You get out of the shower one day, and you see your skin hung up next to the towel.
Not far downtown a young man stood in the corner of a basement, standing beneath a shiny platinum showerhead concealed behind a sheet of frosted glass cemented into the floor. The stream of icy water made his tendons twitch and bulge, and despite his apparent calm the arteries between his bones pulsated quickly. They snaked between fingers and forearms and caused his ribcage to shimmer as it slowly rose. The exposed nerves in the soles of his feet tingled against the slight roughness of the concrete floor, and he was reluctant to move them. He remained motionless for several minutes, wrapped in a blanket of stinging ice. Part of that sting was Frankie’s special mix that he put in the water for his fighters, to give them a little edge on big nights. Durden shut his eyes and felt his pulse become steady. His muscles began to feel restless with the energy starting to pool in them, drawn out and crammed in by the stimulants. He emerged and began to dab himself dry, carefully nudging the towel behind his collarbone as he examined his weave for tonight. It was an intimidating piece. Stretching tightly around his muscles, the fibres were thick enough around the skull and stomach to pad him against a few extra impacts in exchange for a little less speed. Deep, jagged crimson patches had been dyed across the face, chest and right shoulder, and the rest of it had been embedded with a little gold sheen designed to catch in the dim ringside lights. Beautiful, barbaric, and ruthlessly efficient. Durden noted the small metal plates concealed behind the soft knuckles of the weave.
A lot of things slipped by when you fought matches in the older districts. Everyone knew Frankie was as crooked as they come but that’s what they came for - unpredictability. For most. The big spenders down from the Presidium, oblivious to the blood and grit that becomes all too tiresome down in the pits, seemed to purely crave the violence. They longed for the snap of a bone, or the wild light in the eyes of a fighter in the moment before he braced for a fist pumped full of drugs and savage indifference that he had no hope of blocking in time. If it went too far and a guy was dragged out with a caved in skull or face down in a pool of blood, well that was a real shame all round but Frankie’s safe would be bulging that night. Then the big spenders would pull up the collars of their deliberately worn coats as they left Frankie’s place and begin walking back to their cabs with fast, elated steps. They would look up at the tenements and patchwork towers of each bloc and grin at the dense mash of visceral life, feeling revitalised as their breath condensed in the early morning air. Then they would return to their apartments, politics and minor domestic affairs with contentment, using their brush with death to make the trees seem greener, the silk suits seem softer, and the clean air gushing into their lungs each second heady and sweet.
The heavy iron door at the end of the room screeched as it opened and a wiry man daubed in a thin layer of sweat slipped through the opening. He was in his mid-fifties and his eyes, though set deeply beneath a protruding brow, were sharp and appraised Durden’s inner workings with many years experience. They were approving. The distant murmur of the crowd faded as the door fell back into place. This was Frankie. He was short, lean and his skin was mostly barren save the smattering of thin grey wisps of hair spread desperately over his head. He wore an old army jacket over a shirt and tie. He crossed the room and began helping Durden into the weave, pulling the skin taught over each digit and holding it down while it fused. Durden moved his jaw side to side and opened his eyes wide as the cybernetic fabric settled onto the receptors embedded in each muscle and bone. He pulled on his ears and began stretching his neck this way and that, settling into his new visage. The weave was hairless, a practical design feature but also one that transformed the hitherto wiry and disconcerting fragility of Durden’s quivering frame into a hulking mass with two unforgiving blue eyes hammered into this bloody, glimmering bezerker. He pulled his arms forward and tensed, stretching the weave thin over his back. The slabs of muscle pushed out on the synthetic fibres to point that they seemed at risk of rupture, illuminating the microscopic hexagonal particles entwined with nerves and binding fibres, all encased in armour.
