Pauline and George

The girl lay on a blazing white towel, short legs sprawled in front of her. Shadows, as black as her bathing costume, cast her into a negative. Hearing large feet crunching on the gravel path, she sat up, scowling. She ran her hands through her untidy bobbed hair as she called across the lawn.

“Where have you been? Bill will think you an ungrateful beast to disappear from his party for the whole weekend!”

“I’ve only been gone for a few hours, and nobody at all was awake when I left. I hardly think you’ve been missing me quite so much as you make out, my dear.”
George yawned, stretching his long body out on the springy yellow-green grass beside her.

This exaggeration was typical of his fiery, self-absorbed sister. There was nothing to be done about it though. Pauline absolutely refused to be squashed. Whatever was said to her, she bounced it off like India rubber.

“I suppose you were off with your camera, darling, so I shall forgive you. Mr Oliver arrives this afternoon, though, so you will have plenty to photograph here. Oh, I am longing to meet him!”

“I should say so! Bill pulled off quite the coup getting him to stop off in this sleepy corner of Devon.”

“I expect he’s terribly tired from raising such Hell in Paris.” Pauline lit the cigarette she had been dangling between two chipped, red-tipped fingers, and inhaled in her nervy way. She tossed the pack to George.

“You will photograph him, of course? It could be quite the coup for you too.”

“I’ve talked it over with Bill and he’s OK with me making a pitch, anyway. Said some jolly flattering things about my plates in June’s Vogue to boot.” He smoothed his hand over his already impeccable hair and tried without success to look modest.

“So he should, darling, they were splendid.” Pauline looked vaguely out past the house at the sea view, which looked, in the dazzling sunlight, as flatly pretty and unremarkable as any cheap magazine illustration.
“I shall be feted as a genius one day, like you and Edward Oliver.”

“It’ll never happen, my dear, you’re a woman. And a beautiful one too. Doomed never to be taken seriously.”

“Only you would think to mix such flattery and beastliness together! I mean to be a great artist, just you watch!” She threw a crumpled paperback in the general direction of his head, and, laughing, went in to dress for luncheon.

Joyce 1

Maude was dead. Joyce’s eyes darted over the print again and again, searching for a way to make it someone else’s tragedy. To say “How awful!” and turn the page. She stared stupidly around the dining room. Sunlight glowed softly on the warm wooden table. The breakfast set with the dandelions and daisies was laid out. Her tea was still warm. There were eggs. She gasped, making herself choke. Eggs!

Joyce had been absorbed in her own misery for so long. She was used to a dull ache of jealousy when she thought of her former friends. So envious of the easy relationship between Maude and her tall, fair-haired husband, with his light, teasing ways. Francis. Francis, who had shot Maude and then himself. Killed her. Because of money?

She stood up too suddenly and swayed. But it was unthinkable to give way in here. She steadied herself at the garden door, and, out of long habit, reached for a hat. She ran down to the end of the garden and wept ragged, hysterical tears of rage.

It was only after she was curled, hollowed out, on the bench, that she remembered Edith. The girl must be eighteen or nineteen. Had she been engaged? If so, it was likely that was over. Where was she living?

Humiliation rose red through her. She ought, for the sake of her childhood friend, invite the girl to stay, at least for a short while. Offer her a refuge in her time of trouble. But anywhere where Peter was was no refuge at all.

Joyce 2

Joyce paused, listening to the silence with her hand on the door frame. She had thought that she was tired of this, years ago. Now she felt so exhausted that even opening the door was a struggle. She glanced at her hand. It looked skeletal, almost translucent. When did I get so thin?

A maid scuttled across the hall below, beetle-like. The present snatched her back. She turned the handle firmly and pushed herself inside.

The drapes were all still tightly closed. The room was lit only by a few guttering candles, making leering shadows in the draught from the door. Gold sparks in the mirror. The fire was out again, of course. She shuddered as the cold hit the back of her throat, leaving behind a tarnished taste like blood. Going behind the easel, she heaved open the chest and took out a blanket. She moved towards the snuffling figure sprawled, deeply asleep, on the daybed. With grim relief, Joyce slipped the bottle from his loose fingers. An impulse of loneliness made her brush his hand, but its sticky clamminess repelled her. She blew out the candles.

