacting the authorities by telephone, we must take the situation into our own hands. I’m sure we’ve got enough tinned and dried food between us to withstand a siege. All it needs is for one of us – a respectable, trusted member of the community – to go to the city and demand an explanation. There can’t be anything materially wrong or we’d have heard about it yesterday on the radio. Constable Mathers, you’re a man of sense; gather these good people in the village hall, organize hot drinks and refreshments; perhaps Mr Sanders will be so good as to entertain us with a song or two. I myself will take responsibility for delivering our grievances to the government.’

At this there was an outburst of scattered clapping and somebody raised a faint cheer. Mr Sanders swelled with pride to hear his vocal talent acknowledged; Miss O’Toole gazed at Mr Printon with unfeigned admiration; the motherly constable began to shepherd the villagers through the fog in the direction of the village hall, and Mr Printon was left alone by the cottage gate crowned with the hopes of his people.

Mr Printon’s bicycle was a machine that drew glances, if only because he rode it so seldom. It was painted black and glinted like a very slow meteor. Mr Printon put on an apron and polished it with a soft cloth every time he wheeled it out of the garden shed. He now pins up his trouser-cuffs with bicycle clips, presses his hat firmly over his brows and straddles the saddle. Declamatory trumpets sound in his head as he begins his stately progress up the High Street, past the entrance to the shopping centre, past the church, toiling up to the top of the little ecclesiastical hillock, then spins faster and faster into the basin of lingering darkness, leaving the morning, the mist and humanity in sunlight at the summit.

Oddly enough, although Mr Printon was in the habit of extolling the benefits of the country air he very rarely visited the open countryside because he suffered both from hayfever and a touch of agoraphobia. Moreover, he had a horror of insects, especially the kind that crawl up your trouser legs and get themselves hopelessly entangled in your hair, that flutter in your face and give you unsightly stings on the calves and forearms. His declaration that he would go to the city had been made on the assumption that he could bestride his bicycle and appear in the city centre with as much ease as he entered and left the bus, of which there were only two a day. He read financial newspapers on the bus journey, which meant that he had no idea what the land looked like between Addenden and the metropolis. He had a vague impression of neat farmhouses, lollipop trees and geometrical fields formed during his schooldays, when he had coloured in pictures of such things with felt tip pens, making sure not to go over the lines. So it was hardly surprising that he lost himself almost at once.

At first he concentrates on pedalling his bicycle. His pinstriped trousers pump up and down, his head juts forward between his shoulders as he peers intently ahead to avoid colliding with cars, curbs or trees. He sees no cars or curbs, but trees become more and more thickly crowded on either side, and the tarmac becomes more and more uneven until he begins to fear for his tyres. Riding his bicycle has always inspired him with a confidence far in excess of his skill on the road, no doubt because the only other vehicles he has used operate to timetables and one complains when they arrive late or at the wrong destination. The sun comes out overhead – as much as it ever comes out in these prosperous parts – transforming the permanent cloud canopy into a translucent sheet of light whose source is untraceable. To his distress, and in spite of the flickering shadows of the passing trees, Mr Printon begins to perspire. The road rises steeply before him and yes, it is now definitely no more than a track. But Mr Printon has no more thought of turning back than a railway train. Up and down pump his pinstriped trousers. His bicycle jolts over stones and he fears for his tyres.

About midday the track swerves to the right and is crossed by a sparkling brook. Before he can stop himself he has plunged his bicycle into the midst of the current, soaking his trousers to the knee. The bed of the stream is muddy so that half way across the wheels stick fast. Mr Printon’s balance was never of the best, and it is not easy at the best of times to remain upright on a stationary bicycle; he topples sideways with a cry of despair and a thunderous splash. Fortunately (for Mr Printon’s education doesn’t extend to swimming) the brook is no more than five inches deep. Nevertheless it takes several minutes of floundering and gasping before he has wrestled his conveyance and himself from the mud and caught his bowler hat, which has drifted several yards downstream. The lorry of his shoes is utterly extinguished, his hair disarrayed, his handkerchief’s razor edge blunted – and as for his suit! In an agony of frustration he hurls his cigarettes into the water. Then he resumes his journey. The thought of turning back still has not entered his head.

An hour or so later his pauses have become more frequent. The branches sweep low across his path, twigs stick in his hair. A branch has caught his bowler hat and whipped it out of reach; in vain he tries to knock it down or scramble up the offending tree – he has only torn his trousers and covered his jacket with blue-green mould. Silvery cobwebs are profuse in this neck of the woods; every time one brushes his skin he stops to feel for spiders, though he seldom finds one. He has taken off his raincoat so that when it starts to rain he gets drenched before he can unfasten the saddlebag. A while later he finds that the saddlebag has dropped off unnoticed. One of his shoes somehow gets jammed in the pedal and splits. When the wood turns to larches he is showered with brown needles that work their way under his shirt collar, down his back and into his socks. He has three punctures, one in each tyre and one in his hand where he crashed into a prickly spruce that sprang into his path. And now the path is scarcely visible, the twilight under the boughs is deepening. He cannot tell the time because his watch has stopped. At this point it occurs to him, with the clarity of revelation, that it might be wise to turn round, go home and take the bus.

In autumn the night can drop with appalling suddenness on the hills. Here, far from the city’s pulse, the darkness is utter. Here on rare occasions the cloud-canopy is ripped open, and through the hole one catches a glimpse of the spangled depths on which the earth spins like a bowler hat on a turbulent ocean. On this fleeting window a man may gaze to see himself reflected, or his eyes may pierce the shining surface to plumb infinity. Through this hole from time to time the night descends to pace the earth in awful nakedness. Mr Printon (whose mind retained a few scraps of classical reading) knew the tale of Actaeon, even if he couldn’t replace his inner tubes; but he had never before tonight seen Diana unveiled.

By this time on his journey there are two Mr Printons. One toils numbly along, dismounting from his bicycle, remounting whenever the trees thin out enough, losing his shoe in a muddy patch, losing his handkerchief, bumping into treetrunks, breathing heavily as he strains uphill, panting as he attempts to restrain his bicycle in its downward career. The other Mr Printon has wandered off in a different direction, is now striding sternly through the lobby of a government building to present his grievances to the prime minister in an elegant leather briefcase. Or eating rogan josh, a favourite dish, in a city restaurant. Or asking himself whether he ought not to be pushing his bicycle the other way, whether he might not soon strike a tarmac road where he might possibly catch a lift from a passing lorry, whether that is the hum of traffic he hears in the distance or merely the rushing of a woodland stream astonishingly like the one he came to grief in earlier. He finds himself perishing with thirst, so he kneels on the muddy bank and scoops up some of the water in his two cupped hands. It is icy cold and reminds him how chilly his numb counterpart must be, alone in the woods so far from human habitation. He even begins to pity that other self, as he sits by a warm fire behind drawn curtains sipping whisky, before he realizes with a start that he is once again on foot, having left his bicycle on the riverbank to rust and fall to pieces on its own. Only now does he begin to wonder whether a sheep has died and rotted upstream recently.

Suddenly he bursts out from among the trees. Both Mr Printons merge at once. He finds himself on a hilltop looking down into a moat of inky blackness. The trees rustle at his back. A road winds its comfortable way between verges of lush grass. The whole scene is awash with a light such as Mr Printon has never seen before. He is reminded of cottage lamps, kitchen neon, molten silver, dim street lights suspended poleless in the mist, the glowing arm of God as it pokes through the clouds in an apocalyptic painting. As he very rarely does, he raises his head and looks towards the sky. There, flanked by the ragged borders of brown industrial billows, licking the perpetual cloud canopy with cold fire, floats the moon in all her fullness. He has no way of knowing it, but this night is a particularly fine one, the moon particularly brilliant; his eye does not rest on her surface, it is sucked as through a tunnel into a core of brightness. Stars glimmer at the edges of his sight. His weary body falls away and he becomes all vision. The rustle of leaves becomes heavenly music. Flakes of brightness peel from the moon’s rim and spin down to lay soft wings on his face and chest. Unable to breathe he sinks to his pinstriped knees, and gazes, and gazes.

All at once he knew what he must do. He had found the source of light, the axis about which life whirled and eddied, formed and reformed like billows from an industrial chimney. He must tell Addenden. He must bring the townsfolk to this spot with ladders, or better still helicopters, and they must climb to the radiant gateway and enter the tunnel.

Summoning unknown reserves of strength he leapt to his feet and bounded down the slope towards the road. He seemed to know the direction of Addenden by instinct, without recourse to the points of the compass. Tattered garments flying, dust rising from the caked mud on his trousers, eyes gleaming, leaving his other shoe discarded by the wayside, he galloped over the mica-speckled tarmac with the stars reeling overhead. He could not have kept up such a pace for long, but he had described a vast circle though the course of the day and night and was now not far from his starting-point. His breath came in great gasps which lingered like a locomotive’s steam in his wake. Up hill and down dale he galloped, beneath the shade of the trees, out into full moonlight, down into inky hollows, up into glorious brilliance with fields of dew stretched out on either side. Here at last was the steeple, the church itself, he was lolloping past the doorway. A host of startled rooks leaped from a pine in the churchyard. Past the entrance to the shopping centre with those little dim lights the shopkeepers leave in forgotten corners for fear of thieves. Up the High Street shouting at the top of his voice, past his cottage gate towards the village hall. Heads poked out of lighted windows and he called that they were fragments, that all were scattered from a single blazing ball, that they must hurry and follow him home before the gates of heaven were obscured by an oily curtain. Doors opened, footsteps hurried after him. Before he reached the village hall, whose windows were a chain of orange links, he had an army of townsfolk at his heels brandishing brooms and rolling pins, cricket bats and kitchen knives.

He burst open the hall door and at once the building erupted in confusion. Women and children shrieked, men’s voices too turned shrill with rage and fear. Tables were overturned as people jumped to their feet. Crockery shattered on the floorboards, spattering the evening meal against the walls like the gore of Penelope’s suitors. Mr Sanders, who had been delivering a recital of music-hall songs from the little stage, leapt to one side and pulled the curtain down on himself, rail, cords and all. The pianist fell over backwards. Constable Mathers, who had a flock of children gathered round his knees wearing various items of his uniform, clutched at his helmet and truncheon making all the children scream. Into the midst of the chaos bounded Mr Printon, still pursued by the angry mob who were convinced he was a terrorist come to machine-gun their families. The families, meanwhile, were convinced that a foreign army had broken in. All sense of sanity was lost. People rolled on the floor covering their heads from the hail of bullets. Others trampled them and tripped over one another in an attempt to escape through the windows before the shooting started. Others surrendered loudly to everyone in sight, waving their hands in the air. It seemed the flimsily-constructed building must collapse at any moment, it groaned so at the seams.

Somewhere in this turmoil a battered figure dropped to its hands and knees, crawled beneath a table that was miraculously still erect, tangled with the table-cloth and pulled all the unbroken mugs and dishes to the floor. It left its jacket in the hands of a bellowing publican who declared that he had seized the assassin; left its trousers caught on a fallen umbrella stand; and finally reached the door wrapped in someone else’s fur coat like a baby in a blanket. The uproar was such that nobody noticed a single fur-clad figure slip out into the night and limp down the High Street the way it had come. The sky throbbed; the distant city moaned in its concrete coils. The figure stopped by Mr Printon’s cottage gate, fumbled with the latch and entered. The house was cold and empty, as if the owner had just died and there had been no time to drape the place in black. The figure left the front door ajar, passed through to the back and went out into the garden. An icy wind romped gleefully through the hall, puffing up newspapers, insurance policies, travel brochures and miscellaneous refuse from waste paper baskets. The figure returned from the garden shed carrying a ladder, swept through the house in its long fur gown and ran down the High Street with the ladder on its shoulder. Occasionally Mr Printon gave a little skip, as though his happiness might lift him off the ground and send him spiralling heavenwards with the last of the autumn leaves.

 

 

Little Ships

These days when she dreamed it was as if she were talking face to face with friends long dead, and when she woke she opened her eyes onto sepia tints inside a narrow frame, a dim imitation of her colourful dream world.

This morning she was startled from sleep by drawn-out howls from the direction of the High Street. They must have been very loud indeed, since few sounds penetrated the thick walls of the house now that the aeroplanes had gone and the airport fallen silent. She looked as if for the first time round her room: a high, spacious barn of a room divided down the middle by a thin partition, lit by a greenish deep-sea light that filtered through the vegetation pressing up against the window-panes in wild profusion. She had forgotten to draw the blinds again last night. You silly old fool, she told herself, you’re forgetting even the simplest things your mother taught you.

Each morning it was a tremendous effort to push back the bedclothes and swing her stick-thin legs over the edge of the bed, the first in a series of efforts which got steadily more tremendous as the day went by until she could permit herself to climb into bed again as the sun slipped behind the yews. She pushed her swollen feet into a pair of slippers and straightened the bedclothes carefully before shuffling off to light a fire in the kitchenette. She did this with the help of spills like the ones her nanny had taught her to twist out of sheets of tightly-folded newspaper. How lucky she had collected all those bundles of papers for the scouts to give to charity! And how lucky that John had fitted her kitchenette with a wood-burning stove and stocked the boiler-house with logs before he left for France! I’ve wood enough to last for years – more than enough to see me through to the day when John gets home on leave, she told herself as she did each morning.

The thought was a spur to send her in her wobbly stride to the side door with her plastic bucket. She must fetch water from the ditch before the day could properly begin! To do this she had to fight her way through the overgrown remains of her beloved herb-garden, shocks of heavily-scented rosemary and thyme slapping the hem of her floral dressing gown as she strode past (one of her daily efforts was the losing battle of stitching up the rents). The water in the ditch was a godsend, delivering clean, fresh water every day, even in the driest weather, even after weeks of rain had turned the rest of the streams and rivers in the area to muddy soup. She didn’t remember any water in the ditch before the evacuation, certainly nothing so clear and sweet as the stuff that ran beneath the ferns this morning. Perhaps she hadn’t looked.

She dipped the bucket, then pushed it firmly under till it held enough for two or three pots of tea and a superficial wash. Meanwhile she listened for more noises from the High Street; not in apprehension (she had lost her apprehension as a girl when she caught TB and almost died), but to hear if the owners of the voices were getting nearer, motivated only by the curiosity she brought to all things: the path of an ant across a wall, the movements of a robin among the hazel branches, the delicate footsteps taken by a deer as it cropped at the grass on the weedy lawn. She listened, too, to see if she would recognize any of the voices. She did not, of course – she never did – but there was always a chance that she might, and if that happened she would act at once, letting the bucket drop unnoticed from her hands and setting out in her wobbly stride round the front of the house towards the drive, arms raised in welcome, a smile ready on her face for the departed friends she had thought about each morning since they had left her…

The robin sat on the fence, as he had done for years past counting, and twittered remarks as she tipped her head to catch the sounds. Behind him the yews shook their skirts in disapproval and hissed, sending out little flurries of starlings to swirl and cheep for a while before settling down on their hidden perches. The howl rose again from the south, beyond the ruins of the Catholic church. A human howl: refugees must be on the move again through the village. No, it sounded as though they were chasing someone, which meant they were hunters, not refugees, with spears and clubs made from old scrap metal. She had seen them once through a skein of roses when she’d gone on a slow and painful scavenging expedition to the shops in search of scraps. God protect my John, she prayed in silence, and send him safely home from the front. The hunters had looked fearful, as much because of their obvious desperation as because of their snarling faces and bloodstained clothes.

She shuffled back to the house and over the remains of the carpet that was now growing patches of mould here and there no matter how hard she scrubbed. She set the kettle on the hob, then retired to the bathroom to put on her clothes. Button followed difficult button, each button a different colour because she hadn’t any matching ones left in her formerly well-stocked button-box. As her fingers fluttered about the fastenings her mind drifted off, searching among the quiet morning birdsong and the wavering sunlight that squeezed between honeysuckle-leaves at the tiny window, searching to regain the shining dream-path it had left. Dead relatives sat in the sitting room waiting for her to re-emerge and bring them a nice hot cup of tea. An old friend peered round the door. She could hear Mr Barnes as he pottered among the roses in the yard, tying the recalcitrant ones which dared to curve away from an upright posture with yards and yards of orange twine, lashing their stems to stakes three times their girth in the interests of maintaining the air of military discipline gone to seed which the yard had worn in the old days, before he left with the refugees.

At last the bottom button was done up and she had even pinned a brooch at her throat (a perilous task she set herself each morning to test the steadiness of her hands). Regally she strode from the bathroom to greet her guests. But the sitting room was empty. The photographs on the partition smiling at her apologetically from beaches, front doors and prams long turned to ashes in the hearth of time, the hearth of war. You haven’t written for so long, John, she told the painting over the bed (his eyes twinkled down at her from under his cap). Of course there’s hardly any leave in wartime, but surely after all your efforts they could spare you for a week or two, just to see your mother? Hasn’t Dunkirk happened yet? All those brave little ships and the sea as bright and calm as a picture postcard sold on the beach when she was the laughing black-eyed girl in one of the snaps beside the tallboy, throwing a ball to her husband-to-be, but her grandmother would hurry her past the naughtier postcards in case she should glimpse more naked flesh than was good for a child of fourteen. She allowed herself a secret smile. How could Nanny know about the time I kissed Jerry Tomkins behind the woodshed? His lips and tongue had surprised her with their excessive wetness – surprised her so much that she had drawn back and pulled out her hanky to wipe her mouth, all the while apologizing for her rudeness, she had enjoyed it, she really had, she’d just felt in danger of drowning in the tide of his saliva…

Faintly from the hall she heard the grandmother clock in her grandmother’s voice telling her it was twelve o’clock, time to start preparing lunch. She couldn’t stand here dreaming all day, there were things to be done, cleaning and mending to be completed if John weren’t to come home to find the place in confusion! She opened the back door of her bedroom and stepped into the passageway that gave her access to the rest of the house. Here the dogs had lived before they disappeared – who knew when or how. Perhaps they had left with Mr Barnes. Perhaps they had carried out their own evacuation and were now running free through the fields as dogs had done when she was a girl, before you needed leads and collars to constrict them as Mr Barnes constricted his runner beans and roses. At the end of the passage lay the storeroom, which had once been the kitchen proper with its many cupboards and its giant cast-iron stove. Here her friends from the village had piled up tins and crates and cartons full of supplies against her long wait for John’s return. Here were boxes of cream crackers to dip in her soup, tea, sugar, salt, flour, vinegar, and endless glass jars and metal containers, the flour now rancid, the crackers no longer crisp. She missed butter, of course, but there were still several jars of marmite to give the crackers flavour.