It wasn’t kosher. About six, small, sickly sharp knives slammed into the wall behind me, with a seventh embedding itself in Mickey’s neck. He stumbled back, gurgling, and fell forward onto the Captain’s desk. A stream of dark blood immediately began winding itself along the contours of our until then successfully stolen documents. I had let out a garbled shriek of despair at the sight of this, and now with no other recourse I threw myself through the window of the cabin. It is fortunate that naval captains afford themselves such luxury on military vessels, for the large, delicate panes gave almost gratefully beneath my elbow. It was a good 20 feet to the water and I fell in a shower of glass. A stream of blue flames trailed after me through the window and flickered angrily into the blustering February air. A face appeared and scanned for a thief among the swell, but I was gone beneath the waves.
It goes like this. For eighty-eight days I have been a deck hand on a war galley of the 3rd fleet in His Excellency’s Imperial Navy. As a reluctant citizen of this emergent world power I was drafted from the Merchant Marine into active military duty aboard this, 'The Walpole'. Confronted with almost certain death in an upcoming skirmish, myself and an acquaintance in cowardice (ended almost as recently as it was made) resolved to burglarise the necessary materials to construct several missives from the captain of The Walpole, instructing that no obstacle be made to our procurement of “critically essential” supplies of powder and shot from the nearby port of Therona. From there we intended to utilise the skills of an enterprising cousin of Mickey’s to smuggle us North into the neutral regions of the Nordic peoples, whereupon we would live out the rest of our days in good health and happiness. The plan had progressed with giddying perfection until the very moment that I made to officiate the documents with the Captain’s stamp. The double locked cabin door clicked and we beheld our assailant, masked and drawing back an arm laden with those deadly knives which had promptly freed Mickey’s everlasting soul and sent me barrelling into the freezing ocean.
We started putting up the house in September so it wasn’t long before we had to start kicking frost off the lumber and the mortar began to freeze in the mixer. We set up a few tents on the hill next to the site and I bought a new pair of good mittens and a fur lined shirt from a guy who couldn’t hack it anymore. As the cart began to roll towards town he’d jumped up and fell into a space between the crates. He rubbed his hands together and looked over. He said they were his Daddy’s, the gloves, but he couldn’t do without the money now that this gig was up, and the man was dead anyway so what was a guy supposed to do? He pulled a blanket over him and it was just his tired face that protruded.
"And it is up” he said, “Y’hear? We barely lasted when the wagon broke its axle at the start of the month. You’re fucked now. Take the pay check and go, Nick.”
I lifted a glove in farewell as they disappeared over the crest of the hill. He watched the house all the way. I couldn’t read his expression. I turned and walked back towards the rib cage of wooden beams protruding into the sky. The sun was going down. One of the old guys had started the cooking fire and threw his shadow at the house while the house threw some back. A few bats swerved around each other in the half light.
The evening is crisp but I am sluggish, tying my shoelaces below a dilapidated boardwalk that used to have hot dog stands and shooting galleries and merry-go-rounds all the way along it. It runs over the narrow terraced town-houses supported by two lines of tall round-cornered concrete pillars and is called “A One Way Ticket to Amusement!”, as it stretches unfalteringly into the distance like a railway line just without the stations. Orange sunlight is filtered through the planks and stamps itself across the entire neighbourhood in stripes. There are kids lighting off firecrackers up there so the gridded streets rattle, then bubble with their distant laughter. The whole promenade is lined with old-style streetlights and their shadows turn up in the most unexpected places, floating down to land in back yards, trash cans or the stairway of a basement apartment. You come to know your local shadows well, because there’s always one covering your chrysanthemum when you water it at two in the afternoon. There’s always one lying in your bathtub when you go to take a shit after Sunday roast. There’s always one strewn across the old woman’s face when you pay for your apple at Oak Lane market on the way home, distorted but distinguishable among those of the big trees they have growing there.
The pregnant woman on the ground floor across the street touches hers before leaving to meet her husband from work at five-thirty, teetering at the top of the stairs to street level. She runs her finger across the shaded red-brick wall and touches it to the corner of her mouth, whispering the name of her unborn child. James. She walks down the street each time with a faint smile, and her pupils are dilated.
Before she got pregnant she whispered something else, but that was before I started paying attention. I notice a lot more now. Like one of my kids, silhouetted above me and leaning against the railings, with one muscular arm wrapped around a decapitated streetlight as his head tilts back to laugh. I feel happy for him. He worked hard for those arms. As I am looking a girl sidles up to him – small, blonde. He drags on his cigarette and offers it to her.