Outside, she sank into a wicker chair. The cheerful mosaics that patterned the garden wall mocked her. How long ago it was that she had made them. Bright days, full of laughter. She scolded herself for sentimentality. The early years of their marriage had been at least as full of dramatic shows of temper. When Peter first began drinking heavily, she had raged at him; as if the power of her anger could keep him with her. To find him passed out somewhere in the house would have had her screaming, dragging him up. Now, she was numbly grateful for these hours of peace – more for Peter than herself.

Often she watched him waking in the late afternoon; saw the dull horror in his eyes. She would soothe him, pretend to believe his apologies. All that remained of the passion that she had once felt was a fathomless fear of losing him for ever. Joyce’s throat tightened. Immediately, she stood up. If once you gave way… There was a powerful wind crossing the fen, and she let it whip the thoughts out of her head before she had to turn back.

I remember…

When I was seven, I had a nightmare that I was in one of those toilet cubicles with a gap at the top. And through the gap came first one impossibly long, spindly leg, then another. And I knew that if I unlocked the door, there’d be a spider with a body bigger than mine crawling up the other side. I woke up screaming. It wasn’t real, of course. But I never forgot, not in twenty two years. And that was why I didn’t want to go to Australia.
“I can’t afford it right now. Maybe next year.” I’d never let on to Mark that I was scared of spiders. There’d be spiders everywhere. Rubber spiders in my bed, real spiders dropped down my top in the garden, photos of giant spiders filling up my inbox. He’d buy a tarantula and let it out in the house if he thought he’d get a reaction funny enough to put on YouTube.
He believed me. So we went camping in the Lake District. And I wish I’d signed up for Celebrity Jungle instead. It was the worst holiday of my life…

Starting From A Different Point

“Cleo de Vai in Lady Macbeth: Extra performances added by popular demand!”
Pamela’s kohl-rimmed eyes slid dreamily across the poster, replacing Cleo’s face with her own. Her confidence was ebbing away as the telephone continued shrilling. She tapped her nails on the gold topped counter, resisting a long-buried urge to bite them. “I’m afraid there’s no answer, madam.”

She lay down on the puffy eiderdown. Ridiculous to feel like crying. What had she ever cared for Kit Howard anyway? Sleeping with directors was just the way the business worked, if you were an actress with ambition. No doubt his wife had made some unexpected demand on him. He would telephone tomorrow, apologetic. Perhaps take her out to dine somewhere.

She sat up and tried to focus on the luxury of her surroundings. She wouldn’t go back to her horrible, pokey lodgings this evening. A night free from her landlady’s prying and sneering would be something, anyway. It was Kit’s own fault if he paid for something he didn’t get. She had kept to her side of the bargain.

Flexing her feet, she slid off her heels and sunk her stockings into the plush carpet. Fancy, some people could afford this in their houses these days. She padded to the dressing table and stared at her beautiful face. Was this new style of wave becoming? Did one have to go blonde to get the very best roles? She had heard on very good authority that Cleo de Vai’s colour came from a bottle. Red nails, red lips, red dress, against the dark brunette of her hair. She decided she looked very appealing. Thoughts of Kit Howard entertaining another actress this evening receded.

Even so, as pleasant as her surroundings were, she wasn’t going to stay in tonight. There was a party at Paul Johnson’s place. She would go there, get good and tight.

The Regeneration Game

He lived in a room with no windows. Whether that was why it was cheaper, he didn’t really know. He walked outside while it was light, still noticing the things that were different. When it got dark, he started drinking. After midnight, he looked for a fight. Because of this, he went to a different bar every evening. He didn’t care about that. It was a big city, and he avoided having preferences.

His clothes were accidental acquisitions of no significance. Trainers, jeans, T-shirts. They did not attract attention. He used them until they wore out. Then something else would turn up. He changed his hair the same way, to fit his circumstances, not attached to any style. It was difficult to even say what colour it was. It wasn’t possible to describe his face with any certainty. That it would have changed was the only thing you could be sure of.

He wasn’t tall. His shoulders and hips were narrow, a strength that was stronger for being compressed. Movements economical, always a sense of something held in reserve. He hunched into solidity when he walked through doors; as if the world could surprise you like a sudden gust of wind.

He dealt his words sparingly. Each one landed with the softness and insistence of a cat’s paw kneading a thigh, never letting you forget that it has claws. He was as unpredictable as a cat too: sometimes gentle; sometimes cruel. Chaos passed the time. There was more time now, without her. If he thought about it, it made him unhappy. He didn’t think about it.

He seemed relaxed that evening. Beer, not whisky; drinking slowly. Turning the pages of a paperback with the corners smudged to velvet curves. Eyes vague, without the glitter that meant trouble, if you knew him. But he hadn’t let that happen for a long time.