When she stood in the storage room doorway she liked to pretend she was going shopping; she had not gone shopping for months before the evacuation because of her feet. She loved the sense of boundless riches waiting on the shelves, treats and treasures as well as necessities, brought from far away through many dangers for her comfort, to spread on tea-time scones when friends and relatives paid a visit, or to brew on special occasions instead of normal tea. Brought on brave little ships like the ones at Dunkirk, sailing over a placid picture-postcard sea. She felt like a little ship herself as she grasped a tin of soup in one hand and a box of crackers in the other before turning, somewhat precariously, and striding back along the passage to her bedroom door.

Before she reached it, something made her pause at the back door of the building, turn the key in the lock and pull it open. As she did so, she remembered how Doctor Waters had always called this the House of Many Doors, because of the many odd passages, lobbies, landings and stairways leading from door to door at every level, each of them opening onto new vistas: bedrooms, storage cupboards, bathrooms, studies. She sometimes compared these doors to the ones in her mind, which opened and shut at a touch of her questing fingers, letting sunlight fall on a chest of drawers littered with photographs, perhaps, or a corner cabinet full of old china, some of it chipped in particular ways that recalled accidents or fits of temper which would have been long forgotten but for these commemorative flaws…

When she opened this particular door, the back one, she thought for a moment she had found her way to her dream-world, where friends, relatives and long-lost pets still lingered among the flowers and the apple-laden branches. The late roses were in bloom, a tangled screen of green and crimson that stretched across the bottom of the garden like an embroidered picture of the thorns that hid the palace of Sleeping Beauty, the place of dreams, the house of many doors. The flagstones were cracked and buckled into humps, and sprays of jagged weeds sprang out through the gaps between them. The little crab-apple was dead, its bony branches sticking up from among the briars that had choked it, and the once diminutive maple tree with its leaves of fire now soared ten feet above her head, casting shadows like cooling water across her face. Someone was standing on the flagstones by the gate: someone in ragged, colourful clothes whose left hand rested on the handle of an old-fashioned Silver Cross pram. Of course! How could she have forgotten? This was the day when Auntie Ida and baby Ruth were due to drop by for a cup of tea before the christening! She stepped forward with a social smile, both hands held out to greet the child and its timid mother.

The refugee who crouched among the weeds saw the door swing suddenly open to reveal a skeleton, a bony ghost with cloud-white hair and a gown of cobwebs. Its spider hands clutched a rusty tin and a battered box, talismanic gifts to trap a soul with. Its eyes glistened like dying oysters in their damaged shells. Its lips writhed as it lurched towards her. For a heartbeat the refugee trembled there on the broken flagstones, caught between the need to keep hold of the pram and the urge to flee. Then she gave the pram a shove – let the skeleton keep its rotten treasures! – let out a long-drawn howl of terror and scuttled sideways through the gate like a panicking crab. The skeleton staggered after her, waving its things and emitting the mews of a starving sea-bird. She could feel its breath on her calves as she sprinted down the drive.

By this time, of course, the old woman had seen that the visitor couldn’t possibly be Auntie Ida. For one thing, she had red hair where Ida’s was mousy. For another, she looked quite unlike the neat little figure stored away in the button-box of her memory. Her clothes were brilliant shreds of colour, she wore mismatched shoes, the pram had no baby in it, only oddments. When you got close you could see that her face was pale and worn, her eyes red-rimmed. Poor dear, she’s lost and alone, she thought, and stretched out her hands to soothe her, forgetting the tin of soup and the crackers. How strange I must have looked, she told herself later, waving those things as if I meant to clobber her with them! Why didn’t I speak? My throat was dry, that’s why; no sounds would come. I haven’t had my first cup of tea, I can never speak a word before I’ve had the first. She must have thought me mad or angry; no wonder she ran. The old woman’s shoulders slumped in disappointment at her inadequacy, her weakness, which had already lost her so many friends, so many members of her once extensive family: brothers, sisters, husbands, sons. You’re so weak, her mother had told her. Why can’t you learn? Why can’t you be strong?

In the pram, among other things, was a carriage clock the old woman remembered from long ago. Surely that clock had been upstairs? It had belonged to Uncle Freddie who was such a fine pianist; a conscious objector, he had joined the merchant navy when war broke out, his ship had gone down within a week in the North Atlantic. But his clock hadn’t stopped; they seldom do, in her experience, unlike their owners. She picked it up and placed it under her elbow where the crackers had been; she would take it inside and add it to her collection, her growing collection of forgotten clocks that beat so many different times. The grandmother clock, which announced each quarter hour in a querulous contralto. The alarm clock with her husband’s name scratched on the base with a pocket knife. The clock with the Donald Duck figure always pointing, pointing in delight, which had once stood on John’s bedside table in what they had grandly called the nursery, and now stood by hers, its beaming face anticipating the joy that would fill the house when he got home. The carriage clock could go in the sitting room where the guests were, so that they could admire the inscription: first prize in an international piano competition in Manchester, she forgot the name and date. She could check them now, of course, but that would involve some complicated juggling with the tin of soup and the box of crackers, she might drop the clock, and then who would mend it now that Mr Barnes had gone with his toolbox, his box of tricks as she used to call it, which had held so many nameless instruments large and small tangled up with yards and yards of orange twine? Nobody, that was who, not even one of the neighbours. There was nobody left. She would have to do it herself, if it was to be done, with her shaky fingers and her dimming vision.

She always switched on the radio at lunchtime just in case they had fixed one of the stations. What with so many voices and tunes in her head she could easily fill up the crackling void with entertainment: cricket commentaries from Old Trafford, Thought for the Day from her favourite Rabbi, the latest hopeful predictions from the Met Office, the latest accounts of the glorious rescue from Dunkirk. This afternoon, however, there was little of interest on her mental airwaves. The weathermen shook their heads uneasily and stayed tight-lipped. The captains of the little ships looked apprehensively at the sky, wondering if the Channel would stay quiet for the crossing. Strange clouds hung over the house – you could see them from the sitting room window: big blustery creatures which writhed when no wind shook the yew trees, which bulged with rain but refused to shed it, as if holding themselves back for a special occasion. Her memories grew dark and plaintive as shadows collected under the herbs, spinning their webs where the nut-tree stooped over the brimming ditch, gathering under the corner cabinet, behind the tallboy, on either side of the chest-of-drawers. Now she remembered the little squabbles, the loneliness of the sanatorium in the forest where she been sent to recover from her TB, all the absences in her life since the evacuation. ‘Now, now,’ she told herself sharply. ‘You asked to be left behind, remember? You wanted John to find everything in the village just as it was, before he left, before the fighting started.’ But things were not as they were, each passing day made this more obvious. There was mould on the carpet, cracks in the ceilings, moths in the curtains. And here the biggest cloud of all came roiling and writhing into her chest, the cloud she tried to scrub away when she scrubbed the carpet on her hands and knees. What if John had been left behind on the beach in France? What if he was now a prisoner, kicking his heels in a Nazi prison camp hemmed in with searchlights and barbed wire? Worse still: what if he were dead? But no, he couldn’t be; he hadn’t yet joined the swarm of ghosts who entered the room with the thickening shadows. She hardly dared glance in their direction now, lest she see his face among the rest. As always, though, she did dare in the end, steeling herself as the men must have steeled themselves before engaging the enemy. She looked, but there were only shadows, not a human face among them, no ghosts, no John. There was a flash at the window: a cat had leaped onto the sill outside and was rubbing its flank against the glass so that its fur flattened out in sprays of thistledown. She hobbled to the side door to let it in before the rain began – but the cat had gone, like the ghosts, and even the robin had disappeared from its usual perch among the hazel branches. Gone to find shelter, she supposed, and no wonder, the rain these days stung as it never had when she was young, you would need fur and feathers of steel to stay outside when the heavens opened…

As she stood in the doorway looking out, waiting for the sinister hiss of the rain as it swept its curtains round the house, she heard a rustling behind the fence, furtive movements like those of a fox or badger. A pair of grubby hands gripped the top of the fence and little Jerry Tomkins poked his head over, glancing backwards over his shoulder. He did not see her standing there, but she noted that his hair was full of twigs and tangled like the nearby bushes and that his shirt was several sizes too big. That shirt looked familiar, with its chequered pattern of of red and blue, its narrow collar, the badge on the pocket which said CND and had a kind of damaged cross on it, cross-bars slanted down as if they’d been snapped by malicious vandals. That was the insignia of John’s regiment, she knew it now though she hadn’t known it when he had first shown her. She had last seen that shirt, she thought, in John’s big wardrobe. All at once she knew this child wasn’t Jerry Tomkins: he was much too young and much too scrawny, as well as too filthy to be kissed, even behind a woodshed with your eyes closed and your fingers crossed in an act of defiance against your teachers, mother, nanny, the whole wretched system of proper behaviour. When he looked round his eyes were black with fear and hunger. She took a step towards him and called out: ‘Young man! Whose shirt is that? Not yours, I think. Give it back at once!’ At least, she tried to call, but all that came out was a feeble croak, and he had vanished before she’d finished the final sentence.

For perhaps half an hour she stood in the doorway listening for the sound of further movements behind the hiss of rain in the grass, the giggling of water in the ditch, the shushing of leaves. Every now and then flashes of lightning ripped the sky: sheet lightning that threw leaves and branches into sharp relief like a gigantic flashbulb on a box camera, fixing moments in black-and-white stillness to be stored away on some gargantuan chest-of-drawers stuffed with old chequered shirts and carriage clocks inscribed in honour of unknown regiments, forgotten triumphs. At last she stepped back and closed the door, pulled the cord that drew the curtains across it, stood in a darkness like the inside of a camera where images of light are stored among shadows. Darkness and lightning were not part of the world she had grown up in, a world of nightlights, glowing embers, lanterns, lamps; mellow luminescence and murmuring voices, gentle tunes. Time to light one of my precious candles, she decided. And time for tea.

Afternoon tea was her favourite ritual, her most ringing statement of defiance against the encroaching chaos of darkness and loss. She took the carefully ironed tablecloth from one drawer and a set of coasters from another, put the kettle on the hob, arranged the teapot, cups and saucers on a wooden tray. No milk, of course – she could not bring herself to use the powdered stuff they’d left in the store-room. She took as long over the arrangements as possible, smoothing the cloth till the ridges where it had been folded vanished, setting the coasters at regular intervals round the table, placing a vase she had earlier filled with sprays of lavender precisely at the table’s central point. Again she imagined expectant laughter as her guests watched her work. The rising patter of water poured from the kettle into the pot laughed with them across the years; she always smiled to hear it. Then somehow she managed to lift the tray, cups, pot and all, and walk with stately grace from the kitchen into the sitting room, head thrown back to show off the social smile which her friends knew concealed the warmth of her real affection for them…

But when she was seated in her upright chair she didn’t pour the tea, though it was brewed and her mouth was dry. Instead she folded her hands in her lap and gazed round the room with a troubled expression. On the wall, an embroidery faded with time whispered in floral script: ‘Dear Lord, I’m sailing on thy wide, wide sea; Please guard my little ship for me.’ It was signed in uneven stitches at the bottom: Ida Mather, 7 ½. Hadn’t she met Auntie Ida with her baby just this morning? Jerry Tomkins, too? Why hadn’t she invited them to tea? But no, there had been a scavenger woman dressed in rags and a little boy wearing one of John’s shirts, they had run away when she tried to approach them. ‘Am I really so frightening?’ she wondered aloud. ‘Me with my house of many doors and my hair untouched by a hairdresser’s hands for so many weeks?’ She struggled to recall what the strangers had looked like, but their faces were now the faces of Auntie Ida and Jerry Tomkins. ‘I can’t remember faces any more,’ she lamented, ‘not without photographs.’ Her dry old voice blew round the room like autumn leaves. She reached for a shawl that hung from the back of the upright chair and pulled it close around her shoulders, shivering. John had bought it for her, she had told him she always felt as though he were hugging her when she wore it. It didn’t warm her now.

She wondered where the girl – for she was only a girl, she saw that now – and the little boy had come from. Were they together? Perhaps they were from the village, perhaps they had known some of her relatives, some of her friends. But no, the village had been quite empty on the day she’d gone on her scavenging expedition to the High Street. She had seen the butcher’s and the sweet shop and the grocer’s all with shutters locked in place, the houses with broken windows and missing doors, the clothes spilled out across the pavement by the brutes who had swept through the village when the locals left. Or perhaps they hadn’t been brutes at all; perhaps they had been ordinary people like the girl and boy with nothing of their own, no pictures or memories, only an emptiness they must snatch what they could to fill. How ill-bred they must be, with no grown-ups to teach them manners! She pictured John as a little boy sitting at the table: ‘Sit up straight and keep your elbows by your sides. Don’t frown, it will give you wrinkles.’ And then his expression became the startled expression of the boy on the fence, legs straddling the borders of her world, eyes with nothing behind them meeting her own so full of pictures… Her zest for good manners vanished in an instant, it had only ever been a game to her in any case, a means of drawing the dance of laughter from two pairs of lips when there was nothing better to do. She reached out to clasp the child to her bony chest, but once again he evaded her fingers, ducking into the shadows with a kind of sideways twist that made her think of the games of tig she had played with her agile sisters in the days when they wore their hair in plaits, when nanny had brushed their hair each evening by the fire, a hundred strokes of the brush for every strand, till the sparks had flown and they had laughed to see how the fire had somehow leaped from hearth to head…

Tears had dampened her hands where they lay in her lap; she imagined them running down her cheeks like the rain that fed the water in her precious ditch. She thought about going to fetch a hanky from the chest of drawers. And then at last, as always happened at some point in the day, she ceased to think altogether. Her head stood empty, like an empty house. She stared into the darkness, person to person, the darkness of her mind answering the darkness of the room, a perfect mirror.

The minutes passed, the days, the years.

Outside, the howling started up once more. At first she thought it was the wind, or an air raid siren, but the howls quickly broke into scattered shrieks that surged along the road outside the house, past the Catholic church and the whispering yews towards Jenners Field and the woods and fields of the world beyond. Why in the world did they feel the need to make so much noise? But there had always been howling, now she thought about it. There had been howling during the war when the men came home in the little ships, leaving so many dead bodies in the shallows to be tossed about by the darkening tides. There had been howling when her husband left her, breaking his promise to let her die first, the first promise to her he had ever broken. There had even been howling when she kissed Jerry Tomkins behind the wood-shed: howling because they had fallen out afterwards, and because he had died in a motor-cycle accident before they could make it up. Each time her heart had given answering cries, weaker than the howls but no less piercing. Each time her heart had felt as if it would break, but of course it hadn’t, it had been left so strong by her childhood illnesses, her grown-up losses, the tremendous efforts, day to day, of her interminable old age.

At her back there was a sudden rustling outside the window: furtive movements like those of a fox or badger. She came back from the outer darkness and took her daytime place behind her eyes. She turned her head to listen. Someone’s legs brushed through the herbs; she imagined the scent of thyme and rosemary rising in clouds to the stranger’s nostrils. There came a breathless hush as someone tried to peer into the room between the curtains. ‘Should I snuff the candles?’ she asked herself. ‘Total blackout when Jerry comes.’ But no, she was much too old for such acts of caution. And besides, why give rein to fear when she was a cause of fear in others? If they catch sight of me they’ll run, she thought, like everyone else. Let the candles burn.

More rustling, urgent whispering, a cough. How many of them were there, she wondered vaguely. Could these be the long-awaited marauders with their spears and cudgels? God knew she had dreamed about them often enough, they were as familiar to her as the dead, she could see their faces when she closed her eyes, pale, drawn and fearful. Let them come in, then, if they must. There was room for them, as for so much else, in the house of many doors.

Rustle rustle, crunch crunch on last year’s hazelnuts. A hesitant tap on the side-door, so soft she would never have heard it if the wireless had been working. Quickly she raised her hands to the sides of her head to smooth her hair. If only there were time to give it a brush! Never mind, her guests were here; she must fetch more water from the ditch. She pushed aside the curtain, peered through the glass, but the streaks of rain gleamed in the candlelight and she could see nothing in the night beyond. John had made her promise not to open the door unless she’d looked first, and then to keep it on the chain – but what was point on a night like this? Someone had coughed; they might be ill; they might need her help. And what murderer taps so gently at the door? She pulled it wide and pulled herself erect, armed only with her smile.

There stood John, uniform in tatters. Blood smeared his cheeks as if the rain had pierced his skin, and he held one hand across his chest at an awkward angle. He stared at her slack-jawed, as if he had never seen her before. Auntie Ida and Jerry Tomkins crouched behind him, ready for flight.

So it had happened at last. She wasn’t fooled for even an instant; this wasn’t her John, just a memory of him overlaid on the living body of a passing stranger. She would never see John again, not in the flesh. He had joined her ghosts.

But this was no time to reflect on the discovery. These people were in trouble. She smiled and stepped aside, made what she hoped was a welcoming gesture, a kind of bow intended to show that they were welcome, that they should come in. ‘Hello, my dears,’ she said. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

Supported by the girl and child, the man stumbled over the threshold and stopped just inside, raising his head and opening his mouth as if to speak. Perhaps he thought he owed her an explanation, some sort of apology. Perhaps he wanted to give her news from beyond the village. But he was in no condition to stand there observing the civil niceties; he was wounded, trembling with exhaustion, like the children behind him. She reached out and touched his elbow, gestured to the couch. ‘Won’t you lie down? You look so tired. You must have come a long way. I’ll fetch you blankets. I’m so glad you’re here!’

The youngsters watched in silence as she covered him up, unwrapped the dirty cloth that swathed his injured hand, examined the wound that had almost split the palm in half. ‘We’ll need to clean this up,’ she told them calmly. ‘Would you fetch water for me? You’ll find the bucket in the kitchen, and the water’s in the ditch, you’ll have heard it running when you were at the window. I’ll fetch first aid and a bite to eat, I’m sure you’re starving. Hurry up, now, children! The sooner we have water the sooner we can have supper!’

They gave no sign of having heard her, just stared in solemn silence as she strode towards the door into the passage. Her step became stately under their gaze. As she shuffled along the passage towards the storeroom her head was whirling, though not with dreams. They could sleep upstairs. But no, it was better if they stayed together, they could bring down mattresses and lay them out on the bedroom floor, that was the warmest place in the house because of the stove in the adjoining kitchenette. She must sew the child’s torn shirt first thing in the morning – she no longer thought of it as John’s. This time she did not pause at the storeroom door; instead she loaded her frail arms with food and medicines, all she could carry, and headed back along the passage in a burst of speed that took her by surprise. She hadn’t walked so fast in years! Stranger still, her feet didn’t hurt her in the least! Or rather, she didn’t feel them hurting, her mind was too busy making plans for the days to come…

All the same, she did slow down when she reached the middle of the passage; she even stopped for a minute or two to catch her breath. Indeed, she had little choice; for the dogs had come snuffling round her feet and drumming the walls with their great thick tails, and little Jerry Tomkins was dragging in a lump of firewood bigger than himself. She glimpsed Auntie Ida dashing down the corridor that led to the front hall, off to fetch a mattress or some extra blankets. Outside she heard the howls being swept aside by a final gust of rain. And then even the rain ceased, and the night stretched out before her like an unbroken plane of water, the moon scarcely bobbing as it rode the waves.