I felt a tingle in my thigh
While I was trying to pee
I thought for a second
That you were calling me
But you weren’t
It was nothing.
Three hundred porpoises clamber across the remnants of the Golden Gate Bridge in the summer of 2500 A.D. It is coloured a deeper orange now. From beneath it looks like a massive, dying squid with its scraggly pylons drifting in the swell of the bay, having erupted from the main tower which now lies half-submerged. A porpoise mentions this to his best friend.
It looks a bit like a squid from below doesn’t it, this thing? Ha ha ha.
The group is resting beneath the south gate, the one nearest to the remains of San Francisco. They are glowing in the distance. There is no such thing as daylight anymore, but some thoughtful individuals have hung strings of electrical lanterns all across the tower, powered by a small diesel generator spot-welded to the base. Above it is a small sign with a skull and crossbones and a thunderbolt. Cones of light shoot across every sharp, metallic surface and flail out into the darkness while the porpoises glisten with silver saltwater.
To the porpoises standing there, this fragment of the bridge appears to be like a crumbling island of light in a vast, foreboding sea of darkness. The fact that it is technically an island now, made of dilapidated metal and in the middle of a dark oceanic bay serves to confirm the generally held belief that the porpoises of the 26th century were very observant people. At this very moment in fact, a human man in San Francisco is about to lose his life to this attribute.
On the bridge a tour guide has emerged and is lecturing in a low, kindly voice to the group on the bridge’s cultural significance and its contributions to second millennia engineering. Everybody watches his fins as he gently gesticulates, hanging on to every word. There is an old man standing a little way from the group however, looking out towards the southern shore and the town not far beyond. His son is with him. They have never been close, as the old man has suffered from depression and alcoholism for the majority of his adult life. His son joined the army as soon as possible and has exchanged seven letters with his father since he was eighteen years old. He has spent the last twelve years as a tank driver and believes he has killed at least thirty-five people in three different countries. In an effort to salvage any emotional infrastructure remaining after his mother’s death, they are standing on the Golden Gate Bridge, looking towards The City That Waits to Die.
The son moves closer and looks sideways through his little grey porpoise eyes at his father’s face.
Droplets of silver mercury accumulate at the end of my mother’s tongue and wait, quivering, before dropping into the little wooden bowl she keeps below her chin. She sits for hours every afternoon in the corner of our living room like a neglected faucet. It never stops coming, running up or down or sideways or not moving at all yet still bubbling into existence in the back of her mouth, warm and frothing. Her entire face below the nose is permanently stained blue, like a sadder version of the bloodthirsty zombies out of the new horror films they’re showing at the Picture House. We have an old, red (now spotted) felt armchair in which she crouches, hunching forward with the bowl suspended in her limp arms so she can watch TV without being distracted by it, and perhaps try to forget that it is happening at all. She isn’t bothered about it much anymore though, none of us are.
Sometimes as a young kid I would see her as I went past the doorway connecting the kitchen and the lounge (to get a glass of water – I dehydrate easily). She used to stay up late a lot in those days watching films, and when I walked past, her eyes were on fire with the glare from the screen and her gargantuan, serpentine tongue was rolled out like a gargoyle’s. It terrified me, especially when she noticed me (in my polka dot jammies) and slowly turned her head to see me better in the half-light. Although I now realise this was only to keep mercury from falling onto the carpet, it struck me then as an indicator of the imminent explosion of deadly bloodlust from within her nocturnal soul. I would turn and run back to my room as fast as I possibly could, with each splash of water that hit my feet filling me with a greater dread, as I could imagine it as nothing else apart from the metallic slobbering of my mother seeping through the carpet as the floor transformed into her and she ate me alive, feet first. She had six-inch fangs shrieking with glee and eyes bleeding blue and wild unwashed hair that wrapped around my calves like seaweed and a hundred other horrific characteristics which inhabited the majority of my nightmares. I feel ashamed of them all today, because when I look at her now all I can feel is pity. Loving pity.