The stranger approached. “Mind if I sit here?”

“Why not?” The accent was smooth, educated, transatlantic. Forgettable. This man takes care not to be remembered. The stranger decided that they had made the right choice.

*

She was always tired. Nights half awake and half asleep, straining her ears for a noise, any noise, in the unnaturally silent city. Days putting the data into spreadsheets. Tiny boxes, completed; endlessly replaced with another empty box. Evenings staring glassily at another box, reflecting her infinitely.

There was nothing that she wanted to think about. Her eyes dropped to her coffee. It looked greasy. Blobs of oils swirled across the surface, prompting a wave of nausea. Had coffee always been so disgustingly gelatinous? Or had it gone wrong, like everything else?

She returned her gaze to the screen just in time to see it go blank. Lunchtime. Universally imposed. Pulling on her cardigan, she dully observed the greying cuff of the shirt through a hole in the sleeve. Her chair pushed in, she followed the others down to the canteen.

No choice. There had been a time when you could eat what you wanted, skip lunch, go shopping, have ice cream in the park.The new Level Four contracts insisted that they stick to a regimented diet. Optimise health. Prevent obesity. Limit the burden on the provided healthcare providers. Medicals. DNA swabs. Drugs testing. She supposed she was one of the lucky ones. But being lucky and being happy didn’t seem to be the same thing.

“Erm… Hi? Sorry, I’m new here, I don’t know how to work the…” He gestured to the turnstiles. She was unsettled by having her thoughts interrupted, and unsettled more by someone new. There was never someone new. He had some sort of temporary pass, a card one. The barcode wasn’t printed straight. Holding her own card over the scanner, she gestured him to go through. She hoped he would go away. He made her conscious of the hole in her cardigan, the bitterness in her mouth and her mind.

She scanned her pass quickly over the exit turnstile and then back in again. It was a termination offence to be caught without your pass. Being human, they forgot them all the time. And they covered for each other, being human. He was waiting when she walked through. She kept her head down, but he fell into step beside her. Nervousness she could understand. But he didn’t seem nervous. His eyes glittered. He’s excited, she thought. A rusty impulse to solve a puzzle. To solve a person.

*

The stranger talked to the man, carefully casual, listening and watching. He was impressed. The man was bland, mildly affable. Northerners had a precarious position in Federate society, obviously, but he projected a convincing dull shadiness. If you didn’t know the truth, you’d think he was a minor credit card fraudster or an unlucky card sharp. And congratulate yourself for having been smart enough to see through him. He had been an excellent operative. The stranger could see why.

“And would you be interested if I could throw some work your way, Mr Jackson?” The man showed no surprise at hearing his real name.
“No, I don’t think I would, thanks.” He smiled absently, with no discomfort.
“You might be surprised at what we can give you.”
“I don’t need money from you. I get by.” A slight flicker of disgust. The stranger recognised this tiny crack as his opportunity. He would be able to use it. But first, he would explain the job.

“We’re having some trouble in the Reservations. Uprisings. Co-ordinated ones. Nothing we can’t handle but it’s inconvenient. Intelligence has pinned it down to a refugee revolutionary group managing coded data exchange through some tech set-up in an apartment block in La Ciudad. I don’t need to know the details so I don’t.”

“If they left the Deadlands looking for a better place, they didn’t find it.”

“You’ve got it. Even if diplomatic relations with the Federation weren’t at an all time low, Federate police wouldn’t go in there to solve our problems. They can’t get in to solve their own. But you could.”

“And what would I do if I did?” The stranger heard the professional curiosity behind the quiet words with quiet excitement of his own.

“There’d be contamination of the water supply to the block. Cholera probably, or typhus. Happens occasionally. No reason to think it was anything to do with us.”

“The whole block’s supply. Federates with nothing to do with this would die. Anything more targeted would attract too much attention.” He wasn’t asking. He knew exactly how it worked. “You found me. You know who I was. You must know why I’m here. How could you think I’d agree to this?” He spoke calmly, but his hand shook slightly with the effort and he reached for his drink.

“We weren’t naive enough to think you’d come back for money. You know how the regeneration process works?”

For the first time, the man looked confused. His glass jerked, slapping the last centimetres of beer against the side in a wave of foam.

“As much as anyone who’s not a scientist. But regeneration’s only funded for Level Ones. Is there a Level One in La Ciudad?”

“Regeneration’s not part of the job, Alex. It’s what you’d get in return.”