The Outer Circle

Eighteen years after leaving Old Earth I’ve made planetfall, and my ship has fallen silent.

Can you understand what that means to me? For the first time in eighteen years the cabin has ceased to throb to the pulse of the generators. Throughout my life I’ve been so accustomed to engine-noises that they have been my silence. Now one by one new silences are entering the cabin. I sit very still and listen as I’ve never done before.

The first thing I notice is the hum of the blood in my ears, very far away like a little lost astronaut singing in space. Behind the hum I hear the silence of the cabin, a small silence often interrupted by the creaking of my space-suit as I shift in the pilot’s chair. Beyond this small silence, beyond the red-hot hull of the ship I hear a larger silence, the hush of expectation after my rockets have blasted a pit in the soil of this wild planet. And behind that larger silence if I strain my ears and hold my breath I can detect the largest silence of all: the quiet of deep space, the endless noiselessness in which the occurrence of galaxies and nebulae are no more than the squeaks and scuffles of insects in an empty room.

Have you noticed the insects? With all our sprays and toxins we’ve never managed to kill them off. There’s an ant crawling over the instrument panel even as I talk. It must have accompanied me from the beginning of my journey, along with germs, fleas, microbes, perhaps even mice. This ship is a miniature world teeming with life, which I haven’t even thought about till now, when I’m about to leave it.

As you can guess, I’m talking to kill time. I’m trying to put off the moment when I must leave the ship.

My ship rests in the centre of the pit she has made, like a severed hand reclining on outspread fingers. Above her I’m intensely conscious of an absence. This planet has no armoured ceiling like the one that protects my own world from the stars. There is only a sky as blue as the ones in stories, and above that the vacuum through which I’ve fallen for so many years: layer upon layer of space, each layer retaining a discarded husk of my former self. And now I lack courage to enter the airlock and open the outer hatch.

The measure of civilization is the number of layers between a man and his confrontation with himself. By that measure I’m now a thousand times more savage than I was when I took off. Often in the last part of my journey I stood in front of the cabinet that contains the only mirror on board, never daring to open the door and inspect my face.

In the early days I made a point of meeting my own eyes each morning, knowing I would soon have other eyes to meet. Let me remind myself of what I saw when I first looked in the mirror. My head was almost spherical, with a few lank hairs decorating the scalp. My cheeks were two quivering fields of flesh, irrigated by a network of tiny veins. Little lost eyes half-buried in folds of fat peeped timidly from the shadow of my shapeless nose. A series of miniature mountain-ranges supported my chin. Yes, despite all my sufferings I retained a degree of the elegant obesity I possessed in the prime of my youth.

But as the pressures of travel began to show I became frightened of seeing myself. I wasn’t afraid of human contact as most men might have been; space quickly inured me to strange company. I was afraid because I was beginning to change. No, I must be specific; before I leave the ship I must strip off the last layer of civilization and tell the truth, no matter how it hurts. I’ve become emaciated. I’ve sat helpless in my seat as the light of unknown suns burned away the layers of corpulence, the hanging gardens, the orchards, the rich pastures of my body. I’ve watched in horror as my noble bulk shrivelled to bone and sinew. I’m sorry to use those obscene words, bone and sinew, but I want to stress the irony of it. Before I left old Earth I was the most respected body builder in my segment, I had won prizes for Weight Gain and Fat Cultivation, my digestive tracts were the subject of dissertations; even after I’d passed my prime the media as the very picture of an intergalactic hero. Yet here I am at the end of my quest, shrunk to the dimensions of a common rent-boy!

I’m thin!

I never knew what the word meant before. Oh, I’m no innocent, I’ve seen thin bodies in my time. When I was a kid we were always tampering with the school computer, switching programmes while the robo-tutor wasn’t looking so as to pass porno-pics of skeletal nudes from screen to screen. But never in my most fevered nightmares would I have imagined that I might one day be reminded of those living skeletons by looking at my own magnificent body. Never, never would I have believed that I myself could be thin.

I must stay calm. I’ll try to think of something positive. I’ll think about my heroism.

But am I really such a hero? Heroes perform grand, simple feats which everyone understands. Do you understand what I’m doing, you citizens of old Earth? All you know about my mission is what you’ve seen on the visiscreen; and how many of you are still capable of following a coherent sequence of visual signs? After a lifetime’s viewing all the average citizen sees on the screen is the dance of innumerable coloured dots. I’m afraid mankind no longer possesses the concept of reality.

I’ve often mulled over the details of my take-off, and they only add to my uncertainty about my heroism. You’ve seen the newsreels: I was given a hero’s farewell. Even now I love to remember it. The ship rests on the long disused launching-pad of the Middle Circle as if balancing the earth on its fingertips. Dignitaries and statesmen throng the tarmac; when I appear in the door of the Film Academy they wave their tiny arms and burst into feeble cheers. Flags snap, fireworks explode in torrents of shooting stars, cameras flash, a thousand synthesisers strike up a martial symphony. I waddle down miles of undulating carpet, showered at every step with honours (those little greasy cakes with which a hero is expected to cram his jaws until his stomach rebels and he throws up, saluting his rapturous audience with a stream of multicoloured vomit).

But details jar. A faint atmosphere of seediness pervades the event. On close inspection I see that the dignitaries aren’t real; they’re battered plastic models left over from the last local election, their cheers and waves operated by teams of hidden puppeteers. When I look carefully I can spot the puppeteers at a bank of keyboards behind the cameras on my right. The robots which bustle to serve cocktail canapés are rusty and the canapés covered in mould. By the time I reach the ship and turn for a final wave the carpet has already been rolled up. Beetles fall out of it and dust rises in clouds. Puppeteers, cameramen and producers stand around knee-deep in conversation, which the robots spread for them in quivering and aromatic gobbets. The artificial dignitaries remain fixed in mid-cheer, their eyes shining with the hope and joy inspired in humanity by my glorious mission. I suspect now that my send-off was only a low-budget production.

And was it really heroism that made me undertake the mission? Perhaps I have really retained an unhealthy adolescent obsession with thinness, as the tabloids were quick to insinuate. It’s true that I first heard of the Third World while watching an obscene programme about ‘slimming’, but I don’t usually indulge myself with such trash. I’d fallen asleep in front of the visiscreen after a heavy meal and the programme came up before I’d fully recovered consciousness. I watched in stupefaction for a few minutes as a cavalcade of dancers who had starved themselves for erotic effect capered across the screen, flaunting their ribs. After a while I realized that the presenter was no longer discussing the more tasteless methods of weight-loss. Instead he’d turned to another subject likely to appeal to his target audience of freaks and perverts: the discovery of a new world in another solar system, whose entire population was starving.

The idea of the Third World gripped me at once. The planet had been given its name by the tabloids, who had taken it from banned pornographic documentaries of the distant past, when an entire section of the earth’s population was kept undernourished for the titillation of the rich. Although I can’t stand the tabloids – I find them indigestible, and much prefer to munch my way through a good broadsheet – the name was well chosen, since the planet might easily have been lifted bodily from a roll of ancient film. It was entirely populated by skeletal savages whose livelihood still depended on the cycle of the seasons. I was entranced by descriptions of its jungles where real wild animals prowled, its oceans filled with living fish, its grasses cropped by innumerable herds and its grain harvest which shrivelled year after year under the pitiless heat of a genuine sun. I think my excitement stemmed from the sheer range of activity still available to the planet’s inhabitants; and I don’t just mean sexual activity. You see, I’m a romantic, a lover of solid old-fashioned adventure movies rather than the interminable soaps consumed by most of my friends; and sordid though it may seem, adventures are best undertaken by thin people. You may call me retrogressive, but I’ve always maintained that adventures lose their credibility when the hero weighs eight hundred pounds and possesses only rudimentary arms and legs. Adventures need limbs, and whatever else the people of the Third World lacked they possessed limbs of great length and mobility. I began to think of the Third World as a planet of adventure, a scented wilderness where every night was one of the Thousand and One Nights. I would fall asleep dreaming of a slender Third World Scheherezade, who sat cross-legged in my cubicle and unfolded endless interlocking stories, each one more labyrinthine than the last. I never dreamed I might one day be Sindbad.

While I was watching the programme I did not ask myself how its makers had come to hear of the Third World; I half suspected that the whole thing was merely a far-fetched erotic fantasy. But later I learned that the programme had been based on fact. A visitor had arrived from the planet only a few days before it was made. Images of him appeared on every channel – tastefully blurred so as not to shock the fastidious, for he was thinner than the most obsessive slimmer; and again and again we heard the tale of his arrival. Out of the void an unknown ship had burst, blasting its way through our derelict security systems. Its powerful rockets punched a hole in the Outer Circle and it landed with a terrible roar on the roof of the Film Academy. We heard how the hatch had opened and a limp figure had tumbled out, crawled a few metres, gasped a few words, collapsed and died. The words had been picked up by one of the Academy’s ubiquitous mikes, and these too we heard again and again: halting, harsh, incomprehensible. Interpreters told us that the visitor had appealed for food and technological aid for his starving people, and that he had offered his ship for the use of any volunteer who would undertake this mission of mercy. The ship could be inspected on a dozen different channels, dented and blackened by its interplanetary voyage.

To my surprise it haunted both my dreams and waking hours, that vessel in the likeness of an open hand, its fingers spread in supplication. I would spread my own chubby fingers to resemble it and lay them on the visiscreen, and the touch of the cold glass with the ship seemingly so close on the other side would send shudders through my flanks. For a while the rest of the world seemed as interested as I was. Celebrities appealed for volunteers to deliver the promised supplies; movies about glorious and mostly unsuccessful rescue attempts dominated the late-night slots; baseball caps with HAND AID on the front flooded the market. But very soon the ship was forgotten and the usual soaps and pornographic documentaries returned to the screen. I woke up one afternoon with a jerk, realizing that I hadn’t seen an image of the ship for days, and worse, that I’d stopped dreaming about it. My heart was beating wildly, nausea clung to the back of my throat, a sudden vision of the endless succession of days to come flashed before my mind’s eye. I was terrified that my dreams of adventure had vanished forever. That was when I decided to volunteer. No courage involved; just a dream I longed to recapture. No pride either, though that came later; simply a huge and shapeless fear like the one that grips me now. Perhaps huge and shapeless fear is the stuff heroes are made of.

I know now that I took the denizens of the Outer Circle by surprise. I know that they regarded the ship, the visitor, the message, as an eccentric joke, a brief alleviation of their all-encompassing boredom. They had given no instructions regarding the treatment of volunteers. In the absence of such instructions, I learned later, the World Computer took matters into its own hands. It devised a rigorous training programme which almost killed me before I set out. And it issued me with an invitation to visit the Outer Circle.

The Outer Circle! Largest and most exclusive of the Circles that imprison the withered Earth inside their vast revolving cage. What visions do the words conjure up in your mind? Perhaps you imagine golden halls paved with precious stones, trestle-tables groaning with roast meats and bursting fruits, all the infinite variety of tastes, smells and sensations that have long ago vanished from Old Earth. Perhaps you imagine pools of cool water where your bloated bodies can float in everlasting serenity, forgetful of the torments they suffered as you pumped them full of hyper-nutrients in your efforts to gain the weight required for promotion to the upper levels of society. But what do you really know about the Outer Circle? Nothing but what your dreams reveal to you.

The Outer Circle is the storehouse of the dreams of humanity, just as the Inner Circle is the repository of its foodstuffs and the Middle Circle the location of its automated administration, as well as of the fabled Film Academy. In ancient times the Earth was said to lie at the centre of a nest of concentric spheres. Each sphere was made of crystal, and each contributed its own musical note to the harmony of the cosmos. The outermost sphere was the sphere of fire, the Empyrean, Heaven. Only in Heaven could the spheres’ full symphony be heard, only here could the design of the whole be appreciated. Did the ancients have some premonition of the future? With unimaginable labour we have built the spheres they dreamed of. At their centre lies the Earth, our ravaged mother who century by century yields more of her exhausted substance to her children. And her children in their turn pour their substance into their dreams. All the painful cultivation of our bodies, all our ambitions, all our yearnings are directed towards one end: the hope that we might one day be chosen to ripen everlastingly in the light-filled chambers of the outer Circle. Those who are not chosen eventually die, and contribute their rich mould to the vegetable gardens of the Inner Circle. Those who are chosen – but I soon gained an insight into their fate.

I won’t describe the pain I felt when the tubes were first torn from my belly, mouth and anus – tubes that had been buried in my flesh from the moment my foetus took shape in its perspex flask. I’ll omit from this account the agony of my training, when the blubber threatened to tear itself from my frame, when the sweat poured from my pores in torrents. My sufferings were recorded; no doubt you’ve seen the documentary. Even the passage through the many levels between the Middle and the Outer Circles, a hundred cranes hoisting the battered ship (with me inside it) from level to level, was an excruciation of a sort; for I was aware that in the heat of the exercise my fat was melting from me like butter. I became terrified that when I confronted the denizens of the Outer Circle my appearance would disgust them. My terror shrivelled me still further. By the time the ship docked in one of the ruinous space-ports of Old Earth and I stepped out into the regions of which I had dreamed so long I was already no more than the palest shadow of my former self.

I said I stepped out, but in fact I tripped and fell out of the hatch. I rolled sweating down an interminable chute full of grit and dust. At the end of the chute I dropped onto a mattress covered in mould, bounced several times and lay still. It took all my courage to stand up and look about me.

A long dim chamber stretched away before me as far as the eye could see. The walls on either side were festooned with ducts and cables; some of these had snapped and were dropping slow showers of sparks or oily fluid to the floor. The floor wasn’t paved with crystal or precious stones; in fact I couldn’t see what it was paved with, it was so thick with dust, dead flies and broken tiles. Curtains of cobwebs trailed from the ceiling, where rows of naked light-bulbs stretched into the distance. Many of the bulbs were broken, and the rest dispensed a cold blue light which failed to penetrate the shadows at the room’s edges.

In the row down the middle of the chamber stood many large crystal spheres mounted on tarnished metal legs. The spheres emitted a continuous humming. Dust veiled the upper part of each globe and the crystal underneath was streaked where liquid from broken pipes or the droppings of bats had struck it. Inside the spheres I could make out the dim outlines of things that might be alive. Hesitantly and with what I hoped was reverence I approached the nearest sphere and polished the crystal with my glove, hoping to see more clearly what was inside. The action set off a faint ringing which mingled with the other harmonics in the chamber.

What I saw made me step back with a cry of horror. The thing inside was itself almost spherical: a grey, pulpy mass floating in some sort of liquid, like an ancient internal organ preserved in formaldehyde. Its surface was dimpled with little valleys and disfigured with purple-green blotches. I wouldn’t have been so sickened if I had thought the putrescent lump was dead. But in the middle of the lump, half-buried among folds of blubber, a single tiny eye looked out, full of intelligence and despair. And the eye had seen me.

Even now I don’t understand why this intelligent eye so frightened me, why my gorge still rises when I think of it. Wasn’t this the most highly developed human form I had ever encountered, the culmination of centuries of physical culture? Wasn’t this the body I had dreamt of possessing since childhood? I can only attribute my revulsion to the fact that I was already in the grip of the wasting disease that has consumed me ever since.

A shudder went through the lump and somehow I knew that it was about to speak. A click sounded somewhere overhead, followed by a hiss as long-silent speakers were activated. The voice when it came had a metallic weight that shook the floor, as though a hundred metal tongues had spoken at once. ‘Who are you?’ it said.

This was the last question I had expected. Surely the denizens of the Outer Circle, with their unlimited access to every untrodden info-retrieval corridor in the most ancient recesses of the World Computer – surely they must know perfectly well who I was? ‘You know who I am,’ I stammered. ‘You sent for me. I’m the volunteer who… er… volunteered for the mission.’

A short pause followed. ‘We remember the mission,’ said the voice or voices at last. ‘That was one of our best ideas of recent years. But there was no volunteer.’

In my confusion I became angry. ‘Of course there was!’ I said. ‘You appealed for one on the visiscreen, and I put myself forward. You sent me a letter of congratulation, one of the finest I ever tasted, and put me through a gruelling training programme. Then you invited me to come and meet you before I set out for the Third World. Don’t you remember?’

‘Did we appeal for a volunteer?’ mused the voice. The eye, at which I was still staring, vanished suddenly, as the lump furrowed what might have been its brow in thought. ‘Yes, I think we did. That was a good idea too. But the invitation was an error. There must be a fault in the World Computer’s communication circuits. You see, there was no volunteer.’

I took a step forward. ‘No volunteer?’ I cried. ‘Who am I, then?’

‘Precisely,’ said the voice with an air of self-satisfaction. ‘That’s just what we’d like to know. Who are you?’

I must have looked so shocked and desperate that the creatures in the glass jars took pity on me. The eye reopened and I fancied it looked kinder than before. ‘Let us explain,’ suggested the voice. ‘There could be no volunteer because we didn’t invent one. We are the inventors; inventing is our job, here in the Outer Circle. We are responsible for dreaming all the dreams, thinking all the thoughts, and scripting all the conversations of any significance that occur on any level of Old Earth. Nothing happens unless we make it happen. All human beings in all the circles beneath us are either the actors who shadow forth our ideas or the audience who absorb them. The mission exists because we made it up. But we didn’t invent a volunteer. Therefore there isn’t one. Have we made ourselves clear?’

Can you imagine the new horror that stole over me, the worst I had yet experienced? My self-confidence had already suffered several damaging blows, but I still thought myself a hero, even if a somewhat shrivelled one. Now abruptly the speakers assured me that I was merely an automaton, a puppet like the artificial dignitaries who had seen me off; and these – things – were my puppeteers! What I had thought to be the bravest deed of my life turned out to be an illusion, generated by a tiny maladjustment in the vast network of the World Computer: a glitch that permitted me to think for myself for a fraction of a second, long enough to answer a scripted call for help from an imaginary alien before sinking once more into the ocean of artificially generated dreams. The doubt still returns to me sometimes in my sleep, and with it the horror: am I really no more than a thought conceived by a blob floating in a sealed glass jar? My mind groped for evidence that the mission at least had not been an illusion. ‘The ship,’ I whispered. ‘The ship that brought me here. Surely the ship is real?’