In her progression towards middle-age my mother has devolved in her TV habits from the spaghetti western and French ‘New Wave’ film connoisseur of my youth into a passive viewer of daytime television. After hundreds of hours the sound of distant applause begins to sound like wind through the trees in the garden or rice over a draining board. It happens at random, rising to a crescendo and dissipating again within the space of a few seconds, seemingly without rhythm or cause. My father cooks a lot of rice.
My mother’s salivation of toxic chemicals turned out to be a very profitable genetic trait for us. On Main Street, seventeen years ago, three blocks away, two days after my birth, a watch-maker set up shop between a boarded up pawnbroker’s (fraud) and a launderette that smells (‘to this day’, my father claims) overwhelmingly of ammonia. The scent has remained inexplicable, and is only justified to some extent by the speed that their tumble driers spin (the man who owns the establishment is Lebanese, named Talal, and claims heights of six thousand revolutions per minute.) The watch-maker, in contrast, is a tiny, bespectacled, fifty-five year old (thirty eight at the time of this arrival) Polish man, Krzysiek Ptasinski.
Krzysiek tried desperately to bring a part of his homeland into the United States. He would pull the front shutters four fifths of the way down to make the shop dark and brooding, leaving only two small shelves of watches, compasses and monocles exposed to the south-western sunshine, in which they sparkled despite their age. He pulled out the linoleum flooring and spent three days cementing several hundred small triangular red and black tiles (taken from the kitchen of his great aunt’s manor house in Poland, which was demolished in 1894) over the several square metres in front of the counter. He super-glued wooden panelling over the whitewashed stucco and replaced the strip-lighting with wall mounts shaped like candles and two table-top lamps. Whenever a customer entered the shop, he would pretend they were speaking to him in Polish, hastily translating and screaming lyrically to himself as they spoke, trying and drown their elongated drawl in the sharp, gushing syllables from the mouths of Polish movie stars and old neighbours whose voices he could remember. They washed over my mother like waves. She entered the establishment three days after it had opened for business – the previous two were spent making passive comments about it to my father.
Oh Frank, I really must go inside that new (she spits) watch-maker soon – why, we could get Howard a watch for his birthday. Or a monocle for you in your old age, ha ha ha!
When my mother and my father first married, she took to her spousal role with an enthusiasm and pleasure that could not be matched by any of the fantasies of her childhood – not even the veterinarian one. However, her condition had rendered some of her favourite pastimes impractical. Carrying shopping bags, laden with delightful raw ingredients to convert into loving victuals and the Sunday newspapers over which her husband could peruse for hours, was markedly more difficult when it was necessary to suspend a small wooden bowl beneath her chin (this bowl has served my mother for over twenty years. Inscribed in it are the words “Antiquis temporibus, nati tibi similes in rupibus ventosissimis exponebantur ad necem”. Her father gave it to her and told her that the words were a reassurance of God’s purpose for everybody. My grandfather was an intelligent and deeply sardonic man). Nevertheless, such was her desire to be part of a joyous family unit that my father was eventually compelled to fashion a headdress of sorts made from leather straps which buckled at the temples and the back of the head and, held the wooden bowl firmly over my mother’s tidal lips.
As a result, when my mother pushed the door of the watch maker’s open and they both heard the soft hiss of the wire-brush strip on the bottom of the frame against the ceramic tiles, Krzysiek looked up and looked with great surprise at my mother, hobbling in under the weight of two Sainsbury’s bags and with this maelstrom of iron and leather wrapped firmly around her face. As a man who held a deeply suppressed well of bitter misogyny, Krzysiek felt a sudden, inexplicable thrill of intense admiration for the man that had done this, the man that had embodied his overwhelming masculine dominance in such a sharp, yet domesticated statement of an otherwise earth-shattering ideal. He felt it in the pit of his stomach and raised a hand to the lightness in his throat. It is said by some that this moment marks the genesis of the most passionate love to ever exist on Earth.
(To be continued.)
While winding along the precipice of your affection
I wonder whether I should wait for the tide
to surround me in its temporary universe,
shielding me from all sentiments of isolation.
However inexorably fleeting it may be, i feel compelled
to be immersed in your essence.
When he looked out over the forest of smokestacks and cooling towers, Michael Howard’s chest expanded with a monarchical pride. He would have liked to been able to stand out on the balcony to survey The Estate, but the air was so intolerably thick with ash that he could only squint through the soot-stained panels of the French doors. Sometimes he would drag over an armchair and sit there awhile with a finger or two of whiskey, feeling the tremble of forty-nine floors of riotous production beneath him while he watched the skyscape change from black, to blue, and back again. He became very pensive during these reveries, analysing the current political micro-climate down at the clubhouse or deliberating on what he would say about each theatrical debut of the season, and all the while coming to what he thought to be very handsome conclusions about a great many other things. He considered writing a novel or a journal, since he had nothing else to do apart from re-read the weekly and quarterly reports. Every time Geoffrey came up with the whiskey and a clean glass, or roasted duck with asparagus and an apple pie with vanilla custard, or a pygmy hog with a cherry in its mouth and a pile of mashed potatoes, Michael Howard would prop himself up on the desk against one elbow with a cigarette jutting from his temple. “Geoffrey” he would groan, “I’m sick of the time I’m wasting. I’m going to write a memoir. Did you bring butter?”
Geoffrey would always smile and bow slightly before answering at all. He placed the silver tray on the table at the other end of the room and began to collect glasses and coffee cups. “Yes, I brought butter sir. And that’s wonderful to hear, sir.”
Michael Howard reclined suddenly, with a sigh. He pulled his feet up and crossed them at the ankle on the corner of the desk, pressing the pointed wooden soles together. With one hand he stroked his bristly, middle-aged chin and with the other he ponderously sucked on a cigarette. He glanced through the window at the other factories stretching hundreds of floors above him, straight into the upside-down sea of black.
“I’ll write my memoir and mail it to The Gazette. The fat-cats will probably take one look and immediately transfer me. To the Johnson building, I expect. Definitely a centurion building.” He threw his legs out and slammed them onto the oak wood floor, almost throwing himself out of the chair. “Damn I bet it’s fine on a 101st floor! I’ll finally be able to get out of goddamned cotton and into something worthwhile. Sure, the Johnson is stationary and office supplies but as soon as they get a chance to see me in action - why I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself in electronics or tobacco.”
He leapt up and rushed over to Geoffrey, seizing him by the shoulders and almost making him drop a loaded ashtray. He swung him round and the old man looked kindly up from beneath his wrinkled little brow. “Hell,” Michael exclaimed, “in a few years I might even get into the printing press, or the military conglomerate! That’d shut the chaps at the club up once and for sure, by God. And if I got into the top fifty, Geoffrey, well, we know what would happen from there. Every door would be goddamned open, old boy. I bet Cleary himself would give me the Republican Cross. Oh God, I can see it now!”
Geoffrey hummed reassuringly before prising himself free and continuing to potter around the room. “Would you do me the privilege of taking me with you if you transfer?”
“If, my ass. It’s only a matter of time I tell you, and I’ll take you all the way to the top, Geoffrey, as long as you never cease to find such fine whiskey. I swear to God you must be a black market mastermind.”
“Not at all.” He chuckled. “I’m just dedicated to providing a quality service for a hardworking man such as yourself.” He was beside the tray now, and removed the silver dome with a flourish. “Dinner is served.”
Dusk arrived as they ate in silence. The old man had sneaked a piece of broccoli from the plate and leant against the doorjamb mulling it over while Michael sat at his desk. The only noticeable difference between night and day in this part of the city was that the unrelentingly grey clouds became unrelentingly dark. Geoffrey lit two more oil lamps and at street level the faint mist became dotted with pools of light as lampposts flickered on.