‘We could easily have made it up,’ answered the voice. ‘But you’re right: the ship is real. It’s a relic of the distant past, a piece of flotsam washed up by the tides of space. Hundreds of similar odds and ends are orbiting Old Earth even as we speak, jostling the epidermis of the Outer Circle. Every so often something crashes onto the Earth’s roof: the outer surface of the Outer Circle is a litter of shattered satellites and broken spacecraft. Very few of these falls are dangerous. But now and then – once every hundred years or so – a falling wreck succeeds in punching a hole in the canopy and doing some serious damage.

‘That’s what happened a few weeks ago,’ it went on. ‘A particularly sturdy starship managed to smash a section of the Outer Circle adjoining this one; the accident destroyed some of our best thinkers. In tribute to the dead we decided to construct a story around the starship; we tell very good stories, here in the Outer Circle. That’s how we came up with our affecting little drama about the Third World. But we never intended anyone to take it seriously. There was no one inside the ship. There was no mission.’

I hardly registered the last few words. All the futile agony – all the humiliation of my training came back to me. But this was as nothing compared with the revelation that my dreams were no more than the fantasies of a fantasy. Strangely enough, it never occurred to me that the denizens of the Outer Circle might have been lying when they told me they invented the mission. One of the many absurd beliefs I entertained about the Outer Circle was that it was the abode of truth. Only sheer luck taught me otherwise.

In my agitation I had begun to stride up and down the chamber, struggling to recover a sense of my own identity. My footsteps ran ahead of me and behind me like a column of eager robots hurrying about their appointed tasks. I had completed one of my agitated marches and had turned to stride back the way I’d come when I caught sight of a glass case by the chamber wall – an elongated rectangular box, half-hidden by cobwebs. Acting on impulse – or guided by some cosmic puppeteer – I decided to inspect it more closely. In a few steps I’d reached the case and torn down the dusty veil that concealed its contents.

Inside stood a man: the tallest, thinnest man I’d ever seen. He wore a baggy atmosphere suit much like my own, tightly fastened at waist, wrists and ankles and open at the neck to reveal his scrawny chest. His skin had been blackened by the light of distant suns. Masses of black hair floated about his head in the preservative fluid, as if he drew webs of night behind him wherever he went. His dead eyes shone like stars in the darkness of his face. I recognized him at once from the visicreen, and knew beyond all doubt that he came from far away, that he had crossed infinite vastnesses to reach Old Earth.

‘The visitor!’ I cried, turning to face the spheres. ‘The stranger who came in the ship! You said it was empty!’

‘Did we say the ship was empty?’ the speakers asked sharply. ‘We don’t think we did. We said there was no-one inside the ship, and we were right. Look at him! Have you ever seen a more repulsive specimen? He clearly hadn’t eaten properly for months before he died; he’s nothing but bone and sinew. Perhaps he isn’t a man at all.’

‘He’s as much a man as I am!’ I shouted.

‘Precisely,’ replied the speakers. ‘But we haven’t yet established that you are a man. Which brings us back to our initial question. Who are you?’

Their circular arguments made my head spin, but by this time my rage succeeded in conquering my fear. A piece of half-rotten cloth had wrapped itself round one of my boots as I tramped. With no little difficulty I stooped and picked it up. ‘I’ll show you I’m a man,’ I said as I wrapped the cloth round my right gauntlet. Before the speakers could say another word I’d swung back my cloth-bound fist and hit the glass front of the case that held the stranger. The case exploded, spraying me with glass and liquid; you can still see the rips and stains in my space-suit where the splinters cut me. The stranger flopped forward and struck the ground at my feet. A sweet smell rose from his body, and I was violently sick on the floor beside him. Afterwards I noticed that I’d vomited out the last of the greasy cakes from my send-off.

Layer upon layer of echoes radiated from the shattered case, getting louder and louder till I thought my head would burst. I cowered by the corpse, trying to protect my ears with my bloody gloves. After a while the echoes subsided and I became aware of another sound, one that came from the speakers. The sound puzzled me until I recognized it for what it was: an antiquated form of accolade known as clapping, which you can still hear on the soundtracks of old sitcoms. The blobs had evidently enjoyed my little demonstration.

‘Well done!’ said the voices with metallic enthusiasm. ‘What a spontaneous gesture! What a masterful display of self-assertion! We see now that you are indeed a man. We must confess that we didn’t believe in you at first. You see, most of the visitors we have here are exquisite illusions, downloaded by the entertainment programmes of the World Computer. But the Computer could never have invented such a daring statement, such an act of raw aggression! You’ve given us material for many years of dreaming. Well done indeed!’

Behind the cobwebs near the ceiling hundreds of tiny visiscreens flickered on. Each screen replayed some detail of my act over and over from a hundred different angles. Again and again my fist swung at the glass; again and again the case exploded and the splinters tore through the fabric of my suit; again and again the corpse struck the floor at my feet. Shielding my eyes from the relentless barrage of images I groped my way past the spheres, looking for an exit from this chamber of horrors.

‘You may go now,’ the voices murmured sleepily. ‘Go back to your cubicle and get some rest. Put on a little weight. Stop taking violent exercise. We’ve recommended you for transfer to the Outer Circle as soon as you’re back in shape. It will give us the deepest pleasure to welcome you to our little community. We will be honoured for you to share our dreams. They are very well worth dreaming. You can’t imagine the visions… the sounds and the visions…’

I was standing once again in front of the sphere whose surface I had polished. The sad little eye that had examined me glittered as if with the ghost of a smile. Then it winked shut and vanished into the surrounding pulp.

Suddenly a deep weariness filled me, as if the sleep that permeated the chamber were contagious. My dreams had come true. I had won a place alongside the inhabitants of the Outer Circle, and could look forward to unending suspension in a crystal jar, rocked to sleep in the ocean of eternity by the celestial harmonies of the World Computer. Why shouldn’t I accept their offer? What more could I wish for?

Sometimes on my journey I’ve imagined that I did indeed accept the offer, that I never went back to the starship, never left the earth. I imagine that the entire journey has been a hallucination induced by a potent cocktail of drugs and electronic simulators. I imagine I’m about to wake up in that immense dusty chamber, that I’ll try to open my eyes and find I’ve only one dull eye to peer through, try to stretch and find that my limbs have vanished, that the most I can do is wriggle a vestigial toe or ripple the sea of blubber where my stomach once was. On these occasions I scream and thrash and pinch myself as I did in the chamber when I felt the lethargy of acquiescence creeping over me. Once I’ve convinced myself I’m awake, I calm my shattered nerves by replaying the details of my escape over and over in my head.

‘Wait!’ I cried as the lump closed its eye. ‘The mission was real! The stranger exists! The Third World needs our help!’ But the lump merely quivered and rotated on its axis as if to find a more comfortable position. Half-blind with apprehension I fumbled my way to a hatch marked EXIT. Behind me the chamber fell silent. But no, it didn’t fall silent; even as I squeezed myself into the chute that would return me to the ship my ears rang with the sounds that filled the room. The walls hummed, the speakers buzzed, the ghosts of the metallic voices chimed, and over all I could detect the distant boom of thunder from the shattered glass case, as the echoes spread in ever-widening circles into other chambers. Casting back one glance I saw the circles made by my feet in the dust of the floor. I imagine they are still there, the scribbled testimony of my last moments on Earth.

I reached the ship without incident. Activating the flight programme proved simple: I had only to lift a lid marked GO and lay my hand on the cool panel beneath. The ship blasted effortlessly through the frail doors that separate Old Earth from the chill of space.

In fact, I’ve often wondered why my escape was so easy. Perhaps the inhabitants of the Outer Circle had forgotten there’s a universe beyond Old Earth, and ordered their cybernetic police to seek me out among the corridors of the lower levels, where only the insects scurry. Perhaps they let me go because the force of my dreams threatened the stability of their world. Or perhaps, perhaps in their limblessness and the circularity of their thinking, my escape was their only way of extending a hand to their fellow creatures: a helping hand, an appealing hand, albeit a severed one. In that case my delusions of heroism aren’t so far-fetched after all.

I don’t believe that the dreams they dream in their jars can possibly match the visions of space. As soon as I left Old Earth the visions began. Forests rustled their leaves in the gaps between stars, and the stars themselves took human shapes. I was attacked by space pirates in the third week of my journey, but this may have been only the first of the complex illusions that crowded in on me as I entered the outer reaches of the Solar System. Scheherezade sat with me in my cabin. Asteroid storms became tiny fists pummelling the ship’s outer shell. A cloud of gas became a muslin-veiled woman whose breasts took a week to cross. Far off I saw star-children playing with comets among dark magnetic mountains. Often I was tempted to abandon my mission and join in their games, but I didn’t know how to change the ship’s course. Saffron-robed merchants offered me scarlet cakes which I couldn’t reach through the portholes; when I looked closer I saw that the cakes were planets rolling around a distant sun. most persistent of all these appearances, a tall thin man ran after me with suns on his belt, drawing jewelled webs of night behind him in his hair. Accompanied by this host, and feeling my mind and body assume a new identity at each stage of my journey, I’ve never felt closer to humanity than since I entered space.

As I’ve come closer to my destination the apparitions have grown rarer. I have the feeling I’m approaching the place where stories end and action begins. My feeling is strengthened by the increasing material evidence of man’s presence all around me. I’ve found ruined mines on planets and their moons. Broken satellites and derelict spacecraft have floated by, knots of twisted cables have obscured the starlight, cascades of broken glass have tinkled over the ship’s hull. My final descent onto the planet’s surface plunged me through seas of swirling debris. Once upon a time this planet must have supported a civilization as powerful as that of Old Earth. A lump of rock rushing past the porthole made me think of the lumps of flesh I had left behind, and I managed to convince myself that an eye was about to open in the rock and look at me. I completed my descent with my own eyes tightly shut.

There’s little more to say. The ant I’ve been watching all this time has reached the end of the instrument panel. Soon I’ll switch off the microphone in my space-suit. Off and on I’ve been talking into that microphone for eighteen years, never knowing if you could hear me back on Old Earth, and if you could hear me never knowing if you understood. But I’m certain that once I’ve stepped through the hatch I’ll truly have passed into regions beyond your understanding.

Before I do that I must open the cupboard door and look into the mirror. I’m standing in front of the cupboard now. My hand is reaching for the handle, then drawing back. The only way to do it is to take myself by surprise.

The door’s open.

And there’s the face I shall present to this new world. For a moment I thought the visions had returned and someone else was standing in the cabin with me. But when I turned my head to look, the head in the mirror turned too. Now, little by little, my reflection and I are getting to know each other. My hair has grown until it floats in a thick black mass round my head, as if I’ve drawn deep space down into the atmosphere of this planet. My skin has been scorched black by the light of nebulae. My eyes glitter in the darkness of the cabin. It’s a hungry face, seamed all over with wrinkles. It’s the face of the stranger I saw in the Outer Circle.

I’m no longer afraid to meet the stranger’s people. Once before I set him free with a blow of my fist. Now I free him again by entering the airlock and opening the outer hatch.

Beyond the crater in which my ship stands, a grove of trees has been uprroted by my rockets and tossed into a blackened and disorderly heap at the edge of a forest. Beside the heap I think I can see something moving, a creature walking upright on two legs. It might be a man, but my sight is so dimmed by the sun that I can’t be sure. But the man, if that’s what he is, doesn’t arrest my attention so much as the sky above his head. I squint up at it in amazement. When I first described this sky I called it blue, since that’s how it looked from inside the ship. But now I see I was wrong; blue is only the dominant colour in the bright triumphal stained-glass dome that covers the planet. Sunlight filtering through innumerable crystal shards, the microscopic splinters of a shattered civilization, creates jewelled arches of colour from horizon to horizon and lays an ever-shifting mosaic on the earth. The sight holds me spellbound and breathless, and I stare at the brilliant dome until something else is revealed to me. All over the sky spreads a network of silvery lines. After a while I see that this shining web is an immense construction of twisted girders which floats many miles above the planet’s surface. A little later I understand that the girders are all that remains of an Outer Circle like our own, a skeleton revolving in exquisite lifelessness above forests, plains and seas. My ship must have traced an intricate course through the girders as I sat with my eyes shut, thinking of Old Earth.

The man has walked forward and is standing in front of the ship, looking up to where I stand framed in the hatch. He is very tall and thin. Behind him a group of equally thin aborigines, bearded men, women with waist-long hair, children naked and scampering, have left their hiding-places among the trees and hover at the rim of the crater. After all my talking, all my puzzling, all my dreaming, now that the moment has come I can think of nothing to say.

Suddenly the man smiles and extends his hand palm upwards, fingers spread like the fingers of the ship. Without thinking I scramble down the ladder, reel across the little space that separates us and place my hand in his. I’m trembling as I do this, because this is the most intimate gesture I’ve ever made.

Café Culture

No, please – sit down. This place gets so crowded at this time of day, and I always feel a little embarrassed to be tucked away here in the corner with my small black coffee when everyone else is doing justice to the substantial and expensive lunches on the menu. The staff are kind about it, of course – they always make me feel most welcome – but I can see they notice. There’s plenty of room at the table. Be my guest.

Oh dear oh dear. Would you mind? I must just help my poor old friend at the next table, who has dropped his cup again. Coffee all over his nice clean trousers. Could you pass me some of those napkins? Thanks so much. Really, the poor old fellow shouldn’t be out on his own – but he insists on maintaining his independence, even at the cost of his personal dignity. And who can blame him? It’s quite touching to see him struggle to maintain control over his bodily functions, especially in view of his – well – what can only be called his steep decline over the last few months. That’s better, he’s drier now and looks more cheerful. Of course, he nearly always looks cheerful nowadays; that’s one of the better side effects of a decaying mind. Last August, though – you should have seen him only last August. Sharp as a razor, sparkling as cut glass. People used to come here almost every morning to consult him on affairs of real importance – not just your ordinary mugginses but community leaders, company directors, sometimes even (better whisper it) members of the cabinet…

And now – well – look at him. The poor old boy can barely focus on his spoon as it lifts a precarious portion of soup to his drooling lips. Do I sound heartless? Believe me, I’m speaking from the bottom of my heart; his condition affects me deeply. He’s been a friend of mind for over sixty years, and here he is –

I beg your pardon? You can’t believe I’ve even been alive for sixty years? You flatter me, my dear. I’m seventy-nine.

Yes, yes, you heard me correctly. Seventy-nine years and eleven months, to be precise. It’ll soon be my birthday. I’m effectively an octogenarian. It’s kind of you to say so; people often tell me I look younger than my age, though I’m never completely sure if they’re being serious. Of course, my friend over there, he’s only three weeks older than I am – I know, I know, it’s hard to believe we’re the same generation – but just a few months ago you’d have said he was decades younger than me, not decades my senior. It’s true, it’s true. At sixty he looked like a man in his mid-thirties. At seventy he looked no older than forty-five. His neck was firm, his hands unwrinkled, his eyes flashed as he shot you down with spontaneous wisecracks, or delivered his verdict on current affairs in elegant sentences and exquisitely crafted paragraphs… You say I’m well preserved, but only last August you’d have said he was my younger brother, perhaps even my son. And now, I say again: look at him! It’s a warning to us all. Don’t get complacent. Time tarries for no man – and no woman either, if you don’t mind my saying so. Do forgive my bluntness. I get so philosophical when I think about what happened to my friend.

What did happen, I hear you ask in your quiet voice. Did he fall ill? Well no, not ill exactly. He ate something that disagreed with him. I find that ironic. After all, if you listen to a dietician just about everything we eat disagrees with us in one way or another. Every morsel we place in our mouths is wearing us down, grinding away our teeth, eating at our organs, consuming our digestive tracts, laying waste to our wastepipes, so to speak – I mean our rectal passages… Again, I apologize for speaking bluntly, but I know what I’m talking about – know it better, indeed, than anyone else. What happened to him wasn’t unexpected, at least not to me. But dramatic, yes. Far more dramatic, indeed, than I had dared to hope…

I can see from your expression that you’d like to know more. My hints have intrigued you. Well, you’ve got a hearty sandwich to consume in the next few minutes, so if you’re sure I’m not intruding on your lunch break – I’ll tell you what happened to my poor old friend with the tremulous hands, the wattled neck, the mottled skin and the bleary vision. (Did you notice his hair, by the way? Only in August he had hair right down to his shoulders – it put this mane of mine to shame, I can assure you. And now, he should really be wearing a wig to cover up those clumps of shriveled vegetation that so egregiously fail to conceal his flaking scalp…)

Let me see, now. Where to begin? Tell me, my dear; have you heard of the Elixir of Youth? Of course you’ve heard of it – I’m sorry, my question must have sounded patronizing – and of course you’ve never believed in its existence. No more have I. Oh ho! You’re not the first to assume I must have found it, the Well at the World’s End, the Fountain of Eternal Replenishment, the Restorative Fruit from the Tree of Life. But no, I haven’t. To arrest the process of decay one needs three things: a measure of luck, a great deal of effort (eat well, live well, take plenty of exercise), and excellent genes. There are no other ways to hold back old age, and never will be, if you ask me. But I mention the Elixir of Youth for a very good reason, and will return to it in time.

My old friend there – now he was someone you’d have said had found it, if you’d seen him in August. He used to joke about it, you know – tempting fate, I tended to think in my superstitious way. ‘I can’t help it,’ he would tell strangers in his forceful voice (do you hear how it whistles now as he calls for a drink of water to help him swallow the final crumbs of his frugal meal?). ‘I just can’t help it,’ he would bellow. ‘Everything I eat makes me stronger and younger. Everything I drink revives my flesh. My grandmother was the same, and her mother before her. They both of them lived to a hundred and twelve. I expect I’ll outlast them, God willing’ (he was always throwing in those religious references, though he wasn’t a believer). ‘Come back in forty years and I’ll be sitting here at this table, as I am now, regaling the company with stories of the days when we used to drink coffee instead of kale and grapefruit smoothies. Here, feel my biceps. Impressive, no, for a man over sixty? What would you say if I told you I was over seventy? Surprised? I’m surprised myself. But I can’t help it – can I, Freddy? I’m simply the youngest octogenarian in the world.’ He exaggerated his age, of course, for dramatic effect, but he didn’t need to – he really was a wonder of nature.

That’s my name, Freddy. You’re Patricia? Pleased to meet you. It’s such a pleasure to meet a young woman with a good attention span, who isn’t always fiddling with her smartphone in the middle of a conversation.