I sink my teeth into apple flesh and hear the skin burst like the crushing of bones while the train is clattering over the houses with oak trees and trashcans and striped awnings over corner shops. The sunlight hits a bridge like a camera lens closing and it crashes juicy like you never thought an apple could. It was only possible in the cartoons until now, when the man behind the sound board in post-production pressed the button for “apple bite.wma” and a perfect creature of an apple was expertly sliced with gargantuan incisors. Did they use an apple like mine? Did a bucktoothed man stand in front of a microphone with a basket of Pink Ladies? Did he bite the biggest ones at a forty five degree angle, fast and hard through the bubbling cells with his mouth open wide like a cavern, just to get that sound?
Did anyone just hear that?
There’s a suit reading a newspaper and a fellow from the 50’s with an iPod touch, enthusiastically strumming his thigh like a publicly indecent jazz guitarist. A schoolgirl watches bushes blur by as she fingers the folds of her skirt and a foreign man is playing Tetris. Did they notice? Can they hear me now, serenading them with my deep crunching melodies? Are they aware of the perfection just realised in the fourth carriage of a Southern Railway train to Guildford on a sun striped summer’s afternoon? Their eyes don’t seem to think so. They will never know. For them it will be a distant bass, a resounding ideal fabricated and unattainable. They will never feel that crisp tangy ice, cool and moist sliding over the back of their teeth like a piece of potato peel crackling with joy along their sticky gums and arching down their spine. Their saliva glands remain dry and virginal, confined to a miserable masturbation of bucket chicken and dinky donuts. Their eyes are caves, empty and staring and grey. They are two muted foetuses sliding slowly towards inevitable termination. Mommy Earth never gave them a big red one to run through their veins so now they can’t find the glimmer I see, reflected in the carriage windows like diamonds.
They may never know.
We’re passing through one of my favourite places. It has a name I cannot pronounce, so I have named it ‘The Sea of Mountains’. I must admit, for all my travels, I am still restricted to English. We’re thousands of feet in the air at the moment, held up by little more than expensive magnets. Almost level to the road, even spilling over in places, is an endless expanse of cloud. Dyed blue, it is a weightless sea held up as water vapour. The mountains are massive, distant and silent. The air is saturated; the indigo from the sea and the greeny-greys of the mountains dance together around funnels of warm air rising from the underworld. Although the view is hazy, the landscape is distinctly beautiful as we float by. My co-pilot and I are the only ones on board. He usually plays his music but now he is quiet. I don’t know what it is – tiredness, despondency or something else entirely, but something halts his almost unremitting desire to fill his ears with foreign sounds and I am happy when it does. Silence is music to me. It fills my ears and cuts through everything else.
The radio crackles like the careful rustling of paper and a man billions of miles in front whispers through us, like we’re the string between tin cans, to a carriage depot billions of miles in the other direction. His voice is soft, almost imperceptible. Like us, he hates to speak and cut through the quiet that surrounds us like velvet. The walls come down when there is no sound, and our minds begin to wander at ten thousand kilometres per second, then faster. We fly level with them for a while and then they edge ahead of our hands folded across laps, feet in black boots on the dashboard, past the levers and dials and through the quadruple glaze polymer windscreen out into the space beyond. Then they move faster than the speed of light through bright places and the big dark and they fill the universe all at once. They do this because we are mirrors and our introspection explodes out in every direction impossibly fast and the walls are down and then we can hear the universe breathing. It is heavy upon our eardrums and it is surreal. The driver on the radio whispers hoarse and when he signs out his voice is tight with inexplicable sadness. He is alone, and he is far away. He is alone in the universe. We are alone in ours. My co-pilot appreciates the silence too, but he is new and I think it unsettles him. He is standing on a cliff edge, looking down into a very dark, very cold abyss and his world sways like he’s on the verge of falling out into the sky and never coming back. We are all on the edge of reality here, but there is a horizon above the abyss and we learn to look beyond it. Us older guys can see a great many things and feel a great many feelings that not many other people do. The speedometer ticks and I’m compelled to ask. He is slow to stir but then tells me.
‘Eighty thousand kilometres an hour.’
Now I’m quiet for a while.
‘You’ll be alright,’ I say.
‘You’ll get used to it.’