No, no, of course I don’t mind if you answer that text. Finished? Jolly good. Now then: where was I?

Oh yes: the decline. Well, I have to say I thought he was asking for it with all his boasting about the lifespan of his family, his own good health, the astonishing weights he lifted daily in the gym. Tempting Providence, I thought, though like him I’m not religious. Almost as if he was daring the world to prove him wrong. Well, what could I do but take up the challenge? After all, he himself acknowledged me as his closest rival. The second youngest octogenarian on the planet, he would call me, and he’d buy me coffee from time to time – full fat lattes with plenty of sugar, though he knew I always drink mine black. But then, he wanted me to put on weight, just as he has now, poor devil (just look at that belly).

So I took it up. The challenge, I mean. I took up the challenge, and I took up chemistry. Not conventional chemistry, of course – GlaxoSmithKline and all that jazz. What I wanted was a nice quick fix for one small problem: the Fountain of Youth which he seemed to have tapped. I needed something to combat his natural fortitude. I needed – well, I’ll be blunt, since I’ve been blunt before. I needed a spell. Nothing else would do. I wanted fast results, and quite specific ones, and nothing in the way of regular science quite fitted the bill. A spell, my dear. By my age you don’t discount such things. Or rather, perhaps, you’re prepared to try them out because you’ve nothing to lose, not if you’re an unbeliever and you’ve witnessed the failings of conventional chemistry too many times in your life to number. Why not? After all, what’s a spell but a wish expressed in substances and gestures as well as in words? We all wish for things, I think, and every now and then we’re lucky enough to see a wish come true.

I found one, of course. A spell. Where else but on the internet – isn’t that where we find everything these days? The Dark Net, of course, not the Light One, if there’s any such thing. Not just any old Dark Net, either. This one needs to be accessed using HTMLs you can only obtain from certain individuals not to be named in respectable company. How do I know such individuals? I didn’t at the time – my life up till that point had been a relatively clean one – but I knew full well how to get in touch. How does Marlowe put it?

For when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
We fly in hope to get his glorious soul;
Nor will we come, unless he use such means
Whereby he is in danger to be damned.
Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring
Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,
And pray devoutly to the Prince of Hell.

Isn’t Kit sublime? I want to cry every time I speak those lines. And I’m not even a believer! I can attest, though, to the efficacy of the method. You don’t do your abjuring out loud, of course, if you want a cyber solution; you do it on Google. But it works. My old friend there is proof of that.

One way or another, then, I got my spell. I can tell you what was in it if you like. Have you finished your meal? I ask, because – well, some of the contents were a little disgusting. Bitter aloes was the least of them. The central nervous system of a traumatized orphan. A migrant’s tearducts. Infected blood. Bile, spleen, a dysfunctional liver, a malignant tumour – all of them human, I’m sorry to say. Lots of saturated fat, mixed with glucose, fructose – any kind of sugar, the more the merrier. Petrol. Ash. Bat’s wings, of course, Pipistrellus pipistrellus being the preferred variety, the bird of evening as the Romans called it. Eye of newt. Those last two items can be found in all the most efficacious spells, and I have to tell you the eye of newt was by far the hardest thing to get hold of – everything else is readily available on the world wide web, but you have no idea how rare a great crested newt is these days, or how fiercely the conservationists protect them. A pinch of salt – no, make that a fistful. There’s more, of course, but you get the picture. Hardly palatable, you’ll agree; and of course it took me months to get it all together.

There were words, too, as there always are, but you can’t have those – I don’t want to get you into trouble, not at your age. (At my age, on the other hand, trouble should be actively sought out. Keeps you young, so my seniors tell me.) And then of course I had to get the timing right. Leave the noxious mixture to brew for several weeks, chanting charms over it at appointed times, when the planets were properly aligned etc. – wearisome stuff. Consult the usual star charts to ascertain the optimum moment to administer the concoction. And then…

Then came the difficult part, or so you’d imagine. How to make him drink the potion? Funnily enough, that was the simplest thing of all. I just had to tell him everyone was doing it – that the tincture I’d cooked up was the dernier cri in holistic wellness therapy – and he took it like a man. After all, he’d been inured to foul concoctions for many decades; you don’t get a physique of the sort he had without downing vitamins and proteins by the bucketful, mostly in the foulest form imaginable. He made a wry face as he tossed it down, but he kept it down, as I’d known he would, and even managed to drink a mug of green tea afterwards to wash away the aftertaste. Impressive.

The effects didn’t begin to show for over a week – I was on tenterhooks till I finally spotted the first telltale change in his complexion. He must have been as strong as an ox. I knew that, of course, but I’m sure you’ll agree that knowing something isn’t the same as seeing it empirically demonstrated. When he came in here looking yellow – well, I was in clover. I settled down, then, to watch the changes day by day as they swarmed across him like a plague of locusts across healthy farmland. An outbreak of boils, which made him waddle like a pregnant duck. Scurf and scabies, which quickly led to hair loss. Sudden tooth decay, so that between one week and the next he’d gone from a full set of gleaming gnashers without one filling to a full set of dentures, which didn’t properly fit his mouth (the shape of his jaw was in constant flux). A case of palsy in the hands, whose cause could never be traced. Wasting of the muscles. Chronic indigestion. Distortion of the bones; incontinence; a number of strokes. His conversation changed, becoming a litany of complaints which drove away even his oldest friends – apart from myself, to whom they were music, a driveling ode to the success of my necromantic efforts. Then he more or less stopped talking altogether. It was too painful at first, what with all those abscesses, and later on he simply forgot how to govern his tongue. These days he can only manage the simplest requests for a glass of water or a bowl of soup, and to be honest we can only understand him because we know his habits.

Must you go? Have I driven you off? Of course not, it’s just that your lunch break is almost over, you need to get back, your time is precious as mine is not. Well well, it’s been a pleasure to meet you, and I say it sincerely – I who say very little sincerely (there is so much enjoyment to be had from pulling the leg of an attractive stranger). Remember, I’m here every morning with my small black coffee; I’d be pleased to tell you more about my friend’s career and its unfortunate end. Or if you prefer I can tell you about my other friend, the one who gave me the spell and helped me work it. Don’t worry, my dear, you’d never find him in this café. He prefers the swanky places near Piccadilly Circus and Holland Park; he has expensive tastes. Just visiting, were you? Off home tomorrow? Never mind. But before you go, let me say one more thing. I think you’ll find it useful.

A young woman of your age doesn’t think about ageing, or if you do, you think of it as far away, a distant prospect, the tiniest blot on life’s horizon. As you get older, though, I assure you it starts to loom. Every time you look in the mirror it looms larger. You start to cast envious glances at other people, guessing their ages, making notes on the stealthy meddling of Father Time with their faces and bodies as compared with yours. There will come a day, I guarantee, when you start to think: how can I look younger? Can I afford to dress like a twenty-year-old any more, or will it simply bring out the grotesque disparity between my sense of style and the wrinkled, bespeckled texture of my skin? That woman there – she’s older than me, yet she looks much younger. How does she do it? What’s her secret? Will she tell me honestly, or will she fob me off with a bit of folklore, a fat red herring, a downright lie?

There will come a moment, believe me, when you’ll even start to find yourself half believing that it may exist: the Elixir of Youth. Wishful thinking, of course – but as I said, we all wish for things, and now and then we’re lucky enough to see a wish come true.

My advice to you is this: the Elixir of Youth is a waste of time. There’s no such thing. Forget it. You could waste years in search of it, and one day you may even find that you’ve sold your soul for it, given up your happiness – what there is of it left – for a piece of nonsense in a crystal flask which does nothing at all but give you stomach cramps or a temporary, painful high, swiftly followed by half a year’s worth of deep depression. Believe me, I know this from bitter experience. It doesn’t work. Put it out of your mind.

But there’s something else, in my view, that’s much, much better. One day, in a few decades, you’ll remember our meeting and what I said as you left the café, determined never to darken its door again (what a horrible man! What a dreadful story!). You’ll remember that I told you how to get hold of it, and who to call on when you want to find it. You’ll start to believe what I’m telling you now: that it’s the only potion worth possessing, the only spell worth seeking out. And you’ll go looking for it, as I did, with beating heart and a welcome warmth spreading through the normally chilly joints of your hands and feet. You’ll go wandering through the mazes of the Dark Dark Net until it comes to you at last, in one form or another, with the ghastly inevitability of death itself.

What am I talking about, you ask? Oh, I think you know.

The Elixir of Age, young woman. The Elixir of Age.

 

 

Vortex

IMG_4208Bob went up close to the screen, scowling as if this would change the weatherwoman’s mind and improve the forecast. The blue-green pixelated blot representing the Vortex remained clearly visible over the North Atlantic, edging its way coastwards as the woman talked her viewers through the next twenty-four hours. By the time she reached midnight the shapeless icon was pulsating over the city, venting weather warnings, stylized snowflakes and numbers representing wind speeds of up to one hundred and fifteen miles an hour. Bob continued to scowl, convinced as usual that it was her personal malice that had brought on the unprecedented storms of the last few months. ‘I’d better fetch in more wood,’ he muttered, flexing his shoulders. Instead he stayed put, toying with his glass and jigging one of his legs up and down to ease off cramp.

Anne was setting out candles in all available holders: church candles, household candles, tea lights, hurricane lamps, a paper lantern. ‘Quit bustling around,’ Bob snarled. ‘You’re giving me a headache.’ Anne shot him one of her looks. ‘You know very well, Bob Carlin,’ she snapped, ‘that every time the Vortex comes round we get power cuts all over the city. They sometimes last for days. You’d best get in that wood before it hits us.’

‘I’ll fetch it in when I’m good and ready,’ Bob muttered, and took another sip of his whisky. The slug went down the wrong way and he started to cough, lungs and gullet burning. The truth was he felt a deep reluctance to leave the flat. The storm hadn’t even struck and the wind was howling along the street like a CG bomb blast, tossing the branches of the trees so that they cast enormous shadows across the fronts of the tenements opposite. A year or two back they would have called this a storm; but the recent worsening of global weather conditions had changed the definition of a storm to something much more drastic. ‘When I’m good and ready,’ he repeated, glancing at the window. A spatter of raindrops rattled the glass as if in answer. You’ll never be ready, it seemed to say, not for the likes of this. He shuddered and shuffled off in his worn-down slippers to pour himself another dram at the kitchen sideboard.

The odd thing was that he usually loved the job of getting in wood. It gave him the feeling of being the provider, direct descendant of the Neolithic hunter-gatherers of Ice Age Europe, snotty-nosed mammoth-wranglers who would have sneered through their cavernous nostrils at the thought of cowering indoors on account of a bout of inclement weather. His actual resemblance to such a hunter-gatherer was of course minimal; it was mainly based on the fact that he had chopped the wood himself, then stacked it in the first and only woodpile he had ever built from scratch. Well, to be exact, he and Jurek had built it – and Jurek was a better stacker of logs than Bob. But it was Bob, not Jurek, who had watched as the huge Leylandia tree next door was dismantled piece by piece by chainsaw-wielding contractors. It was Bob who had seen the pieces carried out one by one into the weed-choked lane that ran between the high brick walls that separated the back yards of the tenements; and it was Bob who had kept an eye on them month by month as nettles and dock leaves sprang up between the chunks like a miniature forest. It was Bob, too, who had finally decided that they’d been forgotten, and that the time had come when he could reasonably claim the wood as fuel. He had planned to drag the pieces home alone, but the first chunk was such a weight that it jarred his shoulder when he tried to lift it. So he’d called in Jurek to help; Jurek, who could carry a washing machine up the stairs on his own without breaking a sweat; Jurek, who cycled thirty miles to work each morning on a bike like a sleek metal greyhound. But it was Bob, again, who supplied the axe: a logging axe nearly four foot long with a wedge-shaped head freshly sharpened by his close-mouthed brother-in-law, from whom he’d borrowed it. By the time he and Jurek had split all the logs the axe was blunt, and he’d had to ask Jurek to sharpen it again with his Belgian whetstone. As a consequence the wood from the huge Leylandia had to be shared between Bob’s family and Jurek’s; but you couldn’t resent the man his portion, not after he’d worked so hard for it. And Jurek’s wife had brought out beers as they’d chopped and sweated in the summer sun. Winter had seemed far off in those days of comradeship, when all the kids in the street had scampered up and down the lane to each other’s houses and a cold beer had been as pleasant pressed to the forehead as poured down the throat. Hard to imagine days like that in winter, after all the storms that had intervened since August.

He’d had plenty of occasions to be thankful for his foresight in the months that followed. The stack of wood, built up against the back wall of the close and covered with an old tarpaulin, had provided him and Jurek with all the fuel they needed to last them through the days and weeks when the power failed and the radiators cooled into lifeless slabs of moulded metal. Both men had been wise enough to keep the Victorian fireplaces in their front rooms, and though the cast iron inserts were really meant for coal you could get a good wood fire going with a bit of patience and some twists of newspaper. That was Anne’s job, of course; patience wasn’t one of the virtues Bob claimed to have mastered.

When he got back from the kitchen, glass refreshed, the weatherwoman had vanished from the TV screen. In her place, worried-looking cops were stalking down a corridor clutching handguns, casting suspicious glances left and right as if expecting the weatherwoman to spring out at them from behind a door. Bob settled in his chair to see what would happen next, nursing the tumbler in his hand to release the fragrance. But the tension on screen was mounting, and after a while he put the glass down on the coal box and leaned forward, running his fingers across the ten-o-clock stubble on his chin. Anne mentioned the wood again and he snorted, studying the cops like a private detective searching for clues.

Bob’s phone buzzed in his pocket and he swore as he struggled to pull it free before he missed the call. He didn’t recognize the number and almost put it away again, but something made him tap the green icon and raise it to his ear. An accented voice, Polish or Rumanian: ‘Bob? It’s Jurek. Have you heard wind? It sounds bad, doesn’t it? Worse than usual, I think – much worse. Listen, can I ask a favour? Do you mind if we come upstairs and sit in your flat, just till storm is over? We ran out of fuel, and Magda – well, she gets nervous. She don’t want me going outside to fetch in more wood. She says… well, she don’t want me to, that’s all. What you say, man? Can we come up?’

Bob swore again silently, placing his palm across the receiver in case the force of his feelings should somehow communicate itself to Jurek without the help of sound. Just what he could do without – a bunch of lousy Polacks jabbering away in his front room while he was trying to chill. They’d probably want some whisky, and there wasn’t much left. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he said with a dry mouth. ‘We’re out of wood too. I was just heading out the back to fetch another load. You want me to get you a couple of logs?’

‘No no, it don’t matter. We’ll just come up and bring duvets. We’ll all be warmer if we sit in same room, don’t you agree?’

Bob was casting about in his mind for a good excuse to say no and hang up when Anne butted in. For her, phonecalls weren’t a private matter: anyone could take part in them from any part of the flat, with often chaotic consequences. ‘Who’s that?’ she asked. ‘Is it Jurek? Magda’s been texting me all evening. They’d like to come up till the storm’s gone by. Says she saw something in the back court – really put her out, she’s a bag of nerves. Tell them to bring their duvets and some nice warm clothes and I’ll make a few hot water bottles while the kettle’s still working. The Vortex never lasts long, and it’ll be nice to have some company to keep our minds off it.’

Bob gritted his teeth and gave what he hoped was a convincing smile. ‘No problem, hon,’ he said. ‘Jurek, come on up. It’ll be good to see you. I’ll fetch in the wood and we’ll make ourselves comfortable.’

‘No need for wood.’ There was an urgency now to Jurek’s voice, as if he really meant what he was saying. ‘You stay put, Bob. We’ll be up in a minute. We bring duvets. We’ll be fine.’

Why, I do believe the man’s afraid, Bob thought in surprise. Magda’s got nothing to do with it; Jurek’s afraid to go outside. Who would have thought it? Big strong Jurek, put off by a bit of wind and sleet. Maybe they don’t get this sort of weather in Rumania. He smiled to himself and flexed his muscles unconsciously, testing his strength before he stood up and went into action. He relished the thought that he’d pass Jurek on the stairs. He would nod kindly, he decided, as he stumped past him, with his refuse-collector’s gloves and his sleeves rolled back to expose his impressive forearms. Bob’s forearms were his best feature, and he liked to expose them on every opportunity; he fancied he had caught even Jurek casting glances at them last summer as they sipped beer sitting at the table on the unkempt lawn. When body parts were handed out, Jurek got the biceps and Bob the forearms. Unfortunately he also got the belly, but he could lose that in two or three weeks if he put his mind to it…

The lights went out. The TV went blank. Darkness overwhelmed them.

Anne let out a small involuntary noise, a sort of gasp from where she lay stretched out on the sofa. Even Bob made a noise of some kind, though he covered it up a moment later by scuffing his slippers on the polished parquet. ‘Christ, not again,’ he swore as he heaved himself to his feet. ‘That’s the third time this week. We’re claiming compensation, I don’t care how long it lasts. I’m paying for power, not a string of blackouts.’

A battery of blows at the double front doors made him swear again. ‘Christ, Jurek, do you have to try and smash it down? Keep your hair on, will you? I’m on my way.’ As he pulled open the inner door and reached for the bolt that fastened the double doors – the portcullis, so to speak, which sealed off the flat from the communal staircase – he heard a high-pitched whimper from the other side and cursed for a third time under his breath. The Polack kids were awake, then. That was the end of any dreams he might have had of a pleasant evening in adult company. Kids never slept in a storm, in his experience. And Anne would insist he make up a bed for them in the second bedroom. He hated making up beds.

Jurek, Magda and the kids blew in through the doors, bringing with them a gust of cold air and a babble of voices. Light spilled in too: the phosphorescent glow Bob had earlier seen from the living room window turning the sky behind the streetlamps into a pallid screen. He contrived to twist his face into what he hoped was a welcoming grin.

‘Go on through, folks,’ he urged them heartily, waving his arm towards the sitting room. ‘Get yourselves warm. Anne’ll make some tea.’

Jurek hovered in the hallway, arms full of duvet, as Bob slipped his feet into his boots. Perhaps the big man wanted to urge him once more to stay inside, keep safe and warm till the storm blew over. But Jurek said nothing. No doubt he could see the resolution in Bob’s face, the determination to provide for his wife and neighbours whatever the weather, whatever the time. Bob shrugged on his coat and reached for the work-gloves, relishing the scrape of untreated canvas against his forearms as he tugged them on.

‘Back in a sec,’ he said with studied casualness, and walked out of the door.

A moment later he walked back in. Jurek was still standing in the hallway, looking lost. ‘Forgot the keys,’ Bob explained brusquely, and unhooked them from inside the little cupboard beside the door. His second exit was quieter, though no less resolute.