Today is day two of our journey across ‘The Sea of Mountains’. We’re approaching the transfer to the next planet now. I’m sitting on my bed as I write this. I expect we’ll be taking passengers before we go through. We’re flying through deceleration panels and the air is thudding against the walls – it starts off as a drone and slows right down to a contented “shoomf” as we roll into the terminal twenty minutes later, as if to say ‘Welcome home. Welcome back to reality, isolated as it may be.’
A little diesel engine rumbles and we climb an elevator shaft, wobble to a halt then pass through a maintenance check with bleak panel lighting dictating our path through mechanical arms and sullen-faced belt operators. We’re swiftly returned to the sunlight and find ourselves up against the stone platform inside a massive sun-drenched terminal. People move in every direction across the central plaza of the station with fedoras cocked to one side or lace parasols, slipping past each other like hundreds of carriages in a carefully orchestrated rail junction. Everything is made golden and the clocks are actually gold, making telling time blindingly difficult. The two rails skirt opposite edges of the plaza and another carriage is opposite us, loading heavy freight. My co-pilot sighs and swings his legs out of the door. ‘Thirty three minutes ‘til we leave, Jim’ he says, and starts walking away, squinting up against the vast glass ceiling and yawning.
I climb out after him but he is already gone into the crowds - perhaps already lost in the jumble of streets below, looking to make the most of his time in some café or side street flea market. Before I can make my own exit a man appears beside me, wearing a company cap and carrying a clipboard. ‘You’re the pilot of this carriage?’
‘Yes sir I am’
‘You’ll be carrying medium freight as well as passengers today,’ He scribbles in his clipboard as he talks. ‘Are your airbrakes and rail treads appropriately calibrated?’
‘No sir, we didn’t know about any freight, sir. You’ll have to send her back down.’
‘Very well.’ He frowns and his sentences are a blur across the page. He taps the paper with his pen. ‘You’re leaving in thirty one minutes, be punctual.’
The terminal is an elevated structure and when you get out of its shadow the town is a very pleasant place. Yellow brick houses with red tiled roofs have crammed themselves into alley-like streets, and are for the most part heavily adorned with coloured window shutters and potted plant balconies. There are no automobiles or public transportation systems but only cobbled streets down which boys in knickerbockers and caps roll hoops or play skittles. Shoe shiners call from their boxes on every other avenue so the men’s loafers are all like metallic beetles, slicing through the stone with each step.
With twenty four minutes remaining I get a coffee then sit under striped awnings, watching the sun slowly ignite each pane of glass and grow stronger with each new centimetre of stone it draws from. This place is a relatively new French colony, established something like sixty years ago. They designed it as a holiday resort for its wealthy founders - a sort of haven several solar systems away from life on Earth. It’s taken on a spirit of its own since then but remains influenced by its ancestry, passing up the majority of modern technology in favour of a throwback to the terrestrial era in a distinctly Amish fashion. As I watch a barista haul a wooden pail of milk behind the counter to use in the electronic cappuccino machine I wonder how convinced they are by their own historical charade. Is it possible to convince yourself of the authenticity of a life constructed from a textbook patchwork bastardised from a dozen different eras? It’s pleasant no doubt but I struggle to see myself in the shiny shoes of these smiling men, standing on street corners fingering thin moustaches and mahogany canes. They tip their caps as I walk back and I can’t help but smile as I see their pocket watches and handkerchiefs, thinking of their grandparents - the employees of the tourist industry who scrubbed toilets so that their descendants may live as aristocrats.
There is a huddle of passengers around the doors when I return and my co-pilot is standing by the cockpit door rapidly selecting and replacing different items and tools, seemingly a random, while glancing around. ‘Cutting it pretty fine Jim! Six minutes.’ I climb in and through the back, pushing my way through a few fibreglass crates (medium freight – my favourite kind) before reaching the passenger compartment. There are seven passengers in total, but only two from around here judging by their dress – a man and a woman. He beams down at me as I punch his ticket and scoops up the young woman, propelling her along in front of him like a balloon with her round face trembling and slowly rotating as she occasionally bounces off of his outstretched hands. ‘Don’t mind her’ he chuckles from behind a handlebar moustache. I get a glimpse of teeth. ‘She’s suffering from a slight nervousness, is all. Plenty of sleep and some foreign airs will do her a world of good, wouldn’t you agree?’