There was a peculiar atmosphere on the communal staircase. The wan light leaked in through the windows, illuminating the anatomically dubious birds painted on the panes whose mournful eyes stared down at him on every landing. Unexpected draughts kept buffeting his body, making him sway as he descended the stairs. By the time he reached the bottom he felt a little lightheaded, and had to pause to gather strength before approaching the back door. The key turned easily, the handle too, but when he tried to tug it open the door wouldn’t budge, held shut, he supposed, by the force of the gale outside – though surely the wind should be pushing it open, not keeping it shut. He tugged again, harder, to no avail. It’s an omen, his mind informed him, drawing on the lore from all those movies he liked to watch when Anne was in bed. It’s telling me I shouldn’t go out. Magda warned me, and so did Jurek. That’s three omens so far, if you don’t count the weird light in the close, or me forgetting the keys, or the nasty feeling in the pit of my belly. If I open this door I’m doomed – all the movies say so. I better go back upstairs and say I couldn’t get out. No one would blame me –

The door flew open, as if some prankster on the other side had let go of the handle. It banged against the wall of the close and a shower of dust rained down from the dent where the inside handle always hit the plaster. Bob stood in the doorframe with his jaw hanging open.

He looked out into the storm – or rather, into the void where the storm should have been.

The yard was eerily still, bathed in the greenish glow that wasn’t quite moonlight. Every blade of grass in the lawn had its clearcut shadow. The hedge that ran down the left hand side of the lawn stood rigid as sculpture, branch and twig and thorn immobile in the eerie light, deep darkness behind them. Even the washing lines didn’t stir, their nylon cords stretched out stiff and stark between the iron poles planted in the lawn. The garden furniture looked implacable, a set of standing stones on the spiky grass. Only the hectic flight of the clouds gave any indication that a storm was raging somewhere above this moonlit bubble of perfect silence.

The whole thing looked like one of those wee glass snowstorms you hold in your hand and shake till the blizzard whirls – only here the blizzard lay outside, and the globe held a tiny world cut off from motion.

It was painfully cold. Bob’s coat didn’t touch it; the cold cut through the triple fabric and lanced his flesh with surgical precision. His hands beneath the work gloves began to burn. His eyes went watery. He shuddered once, a titanic shudder, and stepped across the threshold into the night.

Not another sound, not another movement in the empty garden: just the crunch of his boots as they sank through the perished rubber of the doormat. He had never seen it so still. This is a bit of luck, he told himself firmly as he turned to his right, towards the woodpile. This must be a lull in the storm: a brief break in the relentless pounding that’s being meted out by the Arctic wind and the polar rain. If I hurry I might get the wood inside before it starts again.

The wood was piled under the green tarpaulin against the back wall of the tenement, beside the door. Like the garden furniture the logs looked stony, and Bob half expected them to resist his strength, cementing themselves to one another in solidarity with the frozen landscape of the yard. Instead, the first log lifted up so easily he almost lost his balance, staggering a little on the crunchy grass as he fought to stay upright. Once safely stable, Bob settled the recalcitrant log in the crook of his arm where it nestled like a changeling baby, prematurely aged and stiffened by long exposure to the winter nights. He stooped for a second log, then a third, working swiftly to pick out the best wood for the fireplace: small, dense pieces that would fit in the narrow Victorian grate. He had to turn his back on the lawn to lift them. He didn’t want to, but there was no other way, despite the nagging sensation between his shoulders which told him against all reason that someone was standing close behind him as he worked.

Absurd, of course. There had been no noise in the yard – in the city as a whole, for all he could hear – since he stepped through the door, apart from the puffing of his whisky-tainted breath and the creaking of his knees. Still, there it was: that sensation of being watched by an unseen stranger – and he couldn’t shake it off no matter how he puffed and creaked and stamped in an effort to fill the void with movement, stave off the oppressive silence till the job was done. Instead of retreating, the sensation grew and spread cold fingers across his skin. Only one way to get rid of it, he knew: stand up, turn round, take a long slow look at the empty lawn. But not before he had lifted as many logs as his arms would carry. He refused to be spooked by a draught of wind. There were people depending on him tonight – women, children, friends – and he wouldn’t go letting them down on account of a feeling.

Then the voices began.

They started out as what could best be described as a kind of muttering: a stream of consonants linked together by a faint semi-musical hum, coming at him from several directions, and closer than he would have liked – no more than a yard or two from where he was leaning over the woodpile. Under any other circumstances he’d have assumed he was hearing a radio, but how likely was it that there’d be three or four radios close behind him at the dead of night? He straightened slowly, clutching the logs, and stood there listening, one hand rested on the topmost log, fingertips slowly tracing the grain as if for anchorage. The voices got louder; he began to hear words. The tone of the voices wasn’t threatening, but there was an urgency about them, a quiet desperation that raised the hairs on the back of his neck like an uneasy army getting to its feet.

He didn’t turn round slowly. He turned in a rush of impatience, almost letting the logs spill out of his arms – he had to clutch at them to prevent them scattering across the lawn. The impatience came from his sense that this was all too childish; he hadn’t felt this way since he’d been a nipper of ten, and he didn’t like it, wouldn’t let the sensation last a second longer. The lawn, he knew, was empty, and he was much too old to let a trick of acoustics set his heart racing and fill his palms with sweat in the middle of winter.

There were people standing on the lawn.

Five of them altogether. A man dressed in some sort of tight rubber suit and an orange life vest. A woman in shorts, clutching a mobile phone against her chest. A couple standing side by side in climbing gear, helmeted and harnessed, hands tightly linked. A child. They were none of them looking at him, though all of them faced in his direction. No, not quite in his direction – they faced west, which meant they were angled slightly away from him, unseeing eyes directed a little to his right. The effect was that of looking at a flock of turbines on a level pasture, all positioned at the optimum angle to take advantage of the prevailing wind. The difference, of course, was that flocks of turbines look identical – clean and white with elegant blades – while these figures were a motley crew, all of different body shapes and colours and with different clothes. The child was wearing pyjamas, pink with some sort of grinning cartoon creature printed all over. Her brownish hair was plastered flat across her cheeks and forehead. Her face, like those of the adults, were unsettlingly colourful: bluish lips, a bluish tinge to the cheeks, wide open bloodshot eyes set in hollow recesses and staring sightlessly towards the place where the sun had set not long before.

All five of the figures were talking, a steady noise like a running brook. His ears weren’t what they used to be, and he had to tilt his head at exactly the right angle to catch the words as they trickled by.

His left ear was the best, and he found himself turning it towards the man in the rubber suit. The man stood bolt upright, hands hanging at his hips, fingers twitching from time to time with involuntary convulsions. ‘Okay,’ he was saying to himself in an urgent whisper. ‘In a minute I’ll have got my legs out, Jim’ll help me, current’s not so strong. I been in worse, Christ it’s cold but not so bad really, I’m pretty much numb, almost warm in fact, just need to hold out a few more seconds, just a few seconds and I’ll be okay. My lungs are bursting, my chest hurts, my head hurts, I can’t see anything in this water, things have been worse, can’t get hold of the catch, I know it’s here somewhere, things have been worse, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’

Bob’s head moved away from the man and towards the young woman, whose shorts and T-shirt were obviously sodden, clinging to her skin in icy folds. Her eyes were wide open – they looked as if the lids had been stretched apart with clamps – and her hair lay in weedy strands along her jawline. ‘No signal,’ she was saying. ‘So dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I thought that only happened in books, didn’t think it could get that dark once your eyes adjusted, not so dark you couldn’t see your hands right in front of your eyes. Tread carefully, don’t go too fast, there are cliffs nearby, I saw them when I was running through the glen, shouldn’t go too slow though, it’s much too cold, I could freeze to death. Someone knows where I am, I must have said where I was going, I never told them, why didn’t I tell them, why did I change direction and head up the mountain, what an idiot, what an idiot, still can’t get a signal, I’ll get one in a minute, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’

Relentlessly Bob’s head kept turning, though he already had a premonition of what he would hear from the climbers, whose hands were locked together so fiercely they must have been crushing one another’s joints. ‘I’ve got you, honey,’ the man was saying. ‘Thank God, thank God I got hold of you when you slipped, just need to get a better grip on the rock with my other hand, sliding a bit but I won’t let go, nothing on earth would make me let go, we’ve done this before, we’re prepared for this, I’m strong, you’re strong, we’ve both got the training. The weather turned so suddenly but we’ve got the gear, my shoulder hurts, my elbow hurts, my hands are slipping, I won’t let go, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’

The woman was speaking too, but he couldn’t hear her; and the child, when his ear was turned in her direction, was speaking nonsense, a rhyme repeated over and over: ‘Christopher Robin went hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity hop. Whenever I ask him politely to stop it he says he can’t possibly stop. Christopher Robin went hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity hop.’ She had some furry creature in her hands, clutched against her chest exactly as the older girl was clutching her mobile. There was a stain in her hair, and now he looked he could see a gash, well, more like a hole, and he looked away rather than peer any closer to see how deep it was, how obviously fatal. He wondered what had made it – then steered his mind away from the subject with another huge shudder.

He was shuddering all over now, legs, arms and belly. The wind was getting up, puffs of it driving across the yard and disrupting the unnatural stillness, shaking the thorny branches of the hedge, bending the frosty grass stems. The cold cut through his body, parting fat and muscle and bone, making his legs and shoulders leap with the pain of it. One of the shudders sent the logs flying across the lawn, and a piece of wood struck the boot of the woman climber with a hollow thunk. Bob crouched and stretched out his hand to pick it up again, keeping his face down to avoid another glimpse of her vacant stare. But the wind was driving fiercely at him now, burning his face, burning his hands inside their canvas gloves, burning the bones inside his face, his hands, his feet. He remained crouched and locked his arms around his chest in an effort to get some warmth before he tried again. He wouldn’t go inside without that wood. He was the hunter gatherer, the father provider, and nothing could blow him into submission, not even the Vortex.

The wind buffeted him where he crouched, but the figures on the lawn seemed unaffected. Their bluish lips were moving still, but he could no longer hear any sound from them – the howling in his ears was too intense. A metal dustbin lid rolled away from the bin area, clashing as it bounced. The wind howled louder, and the lid was lifted into the air, spinning high up over the hedge and away to join other spinning objects in the yard next door. A plastic crate crashed against the tenement wall, scattering chunks of dust and stone into the rising storm. Flowerpots, branches, polythene bags whirled around in a kind of dance just above the heads of the murmuring figures. A piece of cardboard struck the canoeist’s helmet, but the man didn’t move; all his attention was focused on the stream of desperate words spilling out of his mouth.

And now Bob was swaying in a kind of dance beneath the mauling fingers of the puppeteer wind. Like a marionette he staggered to and fro across the grass, all balance lost. He bumped against the older girl and gasped a kind of apology before staggering on. He straightened in an effort to gain control, spreading his arms and fingers wide, lifting his chin. His feet left the ground for a moment, then landed again in a scuffling dance on the concrete slabs of the garden path. Another gust took him, and this time he was lifted into the air like the metal lid. His legs struck the hedge and he felt the cuffs of his trousers tear on the thorns. He spun head over heels, head over heels, whirling always upwards, hurtling with terrible speed towards a slanting frost-covered roof. Dimly he could see more figures beneath him in other yards, all facing westwards, all standing stiff and upright like ivory chessmen, all muttering still, no doubt, if he could have heard them. But the wind plucked him up and away, and his eyes grew dimmer, and he gritted his teeth in a furious effort to stop the words from spilling out.

Squeezing his lids together he could see the lights of the city spread out below him in a kind of cobweb. He was hundreds of feet above them and rising swiftly. His stomach lurched in terror, but he kept his eyes open, staring down, just to prove to himself he was still alive. So high, so cold, his body on fire, his lungs expanding to fill his chest in a last-ditch effort to catch enough air to feed his blood…

The words pounded through his skull in a driving rhythm, and after a while he knew he was saying them over and over. He couldn’t breathe, his chest was bursting, sight almost gone – but still his lips moved as he flew towards the clouds, and he heard the words, though not with his ears, a steady noise like a running brook in the upper air: it can’t end like this, it can’t end like this, it can’t end like this…

 

 

The Goblin Basements

3453163-dump-yard-full-of-dust-mess-and-garbageThe first time he visited the Goblin Basements he was very nearly unprepared. It was Christmas Eve, and the toys had been rioting all day, refusing to obey the simplest orders and breaking each other at the slightest excuse. He had given his laser to two members of the Imperial Guard so they could keep a couple of recalcitrant roboshifters at bay on the bedside table. His bodyguard ‘Thug’ Thorson was under interrogation in the kitchen cupboard, having been arrested the day before by the Bear Police for suspected dealings with a criminal gang on the True Crime channel. Gran had opened the flap of the garbage chute and a little vampire bat had escaped from inside, fluttering around and spraying noxious fumes all over the kitchen till Jenny flattened it with a spatula. ‘Bottom flap must be jammed open,’ said Gran. ‘Go down and fix it, would you, Ben? Quick as you can, tea’s almost ready. I’d go myself if it wasn’t for my gammy leg.’

Showering curses on elderly grandmothers and their gammy legs, Ben left the bears to grill ‘Thug’ Thorson and stumped out of the flat without so much as strapping on a light sabre. ‘Don’t be long, now, Ben,’ Gran called after him. ‘Don’t talk to strangers and don’t turn aside. If you see something useful in the basement bring it up – but never stray from the path whatever happens. You know the rules.’

‘I’m not a kid,’ Ben muttered under his breath, too softly for Gran to hear. He pressed the button for the lift and heard the distant clunk as it came to life in the depths of the building.

Then the lights went out.

The lights in all the public areas of the apartment block were governed by timing devices to save electricity. You switched them on by hand and after so many seconds they switched themselves off, usually at the most inconvenient moment possible. If you needed to switch them on again you could locate the switches because they had little red lights behind them like the eyes of Morlocks – those underground cannibals in the movie Ben had watched when he was eight, whose white fur and yellow teeth he could never forget when darkness took him. He thought of them now and shrugged his shoulders to shake off the shivers. He was older now; if he met a Morlock he would punch out its teeth with a blow of his fist. Still, he wished ‘Thug’ Thorson was with him. Thug wasn’t that big, and his left arm was missing, but he could talk Ben out of his fears with his Texas drawl and his cheerful grin. Maybe he should go back and get him now, before the lift doors opened –

The lift doors opened with a pneumatic hiss.

The cage of the lift was as dark as the corridor, though the light wasn’t governed by a timer. The bulb must be broken again. Ben stepped inside and felt for the button marked ‘Basement’. It would be the bottom button, wouldn’t it? He punched that. The lift gave an angry jerk and began its descent.

This was one of those old-fashioned lifts with open sides shielded with wire mesh to prevent you falling out into the lift shaft. When there was light you could see the concrete walls with their girders moving slowly past you. You could see other things as well: scribblings where, through one of the gaps in the mesh, someone had managed to scrawl his name as the lift went by; and other, more elaborate scribblings which could only have been done with time and patience. Ben had often wondered how they got there. Gran said it was when the lift got stuck, as it often did – then told him not to think about such horrible things, what was wrong with him, he should know better at his age. He thought the scribblings must have been made by the vampire bats or their leather-clad riders, who moved about the shaft independent of elevators.

Down the lift went, and down and down. Surely we should be there by now, Ben thought, tapping his teeth with one of his thumbnails as he always did when nervous. At least it was getting lighter. A pale green glow filtered up from below, and the usual groan and hum of the elevator was accompanied by other noises: a tapping as of distant hammers, a scraping as of shuffling feet. Must be workers in the basement, he told himself, though why they should be clearing sewage pipes or collecting refuse at midnight was beyond his comprehension. They would probably be strangers. When he got there he’d better keep shtum and stay close to the walls. Strangers meant trouble, and he didn’t want trouble so close to Christmas. You never knew what Santa would make of it if a brawl broke out and someone got hurt.

As the pale green light grew stronger he began to notice things. There were no longer doors at intervals in the concrete sides of the shaft; the last one had passed many seconds ago. And the drawings on the cracked grey surface were getting more ornate. They were mostly done in black and red: sharp, ugly little drawings that bore a family resemblance to the sharp, ugly little tap-tap-tapping noises in the depths of the building, which grew louder by the minute. Mostly they seemed to be of little black and scarlet figures, all spikes and jags, torturing each other with a range of complicated instruments. Under some of them slogans were painted in a childish scrawl: THE END IS NIGH, YOU’RE GOING DOWN, or simply DEATH. Ben loosened an imaginary pistol in its holster, acutely feeling his own defencelessness. His anger with Gran was still too hot for the cold to have entered him yet. If he was shivering it wasn’t with fear but with irritation; he would almost welcome, he thought, the chance to work off his feelings in a decent brawl. Deep down, though, he knew it wouldn’t be long before fear took hold, and he hoped against hope that he would have reached the bottom and stepped out of the lift before it did. If not, he would find it hard to leave the shelter of the cramped steel cage.

Now the lift was moving more slowly. Soon it stopped. The green light, as if governed by a timing device, went out. With another sharp hiss the doors slid open – he could tell by the gust of putrescent air that hit his face. Ben squared his shoulders and waited till his breathing was steadier. Then he stepped through.

Blackness swathed him, thick and breathless, muffling his ears so that the scuff of his boots on the concrete floor sounded far away and timeworn. His nose, too, was plugged by a stench that turned the air to acrid tar. He looked around for the small red glow that would mark a light switch. There were several, none close by. As he edged towards one of them along the wall, the distance turned out to be far greater than he had imagined, and was made to seem further still by the jumble of oddments that covered the floor. He kept treading on brittle sticks that snapped or crunched beneath his heels, or kicking aside hard hollow objects that clattered and rolled. The darkness, too, kept changing texture, sometimes stifling him like a pelt, sometimes clinging to his skin like plastic sheeting or trailing sticky cobweb-threads across his face. The journey to the light became a trek and then a nightmare, extending itself beyond all probability until the space he moved through seemed as vast as the vaults of hell and as full of torment.

Just as he reached the little red light – and by this time he had become uncomfortable with its shape – it suddenly vanished. He found himself utterly without coordinates, unsure where he had come from or what lay ahead. He had lost the wall; when he stretched out his hand to find it he felt only the brush of tepid air against his fingertips. Ben turned full circle in a desperate effort to locate another switch, the rubberized heels of his boots letting out small fearful squeals as they ground against concrete.

A squeal rang out to his left.

He stopped dead and stood unmoving, holding his breath, ears pricked to detect any further sounds. There were none.