He grins again and they proceed inside. The rest of the passengers file in: a couple of industrial workers coated with soot and with heads half swallowed in tattered caps (‘Going out to the borders for them new mines being sunk – good money in progress son, don’t forget that.’) then two young women and a guy on vacation dressed in shorts and tee-shirts, carrying big rucksacks and shiny eyes. They’re polite but don’t say much and quickly collapse into seats by the window, looking like angels with their laughing faces illuminated while the rest of us sit in relative darkness. My co-pilot calls from the front. ‘Fifteen seconds!’
‘We’re ready Mike’ I say, ‘set her off.’
There are men tapping cigarettes in doorways all across town. They bend their heads to watch the ash trickle onto the stoops and then squint out from their fluorescent pools - usually at me. There are televisions who continue to entertain themselves in brightly lit shop fronts, chatting about special offers and discounts but the plastic chairs and cash registers are having none of it. The glow from the fog lights anchored to the ceilings of these establishments bounces off the angular surfaces of walls and desks in the absence of living flesh, making puddles in the street. It is as though they’re searching for the customers, hoping that by flooding the place they’ll reveal the cracks and crevices that we’ve slid into. The silence is crushing and they miss us.
When the proprietors have burnt down to the butt they send a fleck of orange flying from their fingertips. Then they lock the doors behind them, turn up their collars and strike out into the night. Jack was the owner of the launderette on the corner and immediately lit up again as he walked down the road, retreating into his collar with a lit match and a small explosion of smoke. He was wearing a beige coat and it fell around his skinny legs like a cape. I was similarly entrenched, with a scarf and gloves too. I followed him down each street, skulking in the shade of each corner until he was out of sight and then striding after him. I could feel the time pressing down on me each time he dawdled looking at prime market real estate or checked the odds on yesterday’s game, and when the clock tower struck nine each toll was a scream.
We were well into the residential part of town by the time Jack reached the Pin’s house. He stubbed out on a fence post and looked up at the windows as he went inside. There was a silhouette hovering behind one of the dull orange shades and I wondered if it was the Pin, beating out a confession. He was pounding the wrong grey matter - that was for certain - and that was very fortunate for me. My conscience, however, wouldn’t let me walk away. Cass was a fragile girl and I couldn’t have her take a beating on my behalf. I thought about the 22:14 to Victoria sat squealing by the platform, obliged to leave whether I was on it or not yet sad to see me go. I had sixty minutes until it left. The launderette was three minutes from the station – we had been walking away from it for about ten.
I stood at the gate watching the shadow bob and shiver, and listening to her quiet crying. Jack’s cigarette was still alive on the pavement so I picked it up and took a drag. The stars were out tonight but the lamppost dwarfed them with a mechanical orange.
possibly continued (probably not)
It often seems that the human mind is alternatingly polarised in order to cause maximum bewliderment. Just when you thought the world was round, it turns out to be flat and gravity is the figment of a wild imagination. I am inclined to believe that equilibrium is an unnatural state for the human mind.
day by day you stand in
the cross-breeze, dying
with each passing breath
while you try to take
this air from your lungs
and use it to live.
Such a task may seem
truly in vain, but
your momentary explosion
of emotion is commendable.
The grief and joy that
erupts from your soul
is a hurricane, shattering
the universe’s westerly
course, and for a
moment, a single moment –
you are everything.
“You mean you haven’t found anything?”
Mr. Richards left sweat stains on the table as he drew his hands back towards himself. There were dark patches beneath the pits of his shirt sleeves.
“It’s been two weeks, and you’ve found nothing?”
The man, glistening in the fluorescent light, dabbed his head with a handkerchief as the detective took a long, deep breath and placed his cup on the table.
“I’m sorry Mr. Richards, but this is the way things go.”
Another packet of imitation sugar was torn open.
“You can’t expect immediate results on an investigation like this.”
He watched as each crystalline imposter became transparent before it disappeared entirely.
He glanced at Mr. Richards.
“I didn’t say ‘nothing’.”