After what seemed several minutes he could stand it no longer and broke the silence. ‘Anyone there?’ he whispered hoarsely. Then louder: ‘Anyone there?’

At once an echo seized his words and whipped them away into the cavernous blackness, making them rise and rise in pitch as they moved higher and circled faster, until the air was filled with squeaks and the frantic flutter of tiny wings. That was when Ben realized where he was. Everyone knew about the Goblin Basement – the yawning gulf that lay beneath the lowest level of the building, the abode of vampire bats and other things best left unnamed – and though the knowledge made his knees melt under him, it meant that he wasn’t wholly unprepared for what he saw when the light returned, flooding the unwholesome chamber with its luminescence.

The room was vast, as he had guessed, and half filled with rubbish. Parts of the ceiling had fallen in, dropping chunks of plaster on mouldering heaps of rusty cans, old stoves and fridges, twisted hub-caps, plastic bags, crushed cardboard boxes, broken bottles, the arms and heads of dismembered robots, the shattered shells of ancient visiscreens with sense-o-listic sense-stimulators trailing limply from their sides like the tentacles of long-dead octopods. From the holes in the broken ceiling, tubes and chutes stuck out at haphazard angles like severed limbs. Oily liquid drooled from the pipes, slavering the refuse underneath with yellow slime. As Ben crouched in the middle of the room, his features bathed in the uncertain glow from the globe above his head, he heard something crashing as it bounced against the sides of a nearby chute: down, down, down, louder and louder, till it whizzed from the open mouth and smashed to pieces on the rubbish beneath. He knew what the object was when a uniformed leg bounced against his foot: one of the guardsmen he’d left on duty on his bedside table. The leg gave a feeble jerk and then lay still.

The globe flickered bright and dim and dim and bright as if in time to some sickly heartbeat. By it, you couldn’t tell if there was anything else besides the rubbish in the Goblin Basements. But Ben knew there was something else; he’d heard the stories. He looked wildly around for the lift. There it was, impossibly far away to his right across the desert of the concrete floor. Between him and it the concrete stretched, a dusty plain marked with tiny ripples like the ocean bed and littered with overspill from the tip. He swiftly turned to face the rubbish and started to back towards the elevator doors. Always face your enemy, Gran had warned him, unless you fancy the thought of something long and sharp and rusty between your shoulderblades. Not tonight, he didn’t. Not on Christmas Eve, alone and weaponless in an underground dump.

A tap-tap-tapping broke out behind him: the same noise that had sounded in the lift shaft. He glanced over his shoulder, one swift glance, then returned his gaze to the mountain of refuse. The glance had been enough to show him a tall thin figure with an oily cockscomb of black spiked hair, a torn leather jacket, a T shirt asking DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, chains on its chest. Where the face should have been the figure wore a mask made from the front panel of an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner, with a vacant ‘O’ in the middle for dust to be sucked through. The legs were jointed metal lampstands, terminating in high leather boots without soles or toecaps. He could see through the gaps that there were no feet inside them. Strapped to the boots was a pair of rollerblades, a wheel missing from one axle.

The tapping came from a monkey-wrench being gently swung against the elevator doors.

‘Look alive, lads,’ a whistling voice called through the mask. ‘We have a guest to share our midnight frolics!’

Piece by piece the refuse stirred. Each piece turned out to be connected to another piece and moved by a will. The plastic face of a cabbage-patch doll, grotesquely small, attached to the barrel-chest of a boiler, rose on frail mop-o-matic legs and blinked its lashes as it looked Ben over. A small green rubberized monster with lightswitch eyes uncurled itself from under an unsprung armchair, which itself unfolded arms made of copper wire and peered at Ben from bloodshot eyes embedded in the upholstery. Kicking jars and cans aside, the Goblins lurched from their putrescent hiding-places and gathered in a semicircle about ten feet from where Ben stood. Ben went on retreating, right hand held out in the defensive posture favoured by ‘Thug’ Thorson. The thumb of his other hand – the one Thug didn’t have – knocked against his teeth, tapping out a nervous tattoo in time to the tapping of the monkey-wrench against the metal panels.

‘A big fellow, this,’ the whistling voice remarked, close by his shoulder. There was a rumbling sound as the rollerblades changed position on the concrete floor. Ben stopped dead, acutely aware that another step or two would bring him within range of the tool in Cockscomb’s fist. ‘Big enough to do the Jinglebells Waltz, I should imagine,’ the voice whistled on. ‘Or the Crimbo Caper, or the Krampus Can Can. Which will it be?’

‘The Krampus Can Can! The Krampus Can Can!’ ground out a waste disposal unit with iron teeth. ‘There’s so much more leftover waste in the Krampus Can Can.’

‘Can you dance, friend?’ Cockscomb whispered in Ben’s left ear, touching his elbow with the tip of its wrench. Ben swung round suddenly and smashed the panel from its crested head with a blow of his fist, sending it scuttering across the floor like a wrecked toboggan. In the space where the panel had been, a confusion of wires and fuses spat out sparks as if in outrage.

Ben broke into a run. ‘He’s dancing, he’s dancing,’ shrieked the Goblins, scampering to plant themselves between him and the liftshaft. A serve-o-bot mounted on a set of twisted pramwheels screeched past on his right. The faceless rollerblader passed him on his left, trailing sparks and smoke. Ben stopped dead and kicked out backwards with his steel-capped boot, felt the rubber monster bounce away at the impact, dodged around doll-face, then wheeled abruptly and started to run back the way he’d come, towards the mountain of waste. Wrong-footed, the Goblins didn’t recover quickly, which gave him hope. They careened into each other, cursing and laughing hysterically and spinning in circles to see which way he’d gone. He plunged straight into the garbage, driving forward with all his force until he reached the guardsman’s torso and snatched at the pouch he’d seen on its belt.

‘He’s meddling with our property!’ Cockscomb vented in a stream-train shriek. ‘He wants to play rough! Stop hedging, boys, and grapple him! Let him feel us!’

Ben had just managed to unfasten the pouch and get his hand inside when a hubcap, hurled discus-fashion, struck the side of his head. He fell sprawling into a pile of rotting vegetables and the rubber monster landed on his chest. Luckily his hold on the pouch never loosened; he clung to it like death as he rose to his feet. And now the Goblins began to shove him from one to another like a broken puppet. One pushed him in the small of the back so that he stumbled forwards; a second struck him on the cheek so he spun to his left; a third stamped on his boot so hard that he shrieked in pain, despite the steel toecaps. ‘He’s dancing the Krampus Can Can!’ the Goblins screamed, and clapped their hands, claws, gloves, or drill bits in a rising cacophony of wild applause.

In a lull between the punches, shoves and gouges, he managed to grasp the thing in the pouch, the thing he had stolen from Gran last week for just such emergencies. ‘Stop, all of you!’ he bellowed, holding it aloft. So loud he bellowed that even the bat-echoes forgot to transform his words into metallic shrieks. So loud that the Goblins did indeed stop for a moment, stunned into silence by his urgent tone.

The silence lasted only a moment, but it was long enough for him to shout again: ‘I’ve got the thimble! Don’t any of you move! I’ve got the thimble!

A hundred eyes fixed fearful gazes on the tiny thing he held above his head. Red eyes, hole eyes, single eyes, composite eyes, glittering or midnight black in the verdigris light that kept up its flickering from bright to dim, from dim to bright in uneasy response to the irregular current. The waste disposal unit took a step backwards on chickenbone legs, grinding metal teeth. A visiscreen retracted its sense-o-listic tentacles, which had been fully extended to deliver stabs of electric pain to Ben’s face and hands. A stove with lion’s-claw feet lost its balance and fell, crushing a sentient cardboard box that had been standing behind it. Still holding high the thimble, Ben stepped between the Goblins, taking care to hold their eyes with his fierce black stare. For a horrible moment he thought that Cockscomb and Pramwheels would not shrink away from him like the rest. But as he came closer the serve-o-bot trundled off into a corner and Cockscomb skated aside to let him pass. A whispering and murmuring followed him and he turned to face it, because, Gran said, you must never turn your back.

‘The thimble,’ Cockscomb was muttering. ‘He’s got the thimble. What does it do?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ Pramwheels hissed back. ‘I never felt it and I never want to feel it. See how it shines!’

‘Anyone here ever felt the thimble?’ Cockscomb called, and Ben knew his time was short. He picked up the monkey-wrench from where Cockscomb had dropped it and weighed it in his hand. Then he hurled it with all his strength at the glowing green globe in the middle of the ceiling. He had practised throws like this for many months on the roof of the building, hurling spanners, bricks and pool balls at a range of targets, until he could throw almost anything of any size and shape with pinpoint accuracy across a distance of up to fifty feet. The globe exploded, spraying the nearby Goblins with luminous goo. Screams rang out as the affected Goblins began to melt like plastic soldiers on a red-hot stovetop. Ben lunged for the elevator doors and punched the button. The doors began to open. Tires, claws, boots, pincers and caterpillar tracks clashed, rumbled, screeched or squealed as the Goblins rushed him. He flung the wrench at Cockscomb’s head and threw himself backwards, twisting round to punch a button, any button, as he landed inside. The doors hissed together with maddening slowness. A leather glove encasing steel pistons jammed itself between them. Ben gripped it and gave it a yank, the mightiest yank he had ever given; he’d practised for many months to perfect that yank, pulling rivets from twisted girders with bleeding fingers, ripping wheels and accelerator pedals from the wrecks of cars. It came off in his hand. The doors hissed shut. Outside a Goblin howled, a steam-whistle shriek of pain and fury that hurt his ears. Bleeding from head and sides, Ben sank down in a corner, clutching the glove.

As the lift ascended, the lights went on.

At Ben’s floor it stopped with a jolt and the doors hissed open. ‘Thug’ Thorson stood there, his one thumb hooked in his tooled leather belt with the snake’s head buckle, his Stetson tipped at a rakish angle on his shaven skull. With him were two or three members of the Imperial Guard, their uniforms still blackened from the famous battle in the attic a few weeks previously. They lifted Ben to his feet and half led, half carried him along the corridor towards Gran’s flat. ‘Thug’ Thorson stayed behind to cover their retreat with a rapid-fire crossbow.

Gran was at the kitchen sink, peeling tatties for their Christmas dinner. Carols drifted faint and shaky from the ancient wireless. ‘Did you manage to fix the chute?’ she asked without turning. Then, catching sight of his reflection in the kitchen window, she swung round and let out a cry of concern and anger.

‘Oh you poor dear foolish boy!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’ve got yourself thrashed by them boys that live in the rough parts of the building, haven’t you? You turned aside when I told you not to. You spoke to strangers when you should have kept shtum. I’ve told you over and over, but do you listen? Do you heck. Oh, whatever am I going to do with this mindless idiot?’

‘Lock him in the loony bin,’ Jemima suggested, cramming a fistful of tortilla chips between her jaws. She and Jerry were watching a horror film on the visiscreen, surrounded by the usual litter that accompanies such viewings: magazines to hide behind, armchairs likewise, screwed-up crisp packets, popcorn, plates. But Jerry took one swift glance at Ben’s bleeding wounds and let out a shriek fit to wake the dead, then buried his head beneath a pile of cushions.

‘Jemima, mind your wicked tongue!’ Gran snapped. ‘Ben can’t help his intellect. And Jerry, stop that awful racket. It’s bad enough having one fool in the family without you making it two.’

‘I saw a f-f-face at the window!’ Jerry stammered from under the cushions. ‘It was green, and it had red eyes like the lights in the c-c-corridor!’

‘Oh, hold your noise!’ Gran snarled as she steered Ben towards the bathroom. ‘You should be in bed. I always said them sorts of films was bad for young minds.’

But when Ben’s head had been bandaged up and his other wounds seen to, he went straight back to work, despite Gran’s weary demands that he go to bed. He did the rounds of the flat with extra care, stationing a guardsman at every window, a space platoon under every table, a laser-wielding bear on top of the tree. Far into the night he sat with ‘Thug’ Thorson in the living room, making his plans. Now and then he heard Gran muttering in her sleep, or one of the kids crying out in terror at some vivid nightmare: a monster remembered from the movie maybe, or a vision at the kitchen window, or something worse. Tonight, though, Ben didn’t go and comfort them as usual with a story or a wordless song. He was far too busy. Ben was plotting the Battle of the Goblin Basements; and as he plotted he paused now and then to raise his head, listening intently to the tap-tap-tapping that echoed up the waste-chute from the depths of the building.

The Reader

220px-Marbled_PaperCaptain Abend had asked to arrest his old friend Professor Bildnis himself, out of some confused desire to conduct the matter with the respect that had always characterized their dealings with one another. But now, as he stood at the great front door of the professor’s ancestral Schloss and waited for the ancient housekeeper to answer the bell, the uneasy feeling possessed him that this had been a mistake, and that he would have been better occupied burying himself in the pile of paperwork that was waiting for him on his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion. He tried to imagine the look on the professor’s face when she realized what he had come for: hurt betrayal; tragic loss; or worse still, a barely-perceptible nod to indicate that yes, she had known this time would come from the moment she first saw him lingering on the threshold of her library, eyes wide with mingled awe and bitterness, as if he had already known at nine years old that he would never make a room like this his intellectual home. As old Marta led him across the hall he shrank, in his mind, to the size he had been then, recalling the prickly suit into which he had been crammed by his nervous mother before the visit, and how it had seemed to lock him into itself as he walked towards the monumental figure in front of the window, forcing his overheated legs to stride forwards even as his protesting mind yearned to make them sprint in the opposite direction, towards the manicured lawns and regimented woods of the Bildnis estate. ‘Captain Abend,’ Marta quavered as she pushed open the library door – he would have liked to help her, since the door was heavy, but knew that any attempt to do so would have inflicted appalling pain on her proud old servant’s heart – and he stepped through into the land of enchantment, the forest of books in which he had lost himself so often over the eighteen years or so since he had first entered it.

Professor Bildnis was standing at the great bay window with her back to him, poring over a gigantic volume which seemed to contain brightly-coloured pictures and exquisitely painted initial capitals – though of course he couldn’t make out any details at such a distance. The Professor herself was just as massive, on a human scale, as the book was on the bibliographical one. She wore a shabby plush dressing gown as dark and voluminous as an academic robe, and her tangled grey hair hung like cobwebs across the great flat boulders of her cheeks. Yet there was something light and nimble about her: the way her big hands caressed the leather binding of the book she held, the way she was poised almost on tiptoe in her old worn slippers as if about to take flight, etherealized to weightlessness by her excitement at what she had found there.

As he walked towards her, his polished boots boomed aggressively on the floorboards and he shrank still further inside. The echoes of his footsteps rolled about the room like out-of-control dirigibles, bumping against the age-dimmed spines of the books that lined the shelves from floor to ceiling, bumbling up and down the steps of the wheeled wooden staircases that stood around the edges like patient giraffes ready to help any undersized reader – such as the captain himself, as he felt at this moment – to reach the upper shelves. Captain Abend came to a halt in front of the professor, clicked his heels together – not very smartly – and saluted. The professor raised her grey eyes from the page at which she had been gazing, her lips still curved in the smile of pleasure the words and images on it had conjured up.

‘You’re here to arrest, me, aren’t you?’ she said, in a voice both distracted and kindly, as if this were a minor disturbance which was drawing her attention away from important business, but which she must pay attention to, for a while at least, out of courtesy and a lifelong affection for the young man who had brought it about. ‘I’ve packed my bags, if I’m allowed to take them. No?’ she added quickly as Abend gave the slightest shake of his head. ‘No bags? Not even a toothbrush? Never mind. I’ve made arrangements for the books here. I once hoped the city library would take them: I always meant to hand them over to the people, but I somehow doubt most of the people in their present mood would be inclined to accept the donation. Marta and her family will keep them safe for those in the future who care to read them.’

Captain Abend stared at her as she spoke, then sensed that his mouth was hanging open and closed it hurriedly. She had always had this effect on him: one unexpected observation (you’re here to arrest me, aren’t you?) and all his carefully-planned excuses and words of comfort fell round his feet, where they lay twitching their ascenders and descenders like exhausted mayflies. The professor watched him for a while, the same sweet smile playing on her lips, though there was a hint of sadness to it now. In fact, when he came to think of it, there had been a hint of sadness mixed with pleasure in her face when she first looked up. Sadness was what she lived on, it was meat and drink to her; her arrest, it seemed, was merely the culmination of a succession of sad moments born of the excessive hopes her books had awoken in her at a tender age.

‘May I ask, at least,’ she said at last, placing her big hand on his arm – she held the giant volume open in the other hand as if it had been a child’s hornbook – ‘may I ask why I’m being arrested? Is it for what I’ve written? If so, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t expected the generals to take such a sudden interest in the obscurer byways of historiography. They have risen several notches in my estimation.’

Captain Abend shook his head again and cleared his throat. ‘Well, yes and no,’ he said at last, his throat so dry the words hurt as they forced themselves past his larynx. ‘Of course they’re aware of what you’ve written. In fact you’re doing them an injustice to accuse them of ignorance. Some of them are actually fans – General Halfisch, for instance, told me the other day that you’d been an inspiration to him in his student days at Heldenbein University. The fact is, though, it’s you yourself they disapprove of. A woman of your ancestry and standing who has chosen to lead a life of scholarship, to involve herself in radical politics, to invite workers and poets and thinkers to her Schloss without regard to the view of their activities taken by the government, to draw the attention of foreigners to their so-called “cause” by virtue of her international reputation as a historian… Need I go on? You’ll know the charges against you well enough, Professor. I’m only sorry you didn’t listen to all my warnings.’

The Professor nodded her head slowly, still looking distracted. ‘That’s a pity,’ she murmured, though Abend saw at once that she wasn’t talking about her failure to pick up his mumbled hints at the growing hostility to her among the ruling party. ‘They should have read my books more carefully. If they had they would have arrested me long ago.’

All at once her eyes hardened, as if she were really seeing him for the first time. ‘But you’ve read them properly, haven’t you, August? Not just my books, but my dreams, my quest – I’ve spoken about these things to you many times, you are well acquainted with the book of my mind. You know what I’ve been looking for all these years. You know that my writings are little more than a record of frustration, scribbled notes on a lifelong search that kept leading me up blind alleys in chase of a glimpse, a damaged map, a riddling clue, a forgotten archive which, when I reached it, invariably turned out to contain no more than second-hand information, scraps of gossip, castles in the air. You’ve followed me on my mental journeys. You’ve embarked on mental journeys of your own from time to time. I could have wished you’d journeyed more, boy, and not let yourself get mixed up in this bad business. You can see plainly now, I think, the blind alley to which that particular path has brought you.’

Abend felt a flash of rage and clenched his fists, half tempted to strike her. He could never have dedicated himself to the journeys she spoke of – unlike her he had to make a living, he had younger brothers and sisters to think of, who had depended on him since his father’s death and his mother’s illness. Besides, his military career was not so much of a dead end as all that. He was well paid, he had glittering prospects – the general had told him so when they’d met by chance on the mansion staircase. And who was she to talk to him about blind alleys? Where had her reading got her? To this room, to this moment in time when her young friend stood awkwardly before her with an order for her arrest in his inside pocket. This was a cul de sac if ever there was one. He ought to pull out the paper at once and show her the wording, with the general’s extravagant signature at the bottom.

But his anger quickly faded as he noticed her eyes straying back to the book in her big left hand, as if pulled by strings. She would hardly notice the paper, even if he waved it in front of her eyes or struck her head with it; she had already half forgotten about it and him. This was not even a proper conversation, really, because she’d been talking to herself all along, as she always had, as she always would. He had never really been of any interest to her, and it was mere hypocrisy in her to express regret about his failure to follow intellectual paths for which she had always shown a supreme indifference. He might as well let her go on talking. There was no great hurry. This job once over, he had only the other dull papers on his shabby desk to attend to for the rest of the day. If he took his time over this arrest he could at least make sure that the rest of the day didn’t last too long.

And now she was speaking loudly, almost shouting, and waving the book at him as if it contained evidence of his sins of omission. ‘But August, August!’ she cried, cheeks wobbling with emotion. ‘I have finally found it! To think it was always there, right in front of my nose, in a book I knew as well as the inside of my head – a book I’ve known since I was younger than you were when I first met you! I would be embarrassed by my blindness if I weren’t so happy. Come over to the window; let me show you. It’s a matter of looking at the words and the pictures, both at once. I knew how to do that once, as a little girl; but you may have noticed how such skills melt away like frost with the passing years. It’s because we don’t read with all our attention, we don’t inhabit our books and populate them as we did when we were young. They don’t live in our minds, words and pictures together, when we go to sleep. They don’t talk to us in our dreams, as they did when we first discovered the heaven-sent miracle of reading.’

In a dream – half mesmerised by the flow of her words – he saw that she was looking at him now with what seemed genuine attention, as she beckoned with her head towards the bay window. ‘It’s not our fault, you know,’ she went on companionably. ‘We read too much, as adults – we know too much to be able to inhabit the books we read as we did before. We’d go mad if we tried. But every now and then, when we concentrate hard, we recover that skill again for a few short minutes. And those minutes stay with us for a while after we’ve stopped reading – long enough, sometimes, for us to set down some bald impression of what we’ve learned.’

As the Captain moved with her to the sunlit bay he experienced another sudden flashback to his nine-year-old self. Again and again she had beckoned him to some corner where she was poring over a page, often in another language he didn’t know. Forgetting his age, she would read it out to him, the mellifluous clatter of Greek, the dancing curlicues of Italian, the baroque efflorescences of formal French or Latin. He had listened enrapt, with pictures forming and fading before his eyes. The shape of the scripts told him stories more energetic and convoluted than the comics he secretly scanned in the shops when his mother wasn’t looking (she thought them vulgar and feared exposure to them would impede his development as a reader). Later he became resentful of the Professor’s blithe assumption that he could understand the erudite syllables she intoned. But now, striding after her, a sensation caught him by the throat, a thrill of excitement as of some imminent revelation, a door about to open on some world of wonders. He remembered it well now, that sensation, though he had thrust it down to some hidden cellar of his being, where it had mouldered under the stacks of soulless documents he had been piling up through his wearisome years as a military administrator. Each of the Professor’s readings had been, for him, a musical performance with a visual accompaniment, like the ballads sung by old men as they rapidly flipped through the great shimmering pamphlets full of crude hand-coloured pictures displayed on easels in the market squares of Helden. Suddenly he felt sure that he would now recover that half-forgotten pleasure, the one he had denied himself in his teenage years because of mounting frustration with his limited prospects. He drew close to her shoulder and found himself too short, still, to peer over it. Instead he squinted round the side of her massive gown-draped arm, allowing the script and illustrations on the page to fill his vision.

The words were arranged in short, neat lines that formed a column from top to bottom, which told him they were verse. The columns were broken at regular intervals, which told him the verse was arranged in stanzas. Alternate lines were indented apart from the final couplet of each stanza, so he had a good idea of the rhyme scheme. The Professor didn’t recite verse to him, however, nor did she speak in the archaic dialect of the poem. She spoke rapidly in the language he knew best, turning the pages to match the pictures to her words. Yet the story made little sense: something about a princess in a castle on an island, whose loneliness drew birds and beasts to her through the waves, till at last it drew a young fisherman who took her away with him on his skiff to the place where fishes have wings and birds have fins and beasts can sing. The story ended badly – ‘all stories from this period ended badly, it’s as if they didn’t know how to write a happily ever after’ – with the fisherman dead and the princess imprisoned once again on her lump of rock. ‘But look here!’ the Professor cried, tapping the final illustration. ‘The picture of the room where she lies dead after giving birth; do you see the door? It’s exactly like the door to this library. The carving on the lintel, the details of the paneling, the smallest glimpse of the room beyond. Her child is walking towards the door, growing as she walks – she’s almost grown already, see how tall she is, how long her hair. And the door is the door to the library – I can only assume the painter copied it from life, if that’s the right expression, still life I suppose it should be. If you look closely at the picture you can see the edge of this bay window. Do you see it, August? Her child is walking into this room, this very room where we’re standing now. I’m assuming – it’s a reasonable hypothesis – that the writer and illustrator knew very well that it would end up in this location; they must have been commissioned by one of my ancestors. The books themselves – the books are the key. I always assumed, when I was a child, that the king had won, that the child in the picture was myself, trapped in this castle without escape like her mother before her. But the books hold the key to the end of tyranny. She’s even carrying one in her hand. Can you see the title? With eyes like yours you can surely read it even without the magnifying glass – though of course you can borrow mine if necessary.’

Of course Captain Abend could read the title: his vision was perfect, they had complimented him on it only the year before when he had undergone the annual test. Only his asthma had let him down, condemning him for ever to a desk job despite his impeccable scores in every element of his military training. He could see the title of the book, and knew full well why it had excited her so greatly. The title was hers – the name of the book she had written three years after he had met her. She had talked to him about it as she wrote, and later he had read it himself, head spinning with the visions she had put into it of better times to come. But this was hardly news – much less the miracle she was making it into. Clearly as a girl she had read that title, when her eyes were as good as his. Clearly she had recalled the title – though perhaps she had not known where she’d first read it – when she’d been writing her book. The Professor knew about the unconscious; she’d explained it to him often enough. How could she imagine the name of the book was a clue to anything?

The fact was, though, this was typical of her: to see her life as a perfect circle, beginning and ending in this room where her books had made her. What a charming justification that would be for a life of reading – for a life spent travelling, as she would put it, in the realms of gold, where ordinary men and women could not follow! How naïve she was, how profoundly selfish, to see such a life as having been worth leading, as having had any kind of purpose or significance for her people! While they had suffered and died outside her estate, here she had flipped the pages of ancient books with unsated hunger, searching and searching among forgotten texts – for what? For a fairy tale, a castle in the air, a chimera. She had never grown up, that was her problem; could not conceive what adulthood meant, or responsibility, or pain. Even her arrest wasn’t real to her; just the typical sad ending to one of the romances she had been reading since she could read.

‘That is… remarkable,’ he said coldly, hoping the irony of his tone would not be lost on her. ‘The library, the book, the title. I’m sure you’re right, and this old romance holds the key to everything you’ve been looking for all your life. I shall be sure to tell my friends at the officer’s club, and my brothers and sisters; they’ll be overwhelmed. But now, Professor Bildnis, I’m sorry to say that time’s against us. We have to go. Formally, of course, I’m supposed to show you the mandate for your arrest – but we can dispense with that formality if you don’t care to see it. Is there anything you wish to do before we leave? Any final instructions you want to leave for Marta? A note of farewell, perhaps, for someone close to you?’

The Professor turned her great grey eyes on him – they had always been her finest feature, the eyes of a woman slimmer and swifter than she, a dryad of the woods, a mermaid. To his surprise, they were full of tears. She shook her head gently, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that she was shaking it in pity at his willful ignorance. Her expression was exactly as it had been when he had had that outburst, on the last occasion he had seen her before enlisting.

‘You’re very kind,’ she said. ‘You always were, you know – though now I think of it I’m not sure you ever did know it. He hath ever but slenderly known himself. No, thank you; I’ve said my farewells, and my books will be my note to my friends and allies – especially that one. Read it again for me, will you, when I’ve gone? Just one last time. And try to read it with seeing eyes. I know you can.’

He was blushing now, though he was not sure if it was with childish embarrassment or anger. He had reached out to take her arm, ready to steer her through the Schloss to the great front door; he fancied he could hear the horses pawing the gravel, impatient to return to their stables and the excellent fodder they would receive after this long divergence from their normal routines. But the Professor was holding up her finger as if in remonstrance. Not just yet, her finger was saying; you know very well there is one last thing I have to do before we depart. Do I need to tell you, after all these years?

‘I had better put the book back,’ she said softly. ‘I want to be sure other people will find it in the right place when I am no longer there to find it for them. Wait by the door, my dear; I shan’t be a minute.’ And she turned away, cradling the book in her two great arms like a much-loved infant.

For a moment Captain Abend stood looking after her, as if turned to stone, as if striving to fix her massive form in his memory once and for all, so he could summon it up at will whenever he needed to consult her later in life. He could not have known, of course, that his life would not last much longer – that he would be one of the few casualties of the bloodless revolution of the following year, and that old Marta would find his corpse beneath his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion, a sheaf of papers clutched to its chest as if to defend it against the bullets that had sprayed the building. He had no premonition of such an ending as he watched the Professor walk stiffly to a free-standing bookcase and vanish behind it. He thought only of how he would miss her, in spite of her ugly face, her eccentricity, her air of always knowing so much more than he did about everything – even the things she could not possibly know as well as him, such as life in the army and the ways of generals.

He heard her characteristic sniff from behind the bookcase. He heard a faint thump, as if she had stamped one of her slippered feet on the ancient floorboards – like Rumpelstilzchen, he thought, when he stamped his foot so hard he fell through the floor into endless darkness. What in the world, he wondered, had called that tale to mind? It was not as if she were angry with him – at least, not angry enough to make a hole in the castle floor and tumble through it, disappear without leaving a trace, apart from a heap of golden straw and a woman with a young child in her arms, a newborn baby, sign of the future…

All at once, fear swept through him: a sudden wind of panic blowing in from nowhere. He tensed where he stood and listened intently. There was no sound from behind the bookcase – and this alone was enough to chill his bones. The Professor was incapable of staying silent; she huffed and puffed as she moved around the library, her joints creaked, her slippers scuffed, her dressing gown swished as it brushed against incidental tables and the wheeled wooden staircases that waited to serve her like tame giraffes. And she sniffed constantly; her sniffing had driven him mad when he was a teenager. Why was she not sniffing? Had something happened to her? Could that thump have been the sound of her death?

In rising terror – ridiculous, really, he would think that evening, since he had come to the Schloss, to all intents and purposes, with the task of escorting her to her execution – he lurched forward in a clumsy run. His boots drummed against the floorboards once again with the aggressive tread of an intruder. He rounded the corner of the bookcase, bracing himself for what he would find, and stopped dead, heaving great gulps of vellum-scented air into his lungs. He put out a hand to steady himself against the top of the bookcase. He stood there panting and staring, staring and panting, letting his heartbeats slow to a steady rhythm against his ribs as he struggled to take in the scene in front of him.

Lying on the floor lay the painted volume, wide open at the page where the child was approaching the door with a book in her hands.

Behind the child, the princess lay on her curtained bed, eyes closed, hands neatly folded across her stomach.

Before the child, beyond the door, you could see the edge of the great bay window.

All in the picture was exactly as it had been a few moments earlier.

All except for the monstrous shadow on the floorboards under the window, the shadow of an ogre or a rampant bear.

All except for the hem of an old plush dressing gown, trailing in the air as if its owner had whipped out of sight when the book was opened.

All except for the expression of wild excitement on the young girl’s face as she hurried towards what lay beyond the door, clutching the book as if her life depended on it, her black hair streaming out behind her like a banner.

A sudden draught from the open window caught the edge of the page and flipped it over. The Captain still stood transfixed, staring at the marbled end-papers as if searching for words among the swirls of blue, green, red and muted yellow that marked the space between the story and the world.

 

A Beautiful Shade of Blue

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‘Yes! Yes, love! Well done!’ someone was shrieking. ‘Rage, that’s what we’re looking for! Let me feel your anger!’

Yana dreamt she was in her studio painting a picture while a team of visiting sponsors watched over her shoulder. She hurled paint at the canvas with increasing desperation, aware that she had lost control of the composition long ago.

‘Good! Good! More red! The colour of anger, the colour of new blood!’ One of the sponsors was bellowing in her ear as though determined to rupture the drum.

‘But not too much red,’ put in another. ‘Remember the décor. We want it to blend.’

‘To hell with blending!’ screamed the first. ‘We’re paying for art, not interior design! We want something that says to our clients, We dare! We dare!’

‘Could you put something shocking in the bottom left hand corner? There’ll be a rather unsightly water dispenser to the right of the picture, and we need to distract our clients’ attention from it, to draw away their eyes, as it were…’

‘Don’t listen to him, love, he’s a philistine. We want you to feel free to unleash the rage that made you famous. This year everybody who’s anybody in the city is looking for the return of raw power to the canvas. We’ll supply the publicity. You supply the terror. Terrify us again!’

She was aware that she had used up all the colours on her palette. She looked around for more tubes of paint, but could see nothing but plates full of macadamia nuts and half-empty glasses of champagne.

‘Almost finished, love? I’m only asking because we’re expecting the delegates from Tokyo at twelve, and of course they’ll want to see the finished picture.’

She mumbled something about more paint.

‘Paint, love? Why didn’t you say so? You can have all the paint you want. Come with me to the factory and choose the hues for yourself.’

As she turned away from the painting she noticed that there were hundreds of tiny, boneless creatures squirming under the oily surface like maggots in rotting flesh.

Accompanied by a crowd of sponsors she hurried out into the street. Together they all rushed along a few inches above the pavement, without any visible means of propulsion. All around them the city was in flames. Groups of women carrying babies and pulling small children by the hand darted round the corners of tower-blocks. Soldiers followed them. Cars exploded by the side of the road. A man ran up to a shop window and threw a brick through it, then ran away. Alarms went off up and down the street, and as he ran the headlights of the cars he passed began to flash, while car-alarms wailed in sympathy with the electronic shrieks from the vandalized building. A posse of policemen burst out of a side-alley and closed in on the fugitive. The last she saw as she rushed away was a mass of truncheons and shiny boots rising and falling where the man had been.

Now she found herself in a street lined with glass buildings and empty of people. Newspapers blew along it opening and closing, revealing and concealing silently raving headlines and grainy photographs of bewildered teenagers with enormous breasts. A tank rolled forward at the other end of the street: she heard its tracks crack the tarmac.

Just as her crowd of sponsors hurried her through sliding doors in one of the glass facades she noticed that a little girl had wandered into the path of the tank, clutching a doll. ‘Wait!’ she shouted, and struggled to free herself from the hands that gripped her by the elbows.

‘No time, no time!’ barked the sponsors in unison. And now she was inside the factory, and the noise blotted out her memories of the street, all but the ache of loss that always grew more acute as her dreams went on.

High overhead, a network of steel girders defined an invisible glass roof. The net was held in place by thick steel pillars. Lower down, metal walkways led from pillar to pillar, along which ambled men in overalls with long steel poles in their hands. Conveyor-belts moved between the walkways, with elongated sacks dangling from hooks at intervals along them. Now and then one of the men leaned over the metal railings and used the prong at the tip of his pole to shift a sack that had drifted too close to one of its neighbours. On the concrete floor below the conveyor belts vast witches’ cauldrons bubbled and fumed. From the streams of brilliantly coloured liquid that ran down the sides, she guessed they were full of paint.

‘You see, this is where the paint comes from,’ said one of the sponsors, rushing her up a metal stairway onto a platform near a vat full of dark red pigment. ‘We have every conceivable shade of black and brown, a wide range of yellows and greens, a somewhat limited supply of azure – it’s very expensive to produce – and of course a lot of red. Would you like to see how it’s done?’

She had no wish to see how it was done, but her tongue (which had been sluggish since the dream began) refused to obey her. The sponsor signalled to a nearby foreman with a moulded plastic helmet. The man leaned out over the railing as the others had done and with a twist of the little claw at the end of his pole snared one of the dangling sacks. A deft slicing movement, and the sack split open.

Inside hung the naked corpse of a young black woman. Her eyes seemed to gaze mournfully at them as the belt jerked her past.

‘There you have it,’ said the sponsor. ‘A fine rich chestnut, wouldn’t you say? This particular colour-source is destined for that vat over there, where it’ll be separated, melted down and carefully strained. Our colours are renowned the world over, and now you know the secret of their brilliance. Nothing like animal products for putting life into paint. Some might say it’s cruel, but our methods are really very humane, and there honestly isn’t any substitute for good old-fashioned flesh and blood. We import much of our yellow ochre from Southeast Asia, so that’s why the tubes cost more – we have to pay tax on our carbon footprint. The green is relatively simple to produce: we simply wait for the bodies to fester, then extract the mould. Ultramarine, cobalt and indigo we have to distil from our sources’ eyes, and as you can imagine it’s difficult to get hold of cheap azure eyes in the current state of the global economy. As for red; well, red is the easiest of all. If you please, foreman?’

The foreman moved to the other side of his walkway and reached out for another sack.

This one wriggled and kicked as he split it open. Tarek hung inside. As soon as he saw her he started to yell: ‘Yana! Yana, for pity’s sake! Help me!’

Tarek was moving in long jerks towards the vat of dark red paint near the platform she stood on. As he approached, a circular blade on the end of a jointed metal arm emerged from a tangle of machinery and stretched out lazily to greet him. She turned to the sponsor. ‘For God’s sake! That’s my husband! There’s been a terrible mistake!’

‘No indeed,’ said the sponsor, turning to her. ‘We want you to give us rage. We need the power of rage to lift the economy out of recession. Your husband will help you supply us with what we need.’

And now she saw that the sponsor had no eyes, only gaping holes with ragged edges. ‘You see, we all have to make sacrifices,’ he explained with a sidelong smile. ‘My eyes were a beautiful shade of blue, I tell you. A beautiful, beautiful shade of blue.’